God’s Timing and Ours

The Annunciation Window from St. Mary’s Church, Bedingfield, England.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 19, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 1618, Romans 1:1-7, and Matthew 1:18-25.

They say that timing is everything—whether we’re in the right place at the right time to get the interview, to meet the right person, or to get this year’s latest gadget at the store—timing matters. A Judeo-Christian understanding of God suggests that God arranged the world according to time—light and dark: one day. Seven days and nights: one week, and so on. From a biblical point of view, God seems to like time, and seems especially partial to segments of forty—forty years, forty days.

But when we look closer at the stories about God’s working in our world, and when we think about the ways in which God has worked in our lives—I think we often find that God’s sense of timing is very different from ours. And many times, it seems that God has very bad timing, indeed.

In today’s Gospel, God’s timing seems completely off. Mary and Joseph are engaged to be married, but during this time, God visits them both. First, there is the visitation of the angel to Mary, which we hear about from the Gospel of Luke. We don’t know what Mary must have thought, but imagine—God is asking her to do this incredibly hard thing and she could have responded in other ways—she could have waited till she was older, till the political or economic climate got a little better, till Joseph had a better job, till they were able to be in their own house, till she and Joseph were married. But according to Luke, Mary understood this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and she felt like God was behind it all, so she said “yes.” Even though God seems to be a little early. God seems to be rushing things.

Joseph must have seen things in an even more different light. If tradition is right and Joseph was a good bit older than Mary, who knows what he must have thought when he learned that she was going to have a baby. Matthew suggests that Joseph was going to simply break the engagement very quietly, not make a big fuss out of things, but they would simply go their own ways. But then an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. And Joseph learns that God is behind all of this, and that it’s going to take a lot of faith, a lot of trust, a lot of daring… but it will be ok because God is behind it all. Joseph wakes up from his dream with a new-found faith. But he must have thought God was showing up a bit late.

In our first reading from Isaiah, God tells the people of Israel that they will be given a sign, and this will be the sign of a savior. In other words, God’s in charge, even though it might have felt like they were spending too much time in exile, too much time in disarray, too much time wondering if God even still cared. But into this confusion, God says, “hold on a little longer, help is on the way, in time….

We do our best to manage time. We have watches and clocks and phones and all sorts of devices to help us show up, perform, compete, or finish “on time.” Because we pay so much attention to it and invest so much in time, it can sometimes fool us into thinking we’re actually in control of time. Until the Metro stops, or the beltway is clogged, or a child needs to come home from school right during a big meeting, or any number of life’s interruptions reminds us that time is a made-up thing, and sometimes life happens at its own pace.

For many people, the holidays are sad because loved ones have died around this time. Death and disease don’t pay attention to a calendar. Too many people we know who have just bought a house, or just had a child, or just begun a new chapter in their lives have suddenly lost their job. Companies, out-sourcing consultants and HR departments rarely pay attention to the timing of peoples lives when cutting positions.

In my very first parish a young family, with a small child and a baby, had been visiting the church for a while and I went to visit them at their house. As we were talking, they finally asked if I they might be able to have their eldest child baptized in the church. Well, of course, I responded. We’d love to have the baptism. And then the couple got a sort of odd expression and said, “Well, we’d also like to ask you something else.” Sure, I said. “Would you also be willing to marry us?” “Of course,” I said, we can do that too. The couple then relaxed and began to explain that they had both been working at extremely demanding jobs and were working toward buying a house. They found the house of their dreams, bought it, and began to work on it, and then found that she was pregnant. Then all of their energy went into getting ready for the child. And then, before you knew it, it was four years later. They had never really gotten around to getting married. A few weeks later, we baptized both children. Then, in another month or so, we had a wonderful wedding. I don’t think one could easily separate out their timing from life’s timing, from God’s timing. It was all mixed up, and that’s the way it often is for us.

The trick to faithful living, I think, is to try to be aware of when God might be trying to break in, and to be open to God’s Spirit when this happens. It might not be according to our watch or plan or expectation. It might not be convenient in the eyes of others. But we can learn from Mary and Joseph and see how they dealt with God’s timing.

When Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel, sensing that God was behind it, she said yes. But she also went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She checked in with someone she trusted, someone who also knew God, someone she could trust.

When Joseph heard that God had visited Mary, we’re told that he had a dream. I think this also means that he mulled things over, he prayed, he discerned, he slowed down and allowed for possibility and for promise. Perhaps he did the equivalent of taking his own watch off for a while and listening.

Most of us probably wouldn’t get through a day if we completely took our watch off, or refused to look at a clock, or ignored the passing of time. I’m not suggested that we should. But I am suggesting, especially in such a busy time as Christmas, that we might be alert to God’s timing—sometimes God comes early, and we have to catch up. Sometimes God comes later than we might have wanted, and so we’ll have to reconcile our expectations with reality and adjust. And then, there are those times when God comes, with angels or without, and almost seems to stop our clock. And we’re left reeling and wondering, “what just happened.”

Theologians sometimes talk about God’s time as “kairos time.” Kairos comes from the Greek word for “the right time, the most opportune time, the supreme time.” We’re used to thinking of what they call “chronos” time, chronological, sequential, time that can be counted and measured. It’s no coincidence that “kairos” also means “weather” in ancient and modern Greek, which points to its tendency to be unpredictable—wonderfully so, at times, but troubling and surprising when you’re caught in a storm. When Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother or sister—as many as seven times?” Peter is asking in “chronos” time.

But Jesus answers with “kairos” time, as he says, “I don’t say seven times. I say seventy times seven.” Forgiveness can’t be counted up and tallied. Neither can love.

The Good News of this season is that whether we’re noticing kairos time or chronos time, good times, or bad times, God is present. God steps into time. God becomes human like us, with us, along side us, for us. God interrupts the plans of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zachariah, Herod, the Wise Men, the Shepherds, and centuries of believers, and me and you. But the interruption is one of love. God is love, and this love is the light of the world, for this time and for ever. Let us make time for God, even as God confounds our timing.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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