September 19, 2021
Dr. Ken Peters
Jeremiah 8:7, 18-22 2
This Wednesday, September 21, at precisely 2:21 p.m. summer will have ended. By Texas standards, it has been a fairly tolerable summer, cooler than normal, with some rain. Tolerable, but not totally satisfactory, because I don’t want summer to start until June (sometimes it starts in March), and I want it to be over within September, September 22, to be exact. On September 22 I expect the temperature to be about 30 degrees cooler, with a hint of frost in the air I want the leaves to start changing color, and the squirrels to be gathering nuts and the geese flying south for the winter. And if all those things don1 t happen on Wednesday, I am going to be seriously out of sorts.
And speaking of winter, when it comes, on December 21, I expect it to be snowing and if it isn1t, and it probably won1 t be, I am going to be very disappointed. When will summer really end? Not this week; temperatures in the 90s are in the forecast. And as to when winter will come, we haven1 t got a clue. Some years it doesn’t come at all. Last year it came in February, you may remember, It did its worst, but then it was gone. Life, where we live, is very luxuriant. There is a kind of lazy complacency to it. The summer’s warmth lingers into autumn, and when finally winter comes, soon it leaves.
So perhaps we do not sense the urgency in Jeremiah1s lament for Israel: “The harvest is passed, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.11 There is perhaps less urgency, but only a little less, in Paul’s Last words to Timothy: “Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with the present world, has deserted me, and Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia … Only Luke is here with me. When you come, bring the cloak I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments, so do your best, Timothy, do your best to come before winter.”
Exactly when summer ends or winter comes is not really the issue. Jeremiah and Paul are not talking about the weather. They are talking about a mindset, a way of looking at life that says “There will always be time to do the things I ought to do. There will always be time to be a different person than I am. The changes I need to make to set things right – there will always be time for those.”
Not so, Jeremiah says. The time will come when the harvest is past and the summer is ended, and we are not saved.
So what does it mean to be saved? To many people being saved was something that happened in the past and will happen again in eternity when we all get to heaven. Sometime in the past we said some words and got baptized or joined the church, and that punched our ticket to eternal life. You may remember from Huckleberry Finn that Miss Watson was always rocking on her porch thinking about heaven. What is heaven like? Huck wonders. Oh, it’s wonderful, she says. You wear a white nightgown and float around singing and playing the harp forever and ever. Notice that forever and ever starts when you die. Will Tom Sawyer go to heaven? He asks. I should say not! Well, I don’t want to go either, he says. I would rather be where Tom is. So there you have Miss Watson’s view of salvation. Sometime back there she got saved, and later on up yonder she is going to heaven, and all you have to do in the meantime is rock yourself back and forth on the front porch. To Miss Watson’s credit, she gives Jim, her human property, his freedom as a condition of her will, but notice, that happened after she died. Apparently eternal life begins when you’re saved and you die.
But now, wait. If we believe in this thing called eternal life surely it is going on now, otherwise, it wouldn’t be eternal. Surely it doesn’t start with pie in the sky by and by when we die. Surely what we are doing now has something to do with our being saved. John Wesley called it going on to perfection. Perhaps that sounds a trifle optimistic to Presbyterian ears, but Presbyterians call it sanctification. It is an aspect of our theology we tend to neglect, I suspect because we equate it with what we used to call works righteousness, but we ignore it to our detriment. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul said, and while I hope it isn’t that hard, clearly what we are doing, or not doing now is important.
A few examples: We are prompted, every one of us, to a thousand kindly thoughts. Our minds conceive a hundred generous plans, but we act on very few of them. There is always time, we think, to follow through on our good intentions, but the time might be shorter than we think. Paul’s books and parchments must reach him soon, or he will be past the need of them, but more than these things, Paul needs Timothy; someone needs us. He loves Timothy Someone loves us. In another of his letters, Paul makes this confession: “We were troubled on every side, but God comforted us by the coming of Titus.” Someone we know is troubled, and by sending us to them God would comfort them, but will we go? Did Timothy come to Paul before winter? I think surely he did, but what if he hadn’t? What if he intended to, but just …. put it off. Demas has left, and Crescens and Titus are not there, but Luke is, he might have rationalized. Besides, the harvest is only just past and summer just ended, and winter may never come. it may never come. What if that is what Timothy thought? No, I choose to believe Timothy went, and I believe he was working out his salvation when he did.
Perhaps a bit of our salvation is hanging in the balance this way: Someone has wronged us and we feel aggrieved, or it is the other way around, and we have done something to damage our relationship with them. Asking, or giving forgiveness is not easy; there is a certain protocol to it, sort of like dueling with pistols, a face-saving code of conduct which has to be followed. Which of us obligated to take the first step or make the first move? All too frequently, neither of us does. There is an awful inexorableness about the way in which time sweeps on and cares no more for our rights and wrongs than the dance of the autumn leaves before the wind. We never meant to drift so far apart from someone we once called our friend, but the loss is awful, and the time will come when we cannot do anything about it, or as Father Ryan said, “Forgive, 0 hearts estranged, forgive I plead/ When dreamless rest is mine I shall not need/ The friendship for which I long tonight.” It is worth any effort we can make to set things right, never mind the rules of engagement. If we only try, we might find how easily it can be done, and how great will be the satisfaction. You might almost call it being saved. In fact, that is what it is.
A third example, a very different one: Perhaps many times we have heard the appeal of the Gospel, but we have never faced squarely up to the issue. We have let the issue remain unresolved for a long time now. Thinking about seems like the right thing to do, and it is. Chesterton used to say, “When a man tells me he is thinking about something, I say ‘Good for you!’ only see to it that you decide.” But two things can happen if we simply let the matter go. We can either stop thinking about it at all, or we can go on thinking about it forever. You remember what Elijah said to the Israelites: “Why do you go on limping along between two opinions? If God is God, follow him.” Now please do not misunderstand me. I am not standing here preaching eternal perdition (to put it discreetly). As usual, I am preaching to myself, and more than once I have recalled these words of William James: “Nothing is so fatiguing as the hanging on of an uncompleted decision,” and at the end of his essay “Is Life Worth Living?” he said these last words: “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create that fact.” Well, if life is worth living, maybe we ought to be living it now. You might almost call that being saved.
Now, this last, and we are done. To Timothy, there was given this chance of doing something to express his love and acknowledge his debt to the apostle Paul, who had been like a father to him. In comparison with St. Paul Timothy was young and a little reticent and not as decisive as perhaps he needed to be. Paul worried about that, as comes through in both his letters to his adopted son. But to Timothy came this appeal of the church which had reared him, of his mother’s prayers and his grandmother’s piety, and to us comes this chance to help and serve the Church which has raised and nourished us, the Church of all those who have gone before. The Church needs us now, just as Paul needed Timothy. There is something we need to be doing now that cannot wait. If something has gone wrong, let us set it right. If an apology has to be made, let us make it, or accept it. “Few things are more so important as keeping our friendships in constant repair/ Dr. Johnson said, so if one of our friendships needs, let us see to it now. If, after all these months we have been apart from each other, our church needs what each of us can give it, let us take up the tasks of discipleship with joy and thanksgiving.
The calendar may say summer is ending, but it will linger on. Let us see in these warm, even hot days that have outlasted the season a symbol of God’s grace. But even the summer will end, and winter will come, so let us come before winter, and be saved. Amen.