Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 5th of First Month, 2020
Speaker: Brian C. Young
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3:1–13, NRSV:
1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
9 What gain have the workers from their toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.
14 I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.
Happy New Year, Friends!
It’s good to be with all of you again, on the first First Day in 2020.
Yes, 2020. Some folks are saying it feels like something out of science fiction, that we’re living in 2020. I’ve heard others emphasize the fact that we’re finally in a decade with a name that’s easy to say—“oh, it’s so great that it’s ‘the twenties’ now—‘the aughts’ and ‘the tens’ were just so awkward...” And still others want to argue about when “the twenties” actually begin—since there wasn’t a year 0, they point out, each decade really begins on a year that ends in 1. Mathematically, they’re correct, but they’re fighting a losing battle, I think. (Eric Dimick Eastman may disagree with me about that…)
Regardless of which decade you think we’re in, another year has passed. Now, I sometimes have to remind myself that there really isn't any special significance to January 1st itself—it's just a place in the year that has been chosen as a matter of convention to start things again. In fact, it hasn't always been the point at which we observed the new year—until sometime in the 18th century, the new year in the English-speaking world began in March. This is why you sometimes have to be careful with the dates in some of the old Quaker writings—when they talk about First Month, they're not talking about January. And, of course, other cultures observe the beginning of their calendars at various other points in the year.
So even though there's nothing particularly magical about January 1st itself, this point in the calendar is always a time to stop and take stock, isn't it? To think about what has gone before, and what's to come. Of course, a lot of people make resolutions at this time of year. But you probably don't want to hear me talk about New Year's resolutions (do you?). You have probably heard your share of messages on resolutions. And here’s my secret: I'm not much good either at making resolutions, or at keeping them. For me, resolutions are so much about self-improvement, about something that I'm doing, that God isn't involved much... and I believe it's God's work in each of our hearts that is the source of lasting change.
So even though I haven’t made any resolutions, as another year begins, I can’t help but think about time. Time is something I seem to have less and less of these days, as I become more and more aware of my own limitations. It seems like the amount of effort it takes to get something done is greater, and the number of things that can be accomplished in a day or a week or a month is fewer… and so I can’t help but think about how I use my time. Lately I seem to have been working my own agenda as to how to do that, and not seeking God’s will for it. Notice I even say my time—forgetting that time doesn’t actually belong to me. Time is a resource like any other, given by God for my good—for our good—and my role is to be the best steward of it that I can.
So if I have a resolution this year, it is to be more conscious of how I am using the time that God has granted to me.
How much time am I spending…
...on the Internet, or on my smartphone?
...in prayer and meditation?
...with my wife, or with close friends?
...getting to know someone in Richmond that I don't know well—especially those of a race, ethnicity, culture, or religion different from my own?
How much time am I spending…
...studying the Bible or doing other spiritually instructive reading?
How much time am I spending…
...acquiring stuff, and in making sure that that stuff is safe and properly taken care of?
And how much time do I use worrying about how to make my time more productive?
Our Scripture this morning includes one of the best-known passages from the Bible about time: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot...” And the song that Welling played for us is probably (still) the best-known presentation of that text in our culture —it’s now more than sixty years old, but it’s hard for me to read this passage and not have that tune come to mind.
The first part of the passage, up to verse 8, is a beautiful hymn to the order of creation and time in creation. Everything has its time and its place. We have a sense of an orderly ebb and flow to human activity in the universe, and time along with it. Many of the activities are things that we can have a say in, but the first and the last, being born and dying, are not ours to decide.
Ecclesiastes is a fascinating book, with a unique perspective within the Hebrew Bible. It is grouped with two other books commonly thought of as “wisdom” books—Job and Proverbs—because they are all in some way about the pursuit of wisdom, or what it means to be a wise person. Like Proverbs, much of Ecclesiastes takes the form of short sayings, and they are understood to come from a writer, or a speaker, who is sometimes called “the Preacher” or “the Teacher.” Most of what the Teacher writes stresses the importance of wisdom, asserting that true wisdom comes from God; and the Teacher encourages the reader to become wise by hearkening to these sayings and observations about how to live.
So in the second part of today’s passage, we get the Teacher’s perspective on the why of that beautiful hymn in the first part—all of those times and seasons. First, it is clear that God is the one who has set this order of seasons: God “has made everything suitable for its time”; another translation says, “made everything beautiful in its time”. Many of these activities are part of a cycle, or cycles, that God has put in place, and there is beauty in the ordering of those changes, as part of the beauty and order of creation.
At the same time, the Teacher acknowledges the reality of day-to-day life: the workers have their toil, and is there anything to be gained from it (vv9–10)? Despite the beauty that the Teacher discerns in God’s ordering of things, he seems to think that most of us are never going to get it: God “has put a sense of past and future” into the minds of human beings, “yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (v11). The New International Version of the Bible, instead of “a sense of past and future,” here uses “eternity,” which I think is a better rendering. For the Teacher, eternity is something we can understand, or at least perceive, but not get a grip on—there is a sense that this is a burden laid on humanity, to be able to perceive but not fully grasp God’s purpose in eternity.
This perspective, by the way, is one of the things that makes Ecclesiastes unique in the Bible—this acknowledgment, as it says in vv12 & 13, that the best humanity may be able to do is to “be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; ...all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil”. It is in some ways a perspective closer to 20th-century existentialist philosophy than to much of the rest of the Bible. It’s interesting that in seeking to make people wise about how to live, the Teacher becomes so eminently practical.
When theologians and Biblical scholars think and write about time, they often make a distinction between two different kinds of time, and identify them with Greek words that are used in various places in the Bible. One is kronos, from which we get our word “chronological”; kronos is time we can measure and order: days and weeks and years. Kronos proceeds in a linear fashion, moving from 2019 to 2020, and never backward. Kronos can be divided and subdivided, so we can chop those days into hours, and those hours into minutes, and those minutes into seconds, and the seconds into milliseconds, and so on and so on.
A second kind of time that we see in the Bible is what’s called kairos. Kairos isn’t really time that can be measured. Rather, it has the sense of “the time that is right,” or “the time that is suitable” for a particular purpose. So a lot of what the Teacher is talking about in today’s passage is kairos: the Teacher doesn’t tell us, the time to weep will be from 3 PM to 3:30 PM on Tuesdays, Thursdays and alternate Fridays; the time to laugh, 9 to 9:30 AM on Sundays, Mondays, and Saturdays. That would be kronos, and it would be ridiculous. Instead, each of these things—weeping, laughing, mourning, dancing, and all the rest—have a kairos, a suitable time, a right season.
Kairos also has the sense of decisiveness—when it’s a kairos moment, there is a sense that God is involving Godself in our kronos to make something happen. In the New Testament, this becomes more clear in Jesus’ teachings, for example when he speaks to his opponents in Matthew chap. 16, and says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (16:3). The “times” that Jesus speaks of here are a kairos period, the disclosure of God’s purpose in Jesus. We might say that all of Jesus’ ministry was kairos, a decisive moment for humanity that the Pharisees and the Sadduccees and many others could not perceive or understand.
And yet we know that some did perceive and understand. So I have to disagree with the Teacher in at least one respect—as human beings, we may not be able to fully grasp the meaning of eternity; we may never be able to find out what God has done from the beginning to the end—but we can discern the kairos moment when it comes before us. Our faith, proven by experience, is that God is present to us through the Inward Christ, and that God can make God’s will known to us when we are faithful to be still and to listen.
God calls us to be good stewards of the time God has given us; God also calls us to discern the signs of the times. This leads me to ask, what is the need of the present season? What is the kairos in our present chronos, in the first days of 2020? How is God involving Godself in our present times to make something happen? Each of you may discern a particular decisive movement. You may discern God involving Godself in your circumstances in a very personal way. This may be your time to weep, laugh, mourn, or dance.
And you may ask, along with me, “must this continue to be the time for war?”
The present moment seems to be decisive for people of peace, as the White House seems to be bent upon war with a foreign nation, yet again. An urgent moment, yes, but how are we to respond in that urgency? I pray that it will be possible for us to respond out of the inbreaking of eternity, and not just out of fear, or anger. Let us discern together how God calls us in this kairos moment.