Time. I used to think time was a simple thing, something I even took for granted. I learned in school that time is measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc. I learned 60 seconds make a minute; 60 minutes make an hour; 24 hours make a day; 365 (or technically 365.25) days make a year. Time moves at a steady pace - or at least it seems that way to us; I mean, the second hand on my watch doesn't move faster from one tick to the next.
That was how most people understood time, until a German physicist in the early twentieth century came up with this theory about how time is actually a relative dimension of the fabric of the universe called spacetime, and time can be subject to the speed of an object or whether an object is caught in an extreme gravitational field (like a black hole). Now, don't ask me how all this works, but Einstein's theory of relativity has revolutionized the way we observe and understand the universe.
Of course, Einstein isn't the only one who theorized the relative nature of time. Why, I've heard it most of my life from folks older than me who couldn't even spell "Einstein", much less understand his theory of relativity, and I'm pretty sure most of you have heard it too. I've heard it from the parents of adult children as they recall the days when their kids were still small, days when they would run around with an untamable energy: "They grow up too fast," they say. "The days when they're little seem to go by the fastest." Do the younger years of our children really pass by quicker than their later years? I generally hear about the relative nature of time every year around December; inevitably, someone will say, "I swear, Christmas arrives faster every year!" But does Christmas arrive faster, or does it just seem to arrive more frequently as we experience more of them? I don't know. I do know that time is a fickle thing, taking too long to pass when you're waiting, passing too quickly when you're trying to hold on, and never moving backwards.
But what does it mean for time to be "fulfilled?"
There's an awful lot that goes on in these six verses before us, in the five verses before Jesus shows up in Galilee preaching, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." For starters, Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in verse 9: "In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan." That's it. Mark doesn't give us the exchange between John and Jesus in the river, the whole "Why are you coming to be baptized by me when I should be baptized by you?" conversation we get in Matthew's version, and there's no detailed account of who's there like in Luke's version. Mark has things to do; the second hand on Mark's clock ticks with a quick, thunderous reminder that there are things to do, places to go, people to heal.
That's why we move on from the single-verse baptism to the direct proclamation from God in verses 10 and 11: "And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'" The sky rips open, the Spirit of God descends, and Jesus hears the voice of God affirming his divine sonship. You might think we'd stay in this space for a while, savor this miraculous moment, but no! It's with hair still wet from the waters of the Jordan that Jesus is driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness. "He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him." No detailed description of the exchange between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness, no remarks about turning stones to bread, no being shown the kingdoms of the world, not discussion about jumping off temples as in Matthew and Luke's account - there's just not that kind of time!
Jesus has endured his temptation with Satan, survived the wilderness with all of its wild beasts, had angels wait on him in the aftermath, but before he can mount his comeback narrative, before he emerges from the wilderness with a renewed sense of mission and a steadfast determination to do what God has called him to do, he gets the terrible news: "John was arrested." His cousin and forerunner, the one who cleared the way, setting the example, going ahead of him, has been arrested. It's only in the wake of the news of John's arrest that Mark says, "Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God." It's straight to the work, no time to visit John in prison, no time to take John's one phone call, or drop by for his court date - the proclamation of God's good news was the priority.
It's the nature of Jesus' message that catches my attention on this first Sunday in Lent: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." "The time is fulfilled..." - all of that rushing, all of that hurrying through baptism, divine declaration, temptation, and arrest, and now the time is fulfilled? If it had been me, if I had been deciding when the time was fulfilled, it would have been in that single, glorious moment when the heavens opened up and the Spirit descended and the voice of God - that's when I would have tapped on the glass, clapped my hands, whistled real loud, and said, "All right folks, listen up! The time has come! Now is the time! The time is fulfilled!" That's when to do it, when the very cosmos is responding to the arrival of God's son, not after all the other stuff, especially not after temptations from the devil, wild beasts, and the arrest of the prophetic hype man.
But I suppose that's the reality of time, at least God's reality of time: the fulfilled time of God's kingdom doesn't wait for the roses to bloom, it doesn't spring up when things are going well or when the theatrics of the moment demand it. The fulfilled time of God's kingdom is in the midst of our time, happening in the middle of our ups and downs, our divine declaration and our satanic temptations.
And that's the thing - God's time is fulfilled even now! Let that sink in for a minute. When you're "waiting on God," when you're trying to hold on to that fleeting feeling of closeness to Christ, when you're wondering if things are going to work out in "God's time," remember that God's time has been fulfilled. Jesus proclaimed the time of fulfilment for God's kingdom after the transformative experience of his baptism, after the sky was torn in a moment of the Spirit's transcendence, after being driven into the wilderness to deal with the devils that awaited him there, after the terrible news of his cousin's arrest...the fulfilment of God's kingdom, of God's time, is after all of this, including all of this. Jesus didn't push "pause" in the wilderness. He didn't cut out the part about John's arrest, nor did he elevate his experience in the waters of the Jordan. It's all part of it, the ups and downs, the divine and the devious, the good news of liberation and the heartbreaking news of imprisonment - it's all part of the fulfilment.
Now, I suppose from here I could slip into the easy inclination of those friends of mine who so glibly claim that "God is in control," or that, you know, "God has a plan," or "Things work out in God's time." I mean, those are somewhat easy, comforting notions, to believe that bad things happen to us when they do and good things happen when they do because God has somehow already laid out every detail, every moment of our lives right down to what cereal we'll eat in the morning, but that's not what I'm getting at.
No, what I'm trying to tell you is that all of time - whether we measure it by the passing hands on the clock or by Einstein's equations - all of time belongs to God, and God's kingdom finds its fullness in that time. Each and every second, minute, and hour - every moment - is pregnant with the possibility of the presence of God. I believe that's why Jesus said, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
The kingdom of God is close, it's at hand, it's a second away, and every once in a while, it's so close that it slips in on us... if we're looking for it. It can slip in unnoticed, like the way a baby smiles at a stranger from across the restaurant. It can sneak in, quietly breaking through the chaos and confusion of life, like the way a sunset on the drive home gives you an indescribable sense of peace after a horrible day. Most of the time, though, the kingdom of God is so close, the very fabric perhaps of spacetime, that it passes unnoticed, lost in the familiar, unseen in the mundane, hidden in plain sight, just beyond our consciousness as we're distracted by what we think is important in this life. But it's there.
The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is close at hand. All we have to do is reach out for it. All we have to do is stop and look for it. It may be right beside us, in the aching heart and troubled soul of our neighbor. It may be right behind us, in the stranger we've passed on the street, the one we've avoided making eye contact with, but that strange feeling won't leave us alone, that feeling to turn around. It may be right in front of us in the work we do every day - the work we sometimes cuss because it's repetitive, hard, and the pay is terrible. It might be right in front of us in the time we spend, in the people who surround us, in the opportunities we have and the ones we must work for. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.
And yeah, it may be found in the grand, mystical experiences that click by but every so often in our lives, or it may be found in the simple, less obvious things - like a bit of bread and a taste of wine. Who knows? Maybe you'll catch a glimpse of God's kingdom today. After all, the kingdom of God is at hand, and we're living on fulfilled time.
Let us pray.
Eternal God, Creator, Redeemer, and Friend. As our lives are lived on fulfilled time, grant us the opportunities to recognize the presence of your kingdom within and around us so that we may experience it and help others to experience it through us. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.