Monday, 5 February 2018

Jesus Christ: the Eternal Word born in time

A sermon preached at Guildford cathedral on the Second Sunday before Lent (4th February 2018). Readings: Proverbs 8.1,22-31; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14.

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I wonder how you measure time? How long did the singing of the Kyrie eleison last this morning? Unless you had a stopwatch out – and I hope you didn’t! - you couldn’t tell me. You might say, ‘well it’s a stupid question, just get soaked up in it, it doesn’t actually matter. It’s wrong to time it’. And that in a sense is my point. When it comes to talking about time we get in a tangle when we talk, on the one hand, about its objective measurement and, on the other, what it meant or how it felt.

Clock in Guildford High Street,
public measuring of time
This is significant when it comes to our religious experience. Greek, the written language of the New Testament and of the formative thought of Christianity, has two distinct words for our one English word for ‘time’.

The first word chronos is where we get the word, ‘chronology’. Chronos is ordered measured time: it is the ticktock of the clock. We tend to measure and evaluate our lives in chronological language: a long life, a short career, over in a second.

The other word is kairos. This word is less measurable but no less intense. Kairos is the moment fulfilled. It associates perhaps more with quality of life than its bald measurement. Kairos describes a life well lived; a piece of music resonant with beauty despite its length; it is the fullness that a smile can bring or act of kindness. Chronology is irrelevant to kairos like this. You see it in the Psalms, ‘A thousand years in thy sight are but as a moment, a watch that passes in the night’ (Psalm 90.4). As Roger Federer said on winning another grand slam event, ‘age is only a number’.

To unpack time in these two Greek words is helpful as we consider the wonder and mystery that our scriptures unfold before us today. All this is focused in the incarnation of the Word of God, where the Eternal Word becomes flesh and lives as one of us. It is where the chronos of time meets the fulfilment time of kairos.

In our gospel reading the chronos of world history is graced with the kairos of the life of Jesus Christ. His birth in history, born of the Virgin Mary, is on one hand deeply irrelevant to who he is, the very presence, wisdom and eternal Word of God; and yet without entering into human experience lived out through chronological time his incarnation would not touch us at all; he might as well be a phantom and not the Word Made Flesh.

So in the Incarnation, the taking flesh, of the Word of God, Christianity deals with a huge paradox: our human existence is caught up in things eternal, and the things eternal are intimately entwined in the daily existence of being human.

The eternal Word has entered human time; has entered the rhythm of the days – and there was morning and there was evening – has entered the rhythm of the human heartbeat; has entered the rhythm of the music of our lives.

This is what ‘Ordinary Time’, this season of the Church Year holds before us. We have celebrated the great mysteries of the Incarnation - in the Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas cycle - and now the liturgical year pivots towards the mysteries of Christ’s temptation, passion, death, resurrection and ascension, in Lent, Holy Week and Easter all sealed with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The liturgical year appears to deal in chronos but in fact deals in kairos time and unfolds the mysteries of Christ: as ‘Ordinary Time’ ticks by kairos moments abound.

Finding kairos in the chronos of daily life is what Christian living, life in the Holy Trinity, is all about. This is profound stuff.

This takes us to consider wisdom and the book of Proverbs. Proverbs 8, this morning’s first reading, is a seminal passage for Christians as we look to understand the promise of the coming Son of God. It matters little if this passage was written in the 4th century BC, which is probable, or the day before Jesus was born; the point of it is that it testifies to the presence of wisdom as integral to God’s creation.

This is what might be called a diachronic view, which says that the coming of God’s wisdom is sensitive to the rhythms of human history and is not locked in a chronological moment. In other words, God’s wisdom runs like a thread through human existence and is to be sought now, as much as it was 2,500 years ago.

The book of Proverbs sets our task for Ordinary Time: delight in the Lord is the beginning of wisdom! This is about navigating the pitfalls, traps and snares of the world wisely and in the way and Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Wisdom is not equal to God, wisdom is not god, wisdom was ‘created [by God] at the beginning of his work’ (Proverbs 8.22). Wisdom opens up to us the delights of God and God’s delight in us. Proverbs tells us that wisdom is woven into everything that God made. As we understand the Holy Spirit blowing where it will (John 3.8), the Spirit blows this wisdom through the fabric of the world and our lives to inspire, lead and direct us wisely.

St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, Jesus Christ is ‘the wisdom of God’. His is the wisdom that leads, guides and encourages us. But this is sometimes misunderstood. The Arian heresy of the 4th century asserted that Jesus Christ was a creature, created like you and me, created like wisdom. This makes him less than God, subordinate to the Creator: wise and kind, a really, really good bloke, really obedient to God’s will, but not God our Saviour. Our creed counters this quite plainly ‘he was begotten, not made’: not created.

And this matters ‘for us and our salvation’. We place our hopes in ‘the Word Made Flesh’, ‘the firstborn of all creation’ (Colossians 1.15) because, to quote our second reading, ‘in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace though the blood of his cross’ (Col. 1.20).

Christ: chronos and kairos; born in time as one of us; yet eternal through the ages of ages. What wonder, what mystery, and to every who receives him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God: therein lies our dignity, our hope and our salvation, that send us out so all may see and know his grace and truth.

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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