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Ordinary Time: Ecclesiastes 1
We begin today a series on Ecclesiastes. This book is unique in the Bible, a book that examines life from the perspective of those who live “under the sun.” It is a book of wisdom in the Old Testament, along with Proverbs and Job, meant to help us humans understand how to live in this world. Proverbs tends to be more straightforward, saying that if you live righteously, you will be rewarded; Ecclesiastes is the other side of the conversation, observing by experience, and comes to see that while sometimes things work the way they should, all too often they do not, and that our human pretensions to find meaning in life or to live simply for our selfish selves are both empty pursuits, “vanity” or more appropriately, “smoke” or “vapor.”
Ecclesiastes is a book for our time, and for all times. There’s three reasons I see to study this book together: One, Ecclesiastes disabuses us of our own pretensions, demonstrating how foolish our pursuits are, so we know how to properly value things in this world; Two, Ecclesiastes also tells us where those without God are, living in a world that is meaningless without God as its goal and end; and therefore, Three, we can bring those two together to see that Ecclesiastes is a book that will speak to us about our mission: for the gospel is the answer to the meaningless, passing, vaporous life that we live, and our witness to the world is to both live as if this life is fading away, and to be ready to give the answer: Christ, who is our hope, our purpose, and the source of all meaning in life.
The book’s author is unknown. Tradition says it is Solomon, but that is problematic; regardless, it is not overly important. There are two figures in the book speaking, “Qoheleth,” meaning Teacher, probably a fictitious representation of Solomon, and the implied actual narrator, the author, who probably compiled and edited sources of wise sayings into the book we have here. The content is perhaps best summarized by a statement that appears 38 times in the book: havel havalim, or, “vanity of vanities” in the translation we read. However, that’s probably not the best translation; closer would be “all is merest breath” or “all is vapor.” The Teacher is an empiricist, observing the world to try to discover the meaning of life. The images are vivid; your breath is gone as soon as it begins, and when you try to grab hold of vapor, it dissipates away. Saying all is vapor or breath, then, means that everything is at once passing away, insubstantial, elusive, and even absurd.
Let’s consider, in this introductory poem, the main thrust then of the Teacher’s ideas in verses 2-4: It is a question we all may want to avoid, but truly, what do you gain from your labor in this world? You work, you buy, you eat, drink, and enjoy; and yet a generation comes, and a generation goes, and what you gain is nothing in the end. Our cars and homes, our books and collections, our savings accounts and clothes and pets and all the rest, fade away like vapor, just like we one day will do. As the Teacher observes the world, he then uses natural images in vss. 5-7, where he observes the sun moves on its course, the wind blows, and the streams never fill the ocean; the world moves on and on, and we are the ones who change, die, disappear, leaving no mark of note on this place we live.
Verse 8-11 make us ask, what are we doing here? Do we really think what we do matters? That all of this life we strive over, all we fight for, all we work towards, means anything at all? At the moment of your death, will you be able to look back and say, ah, that will continue after I am gone! Consider our individual lives from the sweep of history, if you can; is there anything more pathetic than we, sitting here and then going and working so hard, thinking that any of it is important. How sad our pretensions are, our ambitions, our arrogance. Even the greatest of people, the most significant; Napoleon may have changed the world, but do any of you care about any of his accomplishments?
The Teacher isn’t done though. He goes on to say in verses 15-17 that even wisdom is vapor, chasing after wind. I saw an article recently where an old man, a philosopher, was asking the question, “what did it all mean,” and “was it all worth it?” Albert Camus, the most notable absurdist, a group that denies there is any discernible meaning in the world, a philosopher and artist of incredible insight and argued that the only significant philosophical question left in the mid-twentieth century was the question of suicide. He denied that one should, but in his understanding of the world, without God, it was very much a live question.
This is the world. And yet, there is an answer to the clear and obvious absurdity of our life “under the sun.” Consider Horatio Spafford, whose hymn we will sing shortly. He was a prosperous lawyer in Chicago in the 19th century. When the Great Chicago Fire hit in 1871, he was not only ruined financially, but his 4 year old son also died. With an economic downturn two years later, he had to delay his own trip to England but sent his wife and four daughters ahead. There was a collision at sea, and his wife was the only survivor, sending him a telegram simply saying: “Saved alone…” All is vapor, indeed. Yet…when sailing past the area where his daughters were lost, Spafford wrote the hymn we will sing, a hymn that says despite the ephemeral nature of life, it can truly be well with our souls.P
What a way to begin a book. What a sermon to preach, eh? But this is where we must start. This is what we need to hear, because deny it all you want, we all think we are more important than we actually are. In the words of the band Tool, “the universe is hostile, so impersonal.” That is, the universe that is not filled with the ever-present, effusive, all-in-all person of God. To see the world as it appears to be is the task of the Teacher, but we, following God revealed in Jesus Christ, and the order of the world overturned by the self-sacrificial work of Christ and his Church who faithfully follows him, we are not left with just the empirical observations. We have been given the Holy Spirit, and thus can “see” beyond the veil. We know that despite the empirical state of the world and the seeming absurdity of it all, that God took on flesh in Jesus Christ, that he lived and then died for our sins, that he rose again, and that he has guaranteed our inheritance in his kingdom to come. We have the gospel, in other words, and it is what we live for, and what we die for. We may know that our efforts in this world are all eventually blown away on the wind, but we trust that it is God that gives them meaning, because when even this world passes away, God will still remain, and we with God, for ever and ever.
We need to hear ecclesiastes. We need to hear it so that we don’t lie to ourselves. We need to hear it so we know the despair our neighbor and don’t leave them in it. We need to hear ecclesiastes, so that we can truly hear and embrace and appreciate the incredible gift that is the gospel of God revealed and accomplished by Jesus Christ, without whom we are simply left with: chasing after the wind.
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