S/H am 16.8.98, Ber 20.2.00
1. INTRODUCTION - TIME, TIME, TIME...
We want to control, move through time, change time. But time’s a cage God’s put round us.
Do you ever feel each year is going more quickly than the one before? I can’t believe we’ve been in Berowra for 7 months already. It seems like just a few weeks ago I started here. And I’m sure we are all conscious of time. Especially as we get older. A recurring theme in science fiction is the ability to move through time. HG Wells’ book “The Time Machine’. Movies like ‘Back to the Future’. On TV ‘Doctor Who’. Wouldn’t you like to be Dr Who - able to go back and undo all those things you wish you’d never done; or go forward and find out things yet to be (the winning lotto numbers for next week). To go and ask people anywhere for answers to your burning questions. To actually meet Jesus. To be able to move through time. But we can’t.
So how about just changing time. Imagine I could fit 40 hours into my day, and you could only fit 24 hours in. My golf would improve out of sight. Or maybe it wouldn’t. But I can’t change time.
What about controlling time? Now there’s something I can do. And we all do it. The microwave, so I don’t have to slave over dinner too long (or so Melinda doesn’t); the video so I can tape a show and watch it when I want to, presumably when I have more time and something else I want to watch isn’t on, which rarely happens anyway); the mobile phone so I can make calls when I’m driving and save time. Ha! Or all those other time-saving devices one can buy.
Yet the more we do these things the more we feel trapped by time.
This week we’re looking at Ecclesiastes chapter 3 and you might like to turn to it in your Bibles. We’ve seen in chs 1-2 that the Teacher has tried almost everything to find meaning in life. And failed. Now in ch 3 he comes to look at time. Just maybe, time itself will give meaning to existence. Surely if we can understand and manage time we can understand the world.
Let’s see how he goes.
2. THE PRINCIPLE (v1) - EVERYTHING HAS A TIME (time is our cage)
The Teacher’s principle is stated at the outset in v1 - there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven. For every thing and every activity, in the world of ordinary human experience.
I want to suggest to you that time is like a cage that God has put around us. It’s like this little box, and here I am in it. Boxed in by time.
But what is this ‘time’? It’s not the idea of duration, or continuity. Rather it is the idea of a specific moment. We often use it this way, like the old political ad “it’s time’. That is now. It’s time to go, it’s time to eat. It’s time. And the Teacher says that there is a time, a proper moment for everything. And that moment is ordained by God. And so even what appear to us as two contradictory actions are each appropriate, at the proper God-ordained time. Hence the mutually exclusive examples in vv2-8.
3. THE EXAMPLES (vv2-8) (things happen in our cage)
In our cage things happen. I get a job, get married (drop in Min), have children (drop in babies). Whatever those things may be for each one of us, everything that happens to us is framed by our birth and our death. And those two begin this poem on time in v2. They are two events over which we have no say. And in between them, all sorts of things happen don’t they. We live in a changing world. And the Teacher describes many facets of human experience, which reflect the various stages of the cycle of life that we all go through and eventually move on from. We are all in one or more of these cycles at the moment - for some there is joy of birth, for others the pain of death. Some will be crying, others laughing. Some in good relationships, some in bad. Some speaking, some being silent and so on.
Why? Lovely as it is, there is a grinding relentlessness and frustrating helplessness about this poem as you read it. Time acts upon us as it chooses and we have no say. In keeping with chapters 1 and 2, the point of the poem is that all these facets of life are just examples of the fact that all times are fixed by God. Every event will occur at its God-determined time, and no different. And this time will always be the appropriate time, from God’s viewpoint. Only God knows how events interact and have their meaning. But from our viewpoint life often unfolds in an unpredictable way, because these events are always beyond human control. And so we find ourselves locked in a time cage, with no way to break free of time (shake cage). God’s control of time imposes itself upon us. We can do all sorts of things inside our cage. But there is no such thing as luck, or chance, or fate, or karma, or whatever you want to call it. Every event is in God’s hand and under His sovereign control.
And so we sing ‘my times are in your hands.’ John Calvin, when he was near death, reportedly said, ‘You bruise me Lord. It is enough that it comes from your hand.’
Elsewhere in the Bible picks up the same thought. In Is 45:7 God says ‘I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.’
And even though we are responsible for our actions, God is sovereign. The classic case is the story of Joseph. His brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt, but he rises to be governor of Egypt, and many years later his brothers meet him there unknowingly. And Joseph reveals himself to them. So in Gen 45:4, Joseph says to his brothers, "I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!” They are responsible for their actions. But Joseph adds in v7, “But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, v8 "it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.” In the very same act where the brothers are responsible for acting wickedly, God was bringing to pass His purposes.
Everything that happens in our cage is at God’s control not ours. Hence, point 4, the futility of toil
4. THE CONCLUSION (v9) - THERE IS NO ADEQUATE RETURN IN TOIL
The teacher puts his conclusion, to all that he has seen - v9 - READ. We are locked into a world of events we cannot shape. No amount of human effort, no type of human activity, can change the times or control the events that God has determined. So our efforts are not appropriately rewarded. Whatever happens is only what God makes happen. This is our lot as time-bound human beings.
Hence the quote on the outline - ‘time is something determined by God and a mystery to humans who are involved in it.’ In fact we are so involved in it we cannot even begin to understand what it would mean to be outside of time. So if our efforts and activities cannot change or control God’s appointed times, why do anything?
The teacher now sets out the implications of his study.
5. THE IMPLICATIONS (vv10-15)
A. We cannot understand the events of life (vv10-11) - (we can’t see the all outside the cage)
Firstly, vv10-11 - READ. Not only can we not control or change the events, we completely fail to comprehend what God is about. And this is a burden - v10. The burden in 1:13 was the task of making sense of what happens in the world. It is a burden because we can’t do it, much as we want too. God deliberately keeps us from knowing what’s going on in His creation.
That doesn’t mean we don’t know whether God is an arbitrary God or not. V11- He has made everything beautiful in its time. God’s timing is always beautiful. Which here doesn’t mean aesthetically pleasing, but - appropriate. Death or war or killing might not look good to us, yet in God’s timing it is appropriate. God makes everything happen in its proper time, even events that occur through human agency. But we can’t understand them.
And if that’s not bad enough, God has also put eternity in our hearts. It’s not just that we can’t understand things, we want to understand them, and we can’t. We know that there is more than the immediate time of things; we sense there must be a meaning, a purpose in all this, that things do matter, that there is a bigger picture. But we don’t know what it is. Only God does. And so we cry out - why God? Sometimes we think we catch a glimpse of it (show hole in cage). Yet we can never reach beyond our cage to see as God does. Our search for order is confused by the hidden mystery of God and His purposes.
ILLN - It’s like a Mr Squiggle drawing. Remember Mr Squiggle? You couldn’t make head or tail of all his lines and dots, until the end and even then it was usually not until he turned it upside down. Life is like coming in to the middle of a Mr Squiggle drawing, having not seen the beginning and not being able to stay to see the finished product.
God has put eternity in our hearts. A desire to know the things of God, to relate to God and comprehend what He is about. Indeed a desire to live forever, in relationship with God. To find the eternal and be immortal. (Highlander) We seek it in pleasure, work, wisdom, relationships, money. But we can’t win eternity through any of these or any other human activity, no matter how good ro noble they seem. And so we become frustrated, exasperated, desperate.
B. Therefore just enjoy life (vv 12-13) - (enjoy being inside)
So the teacher’s resigned conclusion - vv12-13 - READ. If we can’t see God’s bigger picture, then we have to make do with a lesser picture. So be happy, do good, eat (drop food in cage), drink and find satisfaction in your toil. This is the best we can hope for. And yet we can’t even take these for granted. Food is despair for the anorexic; drink is evil for the alcoholic; work is hated by the workaholic’s family. Contentment and joy give way to depression and suicide. To be able to eat, drink and be satisfied with work are all gifts of God. For nothing is outside His control. As one writer says ‘even the power to follow God’s advice is a divine gift.’ Without God’s blessings we struggle with the depressing reality of an uncontrollable life and time.
So be content and enjoy what you have. Or as Paul say in 1 Timothy 6:6-8 ‘godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.’
C. But we cannot control the course of events (vv14-15) - (can’t change the cage)
Yet we need to remember the third implication in vv14-15 - READ. These are God’s times not ours. It is His cage not ours, and we can’t change it. And we need to recognise that.
As James says in James 4:13-15, ‘Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." Everything depends on God.
The Rolling Stones sang ‘time, time, time is on my side’. The teacher would be a 90's man and add ‘NOT’ after that song. These are God’s times not ours. They happen to us and are under His control. His actions are unchanging and unchangeable by us. We cannot add to them, subtract from them, nor change them. All that He does endures.
And v15 there is an eternal recurrence, in what God does, of the same classes of events, so that there is indeed nothing new under the sun. God ensures the continuity of the movement of the world, and we cannot interrupt the cycle of events God has ordained. The past, the present and the future are all before God, and at His sovereign disposition.
D. And then we will die and be judged rightly (vv16-22) (it won’t last forever)
And finally vv16-22 remind us that we are just like the animals. We share their source of life, and we share their fate - we all die. We are creatures as much as they are, despite all our efforts to the contrary. Remember it was man’s attempt to be like God in Gen 3:5 which led to death entering the world. For all our efforts at, and desires for immortality, we die. And we face God’s judgement, his righteous judgement, unlike the corrupt justice of this world.
ILLn - I was reading the other day of a state in America where if you are caught for drink-driving your car is impounded and sold. The trouble is the judges get 20% of any proceeds. So you can imagine the corruptness which exists.
God however judges us rightly for how we have lived.
In conclusion then, there is order in God’s universe. Everything happens at the appropriate time. But we do not and cannot know them or change them or understand them. Only God knows how events interact and have meaning. Sounds rather fatalistic doesn’t it. But there is a reason why God has made it this way....
The answer to the puzzle is two-fold.
6. THE ANSWER?
A. Fear God - He made and controls the cage
The first answer is not to sink into fatalism, and just hang on for the ride. Rather the biblical answer is as the Psalmist says in Ps 31:14-15, ‘I trust in you, O LORD; I say, "You are my God.” My times are in your hands.’
The teacher suggests in v14 in light of all that he has found, that revering or fearing God is our only appropriate response, and this is actually what God intends. He wants us to recognise that we are only creatures, that He is the creator. He doesn’t want us to look around and get angry or desperate or fatalistic, but to turn to Him in fear and awe and trust. He doesn’t force us to fear Him, as with a big stick, but He seeks to evoke that response through our ignorance and helplessness in the face of just who He is, the one who controls all times and events.
We always ask why. Why me? Why now? Why not now? Why did this happen? Why did this not happen? It is not wrong to ask those questions, but we need to realise we may never know the answer. Instead the teacher would say, don’t worry about knowing the answer, but worry instead about knowing the One who knows all the answers. Stop telling God He’s wrong and you know better. Trust Him and his timing and purposes. Commit yourself to Him. And we learn in 12:13 that fearing God also means doing what He says, that is obedience.
Life is under God’s care and control, so trust him. He doesn’t promise us an easy life, but a life filled with his presence at all times and with his good purposes for us.
But we proud humans find it so hard, don’t we. We want slick answers. We want a guaranteed way of life which will avoid the problems. Instead we get God. And he calls us to trust him. Hence the quote from DP Gushee, ‘how extremely difficult it is to trust my very existence, and the meaning of that existence, into the hands of another, even when that Other is God. God, deliver me.’ Help me Lord to trust and fear You.
We need to ask ourselves, am I trusting the one who rules over time. And how does his sovereignty affect my life each day?
B. Jesus - He is the key to the cage, from outside the cage
The first answer helps us live inside our cage - trust and fear God. But we still have eternity in our hearts and we still want to get out of our cage. Hence the second answer, which the Teacher couldn’t see. We need someone from outside the cage to show us the way out, to tell us the meaning and show us what lies beyond. That someone is Jesus.
Here is one like us who was born and died. Who died at just the right time Paul says in Rom 5:6. And whose death and resurrection is the way out, the meaning and the eternal future. Hence those verses that were read to us from John’s gospel. Especially that very famous verse in John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ Here is eternity. God has put eternity into our hearts, but only faith in Jesus fulfils the deep longing which that placement of eternity creates. We cannot provide it for ourselves. Jesus is the one we need to know. He shows us the way out, and what lies beyond. Jesus holds the key to our cage, in fact He is the key - (unlock cage and take out). I am the way, the truth and the life he says in John 14.
Are our hearts and minds set on the things of this time or the things of eternity. As each year goes by, and you realise more and more how much you don’t control time, and can’t change it, remember that the answers are to be found in God, who controls all things, and sent His Son the Lord Jesus to bring us out of our cage and into eternity with him (hold dad in hands).