Grace Presbyterian Church
August 15, 2021, Pentecost 12B
Making the Most of the Time
I believe it is time for a deep, dark confession.
I have been drunk in my lifetime. Twice.
I did the deed on two consecutive Friday nights almost thirty-eight years ago, during my first semester away from home, at the noted hotbed of decadence known as Wake Forest University, where I spent my first year and a half of college. A girl I had gotten really interested in chose the rich sophomore from an important family over the poor freshman nobody from way out of state, and I was upset. Being “set free” from my teetotaler Southern Baptist upbringing (and not having fully realized just how much I had been damaged by my own father’s alcoholism), I reacted the way I figured I was supposed to do. Even in this, I was still a bit cautious: I chose two Fridays when any potential hangover wouldn’t affect any marching band responsibilities the next day. I found the parties where I could do it, and I did it.
I hated it. Hated every second of it.
I hated the beer itself. I hated the noise. I hated the dim lights at the party. I especially hated, after the second time, waking up in a place I didn’t recognize.
But most of all, I hated the dissipation, the dysfunction.
I hated my body not doing what I was trying to do. I hated my brain not working right. I despised it all, and so I never did it again. These days I’m on enough medications that don’t work well with alcohol that I can’t drink, period, but even before that it was something that really didn’t appeal to me, ever since that night, and I’ve never done anything that put me at all within range of being drunk.
You can guess which part of the scripture for today brought on this memory.
Rather like last week’s seemingly out-of-nowhere injunction against stealing, here our author drops in a seeming non sequitir about drunkenness in the midst of the lesson. In this case, the “don’t do this” part of the exhortation is followed by the “do this” answer “but be filled with the Spirit.”
This isn’t the first time Ephesians has touched on the imagery of “being filled.” Way back in 1:23 is the indirect suggestion of being filled with Christ; 3:19 speaks of being filled “with all the fullness of God”; and 4:10 returns to Christ, the one who ascended and descended “so that he might fill all things.” With today’s passage we have completed the Trinity of being filled.
This is what is to be preferred to being drunk on wine, which the author calls “debauchery” as the NRSV translates it. Greek words, like our own English words, are sometimes capable of a range of meanings, and the word so translated here is one of those. I am struck by one of those alternate translations here, namely the word “dissipation.” There’s a different force to this word, one that goes beyond the mere moral corruption of “debauchery” to suggest the dysfunction and lack of control and even erosion of self that tends to accompany drunkenness (the part I so hated thirty-eight years ago).
And this leads us to why this seeming diversion actually fits extremely well into this short bit of exhortation. We began this passage with the encouragement to “be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.” Again, shades of meaning matter here; the point isn’t to encourage fear and trembling, but to encourage us to live deliberately, precisely, to be diligent about how we live, to pay close and careful attention to our lives and what we do with them. We live with care and precision. We are attentive to how we proceed in life in all ways.
This is a matter not merely of our own personal life, but that life as it is lived among others, perhaps especially among the church. To borrow a phrase from Richard Carlson of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, PA, “wise living is personal but never private.” It is precisely not for the sake of our own private privilege that we are precise or deliberate or careful about our lives; it is the opposite. Carlson continues:
“Living wisely, especially as it entails discerning the will of Christ, means active engagement and involvement in all of life’s circumstances so that the reality of our new self is continually manifested in and through the light of our new conduct “at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).”
That last phrase jumps ahead to the end of this passage, but I want to jump back to one vitally important phrase back in v. 16. The whole business about living carefully or diligently or precisely, as wise and not unwise, points to the phrase “making the most of the time.” Now that sounds like something we modern types can relate to, right? Living in a world that’s all about being “efficient” with our time? Or that encouragement to “work smarter, not harder”? We who live in the age of “efficiency experts” are certainly all about being able to respond to this exhortation, right?
Martin Luther once offered this observation on how busy he was: “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” The importance or urgency of the tasks before Luther did not deter him from spending the most necessary time of all, time in prayer. One can also remember Jesus’s own proclivity to disappear into the hills to pray, even when the crowds following him were at their most urgent and demanding.
“Making the most of the time” doesn’t happen without a part, and not a small part, of that time devoted to prayer. How else are we to live “not as unwise people but as wise”? How else can we possibly “understand what the will of the Lord is”? How else can we possibly hope to be “filled with the Spirit”?
Going on, what are we doing when we “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” among ourselves, “singing and making melody to the Lord” in our hearts? What are we speaking to one another in those psalms and hymns and spiritual songs if it is not some kind of prayer itself, or at least rooted in or formed by or inspired by prayer?
The last stanza seems to make it all explicit as it speaks of “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” While it makes a good stirring finish to the last really encouraging portion of this letter, it also offers another instruction that can leave us shaking our heads and saying “wait, what?” Giving thanks for everything? Reading a book like this in the broader context of scripture remains a necessary and important discipline.
So as this close of the practical moral instruction section of this letter, we are left with the call to seek God’s wisdom, make the most of the time we are given, and to do so in prayer and song, as much as possible. We’ve learned over the past year that there are times not to sing to each other. Still, the instruction and prayer holds and matters. And we don’t do it to help us to make the most of the time; it is in doing so that we are making the most of the time. And that’s how the Spirit is then able to lead us. That’s how we are able at all to be filled with the Spirit, with the fullness of Christ, with the fullness of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #689, When the Morning Stars Together; #361, O Christ, the Great Foundation; #719, Come, Labor On
 Richard Carlson, Commentary on Ephesians 5:15-20, Working Preacher https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-20-2/commentary-on-ephesians-515-20-5 (accessed 12 August 2021)