Advent 4, Year 1, RCL
22 December 2019
The mathematician John Wheeler is said to have said, “Time is what prevents everything from happening at once. And space is what prevents everything from happening to me.” Now that we’ve come to the last days of Advent, and the last days of the calendar year, we find ourselves with plenty of occasion to think about time and space. But even when we’re taking the time to think about time, we don’t really seem to know much about it.
The other day I ran across a picture of a longtime online friend who lives in Canada, taken with her sons in front of a historical monument. I said, “Who are these young men with you? I thought you had little boys!” She did have little boys five minutes ago, I could have sworn.
Three minutes is a vastly different time depending on what you’re doing with it. It goes in a blink when I’m triaging my inbox at work. But a few weeks ago when I was fencing a man half my age in a timed bout, I found myself thinking, “Isn’t there a break coming up soon?”
Time prevents everything from happening at once. But we don’t know how long it will take for a lot of things to happen. A friend of mine was moved to hospice this week; she’d been dealing with cancers for what seemed forever, and they are now beyond treatment. Her daughter posted to Caring Bridge saying, “I knew we would be here eventually, but I didn’t think it would be so soon.” We don’t know how long things like this take to happen.
We schedule everything according to chronos, time, measured in seconds and minutes and hours and days and years. But we live in kairos: the time appointed, the time not measurable, the time that’s only recognizable when we’re in it.
God said to Ahaz, “Ask me for a sign. Anything, from all time and space, from the darkest depths to the brightest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I won’t put God to the test.” Ahaz didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to know how long it would take for the crisis to pass. Maybe he was afraid it would be bad news. Maybe he thought the answer would be too hard to hold out for.
In this story, God lost patience and said to Isaiah, “Well, whether he likes it or not, I’m giving him a sign. The time it takes for a young woman to give birth, to name the child after my presence, to wean him and to teach him not to cross the street without looking both ways: that’s how long it will take for Israel to be delivered.”
Now, on one level, that’s a measurable amount of time. We know human gestation takes nine months. We know when to expect basic milestones of our little ones; we watch for them to come along — early, late, in between.
But depending on what you’re doing, it could be any time at all. You just had a baby; you get submerged in the everyday work of caring for the child, and suddenly, the baby’s walking. How did that happen? But if you’re Ahaz, worrying in your tower, glancing nervously at your borders, it could take forever.
Time prevents everything from happening at once. But you can only measure the experience of it by what you’re doing while it passes.
In our gospel for today, we meet Joseph at a particular point in time: after he has made a formal contract of betrothal to Mary, but before they are actually married. He finds out, it doesn’t say how, that she is expecting a child. That’s out of place in the time-series: something is not right. The obvious conclusion is that Mary did something wrong, so Joseph decides to quietly cancel the contract and let Mary go. It hasn’t occurred to him to ask for a sign, but God sends an angel to give him one. Go ahead with the plan, says the message. God is in the act of saving God’s people. God is going to be born among you. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who breathed over the waters before there was ever such a thing as measurable time.
And Joseph, who like the rest of his people has been silently crying, “How long? How long will tears be our food and drink?” — Joseph believes.
God has entered the time-series. God has knitted God’s self to the sequence of our DNA. We are perpetually unraveling, and God is stitching us back in. When Mary’s child is born, Joseph names him Jesus: God saves.
I don’t know about you, but I too am perpetually unraveling. I have to-do lists on sticky-notes that unpeel and fall off and are forgotten; I look up and suddenly there’s a massive pile of laundry to be done, there are emails I owed people two weeks ago, and it’s almost tax season. I’m making plans for the next year’s writing projects, because I have to do these things even if I don’t know what’s coming next. All I can do is pray for God to re-knit me day by day, to help me make good use of my time and to forgive me when I don’t. I pray for God to keep me centered in kairos when chronos threatens to eat me alive.
And in that spirit, I pray today’s Collect again.
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.