I delivered the talk for our online church service this morning, you can watch it below or see the script underneath. I hope it brings a bit of stability when the foundations of our world seem a bit like smoke. I'm always up for feedback, critique and further discussion.
I wonder what questions you’ve been asking through this time. I’ve seen many posts on social media with differing answers, especially from Christians. This is the end times. This is God’s judgement. This is a time for lament. This is a time to realise God is sovereign. God is responsible. God isn’t responsible. God will heal us. God won’t heal. It seems like with so much noise, even Christians can’t get their answers together. Christianity is meant to have answers and bring peace isn’t it?
Well I think that although there is a lot of noise, there is truth in many of the answers shared. Suffering is often complex, and the bible gives a complex response as it relates to life and death and suffering. A sermon or a blog post can only focus on one or a few answers but often misses others. This will be true of this post as well.
In January, we decided to do a one-off talk on Ecclesiastes and set it for today. It was before the corona crisis, it was before we checked how many were infected and how many people had died each morning, it was before we had to contemplate social isolation. As the pandemic has progressed, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes seems even more relevant despite it being writing 2500 years ago.
This morning won’t be a typical sermon in the sense of reading one passage and then explaining it. The whole of Ecclesiastes is the basis of what I will be sharing. I’ve connected the chapters where you’ll find the underpinning wisdom on each slide as we go. My hope is that it will intrigue you to go and read it after this morning. If you are more a listener, get the YouVersion bible app and have it read all 12 chapters to you in about 30-40 minutes.
If you are new to the bible, Ecclesiastes is in the Old Testament. The teacher is the main voice of the book but they are introduced by the author, who remains anonymous. The teacher is introduced as a son of David which could be Solomon but is also thought to be a character that summarises several kings in the line of David – which was just as valid use of the word ‘son’.
The teacher starts the book by stating everything is ‘hevel’. Your bible might translate this word as futile, or meaningless or vanity. If you look ‘hevel’ up in a bible dictionary it literally means vapour or smoke. This is a word picture we are working with and it is why translators have struggled to find the word that sums it up best. I’m going to use ‘smoke’.
The teacher says he has seen life. He is no longer young. He has seen everyone striving and it comes to nothing. Nothing is new under the sun, the earth goes through its cycles and we are neither satisfied or when we die, our toil and even our success may not be remembered. Everything is like smoke.
Maybe everything you’ve been striving for, working hard for, has suddenly turned into smoke. Maybe you had plans for holiday, plans for travel, plans for work on the house, maybe you just wanted to see your family or return to your home country and everything has just gone up in smoke. It is unsettling but it has always been that way, we just thought we were building with something solid and it turned out to be smoke. The foundations of society and for many, the foundations of life have turned into smoke.
What have you built your life on? Where is your foundation?
The teacher was very wealthy, he decided to put happiness to the test and see if pleasure and indulgence would make him happy. He amassed wealth, he was greater than any king before him and even in all of this he says it was profitless. It was like chasing wind. We see it over and over again in life, the wealthy and successful are often unhappy and unfulfilled.
Indulgence is like smoke
Jim Carey is quoted as saying,
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.”
The teacher said it long before Jim.
Indulgence and all the wealth in the world is like smoke. Striving and toil actually bring exhaustion, anxiety and sleepless nights all for the sake of gaining more wealth but in the end what does it become – something to pass on to someone else who did not work for it. This is all smoke.
But there is something about enjoyment which is a gift from God. This is what the teacher says…
“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.”
There is something about life that is toil and labour but, in each moment, we have an opportunity for joy. Enjoy the little things, good food and drink can be a part of that! To recognise that moment as a gift requires a solid foundation which the teacher says is God.
What is happening around us makes us reflect on our mortality. Or at least, it does for me. I think, as does the teacher, this reflection is helpful. As Christians we understand that this world, we currently live in is under the curse of death and so we can all expect to return to dust. As the teacher puts it in chapter 3, there is a time for everything.
There is a time for weeping, a time to mourn a time to die, a time to refrain from an embrace, a time to keep silent… We hope for a time to speak, a time to embrace, a time to live eternally, a time to dance with other people in the room and a time to laugh. In Revelation 21 it says that there will be a day where there is no more death, no more pain and no more mourning.
There will be a time to mourn with our neighbours and grieve for those who have died, you may already be in that time right now. If this pandemic is headed the way that it is predicted, we will all be affected by it.
There is a time to give reasons for the hope that we have but do so with gentleness and respect.
There is a time to share jokes and enjoy the moments we have.
The teacher says that God has placed ignorance in man’s heart so that we cannot discover what God has ordered and yet he has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time.
By resting in God’s sovereignty, his control over all things, we can find joy in the small things - what we eat, drink and find enjoyment in what we have because these are a gift of God. If we seek indulgence and gain, food, drink and laughter will be like smoke but when they point us to the God who gives them, we see glimpses of heaven.
God is the only one that endures, and he is in control of all things whether we understand or not.
Suffering is tough, and oppression and toil are things that if we haven’t faced, we will at some point in our life. With both oppression and success, it is better to face it in companionship and community. Two can withstand difficult times better than one, two can share in the fruit of labour and enjoy it together.
In this time of isolation, it is important for us as a church to remain in community. To regularly touch base with those who are not only isolating but also lonely. The biggest pandemic before Coronavirus in the UK was loneliness. We now have an opportunity, if not a duty, to love our neighbour by showing we care. We are here to talk if nothing else. Find ways to play games over zoom, share time and enjoy the moment with those who are isolated. If you are able, join volunteer groups who are picking up prescriptions, delivering groceries and helping organise volunteers. Two are better than one, and we can find enjoyment, even in this time of suffering through loving our neighbours.
We have a time to take it slow. To be quick to listen and slow to speak. When the world is on social media, we should be even more careful. We are responsible for our words and how we speak, and our love of God should make us even more careful. Take the time we have to slow down and disconnect regularly. Check the truth of what you are sharing before you share it. If it points people to conspiracy theories rather than Jesus it is probably best to keep it to yourself.
As the teacher says,
“Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips. At the beginning their words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness—and fools multiply words.”
Use time to reflect on Gods words. Share those instead.
We have got used to planning months, if not years, ahead. We are responsible for the moment we are in, relax in it,
let God be God and take each day anew. Rest in the knowledge that you aren’t in control, but you can know the one who is, and it is in knowing him that contentment and enjoyment can be found. This is where we find a solid foundation.
The teacher often ponders death and sorrow. Everyone is headed to death; it is the great equaliser. He says the wise reflect on sorrow.
“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure”.
Laughter is not bad, and happiness isn’t scorned by the bible, but pleasure for the sake of it is like smoke. Keeping death in sight allows us to enjoy this moment now and recognise the hope of a time when death will be no more.
Even in boredom, whether your child has asked to play the same game or listened to the same toy for the 100th time, find contentment in the moment – I’m not saying it is easy, and we often forget it, but each moment is a gift from God.
Even in loneliness, reflect on God, find company in the wisdom of centuries of Christian thought – many saints have had their most profound spiritual experiences in loneliness and isolation.
Even in the face of death, in the days of darkness, seek the one who took on death for you and has promised to deliver you from it.
As we look to Easter next week, unlike the teacher, we can have certainty that that death is not the end. We know that death is just a doorway to meeting our creator. Easter is the celebration of the time in history when God came down and took on death for us. Jesus is the only person to have passed through death and lived and because of Him we have hope that death is defeated.
The teacher tells us to remember the creator. As we recognise that we have very little control of the current situation beyond what we do in each day, let it force us to recognise the one who has given us life.
Let me repeat the question I asked at the start – what is the foundation of your life?
These events may well have shaken your world, our world but it is time to recognise what cannot be shaken.
At the end of Ecclesiastes, the teacher is no longer speaking, and the author wraps up the letter. The solid foundation, he says, are the words of the wise. Instead of smoke, they are like firmly embedded nails that can take the weight of our striving and suffering. What are the words of the wise?
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
Build your foundation on these words: Fear God and keep his commandments. Other authors in the bible compare this to a tree putting down roots. Jesus compares it to good soil that allows a seed to grow and to the branches of a vine.
His commandments are not heavy. Jesus teaches that his commandments will give rest to the weary and are life-giving water. His commandment is to love God and love your neighbour. It is a small seed that through God’s life-giving spirit, you will grow into a life that bears fruit that looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Follow the instructions of the teacher and take a moment to remember your creator. The God who has given you this life, has formed the universe, wants to know you and give you hope of life beyond death and you can turn to him by praying to him this morning.
If you want to know more you can get in touch. If you want to see why I think the resurrection happened, check this course out for free until Easter: https://www.credocourses.com/product/the-resurrection-of-jesus
Even if you don’t get in contact, I'd recommend you take a moment today to go to a bible, online or on paper if you have one and look up John chapter 15. Read it and take it in. If Christianity is true, then it offers a foundation that will last even through death and it all starts with love.
If your life’s foundations have been shaken by the isolation and upset, the grief and the uncertainty. You are not alone. But while everything in this life is like smoke, God is the firm foundation you can build your life on.