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(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')It is at this point in chapter 5 that talk turns pointedly to God on the part of the Teacher. This is apt I think, for us at this point in our look at Ecclesiastes. We’re asking a fairly deep question through these weeks – “What’s it all about?” Do we find the answer within ourselves? One of my biggest problems with the self-help movement is its belief in the self-sufficiency of humanity. Find your inner strength. The greatest love of all is inside of you. Follow your bliss even, like I’m capable of figuring out what that is, and would somehow be fulfilled by it if I did. It may seem reasonable – find meaning within yourself. We’re all after all the stars of our own show right? When I look inside myself though, I find myself to be sadly lacking. The words of the Apostle Paul resonate greatly – “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Who will save me? While I’ve said I believe us to be cynical about a coming golden age, I believe there is a general view that we are in need of saving. What or who will save us? Will it be a political system? We’ve seen their failure. Will it be science or technology? I don’t know but it doesn’t seem to be happening. It’s interesting that when we create fiction about a future world where we have created machines imbued with artificial intelligence, they inevitably end up wanting to kill us (perhaps exhibiting the worst parts of our own intelligence?).
In the midst of this, the Teacher invites us to live with a decentred conception of ourselves. Questioning “What does it all mean?” of life necessarily leads to introspection. It doesn’t end there though for the Teacher. It’s been said of Augustine that his “ultimate conception of his self…is…radically decentred, since at the core of his being he finds not himself but another, the Other, the Triune God, his Creator…Augustine journeys inward not to discover some foundational certainty in himself but as the beginning of a journey outward. His introspection turns into the most radical kind of extraspection…” I know this is heavy for a Victoria Day Weekend but stay with me and we’ll see what God has to say to our hearts.
The Teacher starts his talk on God with worship. He assumes that the people who are listening to his words will worship together. “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God…” This would have been the Temple. Be careful when you approach God. “To draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools”. Meaningless sacrifices. Meaningless worship. Going through the motions. It’s the work of fools. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” is how the prophet Hosea puts it (Hos 6:6). “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.”
Maybe you’re hoping for that this morning? We do use a lot of words, it’s true. We should try some silence now actually. (Some liturgical silence here)
For God is in heaven, and you upon earth. Our Father in heaven. This is a reminder to us. God is not someone to be used for our own ends. I cringe when I hear a politician invoking God’s help in enacting their party’s agenda. The Teacher is reminding us that we mustn’t put our own agendas on God. Fulfill what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it. To make a vow can be a way of trying to get God to do something for us can’t it? Not always but it can. If you do this God, then I will do this. The story is told of a man who was going to church downtown (not ours as we have capacious parking) and couldn’t find a parking spot on the street. He prayed “Lord if you find me a parking spot I’ll go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life.” Turning a corner he saw a parallel space open up on the right. “Never mind, God, I found one,” he said.
Never be rash with your mouth. Don’t think that a profusion of words will help you get your way, or make people think you’re more holy or whatever. Let your words be few. Remember that God is in heaven and we are on earth. “Hang on,” you say, “Doesn’t God live in us?” of course the Holy Spirit lives in the heart of the Christian. I was asking God to come live in my heart as long as I can remember. I used to picture Jesus sitting on a three legged stool in there for some reason. Of course God lives in us. He doesn’t only live in us though. It means that there’s something beyond the strictly personal in our following of Christ. There’s something mysterious and ineffable and words ultimately fail. Wisdom and teaching ultimately come up lacking. We must never make our relationship with Christ a strictly personal thing. This can lead us to come up with some kind of outlandish idea (has this ever happened to you or someone you know) for some kind of plan and the person says “God told me I had to do this!” How do you argue with that right? We mustn’t ever restrict our relationship with God to the personal – we do this Christ-following life together after all.
So God is in heaven, and we are on earth. While we are on earth that hebel note continues to sound. The Teacher then goes on to talk about some things that happen on earth. The oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right. Hyper consumerism. Obsession with wealth. Making consumption and retention of wealth the number one thing in life. Never being satisfied with what one has but always wanting more. More money more problems. When goods increase, those who eat them increase. More wealth attracts more hangers on. More money more worries. The surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep. Affluenza is what they call it these days. a: feelings of guilt, lack of motivation, and social isolation experienced by wealthy people. b: extreme materialism and consumerism associated with the pursuit of wealth and success and resulting in a life of chronic dissatisfaction, debt, overwork, stress, and impaired relationships
The Teacher sees this as a grievous ill. He’s seen people lose everything in bad investments to the point where they had nothing to pass on to their children. Life is a case of “naked come, naked go” – “As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil…This is also a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind?”
The Teacher has come to realize through his experience that all this is ultimately vanity. Wind. Vapour. Absurdity. Not worth basing a life on. Soren Kierkegaard put it like this – “I saw that the meaning of life was to make a living, its goal to become a councillor, that the rich delight of love was to acquire a well-to-do girl, that the blessedness of friendship was to help each other in financial difficulties, that wisdom was whatever the majority assumed it to be, that enthusiasm was to give a speech, that courage was to risk being fined ten dollars, that cordiality was to say “May it do you good” after a meal, that piety was to go to communion once a year. This I saw, and I laughed.” Scottish writer Irvine Welsh put it this way in Trainspotting – about a group of heroin addicts in 1990’s Edinburgh – “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers... Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit crushing game shows, sticking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away in the end of it all… in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish brats you spawned to replace yourself, choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that?”
Is that all there is? What do we choose? What is life for us? What is life for the Teacher?
For the Teacher life is to be found in recognizing the gifts of God. V 18-19. To recognize as we go about our days that everyday things like what we eat and drink, our work, are God’s gifts. To recognize that wealth is not an evil in and of itself, but it is something to be recognized as a gift – not something on which to base our lives. To recognize that Christ is the ultimate gift of God, and that we find our authentic selves in him. This God who is completely other is wholly with us in the person of the Holy Spirit. We live in this contradiction. One writer puts it like this – “To be human is, on a Christian account, to have one’s being outside of oneself, to owe one’s being to the being and activity of the triune God. True humanity is thus not possessed identity (or found in possessions DT) but rather life in a perpetual movement of receiving and responding to a gift… Human being is certainly a-centric, ‘never centred in itself,’ and so free from the circle of ‘appropriation and possession.’”
Living as we are as post-Easter people, Christ becomes the decision point. I wouldn’t say Christ is the solution to the problem of hebel. Hebel is not something to be solved as we live under the sun, any more than the problem of suffering is a problem for which we can come up with a solution – though one day we’ll no longer hear that note. We do not come to Christ based on logic. What logic is there in a suffering and dying God? We proclaim that Christ is the decision point. The crisis point. “Now is the krisis of this world,” Christ said before his death (John 12:31). What are we going to do? “Choose life” is the line. What is life? Where do we find it? Somebody once put it like this – “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…”
The one through whom we may know joy in the midst of all the vapour. V 20 “For they will scarcely brood (literally call to mind) over the days of their lives” – whether it’s nostalgia for the past or concern over an uncertain future – “because God has occupied them with the joy of their hearts.” The joy that is to be found in table fellowship – not eating in darkness and vexation and sickness and resentment – and even in toil. To recognize each moment as a gift from God. To recognize the gift of Christ. The decision point. The one who is wholly other. The one who is with us always. This is not something for us to figure out. It’s something for us to live in. This is not to try and convince us of anything or resolve all our questions – we see in a mirror dimly after all. It’s to invite us to make a decision about where we choose to find life. The invitation is before us every day. We don’t have everything figured out. This note of hebel rings throughout our lives. I can’t tell you everything. As someone has put it though – “I can only tell you that he is, and that he’s waiting for you.” Choose life yes. I choose life in Christ. May this be true for all of us.