Epitaphs often make stimulating reading—and challenging writing. How would you begin to summarize in a sentence, for example, the life of King David? Would you herald his conquests and bravery in battle? Ought you to report his deep repentance and intimate walk with God? Should you spend your single sentence to tell of David’s hearty piety, cultivated as it was in nature’s nursery, then honed by daily dependence on the Almighty?
I am fascinated by the way the apostle Paul encapsulated David’s greatness. This man after God’s own heart, said the apostle in his synagogue sermon at Pisidian Antioch, “served his own generation by the will of God, and fell asleep” (Acts 13:36). A mere dozen words, yet they convey one of the highest verbal laurels awarded any person in all of Scripture. They also disclose one key to David’s greatness: he made good use of that priceless treasure called “today.” Today. It is, after all, the only day we ever have. It is our handle on eternity, an elusive and invisible bit of time of whose species our whole lifetimes consist. It is all God holds us accountable for. Very shortly it will be gone, recalled by its Maker and sealed for his final reckoning, not to be repeated or altered forever. That is the ever-timely significance of David’s epitaph spoken at Antioch. Its message still rings true and clear, amid the competitive din of so much clamor and clatter. Ours is no day of still, small voices. The person who inhabits today has many neighbors. David names three groups of them in the first Psalm.
First are the scoffers, the outright rebellious, those who flagrantly challenge all that is right and true. They are few in number, but they are frequently strong of voice. Further disguising their real weakness, these hostile hustlers often make megaphones of the mass media, turning Gideon’s ancient trick into a ploy against the people of God. David, too, lived among such scoffers.
More numerous, but serving the same cause, are those of the second group, whom David labeled the sinners. These people are far from being persecutors. They are moral lemmings. They abandon themselves to “what feels good,” and follow wherever their lusts may lead.
The psalmist’s third category is the ungodly. They comprise the godless majority. They do not consciously oppose God; they do not think of him at all. They are not licentious or profligate. They are often ideal neighbors, model citizens of whom the whole community is proud. But their very civility often poses the greatest danger to the progress of faith, for we see the “practical atheists” prosper.
Yet not all our neighbors are as happy as they appear. If we listen, we will hear occasional cries for help from screen and stage, from literature and art, sometimes from the man or woman next door. Scattered among today’s godless, sinners, and scoffers are some who know they have a problem. These people sense a universe that is overwhelmingly vast, and they are hopelessly without direction. They feel very little and very lost. For such people there is infinitely good news: God knows where they are all the time, and in Jesus of Nazareth he has come right down to their place. That is the miracle of the Incarnation: God has found us and become one of us, to lead us out of our lostness and back to himself. This is the word for our time—as surely as it was for Paul’s.
“Our time.” How we are bound to it, even when we chafe under the limitation. We live now. We cannot live in the past, which memory generally paints in misleading pastels anyway, and which romanticism, left unbridled, distorts beyond all recognition. Nor can we live in the future, a time as brutal as it is imaginary. The future has always been unmerciful to dreamers, shattering their utopian visions without pity when it finally comes to power. No; like it or not, we live now, today. We have no choice in the matter.
The authors of Scripture knew this well. Its heroes and heroines all had a sense of time. They had a sense of their time. Paul urges believers to be clever in the marketplace where minutes are the wares (Eph. 5:16). Evil days cannot excuse our failure here, he warns. Bad times only make obligation plainer, duty more pressing.
And what is our duty? To meet the scoffers head-on, answering their accusations with holy lives, turning their scorn into praise by continual good works (1 Pet. 2:9–11). We are to live the daily life that befits God’s new creation in Jesus, convicting sinners of their dark ways by turning on the light (Eph. 5:1–14). We are reverently to “work out” the salvation God “works in” us. Such personal discipleship is to be reinforced by local fellowships of the redeemed, model communities that demonstrate the way of reconciliation even as they hold it out in word. To the ungodly, such lives will shine like stars on a dark night (Phil. 2:12–15).
Our duty is to fill David’s prescription, found in Psalm 37. He challenges us to trust in God—and keep on doing what is good; to pursue the greatest pleasure—not in lust, but in the Lord; to commit ourselves to God himself, rather than to the pursuit of perishables; and then to wait patiently for God’s day of reckoning, knowing we have served him well in our own day. We do not need new instructions. We just need to follow the ones we have had all the time.
Here as always our greatest exemplar is the Lord Jesus. Keenly conscious of the divine purpose, Jesus always acted in keeping with the needs of the moment. Over and over again John tells us that Jesus spoke of his “hour.” Our Lord did not despise any time or belittle any opportune moment. No occasion was unworthy of his attention, or his loving service. The result was that he “always” did the Father’s will (John 8:29).
Let us not be deceived by the sophisticated trappings of our time and place. Even with our plethora of plans and programs, of gimmicks and gadgets, of technologies and bureaucracies and ministries and methodologies, God’s call remains the same. It is the same to us as it was to David, or to Paul, or—in this respect—to Jesus. The question is clear and to the point. Do we serve our own generation by the will of God? We can really do no more. Surely we can attempt no less.
Edward Fudge—publisher, evangelist, and author of numerous books—is a lay evangelical scholar, and active in the Evangelical Theological Society. He resides in Athens, Alabama.
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