Timing is Everything
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
December 10, 2000
Scripture: Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3: 1-6
“In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the lands of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanius tetrarch of Abilene, during the pontificate of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.
Last Friday I got up very early to attend a breakfast lecture by a celebrity speaker brought from the East Coast by a mega-church in this area. I should have stayed in bed. However, things are seldom a total loss so let me pass on the one thing of value I got from the presentation. It is a joke. The speaker said that as the years passed for him the term “Happy Hour” came more and more to mean a nap. We have all noticed how our relationship to time changes as life advances; what for a child is half a lifetime is for an adult a brief interlude, and the older we get the faster time seems to fly. As the date December 12th draws near, time becomes more and more the essential arbiter in our current political controversy. One journalist quoted Vince Lombardi the football coach, “We didn’t lose we just ran out of time.” In football it is called “running out the clock.” What shall we call it in politics?
Luke’s gospel is unique in the attention it pays to the precise historical time of the events of the life of Jesus. The other gospels write as if these important events took place in eternity, at any time and at no time. This for two reasons; some thought that the time of Jesus was the final period of the world in which the date no longer mattered (Mark and Matthew), or that it was the presence of eternity (John), others thought that it was for individuals or Jews only and not for the world as a whole. In both cases the calendar is irrelevant. Not so for Luke. He wrote the first history of Christianity, beginning with John the Baptist, centered on Jesus, and continuing in the acts of the Holy Spirit through the apostles. (We should always read the gospel of Luke and the book of the Acts of the Apostles together as two installments of the same history, the history of God’s determinative dealing with the world through Jesus Christ and his apostles). Today we reflect on time and history, two great Christian themes made central to our faith by the magisterial writings of Augustine of Hippo.
Luke is the only writer in the New Testament to follow the custom of secular Greek historical writers, like Thuycidides the historian of the Peloponessian War, and date his narrative by referring to contemporaneous events of note. The fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar was from 19th August 28 AD to 18 August 29 AD. Sometime in that year John came upon the scene, and then Jesus. Talk about a marvelous year! 28-29AD is the year of our deliverance. Currently the Roman Church is celebrating the year 2000 as a holy year and millions of pilgrims have gone to Rome in observance. They celebrate the year 2000 as the anniversary of Christ’s birth. We should celebrate 2028-9when it comes with equal fervor.
Let me make two points concerning Luke’s dating the Jesus events with reference to the events of world history. The first point is simply and insistently that the life and birth, death and resurrection of Jesus are events, not stories, not illustrations of ideas; they happened in the real world in real time, not in the mind as ideas, symbols or fantasies, but as events that took up time and space in the ordinary world. In the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar something of vital significance happened and it happened as Luke’s gospel says it happened. It is neither fiction nor theory but event.
What is the difference between fiction and theory on the one hand and event on the other? Fiction and theory take place entirely in the mind, while event takes place in the world. Fiction and theory are always more or less under our control while events are not. We imagine fiction and act on theory, but we react to events. We are in control in the realm of fiction and theory; God is in control in the realm of events. One of the painful distortions made by my early morning celebrity lecturer was his claim that we are able to choose our future, that we are not the prisoners of our past, but are utterly free to create our own world. That is surely nonsense; the freedom we have to choose our lives is mostly the freedom to choose how to react to the things that happen to us. We live in an interaction between what we choose and what happens, between what we want and what our history allows. Sayings like, “If life hands you a lemon, make lemonade,” are trite but they are true. Christ happens in the realm not of ideas or theories but of events. Christ encounters us not as an idea or an ideal but as a person, and that encounter is an event in our history not an idea in our heads. He still meets us today in the history of our lives. Has he met you lately? Ever?
The second point Luke makes when he relates the event of Jesus to world history is that this event impacts the whole world. It impacts Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate and Herod, and Philip, and Lysanias, and Annas and Caiphas, and George W Bush and Al Gore, and Cisco Systems and Intel. There has been a strong tendency in modern times to limit the significance of Christ and of the Christian faith to the realm of the private and the personal. Faith for many of us is a private and subjective activity but for Luke it is an event in the history of nations, of politics and of culture. I know this is difficult to believe, but it is the fullness of our faith. Whether we believe it or not, whether we understand it or not, God in Christ has caused something pivotal to happen in this world that has changed the nature of things forever, and has changed me too, whether I acknowledge it or not. For that reason we are confident and expect to find the traces of this event wherever and whenever we go. All of time is changed by it, all my life is changed by it. Faith in Christ is the way to make that universal event happen in my particular life.
“Timing is everything,” is a slogan of the stand-up comic. Timing is everything in telling jokes and in real life, which is no joke. Jesus we believe came at the right time, in the fullness of God’s time, not too soon and not to late. You remember one theme of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” was whether Jesus should not have waited until the development of modern media before coming; he could then have communicated so much more effectively. On the whole, however, it is hard to imagine how he could have been more effective, given that a year of occasional teaching echoes down the millennia and changes lives by the millions. No I don’t think we can improve upon the plan; Jesus came in God’s time and God’s time is always the right time.
An essential, I mean absolutely essential, part of his coming were those who recognized and accepted him. There were those who accepted him after his work, on the basis of his life, death and resurrection, and they are primarily the apostles and secondarily each one of us. We are his disciples too and as such we are part of the event of his coming. But there are also those who acknowledged and accepted him before his self-disclosure to the world, and they were Mary his mother who was told by an angel, and John the Baptist who knew him through prophecy. The word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness in that marvelous year of AD 29, and the prophet Isaiah confirmed that word, and John embarked on a mission to prepare people to receive him. John and Mary are the dominant figures of Advent; they knew him beforehand and they prepare us to receive him, they warn us to be ready so that when the time comes we may acknowledge and accept him into our lives.
The fact that Christ’s coming is an event of world history means that it is far, far greater in its breadth and depth than anything we can comprehend. Too often we try to make of the incarnation of God only a personal experience, as if the limits of my religious experience were the limits of God’s saving presence in the world, as if heaven and earth were not full of his glory. Christ is in each one of us, because he is incarnated in humanity as such. When we say he comes to us we really mean that he who is always already there with us causes his presence to be known in special ways and at special times. May this advent be a special time for you, when the God incarnate in the history of the world makes his presence known in the history of your life, in its trials and challenges and in its joy and gifts. May this time be a right time for you, and may you discover the life and joy hidden in the midst of your days, the God made flesh in you.