Sunday, November 28, 2010

Have You Got the Time?

Have You Got the Time?

Communion Meditation, November 28, 2010

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

Romans 13:11-14

First Sunday in Advent:

Anyone who knows me knows that in my work life I am pretty conscious of time. I may occasionally be one or two minutes late, I’m rarely early, but I am always conscious of time, especially when we are running short of it. If we were thirty-five minutes into the worship service and hadn’t begun the second hymn yet, I would be the very picture of anxiety. I have always thought that we have a sort of informal contract between us that we who lead worship will work together to do everything we can to keep our services within a one hour time-frame, and all who participate in worship will not start shifting in their seats or looking distracted or anxious or pelting us with crumpled bulletins as long as we come close to accomplishing this. I have been to churches where this is not the understood contract. I remember one Baptist church I attended in Texas where the sermon began after we had been there singing and praying for over two hours. They were just getting warmed up. But that was their informal contract. There’s no use complaining that we don’t make very good Baptists!

I had an uncle in New Jersey, now passed away, who was a retired Certified Public Accountant. He knew I was interested in what goes on in churches, and liked to tell me about what was going on in his; after all, I went to seminary about an hour from his home. He was a numbers guy, as you might imagine, a true CPA guy. Every now and then, he used to send me the bulletin from the Presbyterian church he attended in Madison, New Jersey. On it he would write such remarks as, “Baptism: 8 minutes, Minute for mission: 10 minutes!” and, usually underlined for emphasis, “Even so, sermon: 27 1/2 minutes!” and then, finally, “Total service: one hour and fifteen minutes!” To my uncle, and to many, there are few shortcomings in church life that loom larger than abusing the unwritten contract about the mutually understood time scheduled for worship.

On the other side of the time management issue, Does anyone else remember the old song recorded by the band, Chicago, which began:

“As I was walking down the street one day,

a man came up to me and asked me

what the time was that was on my watch;

and I said:

‘Does anybody really know what time it is?

Does anybody really care?'"1

In the background, the chorus sings, “I don’t care about time.” It was a modest little protest against the control which clocks place on our lives, and perhaps my uncle’s pastor had heard this song once too often and begun living by its message. But the answer to the question that chorus is asking, of course is, yes, lots of people care about time.

In the middle of the letter he wrote to the believers in Rome, as if anticipating the question from that song in all its gravity Paul said, “you know what time it is.” What on earth was he talking about? They didn’t have clocks back then. And I know he wasn’t suggesting that they knew the day of the week or of the month. He was referring to a certain kind of time, and it didn’t have anything to do with the measurement of the hours. The New English Bible translates it well: “You know how critical the moment is.”

If we think about it we realize there are 2 kinds of time, a fact that the band Chicago was toying with in their song. One is Chronological Time. This kind of time keeps track of how many minutes the sermon will last, how many seconds it takes the Olympic sprinter to cross the finish line, how many days until Christmas, how many hours the operation lasted. There is no question that this is the kind of time in which we live most of our lives. A few centuries ago, clocks were mechanical marvels, which few people owned, but now they are one of the most taken-for-granted appliances in any home or on any wrist. Chronological time is very useful about some things. Imagine if we had to cook turkeys that didn’t have a little doo-dad that popped out when they were done, and we had no clock either. What if we really liked a three-minute egg, and had no way to measure when three minutes had passed? Credits for diplomas and college degrees are measured in classroom hours spent in various subjects. Throw away the clock and calendar and we might have to use some other silly measure like competence to see if a person had achieved an education. Chronological time and the effective use of it is one of the preoccupations of our age.

Still, there is another kind of time, though we think about it less frequently. It is this second sort of time that Paul had in mind in Romans. It is Decisive Time. The Bible uses the Greek word chairos for this, while using chronos for the other. How many times have we heard someone say about college and professional basketball games that the only time anyone really needs to watch is the final few minutes? If the game has been at all close, it is the endless final three or four minutes of fouling, calling of time outs, and scoring strategy that will decide the outcome. (And lately, of course, the starting of fights in the stands) While the whole game is still the same game, run on the same clock, the final minutes are the decisive time, a different kind of time. Or think of my uncle’s timekeeper’s worship bulletin. If some Sunday during worship it suddenly came to everyone’s attention that tragedy had unexpectedly stricken some family in the congregation, and amid gasps and tears everyone was asked to pray together for the family, for the blow this had struck to their faith, and everyone was asked to support them with their continued prayers, do you think any person with a semblance of a heart would mention afterward that the service that he had gone four minutes over time?

Chronologically, one person’s growth from youth to adulthood takes up just as many minutes, hours, days and years as anyone else’s. But not every minute stands out in our minds equally. I remember vividly a youth trip in the summer before my senior year in high school on which my pastor sat with me and spoke to me no more than a handful of sentences, but my life was changed. I could describe that scene as if it were yesterday, yet I can’t tell you what I had for breakfast last Wednesday. I couldn’t say what I was doing the ten minutes before he spoke to me, or the ten minutes after, but that ten minutes I remember vividly. It was decisive time. All our thinking about time is not the same. Decisive time somehow bursts the bonds of chronological time, stretches it, manipulates it.

Chronologically, the season of Advent comes in the time of the year when darkness appears to be overtaking our days. Yet our faith is not too taken with chronological time. Advent scripture passages are filled with opportunities for decision, with decisive time. Throughout the Sundays of Advent we hear promises that the light will overcome the darkness, that soon a Messiah will walk into our world. And on this first Sunday in Advent we gather around this table to celebrate the meal, which declares to the world that our Savior lives beyond clock-bound time, and that because of that fact, each moment in our lives is decisive time.

Today can be such a decision day. This very day is Decisive Time for some of us. If we claim Jesus as Savior and Lord, today we can recommit ourselves to him and to the work of his kingdom. And if we have never really given our hearts and lives to Christ, today we can answer his prayers for us and trust ourselves to his care. Today we can decide to do justice and love kindness. Today, this very hour, our lives can turn a whole new direction, and our church can become a fellowship of the redeemed in a way it never has before. Does anybody really know what time it is?

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder


1 Copyright © 1970 Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Welcome to the Hotel California

Welcome to the Hotel California

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

November 14, 2010

Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

The title for this sermon comes from a song by the band called the Eagles from a few decades back,1) about 3½ decades now, to be more precise. Some of you may remember it. The song’s title line was set to a rather persistent melody and tended to stay in your head, which is probably why it has stayed in mine for all these years. If you are not familiar with the song, just take my word for it, no need to rush out and buy it. The refrain declares, over and over again:

“Welcome to the Hotel California.”

And then in the final line from the song, a line that tends to stay with you:

“ can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

This song came to my mind when I began thinking about the context of the first recipients of the hope-filled message of Isaiah in the reading we shared today. In the beginning of the chapter from which we read, God declared,

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,

to be found by those who did not seek me.

I said, “Here I am, here I am,”

to a nation that did not call on my name.

Apparently, the folks in Israel had become accustomed to God’s absence. At least they had become accustomed to thinking of God as absent. I recall playing hide and seek when I was a child, the sort of memory that many of you will likely share. There was always the danger of hiding yourself away too well, of being ready to be sought out by those who do not seek, of finally needing to cry out, “Here I am!” to those who had either accidentally or purposefully overlooked you. Perhaps that is the way God felt about his chosen people.

The end of Isaiah’s prophecy addresses a people in the thrall of futility and depression. They had been to Babylon in its heyday. They knew what a major empire looked like. Now they were home again from their exile, and their capital city looked more like an abandoned rock quarry than a seat of empire.

Yet like a losing coach on the sideline, who alone among the downcast figures on the field knows that there will be a better day in the future, Isaiah’s prophecy declared that it is precisely in the midst of spiritual depression and futility that people of faith must remain faithful. Judah had been characterized as a people who followed “their own devices,” serving as a law unto themselves. This sounds familiar to anyone in our own time who tries to establish community norms for behavior while the popular ethic of the day declares that individualism is the highest philosophical good and that no one can tell us what to do.

In 587 B.C., the people had been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians and removed from Judah into Babylon, what is now Iraq. There they remained for 49 years, an entire generation, the best and brightest of the chosen people walking the narrow byways of a Jewish ghetto in Babylon until, in 538 B.C., the Persians became the dominant empire in the Fertile Crescent and by edict of the Emperor Cyrus,2) exiled peoples were all returned to their original homelands. For those 49 years in captivity, it must have seemed as if they had checked into the “Hotel California,” where you could “check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

And though they had been eager to get back to the homeland their parents and grandparents had told them so much about, things didn’t change all that much from their Spartan living conditions in Babylon. They arrived back in the homeland their forebears had left 40 years before – having heard all those stories around the hearth of a beautiful land, a fertile land, a glorious Temple – only to find the land a shambles, the Temple reduced to little more than a pile of stones, fertile fields sown with salt, ruin everywhere they looked. A new Temple was slapped together, but it was apparently a shabby structure when compared with the Temple of Solomon. Where were the cedar timbers? Where were the gold fittings? Gone. All gone. Then, after almost 50 years of struggle to make a new life in the old ruined homeland, it must have seemed as if they had come again to a place where you could “check out any time you liked, but you could never leave.”

So, you have people trapped in an existence which is grueling at best, a future that looked like nothing but more of the same, a past which, as long as anyone alive could remember, was pretty much like the present they now knew. All that remained of the glory of God’s chosen people now were stories from their great grandparents, stories of other times when Israel was great. Their remembered stories of the beauties of Mount Zion, now seen with their own eyes, seemed little more than a fairy tale.

Then came Isaiah, with his lofty and extravagant vision of a whole creation made new, an end to tears, a new beginning. Did they think he was crazy? Apparently they did not, at least not ultimately, as they preserved and handed down his words so that we can share them today. It is seers like Isaiah who provide humanity with a view of what can be when humanity’s vision has become limited and earth-bound. When we are overwhelmed with the feeling that things are not the way they are supposed to be, Isaiah tells us of the way things will be in the kingdom of a God who never forgets his love for his people.

How would that look in our present world? One writer said that if we tried on as fantastic a vision for our times as Isaiah presented to his we would find that nations and races in this brave new world would treasure differences in other nations and races as attractive, important, complementary. Government officials would still take office, but, to nobody’s surprise, they would tell the truth and freely praise the virtues of other public officials. Public spaces like parks and playgrounds would be left intact. Highway overpasses would be graffiti-free. Motorists would be serene and polite to one another on city streets, secure in the knowledge that, with former gang members all now enrolled in law school, they need not fear to venture out. Business associates would rejoice in each others’ promotions. Newspapers and internet sites would be filled with well-written accounts of acts of great moral beauty.3)

If any of this makes us smile knowingly, recognizing as we do that this is the stuff of dreams, not reality, then we are likely in company with those who first received this prophecy from Isaiah.

But how is it that we know when things are wrong in our world? How do we know for sure that it is not right to abuse one another, to live for self only, to pocket the public’s money? We only know these things to be wrong not because there is a perfect nation or state somewhere to which we compare our own faulty one, but because, together, we know an ideal, a vision of the way things are supposed to be. No matter how the world actually is, all of us carry inside our heads a dream or a picture of the way things should be. We may like to play the cynic sometimes, but we only know ourselves to be cynical in those moments because we have a feel for the truth of the world that God intended to bring into being. Meanwhile, however, we’re stuck with this one.

As I look at Isaiah’s vision for the world I recognize that I am struck by the total newness of it. It opens with God’s declaration, “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth...” and concludes with a line about “the serpent – its food shall be dust.”4) To speak of a new heaven and earth is to speak of a new creation and the suffering that followed upon the very first act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. It is to peel back the history of humanity’s suffering through its sins, beyond the wrong-doing of the present generation, or even Isaiah’s generation, back to “the original point of rupture between God and God’s people.”5) For the former things to be put away for good, God must begin again. As another song of the late 70’s put it, “And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” Problem is, we can’t get back there ourselves. To do that, we need an act of God.

We dedicate our pledges of support to the church today, and in doing so we offer a communal vision of the world as it should be. By our very act of pledging from our livelihoods to the work of this congregation we make a statement of belief about the way God intended things to be in this world, and commit ourselves to stand with God and one another to bring such a world to pass. Don’t let go of that vision because it is God’s business to bring it about instead of ours. Cherish it. It is not false or wrong simply because everything good thing has not yet come fully to fruition, any more than the inventions yet to come in this 21st century are false or wrong because we have not invented them yet. They are out there. They will be discovered.

Remember the verse from the beginning of Isaiah with which we began this morning?

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,

to be found by those who did not seek me.

In light of that, one promise in Isaiah’s vision stands out more than all the rest:

Before they call I will answer,

while they are yet speaking I will hear.

This is the gift that a community of faith has to offer the world. The gift of hope, hope grounded in a God who is bigger than our most profound perceptions of him yet who is so ready to respond to us that his answer already awaits our asking. The community of faith – as it celebrates its baptism into the kingdom of God – gives to the world a vision of God’s coming purpose for creation in which wolves and lambs will feed together, where harm and destruction will no longer characterize our existence. That such a day is coming is our confession, and the vision of it rules our actions and our lives in the time in between that day and this.


1) 1976, in an album by the same name.

2) Whom the Lord names as “my anointed” in Isaiah 45:1.

3) Thanks to Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., “Not the Way It’s S’pposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin,” Theology Today, July, 1993, p. 183 for central ideas in this paragraph.

4) Genesis 3:14.

5) New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI, Abingdon, 2001, p. 544.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

This Gift of Love –Part IV: “Indescribable Gifts”

This Gift of Love - Part IV

“Indescribable Gifts”

by Robert J. Elder

November 7, 2010

Isaiah 55:6-11

II Corinthians 9:6-15

Probably some of us were in communicant or confirmation classes in the days when the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession was still actively employed as a teaching tool. Even if we never memorized the Shorter Catechism, we might at least know what a catechism is: a series of questions and answers to be memorized for public recitation. The Shorter Catechism consisted of 107 questions and answers – based on material from the great Westminster Confession of Faith. Even if we don’t know the whole of the Shorter Catechism, probably many of us know its first and most famous question, along with the equally well-known answer:

Q. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

An old friend of mine once reflected that “man spends too much of his time sitting on his chief end as it is…” Seriously though, this series of questions and answers was considered a pretty complete statement of belief…so complete that many years ago a prize was endowed at my alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, which continues to award $150 to any seminarian who memorizes the entire 107 questions and answers of the catechism. That seemed like a lot more money back in 1973 than it does today, and not everyone tries for this prize any more, but many still do.

Now, if that first affirmation of the catechism is in any way still true, if indeed the principle purpose of humanity is the glorification and enjoyment of God, then how does that get worked out in life?

It seems to me that Paul answered a related question in II Corinthians. This time the question was “What is the purpose of Christian giving?” The answer is provided in the 11th verse of today’s reading and is very similar to the affirmation concerning the chief end of man. One important purpose of giving is to produce thanksgiving to God. Think about it. A gift sown in Corinth will reap a harvest of thanksgiving in Jerusalem.

I think I understand church giving to a certain extent. Usually, I see it from the human point of view. I tend to focus my attention on the results of giving that lie in the human dimension: the relief of suffering, the carrying on of some great work, the creation of new programs to meet changing needs within the church fellowship. But Paul, trained as a Pharisee, knew the centrality of the two great commandments of the Law: [1] to love the Lord with heart, soul, and strength, and [2] to love neighbor as self. He knew these two commandments to be inseparable. So in writing to the Corinthians concerning the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, he moved freely and naturally between the subjects of collection as a response to the needs of others and as a testimony to the glory of God.

The great commandment in the law is love of both neighbor and God, not one to the exclusion of the other. In our practice of Christian stewardship, the chief end of human life – to glorify God and enjoy God – can often get squeezed out of the picture if we focus too exclusively on another purpose of Christian living: to be of service to others.

Paul reminded the Corinthians that the main reason for giving – the main reason for living – is to bring glory to God. Their gift would result in shouts of praise in Jerusalem. That was a worthy end in itself, quite apart from the relief the offering would provide.

Paul reminds us that Christ became human in order to glorify God; so we give what we can to increase that glory. If our giving loses its origin and purpose in God and his grace, both it and our faith will shrivel, perhaps even die out altogether.

We reflected on this idea once in a weekly Bible study group I used to lead. We seldom think of our worship – our praise, for instance – as a worthy work of Christian life. Most often we are inclined to speak of things we did or did not “get out of worship.” We approach worship as receivers, empty vessels waiting to be filled. But another view must enter our thinking about worship, indeed about the whole of our lives as believers. Our chief work in worship – as our chief end in life – is to bring glory to God. When we stand and half-heartedly sing a hymn, or come to worship more ready to be distracted than to concentrate on our work of praise, we become poor stewards of our time before God. In Christian worship, there is but one audience, and that is God. We are the performers. Our work of praise is important, equally important as love of neighbor.

Think of all the agrarian references Paul made in these few verses. These would please all the folks who labored in the community garden project this past summer. He spoke of gifts for the collection as a sowing, the receiving of the gifts a reaping. He spoke of abundance, which is the word every farmer longs to use in reference to the current year’s crop. He wrote that their righteousness was like a harvest, and what was the harvest to be? All this bountiful sowing would result in produce – a harvest of thanksgiving to God. Not only would wants be supplied, but the harvest would overflow with thanksgivings. People see the good that believers can do, as Jesus said they must, and glorify not us but God.

There was another dynamic at work in Corinth and Jerusalem that we might not be so able to see because of the distance of the centuries between Corinth and Vancouver. But the fact was that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem weren’t so sure that the Gentiles of Corinth – or anywhere else – could really be believers. They had had their doubts all along about the non-Jewish Christians. A serious rift between Jews and Gentiles in the early church was always simmering just under the surface. Paul was acutely aware of this. What could heal the divisions?

The book of Acts describes Paul’s opposition to every effort to place Gentile Christians at some lower level than Jewish believers. He knew that the gift for the suffering Christians in Jerusalem would help maintain and further the unity of the body of Christ.

When he wrote about the “test of this service,” he knew that folks in Jerusalem wondered just how far the gospel might have gone in winning the hearts of the Gentiles. But in Christian love, a test is never a mere judgement. It is also an opportunity for growth. In this case, Paul could see it was an opportunity for growth on both sides of the need that was to be addressed.

The offering would result in a crop of praise from both giver and recipient, and the ultimate good would be that God would be praised.

Perhaps one more item needs to be addressed before we leave these two chapters of II Corinthians where we have spent these four Sundays. It is the subject of tithing.

Now, we will have had four sermons from these two chapters over the last few weeks. I have had a handful of conversations in which the message was on the order of, “Rob, I have heard that some people may be getting tired of hearing about money each week.” Me too. I get weary of the unending pitches for money which seem to permeate our society. On the other hand, I have also heard from other people who have said, “It’s about time we heard sermons like this!” Such is the life of a preacher! So I looked through the last three sermons – based on these two chapters of II Corinthians – and do you know, I found very few uses of the word “money?” What is written all over Paul’s letter – what I have attempted to reflect in my sermons with you – is the theology of Christian stewardship. That is quite a different matter, for it describes a style of life, a form of discipleship, rather than a one dimensional begging for funds.

As one scholar put it, in II Corinthians Paul shows us “what happens when, in the name of Christ who gave himself on the cross, we learn how to give.”(1) That is a worthy subject far transcending money matters.

We know that Paul’s long-term goal was not fund-raising but disciple-raising for one reason if for no other: Throughout these 2 chapters, he never once mentioned the Old Testament principle of the tithe – the giving of 10% of what one has. Isn’t that strange? Consequently, I haven’t mentioned it until just now. Here we have Paul, a Jew of the strict party of the Pharisees, who would have had a full awareness of the concept of tithing, not even bringing the subject up. Why?

Some(2) have said that what he says in II Corinthians 8 and 9 suggests he would have rejected tithing as a rigid rule. He was aware that for those on a bread line, tithing could mean disaster – they themselves could become the objects of charity. For someone in upper income brackets to say, “I have tithed, I have given enough” would be equally wrong. Legalism and generosity make bad companions. No rule governs God’s love for us; none should govern our love for God in return.

Paul was aware of the poverty of the Macedonians and didn’t even expect their participation in the offering, much less a 10% tithe. The wealthier Corinthians, on the other hand, were not restricted by the tithe and were free to give beyond the 10% demanded by the Old Testament principle.

When Paul said, “God is able to give you more than you need,” we are to reflect on a life directed not to amassing possessions, but to addressing needs. A life-style of Christian stewardship is one which offers itself increasingly, and is increasingly content with less. This is ample enough reason for a harvest of praise to God.

What more can we say, other than what Paul has said to us? When we consider the gospel which we have been given, free of charge, a gospel which has saved us and provides real hope for the world, we can join Paul in saying, “Thanks be to God for God’s inexpressible gift!”


(1) This Service of Love, by Mark Landfried, © the Synod of the Trinity, 1978, p. 71.

(2) Second Corinthians, by Ernest Best, John Knox Press, 1987, p. 89.