Monday, December 31, 2007

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas

The First Sunday after Christmas (December 30, 2007)
"The Fullness of Time" (Galatians 4:4-7)

Time rules our life. We live by the clock. Your alarm clock wakes you up in the morning. You have to get to work on time. You have to get to school on time. Once you get to school, you need to be aware of your class schedule and how much time you have between classes. You also need to keep appointments with the doctor or dentist and get there in plenty of time. You want to know what time your favorite TV show comes on. You don't want to miss the first few minutes.

It's important for the church service to start on time, too. A few minutes too late, and you start to wonder, "Where's the pastor? What's holding him up?" Some congregations are concerned with the length of the pastor's sermons. I'm glad that's not the case here. I don't see any of you perpetually glancing at your watch while I preach. Some congregations are also overly concerned with the length of the service. If it goes one minute past an hour, the elders decide to hold a special meeting to discuss this with the pastor. Again, I'm very happy that's not the case here. Our services often do go over an hour, but no one seems to mind.

There's a lot to be said for the way they deal with time in other cultures. I read somewhere recently that in Lutheran churches in Africa, services don't start at any particular time. People gather in the morning and begin singing hymns and psalms. This will go on and on for a while. Soon more people will gather, some walking for many miles around. Eventually, you may have 2,000 people gathered there, and then the Divine Service proper will begin with the procession and the liturgy that would be very familiar to us ... with an African flavor, of course. I kind of like that idea. But I'm not so sure how that would fly here. God forbid we miss the opening kickoff.

Speaking of sports, sports are ruled by the clock. Football, basketball, and hockey games are all limited to periods of certain lengths of time. I think this is another reason why I like baseball so much. No clock. It has a much more leisurely pace. I know what some of you are thinking. You're thinking, "Pastor, the words 'leisurely pace' is just a nice way of saying 'boring.'" I beg to differ with you. I like spending a day at the ballpark and can't wait for spring training to begin.

Tomorrow night will be ruled by the clock. Countless people will stay awake across the country and count down the seconds until midnight. Another year has gone by. Another year will begin. Another year of being ruled by the clock. And who hasn't reflected on the strange phenomenon of time seemingly going faster the older you get? It never seems like there is enough time. We're always running out of time. Who started this whole time thing anyways? It seems like such a curse.

It was God who started this whole time thing. When he created the world, he started the whole cycle of evening and morning, with "lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night ... for signs and for seasons, and for days and for years." (Genesis 1:14) Then, time was a blessing. There was time for experiencing the perfection of God's Garden. There was time to talk to God face to face. There was time for eating from the tree of life. There was time for honoring God as Creator and knowing yourself as creature – and being happy with that arrangement – at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But all of that changed once Adam and Eve tried to turn that arrangement on its head and be like God. They ate fruit from the tree of which God had told them not to eat. The curse of death entered the world. Since then, the life of every man, woman, and child has been hurtling toward a date with that grim reaper.

And time became a curse. Because the passing of time means that this world is decaying. Our bodies break down and can't always get fixed. Hearts stop pumping. Brains stop functioning. And you and I try to do all we can to avoid the inevitable. We waste time. We make time for ourselves rather than for meeting the needs of others who need our help. And then, in our loneliness, we kill time by deadening our inner pain with assorted activities or substances. There's a part of us inside that screams "Stop the world! I want to get off!"

That's when it's time to stop and look again at the Baby who was born in the manger of Bethlehem. When you look into the manger, it's as if time stands still. Time and eternity met in the flesh of that Child. God entered the world in the womb of the Virgin Mary. God became Man. St. Paul put it this way: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons." (Gal. 4:4-5)

"The fullness of time." Other translations put it like this: "When the time had fully come." (NIV) "When the right time came." (NLT) "When the completion of the time came." (NJB) "When the time arrived that was set by God the Father." (MSG) None of those quite capture the whole meaning of the original Greek. Some commentators say that God chose the time of the Roman Empire for Christ to be born because the Roman roads made travel easy and helped spread the Gospel. That may be true, but then why didn't God just wait for the day when the internet was invented, and then have Jesus be born? The news would have spread a lot faster today than it did then. It seems to me that St. Paul is saying more than just that the right time had come. It's true that God had planned all this out carefully even before time had begun. Jesus is called "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." (Rev. 13:8 KJV) But that phrase "the fullness of time" gives you the sense that all time and history is centered in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of that One Man, Jesus Christ.

And although it's as if time stood still in the manger, time did not stand still for Jesus. His life began just as hectic as any of our lives. Not long after his birth, he and his family had to flee to Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of a paranoid king. A few months later, they had to hike back to Judea, expecting to make their home in Bethlehem again. But then, as you know, Joseph was warned in another dream to head north to Galilee where he settled in Nazareth to fulfill another of the many Old Testament prophecies about the Christ.

We don't know much about Jesus' life until about the time he turns 30. And what a brief career he had. Around 3 years as a traveling rabbi, gathering around him 12 disciples, and even bigger crowds at times. But the words of this rabbi got him into trouble. He made some pretty outrageous claims. Like being the Son of God. Like existing before Abraham. Like being the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one coming to the Father apart from Him.

I began this morning by saying that time rules our life. I said that your life and mine is hurtling towards death. But as you read the Gospels, you see that Jesus' life was ruled by time. Page after page reveals his battle with death and the devil and disobedience and disbelief. His life was hurtling towards death ... so that you and I might live. Look at the face of the child in the manger, and it's as if time stops. God stepped into time so that you and I could step into eternity. The Child in the Manger grew up to be the Man on the Cross. There we see the fullness of time. There we see the center of all history. There we see the completion of all of God's promises.

And in our Epistle text, St. Paul goes on to tell us about the blessings of what God's Son did in the fullness of time. He redeemed us from the curse of the law. God's law condemns us. It makes it perfectly clear that we are sinners and can do nothing to save ourselves. But Christ's perfect sacrifice on the cross is the payment for the sins of the whole world. We are bought back with the price of his blood and adopted into God's family as forgiven sons of God.

"And because you are sons," Paul continues, "God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God." In Baptism, you were given the Spirit of God and faith to trust in God's Son and what he did for you in the fullness of time. Jesus' Father becomes your "Abba" ... the Aramaic word for "Father." Some commentators say it's a term of endearment, kind of like saying "Papa" or "Daddy." Ever thought of calling God, "Daddy"? Maybe that's a stretch for us. We want to come with reverent awe before the throne of God. But as adopted sons in Baptism, our relationship to the Father is just as close as Jesus' relationship to the Father. The same Spirit who came upon him at the Jordan is the same Spirit who came upon us at the font. We are not slaves who have no rights in God's household. We are free sons and daughters of God, heirs of all that God's Son has earned for us ... eternal life, a place reserved in heaven, a glorious future resurrection on the day when time is no more ... because of what Christ did for us in the fullness of time.

And now, each moment of passing time is no longer a curse, but a blessing ... time to talk to God in prayer, time for eating from the fruits of the tree of the cross at the altar, time for honoring God as Creator and knowing yourself as creature, and being happy with that arrangement. Each second that ticks by on the clock is another gift to be received, another moment of grace, another moment to be spent with God and with each other. Amen.

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