Timing is Everthing
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 13:31-35
Are you still looking for that hour of sleep you lost last weekend? Timing is important, right? It seems so basic; to simply roll the hands of the clock forward one hour; easy peasy. But research indicates our bodies have an established rhythm and that daylight savings time is followed by a spike in things like auto accidents, work-related injuries, strokes and heart attacks.
Most of you are aware that, beginning April 25, I will be on a clergy renewal sabbatical. I’m also currently engaged in a clergy renewal program through Benedict Inn consisting of five retreats drawing together clergy women of varying denominations across the U.S. and Canada. When I set out to write my sabbatical application, I realized the second of the retreats would begin on April 29 and that Easter comes late this year, April 21st. So, I reasoned, to begin my sabbatical mid-week after Easter would be perfect timing. Easter Sunday will be over and I’ll have a couple days to rest, relax, and prepare before I head to the retreat at Benedict Inn. But never would I have imagined one year ago that April 26 – yes, just one day after my sabbatical begins – would be the date that the United Methodist Judicial Council will hand down its ruling on the legislation passed at General Conference a couple of weeks ago. In the United Methodist Church, no decision made at General Conference is ever a “done deal” until it has been subjected to Judicial Council review. Only the Judicial Council has the right to determine if legislation is “constitutional.” So, what seemed to me to be perfect sabbatical timing one year ago, has turned out to be anything but. Not to mention, I’m traveling to the UK amid a Brexit disaster. Timing is important.
Now ancient people didn’t have to worry about daylight savings time or remembering how to reset the digital clocks in their vehicles. Measuring time was not nearly so precise. Time was, generally, thought of in two ways; one represented by the Greek word chronos (our more customary understanding of time), a decisive point in time or interval of time, what we today would define as “clock time.” The second was kairos, understood as an appropriate or opportune time for something to happen.[i] We might think of this more like a comedian’s timing. A good comedian doesn’t determine their pace or the moment they deliver their punch line by looking at a clock on the wall. Rather, they “read the room” to determine the appropriate timing or pace. For a good comedian, “timing is everything.”
But this idea of determining appropriate timing has much deeper significance beyond comedy routines. This morning’s gospel passage focuses on this concept of kairos time. It opens with our narrator’s words, “At that very hour…” It includes Jesus’ instruction that “today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way.”[ii] In the gospel of John, Jesus often speaks of his “hour;” that appropriate time at which he will lay down his life and take it up again, as he carries out the work of his heavenly Father. But the idea is also present, though more subtly, in the gospel of Luke. A few Sundays ago, I preached the story of Jesus visiting his hometown synagogue at the beginning of his public ministry. His commentary on the scripture aroused anger from his fellow-worshipers. They became so incensed, they wanted to kill him. They drove him out of the synagogue, out of town, and to the edge of a cliff to put an end to him. But, our gospel writer tells us, “[Jesus] passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”[iii] It could have been the end of him, but it is not yet the right time – the appropriate kairos – for his death.
Nevertheless, as Luke’s gospel unfolds, we know it’s coming. We know that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and our narrator has been clear about what that means. Luke, chapter 9, marks a turning point in the gospel. We have already been introduced to Herod. We know that Herod has already clashed with Jesus’ relative John the Baptist. (John condemned Herod’s unlawful marriage to his brother’s ex-wife and his criticism would eventually lead to his head on a platter.) Early in chapter 9, our gospel narrator presents this foreboding reference to John’s beheading and that, somehow, Herod has intuited a connection between Jesus and John… a connection that fills him with curiosity and dread. After reintroducing Herod in chapter 9, we read of Jesus’ question posed to his disciples: who do people say he is; more importantly, who do they say he is? Peter’s glorious confession that Jesus is “the Messiah of God” marks a critical point in the gospel story. Now that they know Jesus is Messiah, they must understand what that means: it means that Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem where – as this morning’s scripture reminds us – prophets are killed. In Jerusalem Jesus will fulfill his destiny. He has a date with death.
And so, in this morning’s scripture, Jesus is approached – given fair warning – by unlikely allies, a small group of Pharisees. Pharisees often get a bad rap in our gospels and in this gospel they’ve been blatantly gunning for Jesus for quite awhile now. Yet, in this scripture, they play the unlikely role of protector, warning Jesus of impending danger from Herod, the despot. We can't really tell from the passage what their intentions are. Perhaps they are testing Jesus to see if he will fold under pressure. Maybe they just don't want Judaism, as an institution, to be jeopardized by this rebel-rousing, radical rabbi who seems more at ease with controversy and conflict than anyone ought to be. Either way, their warning about Herod is sound advice; but not advice that Jesus will heed because the kairos moment has arrived; the timing is finally right. Jesus has set his feet on the path to Jerusalem knowing full well that death awaits him there but that his death is a divine appointment he must keep, having explained to his disciples just a few verses prior that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[iv]
Jesus speaks of this as something he “must” do and the timing is right. That English word “must” translates a tiny little Greek word, dei. Dei is a word used rarely and carefully by our evangelist; found on the lips of Jesus in reference to himself and to that which he must do because it is necessary for salvation. In other words, that tiny little 3-letter word is spoken only by Jesus and consistently refers to those things that must take place in order to accomplish God's purpose of human salvation. Throughout Luke's gospel, that little word tugs us along, beckoning us toward Jerusalem, the place of Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection. Jesus understands that his life’s journey finds its ultimate purpose, its completion, its fulfillment in the destination of Jerusalem and the death and resurrection that await him there. The time has come.
It is what he must do and yet Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem is somewhat circuitous. It doesn’t appear that he is taking the most direct route and he makes frequent stops along the way. Our gospel narrator provides comments like “they went on their way,” or “they stopped along the way,” or “they entered a certain village.” Earlier in chapter 13 our narrator states, “Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.”[v]
This morning’s art is a mandala created by Zai Fox. Mandalas are quite ancient. They have a circular pattern somewhat akin to labyrinths found in some ancient cathedrals. Labyrinths were created as a way for people to experience pilgrimage in times when travel was dangerous and impractical. Labyrinths and mandalas lead us toward the center, a place of focus. Just looking at a mandala, you can feel yourself drawn toward the center focal point. Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem, however circuitous it may appear, has a focus and a clear target: Jerusalem, the city that kills its prophets. Jesus moves toward Jerusalem not guided by chronos time, but by kairos time.
Jesus knows when the time is right. What Jesus is doing MUST be done so that we can be saved; so that his Father’s purposes can be accomplished. So the warning of the Pharisees to “stay away” is disregarded because of Jesus’ theological imperative: “I must be on my way,” Jesus tells them; on his way to Jerusalem and his appointment with death. The time has come.
And in saying so and doing so, Jesus reveals a distinctive way of living.
Most of us run from danger and most of us live as slaves to clocks and schedules, project deadlines and personal goals. In the face of that which threatens or even impedes progress, we generally opt for self-preservation and self-advancement. We choose what is expedient, convenient, whatever fits our schedule and accomplishes our desired outcome. But Jesus understands things differently. Time is not about his individual schedule or personal goals. Chronos time is always subservient to kairos time, his heavenly Father’s call upon his life; that which must be done at the time which God appoints. The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but a faithful path of obedience. “I must be on my way,” Jesus says.
Now, I do not intend to stoke a Messiah complex in anyone. None of us are Jesus. But this morning’s story ought to make us mindful of how we set our priorities and goals and what it is that beckons us along our life’s journey. Do we have a clear sense of where we’re headed; any target in mind? How do we use and measure our time? How do we know when it is time to go or stay? How do we know when it is a time to avoid risk or when the time is right to run headlong into danger – despite our human fear and self-preservation – to run into the face of danger for the sake of a greater good, God’s purpose and call? How do we know when the time is right to make hard choices or big changes in our lives? This morning’s gospel story may invite us to consider our own place within the salvation story. We shouldn’t choose risk or danger merely for attention or an adrenaline fix. But neither should we avoid it simply out of fearful self-preservation. We aren’t called to change our life’s trajectory simply because we’re bored and looking for something to spice things up. We are called to risk and to change and to move and to grow when doing so brings God’s saving grace into the lives of others. There are those things which – despite the wisest warnings – we know must be done. If we are truly followers of Jesus, we will ignore the world’s admonitions to look out for number one and protect our own interests. We will look, rather, to the interests of others. There are those times, those kairos times, when, despite all risk, we must be on our way to some kind of change, transition, or movement that liberates and resurrects and brings new life. Timing is everything and there is a time for every purpose under heaven.
[i] Definitions found in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible,
vol. 5; Abingdon Press; 2009; p. 598.
[ii] Luke 13:31, 33. NRSV
[iii] Luke 4:30. NRSV.
[iv] Luke 9:22. NRSV.
[v] Luke 13:22
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