Today’s reading contains the earliest version of the Christmas story – from Paul’s letter to the Galatians – almost certainly written before any of the gospels.

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman’.

Compared to John’s poetry, or Luke’s story telling, it’s a bit tame. It wouldn’t make much of a nativity play – in fact it’s easy to miss altogether.

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman’.

Actually, ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman’, sums up incarnation pretty well …but it’s the phrase, ‘in the fullness of time’ that’s stuck with me.

I guess Paul is saying Jesus was born ‘when the right time had come’…but that word ‘fullness’ is to me a lovely reminder that although the heart of our faith is Christ, what came before wasn’t just killing time before God’s wonderful gift but full…

…full of a developing relationship between humanity and God. I’m not suggesting a master plan – God ordering triumphs and disasters so they led perfectly to Jesus – but God using what went before, until the time was somehow right.

‘The fullness of time’ seems to me a beautiful way to think about our own lives. We often look back with regret for missed opportunities, with bitterness for what life has dealt, or with guilt for our wrongs. Time can appear wasted or empty…that can stop us living properly in the present or looking to the future.

Perhaps it stuck with me because of a conversation I’ve had repeatedly this year…

“How is your new role?”

“I love it. It’s really fulfilling. It feels like the right thing for me to be doing.”

“Don’t you wish you’d gone into it earlier?”

Well it is so wonderful that I could easily look at younger colleagues and wish I’d come to it earlier, easily regret the time spent doing other things.

…but sharing this recently with fellow (equally middle aged) curate Sonia – she said,

“there were things that had to happen in my life to make this possible”…and she is exactly right. The time before was not just waiting for me to wake up – it was full…

…of good things – studying science, teaching, having children, being a full time Mum. …of hard – or horrible things – dealing with depression of close family members – losing my Mum far too soon…

…full of experiences God has used to make me into someone who can now be a priest. I can’t believe in a God who would cause the depression or death of my loved ones to increase my faith or my empathy, but I’m sure God was in that time with me. Looking back I can see how the darkest times were also full of my growth…in faith and in humanity. So regret would be silly – I am just thankful to those who helped me recognise when the fullness of time had come.

Sometimes it really feels that time has been stolen from us…

Nelson Mandela went into prison, for protesting against apartheid, in the prime of life – he was released 27 years later, an elderly man. He had 27 years stolen from him, he missed his children growing up.

It would surely have been better if he had not been imprisoned for so long. There was nothing good about the harsh and demeaning treatment he received. However, those were not 27 empty years – but time full of growing grace, of willingness to let go of resentment, of a developing vision for the future.

In the fullness of time Nelson Mandela was ready to be the first black president of South Africa and lead the way to reconciliation.

But what about when we are to blame for the difficult times? When our careless actions or cruel words hurt others or damage relationships? Days, weeks or even years filled with guilt really can feel like lost time. But guilt can help us grow; can teach us not to repeat our failings. Guilt prompts us to apologise, and though some relationships may be beyond repair – facing up to our part in their destruction can help us become people who would no longer say or do those things.

Perhaps the most beautiful, and difficult, part of the fullness of time…is recognising when guilt has done its work and we can let it go.

As Paul’s whole Christmas narrative says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…in order to redeem those under the law.” God gives us Jesus, so that all our human experiences can be given back to God. We are not wiped clean like slates – we are shaped by what has gone before – but in the fullness of time God takes our experiences, our bitterness, our guilt and helps us move on.

The brink of a new year seems a good moment to think about the fullness of time. We can look back to the old year, at how it has changed us. We can look forward to the New Year – and what those changes mean for our life.

Are we in a time of enduring something difficult, of waiting? Perhaps all we can do is offer it to God and ask him to be with us and shape us.

Have we reached a fullness of time moment – time to take a leap into a different future? – time to let go of guilt and move on?

How do we know? I’m not sure we always do…but if we offer our lives to God – we trust that no experience is wasted, that our time is full of God’s grace as he gently remakes us in his image.

And at Christmas especially we remember that although God’s people had ample cause for regret, bitterness and guilt…“when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…in order to redeem those under the law.”