Have You Got the Time?
copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder
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