Sooner or later, we’re all going to die. And, sooner or later, Christ will come again. Sooner or later, this age will end, and the world as we know it will be transformed by the fullness of God’s kingdom. These facts raise the same question for us as it did for the disciples: “When will this be?”
We start asking “When?” around the ages of 3½ to 4 years old, about the same time we start asking “Why?” and “How?” According to experts, “why” questions help children make sense of the world that is so new to them. I didn’t find expert opinions about the purpose of asking “when.” But, my guess is that “when” questions satisfy a different need. We don’t just need to understand our environment. We want some control over it.
If we know “when” something is going to happen, we can be prepared. We won’t be taken by surprise and find ourselves in an unexpectedly difficult situation. If we know when the blizzard will strike, we can have food and snow shovels and batteries on hand. If we know when the baby will arrive, grandparents- and great-grandparents-to-be can be ready with their new smartphones and iPads and Facetime accounts. If we know, as we sit at the bedside of a loved one, when they will pass away, we can make sure we’ve said all that needs to be said before the end comes.
These days, many of our “when” questions have to do with COVID. We want to know when the next outbreak will occur, so we can have plenty of supplies on hand in case of another shut-down. We want to know when we’ll have a vaccine. We want to know when we can get back to some semblance of the old normal.
We want to know when things will happen so that, even if we can’t control what’s coming, we’ll be ready for it. When my Mom was in the early days of Alzheimer’s, she kept spiral notebooks where she wrote down everything that was going to happen each day. When she moved to Sunset Village, she’d write down each day’s activities. When she became unable to write, she asked others to write them down for her. Even when she lost the ability to read, she wanted the schedule in her notebook, because having the “when” of everything written down gave her some sense of control. The need to know “when” is a deep and powerful one.
When we ask “when,” we want the answers to be as specific as possible. When Peyton was little, most of the clocks in our house were digital, except for my watches. All my watches had hands on them, and some of them didn’t have numbers on their faces. When Peyton would ask me when something would happen, I’d look at my watch and say, “Oh, in about half an hour” or “around noon.” “No, Mommy,” she’d say, pointing to a digital clock. “When?”
We want our timetables to be specific, because we want to know how long we have to prepare, how long we have to endure, how long we have to wait. We want to know “when” so that we can use the time between now and then in the best way possible—however we define that “best way.”
Neither Jesus nor Ecclesiastes answer the question of “when.” Ecclesiastes doesn’t attempt to answer the implied question of “when will we die?” Jesus doesn’t answer the disciples’ question of when he will come again or when God will bring the kingdom to fruition. But what both Ecclesiastes and Jesus do is to explain what we should do with our time before the “when” comes.
We’ve already had a taste of Ecclesiastes’ view of life. According to him, the world we live in and the lives we lead are absurd. We’ll never make sense of them. They are vanity—a chasing after wind. Death comes to everyone after time and chance have had their way, and then it’s off to Sheol—not the hell Sheol has come to mean for us, but a place described by the scholar W. Sibley Towner as a place “from which no prayers arise, beyond which there is no further hope, a place where all consciousness and all passions have ceased, a place where the dead lead a shadowy existence.”
Of course, we don’t know when death will come. As Qohelet says, “no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.”
Given this uncertain timetable and his notion that the life we’re living now is all we’ve got, Qohelet gives this advice: “Eat, drink and be merry.” Don’t spend the time you’ve got being miserable! Wear white—the color of celebration. Don’t spare the oil that signifies rejoicing. Enjoy life and love. Whatever you do, give it your all. Live a full life, an exuberant life. “Go for the gusto,” as a popular beer commercial once said. Make the most of the time you have.
This isn’t bad advice. It’s just incomplete advice, based on incomplete information. Ecclesiastes bases his advice on his belief that our short, absurd, earthly lives will end with our deaths. But, we know that our lives are not just a temporary existence, empty of meaning. We know that our lives are precious and full of meaning and purpose, and we know that they will continue after our earthly deaths.
Jesus never says that life should be without enjoyment. After all, Jesus is the guy who began his public ministry by making sure a wedding would be well-supplied with excellent wine. He is the guy who hung out at the home of his friends. He is the guy who could often be found at a table, enjoying a meal and spirited conversation. Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, James reminds us that every good and perfect gift comes from God, so surely God wants us to enjoy all the blessings that come our way. John Wesley wrote that “True religion or holiness cannot be without cheerfulness.”
So, we don’t have to disregard Qohelet’s advice. But we do need to broaden it. For Christians, enjoying the gifts of the senses is not the only way we should be spending our time as we wait, both for our own deaths and for Jesus’ return and the coming of the kingdom. We have work to do. We have a mission to fulfill. We have a Lord who has commissioned us to continue his earthly ministry in a broken world until that time when it is broken no more. There are hungry people to feed, homeless people to house, sick people to be cared for, and there are systems that keep people hungry and homeless and uncared for to be remade. There are people crying out for justice who need to be heard, and there are systems that stand in the way of justice to be reformed. There are people searching for meaning, and there is a Church that needs disciples who will reach out to them with the love of Jesus.
We are to prepare for the Son of Man’s return by living lives of happiness and holiness. Happiness is the result of knowing that you are God’s beloved and that, by God’s grace, through your faith in Jesus, you have a sure and certain hope that you will live forever in God’s presence. Holiness is the result of living each day more and more in concert with God’s love for us and for others.
This is how we stay awake and ready for the coming of the kingdom and the King. It’s not a last minute, mad-dash-to-the-grocery-store-to-stock-up-on-toilet-paper kind of being ready. It’s a daily “being ready.” It’s living each day in such a way that if the kingdom comes today, you won’t be surprised. You won’t be dismayed. You’ll have been living in such a way that, no matter when it comes, you’ll be ready to step into that kingdom with the confidence of a beloved citizen.
Like Ecclesiastes, Jesus warns that the events we anticipate will come suddenly. He doesn’t answer the question “When?” for the simple reason that he doesn’t know. That’s intel that only the Father has. Jesus paints a fairly bleak picture of what is likely to happen in the world as it waits to be redeemed and transformed. But, these events aren’t divine tornado sirens, signaling that the time has come. They are simply a description of the natural and expected result of the sin humankind suffers from, and will continue to suffer from, until God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness. We may not know when the King will come, but we know how to live in readiness for his arrival.
Willie Nelson was interviewed on NPR a few weeks ago, after the release of his new album “The First Rose of Spring.” Nelson is 87 years old, and the interviewer said to him, “[Because of the pandemic], a lot of elderly people feel vulnerable right now…You’re still very active in all ways, but can you understand their feelings?”
Nelson replied, “Yeah, of course I can understand it. You know, who knows?” And then he recited these lines from one of the new songs on the album, called “Live Every Day”: “Treat everyone like you want to be treated, and see how that changes your life. Yesterday’s dead, tomorrow is blind, and the future is way out of sight. So just live every day like it was your last one, and one day you’ll be right.”
That’s a pretty good synopsis of the advice we get from both Ecclesiastes and Jesus. We should live every day as if it’s our last one—either the last day of our earthly lives or the last day before our Savior returns. We should live every day doing things that give our lives both enjoyment and meaning. We should live every day doing the things that draw us closer to God and to our neighbors. We should live every day making our world look a little more like the kingdom that is going to break in unexpectedly. That’s how we’ll be ready for that glorious day when Christ comes again, whether it’s sooner or later. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young