This is the text of my sermon from last Sunday. The audio file is available on my podcast as usual, which is why I don’t normally post my text anymore. But a few people have asked about this one, and it does seem to have been “one out of the box” in some ways. May God use it for his glory in whatever form.
Sermon text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15. Preached at All Saints’ Greensborough.
Time … It’s the element of our lives we most wish we could manipulate, and yet the one we least control. More often than not, if anything, it seems to control us!
Time travel is one of the core elements of nearly every sci-fi book or movie. And it takes it’s place so well in that genre because fiction is just what it is! .. We frequently use phrases like “if I had my time over ..”, knowing full well that it will never happen, ever!
I could keep going .. Time is one of the great levellers of the universe, because everyone has it in precisely equal measure. I have 24 hours in my day; so do you; so does the Prime Minister; so does everyone.
Rupert Murdoch may have 70% of our nation’s print media readership, yet he has just the same quantity of time as the man in the Centrelink queue.
The woman waiting for the bus that’s already ten minutes late, has no more and no less time than you have when the 5pm deadline is looming, and the boss wants the report.
When I have a sermon to prepare and 3 meetings to attend, I’m no richer in time than any one of the homeless people in our streets.
Time … When something is both: foundational to life and existence – and full of riddles – then one of the most consistent ways we clueless humans respond is to sing about it. (Just consider how very few songs there’d be on the radio if life, the world and people made sense .. if men understood women and vice-versa .. if romance and romantic relationships were entirely logical and predictable .. if the ways of God were transparent to the human mind. What would be left to sing about?!)
Welcome back to the wonderful and perplexing book of Ecclesiastes … And our host and guide to the riddles of life is this man who styles himself “the Teacher”. In chapter 1 he’s identified himself, by implication, as King Solomon. But he seems to want us to know him as “the Teacher”. That’s how the NIV renders it, which I think is reasonable. (It’s a typical rendering of the Hebrew Qoheleth, which seems really to be a kind of title, for a person who presides over an assembly, with a particularly academic or teaching bent.) So “the Teacher” is what I’ll call him from this point on …
The Teacher has taken his iPad (just like this one here …) and headed down Main St to study life. (Or as Glen put it two weeks ago, to take a PhD in life ..) If he were more of a Luddite, I suppose he’d have taken a clipboard and pen. But he strikes me as a pretty hip kind of guy, so I’m sure he’d have used an iPad. And so far he’s examined the monotony of life .. and he’s considered life through the filters of philosophy, wealth & pleasure – especially the latter! He’s had a darned good look at that angle, denied himself nothing (2:10). In the language of the 1960s he’s lived the life of sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll (right there in chap 2, in just about as many words). .. But that left him with .. a few clues, but far more questions than answers ..
And now he’s moved on to this great riddle of time. And like so many others in the face of mystery, song has been his way to express mystery .. We have no music, but certainly verse (3:1-8) .. to expound the mysterious yet undeniable phenomenon of the ordered and yet uncontrollable character of time. And if you were a rocker in the ’60s, then you may have grown up listening to it [iPhone into mic] Turn! Turn! Turn!, written by Pete Seeger in 1954.
A song about life and time 3:1-8
At first glance, it sounds like a song of monotony. A time for this, and a time for that .. and round and round it goes, day in, day out, week after boring week, year after year – when can I get off?! .. But if you listen a little more closely, you may discern a world, which though mystery-filled, is a world of beauty and order. In fact “beautiful” is what he calls it in his analysis at v11 .. but there’s a sign of that right in the opening verse: 1 There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.
Seasons .. How depressing would your life be if there were no seasons .. if nothing ever changed? .. if there was no contrast? We say we’d like an endless summer, but we don’t mean it, do we? Who’d want twelve months of sweat, flies, mozzies & sunburn?! So is it not a cause celebré that under God’s providential care, life is rich in variety, and the year has its seasons?
But then the riddles really do start: The big one, the big riddle, that undergirds and encompasses all the others is near the top in verse 2. NewsFlash, folks: Life itself .. your life .. is not in your control! .. There’s a time to be born, and a time to die – both determined by someone else.
Are you unhappy with the timing of your birth .. ? Too close to Christmas ? Well too bad .. who’re you going to complain to? Your parents? .. They may have planned your conception .. but not much about your birth was in their control any more than it was in yours!
And it’s no different with death. Just a week ago, the world was reminded how little control anyone has over the timing of their death. It came very prematurely and without warning to 3000 people in NY a decade ago.
And it goes the other way as well. Several years ago I conducted the funeral of a dear sister in Christ, aged 101. The order of service for the funeral had been planned by Doris herself, and we used, I think, draft 4 or 5. Draft 1 had been penned 22 years earlier.
At 79 Doris decided she had lived long, well and happily enough in her Lord’s service, and was ready to go home. But the Lord, it seemed, did not share her perspective on time. In fact he took no notice at all. And so over those 20+ years a succession of ministers and elders had been asked why she had not yet been taken, and none could provide an answer, and heaven remained silent the whole time.
Her puzzlement only increased when her eldest son turned 65 and retired, and death was no closer. What was she doing with a son that age?! But the silence continued, and so did the family retirements. Finally – unseasonably late from her perspective, Doris received her reward.
So the Teacher’s right .. There is a time to be born and a time to die, and neither is in your remit. And – that template of start / finish .. flourish / decay .. living / dying, is stamped on every sphere of existence:
- in the garden (a time to plant / uproot) 2b
- in human relationships (kill / heal) 3a
- even on the building site and in your workshop (tear down / build) 3b
Between life’s bookends of birth & death are the endless cycles, which occupy the middle lines of the song: joy & sadness .. close relationships & more distant or guarded ones .. valuing what we have and holding material things lightly …. all seasons of a life lived under the direction of the One who alone drives it.
And having begun the song with birth and death .. the Teacher ends it (v8) with the positive and negative poles that unite or divide people and nations. There’s a time for:
When Pete Seeger wrote the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, he went no further than v8. And if you too stopped there you might well wonder whether time is just a merciless tyrant, who keeps us all chained to a perpetual treadmill of futility. And if you thought that about time itself, you might think no better of the God who stands behind time.
… which is why you need to keep following the Teacher in his enquiry into life. The song is a description of how the world works. And Ecclesiastes is full of Descriptions & observations of life (I saw .. I have seen .. ). And along with the observations are plenty of sometimes brutally frank exclamations of how senseless and unfair this life seems to be … And yet interspersed here and there among them are moments of insight, and statements like this: I turned my mind to understand (7:25) …
In other words, he asks “why?” .. And in asking why, he demonstrates the power of seeking, when what you’re living in is an ordered universe. If you look at the world, life, with all its riddles .. and you ask why .. and again .. and keep on asking, will you always find answers .. ? No. Will there still be mysteries .. ? Yes, and plenty of them! But if you keep seeking, asking .. from time to time, you might just feel the breath of God in your own circumstances, or glimpse his shadow in the confronting puzzles of the world around you.
Ecclesiastes gives you permission to ask the riddles, to air the doubts, to say how unfair it all seems to be. To do so is no enemy to the life of faith. But if you read this book, and stay with the Teacher .. then it won’t let you stop at the riddles & doubts. It will draw your eye to the ultimate reality beyond the present puzzle. .. In other words, it will bring you face to face with God.
That’s why Pete Seeger should have read beyond verse 8. Because the following verses set the undoubtable mysteries of time against the backdrop of eternity.
The first few lines of the Teacher’s analysis of the mind-numbing merry-go-round that time seems to be, are brutally honest. Starting in v9: “What’s the point of it all!?”, he rales. What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. .. One thing you can’t accuse the Teacher of doing is airbrushing the picture of life in God’s world. He hasn’t tucked his very human wrestling away in some obscure footnote on p.497 where no one will ever find it. .. It’s right there in public view, in the first breath of analysis.
Life – receive it with thankfulness
I don’t know about you. But at that point I’d feel like grabbing the Teacher by the lapels, and demanding some answers. “For pities sake, give us some hope! Where’s the good news?! ..” But the Teacher is committed to an exhaustive study of life. And he’s just not going to cut to the chase soon enough for C21st people in a hurry. There are not a lot of answers to life’s riddles in the book of Ecclesiastes, at least until the end in chapter 12 – and even then he won’t spoon feed them to us. So we’ll need to be patient a while longer .. But if we are patient, there are clues to hold us along the way, morsels of wisdom to chew on. And one of those is a gentle invitation to a thankful life .. to acquire a habit of receiving all that life brings, its blessings be they many or few, as gifts from the hand of a purposeful God.
It’s an invitation echoed many times in the NT letters. It’s more than implied by Paul in Romans 8, when he muses that if God would not withhold from us even the very life of his only Son .. then can there be any doubt that with Christ he would give us all things. (Rom 8:32) And in other letters he says it more directly as a command: e.g. Eph 5:20 always give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As disciples of Jesus, we are those from whom the Creator God has held back nothing, and so we have causes for thankfulness the Teacher in his time could scarce have imagined. But even he, centuries before Christ, could look at life with all its riddles and reflect at the end of chapter 2: A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? .. And here in chapter 3 he returns to the same thought at v12 … there is nothing better … than to be happy … to do good … [to] eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all … toil—this is the gift of God.
So there’s one of the clues that Pete Seeger didn’t wait to find. Life doesn’t need to be free of mystery for us to receive it again and again and again, daily, in a spirit of thankfulness to the One who gives it so freely and in abundance. Keep asking the riddles, but recognise the gift and be thankful. And in being thankful, you may find the fear of God …
Lost hearts longing for home
… And that’s not the only clue in these few verses after the song. Something dawns on the Teacher, just after his honest rant in vv9f … Perhaps God has a reason for laying this burden on human beings. Is this not the God who makes everything beautiful in its time? (v11) Nature and creation tell us that it’s so. So then, why .. do we experience so much disappointment in life? Why?! .. And he seems to conclude that it’s because God has set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. Now what does that ponderable line mean … ?
I’ll take the 2nd half first. It means simply – you are not God. I am not God. So don’t imagine that it will ever be in your power to find the answer to every conundrum in the universe. Don’t make the presumption that eternal mysteries will simply dissolve into plain logic on your say so.
You are not God .. And yet, we are made in the image of this God who is eternal, and that image is planted deeply in our beings. God is eternal, vast, without beginning / end. We are finite, tiny, fleeting, frail. There is a vast chasm between us and God .. and yet, God has placed in us an ache for the eternal. A kind of a homing device, fixed to our souls ..
And that simply means that no human being will ever be satisfied, fulfilled or at peace, except in relationship with Him. The 60s generation tried sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll, and it gave them a few thrills – but it left them largely restless and as unsatisfied as ever. The Teacher wouldn’t recommend that path, .. but he’d understand it only too well. (He’s tried it!) And his diagnosis I think would be that it’s one of the innumerable symptoms of lost hearts longing for home, and taking just a few of the vast array of wrong turns along the way.
The Teacher lived a long time ago. But God has raised up successors to him in the many generations since, and a number of them expressed very similar insights. Let me tell you about three of them – in reverse order historically:
• C S Lewis (writer, English scholar, mid-C20th) – [paraphrasing] [Cars are designed by people] to run on petrol, and [they wouldn’t] run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on himself. He is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. [And no other food will satisfy].’
• Blaise Pascal (French, mathematician, C17th) – There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.
• St Augustine (great Christian teacher, C5th) – Lord, you made us for yourself, and our heart is restless, until it rests in You.
Three great post-biblical Christian thinkers, all merely re-echoing the mind of the Teacher centuries before Christ, his wisdom handed down to us in Scripture.
If time strikes you as a merciless merry-go-round that won’t let you off .. or if life seems like a burden devoid of purpose .. then it’s simply that your heart is restless, longing to know the God who created you, and who has made his love unambiguously known in his Son Jesus.
Is there something in this life that you crave, and just want more, and more of it? And then you get more, and soon want more again!!? … Another job .. promotion .. better car .. a house in a more pleasant neighbourhood, or with more rooms .. a more attractive wife / a more useful husband .. better technology …. that holiday you’ve been dreaming of .. another DIY project .. a redecorated living room .. professional recognition .. seats at the world cup (of whatever your favourite sport is) .. ? And if you got it, would you be satisfied … ?
Please recognise that you keep wanting it [or more of it .. or an extra dose of it], precisely because it is never enough – and it never, ever will be. It may tantalise you with some short or medium term reward. But it can never satisfy you, and it will never give your heart rest. There is a divinely implanted homing device fixed in your soul. And the signal it keeps on sending out is an ache for eternity, and nothing however pleasing or tasty or attractive or richly upholstered in this earthly life will cause it to cease transmitting, because it is your heart’s innate longing for the eternal. God made you for himself, and knowing him personally, and experiencing his love tangibly, and trusting him completely .. nothing but that can and will satisfy. And without that satisfaction, your heart, your spirit will still be restless and half empty forever.
If you’ve never known that satisfaction, or if it’s become a memory more than a present reality, then can I encourage you to reach out [again] for the eternal life that Jesus will give to all who come to him. And let me encourage you to ask some people you trust to pray with you for your heart’s rest.