December 31, 2017
William G. Carter
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
This is the only time that the apostle Paul mentions Christmas. Even so it is a glancing reference, the briefest of allusions: “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” No mention of a manger, no angels, shepherds, or wise men. Paul does not discuss Bethlehem or Joseph. We learn about them from Luke and Matthew. Even thought Paul is the most prolific author of the New Testament, in all his writings Christmas scores half a line: “God sent his Son, born of a woman.”
Yet in no way does this downplay the purpose of Christmas. Paul summarizes the purpose of Christ’s coming this way: “God sent his Son to make us God’s children.” He is talking, of course, to people in modern-day Turkey. The people of Galatia were Gentiles, far beyond the promises of Israel. And the Son of God comes for them, to adopt them into the Holy Family of Israel.
We belong to God because Jesus has come into the world to claim us. His life, his death, his resurrection gather us in. Through our faith, we are welcomed by God. That’s what Christmas is all about.
I would stop there, were it not for a little phrase that Paul slips in. The first Christmas arrives, says Paul, “when the fullness of time had come.” He says it comes “in the fullness of time.” I don’t know what that means.
This is New Year’s Eve. At midnight another twelve month cycle begins. Centuries ago somebody decided there were twelve months in a year, that all the months had somewhere between 28 and 31 days, that the months circle around again and again like a cat chasing its tail. And Paul speaks of the “fullness of time.” What does he mean by that?
We can say that time rolls along. Tomorrow is the day when all the calendars are discounted. You can’t sell them for full price after the date changes. As an irrepressible bargain hunter, I have often wondered why somebody charges so much for them in the first place. Today a fifteen dollar calendar is suddenly available for $1.99. Simply put, it loses value after a certain date. Maybe that’s why the Dollar Store still can’t move that stack of 2015 pocket calendars at the bottom of their bin. Nobody wants them, even if the store considers them valuable enough to keep on the shelves.
We can also say time runs out. Food has an expiration date. You wouldn’t know that by looking in my refrigerator, but the health department says it is true. Perhaps it is time to toss that airtight packet of Curry Chicken that I picked up at the grocery store back in September. It may still be good. I don’t want to find out. It is past its time.
Maybe that’s why Jesus instructed us to pray for our daily bread. By Friday it goes stale. So pray for your bread a day at a time.
Some are worried that the world has an expiration date: too many people, too few resources, too many erratic elements that could blow everything up. Many were worried when the Mayan calendar was due to conclude on December 21, 2012. All of the Mayans out there were terrified until the date came and went.
Lives have expiration dates. Hate to bring that up, but it is true. We expire sometime after we turn stale. The ancient poet of the Psalms observed this without pinning it down to an actuarial table. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10). Our days are numbered and somebody in heaven is counting them. Knowing this is the beginning of wisdom.
We resist the reality. The last time we sang the hymn, “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” we got to the line that says, “Time like an ever-rolling stream soon bears us all away.” A lady said to me at the door, “I don’t like that verse.” None of us do. It is a reminder that time runs out.
But Paul says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.” That little verse has sent all kinds of amateur historians to the books. They come back and tell us all the reasons why it was a perfect time for Jesus to be born. The first bump they encounter is that Jesus was not born in the Year Zero; he was born before the death of King Herod, and that occurred in 4 BC.
The second bump is that Jesus was not surrounded by careful historians when he was born; he was surrounded by sheep herders, none of whom saw any value in reading, writing, or remembering history. Third, he was not born at midnight between December 24 and December 25. Those sheep herders would have been in the fields in the springtime, not in the winter.
Listen, we don’t know the exact time and date when Jesus was born. That’s OK. All the amateur historians return scratching their heads, if only because ancient history is a little bit ambiguous. All we really do know is that sometime in the fourth century the Christians took over an annual pagan festival that was scheduled each December 25 in the Roman Empire. They called it Christ Mass. Ever since, no matter how hard the Christians tried, that annual festival has remained pretty pagan.
Yet “in the fullness of time,” Jesus arrived. In the fullness of time.
Malcom Gladwell says that some moments reach a “tipping point.” Big things happens when enough little things line up. Ideas converge. Opinions accumulate. A revolution begins when enough people think it is needed, when enough people are willing to risk their own necks to create a change. Some people look at the global circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, and declare God has reached a tipping point: the empire was heartless, people were cruel to one another, sinners were destroying their lives. So God stepped in and said, “It’s time to send Jesus.” True enough, Christ has come and begun to make a difference.
Yet last time anybody checked, the empires are still heartless, people are still cruel, and sinners are still making a mess of most things.
That leads me to say that the key is not the “when” but the “what.” For some divine reason of timing, Jesus came when he did. The Child of God came to make us children of God. It happened off anybody’s map, in a world that largely has stayed asleep. Whenever this mission of God has been discovered, it has always been resisted. All the tyrants out there still debate the claim that God has on anybody. Plus a surprisingly large number of selfish people would profess that they belong to themselves before they ever belong to God.
And yet Christ has come. So my New Year’s gift to you is a poem by Madeleine L’Engle called “First Coming.”
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
God did not wait to send Jesus. God refuses to let people stay enslaved to one another, much less enslaved to their own desires. God comes to free people from the ways of destruction, and to claim them as his own. God doesn’t want any one of us to perish, so that’s why God sends Jesus. It happens “in the fullness of time.”
That Greek word for “fullness” is a wonderful word, a word that suggests abundance. Full as in “spilling over.” Here is the sense of it: when the time is filled up, when the moment is pregnant with possibilities, when something new is just waiting to burst forth, everything was ready for God to come.
From the outset, I hope it’s that kind of year for you. Not a year for you to be killing time, but an abundant year when something new and holy can happen within you. I pray that with the time we have left, we fill it with the praises of God and blessings for our neighbors. And let this be a year full of mercy, that we leave behind in this tired old year all our lingering hurts and grudges, and embrace the healing that Christ has come to give.
And I pray that, among all our resolutions, we resolve to be the children of God. To be content as God’s children. To receive the blessings of God with a thankful heart, and to pass them along to others with generous hearts and hands.
Happy New Year. Happy Abundant New Year.
(c) William G. Carter
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