For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.
This is a passage many people will recognise even if they don’t know where it comes from, partly because in the 1960s US folk-rock band The Byrds had a hit with a cover of Pete Seeger’s song ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ which sets these verses to music. The song sticks closely to the Biblical text, but does end pointedly with an addition of a line after ‘a time for peace’ – ‘I swear it’s not too late’ – making it into anti-war protest song. Back then, it was a time for war in Vietnam, whereas today bitter conflicts continue in Syria, Yemen, and many other places. We need to believe that they will not last for ever.
Yet is there really ever a right time for war, or to kill? Of course not, but the point isn’t that these things should happen, but that human life and experience is complex and many different things will occur in the course of a lifetime. The Book of Ecclesiastes often reads as a dialogue between different voices, holding conflicting ideas in tension. We will always have times of celebration and times of sadness, sometimes simultaneously, and it can be hard to remember in each that they will not last forever.
So what kind of time is it for you? New Year’s Day might be a time for looking ahead with either excitement or apprehension at what the year ahead might bring. (Alternatively, it might be a time for recovering from the rigours of the night before!) What time is it for us as individuals, for our nation, for the world? What can we do, as people and as God’s Church, to ensure it is a time for laughing and dancing rather than weeping and mourning, and a time for peace and not war?
Gracious and eternal God, we stand together in celebration with people for whom it is a time for dancing and joy, and we stand together in solidarity with those for whom it is a time of sadness and mourning. We give thanks that, whatever the time, you will be with us and will love us. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Nick Jones is minister of Heswall URC & St. George’s URC, Thornton Hough
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