27 December – God, the fullness of time

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Christmas 1

Galatians 4:4-7
Psalm 147
Luke 2:22-40

In a sentence
We are truly ourselves in the time we have when we receive it as a gift from God

In the next few days, our calendars will mark ‘New Year’s Day’ – that most gloriously pagan of the various holydays we mark throughout a year.

The paganism here is in the linking of human possibilities to the patterns of the natural order. In this understanding, our experience of the world and our opportunities within it are a function of how the world moves. The western festival of New Year takes its energy from the northern hemisphere’s experience at this time of the year. The long winter has historically been a period of hardship and scarcity which presented a major threat to survival. With the passing of the winter solstice comes the increase of daylight, sunshine, and the return to production of food for the coming year. The New Year festival celebrates that we have survived another ‘death’ – another winter – and look forward to the coming abundance, encouraging the gods to keep the wheels turning so that we might not be stuck in seasonal or spiritual winters. In this way of thinking, our lives are subject to a law of cycles and natural processes.

While modern technology goes a long way to disconnecting us from the patterns of the seasons, we retain today a significant intuition that there is at least the possibility of change which comes with the end of one year and the start of a new one. Most modern people would be aghast at the suggestion that they should order their lives according to the astrology sections of the tabloid media, yet our thoughts about the New Year are not far removed from just this. As the earth swings once more through the ‘same’ space it occupied 365¼ days ago, we pause to reflect and to utter the closest things to secular prayer we can: a wish for others that they have a ‘Happy New Year’ and a few New Year’s resolutions prayed not to the gods but to ourselves.

What we have heard in our brief reading today from Paul’s letter to the Galatians contradicts both old paganism and our sentimental retention of a few of its vestiges in our New Year celebrations. When it comes to the question of our being subject to time, Paul proposes an understanding very different from the cyclic filling and emptying which seizes our imagination so strongly at this time of the year. For Paul, the fullness of time is not a cyclic recurrence but a singular event: ‘when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law…’ Time is filled not in an eternal return of filling after emptying but in a single fullness.

And yet it is also the biblical witness that this singular event is not located where we might most expect – as an end-of-time fulfilment of all things. The distinction is sometimes drawn between the cyclic time of general human religious imagination and the directional time of the biblical imagination, but this doesn’t quite reflect the biblical witness. The end of all things to which Jewish apocalyptic thought looked gives way to Jesus himself now being the end – the goal of all things – and this not when the world’s final tick has tocked but in the very midst of history.

Biblical time does not, then, march on towards a final arrival of God, as if the later we are born, the greater the chance that we will be alive in the final apocalypse. Biblical time, rather, revolves around a central moment. It is not where the hands on the clock point which matters so much as that they are fixed at a central point around which they move. Every time, then, is equally close to God’s filling of all time with Jesus, just as every hour, minute and second on a clock is the same distance from the axis around which the hands move. If it is necessary that our clocks and seasons go around and around, every moment in each season is nevertheless hinged upon God in Jesus at the centre of the clock face.

God is present to every moment, then, not because God is stretchy enough to extend the whole length of time’s arrow, stretching from creation to Jesus to us here and now. God is present to every moment because it is only from the axis of God that we can truly know the time in the first place – what kind of time it is we live in.

We might, then, dare to rework Paul a little bit here: not so much ‘when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law…’ but ‘the fullness of time has come: God has sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law’. In this way not only does all time look forward to the birth of Jesus – Paul’s fullness of time ‘had’ come – but all time looks back to the birth of Jesus: the fullness of time ‘has’ come.

For all the possibilities we think the New Year brings, our sense that we have here a new beginning (again!) reveals how we are trapped by those things which build up with the old, unrolling year and cause us to yearn for the New Year, with the new possibilities it seems to promise, as if hope comes with warmer days or the accumulated passage of time.

For Paul, however, the time is not a matter of past and future – of old and new – but a matter of enslavement and freedom. The enslaved soul notices only the numbers on the clock, wanting it to be one time rather than another. The free soul takes each moment as an extension of God into her own time and space. She knows the freedom which comes from receiving her time directly from God: now is the time God meets her, not a moment ago, not in the next moment. There was not more of God or of her a year ago, and there will not be more in a year’s time.

All time is marked by God: this is the meaning of redemption. In this God’s timing, today is what tomorrow will be, and also the day after that: not the next day to which we have been given but the next day which God has given to us – redeemed and renewed, a free space in which God meets us to see what we will do with it. Imagine what tomorrow might be if it were not merely what today seems to demand that tomorrow be. This is the freedom of the children of this God: every day, new, with God.

By the grace of God, may the newness of the coming year be found in that we are again blessed with the gift of the Spirit of Jesus his Son, that we might know ourselves again as his children, that in the freedom of God himself we might discover the time of our lives. Amen.

(A much re-worked re‑presentation of a sermon
preached at MtE on December 28, 2014)