Ecclesiastes 3:10-15, Matthew 6:25-34
May 6, 2012
We were at the cemetery the other day. And each time I’m in a cemetery, I get a feeling that I’m in a sacred place! There’s a lot of history there, even if it isn’t an “historic” cemetery. I’m always fascinated, and I soon find myself looking at the markers, reading some of the names and dates, wondering about the lives represented by those markers.
Those lives are usually represented by the person’s name, and perhaps a brief description, such as, “Loving Wife and Mother.” Or simply “Rest in Peace.” And when I read that, I find myself wondering what kind of person they were, what kind of life they lived, and how they might have touched other people’s lives.
Sometimes there’s humor to be found there! I Googled “funny gravestone inscriptions,” and I got some great stuff! For instance, there was one marker with an inscription in Spanish that read, “A memorial from all your sons – except Richard who didn’t pay any money!” There was another one that read, “He was a good husband, and a wonderful father, but a bad electrician!”
I could go on, believe me! But I want you to think about the other thing you find on those markers. On almost every stone, you can find two dates. The first, of course, is the date the person was born, the second the date they died. And again, if you’re like me, you’re quick to calculate how long the person lived, and perhaps how long ago they lived.
Then, in between those two dates, there is usually a dash. And someone once noted that the “dash between the dates” represents the person’s entire life! That’s one weighty dash, isn’t it! It represents a lot! If you think about it, that’s a big job for one small grammatical mark chiseled on a stone!
It has then been suggested that we all have “dashes.” And all of us who are still here on earth are “living in our dash.” And then the question has been asked, “What are you doing with your dash?” Maybe you’ve heard that before. I heard it a number of years ago, but I mentioned it last week to a few people and they hadn’t heard it. So I thought it would be a good question for us to consider.
For most of the year now, we’ve been thinking about the lives of Jesus and his disciples. We’ve been trying to “tweak” our images of them as they’re portrayed in the scriptures, and as we picture them in our minds. And I hope that’s been helpful! Well today, I’d like to have us think about all of that, and then focus in on our own lives and our own journeys. And I think this is a great way of doing that. I want each of us to think about our “dash.” What are we doing with it?
As we do so, I think the first thing we need to consider is that a dash is pretty small. And doesn’t that speak to us of how short life is on this earth? And how precious! The psalmist said, “The years of our lives are threescore and ten, or by reason of strength, fourscore.” (That’s 70 or 80 years!) And then he concludes, “So, teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom!”
Sometimes I wonder about that “heart of wisdom.” We live in a world where people don’t want to think about aging and death. People literally spend billions of dollars attempting to hide or cheat the aging process. They buy anti-aging supplements. They take pills to restore their “youthful vigor?” You see those ads all the time, don’t you! And they’re compelling! I’d love to be able to run marathons like I used to! I was fast! But now whenever I run I always have my friend Arthur running with me. You know Arthur, don’t you? Arthur-itis? He’s always there! Oh, and don’t tell my doctor, but I cheated a bit on my last eye test. When the nurse switched the machine to close up vision, and covered up my right eye, I looked at the lowest line I could see, and I saw double! But! Of the two lines, one was pretty sharp! So I rattled off the letters like my vision was perfect!
Whether we like it or not, age does catch up with us! Our senses grow less sharp, our skin wrinkles, our hair grays, our hearing diminishes. And our “get up and go” gets up, and goes!
The psalmist said “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” We need that. We need to know that we are mortal! Because we live in a world where people – especially young people – think they’re aren’t! They think they’re going to live for ever. They think nothing is ever going to happen to them. They think they’re immortal, and so they live for the day. Wisdom comes when we know we are mortal, and live for eternity! That’s the “heart of wisdom” the psalmist was talking about. We need to know we are but “sojourners in this life.” We’re living in the dash. And the dash isn’t all that long, is it? When we get that “heart of wisdom,” we know that we live for eternity. After a while we realize that a small dash chiseled into a stone block is nothing in comparison to the immense passage of time. That’s a good representation, isn’t it?
So we get back to the question, “What are you doing with your dash?” True “spiritual wisdom” knows that we are bound for eternity, and that eternity starts now. Eternal life, as we are offered by God, doesn’t start at the time of that second date. We’re living that life right now! You know the old expression, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Well, it could be more accurately said that “Today is the first day… of the rest of eternity!”
The other part of that, which we don’t always get, is that the “joy of heaven” starts now, too! God doesn’t just want us to know joy and peace in the next life. He wants that for us in this life, too! In Ecclesiastes, Solomon said, “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live. Also, that it is God’s gift to man that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil.”
How often does it happen, that people take pleasure in all their toil? Too many people in our world are working too hard, and not enjoying their labors, like Solomon said. They’re working themselves to death. And if you ask them why, they’ll tell you they’re working hard so they can enjoy life… later. Well, God wants us to enjoy the life he gave us, now!
And no, life is not always perfect, but it’s still the same length! In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asked, “And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27) That’s true. We can’t add a minute to our lives by worrying. But we’re finding now that by worrying we can take away minutes! Worry and stress are two of the biggest health hazards in our world today! But cars continue to get bigger, computers continue to get smaller and faster, and we continue to be consumed by “what we gotta have.”
When I go to the mall, I sometimes say, “I have to go and see if there’s something I didn’t know existed, but I can’t live without!” It’s a joke, but isn’t it true? And isn’t that the job of the advertisers? They’ve got to convince us that without their product, we’ll all have gingivitis, outdated cell phones, and thatch in our lawns! And they’re pretty good at it! That lure is very strong!
I remember a conversation I had years ago with a young man in my youth group. His name was Bob. And Bob was very active in Church, as well as being involved in a number of school activities. But he also worked 40 hours a week! And he always seemed just a little bit tired and stressed out. And I once asked him, “Why do you work so many hours?” He said, “So I can pay for my car.” “But,” I asked, “why do you need a car so badly?” And he said, (?) “So I can get to work.” You can see where that’s going! I remember thinking that he was already establishing a pattern for himself that many people in our world are stuck in. And the people who are making money are the people who make medications for stress and depression!
Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!” (Matthew 6:28-29) And I believe Solomon would have agreed. “It’s all vanity!” he said. So many people are “chasing after the wind!” I wonder if Solomon even had the capacity to imagine what that “chasing” would be like in our time!
Aldous Huxley, the author of the book “Brave New World,” would have agreed with both Jesus and Solomon. But he disagreed George Orwell, who thought the future would be all about “Big Brother” watching over us, taking away our autonomy and our freedom. As Huxley saw it, people would come to love their oppression, and to adore the very technologies that would undo their capacity to think! He would say that we are slaves to that technology – but we are willing slaves!!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about depriving ourselves of things. God isn’t so much about that. In fact, he’s all about abundance! Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly!” But what does that abundance look like? People in our world see it as an abundance of things. They “chase after” the bigger cars and the faster computers. They chase after the wind! But God’s abundance is different. His abundance is the abundance of joy, happiness, and peace – all the things the world craves! But the world thinks that “things” will bring them those things!
So I ask you again, What are you doing with your dash? Are you figuring out ways to chisel it just a bit bigger? Or are you using it the best way you can? Are you living your days in the joy of eternity? Are you loving people as much as you can? Are you giving of yourself rather than just taking? Are you seeking first God’s kingdom? Because the thing is, after a certain point, God’s kingdom is all there will be.
Eternal God, you alone hold the future. You know what brings us true joy. We know that you want to be in relationship with you, but too often we are distracted from that relationship. Too often our priorities are not Jesus’ priorities to seek first your kingdom. Help us, Lord, to see more clearly your will, your joy, and your peace. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.