The Time Came…

Reading: Luke 2.1-7

We have all heard a call like this at the airport – “If John Smith, Mary Smith and William Smith are in the terminal, please report to the check-in counter immediately.” And then, a few minutes later – “This is the  last call for John Smith, Mary Smith and William Smith.”

We wonder what happened to them. Car broke down? Road works? Or worse, a heart attack? For whatever reason, the time came and they weren’t there. The plane had to take off without them.

Some things happen so quickly – we hardly have time to get ready. Others have a much longer time frame. We are able to make more careful and measured plans. Even so, we may not be as ready as we had hoped! Was there nothing unforeseen about your wedding? Or about the birth of your first child? Coming ready or not... the time came.

The Time Came

It is such a simple commonplace statement in Luke 2 – “the time came...” That’s what happens – doesn’t it? – with a normal full-term pregnancy. Nothing out-of-the-ordinary about that. And a simple peasant girl in a drowsy country town should have no problems at all.

But the whole situation wasn’t straightforward at all. She was engaged to Joseph, the local carpenter – a good man. Engagement was a solemn pledge, and it was required that, during the period of engagement, there be no sexual relations. Indeed, a good-living man would expect that his bride was a virgin. Our society has gone so far in the opposite direction that we can find it hard to grasp that it was a matter of family honour that there be evidence of her virginity on the marriage night.

But now, before they were married, before the marriage could be consummated, she was pregnant. Her story was that the angel Gabriel visited her and told her she would be pregnant through God’s power, by the Holy Spirit.

Joseph anguished over this – possibly during those three months Mary went to see her cousin Elizabeth, six months pregnant with another baby boy, John (later known as the Baptist). Joseph anguished over the whole situation. Had Mary been unfaithful? He had every right to break the engagement, but would do it privately. He loved Mary and didn’t want to shame her publicly.

Then he too had a dream in which the angel of the Lord assured him that Mary’s story was true. She is going to have a boy baby and your are to name him Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins”.

Mary returned from Elizabeth and – three months pregnant – was married to Joseph.

Small communities can be very supportive, but their gossip can be merciless. Even supposing the marriage took place before Mary visited Elizabeth, the locals would have known that she was pregnant when she married Joseph.

So you get married, settle into home life, knowing that the “time” will come. Whether six months or nine, the time will come. Maybe carpenter Joseph crafted a fine new cot for the child, fitted out by Mary. The custom was to wrap a new baby closely, in what the old Bible called “swaddling bands”. All had to be prepared and ready.

Nazareth was where they lived. Nazareth was where it would all happen. This child was the fulfilment of God’s promise. Mary the mother was a descendent of David. So too was Joseph who would be legally regarded as the child’s father. And Nazareth was a quiet unsuspecting place – away from both the political and the religious leadership.

The time was coming – nearer and nearer!

In fact, all was going reasonably well until one day – a bombshell! Roman authorities round the country issued an order that there was to be a census. The Caesar in Rome wanted to count all his subjects. Everyone must go “to his own town” to be registered.

It was widely rumoured that the motive for the census was to raise more taxes. If that was the case, the intention must surely have been for everyone in a given region to go to their nearest centre. But Jews had never been counted that way. They were only ever counted by tribes and clans. This would mean moving all over the countryside in a way that must have caused a nightmare for Roman tax officials – and, for Joseph and Mary, the long trek to Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David.

Artists have enhanced the story with Mary sitting on a donkey led by Joseph. What would that have been like for a first-time near-term mum? Far from ideal. Many stops along the way. And to arrive at a crowded inn – everyone else with connections to King David has arrived there first!

But “while they were there in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have her baby. She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger (a cattle feeding trough) – there was no room for them to stay  in the inn” (Lk 2.6-7).

The time came – baby Jesus was born. As it was soon announced to the shepherds in the fields nearby, “This very day in David’s town your Saviour was born – Christ the Lord!” (v. 11).

The time came.. It was a key event in history – so important that Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 made a new calendar to start at that “time”. Experts tell us that he didn’t get it quite right, so that Jesus was born in 4BC. So what? The intention was there and  whenever we write 2009 we are celebrating the coming of Jesus.

But now they want us to forget about BC (“Before Christ”) and AD (Anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord”). Instead we are supposed to think in terms of BCE (“Before the Common  Era”) and CE (“Common Era”). We mustn’t discriminate against people of other or no faith, so we are told! But for us it is important to keep thinking of human history as BC and AD, whatever anyone else thinks. We aren’t living in “common” time, but in special time – the gift of God, the time of his grace.

The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians said, “Listen! This is the hour to receive God’s favour; today is the day to be saved!” (2 Cor 6.2c).

“The time came” for Mary, but it was the beginning of a new “time” for all of humanity. Not just for the shepherds, but for us too in 2009AD the Saviour was born – Christ the Lord!

The “time” is still with us. It hasn’t “been and gone”. The God who so loved the world that he gave his Son Jesus to be our Saviour is still reaching out with his love and grace, calling for fallen humanity – ordinary sinners like us – to respond, to repent and believe the gospel, to receive and welcome into our lives the Saviour who came.

Our human life is limited. Our “time” here below is finite. But God offers us a choice in this life with consequences that will last for eternity.

The time came. The Saviour was born. The people of the day did with him as they thought fit – nailing him to a cross. But he  is alive! The question is now for us – what will we do with Jesus, the gift of God, the offer of grace? Now is the day of salvation.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Halifax, 26 November 2009
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

Back to Sermons