The Fullness of Time
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
December 31th, 2017
That was Paul’s Christmas story. That’s what Bill just read for us; it is the apostle Paul’s Christmas story. We don’t get a birth narrative from Paul. Paul is talking about the birth of Jesus in a different way. Paul is talking about that evolution of all of us, and that transition from childhood to adulthood, life in the Spirit.
Paul is talking about a relationship to God in terms of a changing relationship. And he puts it in terms of time and law. He says: our relationship with God has been about the law, and any time we’re obsessed with the law, that we are immature in our faith. And the question of a relationship with God through the law, is a question about keeping the law. And oh, they meant it. There are 630-odd prescriptions, things that you must do, or must avoid doing, to avoid God coming to get you. Because it’s just a matter of time until God is angry with you enough, that God is going to get you.
Gloria Estefan warned us that the rhythm is going to get you, the Old Testament, very much, about God is going to get you. You better shape up and obey the law or, oh, you are going to pay.
That’s the relationship we’re talking about when we talk about the law. It’s only a matter of time.
And the apostle Paul is saying: wait a minute. And he throws time on the table. And he says: time changes in this Christ event. He points out in the passage, that Christmas is all about time, in the fullness of time, when the time had fully come, God brought forth a son. God did something completely new, radically changed the relationship that people perceived with God. In the midst of a humdrum world, where hope was a scarcity, because, in the law-abiding world, the obsession-with-law-world, it is just a matter of time until the law comes to get you, and you will be hung out to dry, and you will be embarrassed. And what you did not want to happen, well, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
Have you picked up the tracks given out by some of our colleagues, other churches, the tracks that tell you just a matter of time until God comes to get you? And that’s a mark of death, and that when you die, immediately, you will stand before the Lord, and it’s just a matter of time.
You went to worship, back in that day, mostly to find out how God was going to punish you, and to have hope that, maybe, possibly, you could keep the law in a strict enough fashion, that you might not suffer all of the punishment that, well, the less obedient, less strictly obedient, law-breakers, would receive.
And, of course, you could find comfort in that of: well, I might not be perfect, but at least I’m not like them.
Paul is saying that the Christ event gave time a new meaning. He’s trying to put words around this Christmas event. And the word that he uses, in Greek, is kairos, it’s special time, that’s what kairos means, a special time, a pregnant moment, filled with opportunity for redemption.
The question I want to invite us to ponder, the question of this passage, is what are you afraid of? A couple of folks in the congregation shared with me their stories about why Christmas is not your favorite time of year. And I have watched a few folk’s shoulder-shrug, and heads drop, and stories told about: well, we’re just not speaking anymore. Or, he died on Christmas day and so, this is a rough memory. Or, it was right before Christmas that I lost my job. And so, that kind of tension is within us. And so, I’m asking you: what are you afraid of?
Is it getting ill? Is it not having enough? Is it simply not having as much as you think your neighbors have? Are you afraid of being alone? Are you afraid of losing your friend group? Are you afraid of losing your kids? No longer being important? Being rejected… What is the fear? Because fear has a special power in us that we wish it didn’t. Fear has the power to drive us, and it wakes us.
How many of you remember being in college, or being in school, and that test that you know you didn’t study as much as you ought to have studied for? It woke you up about 4 o’clock in the morning, and you said: oh, no, I’m not going to do well because I’m not getting enough sleep. No, you’re not going to do well because you didn’t study. And now the consequence is, you’re afraid of failing. You know, what are you afraid of?
When we talk about law in the biblical text, we’re talking about fear. Fear that what we don’t want to have happen, well, that’s what’s going to happen. And we’re talking about fear in the Old Testament, and we’re talking about fear in the New Testament, being used to keep people in line.
I remember working in the credit department at the Dillard’s up at Scottsdale Fashion Square during college. I was in the credit department, and our department manager ran a fear-filled operation. In spite of the fact that we passed every audit with flying colours, and we met all expectations, and we never made mistakes in keeping the cash drawer straight.
She would list out stuff that she thought we did wrong, and she would lecture us about it, and it was miniscule stuff. And she talked about how we didn’t get it right, and how, if we were better employees, we would get it right. And how worthless the entire department was and how embarrassed she was by us. I was afraid to go to work.
I had a neighbor that was… His dad was like that. And you could hear his dad bellow out the screen door of the back of the house, all the way out in the backyard, by the fencing up against the lumberyard, where his son and I were hiding behind the sandbox. Because he knew that we had failed to fulfill his expectations. We had no idea what they were; we just knew that we were bad. We were terrified too.
What are you afraid of? Do you still carry that [sighs] in your being? That overly critical tape still plays in your head? The question, what are you afraid of, is so prevalent in this text.
Paul is saying: you don’t have to be afraid anymore. This is an opportunity, he’s is saying, for us to change our habit. To stop doing the way we’ve been doing it; to find a new way; to see and to try something different; to change one habit.
The Christmas story, he is correct, we read of lives being changed, transformed, and we are invited to look at, and change the habits of our hearts. And to see our own lives through the lens of the Christmas story, that change happens. That it’s invited.
A young woman, a young maiden, Mary – no one listened to young woman. No one consulted young woman – that was her future, no use fighting. In the Christmas story, she’s invited to have a voice. To be believed about what happened to her.
A righteous man, Joseph, well-spoken in the community, he’s very interested in remaining righteous and well-spoken in the community. It’s a habit of his heart. He’s terrified of no longer being well-spoken. He’s invited to confront his habit and to see things through his heart, in a new way; to take a risk. It’s time.
Shepherds have worked in the fields… Oh, God, that is a dead-end job, if ever there was one. Their job is to watch sheep. You ever watch sheep? Oh, that’s an exciting time. Oh, nibbling that grass. Oh, pooping, that’s great. That’s about it. Follow the same boring routine, day in and day out, hoping for some good news like, maybe the master who owns the sheep is going to give you an extra shekel this time?
Most nights it’s: let’s bed down with some wine, let’s get drunk enough to be at peace with the dead-end job; to be at peace with wasting time. Wise men have come from afar. And, from the biblical account, it looks like it took them about two years to make the journey. They were searching. Two years searching for good news. They were lost in time.
People of the region had fallen into a habit as well, of going around shifting their allegiance to whatever power seemed to be leading in this moment. Swearing allegiance to whatever leader seemed to have power; whatever the latest, most exciting movement might be; being baptized into the most promised coming of the day.
Well, a little later on, the disciples of John, they’d fallen into this habit of waiting and complaining, and being baptized into the latest, greatest, leader, kind of, as a profession. And they’re going to come to Jesus, and they’re going to say: are you the one we’ve been waiting for? A question of time.
A question of fear too; please tell us we’re not wasting our time by talking to you. Should we stop waiting, are you the one? And if we stop waiting, what should we do with our time? And Jesus answers both of these questions. He says: the blind receive sight. The lame, walk. Those who have leprosy, are cured. The deaf can hear. The dead are raised. Good news comes to the poor. You decide if with what do I do with my time. You decide if I’m what you’ve been waiting for.
Our questions, whether they are about time or fear, these questions are really about authority; who will have final word when this is all over.
When I worked at Dillard’s, I was pretty sure that it was our department manager that would have final word in my annual evaluation. And, oh, I stepped up, tried to get better, tried to do what… I was very unhappy in that arrangement. Who’s going to have final word for you?
And has our use of time been productive because of who we believe will have final word? Or have we squandered our time and sworn many allegiances, in many different directions, and all sorts of ways, been baptized into many different beliefs?
Scattered and distracted, and blown about like leaves in the wind.
Paul is writing about who has last word. That’s his resolution. That’s his solution to fear. He says: God redeems us because God loves us. And what Christmas means to Paul is a fresh start.
Christmas means we don’t have to be the way we’ve been. We fall into those paths, you know, they become habits. It becomes a rut. We try to set ourselves free by obsessing about the laws, and the rules, and how we kept them, and trying to please the people who seem to be the enforcers of those laws and rules. We just dig ourselves deeper into the same old rut. We just dig ourselves deeper into a pit of fear.
Paul is saying we can have new beliefs, which create new practices. We forget that what’s Christ brings to us, an entirely new understanding of our relationship with God. We can take risks. We knew that when we were a kid. We’ve forgotten.
The beautiful message that Paul brings is: no matter how long we’ve lived with resignation, or cynicism, or despair, or unresolved fear that has since become anger that’s just below the surface, we can, in Christmas, choose hope. We can walk a new way. We can practice a new imitation of who has final word. We can walk in a new way. We can talk in a new way. We can be different than the world around us.
I think Paul must have meant something like that when we spoke of the kairos moment. The birth of Jesus offers each of us the opportunity to change. I think that’s very good news.
And I don’t think we anything that we need to be afraid of.
Searching for the Biblical Christmas, Somehow 8/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
December 24th, 2017
Psalms 124:1-2, Matthew 1:18-25
I don’t know if you know this, but I’m trying to set it up so that when I become a grandparent, here, pretty quick, I get to sneak with the kids. I have always been that bad kid at heart, and I refuse to relinquish that responsibility within the family. I do well when I’m being yelled at.
So, why is it that we do not hear from Joseph in scripture – at all? Not once. We hear about Joseph. We hear about the message he received. We hear about his concern to keep strict interpretation of the law, but not one word comes out of Joseph’s mouth to us.
I mean, he could give great parenting advice; how to raise a messiah. And not just a kid who thinks he is The Messiah. Joseph was the one who introduced Jesus to his Habudeem, when Jesus was a little bit older, the local religious club, of which Joseph would have been a member. The men of the community gathered after the day’s labor, after dinner, and they sit together in the evening, and they ponder deep thoughts and interpretations. And they arrive at a strict interpretation of scripture. Then they apply it to everyday living, mostly for other people.
Joseph would have taken Jesus to the Habudeem. Probably first to listen to the conversation and the debate among the men, and then, later, about the time Jesus became a young man, invited to carefully form an argument within the group, and maybe participate in some of the conversation. There is a time when 12-year-old Jesus become separated from his parents during Passover. We hear the story about how they’re looking, and how Jesus’ parents are upset. But we only hear words from Jesus. Once again, nothing from Joseph.
It occurs to me, that there’s something going on here, and I think it might be worth chasing out. And, I guess today’s sermon is for those men who have figured out that it’s not always important to talk. In fact, there have been a few times through the years, when I’ve performed marriages for men and women. The joke to myself was: well, I know why they got married. I know why he got married, so he’d never have to talk again.
There is an insight that comes in silence. There is an insight when you can hold your words. There is an authority that comes when you don’t say everything that comes into your head. And that’s not just for men, but we’re talking about Joseph today, and his silence.
But, here’s where I think this text goes. How long does it take for you to change your mind? When you have formed an opinion; when you have entered into the belief that you are right, you’ve been informed by tradition, and experience, and reason, and scripture, and you’ve been reinforced by observation. Or, maybe for you, you just entered into an opinion that’s uninformed and reinforced by your favorite talking head. But, the question remains, how long does it take for you to change your mind?
When you have formed an opinion that something is wrong, and you are in the right, how long does it take for you to change your mind? What we have on our hands today, is the fiancé of Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus. He is reluctant in the beginning. He is clear he is right; this woman is in the wrong. The rules are clear about what should happen to her. His first response as a man who practices his religion, and seeks to do what is right. What? Pregnant? That’s just… I can’t marry her. She should be stoned.
At what point do you suppose Joseph finally said: oh, right, yes, then, well, it’s all good. I’m on board, Mary. How long does it take you to change your mind?
I’m pondering this as we get going this morning, because Joseph is an outstanding scriptural example to most of us. We are reluctant to call important, what God wants. To believe. We are reluctant to act on what we understand God wants. To have faith.
We are well-intentioned, but we are reluctant to imitate the one we follow. We just have our way. And we don’t want it disturbed. And we’re pretty sure that we’re right. At least it’s familiar. And it’s going to take a long time for us to think about possibly, maybe, changing our mind.
What becomes fairly clear to me as I think about Joseph and what I see in him, and what I see in Mary and the Christmas story. Is that there is a theology, a way that we think about God, that has escaped most of the books you and I might have read.
It is not so strange that this theology has been missed because it’s centered not so much in intellectual argument that we can prove on page. You know, this theology, this way of thinking about God, is centered in the heart.
Notable theologians, like Barth, and Brunner, and Tillich, have missed it. Contemporary thinkers, like Roberts, and Cohen, Fiorenza, and Russell, have not been able to fully articulate this theology because they’re coming out of their head onto the page. And this is a theology of the heart. And the theology that I’m talking about on the day before Christmas, as I think about Joseph, and Mary, and Jesus, and shepherds coming out of the fields, and wise men coming from afar, is a peculiar theology you will never get words around, but I’m going to try. It is, of course, the theology of somehow.
I’m talking about the theology that goes where logic says it can’t. This is the theology, a way of thinking about God that makes us bold when we would prefer to be shy. It makes us optimistic and hopeful, when all rational thought and all evidence in front of us, says that we should be pessimistic. It stirs strength in us, when we are filled with physical weakness, and despair, and surrender.
This is the theology of somehow. It is the human in us that marvels at the relentless ebb and flow of nature. It’s what causes us to pause when we see a beautiful sunset interrupted by a rocket taking off. It causes us to smile when we glimpse rainbows. And it causes us to load the car, the truck, the camper, and the boat, and to drive hours to be in the forest, because the trees reach into us and pull out of us, a place, a way of being, breathing, that we can never find in the city.
It’s what causes us to become riveted to our television sets when we’re watching Nova or National Geographic. It is marveling at the world around us. If you’re like me, there’s a scientist in you, and you often ask: how? And the only answer that makes any sense, and yet seems to follow, and flow with, the ways of the universe; but, can defy the odds of numbers and math, and ration, and logic, and still happen, is the theology of somehow.
How is it that the eternity of an alarm clock never fails? The seasons roll in perfect order every time, how does that happen? I don’t know, but somehow. How is it that the dew-drops know to fall in the early morning? And thunder knows to announce the coming of the rain? I know, we are well-versed in meteorology, and we may be able to understand the scientific principles of thunder and lightning, but there’s still that question: how?
I suggest to you, that the best answer for those of us who are trying to learn how to live out our faith, rather than head to paper, or confined and equip, that we can articulate, is the silence of somehow.
The question how, is a very biblical question as well. Pharaoh’s army wanted to know how did this happen, when they found themselves over their heads in rushing waters. In which moments before, had been a dry and barren seabed. The city council of Jericho, wanted to know how the walls came tumbling down, just because the trumpet player hit a note. The 400 prophets of Baal, wanted to know how is it that fire danced out of the sky and consumed Mount Carmel’s alter, and most of the prophets of Baal. Nebuchadnezzar wanted to know how is it that three Hebrew boys, named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, walked out of the fiery furnace; not a hair singed.
When we hear that Isaiah declares God’s way: cease evil, learn good, seek justice, help the oppressed, justice for the orphan, and plead the case of the widow. We wonder: how? A woman named Mary, wanted to know: how? How can this be, she asked, when she unexpectedly came up pregnant out of wedlock and started having angel dreams. When this wife-to-be came you pregnant, and not by him, a man named Joseph wanted to know how he would ever be able to move forward in a faith obedient to God.
When Jesus walked on the water and told the winds to lie down; when he looked at the lightning and gave it the off-switch. When he spoke to the thunder and the air become quiet. The disciples wanted to know: how?
And one Sunday morning, in a tomb, the grave clothes were neatly folded, the stone had been rolled away, and no one was there, and the women asked: how? And the disciples gave the best answer: somehow.
You see, we come from a long line of intelligent people asking how, and my only response to you is: somehow. And that somehow is God’s somehow, that finds its way into our Christmas, when we ask all of those how questions. How are we going to get the house ready for all the people that are coming? You know the answer.
How are we going to get everybody seated around a table in a living this size? Well, you know the answer.
How am I going to tolerate my brother because he loves television programmes I hate? You know the answer. You’re going to keep your mouth shut.
I know. I know, the temptation at Christmas is to turn the conversation into a self-affirmation, and a self-flagellation, as you contemplate your personal sins, and you know, personally, Jesus came for you, and you want a reassurance that God loves you. But it’s not about you and your sin. It’s about God, and God’s somehow. You know about God’s somehow. Can I remind you what you already know? It is in the giving of a coat that we are warmed. It is in providing underwear, and pants, and shirts, and shoes, that we are clothed.
It is in helping to provide treatment to the ill that we are made well. It’s in making sure that those who need are fed, that we are filled. It’s in giving away, that we’re provided for. It’s in dealing fairly in areas of business, that we are justified. It’s in thinking of others, that we enter the consciousness of God.
Did you get that one? It’s in thinking of others, that we enter the consciousness of God. That’s a conundrum. How does that happen? How do any of these things happen? How does this strange transaction work? Somehow.
Somehow our cadence has to come from God: God Almighty; God the Author of somehow; God the Sustainer of somehow; God the Baker of somehow; God the Blooming Rose of somehow; God the Spirit of somehow; God the Eagle of somehow; God the Maker of somehow; God the Light of somehow; God the Brilliant Darkness of somehow; God the Teacher of somehow; God the Embodiment of somehow.
Christmas is the story of somehow. How long does it take you to change your mind? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you because we’re on God’s time. And the question is: how long is God going to work in you? How long is God going to work on you? As long as it takes.
And how’s that going to happen? You know.