Life on Mars: 4. At the Right Time
A good National day here and a quiet birthday as befits one of my advancing years.
We are currently getting ready for our Church Harvest Festival at the moment, so you can imagine my surprise to find contractors erecting scaffolding inside the Church this afternoon.
I spotted a couple of weeks ago that paint was peeling on part of the interior wall of the Church. As we have recently repainted the interior of the Church - against my advice, let it be noted - I was not best pleased. To give them their due the firm concerned offered to put it right and asked if they could start today. I made arrangements for them to be let in and called to see how they were getting on. I expected a ladder and a bucket of a paint. Imagine my surprise to find a team of scaffolders erecting scaffold above the altar and to be told it will take a week!
To their credit, they are taking it seriously; on the down side, I was told it was a minor job that would take three days. Now I have to explain why we have scaffolding all round the altar at Harvest Festival.
These things take up so much time and energy!
Life on Mars: 4. At the Right Time
Christianity claims that in the person of Jesus and in the events surrounding his life and death, God revealed himself to us. I have been arguing, in the past few weeks, that this places an obligation on Christians to attempt something very difficult, that is, to travel back in time, in a historical sense, to see what these events were and whom they concerned.
Sometimes, we try to avoid doing this by reducing the Christian faith to a set of timeless truths or to a body of doctrine or to a code of ethics. Others make it about our relationships with each other here in the present. Others about using the idea of someone dying under an imperial power as incentive for changing the world around us. Sadly, often all these sincere approaches do is to avoid the problem.
St Paul sums up the preaching of the early Christian leaders in these words:
‘For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:21-22)
Elsewhere he writes:
‘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.’ (Galatians 4:4-5)
When the ‘fullness of time had come’, in other words, ‘when the time was just right’, God sent his Son. We have been talking, in this short series, about the problems that Jesus being born 2,000 years ago cause us living as we do in a very different age. And it does cause problems. As we have observed the world was so different then. How can a message about a person who lived then have any relevance for us now. And again, we must stress that Christianity is first and foremost about a person who truly and really lived in a specific place at a particular time and not a creed, code of ethics, or community. These may follow, but they are secondary and subsidiary.
The early Christians acknowledged that this brought problems, but made the amazing claim that what must inevitably seem like foolishness and cause problems for humans was God’s deliberate choice and decision. The time that Jesus was born was neither coincidental nor accidental in any way: it happened in exactly the right place and at precisely the right time: the time, that is, God had decided it would happen.
This means that Jesus’ birth was not an accident of history or something that God decided to do when he thought the circumstances created a good opportunity. It means that Jesus could not have been born as an American in 2007, a Briton in 1807, an Indian in 1507, a Chinese in 1107, or as anyone else in any other place at any other time. This was the place, time, and person. And everything before it led up to it and prepared for it and everything since has proceeded from it. God decided in advance that this was the moment.
It didn’t just happen that Christ was ‘born of a woman’, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’.
Carl Sagan said: ‘In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.’
St Paul said the same thing about what God was up to in Christ, albeit in different words: ‘With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ (Ephesians 1:8)
The Biblical writers claim that what God had in mind when he set about creating the universe was the coming of Christ at precisely the date and time he came.
We like to think it is our age that is wise, our age that is superior to all the rest, that we know more and can do more and, obviously, on one level this is true. I am glad that because of vaccinations I won’t catch diseases that people in the past routinely caught. But we need to have the humility to see that God decided that it was to be in this age, 2,000 years ago, that the decisive moment in history occurred.
After all, that is why our calendars work as they do.