December 2, 2012

Right on Time?

Are you waiting?  Perhaps the better question is this: what are you waiting for?  You see, there’s something that I know about you, because the same thing is true of me.  We’re all waiting for something.  The question here isn’t whether, but what.  We’re waiting for all kinds of things.  Millions of kids across the world are waiting for Christmas to arrive.  Perhaps some of you are waiting for the Christmas ad blitz to end.  You are waiting for the family events you have planned for the Christmas week.  But we don’t have to limit ourselves to thinking seasonally.  There are people waiting for a job to start, or a job to end.  Folks wait for an illness to go away or a recovery period to pass.   Some are waiting to receive a particularly desired bit of news regardless of what it is.  Perhaps you are waiting for a loved one to come home whether literally or figuratively.  You are waiting for a relationship to experience the peace and healing of God.  You are waiting for a prodigal to return.  Or maybe you have an even more pessimistic outlook.  You spend most days simply waiting for the hammer to drop.  You don’t really know what that’s going to look like, but it’s not going to be good.  A few of you perhaps are waiting for the sermon to end so you can go eat lunch and take your Sunday afternoon nap.  I promise I’ll have you out of here by at least 3!

I can remember waiting for lots and lots of things in life.  I remember getting the news that I got a job working for Passport Ministries as a summer Bible Study Leader.  I had attended the camp several times as a youth and had even led a group there one year.  But it had long been my dream to work for the camp and have the opportunity to impact lives the way I had been impacted.  The news came in January meaning I had about five months to wait.  I was fortunate (and yes, I have a twisted definition of fortunate) that I was taking Physical Chemistry that spring or else I would have been entirely absorbed in my anticipatory excitement.   Eventually, though, the semester ended and I was left with a couple of weeks to plan, pack, and…wait.  At long last, the day came.  My dad drove me to the airport for two short flights to Louisville, KY and the adventure began.  No more waiting.  No more waiting, that is, until I arrived at the dorm and was greeted at the door by this strikingly beautiful woman with incredible eyes that seemed always glued to mine.  Then I was waiting for something entirely different, but that’s a story for another day.  We’re all waiting for something.  You’ve been there before; you’re probably there now; and you will be there again soon if you’re not.

You know, given the season, this is a really appropriate topic for our next series of conversations.  This morning, as you have already been made aware, marks the first Sunday of the season of Advent.  Advent is the time in the church calendar set aside for us to focus on the coming Christ child.  Advent is a season of waiting.  During Advent we put ourselves in solidarity with the ancient Israelites who spent several lifetimes waiting for the first coming of the promised Messiah, the One who would deliver them from the hand of oppression and pave the way for a return to the golden days when Israel was a sovereign nation whose God was the Lord.  During Advent we remember what it is like to wait for something which God has apparently promised and yet which seems to be a long time in coming.  Not only that, but when it comes, it arrives in a package entirely other than what was expected.  In fact the disparity between expectation and reality is so great as to lead to a rejection of reality in favor of the fantasy that had been constructed of what reality was supposed to look like when it arrived.  Perhaps you know what I’m talking about?

With all of this in mind, for the rest of this morning and for each of the next couple of weeks, ending with a celebration at the Lord’s Table and in advance of the adult choir cantata’s musical invitation to set our minds to the season at hand, we are going to talk about waiting.  But I don’t want to just talk about waiting.  Again, we’re all waiting on God to do something.  It may seem simple or it may seem huge, but we are all waiting on God for something.  There’s no tension there.  Instead, through the lens of Advent, I want to look at the fact that somewhere deep inside all of us there is a sense that if there is a God, He’s bigger than us and He’s going to act on His own timetable regardless of our feelings on the matter because He knows that to be the right time.  Now, what we do with this sense is a subject for a different time, but it’s there all the same.  The tension we are left to wrestle with in the meantime is this: what do we do when God’s timing and our timing don’t seem to intersect?  And so we’re clear, this isn’t a question we are going to fully answer this morning.  It’s going to take us all of this and the next couple of weeks to clarify an answer (so you won’t want to miss any Sundays between now and then).  For this morning I want to look with you at just part of the tension here.  Namely, what does it even mean for God to come at the right time?  What does “right time” even mean?  Come with me, then, as we take some notes on the right time.

Well, this should come as no surprise given the last few weeks, but the apostle Paul has some wisdom to share with us on this idea that will help point us in the direction of an answer.  We can find this in a passage of Scripture from his letter to the churches in Galatia—modern-day Turkey—that we are going to camp out on this morning and then come back to in a couple of weeks.  Now, we are going to get into Galatians in a lot more detail this coming summer, but for now know that Galatians is all about laying out the case for how broken sinners such as ourselves can be fully justified before a holy God.  It is a magnificent meditation on the role of faith in the process of salvation as opposed to the law along with the importance of Jesus Christ in the process.  Near the end of the section on the preeminence of faith over and against law, Paul starts talking about the miracle of our being adopted into the family of God.  In the context of this discussion, Paul makes a statement that is incredible in its content and fantastically hard to believe when we grasp what is being communicated.  We’ll look at the fuller context in a couple of weeks, but for now, open your Bible to Galatians 4 and look at verse 4 with me when you get there.  After describing unbelievers as slaves of the processes of this world, Paul declares that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law…”  Now, the last part there is simply another way of saying that Jesus was fully human and subject to all of humanity’s limitations (with the notable exception of a sinful nature).  It’s the first part that’s striking.

Hear that again: “When the fullness of time had come,” Paul says, “God sent forth his Son.”  Now, what’s Paul saying here and how does this give us any insight on understanding what the idea of the “right time” even means?  Let’s look at this from three different angles to see if we can’t find some kind of an answer.  First, let’s look at the words Paul uses.  Paul argues that God sent Jesus to earth to accomplish His mission here at the fullness of time or at just the right time as another translation puts it.  The phrase there in Greek is pleroma chronou (from which we get our word chronological).  Both of these are pretty important words both in ancient Greek generally and specifically in the New Testament.  Taking these in reverse order, chronos refers to a period of time.  Now, you may have heard this before, but there are two different words in Greek to describe a period of time.  There’s chronos, and there’s also kairosKairos refers to a specific period of time characterized by a pre-planned event.  For example, we’re at the tail end of harvest time for farmers.  The idea of time here is captured by the Greek word kairosChronos, on the other hand, refers to a length of time more generally.  For example, many of you are familiar with the various dance recitals in the spring put on by both Deborah’s and Ann Witt’s respective schools of dance.  If I’m not mistaken, these generally last for a long time.  The sense of time being expressed here is best captured by the word chronos.  Have I lost you yet?  Stay with me and I promise I’ll connect the dots.  Had Paul used the word kairos here, that would have indicated that God was waiting for some specific event to be done before sending Jesus.  What event though?  The Bible certainly doesn’t point in the direction of any event like this.  Forgetting the adjective for just a minute, Paul says that the time had come for God to send His Son.  And what happened at the time Christ came?  A new era of salvation history began.  Namely, the doors to salvation were thrown open for all the world to enter.  The time was right for this.  It had come.  The period of waiting was no more.  Advent was being fulfilled.

Now, if you find yourself asking something like: The time had come since what?  What time had come?  You are in good company.  My mind kept going there the whole time I was writing this.  This is why the other word here is important.  God sent His Son not simply when the time had come, but when the pleroma, the fullness of time had come.  Building on what Paul says in v. 5—that Christ came to save those under the law—the period of time governed by the Law of Moses, the period of time in which becoming a follower of God meant joining with a community of law, had reached its completion and it was time for salvation to be made available to all peoples directly by grace.  God was about to do something totally new.  And He was doing it at just the right time.  The other key here is that time is a historical device.  Time gives us a sense of what’s going on, when, and in what order.  When we look back over history it becomes easier to see that there were some parts of history that needed to happen in the order they did or else things would have turned out very differently and often for the worse.  Well, this has been the case since day one of human history.  Unless we want to view ourselves as completely at the mercy of chance (a capricious god if ever there was one), someone has had to be in charge of making sure things happened when they should so they turned out the way they have.  Someone has had to have a handle on the big picture of history in order to direct it to the best possible end.  God alone can grasp the big picture of history.  We can only see a tiny fraction of the scope of history.  We are limited by our perspective.  Yes, we can look back, but when it comes to our own lives we can only glimpse a sliver.  God, on the other hand, can see the whole.  He knows His plans thoroughly.  There is no point at which He is unclear on the direction things need to go or the timing of their going.  If He is capable of managing all of human history in this way, surely we can trust Him with the timing of our lives.  Part the importance of the idea of God sending Jesus at the fullness of time, then, is that the right time for something is when God has ordained it.  The right time for some event is where it happens to fall in God’s grand plan.  Now, I know this opens the door to all kinds of questions of divine sovereignty and human accountability, but we’re not going to go there now.  That’s for another time (that is, kairos time).  For now, though, the key here for us in Paul’s use of this phrase is that Jesus came right on time.

But how do we know this (beyond Paul telling us so)?  How do we know it was the right time?  Well, this is where a bit of historical analysis comes into play and our second angle from which to examine the issue.  In his excellent survey of the Gospels, Craig Blomberg begins by talking about some of the most important background elements for making the most sense of Gospels.  Over the course of this discussion he takes some time to pull back the curtain on what was going on in the broader Roman world during and immediately after the time of Jesus.  The purpose of this historical examination is to try and make sense out of why Christianity spread like it did.  No other religion in the world has enjoyed as rapid and as peaceful an advance as that experienced by the followers of the Way.  He notes seven features of the Roman Empire that back up this idea that Christ came right on time.  First, thanks to the military exploits of Alexander the Great, all of the Roman world spoke Greek.  Well, when you are trying to get a message out to the masses, not having any kind of a language barrier to clear sure helps.  Second, Jesus entered the world and Christianity began its rise during the historical period known as the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome.  While Rome regularly fought skirmishes with the barbarian peoples at its borders, the vast majority of the people in the Empire lived their entire lives without ever experiencing the horrors of war.  Well, as is often the case today, war tends to stifle evangelism.  This was not a threat during any of the first three centuries of the church.  Third and resulting from these first two, Rome had developed an incredible system of both transportation and communication.  Roads built by the Roman Empire are still used in some parts of the world today.  People could travel fairly freely and correspondence could be sent with confidence that it would reach its destination.  This meant, in particular, that things like Paul’s letters got to where they were supposed to go such that they could be preserved and passed down to us.

Moving from military-related things, a fourth feature of the Empire that lent itself to the advance of Jesus’ mission in the world was a growing cosmopolitanism.  People were moving out of the country and into the cities like never before.  Historically when this has happened, people have grown more open to new ideas than they were previously.  This actually leads to the fifth feature of the Empire.  Barriers to engaging with different ideas were falling.  You see, when we encounter people from different tribes and backgrounds with which we would normally have no association and discover that they aren’t so different from us, all of a sudden their ideas, so foreign to us before, begin to sound reasonable.  And if their ideas are reasonable, what other ideas that used to not seem very reasonable might seem so in this new light.  This made it such that people who might have not even given Jesus and His followers the time of day before were now willing to at least hear them out.  I mean, Paul spoke the Gospel in Athens—the seat of pagan philosophy of his day—and got a fair hearing.  This would be like someone getting a fair hearing of the Gospel on a major college campus today.  We are seeing this phenomenon taking place in our own world today, by the way.  In cultures not already shaped by the Gospel this is resulting in more people being willing to listen and, for many, believe.  Ironically though, in cultures like ours where the Gospel has been the dominant message for quite a while, we are having a more and more difficult time getting a fair hearing.  This just means we have our work cut out for us!

A sixth feature of the Empire was actually kind of a mistake.  For the first 30 years or so of its advance, Christianity was viewed by the Empire as a sect of Judaism.  Thanks to their penchant for causing trouble and disrupting the Pax Romana, the Jews had been given a number of special protections by the Romans.  They were exempted from participating in emperor worship.  They were in fact largely left to their own devices as long as they were generally good citizens.  Given that Rome tended to squash new religious movements that didn’t fit the mold it had already established, by virtue of rising out of the roots of Judaism, Christianity was allowed to flourish to the point that it was already classified as a major religion in the Empire before anybody became the wiser.  By the time the powers that be realized they had something truly new on their hands, it was too late to stop it.  The ball was already rolling down the hill.  Oh, they gave stopping it their best efforts, but they were fighting a losing battle.  The Christians were already too numerous and, thanks to their devotion to living out the lifestyle of Jesus, they were too popular as well.

A seventh and final feature seems like it shouldn’t have mattered all that much and indeed given the kinds of persecutions perpetrated against followers of Christ appears in some ways to have not mattered all that much.  All the same, without this in place, the church would not have spread as it did.  The feature is this: Rome had perhaps the most advanced, enlightened, and just judicial system the world had ever seen.  Paul in particular and subsequently any other Roman citizens who found their way in the church, received a remarkable freedom to pursue their faith and do the work of the kingdom without interference from the Empire as long as they upheld the law of the land (where it did not contradict the law of the kingdom anyway).  Think of the number of times Paul claimed the benefits of his citizenship in order to get out of a tight spot.  You can read about several such times in Acts.  Well, putting all of these things together, as Dr. Blomberg rightly notes: “Little wonder that many Christian historians have seen not only a theological but a historical application of Gal 4:4…”[1] Indeed, God acted to send His Son into the world to save the world when the time had fully come.  Paul’s word choice was intentional.

So how can we know that God sent Jesus at the right time, that the right time is defined by when God acts?  Well, look at the evidence.  The church is still here.  There isn’t any other institution from that time period which has endured in a manner even remotely approaching that of the church.  Jesus entered this world in a remarkably unique historical period.  Any other period or culture and it is entirely likely that the church would not exist anything at all like it does today.  Now, you can perhaps make an argument that God could have done it even then, and I can’t really argue against that.  But God’s style through history hasn’t been to force Himself and His plans on us.  Rather, He works in the small and subtle, wooing and waiting for the right time to act, to call individuals to take up the mission of His kingdom.  Because He is so humble and so patient and so wise He always acts at the right time.

But perhaps you’re not convinced yet.  Perhaps you are sitting there thinking of a hard time in your life or some other story you know of when someone went through a hard time and it seemed God forgot to act when they needed Him.  Lisa and I have been going through a challenging stage with Noah.  For over a month now bedtime has tended to be a battle that has stretched on as long as nearly four hours.  Now, some of you seasoned parents may be sitting back laughing and wishing you were just dealing with getting your kids to go to bed when they were told, but the issue at hand is merely the first manifestation of the sinful tendency to put ourselves on the throne and the world can burn.  How much trouble could we avoid later if we could stem the tide now?  You think we haven’t prayed a bit through this season?   You think during one or two of these nights we’ve been wondering where God is; why He hasn’t acted on our behalf?  And this is just bedtime.  How can I possibly be making the case to you this morning as part of our larger struggle to understand what it means that God acts on time that the right time is defined by God’s action in it; that God’s time is always the right time?

Perhaps another story will help.  We are just over a week past the time set aside in our nation’s schedule for Thanksgiving.  Now, the reason for this holiday is rather well-known, at least as it is taught in schools.  The first Thanksgiving happened when the dumb Pilgrims were helped to survive by the local Native Americans led by the hero of the day, Squanto.  We’ve all heard some version of that story.  As part of the story, though, we are often led to believe that the Pilgrims were in fact the first group of Europeans to arrive in the New England region.  Jamestown was already a successful colony (Virginians, after all, were the real leaders in the New World), but not much progress had been made by the English anywhere else.  Well, while the Pilgrims under the leadership of William Bradford were the first to try a colony in New England, they were not the first English ships to enter that region.  More than a decade before ships had entered the waters off the coast of Massachusetts where some of the locals went out by boat to attempt to trade with them.  After engaging in some trade to build a bit of trust, an evil group of sailors in 1608 kidnapped a group of Indians and headed back to Europe to sell them as slaves.  One of the young captives was purchased by the leader of a monastery in Spain who was kind to him and over the course of a few years taught him Spanish, English, and faith in God.  As much as this young man appreciated the kindness of his master, he wanted to go home.  After working long enough to purchase his own freedom he traveled to England where he worked in the docks hoping to find a ship headed for the New World.  He finally found his chance and armed with new knowledge and new faith, eagerly returned home, excited to see his family again.  Except, when he returned to his village in 1618 he discovered that disease had wiped out every last person.  Some timing God had.  He graciously allowed the young man to return home only to be greeted by tragedy.  There was no returning to England, though, so the young man made his way, trying to get back to normal life.  This went on for a couple of years until he began to hear word of some Europeans who had settled almost on top of where his village had been but were struggling to survive the unfamiliar environment.  Switching perspectives, the Pilgrims were indeed struggling to make it and were perhaps themselves wondering about God’s timing when out of the forest walked a young Indian named Squanto, speaking perfect English, professing faith in their God, and wanting to give them the knowledge tools necessary to survive their new home.  Some timing indeed.

Had Squanto been relying solely on his limited perspective to discern the timing and action of God in the world around him he would have never been able to grasp the bigger picture.  By God’s grace he received the gift of a glimpse at the larger canvas God is painting in this world.  He was able to see that Paul was right.  God always acts right on time.  He sent His Son when the time was right.  He acts in our lives when the time is right.  God’s time is always the right time.  This is the truth, my friends: God always acts at the right time.  His time is always the right time.  Now, is this an easy truth to swallow?  Of course not.  Remember: our perspective is limited and so for most occasions in this life, we won’t be able to see the bigger picture of God’s action in our lives and in the world around us and how it all fits together to advance His kingdom for the eternal good of all of His people.  We don’t receive the blessing of sight like Squanto did very often, if at all.  We must run on faith: God’s time is always the right time.  It’s when we rush things that they get all messed up.  Abraham and Sarah rushed things.  Ishmael, the child of hurry, was the father of the Arab nation.  Look how history has turned out since.  We are not always or even often going to understand why God seems to wait far longer than we’d like to bring the good of all things together for our benefit.  But this doesn’t mean His timing is off.  It means our perspective is short.  God acts at the fullness of time in every occasion.  God’s time is always the right time.  Our job is to be faithful in the meantime…even when He seems to have waited too long.  In fact, how do we handle it when He seems to be late?  Come back next week and we’ll see if we can’t shed some light on this particular conundrum.

[1]Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 24-25.