A Reflection for Remembrance Day
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven … (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
TEXT: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
I recall hearing once about a pastor who was admired for always finishing his services right at noon. Then, one Sunday, the unthinkable happened. He preached until 12:30! On the way out, one of his parishioners inquired, “What happened to you this morning, anyway?”
The pastor answered, “For years I have always put a candy mint in my mouth as the service started, and I would tuck it away. It was always gone at exactly noon. That way, I never had to look at the clock or worry about what time it was. But this Sunday it didn’t go away, and I finally realized I had put a button in my mouth.”
Pulpiteers are not the only ones who have to keep track of time. We all do. There are deadlines to meet, papers to be turned in, buses to catch. In modern society, calendars and clocks have become our masters.
But, you know, the idea of our lives and the events in them being controlled by blocks of allocated time is a relatively new idea. Did you know that clocks did not have minute hands until the 17th century?
Surely much has been gained in terms of production and organization, but when life became divided and subdivided into seconds, minutes, and hours, many things were lost. We experience those losses every day.
Our distance from the natural rhythms of life keeps increasing. Hardly anything is really seasonal. You can get tomatoes any time of the year now, although—here in Canada—the ones you buy in January are likely to have been shipped 1,000 miles and will taste like cardboard.
We also live at an increasing distance from the ancient understanding that each day—each moment—is an unearned gift from a gracious God, rather than a commodity to be traded.
On Remembrance Day, as we recall conflict and sacrifice and sad history—as we remember the past and look to the future—perhaps we need to rethink time.
There was an ancient teacher of wisdom who was called, in Hebrew, Qoheleth. The name is translated into Greek as “Ecclesiastes.” This wise person understood time quite differently from the way we understand it. He wrote after the Babylonian Exile, an experience that taught the Hebrew people that their earthly existence was never going to be an uninterrupted walk in the park. It also taught them that time should not be a tyrant demanding all of their attention.
Some see Ecclesiastes as the ultimate cynic—and I guess I can understand why. Thirty-eight times throughout the course of his book, Qoheleth says, “All is vanity.”
However, I’m not sure that I would call him a cynic. I think he’s more of a realist—a practical theologian who refused to look at life through rose-colored glasses.
Chapter three of Qoheleth’s book catalogs various seasons of life—28 of them arranged in sharp contrast to one another, and yet each one an undeniable part of human existence. His list rings so true. It begins with what is most obvious: that, one day, we are born into this world—and then, just as inevitably, our life in this world comes to an end. The French composer Hector Berlioz once remarked, “Time is a great teacher. Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils.”
Qoheleth would have agreed—though he might have objected to the adverb “unfortunately.” For him, things are the way they are because everything has been set in motion by God. The universe unfolds according to its own inner logic and set of seasons. Only God knows why existence is set up the way it is.
In the face of an inscrutable world created by an inscrutable God, one should not waste energy railing against life; instead, Qoheleth advises, “The best thing to do is to be happy and enjoy yourself for as long as you can.”
That is theological advice at its practical best. Since there are so many things over which we have no control, isn’t it wisdom to be happy and to look for joy in life?
In addition to not worrying about what we can’t control and enjoying the gifts God gives, Qoheleth’s other prescription for life is that always and forever we are to stand in awe before God—from whose mighty acts, nothing can be added or taken away. God is the Creator of time. God sets the rhythm of reality—the time to mourn, the time to dance, the time to gather in and the time to let go.
It seems to me that “knowing what time it is” is the thing that separates the foolish from the wise. Some hold on for dear life to that which is actually finished and done. Some refuse to let go of a relationship that has ceased to be nourishing. Others try to breathe life into a church program that has been around for too long, but no one is brave enough to bury it. There is a time to build up and a time to break down, a time to be born and a time to die.
Though Ecclesiastes maintains there will always be hatred and war in this world, don’t think for a moment that he is condoning either. He is simply stating a fact. Remember that Christ came into a world filled with hatred and war, with injury and mourning. He came to show us the way to higher ground. “I am the bread of life,” he said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”1
Jesus gives us directions to the peaceable kingdom—which God originally intended, and which he has come to restore. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he tells us.2 He came to defeat all that would separate us from God and from one another.
Any time you and I sanction hatred in God’s name, we are contradicting our Lord’s teachings. I shudder when I hear some of the hateful rhetoric that is abroad in our world today.
It happens when we brand others as “terrorists” simply because of their religion—or as “gangsters” simply because of their race.
It happens whenever we refuse to help someone because we figure they’ve created their own mess. It happens way too often.
Let us never sigh and say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.”
If there was ever a time to kill, now is the time to kill incivility and replace it with civility. If there was ever a time to sow seeds of reason, the time is now. We need to know what time it is.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies; do good to those who persecute you.” This is the time—now is the time—to not answer evil with evil, to not return ugliness for ugliness, violence for violence. This is the time for the reconciling love of God to be released into the atmosphere afresh—released through you, and through me.
What time is it? I like the bumper sticker that reads, “Don’t postpone joy.” Ecclesiastes couldn’t have said it better.
When Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, he said, “The time is fulfilled.”3
When we hear that proclamation today, another “now” is created: Now is the moment of our salvation—this very moment, rich with divine possibility. Here we are on the frontier between the old order and the new order, where Jesus reigns.
In the 20th century, Karl Barth called his age the time of “great positive possibility.” That is equally true right now. Today is filled—to overflowing—with great divine possibility. No, the past is not yet completely finished and gone, but the truly new has come.
Jesus knew all there was to know about time. He knew when the time had come to give his life. He knew whom to trust with his life, with his own coming and going. Soon, we’ll be into the season of Advent, and then Christmas. Before we know it, we’ll be gathering on December 24th to sing that lovely verse from “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Christ is the turning point, the fulcrum of history. That’s why, as people who believe in him, we dare to live in hope.
“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” Yesterday is but a memory, and tomorrow but a vision. But today well-lived makes every yesterday a memory of happiness, and every tomorrow, a vision of hope. Amen.
1 John 6:35
2 Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:14
3 Mark 1:15 (also see Luke 4:21—“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”)