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Ordinary Time: Ecclesiastes 3
The limits of human knowledge is frustrating, isn’t it? The limits drive much of our sorrow and anger. A person we care for dies, and we weep, and hurt, and we want to ask “why.” A war occurs, like that in Ukraine, and we shake our heads and sigh because of the stupidity of humanity. We strive for some goal, and fail, and are weary and angry that our efforts failed. Such are the seasons of our lives that turn, turn, turn, as the song goes.
Albert Camus wrote an essay on the myth of sisyphus that reflects on this apparent and frustrating absurdity of life. Camus was an absurdist, who was not only an atheist but, quite insightfully, believed that without a God there is no objective meaning to life. Sisyphus was a very helpful illustration of this. If you are not familiar, Sisyphus was a Greek myth, about a man who cheated death by escaping from the underworld. He was caught and taken back, and his punishment was to push a rock up a hill. Every time he got to the top, the rock would roll back down, and he was forced to do it again. Over, and over, and over again. Forever.
That is what our lives can feel like. We have times of sorrow and laughter, times of war and peace, times of birth and of death. But it’s all pushing the rock up a hill.
Except it isn’t. The extended poem of Ecclesiastes 3 is meant to acknowledge the variety of life, and that responding to the changing circumstances of life according to their nature is natural and good. As we heard last week, there is remarkably little in our lives that is under our control. It is appropriate to weep when someone dies, or we go through something hard; to laugh at a good joke, and to dance at a wedding. Like the seasons, our lives change, and we should respond to them in kind. Just like we do not wear coats in the summer but bundle up in the winter, so we laugh when it makes sense to, cry when that is what is needed, plant and harvest, remain silent when silence is needed and speak up when words are needed. God has made all things suitable for their time, and we have permission to see them for what they are and live accordingly. There is a time for everything that only God knows, so we should enjoy what we have while we have it and trust God through all circumstances.
Things change, and we change with them, as we should. And why? Because, despite the fact that God has also “put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” We have a sense of the eternal, of the destiny of things. We have a sense that all things are working towards a goal, an end. But we do not know the beginning and the end, but only the seasons of change. That is why it is appropriate to enjoy ourselves, as the Teacher says, and enjoy the fruit of our toils, because we simply do not know when those things may be taken away, or not bring us joy because of something else in life. Life is meant to be experienced and enjoyed, which is why stockpiling money and things is so foolish, trading resources for an inventory that stays when we die, never to be enjoyed by us again.
We do not know the end from the beginning. We shift with the seasons. But God does not. God knows where all of this leads, and more importantly, is the one who has determined it. God knows that the pushing of the rock up the hill isn’t never-ending, but will ends in rest.
The poetry of the turning seasons, the changing times, of weeping, laughing, war, peace, sowing, reaping, simply living, is concluded with this: “moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. 14 I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.” All being “vanity” or “vapor” does not mean all is meaningless; no, rather, the whole of existence is filled with meaning, with purpose. But the Teacher is correct; it is not for us to know, not fully, but for us to trust, to trust the one who has made all things and put them in their place, and who has given us the good things of life, and allowed the bad. Trust God, because while we can only see our side of the rock, the side we keep pushing, God sees past the top of the hill, to where we are truly going.
While you live now, live well, treating the times as the ought to be. When life calls for weeping, weep; laughter, laugh. But the New Testament calls us to a peace and a joy that cannot be suppressed or destroyed. This peace and joy are not the same as always being happy; the Teacher knows life isn’t that easy. But a type of peace is possible through dark times and suffering, and a joy is possible through sadness, only because we have been given a closer and clearer glimpse of what the eternal promises.
The seasons may change, but Jesus Christ, God incarnate, still lives as one of us. He died upon a cross to atone for our sins, and has defeated death. When physical death takes us, he will still be there, and one day, will raise us from the dead. That is more than the Teacher saw ahead of him, but even he knew that “whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.”
If life were just the Sisyphean boulder that we push up over and over, it would be hard to find a reason to keep going, the pointlessness of existence suppressing all that is good and hopeful in us. Life has a meaning, an end, and a final step, and that is the promise of the new creation, filled with resurrected people, enjoying life eternal. We can, as Paul exhorts, give generously and do good, laying a foundation for eternity by our faith, so we may gain true life.
The Gospel is what keeps us going through the changing circumstances of life. As storms rage and waves batter the ship, the ark of salvation, the Church, the anchor that is Christ holds us in place, and promises a day when the changes no longer come, but true rest. For now, we can take the good things and good times and enjoy them, knowing they won’t last. But someday they will, forever and ever. So for now, trust in the Lord, practice thankfulness that he has given us beautiful variety and that it includes times of joy and bounty, and during loss and hardship, look with expectation for the time when all the raging winds of life will still, and we will be in our safe harbor, the very presence of God. Amen.
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