"Time, Eternity, and Making the Most of the Meantime"
Jan.2, 2011 Eccl.3:1-15; Rev.21:1-8
SIDELINED IN THE RACE OF LIFE
One of the London Free Press 'photos of the year' shows a 96-year-old man, a 'Mr.Young'(!), yelling encouragement to high-school age runners at a WOSSA track and field meet. The elderly Mr.Young coached track for 60 years, we're told. This photo caught my attention since we're starting a new year and our topic is Time and Eternity. What a contrast there is between the aged, somewhat incapacitated man in the electric scooter, and the young athletic form dashing by in a blur! Here is what time, in particular aging, does to us humans. A reminder that, as time marches on, it takes its toll; yet also with time comes experience and, hopefully, wisdom, that older folks can share to encourage and instruct the younger.
If you were to make up your own caption for this photo - what might the older man be shouting? What words would you put in his mouth? For example - "Run while you still can!" The face and bony outstretched hand remind me of the Ghost of Christmas Future in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. If this were the Grim Reaper, what might the words be? "Run as fast as you can, but you won't escape me!"
More edifying would be apt scriptural admonitions. Paul wrote, "Run in such a way as to gain the prize." (1Cor 9:24) And, ""Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart." (2Tim 2:22) Another, from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount might be: "Small is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Mt 7:14) Don't just take the easy road! But I think my favourite candidate for a suitable Biblical caption would be Hebrews 12:1: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." We do have witnesses - those watching from the sidelines. Most significantly, the Lord is watching our steps! So let's run well, while we have breath.
Mr.Young is to be applauded for his spunk and ambition to make the effort to come watch the meet and spur on the competitors. In a way this photo could be a poster for defiance or courage: even though he can't run himself, he's spending his energy to encourage those who can; thus in a way he's overcoming life's limitations.
In our readings today, the authors of Ecclesiastes and Revelation urge us to keep perspective in such a way that we can use time wisely, appreciate God's gifts, and overcome the negatives in life to find satisfaction now and God's approval in eternity.
TIME THROUGH A BIBLICAL LENS
In the 21st-century West, we bring all sorts of baggage with us when we start to look at how the Bible views time. Time has been devalued, inflated into near nothingness, post-Darwin: millions and billions of years are hypothesized as needed for evolution from slime to higher life forms, and hence the age of the earth and the universe. And the more information science reveals about the complexity of life's ingredients and improbability of such machinery forming by chance, time is inflated still further. That's quite different than the view a young-earth creationist would take; or the view of genealogists in Scripture, who trace Jewish roots back to Abraham and, in Luke's version, back to Adam. Could not God create things with the appearance of age - as He seems to have done in the case of Adam and Eve? If 'all things are possible with God' (as Jesus maintains and the Resurrection implies), would there be any really good reason for God to wait around billions of years when He could fast-forward to the main plot?
But categorically exclude Biblical assumptions, and the Darwinist / naturalist / modernist is left with a bleak landscape. Incomprehensible stretches of time, the randomness of natural selection, apparent purposelessness of life as a whole: one can summarize the feeling with the closing of TS Eliot's 1925 poem The Hollow Men - "this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper."
By contrast, the Bible views existence not cynically, but purposefully, there's a point to it all.
What shape is time in your worldview? Is it circular or linear? There's a hint of circularity, or at least of a 'wheel of life' of sorts, in Ecclesiastes 3(15) and 1:9f - "Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before..." "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time." Several ancient religions (involving the idols worshipped by the nations that surrounded Israel) viewed time as circular, a cycle, like the flooding and ebbing of the Nile, or dying/rising myths. Some eastern religions today view time as circular - a repetition of life and reincarnation as in Hinduism.
But the Bible as a whole resoundingly sees time as linear, not repetitious cycles. The New Bible Dictionary summarizes: "The Bible thus stresses not the abstract continuity of time but rather the God-given content of certain moments of history.This view of time may be called 'linear', in contrast with the cyclical view of time common in the ancient world; God's purpose moves to a consummation; things do not just go on or return to the point whence they began."
We see this 'linear-ness' reflected in the Book of Revelation; God says in 21:6, "It is done.I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End." (Like 'A and Z' in the English alphabet - there's a begin-point and an end-point, a done-ness or completion.) There's a new heaven and new earth, for the first ones will have passed away; 21:4, 'the old order of things has passed away.' There's a progression, orderly movement, not stuck in an endless cycle.
In the Biblical view, God is sovereign over time and through time, directing the course of events by His mysterious wisdom. Jesus acknowledged the Father's sovereignty in Mark 13:32, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." For an old order and heavens and earth to 'pass away' - that takes some supreme control! 21:5 the One seated on the throne declares, "I am making everything new!" God's power to create and destroy backs His sovereignty. So time moves towards God's ultimate goal of being with His people: 21:3b, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God." There will be a sharing and closeness of relationship marked by intimacy: 21:7, "He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son."
God's sovereignty over time means we can trust Him even with our individual circumstances. Psalm 31(14f) says, "But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, "You are my God."My times are in your hands..."
Some of the Hebrew terms for time carry the sense of 'appointed' time - an opportunity we have from God. In the New Testament, the Greek word 'kairos' hints at a season of opportunity, rather than the mere extension of minutes referred to by 'chronos'. Titus 1:3, "at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Saviour..." And Jesus warns Jerusalem in Luke 19(44), "They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you." They missed the opportunity.
John Marsh observes, "Throughout the whole [New Testament] there runs the conviction that the time looked forward to by the prophets has in fact arrived in history with the advent of Jesus Christ...The time of Jesus is kairos - a time of opportunity.To embrace the opportunity means salvation; to neglect it, disaster.There is no third course."
So, time overseen by God's sovereignty isn't just plain secular time, but 'loaded' - pregnant with opportunity and implication: to ignore God's opportune moment, the time of promise, is to court disaster.
In the Bible there's also a sense of being 'between the ages' - time's not just flat, but ordered, even overlapping. The NBD comments, "The first note of Jesus' preaching was 'The time is fulfilled' (Mk 1:15).The life and work of Jesus mark the crisis of God's purposes (Eph 1:10).This is the great opportunity (2Cor 6:2) which Christians must fully seize (Eph 5:16; Col 4:5)...The last times are with us already (Ac 2:18; Heb 1:2; 1Jn 2:18; 1Pet 1:20)." This is a significant difference from the Jewish view: Jews look for the decisive intervention of God in the future; for the Christian, the decisive moment has already happened at the cross 'once for all.'
In fact, for the Christian believer, eternity has already begun; "heaven is [already!] in my heart." God's gift of the Holy Spirit is an anticipation, an early tasting of the world to come, "a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance" (Eph 1:14). John stresses that eternal life isn't something that starts AFTER death; it has already begun for the believer. "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." Quoting Jesus, "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life." (Jn 3:36; 5:24)
Friday afternoon, someone was noting that for their daughter in Korea, it was already the New Year - actually it was already about 3 in the morning; New Year's was 'old news' for them. For believers in Christ, we're already in heaven's time zone, in a way; we have eternal life now.
A TIME FOR EVERYTHING - EVEN THE UNPLEASANT
Ecclesiastes 3 has a section that was popularized by The Byrds' pop tune, "Turn Turn Turn". Vv2-8 list pairs of opposites or contrasts that will be experienced to some degree in most lives: birth, planting, healing, building, laughter, dancing, embracing, mending, speaking, love, and peace - offset by death, uprooting, weeping, mourning, silence, hate, even war. It's a whole package: life has its negatives, its sad times, as well as its happier occasions. For reflection here we could ask, "Can I trust God with these? Can I accept all this from His hand? Can I trust Him to appoint the timings of my life?" Other questions that may be relevant at a time of year-end review: "What new thing may God be bringing about in my life? Have I been stuck in a rut - afraid to venture into some new direction of discipleship the Spirit is beckoning me towards?" And, "How might God have been using even negative things in the past year to grow me?"
For instance, it says there is 'a time to embrace and a time to refrain,' such as when one's at risk of becoming a codependent, used in an unhealthy relationship. How's my self-control doing? Am I learning discernment from the Lord about how to be involved or not?
Can you dare to let God be sovereign over even the negatives in your life? Paul could affirm, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Rom 8:28) It's His purpose that prevails and matters, not our comfort or pleasure. Our Saviour Jesus on the cross could cry out in the words of the Psalmist, "My God, why have You forsaken Me?" yet end by trusting His most painful times to the Father: Luke 23:46, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."
God is YHWH, "I am that I am", God of being / all that comes to pass. It was remarkable to me this past summer that my mother's death and funeral fit precisely into the one week we weren't booked to be away on holiday in August. Also that Yvonne's improvement regarding 'fuzzy days' didn't happen until after Emily and Allison had moved west. God's mercy is frequently seen in our happenings. Did you have any notable 'timings' this past year?
There is "a time to keep and a time to throw away." (3:6) Is there anything you've been holding on to (in bitterness) that you need to let go of? Can you accommodate yourself to the Lord's timing, even if it's not the way you'd choose?
FIND THE GIFT AND BEAUTY IN THE EVERYDAY
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, "He has made everything beautiful in its time." (even the negative things listed earlier) There is a divine arrangement of all for God's glory. This isn't always apparent to us at the time something happens. But in faith we affirm with Deuteronomy 32(4), "He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just.A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he." The long-term outcome will show justice and fairness; God's intrinsic goodness rubs off on creation - He made things start out 'very good' (Gen 1:31).
The second half of v11 adds, "He has also set eternity in the hearts of men, yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end." Some mystery remains until we can see the whole picture in the light of eternity.
Vv12-13 provide a positive mindset with which to face life's conundrums. "I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil-- this is the gift of God." There's 'nothing better', this is life's ultimate goal, to be happy and do good; Psalm 37(3), "Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture." Philippians 4:4, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" Happy emotions are fed by our spirit internally rejoicing in God. And 1Tim 6(18), "Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share." Consumerism won't make us happy and fulfilled; instead, life's about doing good, having a generative output the benefits others.
To find satisfaction in one's toil is the gift of God; it's not something we can manufacture or are entitled to. It's free, just as drinking from the spring of the water of life in Rev 21(6) is free, without cost - a gift to be accepted from the Lord, in faith.
DON'T LET ETERNITY CATCH YOU UNAWARES
V14 sees a meta-purpose overarching everything that goes on: "I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.God does it so that men will revere him." Again God's sovereignty over time is acknowledged: what He does, endures. In this supreme control He is to be revered, feared, glorified - our human pride humbled. A song at the end of time in Rev 15:4, "Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed." That's what we're here for.
15B adds, "and God will call the past to account." The modern world would very much like to do away with morality, but you can't do that without stripping life of real meaning as well. We will be held accountable for our actions by God's righteous judgment. Ecclesiastes admits in 3:17, "I thought in my heart, "God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked..."" Scripture draws to a close in Revelation 20 with the Great White Throne judgment and two options: a Book of Life, and a fiery lake. If you're not in the former, you'll be in the latter. 21:4, for the saved - "He will wipe every tear from their eyes.There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain..." But for the fate of the rebellious who disobey God, read 21:8: "But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars-- their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur.This is the second death." You don't want to let that happen to you!
So the Biblical authors exhort us to overcome life's trials and temptations, to be victors through trusting and following Christ. 21:7, "He who overcomes will inherit all this..." As Jesus says to the churches earlier in the book, "He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death...To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna." (Rev 2:11,17)
Make the most of your time, in the light of eternity. Don't waste God's opportunities, the 'divine appointments' that pop up in your week. Henry Manning writes, "Next to grace, time is the most precious gift of God.Yet how much of both we waste.We say that time does many things.It teaches us many lessons, weans us from many follies, strengthens us in good resolves, and heals many wounds.And yet it does none of these things.Time does nothing.But time is the condition of all these things which God does in time.Time is full of eternity.As we use it, so shall we be.Every day has its opportunities, every hour its offer of grace." Let's pray.