Saturday, August 2, 2008

WALKING IN THE LIGHT, REDEEMING THE TIME

A Sermon Preached at Uganda Christian University Chapel
3 August 2008

Lesson: Ephesians 5:1-21

I was given the topic “stewardship of time” for today as one of the last sermons on “Being Christ’s Ambassadors in the Leadership Arena.” The more I thought about the topic of use of time, the more I concluded that it cannot be treated in isolation. Let me explain why.

We all live in time. Time is one of the dimensions of cosmic reality, or so the physicists tell us. We cannot separate time from space, the “when” from the “where” of our existence. Our very bodies are bodies plotted in time. Yesterday I saw a Google Earth picture of UCU. It looked very realistic. I could see the road network and the tops of buildings, but then suddenly when we worked our way over on the screen to the dining hall and Sabiti Hall, all that was there was a large piece of dug-up earth. The Google map had given us a picture of UCU more than three years ago! It was not a real-time map.

Even more importantly, time is an essential part of human consciousness. Animals, it seems, can recall or foresee danger by means of instinct, but they cannot actually remember the past or think about the future. Humans can. Indeed some thinkers like St. Augustine suggest that even the present is no more real than the past or future, as a present act or thought is past before it is actualized, and future events thrust themselves upon us like on oncoming Gateway buses. We cannot avoid them; at most we can turn aside and let them pass. And the final bus we cannot avoid. It is death.

So we cannot really think about use of time without thinking about our lives as a whole from beginning to ending. A week ago, a speaker at our Staff Day mentioned the verse of Psalm 90 which states: “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty…” She asked us then to calculate what portion of our life we had already lived. Well, it’s funny. I can distinctly remembering myself at your age, about 20, thinking: “Hey, I have 80% of my life yet to live. I can do anything.” Now I have entered the last fifth of that lifespan. Maybe by reason of strength and the help of modern medicine and artificial joints, I can make it another 25 or 30 years. In any case, the end is closer than the beginning, and it raises the inevitable question: “how have you used your years?”

My young friends, let me share this with you. This is a most important question. In fact, it is the question that we will ask at the end our lives, or perhaps will be asked at the beginning of our new lives. God will call us to account for the things we have done and left undone.

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. (Revelation 20:12)

It is this thought that haunts those who live much of their lives in rebellion to God and who then come to the light. One famous journalist named Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a book titled Jesus Rediscovered when he came to faith in mid-life. He then wrote a memoir of his earlier years titled Chronicles of Wasted Time. One might wonder whether writing a book about the wasted years of his life was not just more waste, but Muggeridge was engaged in what our lesson today calls “redeeming the time.” You see, God can even use our sins to show forth His grace and to bring others to the light. This does not mean we should sin more so that grace might abound. But it does mean that God is the Lord of the whole of life, even the dark parts.

In our lesson today, St. Paul says: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). “Look carefully how you walk…” When I read this, I think immediately of walking along some of the roads inside the campus on a dark night, especially after a rainstorm. There may be mud and puddles, there may be palm branches that have fallen across the path. It could even be worse: what if there is a snake coiled up on the road and I don’t see it. St. Paul suggests that this is the normal human condition, walking in the dark, “because the days are evil.”

You see, we are all born sinners from our mother’s womb, and while we can see naturally with our physical eyes, we do not see the unseen things naturally – truth, goodness, beauty, and yes, time – with a clear vision. Our selfishness clouds over these things, indeed it often conjures up phantasms that are just their opposite: lies, lust, ugliness and waste. And these sinful passions keep us in the dark like prisoners in a deep dark dungeon. It is only when Christ comes into our lives and breaks the bondage of sin that we can rise up and walk in the light. And so Paul reminds the Ephesians: “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (verse 8).

There is some very good news bound up in that little phrase “you are light in the Lord.” Paul does not say you are beginning to glow, or flashing on and off like a firefly (oh, you haven’t seen these little insects, I guess), but he says: you are light. What he means by this is that when you come to Christ, you are completely forgiven, washed clean in his blood, and you appear before him whiter than snow (oops, I guess you have seen snow either, except on the tip-tops of the Rwenzoris). When we put our faith in Christ, we start out “in the light.” Indeed we are our own light source, our own torches, which can guide others through the Holy Spirit who is in us. Certainly, many who have come to faith have suddenly looked different to their family, friends and neighbours. “What happened to you? You seem so different!” At least this should be the case.

Christians live in time just as everyone else, and so it is not enough to be the light; we must “walk in the light” as Paul goes on to say. Actually he says “walk as children of light.” Being a child involves a process and progress of growth. In this sense, “walking” is not just in space, along a physical road, but in time, along a time continuum, a lifespan. What do we need for this journey in time? Back to our main verse, Paul says: you must use your time wisely, not unwisely, by buying it back. This last image comes from the market place, where a person has given up something of worth as a guarantee and then comes to buy it back when he has made a profit.

Let me give you an example. When we built Sabiti and the Dining Hall four years ago, we handed over to the Bank the title deed to the entire Mukono Hill property. The bank then loaned us almost two million dollars to build the halls and we pay the loan off every year, which is where a portion of your boarding fees go. Now our loan runs for 10 years, and in 6.5 years, we shall be able to pay off the debt and get our title back. But to do so we must be careful to make regular payments or we could lose it all.

“Buying back or redeeming the time” is similar. We have been given a great gift in the righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ. He has given us the full value of his grace in advance and forgiven all that is past. He does not ask us to redeem our own sins – that has already been done on Calvary – but he does ask us to redeem the time which we have left on earth by showing forth his love and glory.

Making good use of time, Paul tells us, is a matter of being wise, not unwise. In this chapter, he outlines several areas of potential darkness where we must follow the light. The first of these is sexuality.

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people (verse 3).

I know you have heard many talks on this subject. Let me just add that the point at which our natural instincts for love, for family, for excitement, come together is in the area of sexual desire; and this is also the point where our deep-seated sin rears up to darken our thinking and to talk us into immoral actions. In another place, Paul says: “Flee fornication,” like Joseph in Egypt flying away from the embraces of Potiphar’s wife. Paul even goes one step further and says:

Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. (verse 4)

Sexual temptations often arise through idle thoughts or talk – daydreaming or gossiping or browsing the internet. Not just sex but other temptations come this way, like drinking and gambling can come through being too casual as if you had all the time in the world to live.

Let me add at this point that there is a place for genuine leisure. To begin with, God made the Sabbath and commanded his people to rest, even the slaves. God gave us eyes to enjoy beautiful sights, voices to sing and ears to ring with the sound of music, taste and smell to enjoy good food. There is no sin in right use of leisure. Interestingly, the word “scholar” comes from a Latin word meaning leisure. Students and teachers need to have the luxury to sit back and think about the world they live in and how to live in it. It is not enough just to study feverishly at the end of the semester and then turn it all off until the next exam time. Even your time on recess is an opportunity to learn. Make all your senses and all your experiences captive to Christ and you will walk in the light and redeem the time.

Now St. Paul certainly includes warnings like these in his message to redeem the time, because the days are evil. But he has a better way: to be imitators of God (verse 1). How in the world can we imitate God, whom we have not seen? Paul’s answer: “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (verse 2). Christ is the image of the invisible God, and his way of life is the pattern for us to imitate. You may be tired of my speaking of servant leadership, but that is exactly what St. Paul is commending. Servant leadership does not ask “What can I get for myself? but “What can I give to others?”

Making good use of time will involve sacrifice and personal self-discipline. In one place Paul uses the image of the Christian as an athlete, beating his body into shape. The Olympians do not get where they are without hours of work and hardship. So also Christians must discipline their minds, their bodies and their spirits. In addition to self-denial, Paul commends a positive approach: fill the darkness with light, the emptiness with good things. He says: “The fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.” In another place he says much the same:

whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

I think Paul would include in this many “secular” things: good food, good books, great art and music, good sports. These all come from the hand of a good God. But in particular, he would commend Christian activities:

addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father. (Ephesians 5:19-20)

My wife and I have the interesting problem of having our bedroom right across from Mukono Cathedral, where on many Friday nights we get to listen to overnight prayers – which include rather loud singing, preaching and exorcising spirits. It reminds me of some wild pentecostal meetings I went to when I was young. I think one needs to be careful not to think worship is more godly just because it is loud and late; but nevertheless, I am grateful that these folk are not full of wine but of the Spirit of God (see verse 18).

Our Anglican tradition has some resources for how to redeem the time. One of my favorite authors is the poet George Herbert (1593-1633). Herbert wrote a long didactic poem called “The Church-Porch” which spells out in a number of proverbs the kind of thing Paul meant, I think, when he said: “Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (verse 17). Here are some short verses from this poem:

George Herbert , “The Church Porch” (modernized)

Beware of lust: it doth pollute and foul
Whom God in baptism washed with his own blood.

Abstain wholly or wed: Your bounteous Lord
Allows you choice of paths: take no by-ways.

Drink not the third glass, which you cannot tame…
(Well, if you don’t take the first glass, you won’t be tempted by the third.)

Take not his name, who made your mouth, in vain.

Lie not, but let your heart be true to God.

Flee idleness…

Do all things like a man, not sneakingly.

By all means use sometimes to be alone.
Salute yourself: see what your soul doth wear.
Sum up at night what you have done by day;
And in the morning what you have to do.

Be thrifty, but not covetous…
Never exceed your income…
Spend not on hopes…

Play not for gain, but sport…

Be sweet to all. Is your complexion sour?
Catch not at quarrels….
Laugh not too much…

Envy not greatness, for you make thereby
Your self the worse, and so the distance greater.

Your friend put in your bosom…

Pitch your behaviour low, your projects high.

Scorn no man’s love, though of a mean degree.

Keep all your native good, and naturalize
All foreign of that name…

In alms regard your means and others merit.

Restore to God His due in time and tithe.
Sundays observe: think when bells do chime [drums beat]
Tis angels’ music; therefore come not late.

Resort to sermons but to prayers most:
Praying’s the end of preaching.

In brief, acquit yourself bravely, play the man.
Look not to pleasures as they come, but go.


My young friends, I know this is exam time, and at exam time, we all suddenly begin to focus on what is important. Actually, maybe not, as some people may make their exams their god for a couple weeks. But in any case, take the Word of God today as a word to you. Most of you have many years ahead to live and work and love. Those of you who know Christ have a head start on some people like Malcolm Muggeridge.

Commit yourselves today and your lives – past, present and future – to be imitators of God, giving thanks to the Father through Jesus Christ.

AMEN

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