For the Hearts Together closing devotional thought, CUAA Theology Professor Rev. Charles Schulz, PhD, reminds us that the ultimate harvest comes from God’s seasons as He, and we, reap the salvation Christ achieved.
Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in the fall 2023 edition of Hearts Together. The official magazine of Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor publishes biannually.
By Rev. Charles Schulz, PhD, Professor of Theology
My wife groaned a little as we were rounding the bend on our walk. It was late August and I had pointed out how one of the trees was already tinged with red in anticipation for the fall. A little further on we looked ahead and there stood a tree already putting on its fall display. It was too early. We love our Michigan fall—in its time. But sometimes God’s timing isn’t ours, even when we think we’re in sync with Him.
Many of us of a certain age are familiar with the pop song by the early Rock group The Byrds, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” which popularized the passage from Ecclesiastes 3: “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Pete Seeger wrote it after his publisher complained that he couldn’t sell another protest song. Seeger looked again at the biblical words he had jotted down for their lyric potential:
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 cast 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 cast 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.
But, the publisher notwithstanding, Seeger fashioned it into a protest song simply by adding a few words to the end after “a time for peace”—“I swear it’s not too late.” Written in 1959, reaching the top of the charts in 1965, the song would have to wait until 1973 for the United States to pull out of Vietnam. When I was a student at Concordia in the late 80’s, I could still hear it on the Oldies station at the bottom of the dial. Many today hear it as it regularly provides soundtrack for movies about the 60’s, so strongly it has become associated with the era.
Coming from the Scripture’s wisdom literature, the passage underscores the need to discern the appropriate action for each situation. The book of Proverbs, for example, gives all kinds of advice, but some of it appears contradictory. Wisdom knows when to apply each one. The fear of the Lord, the beginning of wisdom, helps to guide that process of discernment. Such wisdom learns from how God made the world to work, even from the order of nature, and follows its seasons of activities.
For many of us, that’s part of the joy of life. My friend Aaron Doehring (CUAA ’92) graduated as a Parish Assistant to serve as a church musician and took a call to Florida where he also led the youth group. As a man from Hemlock, Michigan, he reported to me from Florida that he “missed the seasons” and now, decades later, he’s a well-known organist among the congregations of Chicago, his second home. If “variety is the spice of life,” Aaron is certainly getting lots of variety there, and not just with the weather. But, again, even with spices, you need to know what’s called for in each recipe. Even seasonings have their season.
In Ecclesiastes, the lament of the “Preacher” author is that amid all the changes, it appears that nothing really changes. “Nothing is new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9) and so “everything is vanity,” not really going anywhere. As much as variety is fun and natural seasons give us a sense of movement in life, it’s all ultimately circular. In the big picture, we’ve been here before and so have our grandparents and their grandparents. The Preacher basically asks, “What’s the point?” Of course, circles don’t make a point. Even our own attempts to add variety in our lives might entertain us for a while, they may distract us from monotony, but that in itself doesn’t add up to any ultimate meaning.
Of course, our view of history in the modern world has learned a sense of purpose from God’s own plans coming to fulfillment in the Biblical narrative. As this sense of direction in history has been secularized, we’re invited to see our society as “progressing” to greater liberties, greater compassion, greater wisdom, and greater prosperity. Indeed, the progress of science over the last 400 years seems to confirm that things are better than they ever have been. The best day to get a cancer diagnosis is today because it’s more curable today than ever before. Next year, God grant, prognoses will be even better.
Yet, this sense of progress masks the perennial sameness of humanity’s struggles with just being human—and fallen humans at that. We might celebrate the end of slavery with the close of the Civil War 160 years ago, until we remember the global spread of human trafficking. The legacy of discrimination in our country muffles our “Hurrahs!” We might laud the extension of rights to more and more minorities, until we realize that we have lost the “order” of our “ordered liberty” as freedom of religion and freedom of speech are being curtailed. Social media promises to connect us to each other more than ever before. Why, we can even go to church online! Then we discover that the loss of real connection through intermediate institutions like churches and clubs means that a pandemic of loneliness has swept the world. We’re left feeling isolated and estranged from one another. The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh, Preacher?
We find our ultimate meaning in life only in God as He advances His eternal plans for us. God, in His wisdom, arranged seasons for our salvation. Following the lead of ancient Jewish Bible interpreters (in a process we might call “midrashic intertextuality”), we can even map the words of Ecclesiastes onto salvation history as we know it in Christ and by His Spirit. We see how God had appointed:
a time to be born. . . “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4);
a time to die. . . “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23);
a time to plant . . . “The sower [Jesus] sows the word [of salvation in the world]” (Mark 4:14);
a time to pluck up what is planted. . . “Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age” (Matt. 13:40);
a time to kill . . . “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13);
a time to heal . . . “The leaves of the tree [of the New Jerusalem] were for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2);
a time to break down . . . “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14);
a time to build up . . . “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Th. 5:11);
a time to weep . . . “Weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:5).
a time to laugh . . . “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Lk. 6:21);
a time to mourn . . . “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4);
a time to dance . . . “Let them praise His name with dancing, making melody to Him with tambourine and lyre!” (Ps. 149:3);
a time to cast away stones . . . “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7);
a time to gather stones together . . . “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt. 2:5);
a time to embrace . . . “While he was still a long way off, [the Prodigal’s] father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20);
a time to refrain from embracing . . . “Jesus said to [Mary Magdalene], ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’” (John 20:17);
a time to seek . . . “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’” (Ps. 40:16);
a time to lose . . . “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8);
a time to keep . . . “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:14);
a time to cast away . . . “put off the old self with its practices” (Col. 3:9);
a time to tear . . . “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51);
a time to sew . . . “Now therefore mend your ways and your deeds, and obey the voice of the Lord your God” (Jer. 26:13);
a time to keep silence . . . “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Is. 53:7);
a time to speak . . . “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16);
a time to love . . . “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12);
a time to hate . . . “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26);
a time for war . . . “The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war” (Rev. 19:11);
a time for peace . . . . “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
Looking at the life of Christ and the work of His Spirit in our lives, we can say in a new way, “God has made everything beautiful in its time” (Eccl. 3:11). Rather than there being “nothing new under the sun,” our Lord will “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5) in the end as He brings out His purposes from the cycles of the turning seasons. In His work, there is nothing in vain—only the abundance of life beaming forth for all who trust in Christ as their Savior.
Nature has seasons, our lives have seasons, human society has seasons, but in the end the ultimate harvest comes from God’s seasons as He (and we) reap the salvation which Christ, the dying and rising grain, has achieved to His eternal praise and our eternal joy.
—Charles Schulz, MDiv, PhD, MA, MA, STM, is a professor of theology at CUAA. At Concordia since 2001, he also served as pastor of St. Thomas (2005-2014). His hobbies include running, travel, and German.
The fall 2023 Hearts Together magazine hit mailboxes in November. View a PDF version of the magazine here. If you are not on our mailing list, but are interested in receiving a free copy, email Jennifer.Hackmann@cuaa.edu.