Today is the first Sunday of a new year. We humans are obsessed with the passing of time. My dogs can lie on their dog beds for hours; at ease with the passing of time – well, unless their internal clock tells them it’s dinner time. I’ve never once known them to set an alarm or worry about being late for an appointment… once again; their only concern is if their dinner will be late. I, however, feel differently about time. I have a myriad of features on my smart phone to help me manage my time. I have alarms that sound reminding me to give medication to my dog and to give medication to myself, to print and email my sermons, etc. An alarm even sounds on Sunday morning to remind me to head to the sanctuary and get ready for worship… I keep my appointment calendar on my phone and it sounds a reminder ten minutes before every scheduled event. There is no shortage of features to assist me in managing my time.
And, I know I’m not unique. Time is a sort of yardstick by which we mortals measure our lives – particularly at certain key times: graduation, the birth of our first child, our 40th birthday, retirement. Time is far more than an arbitrary position on the clock. Time can be anticipated, fulfilled, squandered. We strive to control time, because we strive to control our future, our fate... but to no avail. Because “time,” as David Bowie reminded us, “may change me; but I can’t change time.”[i] “Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”[ii]
Now, perhaps it is some small consolation that our pre-occupation with time is not new. It is nothing unique to post-modern men and women. Long before clocks, those Franklin Covey Day Timers, smart phones, or Google calendar alerts, the writer of a biblical book of wisdom, called Ecclesiastes, is as troubled by time as are we. He has observed the world around him; he has monitored the passing of time. He questions humanity’s purpose in light of eternity and seems to imply that time marches on, unimpeded by our best laid plans.
Now, let me say a little bit about this writer of Ecclesiastes. First, I want to tell you that he needs to be read in his entirety, not just a few popular snippets here and there. Haphazard dicing and splicing can make him come off sounding like a peculiar mixture of hippie, cynic philosopher or even heretic when, in fact, he has some of the soundest theology around. To begin with, this writer is not a “preacher,” at least not in the way we think of preachers today. Some English bibles refer to him as preacher or teacher. But the Hebrew word which describes him is Qohelet, which means assembler – as in someone who assembles information (like an editor) or someone who assembles an audience of people together in one place to explore a particular topic. So, for our intents and purposes this morning, I’m going to call him the convener. And he convenes his audience for the purpose of exploring some key questions about life. His first, and perhaps most important, conclusion is that life in this world (or, all that takes place “under the sun,” as he defines it) is fleeting. The things of this world are not eternal. They are hebel, he says. That’s because he spoke Hebrew and hebel is a Hebrew word, although it is not a word that is very well translated in our English bibles. We find it in the very second verse of Ecclesiastes. “Hebel, hebel, all is hebel.” Our English often reads “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The Hebrew word hebel literally means “a puff of air, a vapor.” It implies something that is fleeting or temporary; but not necessarily without worth or value. We breathe air in and breathe it out; quickly, unconsciously. But just try to get by without breathing and… well, you see my point. Just because something passes swiftly in the light of eternity doesn’t mean it has no value. This Old Testament convener makes an important distinction in his ponderings that we would all do well to keep in mind. That there is a difference between life as we know it now and how life will finally be at the end of time. “Under the sun” is his way of referring to this earthly life as we now experience it and, therefore, he implies that there may be more than what we see and experience now. There must be if God is good, gracious and faithful as our faith asserts. Therefore, the convener informs us, what we know and experience now is hebel – as fleeting as a puff of air. It is temporary; yet not insignificant, not unimportant, not without value; simply devoid of permanence.
In addition, he says, our human preoccupation with the passing of time will forever frustrate us. For, although God has given us a sense of past, present and future, we humans cannot with certainty determine how God wants the pieces of history to fit together. We want to know what God knows. We want to know the future so we can have more control and be masters of our own domains. But we can never know all that God knows. Only God understands how past, present and future are meant to fit together. So, the convener tells us “that which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is.”
God, as a good and gracious creator, has a rhythm for his universe, but it is beyond our ability to fully comprehend it. There is a time for everything. But we cannot always discern that proper time.
You see, we humans often live in one of two ways. One is to try to manipulate time, to control that which we cannot control. We want to master our own destinies. You know, “if you dream it, you can become it.” But there is much that is beyond our control. And our efforts to control the future usually lead to frustration. A second way we humans choose to live is by dumping everything on God. We divorce ourselves from any responsibility. Everything gets branded as “God’s will” and our so-called “faith” serves as an opiate that numbs us to the normal human experiences of doubt, frustration, and seeking. We are no longer participants in God’s creation; we become passive by-standers; standing idly by as time marches on. But the truth lies somewhere in the middle. God has given us free will and, in accordance with the knowledge God has given, we ought to strive to discern God’s will and to use our time and resources in service to God and others. But we should not become so arrogant as to think that we can fully, consistently and definitively foresee God’s purposes or alter them according to our own plans.
Now, here is something you might find interesting to know. Passages from Ecclesiastes are read during the Jewish Festival of Sukkoth. Sukkoth is a Harvest Festival somewhat akin to our Thanksgiving. It is a time to give thanks for God’s providence, to give thanks for the gifts God has given. But Sukkoth also commemorates a particular time in Jewish history. The word Sukkoth means “tent” or “booth.” And it is a holy day to commemorate that period of time when Israel wandered in the wilderness betwixt Egypt and the promised land. It was a time when they lived in unsubstantial, tent-like dwellings; hence the name Sukkoth meaning “tent.” In those tents during that wilderness sojourn, God’s people were vulnerable to everything… everything, including God’s grace. They lived by grace then – by the manna that fell to the ground each morning, the water that gushed up from the rocks, and the quail that rained from the sky. And it’s a time they should never forget. Because, especially in a time of bounty and thanksgiving, a time when we feel we’re doing a pretty good job of managing our lives and gathering in the sheaves so to speak, it’s important to remember that the stuff of this world – all that is around us under the sun – is fleeting. We ought to give thanks for it, to be sure; but we cannot afford to become attached to it, even reliant upon it because it is not that stuff that provides security. The only security we know in this world comes from Almighty God.
And so, in light of all this uncertainty, how should we really live, we might wonder? And the convener advises, live by keeping life in the proper perspective. Enjoy the good gifts God has given you. Although they may be fleeting, don’t disregard them. They have great value. But don’t become arrogant, thinking that you’ve earned those blessings and can rely upon them to secure your future. We are neither the masters of the universe or the manipulators of God’s grace. The goodness all around us says more about God than it does about us.
So friends, enjoy life in this world as God intends us to enjoy it, enter into it, engage it; value it. But, don’t strive to control that which we are powerless to control. Instead, learn to be at peace with uncertainty because, truth be told, that is the reality of faith. Let me say that again. Uncertainty is not a threat to our faith; faith finds peace with uncertainty by knowing and believing that God is great and God is good. And so we thank him for our food and all the other blessings of life in this world. We should enjoy the gifts of God’s creation, but not worship the creation because all that we see around us in this life is hebel. It is like a puff of air drawn in and released. As it crosses our lips, it passes away. We should enjoy the things of this world, the gifts of each season. But we also need to remember that there is only one who governs the passing of time; there is only one who really knows the right time for every purpose under heaven.
Friends, in just a few moments, we’ll participate in a covenant renewal service similar to those that John Wesley encouraged for use by the early Methodists. It’s a good thing to do at the start of a new year. It reminds us that each turn of the calendar presents the opportunity to decide how we will live into this New Year. Will we live anxiously, doggedly trying to control the future in ways that are unhealthy and unreasonable? Will we live apathetically, believing that our best efforts are meaningless? Or, will we live in ways that reveal our trust in God and our delight in the life he has given us? Patricia Brown tells the story of a pastor friend of hers. He went to his doctor complaining of tension which was manifesting itself through headaches and shakiness. The doctor did a thorough physical exam and talked for a while with the pastor and then announced his diagnosis. He said, “You’re anxious and tense. Either I can give you some pills or you can begin to practice what you preach.”[iii]
Friends, may we enter this New Year renewing our commitment to trust in Christ knowing that, whether the market goes up or down; whether our waistlines go in or out, God can be trusted to order all things in their proper time. For everything, there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.
[i] Changes by David Bowie released on the 1971 Hunky Dory album; RCA records.
[ii] From the opening of the soap opera “Days of Our Lives”
[iii] Paths to Prayer by Patricia Brown, Jossey-Bass Pub.; Adoration Prayer, p. 163.
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