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Summary: Our witness is compromised because we dash about with urgency but no direction. We have not yet gotten past our fear of embarrassment when sharing our witness, nor have we acknowledged the urgency of witnessing.

Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC January 12, 1986

It was the Mad Hatter, wasn't it, who in one version of “Alice in Wonderland” spent his energies darting around the scene, here and there, hither and thither, screaming at the top of his voice, "I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date." The fact that no one ever identified exactly what that date was or when it was was of no importance; the important thing, the significant thing was that the dear brother knew he was late, late, late, late for some very important if unknown date.

Being on time and knowing what you're on time for is a real art. I don't know how many meetings I've hurried off to, anxious and bothered because I suspected I was going to be late, only to arrive and find out I'm the first one there and that the others are not sure when they are coming or what they are going to do when they get there. And I feel very much like our friend the Mad Hatter, "I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date," if only I knew what it was and why it was so all-important. Being on time but at the same time knowing what you are doing and why it's important to be there is a real art.

And I’ve discovered, too, that we all have different kinds of clocks inside us. We all have our own definitions of what it is to be on time. And it depends on lots of things, including the occasion. If you are as Anglo-Saxon as I am then you think that if something starts at 9 o’clock, then you should be there at 8 forty-five and if you are there at 8 fifty-nine you are late. Now that's fine when it comes to Sunday morning worship since when we are late you know who has to give up a piece of his sermon. But when you are going to a party at somebody's house and you show up at 8 forty-five you are likely to catch her in her curlers and him trying to light the barbecue fire. Late is sometimes on time and early is sometimes late and on and on. As I say, being on time, getting your timing right, and knowing when to be there, that's a real art.

Now it strikes me that it is never more an art when it has to do with selecting a time to offer a witness for Christ. There is a sense of timing that goes with the work of being an evangelist. And the problem is that a good many of us are like the Mad Hatter, running about the scene, screeching at the top of our voices, “I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date.” We know we need to be about the task of witnessing, we have bought the idea in theory that somebody out there needs us, needs to hear what we have to say, and we know we haven't done much with It, so, when It comes to witnessing, "I’m late, I'm late,” but at the same time we have never learned how to get the timing right, we have delayed and delayed and delayed, we have hemmed and hawed so long that we've lost our way, we've forgotten how to read the signs of the times. And we're late, we're late, for a very important date. Except, what was it exactly? And how do I know when and how to offer my witness? Is it urgent at all? Is there a right time to do this? Do I need to be at it, soon, now, maybe, and how?

For some answers I commend to you this morning the prophecy of that prophet of the days of Israel in exile. We call him sometimes Second Isaiah or Deutero Isaiah – never mind the Biblical scholarship behind all that. Suffice it to say that this prophet, more than any other in the Old Testament writings, carries in his heart a sense of urgency about the task of God's people as witnesses. It is this prophet, this Second Isaiah, who calls God's people to be a light to the nations; it is this prophet who sees that God's people and God's anointed one, God's messiah, must become the suffering servants who in their own willing self-sacrifices do something for the world which the world cannot do for itself. It is this prophet who cries out to God's people, in effect, you are late, you are late, for a very important date, for a very important task. Now let's work on your timing!

I

First, the prophet would say to us, would ask us, when you look at what you have to offer, doesn't that create in you a sense of urgency, doesn't that make you eager to share the good news? The prophet is obsessed with the graciousness of our God, and he holds out before all these promises:

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