A Theology of Time
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 22, 2019
4th Sunday of Advent
Genesis 1:1-5, Exodus 4:14-15, Matthew 11:2-11
It’s been said that we can learn a lot about ourselves—our goals, our priorities—by examining our check books and our calendars. How do we spend our money and our time? Does it really matter?
Regarding money, there are some who claim, “I work for my money—it’s mine—and whatever I have in the bank, in the mattress, or in the Ball jar out in the back yard is nobody’s business. And tithing—giving 10% of my earnings to the Lord—is antiquated, based on Old Testament teachings. Jesus is all about grace so I’m free to give or not to give.” On this topic, a clergy friend once said, “For people who look to Jesus as a way out of tithing, I encourage them to cling to that 10% because Jesus wants more than a mere 10%. Jesus wants it all.” (You may recall Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler who asked what he needed to do inherit eternal life. When he acknowledged to Jesus that he had kept all the commandments since his youth, Jesus responded, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”[i] Suddenly 10% doesn’t seem so bad!)
What about time? What kind of relationship do we have with time? How do we make use of it? How do we spend it? Whose is it, anyway? Do we ever consult God before making plans for the hour, the day, the week, the year? These are important questions to ask if we yearn to live in in the light and love of Yahweh, our ever-present God. The truth of the matter is—both time and money are resources, but they are not OUR resources. They’re gifts from God. Our talents, our property, our money, our time—it’s all God’s and we are tenant farmers living on land that isn’t ours, spending money and time are on loan.
Today we conclude our two-part Advent sermon series concerning time. Abusing the gift of it is what put Bonnie Thurston in the place that led to writing her book, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time. One day, at the end of an academic year, she was out running a few errands when suddenly she was so overcome by exhaustion, she feared she wouldn’t make it back to her house. Thankfully, she was able to get home where she fell into bed and slept for hours. When she woke up, she cancelled all of her engagements for the next few days—days she spent sleeping, resting, reading, walking and praying. During this time, she was led to take a good, long look at her calendar and what she found was appalling. She writes,
I had literally scheduled myself into near collapse. Because I am a widow with no children, it wasn’t others’ demands on me that led to this place. I was teaching full time at a college, chairing my department and its Master of Arts in Theology program, writing a book, being deeply engaged with the students, serving as the pastor of a small church and as its spiritual director, traveling to speak and lead retreats, trying to keep contact with my family and friends, as well as attending to a “home life” (cooking, gardening, puttering around home). I enjoyed all these activities; I truly felt “called” to most of them. And yet I had driven myself to the edge of physical and spiritual collapse by means of them.[ii]
That’s when Thurston began to ponder a theology of time. She started to contemplate how God might want her to use God’s time. The gift of time is laid out beginning in the very first chapter of Genesis. It was evening and it was morning, the first day. God meant for there to be a rhythm of work and rest—we know this because God worked for six days—but on the seventh—what did God do? God rested. Scripture is filled with admonitions for us to do the same. Are we so important that we can’t bother to keep Sabbath? Are we really in so much demand that we don’t have time to enjoy God’s creation; time to care for ourselves; time to care for others? Just how do we spend our time?
It’s sobering to reflect on our responsibility to spend our time well. Spending time—what an interesting phrase. Thurston highlights several noteworthy phrases often used concerning the use of time, “keeping time,” for example. We might say that someone keeps time with her foot as the music plays. Frequently the phrase is used in the context of sporting events where someone is keeping time or measuring time until the completion of the game. A “timekeeper” is a person who measures time and tells how many hours, minutes, seconds, milliseconds have passed. But how can we possibly “keep time”? Time is not a “thing” to be put in jars or pressed between the pages of a book or locked up in a safety deposit box. Truthfully, “keeping time” is impossible.[iii]
Then there is the phrase “making time.” Busy people are always trying to “make time” for the next thing but we can’t make time. Only God makes time! The idea behind “making time” is to try to carve out space to do something. It usually suggests a desire to “find the time” to do something. Thurston asks quite directly: “What is it that you would like to make time to do? And why aren’t you doing it?”[iv]
Two additional phrases that bear mentioning are “killing time” and “wasting time.” The idea of “killing time” is that the present moment must be tolerated until some better time arrives. However, if time is as limited as we seem to believe—is there ever any time to kill? The idea of “wasting time” is looked down upon in the Western world. In business wasting time is equivalent to wasting money. Yet isn’t it often in those quiet, day-dreaming moments that new ideas are born—ideas that lead to amazing things. In our spiritual lives, sometimes “wasting time” gives the Holy Spirit a chance to suggest a new direction. In quiet “wasting” moments God’s abiding presence and love may be realized in tangible ways. Could it be that we might all be better off “wasting” a little time now and then?
To view time through a theological lens, we need to recognize that time is a creation of God—remember how God separated the light from the darkness and called one day and one night. Time is a gift, but do we receive it as such? Thurston questions: Do we experience time as one of the many aspects of creation that we are to enjoy and care for or do we experience time as a taskmaster? Do we manage time or does time manage us?
Another theological aspect of time is its sacred nature. The God of Israel is the God of events—of happenings in time. When Jesus enters history as a babe in Bethlehem, all of time becomes holy. Jesus models living in the present moment as he gives sight to the blind, makes the lame to walk, cleanses the leper, heals the deaf and raises the dead. Jesus comes to the earth to share the good news: “Even now, I am with you!” Yes, Jesus makes “now” holy. “If God is not here, in the now, ‘among the pots and pans,’ as St. Teresa of Avila would say, God won’t be found ‘then’ or ‘out there’ somewhere either.”[v]
Now and forever, God is a very present God. Remember the name God provides for Moses—“I AM.” Not I was. Not I will be. I AM. God is a very present God and God wishes us to learn to live in the present, too. The present is, after all, the only time we have. We can only remember the past—some moments with fondness—others with sadness. We may plan and hope and fret over the future. But the future is not in our reach other—only today—only this moment. Oh, but how difficult it is to live in the present. This is something we discuss frequently when we meet for Centering Prayer. To sit with God in the moment—to be available for God’s grace to rain down upon us—silent—still—not fretting over some recent slight—not fearing some upcoming struggle—just to be in the present at God’s disposal—it is hard work.
The present is the doorway into God’s eternity. The following poem written by one of Thurston’s students offers deep insight into this point.
I was regretting the past and fearing the future.
Suddenly, my Lord was speaking: “My name is ‘I AM.’”
He paused. I waited. He continued.
‘When you live in the past with its mistakes and
regrets, it is hard.
I am not there. My name is not I WAS.
When you live in the future with its problems and
fears , it is hard.
I am not there. My name is not I WILL BE.
When you live in this moment, it is not hard.
I am here. My name is I AM.[vi]
Time is more than the passing of minutes and hours and days and years. Time provides the opportunity to learn to live as human beings rather than human doings. It may be that in slowing down, paying attention, and listening, time will lead us into the ever-present presence of the Great I AM. Surely there’s no better way to spend time. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Luke 18:22b.
[ii] Bonnie Thurston, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time, 4-5. Note this Advent sermon series is based on Scripture and Thurston’s book.
[iii] Ibid, 32-33.
[iv] Ibid, 34.
[v] Ibid, 43.
[vi] Helen Mallicoat, quoted in To Everything a Season, 47.
*Cover by Stushie Art, used by subscription; Affirmation of Faith by Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Sparks, NV @ https://www.liturgylink.net/2012/11/26/advent-statement-of-faith/