A sermon by Michael Jensen
Mostly when we think of time we think of the time at which it meets and its duration – or perhaps the duration of the sermon.
A gathering of Christians is about time. To be Christian is to look at time in a very distinctive way. When we meet together, then, we should be aware of the time: not whether it is 10am or 7:30pm, and not whether the sermon has yet again exceeded the regular length, but something much more profound than that.
What do I mean?
As human beings we learnt time from the rhythm of the seasons and the hours of the day. We live with several repeated cycles of time, and these enable us to develop communal and individual habits that serve us. We know how to work and to rest (or, we used to); when to put away the cricket whites and put on the football boots; when to plant and when to sow.
That is the great insight of the wonderful passage from Ecclesiastes:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted …
As creatures under the sun we are bound by nature’s timing because we are part of nature ourselves. An agricultural society of course knows this more intimately. One of the striking effects of urban living is the determination of human beings to try to counteract the times of nature: we lighten up the dark sky and and drink coffee and stay awake till the wee hours, we demand food at any time of the year, we aircondition our homes and public spaces to a constant temperature all year round. Technological man wants every day to be the same.
But we are bound in time in another way: we are mortal. Nature’s cycle is like a forward-moving wheel. We cannot stop the growth of our bodies towards death and decay: Frail as summer’s flower we flourish, says the old hymn, blows the wind and we are gone. This is what Isaiah says, too: All flesh is like grass.
And one response to the press of time is to – in the sadly now-ironic words of Robin William’s Mr Keating from Dead Poet’s Society – to ‘seize the day’. You are a long time dead, and death comes sooner than you think. So: enjoy it while it lasts. As the 17th century poet Andrew Marvell put it (he was seducing a lady at the time!) Always at my back I hear/Time’s wing’d chariot draws near.
It is no accident that the religions of agricultural societies emphasise the cyclical nature of time. Farming communities are dependent on nature, and nature is not always dependable. You are vulnerable to drought, famine, fire, locusts and flood – and so you pray earnestly to whatever god controls these. The Jewish calendar, and then to some degree the Christian one, recognises this exposure to the vagaries of nature. The key difference was the identity of the God being worshipped – the creator God, the Lord of heaven and earth.
But the Bible is not simply a book about the time of the seasons. It is a different kind of time – namely, history. ‘History’ is the name for time not as repeated seasons, but as successive epochs, eras or centuries. History is measured not by crop yields but by the births and deaths of kings. History is not simply local, but national and global. History asks questions such as ‘who are we as a people?’ and ‘where did we come from?’ And just as it asks about origins, history demands that we inquire about destiny.
Now, history can be thought of as progressing to a particular high point, or as advancing by a series of stages. Marxism, for example, imagined that history would progress until a socialist utopia would be attained. Or perhaps it could be seen as declining towards chaos and disaster. Are things getting worse, or better?
The Bible’s version of history names God as the one who brought Israel out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. This was an event to be recalled and rehearsed, because this event was the basis for life in the land. Without that past, there would be no present, and certainly no future. When Israel gathered together, they were to tell of God’s might acts so that they would be able to remember who they were.
But history unravelled for Israel when she was conquered and exiled. What would happen now? The function of the memory of the Exodus now served as the basis for a future hope – a hope for the day of the coming of the Lord to redeem them as he had done in the past. The prophets had something to say about time, because they could see a time when God would come to restore his people. The faith of Israel, then, meant remembering in order to hope. You needed a memory, but not simply for the purposes of nostalgia – you needed you memory, so that you could look forward, in the midst of your disappointment and bewliderment, to a better day.
This is what we now find in the New Testament with Jesus, who proclaims when he appears that ‘the time is fulfilled’. That is to say: Jesus himself is history’s conclusion, because in him we find that God has come. The promise of God to return to his people has arrived.
And yet, history does not conclude with Jesus, not quite. That is what is confusing to the disciples at the beginning of the book of Acts. They were still expecting Jesus to bring in the time of Israel’s deliverance. But what they missed was that the Bible’s version of history was not just Israel’s history but the history of the entire world. The promise to Israel, to be brought to pass in the generations of Abraham, was for the blessing of all the nations of the earth. The risen Jesus kicks off the new age of the preaching of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Theologians speak of this as the ‘now/not-yet’ tension. Time has accomplished its purposes, in Jesus; but time is still left while the gospel goes into the world. As Peter says (in 2 Peter 3:9):
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
The message for Christians as they gather together each week? Watch the time. We should rightly remember that we worship the God of the Sabbath day. The Sabbath was designed to help us remember our dependence on the creator God, so that we would delight in the world as he did. But it was also created as a way to remember the way in which God has designed history to bring about his purposes for the world. It looks forward to the final Rest of God, when all that corrupts the good creation will be excluded, and when things on earth and heaven will be reconciled to him, by the blood of the cross (Colossians 1). The time is short, not because we are mortal, but because we expect Jesus’ return.
That’s why Jesus castigates his disciples for their inattention, and why he tells the parable of the foolish bridesmaids, who miss the coming of the bridegroom.
Watching the character of the time, Christians need to be ready for the return of Christ to end time.
How to be ready? Remember what God is done. That’s what we are doing when we open the Scriptures and read once more a story we’ve heard a million times. That’s why we sing again and again of the acts of God, and especially of the cross of Jesus Christ. Repetition and routine are our great friends here: we want to have the acts and the character of God embedded deep with us.
But this looking back for the purpose of looking forward, in hope. In speaking of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul shows how it helps us to have this distinctive double vision – back, and forward. Jesus himself said ‘Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ It looks backwards. But it also looks forwards:
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
We look, in other words, back to the cross as the great act of redemption that makes us what we are. But we look forward to the final return of Jesus to complete God’s plan for history.