Change: Time

Change: Time
A Message on Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
April 19, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (NRSV)

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;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

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You know, it’s funny how things change over time. Months ago, when I was planning out sermons, I thought it might be a good idea to do a sermon series on “change.” The General Conference of the United Methodist Church was coming up in May in Minnesota and from what almost everybody was saying there would be some pretty big changes coming to the United Methodist Church. So I planned out a six-week sermon series on the topic of “change” from a biblical perspective.

Well, as you know, things… well… uh… for lack of a better term… changed. COVID-19 came along and the whole world found itself in a true pandemic. The General Conference of of the UMC has been postponed and will now occur sometime in 2021 (no specific dates have been announced to my knowledge).

So I thought about… well… changing the sermon series to something else. But then the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that preaching a sermon series on change is very appropriate for what we are going through.

I don’t know a single person whose life has not been somehow changed by this pandemic. So, for the next seven weeks (I had scheduled a youth Sunday in there that will be moved to the fall so that added a Sunday) we will be exploring different aspects of change in the Bible.

Today, we explore the topic of time.

The scripture we read today from Ecclesiastes 3 is one of the more “famous” verses of the Bible. For folks my age or so it was made “famous” by a group called “The Byrds” who sang a song titled, “Turn, turn, turn.” The group didn’t work too hard on the lyrics of the song as they went straight to the Bible.

“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep”

That’s a lot of talk about time, but let’s back up a bit and work on a definition of time.

Time is one of those things that you know what it is but have difficulty in giving a definition. I went straight to the dictionary, Mariam Webster to be exact. There I find several definitions but the one I like the best is “b”: “a nonspatial continuum that is measured in terms of events which succeed one another from past through present to future.”

Wow! So I checked another online dictionary and found this: “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.”

Wow again! That’s pretty deep stuff, huh?

Now we usually talk of time in terms of our ability to measure it. We talk about days, hours, minutes and seconds. We call that time.

We talk about time in confirmation classes, especially in reference to God. The gears in those young minds get to whirring when we talk about how God does not have a beginning, that there never was a time when God was not. (Think about that for a while…)

And then we make it even more interesting by reading from the first chapter of John where John says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” And then we talk about who the “Word” was, and they figure out John is talking about Jesus. And then it dawns on them that Jesus, who is God, has been with God always, from beyond the beginning of the earth. So then Jesus transcends time and space as well. Boom! Mind blown!

If you think about it our sense of time is based very much on our solar system. We know it takes 24 hours for the earth to make one rotation on its axis. We call that a “day.” We break that period of time up into 24 equal segments which we call hours. Then we take an hour and divide it up into 60 equal segments that we call “minutes.” Then we take a minute and divide it up into 60 equal segments again and we get what we call seconds.

Going the other way we count off 365 days (it is actually 365.2422 days but 365 is pretty close) that it takes the earth to travel in its orbit around the sun, and we call that a “year.”

But what if we were on another planet in another solar system? What kind of measurements would we use?

Or what if we divided days up into 10 equal parts, kinda like a decimal system of time keeping? There would be 10 hours in a day, 100 minutes in an hour, 100 seconds in a minute… you get the idea. (It would make the math much easier!)

Time is something that can be difficult to perceive. The famous genius Albert Einstein talked about time being relative in his famous “theory of relativity” (which has nothing to do with your family tree, by the way.)

Here’s an overly simple and highly inaccurate example. An hour spent doing your favorite activity, for me that would be fishing, seems to go by very quickly. It doesn’t seem to last long. But if I have a bad tooth that’s really hurting me at midnight and I have to wait until the next morning until I can go see Dr. Brad Westbrook for him to fix it, those hours will seem like they are dragging by very slowly.

For a little four-letter word time sure can make us think deeply, can’t it?

The writer of the scripture we read today was doing some deep thinking as well. Traditionally it was believed that King Solomon, known as one of the most intelligent rulers ever, was the author. A lot of modern scholars believe someone other than Solomon wrote it, perhaps another wise King.

Ecclesiastes is an interesting book in that it kind of has a pessimistic quality about it. It’s not quite as bad as Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh books, but it is not a happy clappy book.

This is from the first chapter: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” — Ecclesiastes 1:2-3

The NIV translates verse two as “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

The Message uses this language: “Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.] There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke. What’s there to show for a lifetime of work, a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?”

That reminds me of the old country song by Hoyt Axton, “Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? Boney fingers.”

So the author of Ecclesiastes questioningly laments the purpose of one’s life, and then in the third chapter tells us there is a time for everything.

So what does that mean? I think it means that in our lives we can expect both ups and downs, highs and lows, joys and sorrows. Things change. Time and change are interrelated.

As humans we don’t like change very much, do we. Oh we may say that we do, but our actions often betray that attitude.

Back before the Coronavirus when we would go see Emily at College Station we almost always ate at a restaurant called “Wings and More.” I just love their chicken wings. And I always order the same thing. They have a pretty wide selection of items on their menu, but I always order the same thing: 10 wings with medium sauce with extra celery and blue cheese dressing.

How many of you drive the same way to work? Have the same thing for dinner on a specific night. Watch the same programs on tv on the same days.

Routines make us comfortable. They are known and participating in them brings us a sense of safety. And when change comes it makes us uncomfortable.

Since we are talking about time just think about the time changes. We “spring forward” one hour in the spring to implement daylight saving time and “fall back” one hour in the fall to go back to “regular time.”

I’m not a fan of the time change. I never have been. My mom kept a copy of a handwritten letter I sent to the President of the United States when I was about 10 years old, complaining of the implementation of daylight saving time because our milk cow, which I had to milk twice a day, didn’t understand or observe the time change.

I like the illustration about the Native American who said “Only the government would believe that if you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket.”

Even worse than time change, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world of time upside down. The kids no longer have to get up and go to school. Many people are working from home instead of driving to an office. My brother that lives in Trophy Club said he has gained an additional hour a day by not having to make his 30-minute commute through traffic to get to work.

If you think about it, though, time is somewhat of an equalizer. Everybody gets the same amount of time everyday. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, good looking and beautiful or… well… not. Everybody gets 24 hours each day, no more, no less.

As Christians, it is how we let our faith shape how we use that time that matters.

Steven Curtis Chapman sang a song several years ago titled, “Next 5 Minutes.” Some of the lyrics are:

Every moment God is giving is precious
Every heartbeat; every breath I take;
We’ll never have them back once they’ve left us.
There will never be another right now
So right now

I’m living the next 5 minutes
Like these are my last 5 minutes,
‘Cause I know the next 5 minutes
May be all I have
And after the next 5 minutes
Turn into the last 5 minutes,
I’m taking the next 5 minutes
And starting all over again

Now there is a belief that our lives are put on a predetermined timer by God, and when it’s my time to go there’s nothing we can do about that. The problem with that is that it overrules free will that is given to us by God. We can’t engage in life-risking behaviors and then blame God if we lose our life. We can’t step out in front of a fast moving truck and say, “Well, if it’s my time, it’s my time.” No. God doesn’t work like that.

Now that’s not to say that God doesn’t have control over our lives. I believe he does, but he also leaves room for our free will to play a role.

Our first reading today, from Psalm 31, reads

But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love. — Psalm 31:14-16

Time changes things. Our bodies get older and start to not function properly. We find that we can no longer do what we used to be able to do. The world in which we live changes with time.

But God never changes. He can change his mind, that is illustrated in the Bible, but his nature never changes. It transcends time and space. And his love for us never changes. We experience that on Easter and every Sunday as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And we can find comfort in knowing that our savior, Jesus Christ, transcends time and space. His death on the cross and resurrection has redeemed us, has given us the gift of transcending time and space after our time on this earth is through. Jesus offers us eternity, which is a really, really long time.

So my challenge to you this week is to not worry so much about time. Put your time to good use, especially during this pandemic when our routines are turned upside down and inside out. Put your trust in the creator of time, the one who transcends it, the one that has always been and always will be.

The times, as Bob Dylan once sang, they may be changing, but God’s love for you through Jesus Christ does not.

There is a time for everything, but there is a love that is even bigger than time. Live in that love, embrace it, accept it, knowing how great is the Father’s love for us.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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