Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 – It’s Time

For everything there is a season,
    a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
    A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
    A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
    A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
    A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching.
    A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
    A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
    A time for war and a time for peace.

What do people really get for all their hard work? I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So, I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God. (New Living Translation)

Maybe we enjoy celebrating the first day of a new year because it gives us a sense of having a clean slate. Perhaps we internally and/or unconsciously realize we wasted great chunks of time in the past year. So, we look forward to amending our ways and making new resolutions.

Time Is Finite

We cannot get it back once we lose it – hence, the lamenting of so much squandered time. We want to use our time in ways that reflect our most cherished values and commitments. For that, we need wisdom to know what to do, what not to do, and when to do it.

There needs to be a sense of purpose – of values which drive our goals and our actions – if we are to use our time in redemptive ways. Time is a gift, bestowed to us by a Creator who desires we steward that precious gift with sage understanding and wise discernment.

Time is a temporary commodity to be used for good purposes before the end of all time comes.

One of the realities of time is that our lives are full of seasonal rhythms and change over time. These are built into the life God has given us. The book of Ecclesiastes, throughout its contents, explains that nothing we pursue has any permanence to it. We throw ourselves into some work or activity, but what does that activity really do for us in the end?

Time Marches On

Time marches inexorably forward, no matter what we do or don’t do. Therefore, we must respect, and learn to work with, it’s slow and constant movement.

When I was twenty years old, I thought nothing of playing a round of golf in the morning, three sets of tennis in the afternoon, then staying up late at night with friends. If I did that same thing today, I would be in the hospital well before the sun sets.

We all, at some point, try to defy time and act like we can do the things we once did in the past. Sometimes it takes a lot for us to accept our limitations, whether it is our play or our work. Ecclesiastes teaches us that outside forces always seem to dictate what we can do and not do.

Time Is In Control

The cycles and rhythms of life can appear meaningless. We may feel as if we are prisoners of time. Yet, for the believer, time can be redeemed with godly purpose and meaning, no matter what the season of life is.

Because there is time, and all things will someday come to an end – all activity, or the lack of it, will be judged according to how we denied or accepted our limitations due to time. 

Ecclesiastes also offers to us what seems a subversive perspective that is counter-cultural to our society. Many Americans believe that by working hard and doing the right thing, we can shape our own destiny and prosperity.

However, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes insists we submit and move with the events, rhythms, and seasons God has established. Apart from God, time is futile and meaningless. In our denial of the power and effects of time, it is no wonder many Americans are so unhappy with their lives.

In the experiences we have from birth to death, the conclusion of Ecclesiastes is that everything is out of our control. Too many of us try to exert control over events, people, and circumstances when, in truth, any control we have is an illusion. I call this the “c-clamp syndrome,” trying to clamp down on others to get them to submit to our agenda.

Self-Control

Instead, Holy Scripture directs us to practice self-control – to focus on myself and my own actions:

Moderation is better than muscle, self-control better than political power. (Proverbs 16:32, MSG)

Prepare your minds for action and exercise self-control. Put all your hope in the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world. (1 Peter 1:13, NLT)

The end of everything has come. Therefore, be self-controlled and clearheaded so you can pray. (1 Peter 4:7, CEB)

Do your best to improve your faith. You can do this by adding goodness, understanding, self-control, patience, devotion to God, concern for others, and love. If you keep growing in this way, it will show that what you know about our Lord Jesus Christ has made your lives useful and meaningful. (2 Peter 1:5-7, CEV)

We cannot force time to stand still. So, instead, we must focus on how we spend our time now.

It is time for us to lay aside lesser pursuits and diligently pursue what is right, just, and good. We each must give ourselves to the unforced rhythms of grace and let God redeem the time.

What time is it?  It’s time to live in harmony with the clock, with God, and with others.

God of all time help us to know ourselves. Teach us to recognize our weaknesses and work to walk in holiness. Let us follow you in all things, submitting to the times you have for us. Thank you for your unending grace and mercy toward us when we need it most. Help us to trust you with our lives through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 Kings 3:5-14 – A Prayer for Discernment

Stained glass window of King Solomon in Saint-Joseph Des Fins Church, France

The Lord appeared to Solomon at Gibeon in a dream at night. God said, “Ask whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you.”

Solomon responded, “You showed so much kindness to your servant my father David when he walked before you in truth, righteousness, and with a heart true to you. You’ve kept this great loyalty and kindness for him and have now given him a son to sit on his throne. And now, Lord my God, you have made me, your servant, king in my father David’s place. But I’m young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing. But I’m here, your servant, in the middle of the people you have chosen, a large population that can’t be numbered or counted due to its vast size. Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help.”

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had made this request. God said to him, “Because you have asked for this instead of requesting long life, wealth, or victory over your enemies—asking for discernment so as to acquire good judgment— I will now do just what you said. Look, I hereby give you a wise and understanding mind. There has been no one like you before now, nor will there be anyone like you afterward. I now also give you what you didn’t ask for: wealth and fame. There won’t be a king like you as long as you live. And if you walk in my ways and obey my laws and commands, just as your father David did, then I will give you a very long life.” (Common English Bible)

You will recognize today’s Old Testament lesson as being the same as yesterday – just in a different book of the Bible. The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles are a restatement and edited version of 1 and 2 Kings. That’s because each was written in a different time for a particular context. Kings was compiled at the time of the Jewish exile when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem. Chronicles was put together for the exiles returning to Jerusalem.

Both accounts were meant to be lessons in how to live rightly as God’s people. For the people going into exile, the Kings narrative was to serve as a remembrance of how far the people had strayed from their roots in basic life wisdom.

“It is said that wisdom lies not in seeing things, but seeing through things.”

Manly P. Hall

Solomon was a very wise king. And today’s lesson makes it clear why. At the outset of his reign, Solomon could have asked for anything from God. A typical request might be for power in subduing enemies, popularity for appealing to the masses, or perks for maintaining political stability. 

Instead, Solomon asked for understanding and wisdom to govern God’s people so that he could discern between good and evil. It was the kind of asking which the Lord was pleased to hear and to give. All these millennia later, Solomon still has the reputation of being the wisest king that ever lived.

Solomon’s prayer resonates with me. As a church pastor, rather than focusing prayers on a bigger budget, more people reached, or adding programs, I can make the choice to pray for wisdom so that I will have my ministerial ladder on the right wall. 

As a hospital chaplain, instead of praying for greater visibility of the spiritual in healthcare, increased impact within the system, or more healing of patients, I can pray for understanding so that I will be able to make sound ethical, practical, and ministerial decisions in each context and case I encounter.

Solomon’s request was borne of a clear realization of who God is (the One who shows steadfast love) and who he himself is (like a little child with a big responsibility). God’s greatness and Solomon’s humility collided in a wonderful prayer for discernment to carry out God’s will on earth and to bless God’s people.

In this time of year, in which it is vogue to make New Year’s resolutions based upon the individual’s willpower, let’s take a different approach. Let’s pray and invite God to do the kind of deep change needed in our lives so that we can accomplish the will of God on this earth for this time. 

May we pray for discernment to serve well, ask for wisdom to be good stewards of our callings, and seek understanding from the God who delights in answering altruistic requests from humble people.

May you walk in the way of wisdom so that you will make good decisions and act in all good understanding.

Lord God, give me a mind and heart of wisdom so that I might rightly discern good and evil, right and wrong, and the best decisions to made in every situation. I choose to seek your ways and follow the narrow way of Jesus Christ through the enablement of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 24:15-31 – Being Prepared

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.

“If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time.

“So, if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

“Immediately after the distress of those days, the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.

“Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (NIV)

I live in the upper Midwest of the United States. The summers can be brutally hot and humid. The winters can be incredibly frigid and full of snow. Having lived in various university towns and worked with many college students, every Fall there is always at least one international student, or a student from the American Deep South, that has never experienced a Midwest winter and snow. I could tell them repeatedly of the need for a sturdy winter coat before the snow flies. Yet, having never known sub-freezing, let alone sub-zero, temperatures it is difficult to imagine such cold when the weather is warm. At the coming of winter, I, or someone else, had to help ensure they had a suitable coat.  Even then, they usually shake all winter and never take their scarves off.

It might be difficult to imagine, because none of us have yet experienced it, that someday Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. Therefore, Jesus told his disciples about using discernment concerning a change of environment around them. Although it may seem improbable now, a time is coming which will be loaded with cosmic and cataclysmic changes. Sometimes, even for myself who has lived through many hard winters, it is incredible to know that the landscape as it is right now will be completely different.

The sky and the earth as we know it now will pass away; yet Christ’s words will endure for all time. If we are attentive and alert, we will be ready. We will have a warm winter parka on hand. And, for now, it means taking off the old clothes of fear, insecurity, hopelessness, and hate, and putting on the new clothes of righteousness, peace, and love in the Holy Spirit. Winter is nearly here. There is a chill in the air.

God Almighty, we long for the coming of your kingdom in Jesus Christ our Lord. We lament before you the signs that your kingdom has not yet come in its fullness. The signs of brokenness and divisions, oppression and abuse, poverty and loneliness, are everywhere present in the world. So, we cry out from the depths of our being, “O come, O come, Immanuel. Bring us comfort. Dispel the shadows of the night and turn our darkness into light.” Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Matthew 16:5-12 – Be Careful of Bad Teaching

Do not be deceived
“Don’t be deceived, bad company corrupts good character.” (1 Corinthians 15:33)

When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you do not understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (NIV)

I tend to think in metaphors, which is probably one reason I like the teaching of Jesus so much. While on this earth, he used a range of metaphors from common everyday life to communicate his point. Seems as though the disciples were more concrete thinkers.

Yeast was a common symbol for evil, which is why the Jews ate unleavened bread.  Jesus was trying to get the point across to his disciples that, like yeast, even just a little bit of unhealthy teaching can have far-reaching effects. Partaking of bad teaching works through the whole batch of dough and ruins the spiritual life.

We might think that after seeing Jesus heal the sick, raise a paralyzed man, cure the blind, restore the demon-possessed, walk on water, and feed the masses with only a few loaves of bread that his disciples would be clamoring with praise and responding with a big “Wow! Look at what Jesus did!  Tell us what to do next!”  Instead, they stood around mumbling about how to interpret the great feeding of the four thousand.

The math lesson Jesus explained to the disciples about the baskets of food that they had gathered was that the less the disciples had and the bigger their problem, the more Jesus did.  Jesus Math adds up to grace.  And grace means that who we are, or are not, and what we have, or do not have, is immaterial; what matters is that we have Jesus.  We give him what little we have, along with ourselves, and let him do the work.

We must avoid the trap and the temptation of thinking, “If only I had ___; If only I were ___.”  This is unsound doctrine because it denigrates the image of God within us and the good gifts God has already given to us, as if we ourselves are not enough. Yet, even if we have next to nothing, with few abilities, when offering it to Jesus, he turns it into a miraculous bounty of blessing for the world.

Seeing ourselves, our relationships, our stuff, and our world through the person and work of Jesus Christ is our task.  It does not take great powers of interpretation to see that the times are evil and bad information gets disseminated and spread.  What is more difficult for us is discerning that there is a great opportunity for mission and service amid this decaying world.

We will miss that wonderful opportunity if we partake of bad teaching. It is imperative that we feed upon sound teaching and be very discerning about who we listen to and what they are really saying to us. Words which are heavy with judgment and light on grace are to be suspect because such teaching is antithetical to the gospel. Instruction which sets apart and demonizes groups of people or characterizes certain individuals as monsters or animals is completely out of step with the way of Jesus Christ.

Wolf in Sheep Clothing

We are to be on our guard against any teaching which places an unrealistic and dispassionate heavy load of guilt and shame upon people. We must be vigilant to not accept teaching that plays upon people’s fear and twists reality, making groundless and unsubstantiated claims without evidence. In short, the Holy Scriptures are not to be used as a club to beat people into submission toward our way of thinking and acting.

The spiritual abuse and objectification of others by using the Bible is a terrible condition which unfortunately exists in today’s world. The sad reality is that there are people who engage in harassing others by using God’s Holy Word. People have been created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore deserve to be treated with respect and civility, regardless of their creed, color, or condition.

So, let me be clear and deliberate about the use and abuse of God’s revelation to us:

I do not condone any use of the Bible which seeks to intimidate, bully, impede, or affect any person’s ability: to work effectively at their jobs, to worship joyfully at their church, or to live without fear of being blacklisted or red-lined to the periphery of society.

I do not condone any use of the Bible which intends to control either by threat or by use of physical force any person, their family, and/or their property through inducing fear.

I do not condone any use of the Bible which justifies touching any person without their consent, or coerces, or physically forces another person to engage in a sexual act against their will.

I reject any use of the Bible which encourages any sort of hate crime, act of violence, or hate speech against any person regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, class, or religion.

I reject any use of the Bible by any clergy and/or church leadership which demeans and marginalizes women in their basic humanity, role, function, or leadership.

I reject any use of the Bible by any church member and/or attender which demeans and discounts the worldwide Christian community.

I uphold any use of the Bible which seeks to communicate its theology and message gently, carefully, graciously, and lovingly for the spiritual edification and healing of all people.

I uphold any use of the Bible which intends to cultivate one’s own soul and develop a teachable spirit.

I uphold any use of the Bible which looks for truth, wisdom, beauty, and humility.

I champion use of the Bible for both personal and corporate encouragement.

I champion use of the Bible for critical inquiry, scrutiny, and learning.

I champion use of the Bible for all people, regardless of age, including genuine seekers and spiritual misfits, as well as the hurt, abused, lonely, lost, confused, and concerned.

Soli Deo Gloria