Formations 12.23.2018: Rhythm Saved the World

Galatians 4:1–4:7

Louis Armstrong plays the trumpet (New York World-Telegram).

The fourth Sunday of Advent, less than a few days before Christmas—It’s a time when I often turn from the prophetic hopes of Israel to a single family gathered around a manger. But Paul raises a vision of Christmas that is more cosmic than it is common. In an event that happens everyday, he sees “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4).

Birth is one rhythm of the season. There are also censuses, shepherds’ watches, and celestial movements. We know dinners, driving, shopping, and church. There is dying too, and still other ways of coming and going. For a season full of them, the complexities of our many rhythms seem to leave more chaos than constancy. And Paul affirms this, saying that “the fullness of time had come” in everyday kinds of chaos—of being counted, of giving birth and being born, and of leaving home.

If you will, I’d like to invite you to listen to Louis Armstrong and his band play a song called “Rhythm Saved the World”. Pay attention to its sense of time, in particular how it swings and breaks.

In jazz, swing refers to a specific way of playing eighth notes. To risk being overly technical and overly simplistic, western music divides time into proportional parts. In popular music, the most important division is the quarter note. In our song, the drums, bass, and piano play this. Eighth notes are the next smaller note. There are two for every quarter note. Most of the time, they are played straight, which means that both are the same length. In jazz, in general that is, they swing. The first note stretches, requiring the second to shorten. Can you hear this? It’s clearest in the trumpets and saxophones. Notice the way that melodies seem to skip a little bit. Listen to the way that Armstrong sings the three-syllable words like “Bunker Hill” and “Jericho.”

Swing is more important, however, as a feeling. While it describes specifically the push and pull of eight notes, it also describes the necessary mixture of constancy and change that makes people dance. There are endless ways this happens. “Rhythm Saved the World” swings, for example, when the saxophones play long notes in the chorus. It happens when the rhythm section accents every other note before Armstrong’s trumpet solo. It’s most obvious, however, in a section known as the break.

The break happens when the band drops out, allowing the soloist to play outside of time’s constraints. It’s hard to miss. Even though time loosens, it doesn’t stop. In this song, the drummer keeps a modest backbeat, but Armstrong has room to speed up and slow down. By the end, the band will come back swinging as consistent as ever they were.

I don’t know what you feel in the break, but I feel urgency and freedom. There is the danger that time might break down, but the silence also allows me to breathe deeply again.

Paul, aware that rhythms that characterize our physical lives, affirms that time comes in full amid such repetition. In this passage, he refers to chromos, the kind of cyclical time that is measured on calendars, watches, and metronomes. But the way he means it feels an awful lot like kairos, that sense of time when the cycles break open and time’s fullness can be entered.

Jazz developed from many of Armstrong’s contributions. In bebop, melodically and rhythmically complex solos hold prominence, and the break most often serves as a kind of send off. In its space, new soloists enter, beginning to explore their own relationships to the possibilities of time.


• What rhythms have shaped your Advent season? When have these been chaotic? When have they been calming?
• When have you experienced times full of urgency or possibility? Explain.
• How might Paul’s promise of time’s fullness shape the way we enter into these moments? How can Jesus’ birth and life shape our response to these breaks in time?

Reference Shelf

Mixing Time

For the Egyptians and the Greeks time had little meaning except as an endlessly repeated cycle. To the Babylonians, historical events were set in a rigid framework of distinct times whose character was revealed by the heavenly constellations and the positions of the planets, moon and sun. Thus nothing really new in theory could occur in time and history. The gods were unapproachable except through the temple ritual, giving special importance to the sacrificial calendar, which required to be scrupulously observed. Kings looked for omens and appealed to their gods for good fortune when venturing on military campaigns, but there was a limit to what even the gods could do because they too were subject to the tyranny of predetermined time.

Not so for the people of the Bible. They believed that their God could meet them anywhere and at any time; all of space and all of history were God’s domain. This is why the Bible has a sense of purpose and progression, a goal, a process, a destiny. The biblical God claimed a people who at first were no people and who possessed no land of their own, promising to be their God forever if they would remain faithful. God never forsook the divine promise, but again and again Israel broke God’s law, until that last bitter day when their land, their city, and their Temple were destroyed. This was a bitter lesson, yet a judging God remained true to the promise to rescue a holy remnant. Israel needed to be preserved for the “fullness of time,” the final “Day of the Lord.”

Simon J. Devries, “Biblical Perspectives on Time,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills, et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 918–19.

The Send Off

Some scholars have contended that in vv. 4-5 Paul is drawing on a sending formula that is also seen in other early Christian writings (Rom 8:3-4; John 3:16-17; 1 John 4:9-10). Furthermore, a usual part of this suggestion is that this (now) Christological/soteriological declaration is an adaptation of a saving-sending formula from Hellenistic Judaism—see Wisdom 9:10-17; Sirach 24 (especially vv. 8-9); Baruch 3:29-30; and Philo, Agriculture 51; Confusion 145–48; On Dreams 1.69—wherein Wisdom or Logos is sent by God as the agent of salvation for humanity. This striking interpretive idea has been both embraced and called into question. Nevertheless, no matter whether this statement—that God sent his Son—is an adaptation of a myth from Hellenistic Judaism, a formula from the early church, or an original Pauline formulation, the idea itself is remarkable: God sent his Son for the benefit of humanity. Moreover, as used by Paul, the concept of sending focuses on a historical figure, Jesus Christ, and does not make a doubly abstract declaration about God’s saving action.

Marion L. Soards and Darrell Pursiful, Galatians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2015), 194.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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