Based on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
What time is it?
When we ask that question, we think of the exact time, demonstrated by the several of you who looked at your watch or phone when I asked the question. It’s currently [insert time], which is about when it should be for beginning my sermon in this service. We live and die by the clocks, which tell us when we need to leave to get to school and work, when we have meetings, when we have deadlines, when we need to eat, when it’s time to sleep.
Case in point, there’s nothing quite like waking up, feeling refreshed, only to discover that we have more time to sleep than we thought. And at the same time, there’s nothing quite like waking up, feeling refreshed, only to discover that we’ve overslept! Sometimes, we’re working hard at our jobs, eventually wondering what time it is, finding that much more time has passed than we thought. Other times, especially when we find things boring or laborious, time passes much more slowly than we’d expect.
Time governs our lives. It sets schedules, it can make us happy or stressed, and it can feel liberating and tyrannical.
What time is it?
Paul knows what time it is. Without having to go look at his neighborhood sundial, he can tell you what time it is. He seems to fear that the Corinthians are unaware of the time, however, having no sense of the urgency that the current time creates. For Paul, the time is clear: it’s just before Jesus returns.
In Paul’s world, Martin Luther’s old adage of how to live life is a reality, rather than a metaphor. Luther said we, as Christians, are to live life as if “Jesus died yesterday, rose today, and is coming tomorrow.” That’s great, but some 730,000 tomorrows since Jesus rose from the grave, it’s a little hard to believe that Jesus is coming tomorrow.
This evening, for many of us, we’ll crack open our inboxes and begin to mentally prepare ourselves for work tomorrow. But what’s the point of that if Jesus is coming tomorrow? Or if today is tomorrow, why bother coming to church? It’s a chore getting the kids out of the house, getting ourselves dressed and ready to go, especially when it’s been cold lately! And if Jesus is coming tomorrow, there’s probably some stuff to get done before he arrives. Maybe get some affairs straight, confess some sins…
But Jesus is almost certainly not coming tomorrow. Tomorrow will simply be day number 730,001 since Jesus rose from the grave.
For Paul, it’s only been about 11,000 days since Jesus rose from the grave, and he believes the time of the return is imminent. So it’s time for the Corinthians to get their priorities aligned so they can focus on the mission, the great commission, to go and make disciples, witnessing from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. It’s time to get focused on Jesus first and everything else secondarily, if at all, because Jesus is about to come back.
Paul knows what time it is. It’s time to witness before it’s too late.
Admittedly, this scripture can seem pretty pointless today. Some 719,000 tomorrows since Paul penned his words, what are we to do with a scripture from a guy who believes that Jesus was literally about to return 719,000 days ago? Obviously, there’s still plenty of time before the return of Christ, right?
Now here’s where you expect me to say, no, there’s not plenty of time. Jesus could come back any minute. Ticking clocks are very motivational. Just like on the commercials: act fast, call today, buy now! If we don’t act soon, we’ll lose the deal, just like if we don’t witness soon, if we don’t get going with the great commission, we’ll lose the opportunity because Jesus is about to come back. Right now is when you expect me to tell you that there’s NOT still plenty of time.
Except I’m not going to do that. Chances are pretty good that there’ll be many more tomorrows before the return of Christ arrives. Chances are very good that there’s plenty of time to do the things that God has called us to do. I don’t like a ticking clock anymore than the rest of us, and I don’t think God calls us to live our lives with a ticking clock mentality.
No, there’s something else to this scripture. Certainly Paul meant it as a ticking clock for the Corinthians. Act now to save some souls before Christ returns! Move fast, for we’re running out of tomorrows to tell the world about Christ. Go quickly, for we must spread the gospel to as much of the Roman Empire as possible before the parousia, that fancy word for the return of Christ.
Paul meant it that way to his original audience. But, even though we’re 719,000 days removed from the Corinthian church, I think Paul has something instructive to teach us yet. And that instruction has much to do with a contraption Paul would find mesmerizing, one that would have greatly increased the efficiency of Paul’s travels. That instruction has something in common with cars.
I like buying cars. I seem to be pretty unique in that capacity, but I really enjoy it. The whole back and forth, the jockeying for the best deal, the give and take, I enjoy it all. Plus, I like cars!
One day, I was at a dealership in Macon test-driving a car. The salesperson was obnoxious, but I was putting up with him because I was enjoying the car and thought I might purchase. We got back to the dealership and started to talk deal. They threw numbers at me. I rejected them. They brought back only slightly adjusted numbers. I rejected them. They came back with a third set of numbers that had even less adjustment, telling me that it was the best they could do. I rejected them. The sales manager came in and began to tell me how today was the day to act. He couldn’t make any more adjustments to the numbers. If I wanted the car I’d driven, I had to act fast.
That’s that ticking clock we were talking about. No one likes that kind of pressure. Even me, which is ironic, because I ask for that kind of pressure when I take myself car shopping! You have to expect that the sales manager is going to tell you that the deal has an expiration date on it. But I’d made myself very clear. I’d told them what offer I’d take and that I wouldn’t budge on it. They didn’t believe me. I was feeling kind of obstinate that day, so I looked at the sales manager after he’d told me I had to decide right then on the deal and I said, “yeah, right.”
He was taken aback! Not figuratively, he literally moved backwards on the desk he was sitting on! He couldn’t believe it. But he held is ground. I shook his hand and walked out of the dealership.
Sales managers create that ticking clock mentality because they recognize time is a limited resource. They have to sell so many cars in a month, they have to make a certain profit over the course of the year, and so they need to act fast, move quickly, to sell as much as they can at as high a profit as they can. In their pitches, they transfer that sense of urgency over to us, hoping to close the deal because they know they only have so much time.
This is what Paul is selling us: we only have so much time. Paul’s sense of urgency reveals that Paul has some wisdom about time: it’s a limited resource that requires careful management. If time was anything other than that, he wouldn’t have that sense of urgency to call on the Corinthians to give up their worldly pursuits, from spending time managing their emotions to spending time managing their businesses. He wouldn’t bother to tell them that it’s best not to get married. But because time is limited, because we only have so much of it, we must make the best use of that time possible. For Paul and his church, that’s to make sure that the Corinthians are getting out and witnessing.
For us today, Paul’s wisdom is this: recognize that time is a limited resource. Having such wisdom will, as the Psalmist puts it, “teach us to number our days so that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” That’s the underlying issue at stake for Paul: what we do with our time matters, how we spend our time rings in eternity, the ways we engage with the limited time we have reveals our priorities. And for Paul, how we utilize this limited resource we call time should reveal Christ to the world, for Christ should be the first priority.
In sum, Paul tells us to take stock of our time so that our time reveals Christ in us.
How do you spend your time?
Harry Chapin tells the story of time managing a family, rather than the family managing their time. In his song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” he tells the story of a father who never seems to have time for his son. He’s always putting his son off for, when asked when he’s coming home, he says, “I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, son, you know we’ll have a good time then.” By the end of the story, when his son is an adult and grown, the father discovers the son has become just like the father. They never seem to have time for each other because work and demands of life take up all their available time.
It’s a terribly sad song, and one I must admit resonates with me because it’s so easy to be consumed by all the demands and pressures life puts upon us. It’s terribly easy to get caught up in our responsibilities, suddenly discovering one day that we’re tyrannized by our clocks because we find that time controls us rather than us controlling our time.
In other words, it’s terribly easy to be busy.
When we’re busy, when we’re simply running from thing to thing to thing, almost mindlessly, we fail to be faithful with our time. Too often, we’re only aware of what moment of time it is, based on the time displayed on our watches or phones. We think only of time as the very minute we’re breathing, like the fact that at the moment it’s [insert current time]. But Paul asks us to go deeper, to think more faithfully about our time not as the passing of minutes, but as the number of days granted to us by God, so that, in recognizing that our time is limited, we choose to utilize that time to make a difference in the world.
If I live to be eighty, I have approximately 16,425 days left in my life, having already lived 12,775. Forgetting that it’s [insert current time], the question Paul asks of me is whether or not those 16,425 days will make a difference in the world.
In other words, tomorrow, when I have only 16,424 days left, will Christ be a little better known in the world because I exist?
Tuesday, when I have only 16,423 days left, will there be a little more love in the world because I exist?
Wednesday, when I have only 16,422 days left, will the poor and marginalized of society be better off because I exist?
That’s the underlying question in our scripture. Forgetting that Paul was wrong about the imminent return of Christ, Paul wants the Corinthians, and wants us today, to take stock of our lives, asking if our days, numbered as they are, will make a difference in the world. Paul echos Psalm 90:12, which prayerfully asks of God, “teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”
Applying our hearts to wisdom, properly using our time to reveal Christ to the world, is as simple as reflectively asking this question: are we managing our time, or is our time managing us?
If we’re running around from thing to thing to thing, only mindful of the minute to make sure we stay on schedule, our time manages us. We don’t have a game plan, we don’t have a budget for our time, we’re not treating our time as a limited resource, but rather we’re allowing the schedule to manage us.
That kind of busy lifestyle is the express lane to a dry and weary soul. That’s the fast track to a shallow spirituality. That’s the quick trip to distance in relationship with Christ. Being busy is not a label to wear pridefully, it’s the fastest way to not reveal Christ to the world; being busy is the best way to not make a difference in the world, because it deadens our souls.
God didn’t make us to keep up with the demands of life. God made us to thrive in spite of the demands of life. When we thrive, people notice, and that sets our witness, our example, that others want to emulate. But we cannot thrive so long as we are busy, so long as the clock tyrannizes us. We can only begin that thriving by managing our time instead of allowing our time to manage us.
To make that shift requires one simple sounding, and yet terribly difficult posture: trusting God with our time.
That’s what Paul does in our scripture. He trusts God with his time on earth. He believes that God will make use of his efforts, he understands that God will take what he does and exponentially increase its impact. Paul’s job is simply to follow where God leads, ceding his control to God’s control. Paul recognizes that time, like money, is a gift from God, and we are stewards of it. If we think our time is ours, we will not be able to trust God with our time and we will fail to make a difference in the world. But if we trust God with our time, we will thrive in spite of our obligations and the demands on our time.
Beginning the process of trusting God with our time is simple: make your daily time with God the highest priority of your day. It doesn’t have to take up the most time, for certainly our jobs, taking care of our families, and fulfilling our obligations will take up the majority of the hours of the day. This is not a request to make sure that you’re giving the most hours a day to spending time with God.
Time is just like money. Back in the fall, I asked each of you to make sure you’re giving something to the church while simultaneously saying that there’s no requirement to tithe. If all you can give $10 a week, that’s what God asks; the request is that we give something and out of a generous spirit.
The same request is true of our time, which is just as much a limited resource as money; giving something, and doing so out of a generous spirit. We do that by setting aside time each day for spiritual formation: praying, reading our bibles, meditating, singing, centering ourselves in Christ. Just as we must spend time with each other to maintain relationships, we must do the same with God. And when we start or end our day with Christ, when we set aside intentional time for that most important of relationships, the rest of our day reveals Christ to the world because we’ve nurtured Christ within us.
That nurturing will, over time, reveal to us where we need to shift priorities, where we need to make adjustments in how we’re budgeting our time, where we need to adjust our spending. And just like with money, the more generous we are with our time, the more we discover extra time in our schedules. That’s what happens when we spend time daily with God, when we, as the Psalmist says, apply our hearts to wisdom.
I have 16,425 days left. How many do you have? God is teaching us to number our days. Let us apply our hearts to wisdom so that, despite the demands upon us, we can thrive in this life, making a difference in the world.