(Note: This sermon is adapted from one I wrote for the September-October 2008 issue of Homiletics. To subscribe, go to homileticsonline.com)
Well, here we are – January 2. Yesterday was New Year’s Day. Time to start remembering to write “2011” on your checks. Did you celebrate yesterday? At our house, New Year’s Day means eating sauerkraut, because my mom (who was a very devout Christian) was still a little superstitious and made sure we ate it for good luck, whether we wanted it or not. I hated it then, but love it now! Of course, the first day of the new year is also time for parades and football. That’s a lot of hoopla for the first day of the calendar year
There are, of course, some who would differ about whether January 1 is actually the start of the year. The beginning of the new year, at least in perception, is relative to one’s personal or professional perspective. We clergy know that the official church year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, but few people get psyched about that since it’s so close to Christmas. The business folks in the congregation and others who work in government are stressing about the end of the fiscal year on September 30 and its new beginning on October 1. Pick a random date on the calendar and there’s a good chance that it’s a new year date for someone.
The truth is, though, that even the calendar itself has long been up for grabs. The Western world, for example, has gone through several confusing calendar corrections in the last two millennia or so.
In 45 B.C., Julius Caesar established what became known as the Julian calendar which began the year on March 25. That calendar was the standard until the Middle Ages, when astronomers and mathematicians noticed that the Julian calendar didn’t jive with the actual solar calendar and, perhaps more importantly, caused Roman Catholic Church holidays to fall on dates that were outside of the traditional seasons for them.
To remedy the problem, Pope Gregory XIII, along with his papal astronomer and mathematician, proclaimed a new “Gregorian” calendar. In order to make the adjustment to the new calendar in 1582, 10 days were eliminated from October of that year. October 4, 1582, was immediately followed by October 15, 1582. Ten days were gone, like they never happened.
Protestants, though, being as obstinate as their name, held on to the old calendar for 170 more years. England and the American colonies finally went Gregorian in 1752, which meant that the year 1751 began with March 25 and ended December 31 and September 1752, lost 11 days in order to correct the calendar to its current form. Colonists who went to bed on the evening of September 2 of that year woke up the morning of September 14. What might have happened in those lost 11 days? Just musing here, but perhaps George Washington’s notoriously bad teeth were the result of his missing a long- scheduled dental appointment on September 4, 1752.
Well, it could’ve happened.
Is this confusing enough for you? We have enough trouble dealing with leap years, daylight-saving time and figuring out when Easter is, let alone losing 11 days off the calendar. We like to think that chronological time is fixed, but history shows us that it’s fluid and subject to arrangement by humans for their own convenience. Hey, if you can eliminate 10 or 11 days from a month without bringing the world to a screeching halt, then why not do it every couple hundred years or so if need be? The next day will come regardless of what we name it.
Biblically speaking, “time” has a couple of different meanings that we have echoes of today. If I ask you, “What time is it?” for example, how would you answer?
Most of us would instinctively look at our watches. We might say it’s ___a.m. MST on Sunday, January 2. We know that kind of time as “chronological” time, which has it’s origins in the Greek word “chronos” or, simply, “time.”
Chronos time marks our place in history, keeps us on schedule, let’s us know where we are, let’s you know how much longer until the service is over (hopefully). We live in chronos time all the time, and it’s a good thing.
But there is a serious downside to only paying attention to chronos time. When we spend our days focused on the clock, being “one the clock,” clocking in and out, we see can begin to see time as an enemy. Boredom, for example, is a sign that time controls us, rather than the other way round. In fact, focusing too much on chronos time can actually be hazardous to our spiritual health.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the devilish Screwtape writes to his demon apprentice, Wormwood:
“The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart …. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change.”
That’s the truth of chronos — because time marches on, day after day, regardless of the date, humans will do just about anything to break the monotony, making changes just for the sake of change. When we don’t have an ordering principle for change, we’re prone to get stuck again and again. Without a governing principle, changes don’t tend to stick and pretty soon we’re right back where we started. After the exciting fresh start of a new year, filled with all those resolutions, we’re pretty soon back to the same old thing.
Witness, for example, the number of people who crowd the gym the first couple of weeks of January, resolving to get in shape. But every year, just two weeks into January, everything goes back to normal. It’s hard to establish a new habit! Even those who maintain a workout schedule recognize that routines get boring.
If idle hands are the devil’s workshop, as the old saying goes, then boredom provides a warehouse of raw materials for construction. When time holds no meaning for us, we can lose day after day wasted in trivial and, sometimes, destructive pursuits and not even realize that those hours, days and weeks are gone.
We weren’t created to simply mark time, however. Sure, God created chronos time by marking out the seven-day week at creation, but God’s set calendar for humanity wouldn’t be primarily marked by hours, dates and minutes. Instead, God would give human time meaning by inserting the divine Presence into time itself.
Biblically speaking, this is kairos time — the appointed time for God’s purpose and activity, the moment of God’s visitation and intervention, the decisive time. A kairo s moment may take place at a chronos point in history, but its meaning would extend beyond chronos time and be celebrated again and again as not only a past event but a present reality.
In other words, there’s another way you can ask, “What time is it?” It’s a way of asking about God’s timing, how God is acting to bring about his redemptive mission for the whole creation. A focus on kairos time is always looking for where God is at work in the present, based on God’s past activity and God’s promised future. Kairos is God’s perfect timing. It’s the ordering principle that brings transformative change.
The Passover is one of those kairos moments breaking in on chronos time. In Exodus 12, God instructs the Israelites through Moses and Aaron to prepare themselves for liberation, but to do so with some very specific and repeatable procedures. The liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt through God’s intervention would be the event that marked a new beginning, a new relationship between God and God’s people marked on the calendar as the “beginning of months” and “the first month of the year” (12:2). While the Egyptians marked their calendars by the appearance of the sun and moon, the Israelites were to mark their calendars forever with a story — a foundational narrative that would interpret their past, preserve their present, and shape their future as a covenant people chosen and preserved by God. The Passover was not to be just a one-off deal, but “a day of remembrance” to be celebrated as a “festival to the Lord” as a “perpetual ordinance” throughout all generations (12:14). It was, and is, the Passover that marked God’s people and gave them meaning and purpose in the world.
The writers of the New Testament certainly understood this and saw the coming of Jesus as the quintessential kairos moment that fulfilled the ultimate liberation of all of God’s people from slavery to sin and death. Paul, for example, would say in Romans 5:6 that “at the right time,” Christ died for the ungodly. Because of that, Paul would say in 2 Corinthians 6:2, “now is the acceptable time (kairos), now is the day of salvation.” If you asked Paul, “What time is it?”, there’s a pretty good chance he would have answered, “time to turn to Christ!”
It’s that kairos time that we enter every time we break the bread and drink the cup of the Eucharist—which echoes this Passover story. When we take communion, we are remembering God’s sacrificial work in Jesus Christ in the past, but we’re also proclaiming his presence with us now, and we’re looking ahead to the great banquet to come. Past, present, and future come together every time we share at the table. Every time we participate in the baptism of a new believer, every time we do or say something in the name of Jesus, we are in the midst of God’s time. The early Christians changed the day of worship from Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, to Sunday as a way of celebrating the reality of Easter again and again — a constant reminder that the resurrection wasn’t a mere historical event but a living and present reality; the beginning of a new age that looks forward to completion when Christ establishes the kingdom, making life “on earth as it is in heaven.” Time has meaning because God has entered into it and has called us to use our chronos to look for, celebrate and proclaim God’s kairos.
We’re so trained to live and work in chronos time and we have to fight the tendency to view life as the “Same Old Thing.” The ancient Israelites would soon forget the miracle of their liberation out of Egypt and through the waters of the Red Sea. Once they got to the other side of the Red Sea, they started complaining about the monotony of the desert and the daily diet of manna and quail. They got so bored and distracted that they ditched God, manufactured a golden calf and worshiped it for the sake of change (Exodus 32). When we fail to see the daily presence of God in our lives, we, too, have a tendency to use our time to construct gods for ourselves.
We have calendars, PDAs, BlackBerries, Outlook and a host of other devices and techniques designed to help us manage time. But while we’re tapping on screens and making appointments, are we taking intentional time to recognize and celebrate God’s purpose and activity in our lives and in the world around us? Here are a couple of ways we might begin this year by moving from chronos thinking to kairos living:
• Celebrate the beginning of each new day with prayer, asking God to show you where he will be at work and where you can help. Be prepared each day to work for what you pray for.
• Institute time each day for planning the day ahead. Begin by reviewing yesterday. What did you accomplish? Where did you see God at work? What opportunities did you miss to serve God? Then take your planner and look ahead to the coming day, seeing it as a blank canvas upon which God can work within and through you. How can God’s purposes be worked in and through me today? How can I reflect God’s presence in my life in each event?
I’m always struck by what John Wesley said about the use of time. To his preachers, Wesley gave these rules: “Be diligent. Never be unemployed: never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time: neither spend any more time at any place than is strictly necessary” and “Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time.” When we manage our chronos, we make room for kairos. When we take control of the time we’re given, instead of allowing it to control us, we make room for God.
I know I’m working this year on doing a better job with time. We’ll be looking at that in a little more depth in a sermon series beginning in February titled “Ordering Your Private World.” I know that I am at my best when I’m paying attention to where my time and attention goes, and when it goes to God I find that life feels a lot less out of control. Perhaps we can covenant together in the new year to be a people who practice good time management—time management that opens up space for God to work within us and through us!
John Wesley also gave the people called Methodist a great reminder at the beginning of each year—a covenant prayer that expresses what it means to make ourselves subject to the kairos time of God, to subject our time to God’s time, and to live as people who have our priorities straight. He gave us this covenant prayer—may it be our guiding prayer for this new year:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.