The Gift of Time
Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.—Isaiah 55:6
Time is the enemy of teachers, speakers and preachers—we are always battling with the clock. In the context of formal church services, this battle goes back to the so-called olden days when preachers walked up and took their place behind the pulpit. At the beginning of the sermon an hour glass of sand was turned on its end. The passing of time was determined as small quantities of sand passed from the upper chamber, which at the beginning of the hour was full, to the lower chamber.
When the last grains of sand filtered through the hour glass into the lower chamber, the sermon was finished. Or not, in some cases! But, preachers were on notice—those who consistently ignored the passage of time did so at their own risk.
The hour glass as a way of governing the length of sermons was introduced just after the Protestant Reformation, when the accepted length of sermons increased. By the middle of the 17th century Puritan preachers were inflicting two hour glass length sermons on their captive audiences. During this era, when the sand had emptied from the upper chamber of the hour glass, the audience could take heart that at least half of the sermon was over.
There was, of course, much humor (at the expense of the preacher) attached to the hour glass. Some of this humor was richly deserved! And, in defense of preachers, then and now, there were times when the hour glass was a losing proposition for the preacher.
If the preacher finished his sermon with sand still occupying the upper chamber of the hour glass, his congregation might judge him to be lazy. If he exceeded the limit and continued to preach after the sand had completely filled the lower chamber, the congregation would yawn and stretch, visibly expressing their displeasure, until at last he gave up and sat down.
Queen Victoria is said to have been so displeased with longwinded sermons she ordered an 18-minute glass!
I am fond of the old advice given to preachers—make sure that you stop talking when you have finished your sermon. Unfortunately, there are many preachers who don’t follow this advice. Even though they have made their point(s), they keep talking.
Our perception of time is usually negative. We normally view time as controlling our lives. From early childhood we learn that our lives revolve around the clock: “It’s time to get up to go to school;” “It’s time to come in for dinner;” “It’s time to do your homework;” “It’s time for your bath (a particularly loathsome announcement for many young boys);” and “It’s time for bed.”
As we move through life, messages about the constraints of time continue to plague us: “It’s time to go to work;” “It’s time to mow the lawn;” “It’s time to go to the doctor” and “It’s time to retire.” I’m told that even after people retire, time can be understood as an enemy, for while retirees may not be struggling with a schedule, time can hang heavy because of boredom and slow-moving days. I am also told that for some, late in life, time can seem to drag, leading to feelings of loneliness and depression.
There was a “time” in human history when time was viewed as moving serenely and fluently, like the example of time being measured with dried sand flowing from one chamber of an hour glass to another.
The invention of the clock introduced the idea of measuring time in specific, finite units—in seconds, minutes and hours. In fact, the clock is perhaps the key machine of the modern industrial age—the clock is the symbol, the touch stone, the unit of measurement of industry and progress.
Our passage in Isaiah today encourages us to seek the Lord while he may be found, call on him while he is near. Our human language is the only way we can understand God. We must use time and space to comprehend God who exists eternally outside of time and space.
Time is a gift—a God-given gift—that enables us to attempt to understand God and his plan for our lives, the relationship he so freely offers to us. As Christians we believe that God is a part of our story, our history, the times and days of our lives. We don’t just have some vague, ethereal notion of God. We believe, in the beginning (at least in our beginning as humans) that God created all things.
When we say we believe in Jesus, we are saying that we believe in Jesus who was, who is and who is to come. We believe in Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith—the eternal Son of God who exists eternally outside of our time, but out of his love for us, voluntarily entered into our time and became God in the flesh.
This time of the year, during the time many churches call Advent, is a fitting opportunity for us to think about The Gift of Time. To think about seeking God and calling on him while we can.
Advent essentially involves most of the month of December, the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and traditionally it begins with an emphasis on the Second Coming of Jesus. Advent is a precious “time”—a wonderful season—filled with rich and profound spiritual lessons and teaching. Advent reminds us of The Gift of Time.
As Christians we believe that time is going somewhere. We believe that God, in the person of Jesus, came down to this earth, out of eternity where time does not exist, into the days and times of our lives, joining us and experiencing just what it means to be human.
The celebration of the birth of Jesus, at the end of this time of Advent, tells us that God cares about the days of our lives. He cares enough to have become one of us. The Second Coming of Jesus tells us that time has a goal, it tells us that our story, our history, is not meaningless.
Of course, the Second Coming is only possible because of the First Coming. The Second Coming tells us that wars and violence and terrorism and hate are not the end. We look for the time when peace will reign, when God’s peace will fill the earth as the waters cover the earth. Because of time, we look, as the writer of Hebrews says, for a country whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:16). Our countries, our cities, our civilization and our culture are not our goal.
Time helps us to embrace the future, to see the days of our lives in perspective, to understand the time that measures our days as transitory, as here-and-now, but certainly not the goal. The Gift of Time helps us, as the philosopher Kierkegaard once said, to understand life backwards, but to live it forward.
The past is past—we can’t go back. But through The Gift of Time we can learn from our past and the past of others. The present is the here and now, but it is fleeting. Time is measured in years, months, days, hours, seconds, micro-seconds and nanoseconds. Time in the present is limited, there is only so much available to each of us during our earthly sojourn.
I was reading a brief commentary about time the other day. According to Harper’s Magazine:
• It takes one to three minutes to have a dream.
• It takes 45 seconds for blood to circulate around the body.
• It takes 4-6 months to make Swiss cheese.
• It takes one year to make a piano.
• It takes 36 hours to read the federal budget.
• It takes 130 days to grow an artichoke.
• AND—a professional football game, which officially lasts an hour, takes at least 2½ hours to complete.
Reflecting on the present helps us project into the future. That is the secret to God’s Gift of Time—this gift helps us realize that this present life is not all there is. According to the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is more to life than this life.
As we focus on the Second Coming and remember the first coming of our Lord and Savior, we are reminded that God is ahead of us; he is waiting, he is beckoning us to join him in the future, in his eternity where there is no time as we know it.
In some ways Advent, the month of December, might be known as the celebration of eternity, a feast of the future. This is a time when, at least from our understanding of time and its hold on our lives, it seems that we move closer to God, and he moves closer to us.
Our passage today encourages us to seek the Lord while he is near, while he may be found. The Lord is near, he is close, in Jesus he became one of us. He is still near, because our Lord is risen, and he is right next to us, now and forever more.
Perhaps to be more accurate we can say that the First and Second Comings of Jesus are all about Jesus coming for us, because we need to be found. Of and by ourselves we are powerless to find God. We have no ability, no map, no GPS, no spiritual navigational tool that enables us to find God. Jesus tell us in John 14:6,
“I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Time, while we are in this human flesh, is our mortal enemy, for it leads to an inevitable conclusion. Time forces us to the inescapable fact of our own demise. Time marches on, toward our own death. Time is our mortal enemy, because it marks our physical end.
So, in vain, we look for ways to save and hoard time. We consume fast food, we use automatic bank tellers, we use cell phones so we can talk on the phone while driving our cars (if it is legal to do so), thereby saving time. We have remote controls for our televisions so we can save time—we don’t have to get up to change the channel anymore.
We want what we want now, or not at all—and if we don’t have it now we don’t feel it’s worth waiting for. Such is the tyranny of living in the present—it’s a problem every human faces. The problem of the tyranny of time may be more pronounced today, but every human who has ever lived has faced their own mortality, in one way or another.
While many people today can read numbers passing before their eyes (with digital timekeeping), or the hands of a clock progressing, they can’t tell time. God’s Gift of Time helps us to tell time, to understand it, to use it and see beyond it.
God’s Gift of Time helps us overcome our fear of the passage of time. Our world today worships at the altar of youth, and some make considerable financial sacrifices for surgical procedures that will give others the impression that they have stopped the hands of time.
Humanly, we dread the coming of “the night”—the onset of aging, infirmity and death. We think of the future as our enemy, because it will take so many of those things we love and have worked so hard for away from us—our family and friends, our looks, our healthy bodies, our money, perhaps our minds. Time and the future is seen as a grim reaper that will rob us of everything and leave us with nothing.
In many cases, the overwhelming majority of medical expenses are spent during the last six months of human life, so that time on this earth can be prolonged, so that those six months will be added to the life already lived.
But, this season of the year reminds us that the future is not our enemy. For Christians, the future is not a time of fear, it is not the place of death and defeat. For as certainly as Jesus was born, he will come again. Christ the Lord has come. He has come to be one of us, born of the virgin Mary, born in humility and poverty. He died on his Cross. He rose from his tomb. He is coming again!
So, on this earth, where we are captives of time and space, we are called to patience, as the King James calls it, long-suffering. We live in the time between his First and Second Coming. We have great expectations. We live in the present, conscious of the past, but we live for the future. Our hope is in the heavens.
Paul puts it this way in Colossians 3:1-4:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory.