5th January 2014

“A delayed arrival”. (Matthew 2:1-12).

I’m sure that most of us received a few Christmas cards which arrived a little bit late. Some of those no doubt got delayed in the post; others were held back until the last moment awaiting breaking family news; no doubt some were hasty replies from folk who had forgotten to send theirs (or decided not to) but then received the cards we’d sent them!

But things sometimes take longer than that. Agathe Pettit from Manchester was surprised to receive a Christmas card from an old friend in Somerset at the end of July 2012; it had taken 224 days to arrive. A spokeswoman from the Royal Mail said that they couldn’t know what had gone wrong as cards are not tracked individually; she added, “It is extremely unlikely that this item of mail was in our system all this time as we clear our delivery offices every day”. The previous year, a railway worker in Honiton received a Christmas card from a friend in Axminster, 10 miles away, which had taken no less than six years to arrive. Once again the Post Office disclaimed responsibility: “It is difficult to speculate what may have happened to this item, but almost certainly it was put back into the system very recently”, they said. “This is despite the postmark telling the reader of the card to ‘Have a 1st class Christmas’!”

Possibly the most poignant story comes from Germany, where some cards arrived no less than 71 years late, long after their addressees had died. They were written by German soldiers stationed on Jersey in 1941, and had been “liberated” from the Post Office there as an act of defiance by the local Resistance. The cards turned up a few years ago when an anonymous man donated them to the Jersey Archive, where they were translated and documented before finally being sent off. However, anyone expecting to find revelations of war secrets would be disappointed by the notes contained within the cards, which speak of the difficulty in obtaining French cognac, seasickness on the boat going across to the island, and the sheer boredom of occupation.

We may sometimes think that the Wise Men turn up a bit late for the Christmas festivities – partly because most of us seem to focus on the “run-up” to Christmas rather than celebrating the Twelve Days themselves. By the time we get to Epiphany we’ve finally eaten the last slivers of turkey and cake, the decorations are getting a bit tired (if we haven’t taken them down already), and we’re back into the normal routines of life. The Wise Men are a bit of an afterthought.

Well, it’s not so much the Wise Men who are late for Epiphany as the suggestion that we may well be early – up to two years in fact! For we must remember that there is very little connection between the two nativity stories in Matthew and Luke; despite the claims of “The First Nowell”, the shepherds most certainly did not look up and see a star; and, in contradiction to the majority of Nativity Plays and crib scenes, the shepherds and the Wise Men were not present in the stable together. In fact Matthew’s story strongly suggests that Jesus was no longer a baby when the Magi appeared: not only does he use Greek words which mean “boy” or “child” rather than “baby” or “infant”, but he informs us that King Herod clearly thought of Jesus as a child who might be as much as two years old.

In fact I have a theory which the text seems to uphold, which is that the Star in the East – and that’s wrong when you think about it, as the Star clearly shone in the Western sky for travellers coming from the East, a detail which “The First Nowell” does get right! – began to shine only when (or after) Jesus had been born, rather than at the moment of his conception. If the Wise Men then had to journey for several hundred miles, travelling only at night, and putting up for a while at Herod’s Palace, they may have easily taken several weeks to arrive. Clearly they got to Bethlehem before Herod’s edict made the Holy Family flee as fast as they could in the opposite direction; but, whatever the time when they showed up, they were certainly not late!

There is a lot in the Nativity story – and in the entire story of Jesus’ life – which links with this idea of “taking place at the right time”. Certainly Matthew is keen to show his Jewish readers how different strands of Jewish history all drew together at the time of Christ, ready for the coming of the Messiah; but, as I said a couple of weeks ago, he deliberately selects the Old Testament allusions he makes. From a practical point of view, the freedom of travel and the commonality of language that existed under the “Pax Romana” meant that the First Century was a good time to start a new world religion; indeed one might say that, had the Church been founded in a different epoch or location, it would have fizzled and died. The Roman Empire may not have been a good time for those people, such as the Jews, who lived in its occupied territories; yet it saw a flowering of culture and an ease of communication which were ultimately of benefit to the Christian Gospel.

At this point I would like to introduce you to a word which has been lurking behind everything that I have been saying. It’s the Greek word “kairos” which is one of two different words which mean “time”. The other word is “chronos” which you will recognise in the English word “chronometer”, a kind of specially accurate sort of clock used on ships. Now “chronos” is just the ordinary day-to-day word for time; however “kairos” is subtly different. For it is all about the “right time” or the “opportune moment”, in the sense which says, “this is the perfect instant for something to happen”. It is all about grasping the moment, seizing the hour, making use of every opportunity that presents itself without prevaricating. In everyday life, you could say that “kairos” is the moment when fruit reaches its very peak of ripeness, when the chips are exactly ready to come out of the fryer, or when you must pull the trigger as the clay pigeon rises into the air. A second too early or too late, and you’ve missed it.

Now this idea of “kairos” was very important to the ancient Greek philosophers. For instance Aristotle thought of it as the precise moment in a debate when a protagonist would deliver the killer proof of his argument: “the passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved”. That meaning transfers through into the New Testament, where “kairos” is used to mean “the appointed time in God’s plans”, the moment in history when he acts. We hear of it in Mark’s Gospel when John the Baptist cries out, “The time (the ‘kairos’) is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is near”. We read of it in the letter to the Galatians when Paul says, “When the time had fully come, God put forth his Son”; and we can visualise when he writes to the Corinthians: “While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly”. And, quoting Paul one final time (for this is an idea he seems to like!), we should heed the injunction to “be careful how we walk, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of our time, because the days are evil”. 

This same idea was developed by the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich in the middle of the last century. He believed that history is meaningless and lacks any sense of progress unless it is centred on significant moments which open up our understanding of the past and help us to look toward the future horizon. As he says (using somewhat high-flown language, I admit): “The significant ‘now’ of the ‘kairos’ qualifies the retrospect on the past and the prospect upon the future, uniting the past as preparation with the future as consummation”. For Tillich, the history of the twentieth century included several pivotal moments and opportunities for changing the course of history: the period of uncertainty after WW1, when a new political order could have been created; the development of Liberation Theology in the 1960s, which could have decisively liberated the poor, especially in Latin America; or the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa which should have changed human perceptions of colour and race. These were clearly moments when profound political change could have occurred (and I’m sure we can think of others, such as the collapse of the Berlin Wall); but they were also moments at which God, through his Church, could steer the world onto a radically new course. Sadly so many of those God-given opportunities were squandered and prevented by entrenched attitudes and vested interests within the Churches. Yes, God’s moments had come; but most of us never recognised them.

And it is here that we can go back to the Christmas story and the arrival of the Wise Men bearing their gifts. For it may well be that those pagan astrologers realised the true significance of this moment far better than the more orthodox Jewish participants in the tale; that the appearance of Jesus was not just the arrival of a new religious leader on the scene but the one crucial event which gives a divine perspective into both past and future history. As I said to the children, that event became fixed in the world’s time by the changing of its calendars from B.C. to A.D. All right, the people who made that change may have got the date wrong; but what they did realise was that the whole world had shifted, and that God was about to act in a way which few people expected.

Well, it is a long time since the mysterious Magi made their journey to Bethlehem – if you believe that the story happened at all, that is. We need to set our thoughts in the context of 2014 AD rather than 5 BC (or thereabouts). And the question I would leave you with is simply this: what will be our “kairos moments” for the year? Moments when there is a work to be done and our church has to act decisively rather than getting caught in a mesh of committees and meetings, moments when we have to bite the bullet and speak out against a social evil from a Christian point of view, moments when we say to ourselves, “If we don’t do it now, we never will” and take a risk in God’s name.

Are there dangers in such an approach? Yes, there are. Does it go against our cautious and conservative natures? Most definitely. Are we likely to end up with spiritual egg on our faces? That could happen – though I hope it doesn’t! But the Wise Men took the risk and sought out Jesus. The disciples too the risk and followed the man they thought was the Messiah. Even Jesus took the risk by abandoning his workbench and setting out on a course which could have only one conclusion. But, by heeding God’s voice at the right moment, he changed the world for ever.

God’s moment for us is now.