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Knowing What Time It Is

January 23, 2012

“Knowing What Time It Is” 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 and Mark 1:14-20 © 1/22/12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I sat at the plaintiff attorney’s table with my boss and tried to keep my mind on the dull-as-dust testimony from professor after professor about their publications and qualifications. The point of the proceedings was to try to determine how much back pay female faculty at the University of South Alabama should receive from the settlement of a discrimination suit. But my attention was not on the scholarly woman on the stand, but the one recording everything on her stenograph machine. Would I find the courage to go up and introduce myself once the day ended? I had never seen her before in all these sessions and didn’t know if I ever would again. It was now or never.

I did get a date, then another, then another. Several months later, I was again faced with a question of timing, and again I was nervous and unsure. Was she was the one? Should I propose tonight or tomorrow or the next day? That was over thirty years ago, and thankfully, yes, the time was right.

The New Horizons probe left Earth on January 19, 2006 on a nine-year, three-billion mile journey to Pluto. Two previous attempts at launch failed, and NASA had until Valentine’s Day to succeed. Why? On February 14 the “launch window” would have closed, and the trip would have taken up to five years longer. A delay would have meant the craft could not have used Jupiter’s gravity to slingshot it to what used to be the ninth planet, now demoted to a planetoid.

One day a few years ago, I was at the gym on campus at MSU and ran into Stephanie, one of my former students. I asked her if the job with Dow Chemical was still on, and she said yes, she was moving to Texas in the summer. “It’s really great you’ve got a job in this economy,” I said. She agreed, then told me, “After I accepted the job, they instituted a hiring freeze, so I got in at just the right time.”

Timing doesn’t just matter at major junctures on our life’s journey like getting a job or beginning a relationship. Nor is it only something that occupies scientists working on a cosmic scale. Every day we have to figure out when to do something we need to do. You or I phone a friend out of the blue, maybe at work or suppertime, and we know they’re busy and not expecting our call. “Is this a bad time?” is probably the first thing we ask after saying “hello.” Or there’s something we need to talk about with our spouse or our kids, maybe a subject that isn’t pleasant. Our intuition tells us that at the end of a bad day is not the time to add more stress and pain. Or if it just can’t wait, we try to soften the blow as much as possible, looking and listening for the best opening. One more: as we and our loved ones age, we face questions of timing more and more. Is it time to take the keys to the car away or give them up? Is now when I need to go into assisted living? Our old dog is suffering and weak and looks at us a certain, pleading way. Isn’t today the day, for his or her sake?

English doesn’t really have a word that describes and distinguishes the kind of timing in relationships, science, and everyday life I’m talking about. But Greek—the language of the New Testament—does have such a term. It’s kairos. As far as we know, the ancient Greeks did not send probes to other planets. But if they had, I suspect their word for “launch window” would have been kairos. It also means “good timing,” “propitious moment,” “when everything comes together.” Kairos is a ford in the stream of time; it is an embryonic dream brought to term and given birth in the midst of our experience. Kairos is not merely the passage of hours and minutes and seconds; it is time conceived and perceived as an occasion, an event. If clock time is quantitative, counting the minutes and hours, kairos-time is qualitative, paying attention to how much and what is accomplished, what happens and to whom. Not just passing the hours, but transforming them. It’s the idea captured in our sayings like “time flies when you’re having fun” and “a watched pot never boils” or “it’s going to be a long night.” It actually takes the same amount of time for a certain amount of water to boil each time, and a night has eight hours, but the quality of the time, the perception of it is what we’re talking about.

We know how quality time can sometimes make up for the lack of quantity. Suppose, for example, that a young college couple gets engaged. But they’re facing a long-distance relationship because the bride-to-be is a junior, while the groom is about to graduate and take a job in another city. They will be apart a great deal, with little actual in-person contact. What can they do? Any of us could advise them: make the most of the moments they can have together, and use of all the means we have these days to keep in touch over distance. They will have to be sensitive to kairos and transform the routine into the transcendent by talking not just about apartments and checking accounts, but their hopes and dreams and deepest desires.

In theological terms, such quality time, such kairos, is the moment when God’s purpose breaks in to set humanity or a people or a particular person on a new road, to challenge them or him or her with new directions and thoughts. We believe there was a supreme kairos when God shared himself in the midst of the mundane. That was the coming of Jesus, whom we confess as the Messiah, the Christ. His presence transforms chronos (tick-tocking clock time) into kairos.

The Gospel of Mark reports that when Jesus began his ministry he came saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” As has been said over and over from so many pulpits, repentance is a change of heart and mind. We give up—sometimes with much difficulty and kicking and screaming—the old habits and ways. But we do it for our greater good: a life enriched and empowered by faith as we work for the transformation of the world God loves.

Repentance is what makes our minds and hearts attentive to the voice of God. It empties us of our old selves so we may receive what God is offering us. Gifts like knowing when the kairos is here, knowing what time it is.

Paul Tillich, in my opinion one of the greatest theologians of the 20th or any century, said: “Awareness of kairos is a matter of vision. It is not an object of analysis or calculation such as could be given in psychological or sociological terms. It is not a matter of detached observation but of involved experience” (Systematic Theology, Volume III: 370-71).

Did you catch that last line? “It is not a matter of detached observation but of involved experience.” The discernment of God’s kairos in our lives arises from our faithful action, prompted and considered in the light of what God has done in Jesus Christ. If we are to know God’s time, we must plunge into the sometimes cold stream of human need; participate in the birthing of something brand new; and set out on the road, trusting God to care for us.

Kairos will not let us delay. The first disciples did not hesitate to leave their nets and follow Jesus. As writer Tom Ehrich once put it: “The moment of call doesn’t wait for calm or convenience. The call of Jesus is a sudden wind” (On a Journey, 1/22/09). There is a time for discernment, discussion, deliberation, when we need to weigh options carefully, then proceed cautiously. But there are other times when delaying, demurring, detouring is not the way to go. The consequences of inaction will be too great, the cost of caution too dear.

Susan and I have a friend named JoAnne who back in the day was rather thrifty. And often indecisive. Those two aspects of her personality combined in the past to make for disappointment for her on shopping trips. Once, in Atlanta, JoAnne saw a beautiful necklace that she wanted. It happened to match a pair of earrings she already had. “Better get it, JoAnne,” my wife said. “There’s only one.” “I’ll wait; it’ll be there next trip.” Of course when we went back sometime later, the jewelry had been sold. So Susan and I used to talk about “pulling a JoAnne.” Waiting to act, and regretting it later. Not just with shopping. There’s so much we need to do and could do if we just made the most of the moment. Now is the time.

But how can we act quickly, without a lot of deliberation? We can be prepared always to act. Spiritually, we can have our hearts in tune with God’s will. The hero can act in a crisis and be calm and cool because he or she is prepared by training and right in temperament. He or she can do what’s necessary without a lot of pondering and worrying.

We can also be prepared to act when Jesus calls us. We can train as disciples by knowing the Scripture, engaging in regular prayer, serving in ways that put us in touch with those through whom God reveals himself. We can expect God to show up anywhere, anytime, and be ready to respond in the midst of life.

When I was in seminary the first time, I went with some friends on a retreat sponsored by a campus ministry. As we gathered in our cabin for a late-night devotional, the group leader asked us to share what we wanted most in our relationship with God. One guy said “more spontaneity in my walk with the Lord.” I remember thinking how cool and deep that was. What he meant, I suspect, was that he wanted the ability to discern God’s will without a lot of pondering and discussion. He craved the sort of connection that would enable him to act swiftly, to realize intuitively when the time was right. That can be ours as well.

But kairos, God’s time, doesn’t simply call us to take action. Action can be wrong or not helpful or incompetent. The kairos summons us to action that transforms us and the world. So we’ve swung back around to talking about repentance, the first message of Jesus.

My dad had four heart attacks, including the one that finally took his life, so I am somewhat aware of what a heart patient has to do or at least is supposed to do to change his or her habits. Daddy actually did few or none of them, unfortunately. And it makes me aware of the changes I need to make to keep myself healthy, given my family history. You know the kinds of things I mean. We hear them all the time. Eat the proper foods, exercise, lose weight, stop smoking, slow down, reduce stress, give up the old destructive habits. Heart patients and those in danger of becoming heart patients have to change for the sake and strength of their hearts, their very lives.

Repentance is a change as radical and difficult as those lifestyle alterations. The coming of the kairos invites us to reorder our lives, to change for the sake of our hearts. Simon and Andrew, James and John, left their nets to follow Jesus. They gave up the daily focus on their business for something, someone greater than making ends meet. Paul asked the Corinthians to live “as if” because he thought they were in the last days: those who were married as if they were not, those who mourned or rejoiced as if they did not, those who dealt with the world as if they were separate. What does he mean by such odd advice? He says it: he wants us to be single-hearted, not divided, to have unhindered devotion to the Lord.

The kairos demands that we focus our attention and gives us the power to do that. Our lives are often fragmented; there are so many demands, so much to worry about. The call of the gospel is to sort out what’s really important.

Of course the right time, the kairos, is made not by us, but by God. We can’t conjure or command it. It’s given. We call that “providence.” Haven’t you been thinking of someone you need to talk with, and suddenly, he or she walks by or calls? Or like one day at the hospital during one of my pastorates, I went to see a member and his family, then decided to go get a piece of pie and a cup of coffee. I walked back down to the elevator at just the moment that another member of my church, a doctor, was standing in the hall, talking with two other hospital employees. We had a rare chance to visit that we would not have had if I had not gone to get that piece of pie. Providence got hold of my sweet tooth that day.

God is ready to reveal to us the kairos for our lives, for our churches, for our nation. It’s up to us by his grace to cultivate a readiness to receive the gift, to recognize it when it comes. Let us resolve not to refuse it. Let’s promise ourselves right now that we will accept grace in the midst of life that elevates bread and wine from an everyday meal into a sacrament. Grace that makes ordinary water the cleansing bath of salvation, and transforms time from the passage of minutes and days into opportunity, a sacred moment, an experience that brings us into the very presence of God.

The time is completed, here, fulfilled. The kingdom is at hand, has come near. Repent and believe the gospel.


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