God’s Right Time

Reading: John 1.1-14

“Everything that happens in this world happens at the time God chooses”, wrote Solomon in Ecclesiastes. “He sets the time for birth and the time for death, the time for planting and the time for pulling up… the time for saving and the time for throwing away, the time for tearing and the time for mending, the time for silence and the time for talk… the time for war and the time for peace” (Eccles. 3.1-2, 6b-7, 8b).

We recognise the truth of that statement and not many years ago a modern song-writer took it up.  But is that how we relate to life? We sometimes talk about an idea “whose time hasn’t come”. And we assume – almost fatalistically – that we will die “when our time is up”. But Solomon wasn’t being negative or fatalistic. He was expressing a strong and positive conviction – “everything that happens in this world happens at the time God chooses.”

Of course, our choices aren’t like that. For much of our life we “don’t have time to do things” – or at least “not enough time”. “Que sera sera. Whatever will be will be”, we console ourselves – a fatalistic rather than a Christian view of history.

At that Time

In the early 19th century, a war-weary world was anxiously watching the march of Napoleon. All the while babies were being born.  In 1809, midway between the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, attention was focussed on Austria where, in one campaign after another, Napoleon’s armies were gaining ground. That same year, William E. Gladstone was born in Liverpool; Alfred Lord Tennyson in Summersby, England; Oliver Wendell Holmes in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Edgar Allen Poe in Boston. Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany; and Abraham Lincoln in Hodgenville, Kentucky. In February that year too, an English physician, Robert Waring Darwin, and his wife Susannah, a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, had a son whom they named Charles Robert. People’s minds were occupied with battles, not babies. Yet 188 years later, is there the slightest doubt about the greater contribution to history – those battles or those babies?

And in the land of Israel nearly two thousand years ago important political events were taking place. Jewish historian Josephus (he lived from about 38 to 100ad) records in his book The Antiquities of the Jews the appointment of Cyrenius (or Quirinius) to Syria “being sent by Caesar to be a judge of that nation, and to take account of their substance…” (Ant. 8.1). In his Wars of the Jews he mentions a Jew named Eleazar, descendant of  the Judas “who had persuaded many of the Jews not to submit to the taxation when Cyrenius was sent into Judaea to make one”. This Eleazar and his armed resistance fighters, the Sicarii, were preparing to defend their last strong-hold – the fortress of Masada (Wars 7.252-255).

“At that time…” Yes, it was a particular historical period – the political makers and shakers of history were there. Their presence anchors the events of Bethlehem firmly in our human history. Their presence – and the political decree for a taxation-census – also helped to guarantee that Mary and Joseph would be in Bethlehem “the birthplace of King David” (Luke 2.4).

Bethlehem was not a large town, though full of significance for the Jews. And right now, a sizeable group were making their way there. Henry Alford has commented, “There is a mixture here of Roman and Jewish customs… In the Roman census, men, women, and children were all obliged to go and be enrolled… But then this census was made at their dwelling-place, not at that of their extraction. The latter practice springs from the Jewish genealogical habits…” So it appears that Jewish stubborn insistence on a census by tribes and families may well have made the information less accurate and helpful from the Roman point of view!

The Time Came…

In v. 6 we read that “the time came for [Mary] to have her baby”. Literally, the Greek says that “the days were completed for her to give birth”. For nine months that tiny embryo, smaller than a pinhead at first, had been hidden, growing and developing into a baby ready for birth, ready to start the journey into the life of this world.

There are mothers – and fathers – here this morning who have their own particular associations with that phrase, “the time came…” With our first – Ruth, who married a fortnight ago – I recall Alison becoming restless. At one o’clock in the morning she was vacuuming and doing meal-preparation. I didn’t understand it then, but by three she was asking to be taken to the hospital. The time came… For the later children I felt I had a few more clues as to when the time was coming. I can ask the fathers, what were the signs that told you that your wife’s time had come? And mothers, did you know?

We try to imagine what that journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem must have been for Mary. The distance is about 110 kilometres as the crow flies, but the rough Palestinian roads made it much further than that – and even more so if they took the usual diversion to avoid Samaria. It was not the time for such a journey. It always looks such a peaceful gentle scene as artists have portrayed it – Mary on a donkey, Joseph walking alongside.

Yet we can imagine the conversation as, again and again, Mary says, “Joseph, stop! I can’t go on! How much further to Bethlehem! You’ll have to find some nearer place. I don’t think I can make it!” “Dearest Mary! We’ll wait here a while in the shade of this tree. It is not only Caesar’s command that calls us on –God’s promise calls us too. It is his child you bear!”

She made it. But by now all the best places had been taken. The time came for her to have her baby, and there was no better place to lay him than in a cattle feeding-trough – a manger.

God’s Time

Yet this was not just Mary’s time. It was God’s time. Listen again to God’s promise through Gabriel nine months before – “Don’t be afraid, Mary; God has been gracious to you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. The Lord God will make him a king, as his ancestor David was, and he will be the king of the descendants of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end!” (Luke 1.30-33).

But I’m not married yet. How can this happen?

“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and God’s power will rest upon you. For this reason the holy child will be called the Son of God” (vv. 34-35).

And now it is God’s time – not just Mary’s time to give birth, but God’s time to begin his mighty work of salvation. As the angel announced to the shepherds that night, “Don’t be afraid! I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people. This very day in David’s town your Saviour was born—Christ the Lord! And this is what will prove it to you: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger” (vv. 10-12).

Every child is special, but this child is unique – only one of a kind – the Son of God. Each of us is here on earth for some purpose, but Jesus came to be and to do what no other person could ever do – to be the Saviour of the world.

Now is the Time…

Paul reminded the Corinthians that God had promised his people in Isaiah 49.8: “When the time came for me to show you favour I heard you; when the day arrived for me to save you, I helped you.” But we live in the time when God has fulfilled his promises, and Paul is saying – “Listen! This is the hour to receive God’s favour; today is the day to be saved!” (2 Cor. 6.2).

A few years ago there was a political slogan, “It’s time!” A couple of elections later the losing party had reshaped it as “Time’s up!”

But this is not essentially the politician’s time. It is even more than a mother’s time. Christmas is about God’s time and your timeGod’s time to set in motion his plan for salvation and forgiveness, your time to respond to God, to receive his forgiveness, to be saved.

“Everything that happens in this world happens at the time God chooses”, wrote Solomon. Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians that “when the right time… came, God sent his own Son” (4.4). God has done his part, now it is the right time for us to respond to him – with faith and love and obedience and worship, with unselfish care and sensitivity and generosity…

That has all the makings of a Very Happy Christmas and the Newest and Best New Year yet!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Maroochydore Uniting Church, 28 December 1997
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1984.

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