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Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent, "In the Fullness of Time"

Sermon 12/20/09, Luke 1:39-55

In the Fullness of Time

When my older brother was a freshman in college, I had a really hard time adjusting to all the changes happening in his life. I was a 7th grader at the time, and my brother was a philosophy major, who was suddenly enlightened, and would come home and try to engage me in debate about the meaning of life – or the lack thereof, depending on my perspective or his! He was just too much to take – Jim, and the sudden epiphanies of understanding that he wanted to share with us. Six years later, when I started college myself, I somehow didn’t see the same behavior in myself, when I actually took to photocopying pages of my freshman Christian Ethics textbook and sending them home to my mother and pastor. It was just that I was reading about things I was pretty sure no one else had really thought about before, and my mind was expanding with the fascination of this new knowledge. I still remember vividly one of the first things I learned about – the theological concepts of time – chronos and kairos – and sending home highlighted pages of my text book to explain this all to my pastor, who very graciously did not laugh at me.

All these years later, I still love these concepts though. Chronos is the Greek word for our regular, ordinary, everyday time. Our human time. The seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days moving just as they do. But kairos – kairos is time in a different way. Kairos is God’s time – specifically, “God’s right time for action.” Usually the word “chronos” is used in Greek texts to talk about time. But in the gospels, this “kairos” – God’s right time for action – is used more often than chronos – regular time. And that makes sense, because the scriptures are full of stories about God’s right time for things to happen.

This Advent, we’re talking about time. We’ve talked about the time of God’s kingdom drawing near. We’ve talked about what to do in the time in between. We’ve talked about John’s urgency for our repentance, his message of “time’s up.” And certainly, as Christmas draws ever closer, but we hover here at the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we’re thinking about time. Christmas is just 5 days away. It seems like we were just lighting the first Advent Candle. Really, it seems like we were just starting back-to-school! But already, Christmas is upon us. And so, we are very aware of time, and how it passes, quickly and slowly all at once, at this time of the year. But this week in particular, we are talking about the fullness of time.

When we’re talking about God’s right time, the fullness of time in which God moves and acts in our lives, I think about all the images in scripture that describe us as vessels – alabaster jars, clay pots, these vessels that are waiting to be filled up by God. And there are images too that talk about being filled to the brim – I think that is God’s aim for us – to fill our lives to the very brim. But sometimes God is filling us with a gushing hose, and sometimes God is filling us drip by drop. What is God’s right time for action?

Think of how many things have to happen in just the right time. I love to bake, and I just recently baked probably a couple thousand cookies, between cookies for my family, cookies to mail to friends, and cookies for our cookie walk yesterday. I’m in a new apartment this year, with a new oven to get used to, and I certainly had some adjustment difficulties in my baking. I couldn’t figure out just the right amount of time to bake batches of cookies. You know that most recipes call for things to be baked for a range of time – something like 6-8 minutes for a tray of cookies. But sometimes the difference between the 6 and the 8 means the difference between doughy undercooked cookies and burnt-to-a-crisp cookies. They have to be baked for just the right, perfect amount of time to turn out the way you want them. Think of fruit that has to be ripe to eat and enjoy to the fullest. Fruit eaten a few days too early just doesn’t have the right flavor or consistency. Fruit past its prime can quickly turn squishy and bad. You have just a small window that is the right time for truly fresh fruit.

I’ve been thinking about time and how the ‘right time’ plays into events in the course of our history too. Next month we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King Day, and I’ve been thinking about time and the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King was especially frustrated with his white clergy colleagues, because they kept telling him he shouldn’t push so hard, so fast for change. They wanted to wait, to go more slowly, to take things baby step by baby step. But King knew that the time was right just then – the time was now – the time was full and ready and just right for major change to transform the United States. It was certainly God’s right time for action – just the right time for God to act.

Today, our gospel lesson brings us an encounter between two women who might have questioned God’s sense of timing in their lives. We have Elizabeth, who the Bible describes as “getting on in years,” and barren, conditions that make her husband even doubt the angel Gabriel when he tells him Elizabeth will bear a son, and she is here several months pregnant with a child we know will be John the Baptist. And we have Mary – probably a 13 or 14 year old, who is engaged, but not yet married, also suddenly found to be with child – the child Jesus. These two women could have, might have, wondered about God’s timing in their lives. Why couldn’t Elizabeth have become pregnant 20 years earlier? Would it have made a difference if John were 20 years instead of a few months older than Jesus? Why couldn’t Mary have become pregnant after marrying Joseph? For a young unwed woman in Mary’s day to be found pregnant could carry the penalty of death by stoning. Why put Mary at such a risk?

Beyond Mary and Elizabeth themselves, the whole people Israel might have wondered at God’s timing. They’d been waiting for the messiah for literally hundreds of years. The prophet Isaiah wrote some 500 years before Jesus’ birth. Micah, whose words we heard in our Call to Worship this morning, is an even older voice – more than 700 years ago he wrote the words describing one who would be “the one of peace.” The people had been through war and destruction of their temple. They’d been through exile from their home. They’d been through foreign occupation of their holy lands – more than once. They were longing, waiting, and hoping for a messiah. Not everyone, to be sure. But there was a deep sense of need, of waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. Why was it so long for them to wait? And why then did God come in Jesus when he did? Why not come in 2009 when you could easily spread the gospel message with a text message and an email, rather than with the burden of oral tradition, travel by foot, and following a star in the sky to figure out where this new child might be?

It is sometimes very hard for us to understand God’s sense of timing – God’s right time to act – when we wish God would move faster, or God would move slower, or that God would stop time or skip over certain times in our lives altogether. But as people of faith, our hope and trust is in knowing the story of a God who always fulfills the promises made to us, even when we aren’t so good with keeping up our end of the covenant. I love the verses from our gospel lesson today – Elizabeth and Mary find God acting in their lives at what could be called inconvenient times. But they respond with joy. In fact, Mary bursts into song, singing words that we today call the Magnificat, words that we sang in our hymn just before the sermon – “My soul magnifies the Lord.” God moves at just the right time, and Mary rejoices.

And I find myself dwelling on one verse in our passage: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." These are words that Elizabeth speaks to Mary. She tells her that Mary is blessed because she has faith that what God has promised will come to pass. Of course, Mary has faith that as the angel told her, she will bear a child. But it's not just any child, so it's also not just any promise. Mary has to believe – more than just her own story – she also has to believe that in her, in her life, God's promise of a messiah will be fulfilled as well, God's promise to a whole people, God's promise of centuries upon centuries, God's promise that was written about by countless prophets. All this will be fulfilled in this right time, in this child that Mary is carrying, as incredible as it sounds. Most incredible of all, Elizabeth rightly recognizes, is that Mary believes what the angel told her - Mary believes that God is using her to fulfill these wonderful promises.

Mary believed that a promise made long ago would be fulfilled in her, as much as the prophets of long ago had to believe that the promise of a messiah would be fulfilled even though they would never see it in their lifetime. This kind of faith to me is remarkable. The truth is, though many of us believe in God's promises, we have a hard time waiting a week, a month, or heaven forbid, a year, for God's plans for us to be fulfilled, for the promises to come to fruition. How could we wait our whole lives and see no response, but still have faith and trust that God's plans would hold their course through our children or grandchildren's lives, or their grandchildren's lives? If God promised that great things would be done through us, through me, through you, but that we would never see any evidence of this promise coming true, could we maintain our faith?

We are a people so bound by time – we live by clocks and schedules and timers and alarms. We’re not so good at waiting. It all sounds like an impossible task, and yet, in a way, this is what the entire account of our scriptures is all about - the promises of God and how, over generations, through time, in God’s time, they came to be fulfilled. The stories of the ones who faithfully did their part to make God's plan take place, even though they would never see the results. This is the story of faith, the story of God's children. Our story. We read about the promise made to Noah, sealed with the sign of the rainbow. We hear about the promise to Abraham to make his descendents fill the lands. We listen to the story of Moses, who was told of a promised land where he could lead the Israelites. They didn't always find their promises from God completed in ways they could see - Moses himself died before the Israelites entered the promised land. But they remained faithful, and so did God, completing in God's right time all things promised.

And so it is with Advent. Advent is a promise, a promise made for centuries upon centuries. For hundreds of years, people mulled over the words of the prophets, words about a child being born that would be the one of peace, words about a young women that would bear the promised one. They heard these words and believed. But finally, finally, after so much waiting, after the longest advent, the longest coming, after the ultimate buildup of anticipation, finally the child was born. God became human and dwelt among us. We stand on those promises. We stand hovering at the top of the roller coaster. Before we take the plunge and feel the joy of the celebration of Christmas, let us take a deep breath. In a few days, God's promise will be fulfilled in our very midst. Our forefathers and foremothers waited for generations, and we are lucky enough to see the promise fulfilled year after year. Take a breath. Get ready. Believe in the fulfillment of what God has planned for you, for us, for this very time, and stand firmly on the promises of God. Amen.


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