Tonight, in our culture, the year changes. Time is passing.
3:1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
Times of change are invitations for us to be reflective. Births and deaths, new jobs, new homes, new days, new years — all changes tend to awaken us to remember the past, to consider the future, to compare what we are with what we wish to be.
Evening twilight is one such time. If you are outside at sunset, or even looking out and paying attention, I can't imagine missing the call that this time of day places on your mind and spirit. Every evening is a time to quiet your mind and take stock of where your life is.
The Hebrew people gleaned a great insight from God's creation of the world: There was evening first, and then there was morning. The day of creation begins with a time of preparation and culminates with the time of activity. There was evening, and there was morning, and if we see life this way our evening meditations will always look forward as much as back, for the evening is the start of the new day.
3:11 [God] has made everything suitable for its time; moreover [God] has put a sense of past and future into [our] minds …
Our culture changes dates at midnight, at the darkest time of night. In the middle of the night we see ourselves on the cusp between one day and the next. If you are awake in the dark, you can almost feel the numbers roll up. There is no better time to turn our minds to the past and the future, to what has been and to what might be. Change is continuous, but we only notice when we mark the change. When the number of the date goes up by one, then we realize that time is passing. Then we may pause to consider what that means.
In a similar way, the year changes at the darkest time of the year. People retreat into their homes, animals more often take to their dens, and the flowers lie asleep beneath the earth. We stand at the cusp between two seasons of growth. It is natural to think back on what has been and ahead to what might be. This is the time we choose to set the number of the year up by one, and as we do we realize that time is passing.
Time passes. What has been is no more. In the past year my father died; the life that was closely tied to mine ebbed away from us.
3:2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
My father was a vegetable gardener until he was 90 years old. He knew the time to plant and the time to harvest. He used to get up at 5:00 am to hoe the corn and after work he'd go back outside and work in the garden again. It was years before I grasped the idea of buying corn or asparagus or beans or carrots.
The stories that were told after my dad died showed how much more he had planted than corn and beans and tomatoes: He had also planted honor, integrity, gentleness, and a quiet commitment to people at the margins. This better crop has already been harvested and then replanted by others.
3:4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
This has been a year to celebrate what has been planted, as well as to mourn. It has been the time to weep over what is lost; it has been a time to celebrate what was not lost. The seeds that my father planted have not died; God is still working to bring good from his garden. It is a time to laugh in anticipation of what God is still going do. God is still dancing, and nothing good is lost in God.
There have been other deaths among the people who gather here, each one different just as each life is different. And there have been births. And each change is an invitation to remember the past, to consider the future, to compare what we are with what we wish to be.
This congregation lost its minister when Jim Hicks was called to be our District President. Before he left, we were witnesses that the Spirit of God was seeking him out. Now this congregation is working with the Spirit in the Church to seek a new minister.
3:6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
We lost a minister, but we kept our programs and our community. We kept our lay leadership. Have you noticed that the building is being maintained, that we worship every Sunday, that important programs have continued, that outdated programs have been dropped and new ones are being tried?
Last week we held three worship services, for Sunday morning and for Christmas Eve. How many of you helped lead this congregation in worship? Preaching, reading, leading the children, singing anthems or "Morning Star", planning, preparing candles, greeting, collecting offerings, serving the lovefeast – or putting out those buckets of water for the candellight service which tell me that this congregation cares in ways that others haven't thought of yet. We've kept all that.
We are seeking a minister, and I think we are seeking something more. In conversations I hear both pride and dissatisfaction with what this congregation has been so far. I hear hope and determination for what we can become.
Losing and seeking, discarding and keeping, changing and yet staying steadfast. This is a good foundation from which to look forward toward a new year of faithfulness.
This past year has seen its share of knives, of poisonous chemicals and of killing radiation. More than its share, it seems. I'm not thinking of threats of terror; I'm thinking of cancer and other diseases.
3:3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
Ecclesiastes is fond of the dichotomy:
opposites between which there seems to be no common ground.
But I think Ecclesiastes, and the rest of the Bible,
is more interested in harmony than in division.
In college, one of my religion professors
gently chided me about my term paper.
You can't hold onto both horns
of the dilemma forever, he said.
And yet I wouldn't let go;
Ecclesiastes was even then one of my favorite books.
When cancer strikes, it is both
a time to kill, and a time to heal.
The hope is to kill the disease
in order to heal the person.
We don't always make that work;
that it ever works is the surprise.
That killing and healing ever work together
is a hint that we are, sometimes, in resonance
with the awesome, living power of God.
That they are so often separated
reminds us that our lives are not yet
wholly united with God's purposes.
When, on the other hand, our habits and customs
become a burden on the poor,
a barrier against the people at the margins,
it is time to break down those barriers
and to build up those who have been oppressed.
When we break down in order to build up,
then we are again in tune with Jesus our Lord
judge with an honest judgment [John 7: 24].
3:8a a time to love, and a time to hate;
God has called us to love.
Christmas celebrates Love come to live with us
and to be an example for us.
But hate? Doesn't love exclude hate?
No, what love drives out is fear:
Perfect love drives out all fear,
we read in the first letter of John [4:18].
What we should hate has been spelled out
in our confession this morning.
our inconstancy of belief.
We are sorrowful over the evil
which pervades this world, but we hate
our unwillingness to overcome evil with good.
We hate our unthinking haste
and our grudgingness in doing God's work.
We love what God has created,
everything and everyone that God has created.
We love the work which we and others have done
that helps the ones whom God has made.
We love the Lord who is doing this work
– with us and with the rest of the Church.
We love that fact that Jesus
has given us a place in the fellowship.
3:8b a time for war, and a time for peace.
Francois Mauriac was a French author,
writer of over 30 novels and several plays
and winner of the Nobel prize in literature.
Yet he once wrote,
One novel only, one play only,
is offered to the Christian: his own.
[Second Thoughts, World, 1961; page 37.]
I would say this:
One war only is permitted to the Christian:
the war against the sinfulness of my own heart.
The result of that war is peace. No other war leads to peace; wars bring death and suffering, hunger and poverty, anger and disease. But the war against my own sinfulness is different in every way:
By admitting that I am not always right, by seeing that everything I touch belongs to God, by yielding to the will of Christ, by fighting this one war which is permitted to me, I begin to plant peace.
This is, I think, the time to speak up.
3:7b a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
I do not speak of others' griefs and joys; I only know my own. I am silent about other congregations; I speak only of the people with whom I gather. I say nothing of your commitment, but as for me I am a witness.
Let us come face to face with the Lord. We have given thanks for God's gifts to us and we have admitted our weakness and sin. Now I ask you:
The Lord is willing to meet me face to face. How shall I meet you, Jesus?
The liturgy comes from the covenant service originally written by Richard Alleine and made famous by John Wesley beginning in 1755. It has been modified occassionally by Wesley's followers and adapted again for the service today. For more background, see: http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyan_theology/theojrnl/31-35/32-2-3.htm
Now look! The Lord says, "I am making all things new."
Now look! The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell among us as our God; we will be God's people, and God himself will be with us.
Look! Our lamb has conquered!
Let us follow him!
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