Reflection: At The Right Time August 12, 2018
I was out shopping a few days ago looking for a few things I needed for the summer, only to discover that according to the retail sector, summer is now over, and we’re right into “back to school”. I even saw down ski jackets for sale in one store! It fascinates and irritates me how the fashion business, and the retail business in general, seem to keep wanting to rush the calendar and give us the idea that “If we don’t get it now, it will be too late!” There is no sense of waiting for what we need or want. We so easily get sucked in by that feeling of urgency, even though we know all that stuff will still be there after the first day of school and well into the Fall. Heavens, many of us haven’t gone “back to school” for decades, but we still get caught up in the fever!
We tend to think we all live according to the same calendar, and measure the days pretty much in the same way. But there are plenty of different calendars in the world: the fashion calendar, the retail calendar, the farmer’s calendar, the Chinese or Arabic calendar, the church Calendar. Bible time, too, is different from the way we measure time. In ancient Israel, the world was seen in terms of seasons of planting and harvest, plenty and barrenness, food and famine. We have seen all of this in the story of Ruth: we’ve seen seasons of famine and emptiness, and now we see seasons of plenty and fulfilment.
The story walks us through two harvest seasons, the barley harvest and the wheat harvest, and now we have reached the time of full granaries and barns. Not only that, we’ve seen the time of Naomi’s emptiness, her bitterness and despair, come to an end. Now is the time for fertility and for birth. How did this come about? Not in time as we reckon it today: not in the years when we expect a woman to have children; not in springtime when we think of green shoots and babies; not when her body was young and she was a married woman – now all that is past. Naomi receives the gift of a new child in God’s season – in God’s own time of harvest and plenty, through the daughter-in-law who is her daughter-in heart, “more to her than seven sons”.
There’s a bit of a paradox here. Yes, this happens in God’s time and not Naomi’s or ours. But it also happens because Naomi and Ruth and Boaz all see an opportunity that they did not expect, at a time when they did not expect it, and they seize that opportunity with both hands. In fact, the story from this week is a little comical. Off goes Boaz as soon as the sun comes up after his night with Ruth at his feet, and he does a little wheeling and dealing in order that things come out the way they should.
There is a “goel”, a redeemer, a next-of-kin who is closer to Ruth’s dead husband than Boaz is, so by law he has to offer this man what remains of Mahlon’s legacy: a piece of land, and Ruth. He can’t take one without the other. The man isn’t named – in fact, the Bible calls him something to the effect of Joe Shmoe – he’s a comic foil for the story. “Yes, I’ll take the land!” “Oops, it comes with a wife?” “Umm, no thanks, you take her – I can’t take on another wife!” It feels rather offensive from the perspective of those of us who believe marriage should be a choice between partners, not a business transaction, but this is what both Boaz and Ruth want, so he’s going to make it happen. It’s also important to inject a note of caution that we don’t have to agree with Biblical assumptions that marriage and children are the main goal for women’s lives; that was then, this is now, and there are plenty of women in the Bible whose stories go against that trend, as well as many whose fertility is the pivotal image in the story. In ancient cultures, a child told a family that their future was secured; a special, unexpected child was a way of saying that something remarkable was happening– that God’s divine presence would be felt in a new way.
In the case of Boaz and Ruth’s child Obed, he is not only treated as Naomi’s son as well as theirs – giving Naomi a joy she never thought possible – he is also, even more importantly the ancestor of Israel’s most famous King, David – and therefore also the ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, without Naomi and Ruth and Boaz, the coming of the Messiah would have unfolded in a very different way. From an older man, a young foreign immigrant widow, and an embittered but resourceful old woman, came hope for the people of Israel, and hope for the world.
There have been many times in my 20 years of ministry when I have felt frustrated because something wasn’t happening that I thought should be happening. I’d get all twisted up in knots over lost opportunities or get down because something I really cared about wasn’t going to work. And yet a few years later, different circumstances arose, and different people stepped forward, and resources seemed to spring up from unexpected places, and all of a sudden that thing I’d given up on came to pass. It’s taught me something about patience – about waiting for the right time, God’s time, rather than making things happen according to the calendar in my own head – which often wants to jump ahead in leaps and bounds, because that’s the way I’m made!
Of course, the tricky part is knowing the right time, knowing God’s time. That requires some discernment, some testing of the waters, some experiments in ministry that may or not get off the ground. Many folk who talk about the life of the church talk about going from a “fail safe” attitude to a “safe fail” attitude. In other words, you have to try something in order to find out if it’s the right time, the right ministry, the right partnership, the right choice. Failure is not a failure then – it is a time of learning, a time of discovering what God might be teaching us through what we have attempted or what we have had to relinquish.
There are two notions of time in the Bible. The Greek word “chronos” we recognize – it’s the root of our word “chronological”. It’s the time we mark off with days and hours and minutes and calendars. The other word is “kairos”: meaning the opportune time, the right season, which in Biblical theology often means “God’s time”. Kairos – it’s a beautiful word for a beautiful concept. Some of the places it’s used in the Bible are when speaking about the time for sowing and harvest, the time for Jesus to be recognized as the Messiah, the time for him to go to Jerusalem and the cross, and the time for the coming of the kingdom of God. Jesus had a profound sense of God’s time, both the rhythms of the natural order as well as the opportune and critical times in which his work might be accomplished and his Gospel must be shared. I wish I had as strong a sense of the right season as he did!
In Naomi, Ruth and Boaz’s story the times are not fulfilled and God’s intentions are not brought to fruition by God manipulating the natural world in some supernatural way, or by treating people like puppets on a string who act out a preordained plan. No, it’s just human beings, acting out of love and kindness, out of faithfulness and integrity, and so bringing us one step closer to the coming of the Christ. These are people who are just doing the next right thing, the next loving thing, the next faithful thing, as the opportunities present themselves – as the “kairos” moment comes to be. Process theologians talk about this as being “co-creators”, “coworkers” with God.
However different the culture and traditions of that time and place and ours, these are people a lot like you and me. Sometimes when we read the stories of the Bible it can seem like these people’s lives are so different from ours, the events that surround them so wildly dramatic and out-of-this-world, that we can’t connect with them. This story is different, and I’m grateful for that. Unwittingly, these three adults and one tiny baby bear the seeds of God’s coming kingdom. And good news, everyone – so do we! All we need do is wait, watch, and act in those kairos moments, making some mistakes along the way, getting the timing wrong sometimes, and yet by God’s grace breathing life and hope along with the Spirit into the coming of a world which is how God dreams it should be.
Reflection: At The Right Time August 12, 2018