The Time of Your Life
This morning we are beginning a series of worship services based on a resource from Everence titled Stewards of Grace. Everence is a ministry of Mennonite Church USA and other Anabaptist denominations. It helps individuals, organizations and congregations integrate finances with faith. Everence grew out of a long tradition of church communities putting faith into action by sharing resources with each other.
Although Everence describes itself primarily in financial terms, it is concerned with other areas of life as well. In coming weeks, we’ll begin looking at the holistic stewardship of time, talents, health, money, creation, and relationships.
Our consideration of the stewardship of time begins with the book of Ecclesiastes. In ancient Israel, there were three groups of people who could speak with authority: the priest who was to teach the law, the prophet who was to convey the word of God, and the sage who was to provide wise advice.
Ecclesiastes comes from this last group and is part of what is called Wisdom Literature. These biblical works deal primarily with practical and ethical behavior and ultimate religious questions, such as the problem of evil. They contain practical wisdom for living life in accord with the will of God. Other examples of wisdom literature are Proverbs, Job, Habakkuk, and James.
When we read the first verse of Ecclesiastes, we might think it was written by King Solomon, the son of David. It is actually the work of an Israelite sage who calls himself Qoheleth (Koheleth). The Hebrew word “Qoheleth” is rendered in various Bible translations as preacher, teacher, or quester. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word for “teacher” is ecclesiastes. This is the how we got the name commonly given to this book in our Bible.
To help us understand Ecclesiastes a bit better, let’s compare it with the book of Proverbs, another book of wisdom literature. This will also help us to realize that the Biblical writers did not all speak with one voice. Each one described how they understood God and what God was doing in the world.
The writer of Proverbs emphasizes cause and effect. Choosing wisdom leads to security, blessing, and life; choosing folly leads to disgrace, destruction, and death.
Qoheleth has a different viewpoint. After applying his mind to all that he has seen and experienced, Qoheleth concludes that life is not as predictable as the orthodox sages would have him believe; it is more about chance and fate than about cause and effect.
He states that time and chance happen to everyone. No one knows when disaster will strike. The same fate, death, happens to everyone – to the wise and the foolish, to the righteous and the wicked.
According to Qoheleth’s observations, justice and injustice as well as righteousness and unrighteousness are all mixed together. Oppressors have the power. The righteous die young; the wicked live long lives. The righteous are treated as wicked and the wicked are treated as righteous. Wickedness is in the place of justice and also in the place of righteousness.
Even though the world does not operate as he thinks it should, Qoheleth continues to recognize that God is present and at work. God makes everything. God bestows both prosperity and adversity. God gives the days of life, short as they are, to each person. It is a gift from God that humans can eat and drink and take pleasure in their activities.
But God does not treat everyone alike or even according to some plan that is discernable by humans. God is inexplicably pleased with some people and gives to them wisdom, knowledge, and joy. God is inexplicably displeased with others and gives them work which benefits the ones with whom God is pleased. God gives wealth and the ability to enjoy it to some people, but sometimes God does not enable people to enjoy the wealth and possessions God gives to them. Even as he discusses the chanciness of life, Qoheleth states that whatever God does endures forever.
In light of all this uncertainty about life, Qoheleth repeatedly states that there is nothing better for mortals to do than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. He also advises the righteous to stand in awe before God, to guard their steps and to be careful what they say before God, to fulfill the vows they make to God, and to fear God. They should be careful about wealth. It can lead to greed, worry, and disaster, but it can also be enjoyed. They should not pretend to be wiser than they are or give themselves over to wickedness. They should be realistic; no one can ever be completely righteous. They should cultivate friendship and enjoy family. And they should have hope because whoever is still alive has hope.
As Qoheleth observes and ponders the world around him, his continual refrain is that all is hevel. Hevel literally means breath or breeze. Various translators have rendered it as vanity, meaningless, absurd, empty, useless, insubstantial, transient, profitless, elusive, or smoke. As I read Ecclesiastes, the word that works the best for me is fleeting.
According to Qoheleth, accomplishments, possessions, and wealth are fleeting and cannot bring lasting pleasure. No one knows when disaster will strike and take everything away. What a person works for may end up going to someone else. Length of life and a person’s impact on the world are fleeting. People of long ago are not remembered by the people who come after them. Human control is fleeting, actually nonexistent. It does not matter if a person chooses to be righteous or wicked; the outcome is the same. The righteous can experience adversity and the wicked can experience prosperity. Comprehension, of the world and of God, is fleeting. There is no discernible pattern to the way God works and the world operates. Humans can catch only a glimpse of wisdom. Hope is fleeting, but it does exist.
Qoheleth’s philosophy can be summed up in a few short sentences. Life is difficult. Wisdom is inaccessible. Death is inevitable. Fear God. Work hard. Enjoy life!
How can Ecclesiastes help us as we think about stewardship of time? As central as time is to each of us, most people seldom take the time to consider its role in life.
One way of approaching this is to divide time into two categories: temporal and divine. In the first category time is viewed as a commodity. It is gauged by clocks, watches and calendars and divided into seconds, minutes, hours, and days. Ancient Greeks referred to this as chronos – sequential or chronological time.
In the second category, time is viewed as a gift. It is gauged with an eye toward eternity and divided into seasons, experiences, and opportunities. A related Greek word for this is kairos – the right, critical, or opportune moment.
What would happen if we paid as much attention to the things that are eternal as we do to events gauged by watches and calendars? How would our decisions of what is truly important be any different if we lived each day tuned into God’s eternal time frame? How would our daily “to-do list” look different if we included a column for those things that impact the lives of others beyond the here and now?
As Christians, the world we live in is a time warp of sorts. We are in the world, but we are not of it. Of course, we need to be aware of the here and now. We must be engaged in the everyday realities of work and household responsibilities – temporal time. But we also need to be conscious of a time and reality beyond this life. We must live with an awareness of God’s ways and timing for things in this world and beyond.
Culturally, and also individually within cultures, there are great differences in how we understand and manage time. As an example, think of what time each of us arrived for our 10:00 worship service this morning. Most of us are quite predictable about when that will be each week.
Could the same be said about how we view time from a spiritual point of view? As Christians living in this world, what we decide to do with the time we have should probably look different from those who see this life as all there is. Some cultures – mainly Western ones – impose a rigid and unforgiving attitude concerning the “good use” and management of time. What, if anything, does our attitude toward time say about our spiritual focus?
In the Scriptures, there are many references to time. It’s helpful to note that the context of people living 4,000 years ago certainly affected the way they understood time in comparison to our 21st-century lives. The biblical writers were far less concerned about literal accuracy of dates and times than current-day historians are.
In the Bible, certain numbers took on symbolic meanings, such as the number 40. Forty simply meant a period of time, which may or may not have been intended to be taken literally. It often carried a sense of the sacred with it.
Think about biblical stories that use the number 40. Noah and family were in the ark for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses was 40 years old when he was exiled to Sinai from Egypt. Moses remained in Sinai for 40 years. Moses was on Mt. Sinai 40 days and nights on two separate occasions. Twelve spies scouted out the land of Canaan for 40 days. Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Elijah wandered in the wilderness for 40 days. Jonah warned Nineveh they had 40 days in which to repent. Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. Jesus was present on Earth following his resurrection for 40 days before ascending to heaven.
It’s probable that we often misinterpret time in the Bible, taking it as chronos – temporal, measurable time rather than Kairos – divine, opportune time.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 could be noting the two kinds of time. The first 8 verses denoting temporal time: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. And verses 9-15 denoting divine time: He has made everything suitable for its time. However, the activities listed in the first part combine the two kinds of time. These things can be measured in days, weeks, and months but can also be measured in seasons with elements of critical and opportune moments. And some of the activities – like mourning, war and hate – are not part of God’s desire for the world – there’s no opportune time for them – but are a result of the way the world currently functions.
The story of Mary & Martha offers a case study on time. Two sisters are preparing to entertain an important guest. When Jesus arrives, Mary immediately drops what she is doing and goes to visit with him. Martha, on the other hand, continues to work, thinking that is the greater good. Rather than spending time with Jesus like her sister, the Bible says Mary “was distracted by her many tasks.” When Martha complains about Mary’s lack of help, Jesus reprimands Martha and says Mary has chosen what is best.
It seems that Jesus could have offered a solution to the sisters’ problem. Hospitality was important in their culture. Martha was completing tasks that needed to be done. Perhaps if Mary had helped her, then both Mary and Martha would have been able to relax at the feet of Jesus.
However, it seems the point Jesus is making here is that time is primarily a tool for forging relationships rather than simply accomplishing tasks. Martha is concerned with the urgent tasks of hospitality. Mary seizes the opportunity to spend time with Jesus.
How do we separate those things in life that may feel urgent but may not be important from those things that are important but not necessarily urgent? Sometimes the urgent activities are the important ones. But often the “urgent” are those things that call for our immediate attention but may not have long-term significance. In contrast, what is truly important may not always seem as pressing in the moment.
The devices most of us carry with us offer a great example of this. How often have you been distracted from a conversation by a noise from your phone signaling that a call, a text, or some other “important breaking news” is demanding your attention? During the past holiday season, I suspect most of us have spent time in a room where everyone’s attention was on the device in their hands rather than on the people around them. While our devices provide a good way to connect with someone they often serve as vehicles of isolation.
As we go about our daily activities, it’s crucial to take some time to think about our use of time – to differentiate the urgent from the important, the demanding from the significant. One way to do this is to consider discussions we had last fall on identity and commitments.
We must spend time remembering who we are: God’s good creation, loved, and worthy. Create space to spend time with God. Choose activities to reinforce your God-given identity.
We must spend time honoring our commitments: to follow Jesus – read scripture, listen for God’s call, let the Spirit guide you; to witness to God’s peace – experience and offer reconciliation, reject violence, resist injustice; and to experience transformation – reflect God’s love, and embody the grace, joy, and peace of the gospel.
None of us can do all of these things all at once all of the time. But we can keep them in mind and allow them to influence our schedules and activities. And, of course, remember that part of God’s creation is a time of Sabbath, of rest and rejuvenation.
I invite you to use three questions as you reflect on stewardship of time. What would happen if we paid as much attention to the things that are eternal as we do to events gauged by watches and calendars? How does the idea that “time is money” distort a biblical understanding of “time as gift”? What commitments do you make concerning your use of time?
May the Spirit of God guide in our efforts to be good stewards to time.