Time is a finite and perishable resource. As I write, as you read; more of it has irretrievably slipped away. The illustrious J.R.R. Tolkein wrote in Lord of the Rings about the essence of time:
A Commodity or a Gift?
So, maybe we should consider another description of time than “resource.” Perhaps, it is better to say with Gandolf that time is a gift; a precious gift that cannot be exchanged if it doesn’t suit us. By saying that time is a gift we are admitting that time is not a commodity. A commodity is nothing special, something that is in perpetual plenty. But time is finite, and thus of inestimable value. A fool thinks of time as a commodity. A wise person receives time as a gift.
The wise use some of this invaluable gift for introspection. Indeed, a prudent person will recognize to ask one’s self essential questions about life and death is a good investment of the limited resource. Such an investment cannot buy time—seconds, minutes, hours, and days are not for sale—but help to spend time with profound dividends. I hope to spend a few moments of time inspecting my own life. Perhaps, as I do, I can share that time with you. So, the question that I ask myself, the question that I ask you, is: “How are you using time?”
We could respond in many ways to that question. I will take the lead here. Let us think of an answer in a couplet. Indeed, I can honestly think of no better way to answer that question than in the two essential categories of our lives. One: “How am I stewarding time as a person?” “How am I managing the gift of time as a husband? A father? In my vocation? In my reading and learning?” Think about that.
But the focus of this little essay is the second question in the couplet:
How Are You Using Time as a Disciple of Jesus Christ?
Every disciple of Jesus of Nazareth must follow Him in the time that is given us. To faithfully steward time is, of course, a Biblical virtue repeatedly urged. So the wise Solomon observed: “For everything, there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl. 3:1 ESV). So, also, the Apostle Paul warned: “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16 NKJV).
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 14:5-8, the New International Version of the Holy Bible).
Marking Time with the Christian Sabbath
Paul is referring to a Christianly use of time for the sake of worshipping God. Before Christ came to earth, the ancient Church, ancient Israel, worshipped according to times and seasons set forth by God. All of the seasons pointed to the need for a Savior and the promise of His coming.
Today, in Christ Jesus, we remain under the “duty of love” to set apart one in seven days as the Lord’s Day. The Christian Sabbath, that holy Queen of Days, to quote Abraham Joshua Heschel, is the Day of Jesus’ Resurrection.
We have the opportunity to be one of those who “regards one day as special to the Lord.”
Marking Time with the Church Year
The Church followed the practice of the Synagogue in the public reading of the Scriptures. Whereas Israel had set apart readings according to the festivals and seasons of the Old Covenant, the Church marked time by a new Sabbath calendar: the resurrection. Indeed, the Lord’s Day is the principal day of public worship. And early on, Christian communities began to remember the life of Jesus across a year: from the promise of His coming to His virgin birth, His Advent; from His Epiphany to the Gentiles (fulfilling the Covenant to Abraham that his children would be all of the nations of the earth); and, from the long season before Easter (Lenten season), to the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, and the promised coming of the Holy Spirit to send the Church into the world, fulfilling the mission of God in the world until Jesus comes again (Pentecost and the Sundays after Pentecost). Now, we do the work of the Great Commission as we wait for His second Advent. Thus, from Advent to Pentecost, the Church marks time, remembers the “old, old Story,” and fashions our lives according to the rhythm of the life of Jesus according to the Scriptures.
Marking Time with a Lectionary
From the nascent days of our faith, many Christian communities (as in Jewish communities in which Jesus worshipped and read from the appointed lessons for the Sabbath), compiled weekly readings of Scripture according to the life of Jesus. Lectio selecta (Latin for select reading) follows the Jewish approach to reading selected passages of the Bible in a cyclical format. The earliest records of public worship demonstrate Lectio selecta. I quote from a Lutheran writer on the history of the lectionary:
Christian congregations of the first century took their cues for the divine service from the worship practices of the synagogue, which used a lectionary to determine the readings for the service. This reading of Scripture was called the miqra, which originally meant “calling together,” but came to refer especially to the reading and sometimes teaching of Scripture.1 While there was some variation in practice, usually there were two Scripture readings in each service. The first was from the Torah, divided into 150 parts to be read lectio continua in a three year cycle, then a second lesson from the Prophets2. Some synagogues may have also used a three-year cycle for the reading of the Psalms. The lessons having been read, they would be preached upon by a rabbi. Perhaps the best example we have of this is from St. Luke 4:16-21, the account of Jesus preaching at the synagogue in Nazareth. The Isaiah scroll is handed to Him, and He unrolls it to the reading from the Prophets for the day, reads the lection, and then preaches on it.
Alexander Ring, “The Path of Understanding,” The Path of Understanding — The Development of Lectionaries and Their Use in the Lutheran Church, January 1998, , accessed July 21, 2019, https://www.blc.edu/comm/gargy/gargy1/AlexRing.gpc.html.
Recognizing the value of time and the amount of Scripture to be publically read, some Christian pastors and other leaders divided Bible reading across three years. With Old Testament writings, the Psalms, a New Testament Epistle, and a Gospel reading, the Church cultivated a rich tapestry of Sacred Word for each Lord’s Day of the year for three years. Today’s lectionaries (a “lection” of Scripture is a “portion” of Scripture) continue that pattern: three-year cycles of Bible readings for public worship (and daily worship for individuals) that comport with the seasons of the life of Jesus. Other believers, particularly since the Reformation (but not all Reformed believers and assemblies), followed a pattern of Lectio continua (Latin for continuous reading). Today, in many Reformed churches, Lectio selecta and Lectio continua are used in concert with each other. The public reading of Scripture through, e.g., three-year lectionaries, compiled according to the life of Jesus, i.e., the Church Year, is shared with reading and preaching through a book of the Bible, i.e., Lection continua.
Time is a quantifiable and expendable gift. Like manna, we receive the gift, consume the blessing, and wait on the Lord for further provision. Thus, we must wisely use the gift of time in our discipleship. Worship services with plenty of Scripture—read, sung, prayed, preached, and said in common, as in a confession of sin or creed—is a wise use of time to shape and be shaped in the image of Jesus our Lord. Personal devotions, likewise, can follow the life of Jesus across the year, using Scripture (and composed prayers, as well as the Psalms, the Prayerbook of the Bible) to come before the Lord.
Marking Time to Shape Disciples
I was once told by a church leader that I should conduct divine services of the Church by keeping in mind an old saying: “Feed the dogs what the dogs want to eat.” I don’t doubt the sincerity of the one who spoke it. He wanted to see growth and peace in the Christian assembly. But I cannot help but say that I was disappointed in that advise. While it might promote numerical growth, even harmony, the premise itself is erroneous. Firstly, God’s People (and God-fearers, those who come to hear and to learn the claims of Jesus) are not dogs. The only proper metaphor is from the Judean pastoral fields: sheep. Secondly, dogs sometimes eat what they want, not what is best. As a Christian shepherd, I must discharge my sacred calling—you who are pastors must discharge your holy vocation—by guiding God’s flock, feeding His Lambs, and healing their wounds, on the blessed Manna appointed by the Lord: Word, Sacrament, and Prayer. Long ago, I studied the patterns and practices of other, older, wiser shepherds to conclude: I can best dispense Word, Sacrament, and Prayer by following the life of our Lord. This is why I encourage the “use” (not the slavish and unthoughtful use) of the Church Year and of a good lectionary. This in no way precludes preaching through a book of the Bible or preaching through a series of Biblical biographies, or attention to a given chapter of a book. Reading plenty of Scripture in divine service, and in your devotions, according to the seasons of Jesus’ life and ministry, helps to shape your life on the life of our Lord Jesus.
Conclusion: Give Attention
It is for reason of pastoral fidelity and effective discipleship that St. Paul urged Timothy to practice the main things of ministry:
Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.
1 Timothy 4:13, The New American Standard Bible.
Every pastor, elder, deacon, lay reader, every worship committee, and every believer would be well-served to take the time to translate Paul’s mandate to a question. “How am I doing with that?”
The question and the introspection will undoubtedly be time well spent. For to follow the Lord Jesus is the time of our lives.