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My Times are in Your Hands

 

Psalm 31:15        1st Timothy 1:16         John 11:25

 

I enjoy few spectacles more than I enjoy a circus.    The last item in any circus happens to be my favourite; namely, the trapeze. Even if some of the items in the circus program are slightly “corny”, I can endure them because I know that the trapeze display will make everything worthwhile.

There are two kinds of trapeze performers, catchers and flyers.   The catcher hangs by his legs from a trapeze bar, and he swings back and forth on a trapeze swing that has a short arc.   The flyer (flyers are always smaller than catchers, and for this reason flyers are frequently women); she swings back and forth on trapeze swing with a huge arc. The moment in the trapeze display I look for is that breathless instant when the flyer has left her swing and hangs motionless in mid-air for a split second as the catcher meets her outstretched hands and swings her to the platform with him.

If the trapeze display is even more dramatic, the flyer leaves her swing and somersaults several times up into the air.   As she descends, still tumbling over and over, she reaches out her hands at the last instant and finds the hands of the catcher.  It thrills me.

I’m thrilled even if the catcher misses the flyer and the flyer falls. I’m thrilled but not horrified, since I know the flyer will fall into the net, bounce up onto her feet unharmed and wave to the crowd while the crowd applauds.

Much of life is like a trapeze event.  There are moments when we appear to be suspended in the middle of nowhere, hoping somehow to be caught.   There are situations too where we are tumbling, tumbling over and over, and can only hope that arms of some sort are going to be waiting for us.

But of course there’s also much about life that isn’t like a trapeze event. For one, life isn’t entertainment. For another, there’s no net underneath us.

 

Many people feel that life, day in and day out, is like that moment when the trapeze performer is suspended between what she’s left behind and what she’s hoping to find in front of her.  We often feel that life is a matter of being suspended between past and future. And since life isn’t entertainment but rather is for real, being suspended between past and future isn’t always pleasant, let alone exhilarating.  Sometimes it’s threatening.  We feel that the past is riddled with painful regrets, resentments, injuries, sins; and we fear that the future might hold more of the same. And the present? We feel that the present could precipitate us at any moment into a plunge we’d prefer not to think about.

The psalmist knows how we feel.  Yet as often as apprehension rises in him he moves beyond his apprehension to a knowledge yet more profound: he knows that his times – whether past, future, or present – his times are in God’s hand.   “My times are in your hand”, he writes.  For him, past and future and present are in God’s hand just because he, the psalmist, is in God’s hand.  Because God’s grip on him is stronger than his grip on God, he knows that his times are in God’s hand.

What about our times?

 

I: — Let’s look first at the past. We should understand that the past isn’t past; that is, the past isn’t merely past. The past, even the distant past, continues to reach forward into the present.  In other words, so far from dead, the past is alive.

[a] Think, for instance, of how past sins still haunt us.  (I know what you want to tell me right now: the text of our sermon reads “My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.” While we have many enemies and persecutors, I remain convinced that we are frequently our own worst enemy and frequently our own worst persecutor.)  Perhaps we carved someone up with our tongue or betrayed someone for personal advantage or allowed someone we could have defended to be humiliated. A relationship was destroyed or at least damaged.

Perhaps we committed what others might call an indiscretion but which we more honestly name for what it was, sin, and its consequences have lingered from that day to this.  What we sowed we are still reaping; the aftermath reaches forward to us now, and it haunts us.

Some people advise us, “Just forget about it all.”   But we don’t simply forget what every day finds us thinking about in undistracted moments. To the end of his life the apostle Paul never forgot, couldn’t forget, that he had been a persecutor. His persecution had been extreme enough to engineer the deaths of several Christians. Yet when he writes to Timothy, a much younger man beginning his ministry, Paul says tersely yet profoundly, “I received mercy.”   “I can’t pretend I didn’t do what I did, and I can’t pretend the consequences weren’t and aren’t what everyone knows them to be, but I received mercy.”

Paul knows that the facts of the past can’t be changed.  Yet he knows with equal certainty that much about the past can be changed. The effectual mercy that Jesus Christ wraps around his people prevents the past from crippling us. Mercy means that the self-accusation with which we torture ourselves concerning the past; this self-accusation has been rendered inoperative.   Mercy means that the toxicity of what can’t be changed; its toxicity has been changed as we soak ourselves in the mercy that God writes upon our hearts thanks to the sacrifice of his Son.

There’s much about my past that I don’t want to forget.  I fear that if I forget what I do well to remember, then the sin that overtook me in the past will overtake me again, and I don’t want to offend my Lord and disgrace myself once more.  Then I do well not to forget.  But I want with all my heart not to be tormented by what I dare not forget; I want not to collapse and crumble in self-accusation and self-condemnation. To be sure, I want soberly and sincerely always to be aware of how treacherous my heart is now inasmuch as I’ve never forgotten how treacherous my heart was then; at the same time, however, I don’t want to be poisoned by all of this or immobilized by it.  What I really want is this: I want to keep my past in view lest I cavalierly think I’m beyond stumbling, even as I want to move beyond my past lest I become its prisoner.

I’m persuaded that this is precisely how Paul regarded himself when he wrote Timothy simply yet profoundly, “I received mercy.”

We aren’t pretending for a minute that mercy is indulgence.  Mercy isn’t permission to re-offend.  Mercy rather is life-bringing force of Christ’s resurrection reaching back into our past to assure us that our sin has been pardoned.         Mercy is the life-bringing force of Christ’s resurrection doing something with our past so as to defuse the deadliness it will otherwise push into our present.

One aspect of the life-bringing force of Christ’s resurrection is what we have learned. If through our sin and its aftermath we learned something crucial, then a miracle has occurred. If we learned as little, seemingly, as how powerfully yet unconsciously temptation imports its own rationalization, we’ve learned a huge lesson, one that will never find us saying again, “How could she have done it?” Aware now of how powerfully yet unconsciously temptation imports its own rationalization, we know exactly how she could have done it: we did it ourselves.

If through our blunder we finally lost our self-righteousness and our cocksure superiority, then a miracle has occurred – which is to say, nothing less than resurrection has occurred.

 

[b] Not our sin this time but our regrets, specifically our regrets arising from decisions and choices for which we can’t be blamed (sin has nothing to do with them) but which have turned out to be the wrong decisions or choices – what about such regrets?   The truth is, every day we have to make decisions, and occasionally we have to make huge decisions when we don’t have nearly as much information as we need, or we’re not acquainted with all the factors involved, or we can’t anticipate all the implications of choosing this or that – even as we know we have to make a decision.

It was when I studied under Dr. James Wilkes, a psychiatrist (now retired), in my last year of seminary that I learned how pervasive this matter is in life. Wilkes mentioned over and over in class that we are finite, frail fragile people with limited information and limited resources and limited perspective; and in the midst of this we find ourselves forced to make decisions that are going to be hugely significant – we know this – even as in all our limitations we can’t predict the outcomes.

Let me repeat: this time we’re not talking about sin for which we’re responsible; we’re talking about human limitation for which we aren’t responsible. Still, while we can’t be faulted for the decision we made, in some respects we’re stuck with the decision we made.

We had opportunity to sign on with a different employer.  Either we did or we didn’t, and the implications have been huge. We had opportunity to spend an inheritance in this way or in that, and we see made a choice we now wish we hadn’t.

What does it mean here to say that our times are in God’s hand?   We are not speaking now of God’s mercy (that is, forgiveness); we are speaking now of God’s providence.  To speak of God’s providence is to acknowledge, gladly and gratefully, that no “wrong” decision is ultimately wrong. To speak of God’s providence is to own the comfort he intends us to have in that his hands are never tied. Regardless of what the outcome has been of decisions we’ve made; regardless of the fact that twenty years later we see that we should have chosen option “B” instead of option “C”; regardless of what it has all spelled for us, it never finds God handcuffed.  There is no situation in our lives where he is handcuffed.  To speak of God’s providence, then, is to comfort ourselves in a glorious truth: there is nothing in the way our lives have unfolded which God can’t use for our blessing or the blessing of others.  There is no development that strikes us as a “lemon” from which God can’t make lemonade of some sort, for someone’s edification.

While we can never undo the decisions we made, and while we can never alter the outcome of those decisions, there remains much that can be changed. Self-cursing regret can be changed. Bitter self-denunciation can be changed. Futile remorse can be changed. It’s all changed as the God who is never handcuffed makes something glorious for us or others out of what strikes us as merely negative.  The power of Christ’s resurrection means that there’s no occurrence, however deadly, before which God is helpless.  He who raised his Son from the dead isn’t going to be handcuffed by a decision that I see twenty years later I shouldn’t have made even though at the time I was doing my best with the information I had.

As surely as God’s mercy is adequate for our sin, his providence is adequate for our finitude.

 

[c] What about resentments arising from the past, resentment that arises inasmuch as we’ve been victimized?         Injuries done to us often grate on us more than our own sins or mistakes just because we feel so very powerless about them.  We can’t even lessen the hurt by saying, “At least I have no one to blame but myself.” All we can do is fume as we recall how powerless we were when someone clobbered us. The wound smarts to this day.

It’s easy to find ourselves thinking about this accidentally, and soon find ourselves thinking about it deliberately.  As we continue to think about it we’re flooded with such resentment that we feel ourselves about to explode.  Soon we’re looking for a chance to even the score, and if the chance never comes, the resentment intensifies.

Yet to be stuck here is to be left dying a thousand painful deaths. One such death is too many; a thousand are pointless.  Therefore when this deadly, deadening situation has occurred once, we must start thinking about resurrection; specifically we must think about the resurrection of the crucified.

When we think of the crucified we must think first of what Jesus told us himself: “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord.” He means that the sacrifice he makes is a sacrifice he makes. He’s not a doormat. He’s not a sucker. He’s not a laughable punching bag. He lays his life down. No one takes it from him – even though his slayers think they are taking it from him.

Then there’s only one thing to do. When we find ourselves clobbered, we aren’t going to fume about the powerlessness amidst which we were victimized. When we find ourselves clobbered, we are going to make our wound a sacrifice we offer to God.  We are going to deny that someone has taken something from us; instead we are going to offer it up to God.

There’s another way we can approach this matter.  Our Lord’s assassins torment and spear him.  They think they are masters of the situation.  But as soon as Jesus says “I lay down my life”, he absorbs it all. Since the last event in this scenario is his absorbing it all in himself, who is finally master of it all? He is. Indisputably he is.

Then this is how you and I must deal with wounds from our past that will otherwise fester within us until the pus of resentment renders us ugly to others and tormented in ourselves.  We are going to offer up as sacrifice to God the injury that someone else did us and in which she thought we were powerless and for which she preens himself as our master.  We are going to absorb it, defuse our resentment, and therein ensure that our assailant has mastered no one.

 

II: — Enough about the past; let’s move on to the future. How often have you heard it said, “We don’t know the future, and it’s good that we don’t, for if we knew what the future held we couldn’t stand it”? People say this because they fear that the future will be similar to the past, perhaps worse. They say this because they fear that having survived the past (however bad it was), the future might be so much worse that they won’t survive it.

They are right in one respect: the future is going to resemble the past. At least the future will resemble the past in that the future will bring accident, folly, misfortune, injury.

But this is no reason to dread the future.  We must remember that the future will also contain Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, ever working light and life and love in us, ever pressing his mercy upon us in the face of our sin, ever enfolding us in his providence amidst our limitation, ever defusing our resentment as he helps us turn wound into sacrifice and thereby victimization into victory. This is what the future holds for us.

Some people speak of the future as the “great unknown”.   To be sure, we don’t know the specific details of the future.   (Ten years from now will I be living in Mississauga , Midland or among the “great cloud of witnesses” who were granted their release ahead of me?) We don’t know the specific details, but neither are they ultimately important. Jesus Christ is ultimately important, and he is our future. One way of understanding the future (the most helpful way, I’m convinced) is to see the future as the time in which Christ comes to us in the midst of what we aren’t able to foresee.  The future isn’t what hasn’t happened yet.   The future is Christ coming to us in the midst of what we can’t anticipate.

A week ago (Christmas) we praised God for the gift of his Son, Christ Jesus our Lord. We thanked God that at last the long-promised One came among us.  But even as he lives among us he’s not bound by us.  He is Lord of time. For this reason he who is among us is simultaneously out in front of us, ahead of us. Because he’s always out in front of us he’s always coming toward us with his promise to bring life and light and love amidst all that we can’t foresee. While there’s much we can’t foresee, we can foresee him.  And to foresee him is to anticipate the future not with misgiving or even dread, but rather to move toward the future confidently just because we know that as we move toward the future, he is already moving toward us.

 

III: — All of which brings us to the present.  I’m not going to say much about the present, because I don’t think there’s much to be said. I don’t think there’s much to be said about the present in that I don’t think there’s much to the present.  The present is simply the borderline between the past and the future. The present is simply that line, finer than a hair, in our travelling from past to future.

It’s odd, isn’t it, that I think there’s little to the present when we are told that shallow people, superficial people, live only for the present. We all understand what’s meant. Shallow people do live exclusively for the present inasmuch as they are determined to deny their past and determined to ignore the future.  Christ’s people, however, have no interest in either denying the past or ignoring the future. We belong to him who is Lord of time, Lord of past and future.

Still, something can be said about the present.  Paul announces, “Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.” In other words, right now is the hour to receive God’s favour.   Today is the day to look for and thank God for his mercy that bleaches our sin, his providence that cancels our regret, and his truth that shrivels our resentment. Today is the day to own afresh that what we call the future is the risen One coming to us and holding us in a grip that will never abandon us, abandon us to what we haven’t been able to foresee.   “Now is the acceptable time.”

 

Now is the acceptable time just because all our times – past, future, present – are in God’s hand.

 

                                                                                                Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           January 2006