I bet you’ve heard this phrase—you’ve probably even used it. It’s only a matter of time. It’s a common idiom we use to say that an outcome is inevitable. It will happen. Maybe we don’t know when exactly, but it’s certain. It’s not a matter of if, but when.
I’ve spoken this phrase to my kids as an encouragement. “If you kids find a game to play together while you wait, the time will pass more quickly. It’s only a matter of time until supper is finished and we can eat.” (In my experience, ‘starving’ kids have a hard time believing that supper is a certainty. They need to be reminded: you’ve been fed in the past, you smell supper in the present, you can have faith for the future.)
I’ve spoken this phrase to them as a warning. “If you play a game that involves hitting each other with sticks, it’s only a matter of time until someone gets hurt.” (Starving kids don’t always make the best decisions about what kinds of games are good ways to pass time.)
I’ve spoken it as a comfort. “I know your head hurts, honey, but it’s only a matter of time until you’ll forget your pain and go back to playing the game.” (Weird, but true.)
The idiom points to certainty, but it also acknowledges a period of waiting. It might only be a matter of time, but it still is a matter of time. And the reality is, waiting’s hard. It’s in waiting place we’re most tempted to make bad decisions about how to spend our time. It’s here we most easily become forgetful and confused thinking it’s a matter of if instead of when.
Here is where I most see the beauty of Advent. Four weeks of deliberately sitting in the waiting. Four weeks of remembering, reminding, and returning. Four weeks of remembering, reminding, and returning to the baby in a manger. The baby who was laid into a feeding trough as a sign—a foreshadowing. The baby didn’t stay in the manger. It was only a matter of time before He grew and became a man. It was only a matter of time before He went to the cross. It was only a matter of time until His body was broken; Bread of Life for a starving world.
When Jesus took on the fullness of humanity, it was only a matter of time until His earthly mission was complete and He would return to the Father. But, He reminded His followers, it’s only a matter of time until He comes back. He’s not staying away forever. It’s only a matter of time, but it still is a matter of time. For the wait between times, Jesus leaves these words.
In them we hear strong encouragement. He’s not hanging around in heaven ripping pages off of a calendar while He waits for The Day. He’s at work preparing a place for the people He’s preparing. When this place—which will have more than enough room for everyone—is ready, He’ll come get us so we can be with Him forever.
In Jesus’ words we hear beautiful comfort. When the wait feels too long, and too hard, we’re reminded that we can trust God. It’s only a matter of time. It’s when, not if. Jesus IS preparing a place. He WILL come back to get us. We CAN be with Him forever.
But these same words also hold warning. As sure as He came, He will return. Jesus is coming back. For people who get distracted while they pass the time, for those who’ve lost hope thinking Jesus’ return is if not when, hear the warning.
In the wait between comings, let’s remember, remind, and return, because it’s only a matter of time. First hear the warning, then find comfort and encouragement. At just the right time, the baby in the manger offered His broken body as the bread of life for all who are hungry. At just the right time, He will come back and all who’ve been waiting will be invited to feast at the marriage supper of the Lamb.