“The Fullness of Time”

Sermon by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, Priest-in-charge

Church of the Intercession, NYC

June 14, 2020

Texts:  Genesis 21:8-21, Matthew 10:24-39


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

There is an ancient Chinese curse:  may you live in interesting times.  Well, we are certainly living in interesting times, also volatile, uncertain, frightening times.

The ancient Greeks had several words for what we refer to collectively as “time,” and two of them that are found in the New Testament are particularly important to us Christians.  One of these words, “Chronos,” refers to what most of us think of when we think of time, linear progression:  one moment following another, the chronology of past to present to future; this is simple to understand.

The other Greek word is “Kairos,”  and that one is much harder for us to wrap our minds around.  At its simplest we can say that “Kairos” is time from God’s point of view, rather than ours.  For many years, theologians have struggled to explain what this means; one says that it is “the key of time toward which history flows and from which it comes,” and another defines it as “points in our history which are disturbed by eternity.”

In the New Testament the word describes the role time plays in the life of Jesus from his conception and birth through his death, resurrection and ascension, including everything in between. All of the events in Jesus’ life were controlled by God’s “Kairos” clock, not by our human “Chronos” clock, but during Jesus’ life those two ways of keeping time overlapped into one; they were one and the same.

The gospels are full of examples that can help us understand this; here are just two:  remember that after Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by Satan, the Bible says that Satan departs from Jesus “until a more opportune time” – that means that God would not permit more temptation by Satan until God said that it was God’s time, the Kairos time.  Also remember that Jesus tells his disciples on several occasions that “my time has not yet come” – that, too, refers to “Kairos” time:  nothing can happen to Jesus until God is ready, or until, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Galatians – “the time is full”.   In Galatians, Paul explains that, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of woman.”  Jesus’ birth is the moment when God enters our world, the moment when the eternal embeds in creation, that’s the moment God chose to come share with us the most inescapable aspect of our mortality, our limited time.  For Paul, the person of Jesus is where eternity and human history meet and embrace.

But God’s time is also present throughout the Hebrew Scriptures; today’s story from Genesis is also a Kairos story: it’s the precursor to the Annunciation in the New Testament:  three men, commonly referred to as angels but who we Christians believe represent the Holy Trinity, appear to Abraham and Sarah to announce the birth of a son to the elderly, childless couple.  This, too, is eternity meeting history: wherein God intervenes at this crucial, seminal moment that sets in motion all of salvation history for Jews, Christians and Moslems alike.

I’d like to dwell on this story for a moment, because it can show us a great deal about how we experience these moments of God breaking into our world.  We tend to think that when God shows up, it’s with trumpets and choirs of angels in a huge noisy flash with the speed of a thunderbolt – and sometimes it does happen that way.  But not usually. Instead, the awareness that a particular moment is not an ordinary one can take time to develop, the revelation slowly dawning on us.  Remember Polaroid cameras? – you would pull the picture out of the camera and then wait for the image to emerge, little by little?  That’s what’s happening in the story.

A few years ago there was a Rembrandt painting at the Frick Museum of this story, Rembrandt entitled it, “Abraham Entertaining the Angels.”  It’s a tiny painting – only 9” x 6” but I found it so stunning that I returned several times just to be in its presence; it illustrates exactly what I’m trying to say here about revelation over time.  In it there are three angels, complete with wings, sitting in a circle around a small table with food.  One angel, whose back is to us, is completely in the dark, with his wings folded behind him; the next, going clockwise, is pictured in profile, his wings are slightly open, and he’s glowing just a little bit, reflecting the light of the third angel, who is facing us with wings wide open, glowing brilliantly; he’s the only source of light in the painting.  Abraham is present all the way to the right side, old and bearded, holding a plate and picking up a pitcher – Rembrandt arrests him in the middle of the action of serving his guests, stopped with the partly open pitcher in his hand.  He is barely illuminated by the light of the bright angel.

What’s going on here is gradual revelation.  The angels are slowly revealing themselves to Abraham – or perhaps Abraham is gradually recognizing the identity of his guests.  Most likely, it’s some of both.  When the spirit world enters our world, it has to slow down to our speed for us to be able to grasp its presence and its message.

We don’t get that if we read the Bible at regular speed, so to speak – we tend to skip over the struggles that characters in the Bible have with divine revelation.  The Bible does not include pauses or padding that would invite us to consider what it’s like to have a Kairos moment in a Chronos world.

I mentioned the Annunciation a moment ago; clearly God’s covenant with Abraham is the seminal moment of the Hebrew Scriptures, but the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary is the seminal moment of the New Testament:  there would be no Jesus Christ without first the annunciation of God’s plans for the Incarnation, followed by Mary’s submission.  This story is so familiar to us, and Mary is such a revered figure across the Christian world that questioning Mary’s speedy submission to the angel Gabriel never occurs to many.  And yet, I can’t help but wonder how quickly Mary transitioned from fear, perplexity, even questioning Gabriel to quiet, determined, and faithful agreement.

Was Mary immediately satisfied by Gabriel’s answers, bowing her head and saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” right away? Or was there a process? Did she take time to consider the shocking proposition, trying to wrap her head and her heart around what the angel had told her?  I love the idea that Mary might have stayed awake through the night, praying for guidance, or perhaps simply praying for the strength to say “yes,” knowing that her life would be forever changed.  Imagine the angel Gabriel staying with her as she prayed, quietly hovering or perhaps silently resting in a corner of Mary’s room, awaiting her decision.  Perhaps the angel even “ministered to her” (in the manner of the angels who ministered to Jesus after his temptations in the wilderness), offering solace, comfort, maybe even further conversation as a kind of heavenly sounding board for Mary as she worked her way through the process of accepting her role. Gabriel does eventually depart, but not before not before God’s offer and Mary’s acceptance of God’s salvation plan were both accomplished, when God’s full moment sent from eternity was firmly established in ours.

So what about us?  Nobody I know has been visited by the Angel Gabriel or even by three angels, but many of us have been visited by God – given the gift of healing or reconciliation or peace after years of suffering.  Sometimes we only recognize this in retrospect, but once it’s clear that knowledge never leaves us.  That is what today’s gospel shows us.  When Jesus himself casts out unclean spirits, cures every disease and empowers his disciples to do the same, he is bringing eternal revelation to people who have had long standing problems that had not been healed in our world by our methods in our time.  Think of who Jesus heals in the gospels – the man blind from birth, the woman who hemorrhaged blood for 12 years, the paralytic who laid by the pool at Bethsaida for 38 years.  The Bible clearly shows us the moment of healing, but only hints at the years of struggle.

This is what I think informs where we are right now. As we experience human history it can seem haphazard much of the time.  There is a famous quote by either Winston Churchill or the historian Arnold Toynbee, about human history being nothing more than “one (darned) thing after another” – with the original quote featuring a stronger word than “darned”.  That’s certainly what our world feels like right now – our Chronos is in chaos, with things coming at us that are a surprise, like the COVID-19 pandemic, others that have been brewing for a while, like the civil unrest reacting to racism and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd.

So is this more of just “one darned thing after another” – or is God breaking into our world, trying to get us to see the revelation?  400 years after the first slaves were brought to Jamestown in 1619, nearly 250 years after the Declaration of Independence was written not including African Americans in its aspirations, 155 years after the end of the Civil War, and just 56 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that is still slowly being dismantled by Congress – after all of that, have we finally reached the “fullness of time”?  Is this our Kairos moment when we can make lasting change?

We have had a few such moments lately; for example take LGBTQ rights, which have made strides that were unimaginable just about a decade ago; such change can happen.  Is this the “opportune time” for us to finally make the systemic changes that our country has needed since we were founded, is the time “full”?  It certainly feels like this is a seminal moment, but we must accept and act upon it in order for it to be made manifest in our world – remember that nothing changed until Abraham and Sarah and Mary and Joseph all said “yes”; then everything changed.

Why do we have to say “yes” to God when it’s our blood and our suffering and our efforts that are leading to changes?   Because unless God builds the house, it won’t be strong enough to stand.  I don’t need to tell you that we live in a fallen world, with evil running rampant, where good often appears to be on the run, and where gains can be lost as soon as you make them.  Our own strength is not sufficient to change our society; only God’s strength is.

That is where the church comes in.  It is our faith in God like Abraham’s, our obedience to God like Mary’s, that allows God’s Kairos to be securely embedded in our Chronos, for our times to truly change.  Are you ready, Church?  The choice is ours.  Jesus is depending on us to seize God’s moment.