The Fullness of Time
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, December 24, 2020, Christmas Eve.
Text: Luke 2:1-20
I’ve become increasingly tempted to purchase clever, comfy t-shirts. You know the ones I mean? The ones with quips like “Next week has been exhausting” or “Cupcakes are muffins that believed in miracles.” An early fave is: “Underestimate me. That’ll be fun.” This past week, I saw a new one, a simple line drawing of a glass filled about halfway. To the side there were two brackets measuring “1/2 water” and “1/2 air.” And the caption: “Technically, the glass is always full.”
2020 has been a year in which it may be difficult to perceive the glass as even half-full. Many have experienced loss—of jobs, loved ones, relationships, health. It is a year in which we as a nation have been reminded of vast, empty spaces in our country where compassion and grace for others belong. It’s a year that has revealed the ongoing deficit of equity and justice for our black, brown, indigenous, and impoverished siblings. 2020 has been a year of lack and emptiness in many ways. We’ve spoken about it throughout these months as a time of wilderness wandering—a place of uncertainty, danger, vulnerability, and unknowing.
In the Middle Eastern wilderness of old, there are no street lamps, no flashlights, no GPS gadgets, or cell phones; and if clouds cover the moon and stars, the terrain becomes not only dangerous, but impassable. If you get lost or separated from your people, well…it’s rough out there.
But… That’s the first word of scripture we heard tonight: “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.” Another translation of Isaiah 9:1 is “Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair shall not go on forever.” But…nevertheless…[the text continues] those who walked in darkness have seen a great light, upon them light has shined. (Is 9:2)
The shepherds were skillful at navigating the wilderness with their flocks, but when the beautiful dark sky becomes filled with God’s glory in an unfamiliar way they were terrified. “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” (Lk 2:10)
And here’s some of that good news: When your cup seems empty of what’s needed most, when things are uncertain and unfamiliar making you fearful and anxious, when all you perceive is pain, grief, anger, loss, loneliness, or lack, when others look at you or a situation and say there is no hope, the Christmas story interrupts—not ignoring the realities of our lives and world—but saying: “Nevertheless this suffering will not last forever. For a child is born for us who is a light for our path, a guide for the Way, a Prince of Peace, one who comes to save us!”
And so we sing “Joy to the world! The Lord has come! Joy to the world! The Savior reigns with truth and grace, with righteousness and all the wonders of love!”
And we sing this song even as sirens of ambulance and firetruck speed by, even as those on earthly “thrones” of power and wealth withhold what’s needed for the survival of siblings who find themselves out in the cold, with insufficient or no shelter, hospitality, welcome, food, or experiencing other harsh conditions of this current wilderness. We sing our song even as injustice and bigotry are championed by the powers that be in ways that continue to make the world unsafe for impoverished infants like Jesus, refugee children like Jesus, little brown boys like Jesus.
We sing our songs nevertheless not because we are ignoring or accepting those realities but because we have received the great gift of Jesus in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” (Col 1:19) the one who has come into the world in flesh and blood just like ours and touched through personal experience all the vulnerable, broken places in our lives and our world and infused them with divine presence, the one who showed us how to sing songs of love and joy even in the midst of struggle and pain.
“The fullness of time” generally refers to a time when things are ready or ripe, the “right time” for something to occur. My journey through the 2020 Advent season has led me to a new understanding of what the “fullness of time” can mean: in every moment of life, there is always present or possible both sorrow and joy, acts of hatred and acts of sacrificial love, doors closing and others opening. Some among us have experienced amazing joys in 2020—births, new opportunities, insight, marriage or new relationships, liberation of various kinds AND this while also experiencing the pain and fear and rage and loss of the pandemics marking this time. Others have struggled mightily through deaths and job loss and illness and other painful realities of life this year AND have found moments of extraordinary beauty and joy even still.
It struck me yesterday as I sat in the Foundry sanctuary, newly grappling with the reality that the livestream for tonight couldn’t happen there due to connectivity issues...and the Foundry bells were ringing their noonday reminder of God’s presence when, all of a sudden the fire alarm started going off, complete with loud, honking chirps and flashing lights. And I thought, “This is the way it is: our time is always full of both danger and vulnerability and the beauty and power of God’s love and mercy.” The disappointment for me of not being in our sanctuary tonight, simply highlights what a gift our experiences in community truly are and offers an opportunity for gratitude and joy…and not taking such good gifts for granted.
God really is Emmanuel. God is with us, perceived or not. When the glass seems half empty, God’s presence not only fills the other half, but bubbles up like a wellspring and our cup overflows. The wellspring begins in God’s own heart, a heart so full of love and mercy that it spills over into Jesus of Nazareth whose love and mercy spills over into all creation. We’re told in scripture that happened “in the fullness of time.” (Gal 4:4) Jesus lived all his life as a witness to the power of love, grace, justice, and compassion. Jesus lived all his life with open arms and heart extending to each and to all the wonders of God’s love.
And as we gather as Foundry and as a human family tonight, spread out across the city, region, nation, and world, we sing again our songs of joy. Because the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus tonight, the dear Christ enters into every beautiful, broken heart and, by God’s tender grace, teaches each one how to be open and then… filled to overflowing.