The Art of Timing – A sermon on Galatians 4:1-5 by Carroll Boswell

Galatians 4:1-5, “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is not different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

We are going to be thinking about timing, today, and the sense of timing. There are a lot of different levels to the sense of timing; some people have quite a lot more than others. Me personally, I have very little. I tend to function on only too different kinds of timing: on the one hand, late; or, on the other hand, in a hurry so I won’t be late. Everything in life requires some degree of timing. Music, acting, humor, cooking a dinner, small talk at coffee hour, everything. The difference between a great actor and a brilliant actor is exactly their sense of timing. The dramatic pause, saying the line at just the right moment, takes you from greatness to brilliance. It is just as true of comedy. Knowing the punchline can get you to funny; but giving the punchline at just the right moment gets you to the laughing-out-loud level. My father in law had an amazing sense of timing with stories. He could tell the most ordinary story and leave you curled up laughing in your chair. But I am the Charlie Brown of timing, I think. My one recurring nightmare is that it is the first day of classes, I am just arriving at school and suddenly remember that my first class starts in ten minutes. And I don’t know which room it meets in. And I don’t know which subject it is. And I can’t remember where I put all my books. And, … you get the picture. My sense of timing is to veer from one crisis to another, barely in time to avert disaster. Or else not in time.

Music is one area where the sense of timing is more than usually critical so let’s focus on that for a minute. Just counting out the beat like a metronome is a problem for me. Even average musicians have a sense of timing on a whole other level than mine. And then there are the True Artists of timing. Some musicians have a talent for timing that reaches into the realm of genius. I know very little about music but of the little that I’ve heard, my favorite piece of music is the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. The music itself is beautiful, and it builds and builds until it seems like it will have to explode, it suddenly stops. No sound at all. And the silence lasts for exactly the right length of time, and then the perfect note comes in to finish what it started. Barber handled even his silences with total genius. It is just past my comprehension how anyone could imagine such a thing.

And that is just the kind of timing Paul is talking about here in Galatians. God is not just brilliant at timing what He does; He is beyond genius. The last of the Old Testament prophets was Malachi, centuries before Jesus was born. And during those centuries, God was silent. But when the time was right, Jesus was born. Barber, it turns out, times his music a bit like God times His redemption of the world. It is genius. It is art.

But genius makes us nervous. We are uncomfortable with any gift or ability that seems to be beyond the human. We have to reduce it to a formula; we want to be able to point to some pattern that explains it all. “Oh, yes, I see what Barber was doing. When you make the silence 4.25 times the length of the melodic theme and divide by the square root of c sharp it will always work that way. No big deal. He just knew the trick.” Sometimes that is just what scholars seem to think their job is. Bring genius down into the common human realm so we don’t have to feel threatened by it. Unfortunately theologians sometimes feel the same way about God‘s genius. Look up commentaries on this passage from Galatians and you’ll get the usual line about the Pax Romana, and Roman roads, and a common language, and so on. That’s all perfectly valid scholarship, of course, and I am a wannabe scholar myself. But you shouldn’t stop where they sometimes do: “Yeah, that was great timing for the Incarnation. Well done, God, well done. Now we see how you worked it out. You had some clever tricks up Your sleeves, didn’t You, God?Pride of intellect lures us to try to make God’s timing into something any clever historian could have thought up himself. Just add a little cosmic power and influence and we could have planned the whole redemption thing ourselves.

But the fact is this: God is an Artist, not an Engineering. Now you know I love formulas, probably more than anyone here. But the truth is God’s plans and purposes cannot be reduced to equations, to some list of step by step instructions that make it all plain how He works. Notice how Paul put it in verse 3. The reason for the timing of the Incarnation was not that the clocks said so, not because human history converged, not because someone had their 21st birthday. It was because a Genius greater than all Time Lords said, “Now”. And so He appointed the date. But He carefully did not announce beforehand when it would be. He didn’t want us to fall victim to the authority of a clock to tell us when to expect Him. He kept His appointment calendar locked away from us so that we would have to pay attention to Him and wait for Him and expect something from Him. This fullness of time is not what we‘d like think it is, a matter of figuring out His symbols and signs so we could have predicted it before it happened. It is about Him knowing the right moment, and about us knowing that He knows the right moment, and about us waiting for Him to give the cue. But we never learn. We can’t resist trying to reduce His second coming to a little game with symbols and a time and times and half a time. But then there is that little passage in Revelations 8:1 “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” We’d do better to be quiet than decode the Apocalypse. God is not an Engineer running the show by a super-computer in the heavenly realms. He is a Genius Artist, waiting for the right moment that He can see and no one else can see.

So why does this matter? Besides cautioning you to stay away from drowning in end-times prophecy, it is this same genius of God’s timing that runs your lives, generally while you are clueless about what is really going on. Occasionally, though, He let’s us glimpse part of the timing. Two or three times I have experienced a glimpse of it. Long ago we were members of a congregation and our relationship with them had gone sour. We were unhappy, they were unhappy, but every time we contemplated leaving that church, we got a strong sense that God was saying “Not yet.” So we waited. And after what seemed forever we finally got the signal, “Now”, and it was like the door of a cell had opened and we walked out free.

That doesn’t happen often. Most times I am just confused about what I should do next. That is why it is such an oft repeated exhortation in Scripture to wait. Psalm 27:14, “Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord.” I hate waiting. Especially waiting for something I want really really bad, and I bet all of us here have been in that position. Proverbs 13:12, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” and ain’t it the truth. I bet many of you are sick at heart waiting for something you have long longed for. King David was an expert at just how horrible a burden it can be to wait. Psalm 13:1,2 “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” Sooner or later, I think all of us feel David’s pain. We are right there in the middle of God’s silence, like in Barber’s Adagio, wondering it things are about to explode.

The temptation is to give in to fear, to think, “God is never going to handle this. He’s forgotten. He doesn’t care. He is just too slow. If anything is going to get done, I will have to do it myself.” And so we give up our long wait and take matters into our own hands. When people are young, the panic usually sets in about finding a boy friend or girl friend. Later in life we panic about job advancement, or children, or paying our bills at the end of the month, or if we will ever feel well enough to walk again. For me, I am really tired of waiting to finally retire and get on with all the stuff I have postponed doing for so long. We all have things we have waited for far too long. It drives us crazy. It makes our hearts sick. It tempts us to do crazy things that we will only regret later.

But when the fullness of time had come God sent forth His Son. This is the way God usually does things. He makes Big Promises. Then He seems to just walk away and ignore you for a really long time. And then, when you think He must have fallen asleep or had a flat or decided you weren’t worth the effort, then He is suddenly there with all the desires of your heart. You just have to wait until the fullness of time. Don’t get tricked into calculating: “He’s just waiting until I am more thankful or until I’ve fasted enough or until I prove I am worthy.” Those are just tricks. Ephesians 2:10, slightly paraphrased, says “We are His poetry.” You are God’s poem. You are God’s symphony. You are the most beautiful painting you have ever seen. You are one of those stars Abraham saw when God led him outside his tent to look at the sky. Let the Artist do His work. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord.

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