When this feeble life is o’er,
Time for me shall be no more.
There used to be a movie short called “The March of Time.” It was a kind of newsreel, and dealt with important events in current society as I recall. The march of time, or the passing of time, is a familiar idea, but it is altogether misleading. Time does not march. Time does not pass. We pass.
Like a fast car running westbound on the Interstate, we pass mile marker after mile marker, but the markers don’t move. We move.
But on this interstate, there is no eastbound lane. We pass mile marker after mile marker, but we can never go back. We can’t even stop. And this is one of the more profound truths of the Bible. We are rushing headlong through life. We are here for a little while, and then, we pass. "Man, that is born of a woman” said Job, “is few of days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and then he’s gone." (Job 14:1-2)
A long time ago, God decided to impress upon all who would be his friends, a lesson about time. He asked his friend Abraham to leave his home, his city, and the house he lived in. He promised him a city. Abraham made the journey, and according to the author of Hebrews, he went without knowing where he was going. By faith, he lived in that new land dwelling in tents. For the remainder of his natural life, Abraham never had a permanent home, never lived in a house. And in so doing, he made a statement that “he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God." (Hebrews 11:8-10)
What is so very striking about this is that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and all the other examples cited, died in faith, never having seen that city:
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)
It is so tempting to try to make a permanent home for ourselves along this highway. We would love to have a sense of permanence, but any such feeling is an illusion. We are here today, gone tomorrow, and nothing we can do will change that. The best we can do is to pitch a tent, a tabernacle, a tabernacle in biblical terms, along the highway.
My Dad used to sing in a Stamps Quartet, and he dragged my mother and me all over the Ozarks to gospel concerts and singing conventions. A lot of the Gospel music of that era had been written during the depression, and it was very different from what you hear today. Both southern gospel music of that era, and the Negro Spiritual had a theme in common and I didn’t really understand it at the time.
Over time, I grew to love both Gospel music and the Spiritual. The best religious music arises from hard times, you know. It arises out of a lost hope in this world, where the only hope that it is left is for a better world. I remember a song from my dad’s quartet that says what I am trying to say.
O Lord, you know,
I have no friend like you.
If heaven’s not my home,
O Lord what will I do.
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
and I can’t feel at home in this world any more.
I learned from my dad’s music, that this world was not my home. There are some themes in the Bible that the composers of Gospel music like Albert Brumley, and whoever wrote many of the Negro Spirituals captured. Heaven was shorthand for the Kingdom of heaven, of which Jesus spoke often. The promised land, Canaan, was a symbol for heaven, as in the old hymn, “I am bound for the promised land.”
The Jordan River was the boundary between this world and the next. And that old song began: “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wistful eye on Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie.”
Crossing Jordan was death and resurrection: “When I come to the river at ending of day, when the last winds of sorrow have blown.”
The wilderness wanderings were symbolic of this life with all its troubles and trials. Camping and “tabernacling” were symbols of the temporary life we have now. And the songs found hope, not in this world, but in the land across the river: “There’s a land across the river, that they call the sweet forever. And we only reach that shore by faith’s decree.”
It is only natural that when times are good, we invest a lot of ourselves in this world. When times are hard and the days grow short, when we start to realize that all our hopes and dreams are going to end in death, that’s when the music of our lives really begins to tell. The message of pain is that you are mortal, and that it is vain to place your hopes in the here and now. "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." (1 Corinthians 15:19)
A lot of this was brought home to me not long ago, along with a new awareness of time. An old and sometimes friend died. It is still hard for me to realize that this man, who played such an influential role in my life, is lying under six feet of East Texas dirt.
Now I know that no man is immortal. Without the resurrection from the dead, we would be without hope. I know that we lie in the grave and wait for the resurrection of the dead. I know that people in heaven are not looking down on us and watching us struggle through this life.
Those people are sleeping in the grave waiting for the last trumpet.
But that brings me back to the question of time. The very concept of time is an illusion. Science has demonstrated that what we call time is variable. That is to say that the rate at which we pass through time is variable. If we could accellerate our bodies to near the speed of light, time would appear to slow down. There is a scene in the movie “Close Encounters” where people are brought back to earth after being taken away a generation ago, and they haven’t aged a bit.
Each of us lives in his own time line. I have occasionally sat in a waiting room and looked at the people around me. They come and go and pass through my life, but when they are out of my sight, they might as well not exist. And then, I thought about my old friend Ted. Ted lived in “Ted time” and I live in “Ron time.” In Ted time, one moment he was lying in an emergency room bed with medical people around him trying to save his life. And, in Ted time, the next heartbeat, he was standing before his maker on the sea of glass.
In Ron time, I passed by his casket, and watched him loaded into a hearse and carried away. But you need to know this about Ted time. While he was standing there on the sea of glass before his maker, So was I.
Seem strange? Well, there is a line in an old Gospel song. Tennessee Ernie Ford made it a hit: “When this feeble life is o’er, time for me shall be no more.” It is such a beautiful, powerful idea. And it is a reflection of something Paul said:
For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. (2 Corinthians 5:1-3)
Our body, said Paul, is like a tent we live in for a while. It was never intended to be a permanent, fixed home. He went on to acknowledge that living in this tent is a burden, not that we want to be out in the cold, but that we would like to be at home. Then he says something about time and place.
Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.
Once in a while, I have had a fleeting sense of excitement when I think about this. I’m not as ready to go as Paul was, but I understand him better. And I realize that in my time, seeing Jesus is only a heartbeat away.
Make no mistake about it. When you go to the grave, you will wait there, as Job said, until God has a desire to the work of His hands. But for all practical purposes, for you, and from your perspective, When your heartbeat stops, so does time. One moment, you may be looking at the face of a surgeon, and the next moment at the face of God. This is what Paul was driving at when he said:
For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.
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