Perhaps I am alone in often discounting the ticks and tocks of life in the present tense, that which is today, that which we know as now. At times I attempt to make plans for a better, brighter future, whereas in other moments I labor to deconstruct yesterday's whys and why nots. Coping with now is complicated enough, so maybe, like me, you also tend to focus on what was or what could be and not so much on what is before you at the moment. You might say that we unintentionally trample now because it's never quite good enough and rarely good enough long enough. It always finds a way to disappoint. As annoying and invasive as they may be, then, we need reminders from God that patience is better than pride.
The most remarkable element of now, by simple definition, I think, is precisely that it's not yesterday or tomorrow. In the world of adverbs, now doesn't point to way back when or to what may come. Quiet as it's kept, now is what exists between our date of birth and our time of death. Now is equally responsible for anything that at one time was and is the only source from which firewood for hope can be set ablaze. Nevertheless, Christians know that now's hustle and bustle isn't all that there is to life. We have been graced with life and life abundantly by Jesus, who is and was and is to come. Yet we still walk by faith now. We proclaim salvation now. We receive on-the-job-training by the Holy Spirit now. When society declares God dead, a victim of postmodern crossfire, in faith we humbly point to an empty tomb and let the risen Christ speak for himself now. Even so, now is not all that we have. What was and what is to come are important, but no more important than now.
In this text we encounter someone keenly aware of this dynamic. Whether caused by an ancient Ebola strain or some other unknown aliment, it would be an understatement to say that Hezekiah is under the weather. Since becoming king at 25, he's been busy repairing the Jerusalem Temple and restoring proper worship, which no doubt is noble, holy work. But unexpected as it often is, sickness has arrived and overtaken him. He is slipping away, so severely ill that one foot is already in the grave when -- through the prophet Isaiah -- God tells him that he indeed is doing to die. "Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200." Game over. "Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover," says the Lord. Albeit inevitable for everyone, this is news that no one wants to hear. Hezekiah is a potentate, yes. He lives in the red-carpet limelight of royalty's privilege, yes. But still, he is just a mere mess of blood and bones, of fears and dreams, of flaws and assets like you and me. And so he asks God to spare his life. Heart throbbing, body aching, head spinning, he sheds a steady stream of big crocodile tears, we can imagine, unsure of the exact moment that death has been contracted to commence its work. This same story is told in Isaiah 38, and it speaks to the sobering reality that our daily lives are sometimes scarier than Halloween. The truth is that we are zombies without God.
I'm particularly fascinated by Hezekiah's story because it illustrates that God is moved by our prayers. All that we petition God for won't receive favorable replies like Hezekiah's did, but they are replied to nonetheless, and on this day the Lord's reply was, "I heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; indeed, I will heal you" (v. 5). Plans are important. Actually -- to my knowledge -- plans are really important, but they're not nearly as important as prayer, because prayer happens now. There is no such thing as advance prayer, no doctoral degrees or certifications that prove one's mastery of it. No layaway exists, no will-call for you to retrieve prayer at date better suitable for your schedule. And though we lean on the shoulders of those who labored before us, we lack any power whatsoever to revive the results of past prayers. Like little else in life, prayer speaks to immediacy. Hezekiah could have developed a five-point plan for end-of-life care: hospice, do-not-resuscitate order, power of attorney, organ donation. In all fairness, God did tell him to get his house in order. And maybe Hezekiah did that. We don't know. But we do know that he prayed. While repetitive unpreparedness is annoying and irresponsible, any of us can just as easily become enslaved to rigid preparedness. It's good to plan, but better, first, to pray.
Another observation is that Hezekiah wasn't specific in his request. He actually didn't ask for the 15-year extension of life that the Lord benevolently gave. Not that this is anything to complain about. Fifteen extra years is better than no extra years. But, as we know, time is relative. Fifteen more years beginning at the age of 25 isn't quite the same as 15 more years beginning at the age of 55. Clearly, the quality of life and the challenges of both experiences are unique. In the end, only God knows what tomorrow will bring. So in following Hezekiah's example, while it's good to be specific in our prayers, God isn't offended when we are not. We should pray and pray often, but with an awareness that whether God adds or subtracts or works things out how we would like or not, it is all well above our pay grade. It is all ultimately up to God.
It makes sense that some of us would gladly trade now for yesterday. We wish for the days before some infirmity declared war on our bodies. We wish to go "back to the future" to childhood innocence. We wish for the life we had before Enron, before 9/11, before wars and rumors of wars. Before the accident. Before chemotherapy. Before the divorce. Before the pink slip. Before, before, before. Maybe now just isn't where you ever thought you'd be. Like coffee, we want the perfect balance of cream, sugar, and bitterness to please our sophisticated palate. But life is no trip to Starbucks, no push of a button on the trusty Keurig, no obedient French press that gets it just right each time. There are malfunctions, malfeasance, malevolence, and monotony -- all that we must wrestle with now. As followers of Jesus, we must find resurrection and redemption in the now. We find this question in James 4:14: "What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." Your now might very well be riddled with unfair, unfortunate, undesirable realities. But you might also only have 15 more years left.
Maybe, like most of us, you sometimes find yourself overwhelmed with the shady business of survival, trying to "make a dollar out of 15 cents." You have sincerely tried to obey the Lord with all of your heart and do whatever the Lord says is right. Nevertheless, like Hezekiah, God has sent notice that you have been gifted 15 more years. According to TimeAndDate.com, 15 years from today would be Friday, November 2, 2029. If that were to be your fate and mine, what would we do with it? How might your decisions now change if you lived as if your life was not your own but was bought at a price? In 1 Peter 1:18-19 we are told, "You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish." I wonder if you would work very differently than you do now if you knew that your end would come in just 15 years. I wonder if you would spend time with your loved ones, invest in others' lives, and carry yourself very differently than you do now. I wonder if you would slow down in some things and speed up or be more committed in other things. I wonder.
Remember, Hezekiah didn't ask God for exactly 15 more years of life. He just cried out for mercy. When you get down to brass tacks, it isn't likely that most of us will receive advance notice of when our departure from this life to the next will occur. We surely could have 15 more years remaining, or 15 months, or 15 days -- even 15 hours or 15 minutes. Only the Lord knows. These precious ticks and tocks of time that we experience are undeserving gifts, acts of love from God to us. Now can be so fleeting yet so powerful. We want to honor the past and better understand it, and we want to always work toward a bountiful future for ourselves and others. But all of that occurs now. We may or may not have 15 more years. We all have now.
This sermon was preached by yours truly, the Rev. James Ellis III, on Nov. 2, 2014, at Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C., where I serve as the senior pastor.