Sunday, May 24, 2015

Nicodemus and You and Me and a Group of High School Seniors: God's Time

Ecclesiastes 3:1
John 3:1-17

Next Sunday night I will be one of two preachers for our High School Baccalaureate.

By then it will already have been a very long week-end.  

Saturday morning I will officiate at the funeral of a woman who was just my age. It was my deep privilege to walk alongside her these last few years. Along with her family, I grieve that this time has come.

Saturday afternoon I will drive to Wisconsin to celebrate my nephew's High School Graduation. It seems like only yesterday he was climbing everything in sight --- nearly giving his mother a heart attack every time.

Sunday morning we will gather for worship at our usual time.

Sunday afternoon a colleague will be installed as pastor at a neighboring congregation. It happens to be the congregation where I was ordained and where my mother is a member still. Sitting there I will remember pastors who came before in that place and the gifts they brought each one in the time they served. 

And Sunday night I will step to the podium in the DeKalb High School auditorium and try to have something of meaning to say to a group of 17 and 18-year- old's --- many of whom will have been dragged there against their wills by parents who have a deep sense of the sacredness of the passing of time, but which no doubt, as yet will be escaping most of those who were so dragged. (For that matter, since attendance is entirely voluntary, those gathered will likely comprise less than half the graduating class.)

The chosen passage for Sunday night's gathering is Ecclesiastes 3:1 and only the first verse.
"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." 
For that matter, this is probably the fullest of the verses in that chapter.  You know the rest. It goes on to delineate what those matters are, contrasting one with another verse after verse. Truth be told, I struggle with this chapter because, for instance, it seems to give no greater moral value to peace than to war. Dying stands on an equal footing with being born.  Killing and healing appear to hold equal status. The poet offers no judgment.  He simply lays it out.

One could argue, of course, that the poet is not necessarily wrong.  But that will not be my charge next  Sunday. Rather, it will be mine to consider time as somehow belonging to God with a group of young people who have little idea yet of the passage of time or its meaning. At least this was so for me so long ago when I sat where they are sitting now. Admittedly, it is not fair to equate their experience with my own. Even so, while there are those whose lives have made them wise beyond their years, I have to believe they will be the exception.

And so in these last days I have found myself thinking about all the ways in which we normally talk about time.
Time flies.
Time's a wastin'!
Time is short.
All the time in the world.
Running out of time.
Spending time.
Serving time.
Wasting time.
Spare time.
Killing time.
In the nick of time.
A stitch in time saves nine.
Just in time.
Time out.
In the fullness of time.
It's high time.
Time stood still.
Time... You finish the sentence...
For the most part, the ways in which the poet in Ecclesiastes and you and I typically think about time is in a linear sense. To put it simply, there is only so much time and there is never enough of it.

I know this is so for our young people in a way I did not know it at their age. They are far busier and under more pressure to do more in less time than I ever was. Even so, all of my life I have been a watcher of time. It is a certain weakness of mine that I sometimes miss what is right in front of me so as not to be late for what comes next.  And on and on.

Indeed, I remember a college friend of mine telling me that she had gone down to the Cedar River in Waverly, Iowa, and thrown her watch into the current. I thought then that this was an act of pure lunacy.  (Part of me still does.) Her act of defiance had a point though. "Time" as a clock or a calendar measures it is limiting. It implies, like the poet seems to, that things cannot happen simultaneously. Time thought of in this way may well be broad, but it is not necessarily deep.

I imagine that Nicodemus thought of time much like the writer of Ecclesiastes did. It is even pointed out to us the time of day it was when he made his night-time journey to visit Jesus.  We are led to believe that Nicodemus was considering what time it was --- perhaps because as a leader of the Jews he did not want to be discovered. More than that, if Nicodemus did think of time as we are all prone to do, this would certainly help explain his astonishment when Jesus speaks to him of being born anew. Nicodemus had by then lived far longer than the young people I will talk to next Sunday night. But they, like him, like all of us, know that there is a natural order to things and that being born happens at the beginning and dying happens at the end and if we are so fortunate there will be a whole lot of other happenings in-between.

Jesus tosses that logic out the window though. Oh yes, we are born and yes, we shall one day die in the ways the world thinks of these things. But if it is all happening under God's own heaven and we know and believe this to be so? This means that there is more to measuring our days in 24 hour segments. This means that time can actually stand still in moments of wonder. In forgiveness rendered and received. In fresh starts and new beginnings and relationships renewed and faith deepened. This means it is never too late. That under the banner of God's love and grace time never runs out -- not if we can be born again at seventeen or seventy or any time in-between or beyond.

So maybe it does all begin and end with this one verse in Ecclesiastes.  Maybe if we understand our birthing and living and dying to all be done under God's Own Heaven. Maybe if we understand that and live like it is so.  Perhaps then every day is full of endless possibility where grace reigns and hope flourishes.  Maybe then every day is new -- as new as it is to those just born. Maybe.

I'm still working on how to bring the power of that home to a group of high school seniors who may or may not be a whole lot like Nicodemus. In the end, maybe this is enough. Simply put, what Jesus was trying to get across to Nicodemus is that all of time and everyone who and everything which inhabits time belongs to God and is loved by God. This means that newness is always possible, even likely. This seems like a good word for a high school graduate to receive as they find themselves closer to the beginning of their time in the way we are accustomed to thinking about time. Surely, it seems like a good word for the rest of us as well  --- wherever it is we find ourselves in time.

  • The tasks before me this week have pushed me to tie together two parts of Scripture which normally would not be heard together. Does the way in which I have done so make sense to you? Why or why not?
  • Nicodemus certainly thought of 'time' in a linear sense, just as we all tend to do. What difference does it make that one can be born anew at any point in time? What does that do to your understanding of God's view of time?
  • I still shake my head at my college friend who threw her watch into the Cedar River. While I understand her point, I do not know how I would function without knowing what 'time' it is.  Even so, what might it mean to take off your watch --- to not keep track of time--- in the usual sense for a few hours or a day? Might it be possible that we would be more likely to experience God working 'in time' in a way we might not otherwise --- simply because we would be paying attention to what is right in front of us instead of leaning into what is coming next on the schedule?  What do you think?
  • If you had the chance to speak at a High School Baccalaureate about God's Time --- what would you say?

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