The Gift of Time

The Gift of Time
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 1, 2019
First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44

Before becoming a lab supervisor, my time as a medical technologist was spent in a certain way. I waited for specimens to spin down in the centrifuge. I waited for test results to come off one instrument or another. I spent time titrating chemicals, examining cells under the microscope, or preparing units of blood or plasma for patients. Time was of the essence and time was carefully documented on each requisition since turn-around time was, often, of critical importance.

It just so happened that my watch stopped working around the time I left the medical profession. “That’s alright,” I thought, “My heart yearns to beat at a different pace anyway.” So instead of replacing my watch, I strung time together with Anglican prayer beads in hopes of walking the earth with my eyes on God rather than on the almighty clock. Well, that was my intention. But lo and behold, life takes on similar constraints for the minister who needs to plan weeks—even months—in advance. Of course, there’s no busier time for the pastor (and everyone else, for that matter) than this time of year. Years ago, a clergy friend said something that stays with me to this day: “Make no mistake, I love baby Jesus BUT I hate Christmas.”

Time—how it flies and how often we’re convinced there’s never enough of it. Children, however, experience time differently. Frederick Buechner writes,

For a child, time in the sense of something to measure and keep track of, time as the great circus parade of past, present, and future, cause and effect, has scarcely started yet and means little because for a child all time is by and large now time and apparently endless… What child, when snow is on the ground, stops to remember that not long ago the ground was snowless? It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity…Childhood’s time is Adam and Eve’s time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything in before and after. It is the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die with the result that from that point on they made clocks and calendars for counting their time out like money…

After the innocence of childhood ticks away, most adults experience time with some sense of anxiety. Not even retirement allows the freedom we expect. How often I’ve heard it said in one form or another, “Now that I’m retired, I’m so busy I don’t know how I ever had time to work.” Regardless of age, if I were allowed a peek at your calendars this morning, I’ve no doubt there would be days filled to the brim with: sports studying, travel plans, folks in for the holidays, family obligations, volunteering, and numerous church related activities. Then there’s important things like work, school, and other day-to-day commitments.

I think we would all agree we are living in ridiculously busy times—times governed by the clock and the calendar. Jim Forest, a writer and peace activist once accompanied Thick Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, on a speaking tour. As they stood waiting for the elevator to open, Forest noticed the monk studying the clock just over the elevator doors. The Buddhist said, “A few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.” Well, not anymore!

Maybe an in depth look at how we regard time is in order. Toward this end, as part of our Advent journey, we will be guided by Scripture and Bonnie Thurston’s book, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time. Hopefully, by doing so, we may consider time from a theological viewpoint. We might even get an attitude adjustment regarding time, so that we can learn to view it as an extravagant gift of a generous God, “who always provides not only the bare essentials, but usually a feast.”

In her book, Bonnie Thurston tells a story of an African explorer who was hurrying through the jungle. For days the men he had hired to carry his equipment kept up with him, but on the third morning, they sat down and refused to budge. The explorer was confused by their behavior and, understandable, displeased. After much bantering back and forth, this is what the group leader told him: “We have moved too quickly to reach here; now we must wait to give our spirits a chance to catch up with us.” Thurston asserts that now more than ever, modern Americans need to pause to give our spirits time to catch up with us.

No doubt, in our Western culture, we scramble about as fast as we can, certain that we’re running out of time. The Book of Ecclesiastes, however, reminds us of the seemingly endless progression of time, “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” The writer of Ecclesiastes notes the cyclical nature of time—that which is—already has been. Yet, God also gives us an awareness of time in the sense of past, present, and future. This is a linear perspective on time, a perspective enhanced in the modern world with the human invention of clocks. What might it be like to begin to see time differently—to experience the gift as more than hands on a clock or days on a calendar?

A Christian theology of time will have us dig deeper since time has a built-in eternal nature. “That is why,” Thurston asserts, “it’s possible for earthly worship to be a preparation for heavenly worship of the sort that St. John envisioned around the throne of the Lamb in the book of Revelation.”

In Christian worship, time is pivotal to what happens when we come to the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion. Around Christ’s Table our hopes and fears, our aspirations and disappointments are made sacred. When we gather around the Table, we do not gather alone—we do not even gather as First Presbyterian Church alone. Instead, eternity breaks in and the bread and cup are celebrated on earth and in heaven—and all time is contained in the present moment. Thurston says it so well:

God entered time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, took it into the Divine self, redeemed it and filled it with [hints] of eternity. After the resurrection, time and eternity [connected] in wondrous and mysterious ways…This is especially true at the Eucharist. The Lord’s Supper is an event in the present that proclaims an event from the past which assures our future. It is a moment when Jesus is present with the church…Past becomes present and future.

At the Lord’s Table, we experience time in at least three ways. First, we remember the historical Jesus—come to the earth as a humble baby—all for the love of fallen humanity and we recall that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Second, we experience the present as Christ present with us now, nourishing us, encouraging us, and equipping us. Finally, at the Table, believers receive a foretaste of what it will be like when Christ returns—when with joy we will see him as he is—when we, too, will be invited to sit at his Table. Then all of time will be redeemed.

A time is coming when neither clocks nor calendars rule our days.

A time is coming when anxiety, stress, and fear no longer rule our nights.

A time is coming!

[1] Bonnie Thurston, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time, 11.

[1] Ibid, 6.

[1] Ibid, 2-3.

[1] Ecclesiastes 3:1

[1] Thurston, 86-87

[1] Ibid, 88-89.

*Cover by Stushie Art, used by subscription