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Time for Living 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
01/02/11

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13
Ephesians 1:3-14



"Will it be another year or really a New Year?" It seems a worthwhile question to ask at the start of 2011. What will it be for you? Will 2011 be more of the same, one more year on the merry-go-round of life? Or will this coming year be a New Year for you in some genuine sense, a break-through year, a year that turns out to be one of new found freedom, a genuinely fresh start for you, a year of growth and maturity? The Scriptures teach that both possibilities are real as you face another year. The author of Ecclesiastes says on the one hand, "What has been will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun." This sounds almost cynical, doesn't it? The author of Ecclesiastes had tasted and tested all this world has to offer, and this is what he concluded: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity … there is nothing new under the sun." Nothing ever really changes, nothing really can.

Thank goodness this is not the only word he has to speak to us concerning time! This morning's text is actually the best known passage in Ecclesiastes, where he reflects upon time. In 1965 the Byrds sang a hit song using the words of this passage for the lyrics, a song that has stood the test of time. Ecclesiastes begins by affirming that "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." This seems to imply that there is the genuine possibility of something new as we face a fresh calendar that reads 2011. In this profoundly beautiful poem, Ecclesiastes offers fourteen pairs of human experience that time offers to the human family. He begins with two over which we are meant to have no choice at all: "A time to be born, and a time to die." No one ever chooses to be born, and we all have an appointment with death that we shall keep, and only God knows when that is. What we do in between birth and death, what Jimmy Carter heard at a funeral called "the little dash in between," is filled with thirteen pairs of experiences over which we can have some degree of influence – "a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate." You know the poem, I hope. Life is composed of the gift of time, and what we fill it with composes the story of our years.

"What is time?", asked Longfellow. "The shadow of the dial, the striking of the clock, the running of the sand, day and night, summer and winter, months, years, centuries – these are but outward and arbitrary signs – the measure of time, not time itself. Time is the life of the soul." That is what the Bible tries to say in so many rich and varied ways. This gift of life we call time is "the life of the soul," and by God's grace and presence you can deepen and enrich your soul, you can grow it stronger and more resilient in this New Year. You can make 2011 a truly New Year.

Let's observe a few things about this enigmatic, unrelenting, unforgiving, unstoppable gift from God we call time. First, let's recognize that God just doesn't keep time the way that we keep time. God sees time differently than we see time. I have been teaching my Thursday morning Bible study on Exodus this year. Some have rightly called the Bible "The Mighty Acts of God," but from at least certain vantage points, it can look like God hardly ever acts. In Exodus we focus on God's mighty deliverance of the Hebrew slaves when God parted the Red Sea. But then it occurred to me that the Hebrews had been crying out from slavery for four hundred thirty years! Why did God wait four hundred thirty years to free the Hebrews from bondage? For that matter, why did God wait some four thousand years to send a Messiah, and why have we waited another two thousand years for His return?

Four times that I count the Psalmist cries out, "Lord, make haste to save us!" In my experience, rarely does God seem to be in a hurry. And that is hard, especially when you are suffering and in pain, in need of some answer, some form of deliverance. God does not keep time the way we humans keep time. "But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day." That is what Peter tells us in his second letter. "The Lord is not slow about His promises as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish…." God rarely seems to be in a hurry, and maybe that is a good thing, for it often means God is being gracious, giving us time to repent, or to come clean with God and ourselves.

Secondly, time is purposeful with God. Life has a beginning and an ending; there is "a time to be born and a time to die." But so does this earth, our island home. The writer of Ecclesiastes says it: "God has made everything beautiful in its time." This One who is the author and architect of time makes everything beautiful in its time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized this in profound ways. Locked up in prison, he might have fretted and been paralyzed by fear. Instead, he understood that all time is God's, and is meant to be used to God's glory. So he wrote, he filled the time with meaning, and offered his life's blood, sweat and tears to us. "Time lost is time when we have not lived a full human life, time unenriched by experience, creative endeavor, enjoyment and suffering." Did you hear Bonheoffer? Even our suffering can fill our time with meaning. Why? Because God is present in all the time He gives us to enjoy. "To sensible men, every day is a day of reckoning," says John Gardner. We never know what a day may bring forth, but we can know that God wants to fill all our days with meaning and purpose. God has placed eternity within our minds, yet not so we can see "from beginning to end." Only God can see "from beginning to end," yet the very idea of eternity can fill our God-given time with meaning and purpose.

Remember when Lazarus was sick and Mary and Martha sent urgent word to Jesus to hasten to come? "Lazarus, our brother whom you love, is ill. Come quickly." John says Jesus waited three more days before setting out for Bethany. Why? No reason is really given. We are not told explicitly why Jesus is not in a hurry, except that He does say when He finally arrives and Lazarus has died and is already stinking like death, that all of this has been "for the glory of God." Maybe Jesus did not drop everything and rush to Lazarus because Jesus is not jerked around by what jerks us. Maybe our anxiety is not the central concern of God's time. As Ecclesiastes says, there is a great difference between what we know and what God knows.

I read this week about Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. She has spent fifteen of the last twenty-one years of her life under arrest by the generals who rule Burma, but this has not stopped her from speaking out for the people and for democracy and justice in her land. "I want to do as much as I can while I'm free," she says, "but we never know how much time we have." What a wise soul she is…

One last word on time. It is precious precisely because our time is finite, it is limited. The time will come when time shall be no more. Do not be anxious about this fact. Find freedom in it. All time, your time, belongs to God. The author of Ecclesiastes does something dramatic to tell us this, only you will miss it if you are not careful. He casts most of these pairs of human experiences in contrast, one harsh, one blessed. "A time to be born, a time to die; a time to break down, a time to build up; a time to seek, a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to love, a time to hate." Get the pattern? You expect him to say, "A time for peace, a time for war." But that would mean all time ends in war. So instead, the author switches, and ends with peace. Do you get it? Life and time begin with birth, and end with peace. Just as the Bible begins with birth (Genesis) and ends in a garden where the river of life runs right through it. All time is God's, and your time is not in fact yours at all, not if you live it wisely and well. Birth and peace. That is the beginning and the end. Fill it well! "Time is the life of the soul." Or, as Jesus says, "Peace, I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled; neither let it be afraid."

AMEN.
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