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Ordinary Time: Ecclesiastes 12
My grandfather gave me lots of good advice. Now, my grandad was not a Christian in any clear sense, and he had lived a hard life, and been a hard man. But living that way, if one survives and can gain even a little wisdom along the way, can yield some solid, if sometimes a bit gritty, advice. One bit of wisdom he imparted is rather simple, and you’ve probably heard it. I will edit it slightly, due it involving a cuss word, but you’ll get the idea: “Life’s hard, and then you die.” Right out of the gate with encouragement today. Grandpa was being kind of a smart aleck and cynic, but he’s also not wrong. Life is hard, even when it’s good. It’s a bit of a blunt and nuanced statement, but as we come to a conclusion of Ecclesiastes, it’s an apt one. We read the end of last week’s passage today because chapter 12 is a continuation of it. Where chapter 11:7-10 tells us to enjoy our youth, always balanced of course with the knowledge that God will judge what we do, chapter 12 gives the darker side of youthful joy. That is to say, what happens on the other side of life.
It begins, “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 pleasure in them’.” The imagery here is almost apocalyptic; the guards are weak, and the cosmic lights are dimming; the sound of the mill, which would have been constant in a pre-industrial society where bread needed to be made every day, is quiet enough for the birdsong to cut through, because there are not enough women to work it; even the gold and silver decay, and to dust we will return, and finally a reference to the breath given by God: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” That breath returns to God.
There comes a time when pleasures are harder to come by. You will still be able to find joy in life, but never unmitigated, never untainted by the burdens and weakness of life. When we are young we think we’re invincible, that we’ll never fail in strength or wit. But Ecclesiastes, here at the end, reminds us: Life is hard, and then we die, so live well in the time that you have. How refreshingly honest! In a time and place where we do everything we can to perpetuate youth and discontentment, I for one am glad to hear the truth. Because the truth makes it possible for us to see beyond the mere world of the here and now, and to receive God.
The gospel is present here. God knows that our lives will contain hardship, and that all of the things we can and will pursue in life can either be a joy, or a pointless grasping for wind. So God in his goodness tells us, ENJOY what you have been given, because it is a gift. And here is the linchpin, the most important subtext of Ecclesiastes: Because God will take care of the rest. God never promised life was going to be easy. What he has promised is that he has it in hand, and that none of this world can guarantee anything but passing enjoyment. God guarantees eternal joy, contentment, and life. And if we make gods out of that which is vanity, then we will be left with nothing but wind. And so we are told that the end of the matter is to fear God, which also means to love and trust God.
For the individual moving through life and facing the struggles of age, Ecclesiastes ends with a poignant reminder to live in the present. You have one life and one time, and so live in the time you have. Don’t waste now regretting the past, or pining for the future. Live. Now. Enjoy the good you’ve been given, and thank God for it. Blaise Pascal I think said it best: “We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if were found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay it’s too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching.” Instead of this, strive to be in the present.
We may still be young, or we may be old, but the call here is a call to the present. And it is not a call to become resentful and bitter in our old age! Rather, it is a call to enjoy whatever we may have left, right now. In fact, I’d say enjoying life in our youth is practice for having contentment in our later years. We have to LEARN to be happy, content, and joyful, and to doing so in the times of ease so that when suffering comes, we are practiced in its joy.
Life is hard, and we will die, but God will remain, and out of his abundant love will raise us up. God, who descends to help his people, never promised ease in life, but did promise that there is enjoyment to be had even in the dark places. Our problem is our pretensions and self-importance. All of life may be vanity, a grasping after wind; but God is not. Ecclesiastes puts us in our place, and as it turns out, there is both hardship and enjoyment in our place. I’d rather know the truth, and live accordingly. And so should you. Let’s end with two points to take away from this time we have spent in Ecclesiastes:
First of all, don’t make idols out of the passing things of this world. Your job, your reputation, your house, even your relationships, are not the end and purpose of your life. They are good, and made for your joy, but they too will pass away: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.”
Second, DO enjoy what has been given to you, and enjoy it now! Don’t wait for tomorrow to show love, to give abundantly, to enjoy that book, or record, or to spend time with your family. Think of what it says to those around you when you enjoy things as they ought to be enjoyed. Nietzsche loved to criticize Christians for hating life-fulfillment, but that’s because the Christians he knew were probably pretty boring and unenjoyable. Think of what it says when those around us can not only see us enjoy the good we’ve been given as a gracious gift of God, but also being able to hold it all lightly, to be able to say “it may all be taken away tomorrow, but for now, here it is.” That ought to move us to joyfully invite those people in, to embrace our neighbors as those who can increase our joy now, and more importantly, those whose joy we have an opportunity to increase. Think about taking that which God has given as a gift, and then the joy of sharing it. Consecrate your homes, friends, for the good of your neighborhoods, as a place for enjoying God’s gifts, and sharing in that joy with others, which you will find increases your joy as well.
Make not idols, enjoy what you have been gifted, and do it all in the confidence that while all will pass away, God will remain, and you, with him. Amen.
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