Sunday, January 01, 2017
January 1, Feast of Circumcision: "The Fullness of Time"
Numbers 6:22-27, Psalm 8, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:15-21
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,” says Galatians. What does that mean, ‘the fullness of time?”
If the time was full when that happened, what about all the time since then, 2017 or so years of it—did it stay full, or lose its fullness? Isn’t time empty in principle? Isn’t time like space? Or, is it more like a line, a time-line, another dimension like length and width and height? If we think of time as a fourth dimension, that means our sense of time is a Cartesian and Newtonian cultural construct, which Einstein challenged with his theory of relativity, and which has no place for time getting full.
The Biblical writers thought of time as neither line nor space, but something like a river. Isaac Watts got it right: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away.” We ride the crest of time (Henri Frankfort), like surfers on a wave. Time is fluid, with a force and pressure. We don’t move through time so much as time itself moves, and carries us with it. I tell you this not to suggest that the Biblical view is more accurate or that we have to hold it, only that you understand it for the Bible, and that we acknowledge the subjective relativity of our own modern sense of time.
The Biblical view is that God created time. God commits to time but is outside of it and free of it though also free to enter it and be in it without being confined to it. God created time for us and all the other creatures to live and thrive within. Our souls and bodies are confined to time, but our minds and our imaginations can share in God’s freedom from time. In our fallen nature we have experienced time as a burden and a bondage, a prison, but God gives us time as a good gift. God provides it to us, it belongs to God’s providence. In the Bible, time is a medium of God’s love and grace. “Our times are in God’s hand.”
In the Bible, God works time. Time is moving to where God wants it. It’s like God is a hydraulics engineer who controls the flow of water in the irrigation channels of history, now faster, now slower, now deeper or shallower. God gives time for flowering and full vitality and growth. God has a grand strategy and a long-term purpose.
But God does not force us. God gives us freedom of initiative and choice and God respects our freedom. Yet God is able to gather whatever we choose for good or ill into God’s ultimate purpose. Even though we are less free than we think we are. It’s not that God confines us, rather that we confine ourselves, from one generation to the next, and our choices are predictable and so easily manipulated. But the grace of God in time is that even our stupidity and rebellion get gathered up in time by God into God’s good purposes.
We cannot predict what time will bring us, nor the changes time will make in us. Ten years ago last night, a young mother from my former congregation was killed by a drunken driver. It was devastating, especially to the lives of her children and her husband. Two days ago I was messaging with someone from that congregation, and this is what she wrote to me: “There were lessons to be learned from Jackie’s [sic] death. Different lessons for different people I suppose. It was about a year or more after Jackie’s death that I realized that I had been changed in a really big way. I was questioning whether we have a choice in the way we are changed. I remember being grateful that I wasn’t left bitter and hateful. I’m still not sure if we have a choice in how we are molded by life’s events. It’s like we are being molded without an awareness of it happening, until after the fact.”
This is wise, and true. How much we are molded by what we’re not aware of, and how much our personal development is not in our control. And yet God holds us responsible for what we become. So we have the constant interplay of our personal freedom and the pressure of the stream of time that moves us forward. Sort of like swimming in a river instead of a lake.
And in this interplay I invite you to believe two things: First, that God really does call you to freedom and the responsible exercise of it, and second, what may be harder to believe, that within the stream of time there flows the providential grace of God towards us.
Consider with me now one particular current within the stream of time. It is the current that is the history of Israel, one particular history of one particular people, a very small and insignificant people in the grand scheme of the planet, but the people of God’s covenant, so on this current ride the promises of God, like a basket on the stream. And the river rose, and crested, and when the stream was at its height, Jesus was born, in the dark, out back, of no count to the world.
In our Gospel lesson we observe how this private secret of Mary and Joseph was broadcast by the angels to the shepherds, and then by the shepherds to the public. As Mary pondered these things in her heart so we are to ponder the opening of God’s purposes. When the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law. That law required that after he was born of the woman he should be circumcised, and that is what we mark today.
We would celebrate it if we were Jewish, but that would be awkward for Christians, so churches prefer to emphasize the naming in the story, his Holy Name, but the circumcision is more important. It’s circumcision that puts you in the covenant. Circumcision marks that a Jew belongs to God, and is not his own.
On Christmas, we mark that God became a human being, and today we mark that God became a Jew. The Jewishness of Jesus is not incidental, and his Jewishness is not just his born ethnicity. His circumcision was the sign of Jewish faith and observance, Jewish obedience and Jewish suffering. He will be crucified by the Romans precisely as a Jew. For his circumcision the Nazis would gas him.
It also means that he inherited a history, that covenantal history, that particular current within the broad stream of time. And precisely in him, this current will now suddenly widen and spread into the whole river. The audacious claim of St. Paul in Galatians is that this one particular Jew is the savior of all the world and every nation in the world, just because he is the Son of God.
It is not for nothing that the whole world now marks its time by his time. Today is the first day of A.D. 2017, anno domini, in the year of the Lord (adjusted by four years because of clerical miscalculation). The lower right corner of my computer screen says 2017, and constantly witnesses how many years ago Our Lord was born; my software constantly witnesses how many years ago Our Lord was circumcised. His time fills the whole electronic world.
You will think this all meaningless if you think that God sent his Son simply to save our souls and get us into heaven. But if you believe that there is much more to God’s purposes, that the Kingdom of God embraces the concerns of all the world, then you will hold it as a marvelous mystery that yesterday city after city around the globe successively shot fireworks and dropped balls in witness, even unintended, to the time of Our Lord.
We have much to celebrate. In the 362 years of our Old First congregation, we have seen the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, the emancipation of gay and lesbian people, and the dawn of hope for transgender people. These advances are spreading in the world. Not without evidence, I believe that this evolution of freedom has been molded by the gospel. This despite the betrayal and denial of the gospel by the church that bears it, but our betrayal and denial of the gospel is part of the gospel. As is the resistance and reaction against this freedom and evolution.
This new year looks already like a fearful one, a nasty one, a dangerous one. So much is out of our control, and what time will to do us we can’t know ahead of time and how it will mold us we won’t be aware of till afterward. Our freedom may be limited, but our moral freedom and responsibility we still do have.
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his son . . . so that you might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying “Abba, Father.” That is how God sustains you in your moral freedom. God pours God’s self into you in order that you can have this peculiar and mysterious intimacy with God, this comfortable direct connection with the living and breathing energy of the universe.
Sometimes what I tell you sounds preposterous, and this does too, but if love be the measure of truth, then the combination of God’s providence and your freedom is a combination that expresses love, God’s love. That’s what I invite you to believe in and act upon this coming year, that this Love will carry you.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.