It seems to me that we are a nation obsessed with time. Were it not the case, why do we have "fast foods"? Why is it so important that we get all of our Christmas shopping done on the day after Christmas? Why is it that one of the best selling books today has to do with a fictional accounting of the end of time, as perhaps first described by Saint John in his Book of Revelations? Why is it that every day, when I pick up Ann at the train station in Beacon, I am overwhelmed by the number of people who have to run off the train and drive like crazy to get out of the parking lot? You would think that people, having spent 70 minutes or so on the train ride from Grand Central Station, would want to take their time getting home as well. But they run off the train and pretend that it is the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race where drivers sprint to the cars to start the race. Still, with all the speed they put into getting off the train and getting their cars out of the parking lot, these speed demons of Beacon end up waiting in line at the light. In rushing to cut down the time of their commute, they end up gaining nothing.
We are a society that expects things now, not tomorrow. Our politics and news are built around sound bites; short little snippets of information designed to fit every decreasing attention span. We allow others to define what it is we believe so that we do not have to take the time to think things through. Are "moral values" really simple statements of opinion without any thought to consequence or outcome? It seems that our education system spends more time preparing students for a day of testing than a lifetime of thinking. Just as with news and politics, students seem to want the information presented in short sound bites, easily memorized and not requiring any analysis or thought. Could it be that our problems with the education system are not because the teachers are incompetent, bad, or ill prepared but rather because we do not give teachers the time to work with their students?
And when it comes to Sunday morning, there never seems to be enough time, at least for church and Sunday school. Somewhere along the line, we have allowed the demands placed on us in the daily workplace to control the time we spend in church on Sunday. No longer is church a daylong event; no longer are stores limited in what they can sell on Sunday mornings. I am not arguing for a return to the time of horse and buggies or the re-establishment of blue laws limiting the sale of items (especially since most of the items that were limited, I didn’t buy anyway). But as technology gave us more freedom to move about and time became more available, church attendance is no longer an expected thing in the lives of a family. Rather, it has become something that must compete with the other events of the weekend, the soccer, football and basketball games, the dance classes, recitals, housework and yard work.
The services of many churches use many techniques to take advantage of time-obsession. Services are designed to fit your schedule. Music is easy to follow and carries no thought with it. A projector shows the words of the hymn on the screen over the altar (that way you don’t have to look up the words in a hymnal). And you may think I am joking but it seems that one of the criteria for being a successful pastor in the Memphis area is the length of their sermons? The most common comment of satisfaction seems to be that we get out of church before the Baptists. This means that we get to Shoney’s before they do and can get the best seats.
We rush through life, only to get stuck in traffic along with the others seeking to rush through life. We want the answers to our problems, be the mental ones of school and work or the physical ones of food and nourishment, to be quick and easy, so as to spare us the trouble of preparation and effort. We want our church services quick and easy, as if the meaning of the Gospel can be absorbed with quick sound bites and easy visual references.
But did not the writer of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher, say that there was a time for every season and time for every purpose under heaven? Did not the Preacher complain about the quality of life that came when the spiritual needs of the body were not adequately dealt with?
In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, Emily dies at the age of 26. She asks the stage manager narrating the play if she can return for a brief visit with her family. He grants her wish but advises her to choose the least important day in her life but will still be important enough. She chooses to return on her 12th birthday, only to find her father obsessed with his business problem and her mother preoccupied with kitchen duties. Emily exclaims, "Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, 14 years have gone by. I’m dead!" Unable to rouse her parents, Emily breaks down sobbing. "We don’t have time to look at one another . . . Goodbye, world! Goodbye, Mama and Papa . . . Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?" (From "Wake-up Call" by Peter W. Marty in Christian Century, November 16, 2004)
Are we so obsessed with time that we fail to see things coming? Is this society obsession with books on the end of time based on a desire to know what the ending will be without living this life? Was the owner of the house so occupied with the other things that he did not see the thief coming?
That is why we celebrate Advent and why we do it over a period of four weeks. We cannot prepare for the coming of the Lord in fifteen minutes or even a day. Rather, we must be in a state of mind that requires patience and time, qualities not often seen in today’s society. There is no urgency to the celebration of Advent but it almost seems as if society demands that it be done now.
But we have to see that Advent is more than just one Sunday. We sleep through God’s signals of alarm and act as if today is like every other day. And if we are casual with today, what chance is there that we will be careful with our lives? What hope is there that we can live less selfishly and more peacefully? (From "Wake-up Call" by Peter W. Marty in Christian Century, November 16, 2004)
We ask for things now but are unwilling to put in the time and effort to make them happen. Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of a hope that there will be a day when God will get God’s way. Isaiah knew that the hope of which he spoke in today’s passage from the Old Testament would not necessarily come in his lifetime. So he wrote in the future tense and pushed the people to walk in the light. (From "Wake-up Call" by Peter W. Marty in Christian Century, November 16, 2004)
Our hopes for the future must not be dashed because the time it takes is too long. Our hopes for the future must be based on the fact that, today, we begin the process that will make the future a possibility, that there will be peace in the coming days, that people will beat their swords into plowshares.
Walter Brueggemann wrote, in reference to Isaiah’s time and ours, "The key question is whether the promissory possibilities of God have a chance in the face of the entrenched geo-political realities." The book of Isaiah expresses profound confidence that God’s promises will prevail — against, within, despite, and through geo-political realities. But this means that it will take time; this means that it cannot occur overnight. It also means that it will take many people working together. What the words of Isaiah offer are the energy and the sustenance necessary to carry out this long journey. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)
It may seem contradictory for me to say this but this journey cannot begin on some other day. It must start today. The time has come today when we must step forth and say that even though we may not know when the Lord will come, we are preparing for that day, no matter the time and the place. Paul’s words to the Romans today tell us that we can no longer wait and expect a quick solution at some other time. Paul is telling us that this is the time to begin and prepare, to lead lives that more reflect the presence of Christ than the lack of presence.
Isaiah encouraged those that heard his words to walk in the light, with the expectation of seeing God’s will enacted. Paul said that now was the time to cast aside all the aspects of your life that prevents you from being a disciple of Christ. As we sing our invitational hymn this morning, I invite you to come to the altar rail this morning. Take a few moments and ask Christ to come into your heart, if not for the first time, again. Take some time this morning as we sing our invitational hymn to consider how you, in the coming weeks, can best prepare for the coming of the Lord. Time has come today for you to make the choice that will allow Jesus to come, not only into your household but also into your life and into your heart.