May 6, 2018


Ecclesiastes 3:1-10

This morning I have a riddle for you. Please don’t blurt out the answer when you figure it out. Let me finish before giving aloud the answer. I want you to guess what it is. Here are the clues.

You can lose it and you can find it, but you can never recover it. It can be elusive, yet you can capture it. You can count it, but not collect it. You can manage it or waste it, some people even do it. It can be well spent or frittered away. The less we have of it to spare, the further we can often make it go. It always goes in one direction. It waits for no one but we are irritated when we wait for it.  It can speed up or slow down, and if you can go fast enough, it will stop. You can have too much of it or too little of it, but on any given day everyone has the same amount of it. 

You’ve guessed it? Yes, it is time. We all sense the passing of time. We can lose time watching television, and we can find the time for doing the laundry but we cannot recover the times we were too busy to play with our children. Professionals carefully manage their time, sometimes students waste their time, and convicts are forced to do time. Time can elude us, but we can, so some say, capture time with a camera on film, as when for instance we snap and capture a “Kodak moment.” Time waits for no one, but we can impatiently wait a long time to see the doctor. Although we all live on the same Daylight Savings Time, since Einstein discovered relativity, we have realized that time can move at different speeds. As Einstein said, “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, you think it’s only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute, you think it is two hours. That’s relativity.”  

Managing time is extremely important to me, as I know it is important to many of you. I suppose that I did go a bit overboard, now looking back, while I was in college when I used to schedule every fifteen minute segment of my week. Sometimes I told my girlfriend (now my wife) that I could fit in a fifteen minute conversation with her on the day after tomorrow in the late afternoon. 

For the next several Sundays I plan to consider segments of time, specifically the periods of an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, and finally the longest period of time, eternity. I will refrain from offering advice on time management, as you heard, I have been known to be somewhat obsessive compulsive when it comes to managing time. Over the past few weeks I have become curious to learn what the Bible says about time. For the next few Sundays I plan to offer some ways that we might learn from the Bible and our Christian tradition in hopes of changing, for the better, our use of time. 

We start with the time span of an hour. We define an hour as one of 24 equal parts in a day, making one hour last approximately 3,560 seconds. In ancient times an hour was defined differently. An hour was 1/12thof the period of sunlight in a day. The twelve parts of any given day were equal in length, but since, as we know, the length of a day can vary from season to season, the length of an hour in the summer was different from the length of an hour in the winter. For the period between sunrise and sunset in the summer is much longer than the period between sunrise and sunset in the winter. On any given day each of the twelve hours would be equal in duration, but an hour in July would be much longer than an hour in February. 

For ordinary people that variation between the length of an hour in different seasons did not make much difference. People woke up at sunrise and went to bed after sunset. There was no need to be consistent about a specific time in the course of a day’s tasks. One could wash the floor at the fifth hour or ninth hour. Which hour you chose to perform the chore did not matter. 

But for Catholic monks in Europe during the Middle Ages this variation in the length of hours from season to season caused problems. Benedictine monks were committed to pray at specific hours for specific lengths of time in the course of every day. If from day to day the location and duration of an hour changed, they could not observe a sense of order or maintain standards for their adherents in nearby towns. The monks engineered a machine that would control the ringing of their bells to designate the standardized times for calling Christian people to prayer. The Latin word for bells was clocca, so the machine for keeping time by ringing the bells on the designated hours was called a clock

Town officials became so impressed with the monks' reliable timepiece that they mounted clocks on towers in the middle of the towns. The clocks became the timekeepers for life in a village. Gradually shop owners, merchants, factory owners, and storekeepers took advantage of the monks’ invention for their business purposes. Clocks called people to work on time and to stay at work until closing time. The clock, which was originally invented in order to remind people to pay attention to God, eventually became a tool for reminding people to pay attention to their jobs. Efficiency and productivity supplanted mindfulness and prayer. 

As I mentioned, long before the monks engineered clocks to strike the 24 hours in a day, back in ancient times, one meaning of an hour was 1/12thof the period of sunlight in a day. People living in Bible times could refer to the first hour of the day, meaning sunrise, or the sixth hour of the day, meaning noontime, or the twelfth hour of the day, meaning sunset. More often those living in Bible times used the word hour in another sense. Besides using an hour to make the length of time, they used the word hourto mark a fitting time, an appropriate time for certain actions. 

There was an appropriate hour for milking the goats. A right hour for eating supper.  A proper hour for cleaning the house. Cleaning the house did not necessarily last for 60 minutes, what we call one hour.  The hour for house cleaning simply meant it was the fitting time to do it, not that it took 60 minutes to finish. 

         We use a similar meaning for the word hour when businesses refer to the “happy hour” after work, which hour at some bars may last as long as 90 minutes or more. (Vita Hamilton used to refer to our custom of serving refreshments after worship as the church’s “happy hour,” which in our case also does not last for precisely sixty minutes.) Every spring this congregation solicits funds for the One Great Hour of Sharing. Our fundraising does not last solely for 60 minutes, but we collect during all seven weeks of Lent.     

Often in the Bible, an hour means the right time for something to occur, whether it lasts 60 minutes or not. For example, sprinkled throughout the Gospel on John, there are about a dozen references to Jesus’ hour. When his mother urges him to change water into wine at a wedding reception, he initially declines, saying “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). When a mob tries to arrest him, the plot fizzles because “his hour has not yet come” (John 7:30, 8:20). Finally at the end of his life, when he enters the city at the head of a ticker tape parade, he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). At the Last Supper, he is aware that the hour has come for him to pass from this world to his heavenly Father (John 13:1). In his final prayer, he declares that, because his hour has come, he will be glorified (John 17:1). 

Jesus is using the word hourto cover more than a 60 minute period toward the end of his life. His hour includes his crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and return to the Father. His hour covered several days. His hour was the occasion when he did what is fitting, when he did what God planned for him to do. 

In a similar sense Winston Churchill used the word hourin his famous speech (June 18, 1940) when the collapse of France was imminent and the Battle of Britain was about to begin: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Commonwealth and its Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

What marked their finest hour was not the duration of sixty minutes, for the Battle of Britain lasted much longer than that. What marked their finest hour was sacrificially fulfilling their duty to defend home and country. 

Likewise, in the Bible an hour referred to more than a period of sixty minutes, it referred to the fulfillment of God’s purpose for that person at that time. 

This definition for an hour prompts me to recalibrate what we mean by keeping time. Our question is commonly: “What time is it?” “How many minutes are left before the movie starts?” “Have I got time to stop at Starbucks for a cup of coffee before catching the train?”  “How long does it take for this computer to boot up?” “Isn’t it time for Jeopardy yet?” 

We are like the bus driver who told his passengers, “I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that we took a wrong turn and are on the wrong road. But don’t worry, the good news is that we are making great time.” 

For us the going itself, the race in time, is its own reward regardless of where it takes us. Time terrifies us, because there is not enough of it. We want more time. We want to pour a gallon of living into a quart of time. 

The perspective in the Bible about time differs from my perspective. I am obsessed with keeping track of what time it is. I am obsessed with how much I can fit in. The Bible challenges me to consider a different question: What is the time for? The Bible offers little to no advice about being productive; it gives much more attention to being purposeful. What is the time for? 

What time is for is a lot more than what you probably expect me as a pastor to say. As you expect I wholeheartedly affirm that surely some time is for worship, for paying attention to God, for regular prayer and reflection on Scripture. Surely to ignore time for connecting with the Lord puts one on the wrong road traveling at break neck speed. But you surely are not the ones to need to hear that message, since you are here, making this time for honoring the Lord. 

You need to hear a mantra that I learned from one of my college roommates. In the throes of pressing assignments and demanding projects, he repeated over and over, “There is always time to do God’s will.  There is always time to do God’s will.” 

There is time to do God’s will in part because what God wants us to do is more encompassing and more time consuming that what we do on Sundays here. Recall what we heard earlier from the Preacher who published under the pen name Ecclesiastes:

“There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh…(3:1-10).” 

There is a time for everything God wants us to do, because God sees importance and takes delight in everything we do that promotes God’s intentions from the moment of our birth to the hour of our death. We have time to do God’s will, because sometimes God wants us to work and other times to play, sometimes to eat and other times to sleep, sometimes to change the dirty diapers and other times to walk the dog, sometimes to clean the kitchen floor and other times to counsel the neighbor’s kid on applying to college. 

There is no time in our day that is outside God’s concern, although there are sadly many times that are outside God’s approval. When we do what is right and just and loving we are promoting God’s agenda. We can do that any time.