In the Fullness of Time

This past year, we went through the books of the Old Testament, one by one.  This year, we’re going to go through the books of the New Testament and take a closer look at each one of them.  

            But before I get to my lesson this morning, I wanted to share with you this video from the Bible Project that will give us an overview of the entire New Testament.

            Video (New Testament Overview)

            So, that’s where we’re headed for the next six months or so.  But before we get to the book of Matthew, I wanted to talk with you this morning about “the gap”.  Because while there’s only one-page difference in your Bibles between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament, there was actually a 400-year gap between them.

            We finished the Old Testament with the book of Malachi which ends with these words, Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

            It was obvious to the Jews that something exciting was about to happen.  Someone is going to come and announce the arrival of Israel’s new king.  In the days of Malachi, things were bad, but the day is coming when everything is going to be better.

            And so, after Malachi said that, everyone was watching and waiting eagerly for that day to come.  But twenty years went by and nothing happened.  A hundred years went by, and nothing happened.  200 years, 300, 400 years.  And still nothing.

            I can’t imagine waiting 400 years for something to happen.  We have trouble waiting for a few days or weeks.  You would think we’d be good at waiting because we’ve had so much practice.  Sometimes it seems as if we spend half our life waiting. We even have places called waiting rooms.  We wait in line at the fast-food restaurant, and we wait on the phone to talk to an actual person.  We wait for loved ones to return from deployment.  We wait for the COVID restrictions to be lifted.  We wait a lot.

            But despite the fact that we do so much of it, waiting is not something that many of us do well.  And it’s especially something that children don’t do well.  If you’ve ever taken a road trip with young children, there’s a phrase that you get asked over and over.  And even if you are on a ten-hour road trip, after about ten minutes, you’re going to start hearing this question, and it will get repeated for the whole trip.  You parents know what that question is — “Are we there yet?”  Because children are not very patient.

            But it’s not just children.  We’re just as impatient.  Most of us in this room, when we go grocery shopping, you know we do?  When it’s time to check out, when you’re going up to get in line, you count how many people are in each line.  Right?  But you don’t just count the people, you start counting the items in the carts of the people that are checking out. 

            And after you’ve done all the calculations and figured out which line might save you 30 seconds of waiting, you know what you do then?  You get in line, but you keep track of where you would have been if you had gotten in another line.  And if your line happens to go slower than where you would have been if you had gotten in the other line, you leave the store depressed.  Because we don’t like to wait.

            In Galatians 4, Paul wrote, “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.” (Galatians 4:4-5)

            When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.  Or as the Contemporary English Version translates it, “When the time was right, God sent his Son.”  Which means that every moment in time up until the birth of Jesus wasn’t full.  The time wasn’t right yet.  And God’s plan was a long time in the making.

            From the very first promise of a Messiah, given in Genesis 3:15 — he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel”, there was the promise of a coming Messiah who would wipe out darkness, wipe out evil, wipe out the enemy.  And the early followers of Yahweh held onto this promise.  They spent their lives believing that God was going to do something wonderful!  

            You fast forward a thousand years and you get to King David, who is told that he will be the one whose kingdom will have no end, that one of David’s descendants is going to reign on God’s throne forever.  And the Jews held onto this promise.  They didn’t know how long it was going to take, but they believed that God was going to do something wonderful! 

            Then, a few hundred years later, you have the prophet Isaiah who gave the Jews a great hope when he said, For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.”  (Isaiah 9:6-7)  And the Jews were like, “That’s wonderful, that great, but when is it going to happen?” 

            During all those hundreds of years that the nation of Israel was waiting, God was at work behind the scenes.  Sometimes in ways that people could see, and other times in ways that they had absolutely no clue.  And while they were waiting, God was preparing.  So, when the apostle Paul writes about “the fulness of time,” he’s saying that God spent that time preparing the world for the coming of the Messiah.

            God prepared the world for Jesus through the Jews by giving them scriptures with all the different prophecies about the Messiah that would let them know that he was indeed the promised one when he arrived.

            God prepared the world for Jesus through the Romans, by giving them a time of world peace and a marvelous transportation system.  The Romans built roads that made it possible to actually travel around the world, which wasn’t very feasible before this time.  Roads that were so well-built that some of them still exist today!  We’re lucky to get ten years out of our roads.  It seems like crews are constantly repaving.  But not the Romans.  They did it once and they did it right!  Which made it so much easier to spread the gospel.

            God prepared the world for Jesus through the Greeks by using their language which almost everyone on the earth spoke.  The Greek language was one central language that was spoken all over the world.  Which made it so much easier to spread the gospel.

            So, you had this time of peace.  You had a road system that made it easy to travel.  You had a language that made it easy to share with the world the message about Jesus.

            While the Jews were waiting, God was preparing.  And “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.”  Not right away, but when the time was right.  Have you ever noticed that that’s often the way God works?  It sometimes appears that God is sitting on his hands and taking his time. 

            When Abraham was 75 years old, God gave him the promise of a son with Sarah, but God didn’t fulfill that promise until Abraham was 100 years old!  God called Moses to go to Pharaoh, but he only did it after 40 years of Moses living in the desert, tending sheep, waiting.  God anointed David as the king of Israel, but David was on the run, living in caves, being chased by Saul, for 13 years before he actually took the throne. 

            I don’t know if any of them did this, but I think if it were me, I would have been tempted to ask, “God, why do you make your promise in a way that forces us to wait?”  Why not just make the promise when you’re ready to deliver?  Why not just tell us what you’re going to do and then just do it?  But God’s work is often about the waiting.  In fact, God does some of his best work in our lives while we’re waiting on him.

            But as Americans, we’re not very good at waiting, are we?  We’re good at working.  We’re good at doing.  But waiting?  Not so much.  We don’t like to wait, because we live in an Amazon Prime culture.  I’m gonna guess that if Amazon said to us (like God did to Abraham), “We promise to get your shipment to you………in 25 years or so”, nobody’s gonna sign up for that!  We want what we want and we want it quick.  And the result is that it can be very frustrating to us that God’s work is often slow. 

            I’m sure you’ve heard sayings like. “Good things come to those who wait” and “Some things are worth the wait.”  But, if that’s true, if good things do come to those who wait, is there anything you would be willing to wait your entire life for?  It would have to be something really good, wouldn’t it?

            What about if somebody offered you ten million dollars if you just wait for it your entire life?  Would you be willing to wait that long?  You may be thinking, “Of course I would.”  But what good is ten million dollars going to be if you only get it one minute before you die?” (my kids are ready to give an answer to that one)

            But there is something worth waiting our entire lives for.    Turn with me to Luke chapter 2, where we read about Simeon, a man who waited his entire life for Jesus.  Shortly after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple where they went to dedicate this young baby, just like every other Jewish parent of that day did.  And we begin reading in verse 25:

            “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 

            “And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

            “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”  (Luke 2:25-32)

            Right after this, we read about Anna, who was also in the temple.  And so, we’ve got these two elderly Jews who have spent all their lives, they’ve been waiting in the temple day after day.  And all we really know about them is that they’re old and they’re waiting.  We’re told that Simeon was waiting for “the consolation of Israel” which is really just another way to say that he was waiting for the Messiah. 

            400 years before, Malachi promised that the Messiah was coming.  400 years!  After that long, no one would blame Simeon (or anyone else) if they said, “I just don’t believe it’s ever going to happen.  There’s no sense getting our hopes up and keep on expecting that the Messiah will ever come.”

            But Simeon wasn’t just waiting, he was eagerly waiting for the day when the Messiah would come, the day when he would make everything right, the day when he would turn this world upside-down and provide comfort and consolation to those who are hurting.

            It’s a beautiful scene there in the temple, but it’s also a little bit strange. And if it doesn’t sound strange to you, then maybe you’re not picturing it very well.  Imagine some young parents come to church for the first time and some old man that you don’t know walks up and grabs your baby and starts dancing around and says, “Now I can die.  Now I can die.” 

            Because that’s what’s happening in this story and it’s a little bit weird.  But part of the reason I think it’s so strange to us is because I don’t know if we’ve ever waited for anything like this.  I don’t know that we’ve ever had a hope this deep, especially one that was satisfied.  

            I think one of the reasons why we’re not very good at waiting is because we usually have the ability to make stuff happen ourselves.  For example, if something in my house breaks and I need to replace it, I just contact Amazon and have it on my doorstep in two days.  Or if I can’t wait that long, I go down to Lowe’s and get it right now.  There’s no need to wait, because I can take care of it.

            But when I come up against those problems in my life that I can’t fix, things that I don’t have control over, and all I can do is to just wait on God, then I find that I sometimes don’t do that very well. 

            Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.”  And I think of how that was true of the Messiah.  God made promises to Abraham, and he waited.  Hebrews 6:15 tells us “he waited patiently.”  And then those promises were made to Isaac and to Jacob, and they waited.  And then the promises were repeated to the Israelites through the prophets, and they waited for hundreds and hundreds of years.

 

            But Simeon never gave up on this hope, and so he waited.  He spent his whole life waiting for the Messiah.  And when he finally sees baby Jesus, he takes him in his arms and he sings this song which is rooted in passages from Isaiah.

 

            Simeon is someone who just lives in the story of God.  He is so eagerly awaiting the coming of the Messiah that he basically says, “God, I’m ready to die.  You can have my life now.  Because I have finally seen what I waited my entire life to see.”

 

            Now, keep in mind, all Simeon has seen is just a baby.  He hadn’t actually seen what he said he had seen — the salvation of Israel.  He hadn’t yet seen the end of Roman oppression, he hadn’t seen Israel become a light to the Gentiles.  All he saw was a baby, but that was enough for him.

 

            And I’ve got to tell you, I’m a little bit jealous of Simeon.  Not just because he got to see baby Jesus, but because he was able to say, “I have waited my whole life for this moment, and it was worth the wait.”

 

            Is there anything in your life that you could say that about?  At any point in your life, is there any gift that you have ever received – a new car maybe, a new Playstation, the laterst iPhone, something that was so wonderful that after you got it, you said to God, “I’ve gotten everything I’ve ever wanted in life.  I’m ready to die.”

 

            Because I think there’s something within each of us that wants that.  We desperately want to find something that will fulfill our lives to that extent.  And advertisers know that.  And they will use that desire you have, and they will lie to you and they will say, “This is it.  This is all you need.  This is all you want.  Having this will make your life complete.”

 

            But it’s all a bunch of lies.  And deep down, you know it, because you’ve gotten some of those things that advertisers have talked you into, and they didn’t satisfy your deepest desires.

 

            But the more that happens, the more we get and the more we continue to be disappointed, our hope begins to wear out, because we get tired of waiting.  We have waited for so much for so long and it’s only let us down. 

 

            Lewis Smedes once said, “Waiting is our destiny, as creatures who cannot by themselves bring about what they hope for; we wait in the darkness for a flame we cannot light. we wait in fear for a happy ending that we cannot write. we wait for a ‘not yet’ that feels like a ‘not ever’.  Waiting is the hardest work of hope.”

 

            So, I ask you this morning, what is it that you’re waiting for?  My guess is there’s something deep in your heart.  Something more significant than the latest gadget advertised on TV.  Maybe something within you that wants things to be made right – for the pain to go away, for that loved one to be restored, for the injustices in this world to be made right, for everyone to live together in peace and harmony, regardless of race, for COVID to disappear so that we enjoy being with each other like we used to.

 

            Because here’s the promise God makes.  God says there really will be a day when we will enjoy that kind of fellowship with one another, when all oppression will cease.  When those who mourn will be comforted.  A day where there’s “no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain.”  There will be a day when Jesus rules this earth and the world is set right.  And it really will be worth all the wait.

            And waiting doesn’t have to be a miserable time.  I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Romans 8:24-25: “Waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother.  We are enlarged in the waiting…the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.” (The Message).

            As we say goodbye (and good riddance) to 2020 and we begin a new year, a fresh start, it gives us an opportunity to remind each other that we’re waiting.  And it gives us an opportunity to remind each other what we’re waiting for.  And we need that, especially here in this country.  Because if we don’t remember this, we start to think that we can fix all of our problems with better education, better organization, vaccines, elect the right person.  And all those things are important and good and valid.

            But God reminds us that what’s wrong with this deeply broken world isn’t going to get fixed like that.  And that ache in your heart is not going to go away when you get that next new gadget, or a new car with a big red bow on it.  God says, “No, the thing you’re waiting for isn’t a thing at all.  It’s not something that can be wrapped up in a bow.  It’s not a what; it’s a who.”

            And so, like Simeon, we wait.  Like all the Jews between the time of Malachi and the opening words of Matthew — 400 years — we wait.  Year after year, we eagerly wait.  Year after year, we patiently wait.  And we spend our whole lives waiting.  Like Simeon, we’re waiting for Jesus.  Not for his first coming, but for his second.  We wait for the day when Jesus will come and make all things right.  And on that day, like Simeon, we will all say that it was worth the wait.

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