'The End of the Matter'
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I am known in some quarters as being a rather serious-minded man. At times I like to think I am quite serious about everything, including my joy. Ecclesiastes is nothing if not a serious book. The Teacher is a serious-minded man. He’s serious about everything, including joy. Four weeks ago we said that when we come to the point at which everything in which we have looked for meaning has been found lacking - work, riches, pleasure, even wisdom – it is at that point we are talking about something serious. We are no longer engaging in small talk. I remember starting and going over the meaningless circularity of nature, the uselessness of wealth, how wisdom turns out to be unsatisfying. Asking the musical question “Is that all there is?” and everyone looking quite sombre. I said things would get better and they do.
The thing about the book of Ecclesiastes that is can be broken down into a very concise message. The Teacher has looked for meaning in work, in pleasure, in wisdom and has found all to be vanity. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of everyone. We’ve talked about how the note of hebel – of vanity, vapour, meaninglessness, absurdity runs throughout our whole lives – of how it serves as a counterpoint to the notes that we hear up here; notes of gifts, of God making all things beautiful in God’s time, of awe, of reverence. Georges Bernanos, French author and WW1 soldier put it even more concisely – “In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.” Someone has said this is Qoheleth’s whole message.
We can all go home.
You don’t really want to go home though, do you? J
We take this message seriously. Do you want to be serious about this whole message? I want to take it seriously. I want to find out what it might mean in our lives and in the lives of our faith community to take this message seriously. To be serious about all things, including our joy.
Because in the end there is rejoicing and joy. “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.” Each day is a gift. Rejoice in it. This is the day that the Lord has made, has gifted us, let us rejoice and be glad in it. There are rejoicing and joy. Here is an interesting thing. There were three Jewish festivals that called for pilgrimages to Jerusalem – Passover, the Feast of Weeks (where God giving the law was celebrated), and the Feast of Booths. These are all still celebrated today, of course. The Feast of Booths (or Succoth) is a harvest festival that also commemorates the wandering in the wilderness and God’s provision. Tents are set up – you can see them on balconies of apartments on Lawrence as you go west from here. Here’s a description of the holiday written by a rabbi:
“We celebrate Sukkot by building a small annex to our homes, just a few boards, and branches, inviting friends in, and drinking wine and eating fruit in it for the week of the holiday. Sukkot is a celebration of the beauty of things that don’t last, the little hut which is so vulnerable to wind and rain and will be dismantled at the week’s end; the ripe fruits which will spoil if not picked and eaten right away; the friends who may not be with us for as long as we would wish… It comes to tell us that the world is full of good and beautiful things, food and wine, flowers and sunsets and autumn landscapes and good company to share them with, but we have to enjoy them right away because they will not last. They will not wait for us to finish other things to get around to them….It is a time to enjoy happiness with those we love and to realize that we are at a time in our lives when enjoying today means more than worrying about tomorrow… The special scriptural reading assigned for study in the synagogue during the Feast of Tabernacles is the Book of Ecclesiastes.”
Isn’t that interesting? Amid the note of hebel there is joy and rejoicing. Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. To hear the birds. Every day is a gift from God. Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all. Acknowledge the days as gifts of God.
Let me speak to the young people for a few minutes. “Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.” Isn’t that nice? Go rejoice – have a good time! Let your heart cheer you, young men and women! This is some solid advice here – woo hoo! You know there’s some advice found in the book of Proverbs which is not nearly as fun. Someone has compared it to advice you might get from a parent – it’s still solid advice but not nearly as fun. “Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise.” (6:6) “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but those who hate to be rebuked are stupid.” (12:1) “Laziness brings on deep sleep; an idle person will suffer hunger.” (19:15) Get up! “Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.” (20:13).
What we have here from The Teacher is more like what you get from a grandparent or a cool uncle or aunt. Go on have fun! Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes. You’re young and beautiful and vital! Rejoice! Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes – take my car!
There is one thing we have to remember though. We need to figure out what it means to rejoice. We need to figure out where we find our joy. At first glance, we might see this as a license to do whatever we want (and don’t worry parents, I’m aware). Often when we’re young we think that our joy, our freedom is to be found in doing what we want. I thought that once. I can go out as much as I want. The thing is that left to our own devices we want things that aren’t good for us, or good for other people. In the worst case scenario, someone dies at a rave because they take drugs from an unknown dealer. Left to our own devices we might think we find freedom in drinking ourselves into a stupor (or semi-stupor?) on a regular basis. Left to our own devices we might find truth in the phrase “If it feels good, do it.” You’re not hurting anyone after all. I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade or spoil anyone’s fun here. I’m just saying that The Teacher has something more to say on this. “But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.” This is not to say don’t enjoy things. It’s to make sure that our joy and rejoicing are directed by God, who gives us every good and perfect gift. God who makes all things beautiful in His time. God who in the person of his son is setting the world to rights and one day will set all to rights and is bringing all things back to himself. God who we are called to revere and stand in awe of and when we stand to let our words be few and worship. As one writer puts it – “…accompanying the joy that Qoheleth commends is the sure knowledge that God will judge one’s conduct…But this theme of judgment is designed not to temper Qoheleth’s command to enjoy life but to underscore and direct it…Divine judgment is not a corrective but an incentive, the very foundation of the sage’s command to enjoy.”
The very foundation of our lives. This is the invitation here friends. To make God the foundation of our lives because it is in God that freedom and life are found. To choose life. To remember. To remember the one who in Christ has remembered us. Because we are looking at this book from a post-Easter perspective. Qoheleth wasn’t of course, but we are.
We’re called to remember. Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say “I have no more pleasure in them.” Remember that it is He that has made us, and not we ourselves. He is our creator. Remember that. Remember what He has done. The Teacher stands in OT tradition here. This call to remember. Isaiah 44:21-22 “Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; O Israel you will not be forgotten by me. I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.” Remember your creator, your redeemer. The one who has brought you back.
Remember him in the days of your youth. This will stand you in good stead because this life is hard. Youth is fleeting, enjoy it while it lasts. “What a drag it is to get old,’ as someone once sang. We have this beautiful poem here in the last chapter – verses 1 to 8. Some have said it’s an allegory for growing old. Sure. Some have said it’s an allegory for the breakdown of a society. Sure. Some have said it has cosmological implications. Sure. It’s a poem. There isn’t only one meaning. It means all these things. “Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; in the day when the guards of the house tremble and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly.” In the days when we come to realize the meaningless of strength, of work, of the marketplace – “When the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low…” When fear is coming from above and from on the road. When even wisdom (who is described in Proverbs 7 as overseeing a house, looking out the windows) has failed and those who look through the windows see dimly…
Even here there is hope. Birds are singing. One rises up at the sound of a bird. Breath returns to God who gave it – the ultimate giver. Even here there is hebel as the poem ends – “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.”
That absurd note still sounds. There’s another sound in the melody. We’ve been hearing it all along. I’m going to ask Adolfo to play the song again. Listen to the lyrics – “Of the Father's love begotten/Ere the worlds began to be,/He is Alpha and Omega,/He the Source, the Ending He,/Of the things that are, that have been,/And those future years shall see/Evermore and evermore.
The end of the matter has been heard, friends. Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. That is everything. Revere God. Rejoice. Remember. Be thankful. That is what it’s all about. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. Keep on listening to those notes. Ask God to give us the grace to hear them. “In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.” We’ve been deceived by false promises of hope. Here’s a true promise of hope. We’ll be looking at the promises of God next month. Here’s one – “…and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” We’ll be talking about the Holy Spirit next week too.
What’s it all about? Where do we find meaning? This is not a problem to be solved. It’s not a problem in search of a solution. It’s an existential question – a question of our existence that demands a choice. We’ll always have questions as long as we see in a mirror dimly. We’ll always hear that bass note until the day it sounds no more. The question demands a choice. It demands a response. On what are you going to base your life? In Christ God has given God’s “Yes” to humanity and indeed all of the creation. Let us give our “Yes” to God. As we finish our look at Ecclesiastes friends I want to leave us with two quotes:
“I don’t know Who – or What – put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”
“I know that this world exists.
That I am placed in it like my eye is in its visual field.
That something about it is problematic, which we call its meaning.
That this meaning does not lie in it but outside it.
To believe in a God means that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.
To believe in God means to see that life has meaning.”
May God give us the grace to see friends.