My professor Haddon Robinson from seminary tells a story about a married woman who decided to go on her own private vacation to Europe. She went from the Midwest to London and then she was planning to go to Paris, Rome, and Vienna. When she got to London she called her husband back home in the Midwest and said, "How are you doing?" Her husband said, "I'm doing fine but our cat Lucy died." So his wife starts bawling her eyes out on the phone. But when she regains her composure, she says, "You insensitive brute of a man, why did I ever marry someone like you? You just have no concern about my feelings." The husband said, "Well, what was I supposed to have said?" The wife thinks for a moment and she says, "Well, when I got to London and I called you as I just did, you could have said, 'Lucy, our cat is on the roof.' When I got to Paris you could have said, 'Lucy, our cat fell down from the roof.' When I got to Rome you could have said, 'Lucy's not doing so well.' When I got to Vienna you could have said, 'Lucy died.'" Then the wife said, "By the way, how is mother?" The husband responded, "She's on the roof." That wife thought her husband had bad timing insofar as delivering news.
Have you ever been in a situation in your life where you felt the timing of something was bad? This past weekend I had an out-of-town guest named Sam. When Sam was in his twenties, he was newly married, and didn't have a lot of money. Yet Sam and his wife Sue sensed that they were supposed to move from Washington to California, where they knew no one, for Sam to begin seminary and for Sue to support him while working. It was during a recession. Three weeks before the couple was scheduled to leave Washington and to head down to California for Sam to begin seminary, his wife Sue announced to Sam that she was pregnant. The timing of the pregnancy seemed really bad.
I wonder how Jesus' mother Mary felt when the angel Gabriel approached her when she was about 14 or 15 years old and told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her. Mary would be impregnated supernaturally and be the mother of the Savior of the world. At the time, Mary was not married, was betrothed to be married, and lived in a much more conservative culture than our own. For Mary to become pregnant out of wedlock would have ushered her into scandal. To make matters worse, in her ninth month of pregnancy Mary had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem with her fiancÉ Joseph because Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the Roman world.
The timing of Mary's pregnancy, if we focus the camera just on her, seems really bad. She doesn't complain, but things seems really bad. From God's perspective, the timing was perfect.
(Read Galatians 4:4)
'Fullness of time'
What does this expression mean, "When the fullness of time was come God sent forth his Son"? Well, the expression of "fullness of time" means when the time was ripe, and when the time was perfect, God sent forth his Son to be the Savior of the world. Throughout history, God had been whispering, promising, and suggesting that he would send a Savior. In the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve sinned and fell away from God, they experienced a sense of alienation between themselves and God, and between each other and with their own hearts. God promised that he would send a Savior for them and for all humanity.
Many years later, God would approach a Middle Eastern nomad named Abraham and his wife Sarah. They were an elderly couple who had struggled for decades with infertility, and God said, "You will miraculously conceive and through your seed will be a seed that will bless the nations of the world," and that seed would ultimately be fulfilled in Jesus Christ who would bless the whole world. God would approach one of Abraham's many times removed great grandsons, King David, and tell him that the king would have an offspring in the future who would sit on the throne forever and ever. His reign will know no end. God was referring to Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Throughout Scripture God promises a Savior, and Paul says in the fullness of time, in the perfect time, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman.
Christ's coming was at the right time for many evident reasons
In hindsight, we can see what an opportune time it was when Jesus was born as the Savior. It was an ideal time politically for Jesus to be born. The Roman Empire had many faults. When Jesus was born, the Roman Empire in many ways was at its zenith, and one of its virtues was that it tended to be tolerant toward religions. Rome said, "You can exercise your religion with freedom as long as you proclaim that Caesar is god." That worked wonderfully for all groups except for one: the Hebrew people. The Jews were adamant about not worshipping any god except Yahweh the living God. Because the Jews resisted the law, they were persecuted by the Romans and in some cases were even killed. But the Roman leaders were pragmatic and decided to bend the rule a little bit for the Jewish people. The leaders said, "Let's change the law just a little bit; let's say that every people group under our empire must declare that Caesar is god." Then the leaders put a footnote saying, "Accept the Jewish people because they are so stubborn." The Jews were given the exemption, and when Christ was born and when Christianity was born the Roman leaders assumed that Christianity was part of Judaism. So they gave Christianity the same favor that they gave the Jews. Up until the year 70 AD, those practicing Christianity had pretty much complete freedom to proclaim their message, and it was an ideal time for Christ's good news to be proclaimed.
It was the right time politically also because it was a time of relative peace. When Julius Caesar was assassinated, a civil war broke out in the Roman Empire, but in the year 25 BCE, when Caesar Augustus ascended to the throne, there was a time of relative peace for about 200 years. During the time of peace when Christ was born, roads would be built. On those roads travelled the good news about Jesus Christ, so it was the right time politically for Christ to be born.
It was also the right time culturally for Christ to be born. Alexander the Great had conquered the world into which Jesus had come, and with Alexander's victory spread Greek culture and Greek language. More people in Jesus' world had learned to read than ever before in history. Greek language was very precise and the New Testament, the Gospels, were eventually written in Greek. The gospel spread, and the good news of Jesus spread much more quickly than it would have otherwise.
So it was the right time politically and culturally and it was also the right time spiritually. The great Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had done a wonderful job raising questions about the meaning of life. Someone said that the Greek philosophers plowed the fields of the human heart, and Christ and his followers then sowed the seeds of meaning.
God can use difficult circumstances to accomplish great good in his timing
Politically, culturally, and spiritually it was the perfect time for Christ to be born. God, through his angel Gabriel, came to Mary and said to her, "You will experience the Holy Spirit coming upon you and you will miraculously conceive and give birth to the Savior of the World." It was bad timing for Mary personally because she was unwed, but through Mary's voluntary "yes," God was achieving his grand purposes. We see that is true not only true of Mary's response but of various people's responses throughout Scripture.
One of my favorite stories about how God uses people's responses to achieve his purposes is the story of Joseph. Joseph was the great, great grandson of Abraham. He was one of 12 boys and he was Jacob's favorite. Because of that, as you might imagine, Joseph's brothers were very jealous of him and resented him. Joseph's brothers betrayed him and sold him as a slave. They took his technicolor dream coat and dipped it in some animal blood. They took the coat to their father and said, "We found this," and their father assumed that Joseph had been killed by a ravenous wild beast. However, Joseph had been sold as a slave in Egypt. He started working for this man named Potiphar, and Potiphar's wife took notice of Joseph because he was a good looking guy.
One day when Potiphar was out of the house, Potiphar's wife made a sexual pass at Joseph that Joseph rejected because he didn't want to dishonor God. Potiphar's wife was so offended by being snubbed that when her husband came home, she falsely accused Joseph in front of her husband and said, "He, this slave, this Hebrew slave, tried to rape me." Her husband had Joseph sent to prison, and Joseph was eventually released. Because of his exceptional gifts and because God's hand was upon him, Joseph rose and became the prime minister of Egypt. Later, a famine broke out in the region and Joseph's brothers became hungry and heard that there was grain in Egypt. The brothers went and stood before the prime minister of Egypt, their brother, whom they didn't recognize, and asked for grain. Joseph was tempted to conceal his identity, but he couldn't. He said to his brothers, "Don't you recognize me? I'm your brother, Joseph, whom you sold." His brothers became deathly afraid. They thought that their brother would retaliate, even the score, and kill them or make them slaves. But Joseph said, "Please, don't be afraid. Can't you see that though what you did to me was motivated by evil, God meant it for good for the saving of many lives?"
God uses our choices for his perfect purpose
In the Scriptures, we see that God can take our choices, even our evil choices, and choreograph them for his purposes. Another Book that shows that really beautifully and powerfully is the book of Esther. You don't have to be a famous figure in the Bible like Esther, Joseph, or Mary to have God dictating your destiny. The Bible says in Proverbs 16:9 that in our heart we plan our course but the Lord ultimately determines our steps. Do you believe that God is using your free choices and is fulfilling his destiny through you in his perfect time? It is a paradox, as J.I. Packer, respected theologian, points out, that we are free in our choices and yet God sovereignly uses our free choices to achieve his perfect purposes. It's a paradox that we can't understand with our human minds but we accept in faith. It's kind of like light. Light, scientists have said, can appear as a particle, it can appear as a wave, and it seems like a contradiction, and yet we accept light in the same way. We don't understand it, but we have free choice. God is sovereign. God is shaping history. Both are true. It's a mystery. You don't even have to be a person who necessarily believes in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to have God shape your destiny.
For example, Steve Jobs was a person who didn't believe in a personal God, but did believe that there was some good force in the universe, some benevolent power that was shaping life. Five or six years ago he gave a graduation speech at Stanford in which he recounted his story of being born to an unwed mother who put him up for adoption—an adoption that almost didn't happen after his biological mother found out his adoptive parents weren't college graduates.
After dropping out of college, Jobs learned about type faces and took a calligraphy class. Jobs said:
… looking back, dropping out was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting. Let me give you one example. Reed College at the time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout campus, every poster, every label, every drawer was beautifully hand-calligraphied. Because I had dropped out and didn't have time to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about sarif and sans sarif type faces, about varying the amount of space between the different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me and we designed it into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.
If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had the multiple typefaces or proportionately spaced fonts. Since Windows just copied Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out I would never dropped in on that calligraphy class, and perhaps personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course I was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college but it was very, very clear looking backwards, 10 years later. Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. But you have to trust the dots will somehow connect in the future. You have to trust in something. You have to trust in something.
You have to trust in something, why not trust in someone. Why not trust in the living God?
When my friends Sam and Sue moved to California, they started looking for work and both couldn't find any work for the first month. They were crushed. Sue's work experience was limited to working as a waitress, and she discovered in California that because of appearances, people didn't want to hire a pregnant waitress. Sam and Sue asked, "Did we make the wrong choice? Is this the wrong time for you to begin seminary?" They lifted it up to God.
The next week, Sue was in downtown Los Angeles looking for waitressing jobs. It was really hot outside, and the couple's car didn't have air conditioning because they couldn't afford it. Sue went into a building that looked like it is air conditioned—a building that happens to be a Home Savings Bank of America. There Sue met the bank vice president who was on the board of Talbot Seminary where Sam would be attending. The vice president, after hearing about Sue's husband, set up a job interview for Sue at a bank—a job that Sue received.
Sue made a seemingly inadvertent decision to step into an air conditioned building to get a drink, and God used that simple choice to unfold His purposes for her, for Sam, and for their baby Jill who is now an adult.
God uses our ordinary choices to accomplish his eternal purposes, and he does it in his perfect time. So will you trust him with your life? Some of us want to be the general manager of our universe, but with our finite minds, I'm telling you-I'm telling myself-that the One who created the universe and who runs everything can do a better job architecting our life than we can ourselves. That's why Mary is such an important model, because Mary, when God speaks to her through the angel and is told, "You're going to become mother of the Most High God," Mary knows that it will cataclysmically disrupt her life, and that she will be mired in scandal because of it. And yet, she simply says, "Yes, may it be to me as you have said."
It's easy looking back on Mary's life to say she made the right decision because we have the benefit of hindsight, but Mary didn't have that benefit. Someone said to me recently, "Ken, it's easy to trust God looking backward. I can connect the dots. But it's hard to trust God right now because I don't know what the future holds." Kierkegaard said, "We understand life looking backwards, but we must live it looking forwards, and that's hard." The way we can trust God looking forward is by looking back to Mary and the Son that she bore, the Son of God, God in human flesh who was once a baby, became a man, and at age 33 died on a Roman cross as a sacrifice for your sins and mine so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God. Paul says if God did not spare his one and only Son for you, but gave him as a sacrifice for you, how will he not also along with him freely give you all things? That's how good God is toward you and me.
So when God speaks to you, probably not through an angel like Gabriel, but perhaps through Scripture, perhaps through circumstance, perhaps through the Spirit just moving in your heart, will you say "Yes, yes, yes," and allow the living God to weave something beautiful in and through your life?
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything