Maybe preaching isn’t something that is needed for this service. This could be a time for silence or for singing, for reflection or celebration. But should there be space for a proclamation, it seems that time and the use of time would be an appropriate subject. Maybe a difficult one, but perhaps necessary. Matthew 25, of course, calls us to use the time we are given wisely, in service and in witness. Revelation 21 holds out the vision of the end of time, or the fulness of time, when the kin-dom will be manifest in unmissable ways. Psalm 8 could be a reminder of the divine potential in all of creation and how we can see God if we look.
But what about the overly familiar passage from Ecclesiastes? How might that lead us into the new year or deeper into a covenantal relationship with God?
There is a poem by Delmore Schwartz, an American poet of the early twentieth century. He lived in New York, and many of his poems are of the observational type. He simply looks around him and describes what he sees. It is often the very mundane: people walking in a park or sitting on a bus, but in his description it becomes something more. Something eternal, in a way.
The poem I am referring to is titled “Calmly We Walk Through This April Day.” You can read it by clicking here.
The poet observes that things are passing by. And then he reminds us that all we see will one day be gone.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,/ Bears all its sons away; / They fly, forgotten, as a dream / Dies at the opening day.
Maybe those lines seem more familiar. The hymn “O God Our Help in Ages Past” has as the fifth verse the somewhat depressing realization that we are helpless in the face of the march of time.
Perhaps our having just come through a worldwide ordeal and pandemic and seeing continuing war and gun violence makes me see things through a glass dimly. Perhaps you are coming to this end of year moment feeling the weight of all that is broken. Maybe self-examination is a fearsome prospect this night. The reordering of life, the re-examination of time is a difficult process that weighs on us more than we know. “Time is the fire in which we burn,” Schwartz writes. And it isn’t easy, this being burned up thing. This being burned out.
That might be why our text is one we avoid at all costs. Oh, it is familiar enough, thanks to the folk-rock group the Byrds and their song “Turn, Turn, Turn.” We know it, but do we embrace it? Or even understand it? Read it again. (And try not to let the tune enter your head while you do!)
If you read the full text to verse 13, it might seem a bit long (longer than we are used to, anyway). We usually stop before verse 9, which raises a question we’d rather not think about. We can’t help but feel as we read on from there that the preacher (the author of Ecclesiastes, while tradition believed it was Solomon, calls himself Qohelet, which is translated as the teacher or the preacher) says, “What’s the point? Just eat, drink and be merry, cause that’s all there is!”
Some have tried to find some significance to the list of things there is a time for in the first part of the reading. Declaring that these are the weighty matters of life, these are the things that God makes time for, and anything else ought not to be engaged in—sort of an ancient “never be triflingly employed” that John Wesley quoted much later on. And maybe there is something to this list. On the other hand, it seems like an arbitrary list (a time to seek and a time to lose) that we could continue almost ad infinitum – a time to sleep in and a time to get up, a time to eat Cheerios and a time for toast, a time to play ping pong and a time to read your Kindle, and on and on and on. And on.
So, what do we do with this seemingly meaningless existence? Do we just enjoy it while it lasts? Or do we find something bigger to live for? Something more profound to build our existence around? And how do we find that in the midst of the ever-rolling stream that bears all our sons, our loved ones, ourselves away?
I don’t know for sure, to be honest; and I hope that you can figure it out in time to preach this watchnight service. In the meantime, I offer you the conclusion of the poem that I found as perhaps a pointer to that something. Take a look:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.
Maybe that’s what we’re left with. Yes, there is the fire that burns; yes, there is loss and grief and that which is no more. But there is also the school in which we learn. We are the result of our experiences and our encounters. I have learned from the past and from those I have known in the past. While some are now gone, what I have learned remains with me and becomes part of what I have to teach and to share with others.
Maybe this fire that burns isn’t a consuming fire but a purifying one—one that makes us stronger, better. Maybe when the preacher says that God has appointed a time for every matter, we are that matter; a time for every work, we are that work. Maybe time is a gift— our gift and how we use it, what we fill it with is our response to that gift.
What time is it? Maybe that is a deeper question than we realized. Maybe it is more theological than we usually admit. What time is it? Your time. My time. God’s time. It’s time.