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The Importance Of Time

Revd Donald Phillipps


In this August sermon at Mornington Donald Phillipps begins with the sophistication of time at the Beijing Olmpics,  and goes on to reflect on the importance of "time" in Christian theology


So stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour.” - Matthew 25:13

There will be many images from these Olympic Games which will stay in the mind - of people and of places - of successes and of failures - who knows what is still to come

For me, the indelible memory is that of the final of the 100m sprint, won by Usain Bolt of Jamaica in world record time - not only winning, but actually slowing down at the end because he was so far ahead of his rivals

The 100m sprint has always caught the imagination of athletes and of the public - it is one of the key moments of the Games - and it doesn’t seem so long since the 10 second mark was first broken

Usain Bolt also won the 200m in world-record time - how fast can that man go - will he ever be really tested - who is there to compete with him

There will be other choice memories - the delight of our own New Zealand medal winners - the despair and the tears of the losers who pinned all their training and all their hopes on a single moment in Beijing

Of course, there’s Michael Phelps - an incredible tally of medals - what on earth will he do now - he might have to return to eating a normal diet of food

Of course, there’s Beijing itself - the facilities - the security - the protests - the efficiency - but I can’t help feeling that the world’s gone berserk when the host country spends $54 billion dollars to provide the setting for the Games

One other small, absolutely minute fact - one of Michael Phelps’ gold medals came from a race which he won by 1/100th of a second - it’s not all that long ago since Olympic events were timed to 1/10th of a second

It’s part of our endless fascination with time - and it is that fact which brings me to consider with you matters that connect time with God’s Good News - hence my choice of the text about being ready and prepared

It is almost exactly 300 years (301 to be precise) since an Admiral of the British Navy, Sir Cloudsley Shovel along with 1400 of his sailors were drowned when their ships ran aground on the Scilly Isles.

They were wrecked because they didn‘t know exactly where they were - the old methods of dead reckoning were hopelessly astray - they had no means of calculating how far they were from land

This led to the Admiralty offering a prize to the person who could find a way of accurately calculating longitude - and longitude involves measuring time

One of Captain Cook’s responsibilities was to take with him on his voyages of exploration the final version of the clockwork mechanism devised by the great mechanical engineer, John Harrison, to meet the Admiralty’s demands

What Harrison had initially designed was something large and cumbersome, certainly not pocket-watch size - it was shown on a recent Antiques Road Show film, and it was the size of a cabin-trunk

Increasing the accuracy of time-keeping is still being modified and improved - so that now we take for granted that we can tell the time to a second - ordinary humans like us can do that now

Accurate time-keeping didn’t come about because of the Olympic Games - the desire for accuracy really arose for reasons of safety - human lives depend on it

But why is it that we want to know what the time is, to the very second?

There’s much more to measuring time than simply enabling a judge to determine how fast a human being can run - it has something, I sense, to do with ‘measuring our days’ as it might be called

One of the earlier ways of measuring time was the hour glass - you can picture it in your mind - what’s at the bottom of the glass is the past - the present is represented by the neck, what remains at the top is the future

When did humans first begin to think really seriously about the future - is it even possible to say that it is that ability to think about the future, and to plan for death, which marks humans off from all other living things

For how many thousands of years have we given enormous and detailed attention to the end of life - how deeply buried in the human psyche is the desire to know the answer to the question “When?’

Archæology shows that the most primitive of societies had elaborate funeral rites - hinting clearly at the belief that human time does not end at death

There is an after-life, a continuation of time, for which preparation must be made - we are positively, often pathologically, fascinated by the future, just as we always have been

The Old Testament provides us with one most vivid example of the way our ancient ancestors thought of time - from that world where every merest detail, every smallest moment, was controlled by God , or the gods

We still like to read at funerals in particular, those familiar words from Ecclesiastes - ‘there’s a time for every purpose under heaven’

Are they comforting words? - does God so control human activity - beautiful words, of course, but they seem to excuse us of our responsibilities - responsibilities we must exercise our way, according to our judgment

At the moment, however, many seem to live irresponsibly - its seems our world is dominated by the hope, or expectation, that God will set things right - that time will be totally changed by divine intervention

So what are we to do with time - our time?

I’m very aware that I run the risk of offering ready-made and simplistic answers - of coming up with do’s and don‘ts

I’m particularly concerned not to find an escape through quoting a few apparently relevant biblical texts - we must always remember that much of what the bible says belongs to its time, rather than ours

But I do want to start with the New Testament - because it offers a very significant choice of words on which to base our thinking

In those days there were a number of methods used to mark the passage of time - sun-dials, hour-glasses, graduated candles, and clocks controlled by a regulated flow of water

The Greek word for that sort of time-keeping is c r o n o z - the ticking away of time - one second after another - a chronometer does just that

The other word has, I think, much greater significance for us - it is the word k a i r o z - it means the right, the proper, the favourable time - it means the moment of opportunity

It is time of character and quality, though I don’t think it means exactly what we say when we excuse ourselves from an engagement by saying that we would prefer to have quality time with our family at home

The bible is aware that time is not just the passage of time - time is full of moments of significance, of truth, of potential - times to be grasped, before it is too late - times to be seized because everything falls into place

The question might be thought to be somewhat hypothetical, but it is, nevertheless, one which has exercised the minds of Christians for 2000 years - was the coming of God’ son a ‘ k a i r o z -moment’

Why just then - why not some other time - was something happening - was there something in the air, some movement within human history that meant that this was God’s opportunity as no other moment in history had been

How can we know - and that is exactly why I find this search for the signs of a Second Coming to be almost a blasphemy - we’ve got work to do, instead

What is that work? - what’s the most important thing for us to do - ask a hundred people and you’ll get a hundred answers - so it always will be

Ask John Wesley, for example - he would probably say “You have nothing to do but to save souls” (apart from sleeping and eating and reading helpful books) - is that really all that matters

Let’s get back to the present day - in any considerable group of scientists there would be a significant number who would want us to concentrate all our energies on climate-change issues - is that really all that matters

In any group of religious people who take their holy books literally and seriously there would be many who would want to change the direction of history by force - is that really all that matters

In speaking as I do I am in no way denying the enormous importance that such issues have for those who espouse them

But I trust you will understand when I suggest that to solely focus on issues of democracy and freedom, of terrorism and security, of human sexuality and family values, of substance abuse and law and order, on whatever, is to lose sight of that wider human context of which we are a part

Twenty years ago I can remember having a real sense of anxiety that the Methodist Church was becoming a single-issue Church - and that we were losing that larger vision of our place within the community and the world

To be so focused leads, in my experience to passion turning into pathology, to enthusiasm becoming mere duty, to reason and common-sense becoming subverted into fanaticism

Time is so controlled by a narrowing and distorted view of the future that present-day realities are put to the side - and there is the real danger that what is real will be regarded as irrelevant

That is, in fact, what has happened to the Good News of the Gospel - when people like us so concentrate on some imagined future, and don’t heed people who need Good News that belong in today‘s world

Jesus note of warning is for the present day - the story of the bridesmaids isn’t about guessing the date of the Second Coming - it’s about being prudent and sensible now

Time is precious, but not so precious that it cannot be enjoyed - time is about opportunity, not duty - God’s time is not to be measured

Nor need we be too anxious about measuring our own time - there‘s enough of it - and, in fact, we really do have some to spare for others - it’s the most precious thing that we have to give







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