Time Keeps on Slippin' ... Or Does It?
“Time keeps on slippin,’ slippin,’ slippin,’ into the future.” In their hit song “Fly Like an Eagle,” the Steve Miller Band uses popular music to describe a universal human experience. Who among us hasn’t felt the steady marching forward of time, dragging us into the future, when all we want to do is remain in the present? Teachers feel it every day, as their planning period races by. “Why don’t the hours I have students go by this fast?” they ask themselves. Others with 9:00 to 5:00 jobs feel it every weekend as Sunday night arrives sooner than expected, another five days of work in its wake. I feel it most keenly during our annual beach vacation. We arrive on Saturday, unpack the van, and I think about how relaxing a week of sun and surf will be, only to blink and find it’s already Thursday, and the week is mostly gone. Then of course, there is the weekly experience of those who fill the pulpit. “The tyranny of preaching is that Sunday comes every seven days,” my mentor once told me. A surgery, a funeral, or maybe your own illness, and suddenly that sermon you had an entire week to prepare has to be written in a day’s time.
This linear way of thinking about time has often been described as a “western” concept, in contrast with the “ancient” way of viewing time as being cyclical. Some ancients even believed that history repeated itself literally—déjà vu on a cosmic scale. It is easy to understand why this way of thinking would prevail in an agrarian world tied to the changing of the seasons, planting, and harvesting. Cycles seem built into nature—the life cycle, the water cycle—so why not think of time as a cycle as well?
The Bible refuses to simplify time as a line stretching ever forward into the future, or as a chronological merry-go-round that spins without ever going anywhere. It is true that cyclical patterns are built into nature. We are told that God created the sun, moon, and stars to help delineate the seasons of time: “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years’” (Gen. 1:14 ESV). God even structured Israel’s calendar in patterns of seven days and seven years. Yet this same God indicates that even within the patterns and cycles of time there will be newness: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19).
I say all this by way of reminding us of two important things.
First, just because you are in the same place does not mean that nothing has changed. I remember one time being lost out in the woods while driving around. I came to an intersection and took the direction I thought led home, only to find myself right back at said intersection several minutes later. As frustrating as it was, the experience had at least taught me which direction not to take! Sometimes being in the same place is actually an indicator of success. When Moses encountered God in the burning bush at Horeb, God told him: “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain” (Exod. 3:12). Moses would return to that very place with the newly-liberated people of Israel in tow.
Second, just because you are in a new place does not mean that everything has changed. Take for instance, the difference between the first and second Passovers celebrated by the nation of Israel. The Israelites celebrated the first Passover as slaves living in Egypt. By the time of the second Passover, they were a free people on their way to the Promised Land! The places where they celebrated Passover couldn’t have been more different … but some things remained the same. There were still challenges to be faced, and most importantly, they were still in the presence of an almighty God who heard their cries and acted to redeem them.
The Bible portrays time as a series of connected loops, each one taking us back to the past, even as it moves us into the future. So while time might seem to slip away from us, God’s work in the world provides hope that the past is not irrevocable. We experience this most clearly, for the time being at least, in the sacraments. Our baptism assures us that past mistakes are not beyond the reach of God’s redemption. The bread and the fruit of the vine take us back to the cross where our debt was paid, even while drawing our gaze to that future messianic banquet, the Supper of the Lamb.
Having faith in Christ means trusting that even when life seems stationary, things have changed. It means that, when surrounded by the unfamiliar, there is something, someone familiar that we can rely on. It means believing that time isn’t merely slipping into the future, like a ship helplessly swept forward by an irresistible current. No, time is securely in the hands of the Ancient of Days, the Alpha and the Omega.