WHAT TIME IS IT?
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I may think that starting a sermon with “I looked this up on Google” is the modern day sermonic equivalent to “When I looked such and such a word up in the dictionary”. However, it won’t stop me necessarily from doing. How is it that we feel about time? How do we see time? Is it something we need to figure out how to manage? How to master our time? I put “How to master your time” in Google and found a lot of links to time management sites. I remember working in a larger office and when courses were offered, time management was always popular; particularly for people who were chronically late. I’m not so sure that was the idea. Google also said “People also searched for ‘How do you manage your time? How do you improve your time management skills? How do you manage your day? How do you become a Jedi?’” So you can only take this Google thing so far.
How do we view time? Is it primarily something to be managed? Is it a commodity? Is it something that we spend? Is it a gift? Is it a precious gift? If so do we acknowledge the giver? Do we say thank you for the time? What does Qoheleth, the Teacher have to tell us about time? Let’s turn to today’s passage friends and hear what God has to say to our hearts.
The poem that starts today’s passage is no doubt the most familiar part of the book of Ecclesiastes, even for people with no other knowledge of the book. “Turn Turn Turn” was written by Pete Seeger and most famously recorded and released by The Birds as a single in 1965. The song became an anthem for the anti-Vietnam War movement, ending as it does with “A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late!” Apart from that line it is a word for word copy of the King James version of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
As a piece of wisdom literature it’s solid. In life there is a time for everything. We have 14 pairs that embrace the totality of human life, starting fittingly at birth. I’m going to read it again.
One of the things that we learn here is that we need wisdom to discern the time. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent. There is need for discernment here. There is no hard and fast rule. Look at Prov 26:4-5 – “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself. Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” Are we to view this and say “Well the Bible is just full of contradictions and should be dismissed!” Are we to look at this and say we need to be wise to discern the times? To accept that there is a time to mourn and a time to dance? Have you ever been to a funeral which was all celebration? Dancing as it were? This poem reminds us that there is a time to mourn, to recognize loss, to grieve. We don’t need to try and dance when we’re in mourning.
Note that there’s no first person subject – no “I” or “We” in this poem. Of course humans as subject are implied here – it’s people after all who are doing the planting, the plucking up, the weeping, the laughing, the seeking, the losing. It’s vital to recognize though that the lack of subject signals that God is the subject. One writer puts it like this – “The absence of subjects also adds meaning to the text. That is, in extreme cases like birth and death, one must accept the impossibility of human intervention (though we try to manage even birth and death don’t we?). The whole poem is an invitation to embrace God’s grace and to have faith that situations will change.” This does not merely leave us in a “This too shall pass” mode, but tells us something about God – “To affirm that there is a time for every event, matter, or human activity implies that there is no cause for alarm, that everything is in God’s hands.”
That everything is in God’s hands. That there is a time for everything. That it is important to discern the times.
We said last week that the bass note of hebel drones throughout the book of Ecclesiates as it does throughout our lives. The note of smoke, of vapour, of meaningless, of rubbish. We needn’t be afraid of this note. This note reminds us of our limitations. It reminds us that we are to come before God with awe and reverence. To recognize that there are things we don’t know. Eccl 3:11 goes like this – “He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end.”
Who knows? This is the question. Don’t be afraid of this question when it comes to the mysteries of God. It helps us to know our limitations, our need for God, our need to depend on and trust God. When I was finishing up at McMaster I remember being out for dinner with some fellow students. One of them said to me “As someone who’s a little further along life’s path than many of us, what wisdom do you have to impart?” I thought for a minute and said “The older I get the less I know.” The closer I get to God the more I realize how much I don’t know. How much there is to learn of God’s love and grace and mercy. Henri Nouwen put it like this – “Poverty of mind as a spiritual attitude is a growing willingness to recognize the incomprehensibility of the mystery of life. The more mature we become the more we will be able to give up our inclination to grasp, catch, and comprehend the fullness of life and the more we will be ready to let life enter into us.” To want to know the unknowable is a reflection of our need to control. To enter into mystery is an admission of our limitations and our need for God.
Who knows? So we have Mordecai to Esther – “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this?” We have the prophet Joel – “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him…”
At the same time there is knowing, even if it’s in the form of a question. Abraham to God in Gen 18:25 – “Shall not the judge of the earth do what is just?” There is the Psalmist – “This I know, that God is for me.” There is the great story in John 9 in which the disciples want to have a discussion about blindness with Jesus upon encountering a man blind from birth. Jesus spits on the ground, makes some mud, spreads it on the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man does so and he is able to see. People ask the man “Where is he?” meaning Jesus. “I do not know,” is the reply. A group of Pharisees approach the man to ask him some questions. They go to his parents to find out what just happened. The parents tell the Pharisees “He is of age, ask him.” They go back to the man and say “Give glory to God, this man is a sinner.” Jesus healed on the sabbath you see. Then comes this answer. “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
There is our invitation friends. To step into this story in faith. The Teacher talks a lot about what he doesn’t know. At one point he says “Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?” This book is a wonderful invitation to dialogue –especially for those who have questions about God or are saying “I just don’t know.” This book is a wonderful recognition of such questions, such people. The Teacher talks a lot about what he doesn’t know. When he talks about things he does know, we should pay special attention. The Teacher is not going to be flippant about what he does know in the midst of all this unknowing.
“He has made everything suitable (beautiful) for its time…” “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live, moreover it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink, and take pleasure in their toil.” To know, to recognize that all, including time, is a gift from God. That God is indeed in control. To stand in awe of God and to acknowledge our own limitations – not by crossing our arms or throwing up our hands in despair but to recognize that accepting our identity as loving creations of God frees us from having to strive and control and manage all the time. If there is a time for work, there is a time for play. If there is a time for mourning, there is also a time for rejoicing and may God help us to discern the times.
As Christians we live in the light of eternity, but this does not mean that we do not enjoy life now. Imprisoned by the Nazis, Bonhoffer wrote this to a friend: “I believe that we ought to love and trust God in our lives, and in all the good things he sends us, when the time comes (but not before!) we may go to him with love, trust, and joy. But, to put it plainly, for a man in his wife’s arms to be hankering after the other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God’s will…. God will see to it that the man who finds him in his earthly happiness and thanks him for it does not lack reminder that earthly things are transient, that it is good for him to attune his heart to what is eternal, and that sooner or later there will be a time when we can say in all sincerity, ‘I wish I were home.’ But everything has its time, and the main thing is we keep step with God, and do not go pressing on a few steps ahead. It’s presumptuous to want to have everything at once – matrimonial bliss, the cross, and the heavenly Jerusalem…’For everything there is a season.’”
We live in the light of eternity. We live in the moment. Both are gifts from God. Both invite a response of joy and thanks. The whole time this note of hebel continues to sound of course. The thing is though – if there’s a time for hebel, there is also a time for non-hebel. While we wait that note sounds. Paul described it like this – “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility (the word for hebel in the Greek OT), not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains (like that bass note) until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
And so we wait. We get glimpses of this though don’t we? Do you ever live in a moment of joy and thanks and think “I could do this forever?” I wish this moment would go on forever? God gives us those I think. These moments in which the light of eternity shines on us like the sun. Give us a glimpse of our hope. Vaclav Havel wrote this about hope – “[Hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out…[I]t is something that we get, as it were, from ‘elsewhere’.” Hope is not something we have to find within, manufacture, or strive for. It’s incredibly freeing. It frees us to be fully human. To be growing into our God created humanity. Our hope is that all will make sense one day. This is our belief. These moments in which we find assurance that God has made everything beautiful for its time. These moments when we say “I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken away from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him.”
These moments when we see things in light of the cross. We gathered here on Good Friday and repeated the last line of Psalm 22 together – “He has done it.” These moments when we see things in the light of the Son. The Teacher writes of “under the sun”, but it’s not as much a spatial thing as it is temporal. We live under the sun. The hebel note drones on. There will come a time of non-hebel though. When we will no longer have need of the sun, there will be no more night, we will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be our light.
May God grant that we may discern the times, that we keep step with Him, that we discern His time.