Posted in Revelation 2020: Churches

7 Letters to 7 Churches: A Vision of Jesus

tapestry

Reading: Revelation 1: 1-3, 9-20

This morning we’re turning to a part of the Bible which I must admit I haven’t turned to very often. The Book of Revelation. In fact, in 2020 we’re going to spend a little bit of time in this book. Not the whole year, and not all in one go, but I plan to spend some time in it. Over the next few weeks, I plan for us to reflect on the early chapters, with 7 Letters to 7 Churches, in what was Asia Minor and is now called Turkey. Later in the year, towards the Autumn, I plan to turn to the rest of the book.

 

In my experience few parts of the Bible which provoke such extreme reactions. There are two main reactions to Revelation.

There are those who spend too much time on it. And can I be honest and say that very often these are the people who really shouldn’t.

People who are fascinated with what is called ‘End Times’ stuff, who will try to pick out little bits of Revelation and pin it to particular events, situations, institutions, nations or political leaders that are happening around us. Often this reflects the political climate and bias of those doing the interpretation.

At the extremes you even get things like The Rapture Index. It tries to predict how likely Jesus is to return today. It works like the Stock exchange. The higher the index, the more likely Jesus is to come back today.

And that’s not the point of Revelation.

But there is almost an equal and opposite reaction to that extreme. Others just don’t touch it. It’s all a bit weird, like a cross between Lord of the Rings and a really gory horror movie. We don’t really know what to do with it, and we don’t want to get caught up in arguments with the other lot, so we run away from it altogether. I have to admit that’s kind of where I’ve been.

But over the last few months I’ve been challenged to explore this a bit further. For a start if it’s mainly explored by a particular fringe of the church, and if I truly believe they’re doing it badly, should I let them be the only voice talking about it?

Might we miss out on so much of what it has to say?

I’m quite nervous approaching it, but as we do so I am trusting God that the promise contained in the opening verses.

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy

Blessed are those who hear it

and take to heart what is written in it

That’s my prayer as we do this…

This morning there are just a couple of thoughts I want to leave with you as we start our time in this book.

One is about what is going on in the book of Revelation as a whole.

The other is just a brief thought about what this passage has to say to the churches in Revelation, to us down in our own age, and to our lives about Jesus. Although to an extent I’m setting up the rest of the series, I want to give you something to take away with you, something helpful at the beginning of the New Year.

The book opens with the line The Revelation from Jesus, or better still The Revelation of Jesus. The word for Revelation is this…

Ἀποκάλυψις

Apocalypsis

from which we get what word?

Apocalypse.

In fact, in some traditions, the book is called The Apocalypse.

Now, what comes into your head when you hear the word apocalypse?

If you do a Google Image Search on the word Apocalypse you’ll get fire, destruction, devastation. It’s invariably bleak. And that’s probably the answer you would get if you asked someone with a little bit of knowledge about the Bible what comes to mind when they hear Book of Revelation. That it’s all about doom, destruction and hellfire.

 

But apocalypsis has a different meaning. And doom and destruction were not John’s main intention when he wrote it.

Apocalypsis is about uncovering, or disclosing. Revealing. Hence Revelation.

It’s about seeing things as they really are. And John’s main purpose in writing was not to inspire fear, but to give hope to small, isolated groups of Christians, trying to work out what it meant to follow Jesus in an environment which was often hostile.  He wanted them to find something that would help them keep going.

I guess one way of looking at it is like a tapestry. I’m told that people who are really good at this sort of thing can keep everything really neat on the back. But let’s assume it’s something done by the rest of us. Or by me, anyway. You look at the back and what do you see? A whole mess of tangled threads. You might struggle, beyond the vaguest of outlines, to see what it’s all about. There’s a fair chance what you’re looking at will appear to make no real sense.

But if you turn it around you get to see the picture. You get to see what’s really going on.

That’s what’s going on in Revelation. John himself is a quite isolated figure. He’s on the island of Patmos, which at the time was probably used as a prison island. He was there to stop him being able to continue to share with these churches, whom he clearly loved, and to stop him sharing the story of Jesus.

He was writing to a bunch of people who were finding it really hard to trust in Jesus. They lived in areas which were extremely loyal to the Roman empire. One of the main areas of competition between these areas was how loyal they were. In fact they were centres of emperor worship. These followers of Jesus  faced all sorts of struggles and trials, all because of their faith in Jesus. And it didn’t seem like there was any end in sight. Perhaps they wondered why they bothered. Perhaps they were tempted to give up. It all seemed like a tangled mass of threads without any real meaning.

Cos life can feel a bit like that sometimes. It comes to us a whole jumble of tangled threads without any real pattern, or meaning. It’s almost like we see the back of the tapestry, but don’t realise that’s what we’re looking at. We think we’re looking at the picture and wonder why it doesn’t make sense.

Apocalypsis or revelation, it’s about catching a glimpse of other side. John and those who would share his words, are living in a world which feels so chaotic, meaningless, full of tangled threads, but his experience is one of realising that there is more going on than he can see. It’s like he’s given a glimpse of the front of the tapestry and told to share what he sees with these troubled, struggling churches. And, in turn, this is passed own to us.

That doesn’t make it easy. It can seem very strange and confusing for us. There are a couple of reasons for that, and they’re linked.

One is that the Bible is written for us, but was not written to us. It is good that the scriptures have been preserved, translated and handed down through the generations. And I truly believe that when the words of scripture are read God brings them to life, and that they are useful for teaching, guiding, challenging and correcting us in life.

But we also must remember that the writers weren’t consciously writing down stuff they thought we would be reading in 2000 years. They were written by a particular person, to a particular group of people about real situations they were facing at that moment. That’s particularly important when you are reading something that is crammed full of symbols and images like Revelation.

When I’m back in Belfast, and my family are all together, they’re often having conversations about people and situations, they might even have little jokes in there, and it all makes perfect sense to them. But often I don’t have a clue who or what they’re talking about. And that’s people who are related to me, living at the same time, in the same part of the world, speaking the same language. How much more so, if stuff is written in another place, another time, originally in another language and culture?

John was writing to small groups of Christians, in 7 cities, in what was then called Asia Minor about situations they faced. There is stuff here that would have been fairly obvious to them, but which we might have to probe a little deeper if we are going to understand them. There might even be times when we have to accept that for now at least, we won’t completely understand.

 

But the other reason, and this is linked to the first one. John is a first century Jew, writing to communities which are largely first century Jewish Christians, or who, at the very least used our Old Testament as their main source of scripture. They knew our Old Testament a whole lot better than we do. Even those of us who think they know a pretty decent amount about the Bible would probably admit our Old Testament knowledge is a bit, shall we say, patchy, certainly beyond the Sunday School stories.

There are also some books which were written after Malachi, at the end of our Old Testament and before Matthew, at the start of our New Testament. Some Bibles still have them. We don’t tend to turn to them in Protestant circles. They are called The Apocrypha.

Revelation makes a lot of use of both the Old Testament and The Apocrypha. There are 404 verses in Revelation. In those 404 verses there are anywhere from 500 to 800 references to the Old Testament and The Apocrypha.

 

He also draws his images from the Roman world and culture in which these people lived.

We see that in this morning’s passage, where John opens with a Vision of Jesus..

I turned around to see who was talking to me, and I saw seven gold lampstands, and among them there was what looked like a human being, wearing a robe that reached to his feet, and a gold band around his chest.  His hair was white as wool, or as snow, and his eyes blazed like fire; his feet shone like brass that has been refined and polished, and his voice sounded like a roaring waterfall. He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth.

I’m not going to go through each bit of that description individually. We’ll see shortly that we can touch on some of them in future weeks. But I’ll pick out a couple of aspects to show you what I’m talking about.

Those reading and hearing these words for the first time would have been taken to a number of different parts of the Old Testament. Amongst them would have the book of Daniel, chapter 7, to one who was called the Son of Man, who was given power and authority by God to overcome and rule over all the empires of this world. Amongst the description of him was one whose clothing was as white as wool, the hair of his head was white like wool, his throne was flaming like fire…

 

But he combines the Old Testament imagery with images more contemporary to them. At this time their known world was ruled by Caesar, most likely Domitian. He was often portrayed wearing a sash and robe, with a double edged sword. Above all, they have found coins in this period, in which Domitian is shown holding seven stars. It symbolises him controlling the whole world.

Right at the start of Revelation, in a world full of a seemingly chaotic mess of tangled threads, in which those who tried to be true to Jesus faced all sorts of hostility and pressure, who were tempted to compromise with or just give in to Rome, because Rome just ruled everything and dominated everything, and it seemed futile to resist them.

John is suddenly given a glimpse of the right side of the tapestry. He sees things as they really are. The message he wants them to take into the rest of the book is a simple one.

Jesus is Lord.

Not Caesar.

Jesus.

 

Though it all might seem like a chaotic mess, and one in which they’re losing, they’re only seeing the back of the tapestry. Jesus is the one creating the picture at the front and powerful though he might think himself, Caesar was not going to stop God completing what he had begun in Jesus.

But there’s the other bit. The bit I want you to remember, if you forget all the rest of it…

John is writing to 7 churches. We’ll discover more about them in the coming weeks. And they were all different. Each of them different strengths, weaknesses and challenges. They were praised for different things, they were rebuked or corrected on different things.

But they each had something in common. They were trying to work out what it meant to follow Jesus in a world which was often hostile. They often wondered if they could keep going. If it was worth keeping going. Perhaps they were fighting a losing battle. Maybe they felt abandoned or forgotten.

Yet a key part of John’s vision is of Jesus walking amongst the lampstands.

Jesus is walking amongst the churches.

And amongst the first words he will say to each of the churches is I know…

I know the situation you are facing.

I know where you are doing well, I know where you’re struggling.

I know.

I know.

They’re not forgotten, they are not abandoned. Jesus knows. Whether the angels of the churches are heavenly or earthly figures, Jesus holds them in his hand. He walks amongst the churches and although it’s hard and although they struggle, he hasn’t forgotten them or abandoned them.

But there’s one last thing…

In 6 of the 7 letters we will look at, Jesus will emphasise a different aspect of the vision he has given to John.

To the church in Ephesus he is the one who holds the 7 stars in his hands, and walks amongst the lampstands.

To Smyrna he’s the first and last, who died and came to life.

To Pergamum he’s the one who has the sharp two-edged sword.

To Thyatira he’s the one who has eyes like flames of fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze

To Sardis he’s the one who has the seven stars

To Philadelphia he’s the one in charge of the keys…

They’re all different. They have different strengths, weaknesses, different needs… But Jesus is sufficient for all of them. They might feel on top of the world, they might feel weary and struggle to keep going. But Jesus has not abandoned or forgotten them. He knows them exactly as they are and is there for each of them.

Maybe that’s a message we need to hear as we start a new year. Maybe we need to start out with a new vision of who Jesus is and who Jesus wants to be for us. Maybe we need to hear him say I know. I know where you’re going well. I know where you’ve messed up. I know the situation you’re facing.

I know.

I know.

Cos it’s not just whole churches who come with their own strengths, weaknesses, challenges, needs. Each of us comes with them. And at times in life we will need Jesus to be different things for us. Even when we have travelled a long way and have known God to be there for us in different circumstances, we can live with the fear that he might not be up to the next thing we face. There might be times when we feel alone and abandoned. Like Jesus has forgotten us. And we need to hear those words

I know.

I know.

I know.

As we start this year, as we start our time in this book, may we come to see that we are not forgotten. That we are known and loved, exactly as we are. And we’re never alone, forgotten or abandoned. Jesus walks amongst us, and he knows us. And he will be sufficient for all we bring to him.

The table is prepared, the meal is ready – Jesus is here!

He offers us bread – food for the soul, nourishing, nurturing

He offers us wine – refreshment in spirit, reviving, renewing

His body was broken so that we might be made whole

His blood was shed so that life might flow within us

The table is prepared, the meal is ready – Jesus is here!

Come now and celebrate!

Approach

Loving God, no words can express the wonder of your love

The extent of your goodness, the magnitude of your grace

Or the breadth of your saving purpose in Christ

We thank you that this table says it all

Speaking so simply, yet so eloquently of how much you care for us

How much you have done for us and how much you will yet do

So we come, to receive from your hands

And to give you our joyful worship in return

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen

Prayer of Praise

Mighty God, we would praise you with our lips,

declaring your greatness in word and song,

for you are sovereign over all,

the source of our being and goal of our striving,

the Lord of heaven and earth,

of all that is, and has been and shall be.

LEADER:  We come with joy.

ALL:    We come in worship.

Majestic God, we would praise you in our minds,

declaring your greatness in all we think,

for you are ever at work,

active in our world, involved in our lives,

present in myriad ways around us; the Lord of all.

LEADER:  We come with joy.

ALL:    We come in worship.

Marvellous God, we would praise you from our hearts,

declaring your greatness in all we feel,

for you are a gracious God,

loving, forgiving, compassionate, caring,

always there to strengthen and sustain, to equip and enable.

LEADER:  We come with joy.

ALL:    We come in worship.

Matchless God, we would praise you in our lives,

declaring your greatness in all we do,

for to love you is to serve you,

to know you is to work for your kingdom,

to honour you is to respond to others,

to revere your name is to respect your will.

LEADER:  We come with joy.

ALL:    We come in worship.

Magnificent and monumental God,

we do praise you, here and now,

declaring your greatness with body, mind and soul,

for in bread and wine you welcome us again,

you bless us again, you feed us again,

and you send us out once more to live and work for you.

LEADER:  We come with joy.

ALL:    We come in worship.

Confession

Yet, Lord Jesus Christ

We look at you, we look at us

And the gulf is so wide, The difference so vast

 

We reflect on your words, We reflect on our deeds

And they seem poles apart, So little in us speaking of you

We think of your love, We think of our selfishness

And the contrast is so stark The discrepancy so plain

We acknowledge your truth We acknowledge our falseness

And the two seem opposed No way the gap can be bridged

We consider your grace We consider our sinfulness

The one so awesome, The other so awful

Then we meet you Lord

As we eat bread and drink wine

And remember those chasms are spanned

The divides are put at an end

We turn aside in wonder

At a mercy beyond our deserving

Lord God, as we confess our sin to you

receive also our joyful, heartfelt worship

for all you have done for us.

Assurance of Pardon

God forgave us all our sins,

Cancelling the debt written against us in the ledger

With all its requirements

Irrevocably doing away with it, by nailing it to the cross

We have all gone astray like sheep

But the Lord has laid on him the offences of us all.

 

Receiving Sue into Membership

Covenant Questions

Sue, we have come to welcome you as a member of this fellowship,

asking God to bless and equip you for service and witness.

Do you believe that as a follower of Jesus Christ

you are called to gather with other disciples

and that now you are now called

to covenant with this local church?

I do. This is my duty and my delight.

Will you accept the privileges and responsibilities

of church membership?

Will you be faithful in worship and prayer,

steadfast in service and witness to the love of God?

Will you share in its mission,

encourage and support its leaders and members,

and always represent Christ to those around you?

I will. This is my calling as a disciple of Jesus

in company with his people

and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Laying on of Hands.

Sisters and brothers,

we are now going to pray for Sue

lay hands on her

and receive her into the membership of this church.

This rite, dates back to the first Christians,

and is an act of acceptance, commissioning and blessing.

We shall pray that,

being blessed and strengthened by the Holy Spirit,

Sue may be fully equipped for her calling and ministry

as a follower of Jesus.

As we pray for her, we welcome her

into the membership of this church,

promising to encourage and support her

as followers of Jesus Christ

and members together of his body.

Let us together hear the words of scripture:

You are the light of the world.

Let your light shine before others,

so that they may see your good works

and give glory to your Father in heaven.

 

Prayer and laying on of hands

Living and gracious God,

you have called these brothers and sisters

to be disciples of Jesus Christ

and citizens of your kingdom.

Pour out your Spirit on Sue,

that she may be empowered for service

and strengthened for witness.

Lavish your gifts of grace upon her

and the fruit of your Spirit upon her,

that she may live to serve and praise you

and grow into the likeness of Jesus Christ,

in whose name we pray. Amen.

 

Reception into Membership

Sue, we welcome you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ

into the membership of Harrow Baptist Church.

 

Words of Institution

Our Lord Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, took bread

Which, after thanking God for it, he broke, saying

‘This is my body, broken for you: do this in memory of me’

Similarly he took a cup afterwards saying

‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood:

Whenever you drink it, do so in memory of me.

When we eat this bread and drink this cup

We testify to the Lord’s death until he comes

 

Thanksgiving

Sovereign God, we celebrate the message of the Gospel

Proclaimed at this table

We are reminded here of the triumph of your love

Your victory, through Christ,

over violence, hatred and intolerance

In a world scarred by these evils

You promise that love will finally win through

For that assurance,

Lord, we thank you

We are reminded here of the triumph of your truth

Your victory, through Christ,

over deceit, corruption and falsehood

In a world still racked by these evils

You promise that truth will finally win through

For that assurance,

Lord, we thank you

We are reminded here of the triumph of your grace

Your victory, through Christ,

over guilt, sinfulness and rebellion

In a world still troubled by these evils

You promise that grace will finally win through

For that assurance,

Lord, we thank you

 

We are reminded here of the triumph of life

Your victory, thru Christ,

over death, destruction and loss

In a world still scarred by these evils

Your promise that your life will finally win thru

For that assurance,

Lord, we thank you

Sharing

A morsel of bread – a massive sacrifice

A sip of wine – a fountain of life

Let the God who brings strength out of weakness

Plenty out of little, the great from the small

Share your life that you may share his

Bread

Take and eat, not because you must, but because you may

Because Christ loves you and invites you to love him in turn

Wine

Take and drink, not because you ought, but because you can

Because Christ died for you and invites you to share his life

Acclamation

The one who died is risen

The one bowed down is lifted up

The one nailed to a cross is enthroned on high

The one who gave his all is Lord of all.

Thanks be to God!

Intercessions

Holy God, we come together to praise and worship you, the Ruler and Leader of all peoples on the earth. We pray for peoples of this earth who suffer under the rule of unjust regimes and governments. Their leaders seem to care little about their own people and their needs.

LEADER:  Lord, in your mercy

ALL:    Hear our prayer

 

Just and Honourable God, your nature and your ways proclaim you to be the compassionate God of all people. We pray for people who know the horror of oppression, imprisonment without cause, and the loss of freedom to act or worship you as they choose.

LEADER:  Lord, in your mercy

ALL:    Hear our prayer

God of grace and love, we seek your merciful help for people who struggle with poverty, hunger, diseases that can be cured with modern medicine, and for all children who are deprived of the basic necessities of life. We pray for all aid agencies who serve suffering humanity in challenging circumstances.

LEADER:  Lord, in your mercy

ALL:    Hear our prayer

God of peace, may the light of your shalom shine on all vulnerable people. Bring peace with justice, O God, and a hope that is realised in the hearts, and minds of all your people.

LEADER:  Lord, in your mercy

ALL:    Hear our prayer

 

SONG: My Jesus, My Saviour

My Jesus, my Saviour,
Lord, there is none like you.
All of my days, I want to praise
the wonders of your mighty love.

My comfort, my shelter,
tower of refuge and strength,
let every breath, all that I am,
never cease to worship you.

Shout to the Lord,

all the earth, let us sing
power and majesty, praise to the King.
Mountains bow down

and the seas will roar
at the sound of your name.
I sing for joy
at the work of your hands.
For ever I’ll love you, for ever I’ll stand.
Nothing compares

to the promise I have in you.

 

Blessing

May the love of Christ shine in your eyes

The compassion of Christ work through your hands

The word of Christ fall from your lips

And the life of Christ flow through your veins

To his glory. Amen

Posted in Christmas 2019

The Rubber Duck Nativity

This is a story about something which happened just over 2000 years ago, in the land of Israel.

Mary 1

There was a young girl called Mary, who was doing her chores one day,

Mary Angel 2

when she suddenly had a visit from an angel who told her some startling news. She was going to have a baby who would be the Son of God.

Mary was quite worried about this. She was engaged to be married to a man called Joseph,

Joseph 3

but she wasn’t expecting to have any children until after then. If it happened before, Joseph might decide not to marry her. But the angel told her not to worry.

Joseph Angel 4

He went to visit Joseph too and told him the news he had told Mary.

Mary Joseph MarryJoseph agreed to marry Mary.

But just as Mary was about to have the baby, there was more scary news.

Caesar 6A man called Caesar Augustus, from Rome, ruled the whole world at this time. And he decided he wanted to tax everyone. He wanted everyone to go their home town. Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, but Joseph’s family lived in Bethlehem.

This meant they would have to make a long, long journey. But how would they do it?

No Plane 8This was in the days before we had planes that could have taken them there.

no reindeer 10Maybe if they had been able to call Santa he could have got a sleigh and some reindeer. They’d have been able to take some supplies for the baby too.

But no. They would have to walk there.

Journey 12A donkey could carry them and the few things they had.

Robbers 13It was a really dangerous road. Sometimes there were robbers on the road.

And even when they got there they could not find anywhere to stay. Lots of people had come to Bethlehem for the tax census. They could not move quickly cos Mary was pregnant. So when they got there, there were no rooms left.

Guide to Stable 15Eventually an innkeeper said they could use her stable.

Jesus Born 16

And so it was that there beside the cows and donkeys that Mary had her baby boy. She called him Jesus, and laid him a manger.

Shepherd 17

That night some shepherds were out in the field nearby, looking after their sheep.

Angel Shepherd 18

Suddenly there was a flash and there before them was an angel. They were really scared. But the angel told them not to be afraid. He said that if they went down into the town they would see a baby had been born.

Free from sin 19This baby had come to set us free from our sins. Suddenly there was a great big crowd of angels singing in the sky saying

Peace 20‘Glory to God in Heaven and let there be peace on earth.’

The shepherds decided to go and see if what the angels said was true. And it was.

Shepherds at Stable 21They went down to town, found the stable, and found Mary and Joseph, with their baby in the manger.

But it wasn’t only nearby that strange things were happening.

Magi 22

Far away in the east, some stargazers

Dark Night 23were looking up at the sky on a Dark (K)night. They suddenly saw a bright light they had never seen before, shining in the sky.

Magi Mystery 24aThis was quite a mystery.

Spaceman 24bThey wondered if it might be a spaceship,

Magi Wise Guy 24cbut decided to go and check with the smart people they knew. They were told this was a star which was pointing to a new king that had been born. If they followed the star it would take them to the child.

Magi Star 24So they set off, following the star. It seemed to be heading for Israel. So they decided, if this was a king, he must be at a palace, with the ruler.

20191214_200333They went to see a man called Herod, who was the ruler of Israel. They said we’ve come to see the new king who was to be born. Now Herod was not a very nice man. He didn’t like the idea of there being another king.

20191214_200442So he called together the religious leaders and said to them ‘do you know where a new king is to be born. They told him… in Bethlehem. So Herod said to the wise men – go to Bethlehem and find the child. And when you do, let me know so I can see him and worship him.

Herod Minion 28But Herod did not want to worship him. He wanted to find out where the baby was so he could send his minions to have baby killed.

Magi Stable 28

So the wise men went off to Bethlehem and found the baby. Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. They were surprised at how humble his surroundings were. But they were filled with wonder. They gave him three gifts – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.

20191214_200520But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod. So they went back to their own country a different way.

Jesus Mary Joseph Egypt 36They also warned Mary and Joseph and they ran away to Egypt, where Jesus spent some of his early years, until the threat from Herod had passed.

This is the story of Christmas.

Angry 37It’s a story about how God is not angry with us,

Love 38but loves us all very much

rescue 39and wants to rescue us.

Law 40He loves us whether we are good,

rebel 41or whether we’ve always been a rebel who breaks the rules.

20191214_200831He loves us from the most powerful, to those who feel least significant.

That’s why Christians celebrate Christmas. Because it’s the story where we remember how much God loves us. It’s a real reason for celebration. So enjoy it. Relax.

elf snowman 42Enjoy great Christmas films like the Elf, or the snowman.

Tree 46Decorate trees,

Gift 44give presents,

Pudding 45eat lots of food,

carol 43sing the songs.

remember story endBut also remember the story of Jesus, cos he reminds us how much we are loved.

Posted in Ecclesiastes: Under the Sun

Ecclesiastes Part IX: Father to Son

adventure book

Reading: Ecclesiastes 11: 7-10, Ecclesiastes 12

The Brothers Grimm had a tale called The Duration of Life. The story goes that God had originally determined that 30 years was the ideal lifespan for all animals, including mankind. However, the donkey, the dog, and the monkey considered it much too long and begged God to reduce their lifespan by 18, 12, and 10 years respectively. And God agreed. But man found out about what they had done and being healthy, vigorous, and not a little greedy, he asked God if he could have what the others had given up.

God agreed, so that how man’s lifespan became the 3 score years and 10.

But the first 30 years are his own and they pass quickly.

The next 18 are “donkey years,” during which he has to carry countless burdens.

Then come 12 “dog years” when he can do little but growl and drag himself along.

This is followed by the “monkey years,” when he grows rather strange and does things that make children laugh at him.

We live in a society where a lot of emphasis is placed on youthfulness. This is quite prevalent in the media. Almost 40% of the UK population are over the age of 50, yet they account for only 20% of the actors and presenters we see  on TV.

This seems particularly acute for women. I remember a film in the mid-90s called the First Wives Club. In it Goldie Hawn played a Hollywood actress who was forever having facelifts so that she could keep playing the ‘young parts.’ Eventually her plastic surgeon asks if she really thinks more work is a good idea. Why keep chasing youth? Would she not prefer to play the part of someone her own age? And she responds ‘My own age? No, no, you don’t understand. In Hollywood there are only three ages of woman – the hot Babe, District Attorney and Driving Miss Daisy.

As for men, well I’m told there are four ages of man…

You believe in Santa Claus,

then you don’t believe in Santa Claus,

then you are Santa Claus,

then you look like Santa Claus.

 

Yet for all the emphasis our society places on youthfulness, we also say that youth is wasted on the young. They have all this energy but putting it to good use is a matter of wisdom which supposedly comes with age.

We say things like ‘if I knew then what I know now…’ which is fine, except a major reason you know what you know now is because of the experience then.

That tension between the energy, passion and vigour of youth and the wisdom that comes with age forms the heart of these closing words from the Teacher in Ecclesiastes. We’ve seen him find many things ‘meaningless’ over the last few months. But it’s as if the final thing that he finds meaningless is that this energy and wisdom never meet.

We’ve reached the end of our time in Ecclesiastes and it would be really nice to say that at least here we get something approximating a happy ending. But we don’t.

There is some good stuff to take from it, but it does need to be excavated.

I’d suggest it’s a little more ambiguous than it might first appear.

The words we shared this morning feel somewhat intimate. They seem to be describing a conversation between an older man and a younger one. They remind me a little of the Cat Stevens song Father to Son with its warning ‘you may still be here tomorrow but your dreams may not.’

This morning as we reflect on these words, I’m going to show you a couple of video clips – one now and one later. They are both taken from the same film – the Pixar film Up. They both portray what Teacher is saying in these closing words.

But before I show these I want to point out I’m taking a risk – I have seen these clips several times and I have cried every time. I watched it lot to try to de-sensitise myself. But I ended up realising it’s worse when you know what’s coming.

The two scenes centre around two characters Karl and Ellie. The first scene is pretty self-explanatory

Scenes 2: Cross Your Heart and 3: Married Life

 

Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun. However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. But let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything to come is meaningless. Be happy, young man, while you are young and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgement. So then, banish anxiety from your heart, for youth and vigour are meaningless. 

 

In his closing remarks the Teacher is going to pull no punches. He is about to present the young man with a none too promising glimpse of his future. Proverbs presents a positive picture of old age. Ecclesiastes is rather more cynical.

Verses 2-5 of chapter 12 offer a series of snapshots in which decay and death come to all parts of life. Some think he’s poetically describing various parts of the body wearing out, spreading out or falling out. Some see it as the demise of various areas of life like the home, work, natural beauty and ultimately ourselves.

It sounds depressing when you put it like that, and certainly it is hard to put a cheery slant on it. But that’s not his aim. It’s not a case of ‘oh, you might think life is great now, but that’s because you don’t know what’s coming, do ya?’

He’s pointing him to the fleeting nature of youth to press on him the importance of enjoying it, of seizing it and making the most of it. In verse 10 when he tells him to banish all anxiety he uses a term which he has used in a variety of ways elsewhere but always with this sense of being ground down by the experience of life.

 

It’s like he is saying to this young man ‘you have all this youth, energy, passion and all these dreams. You feel like ‘adventure is out there’, but life is going to hit you, the tyre will get a puncture, the tree falls on the house, the doctor gives bad news and to borrow from that scene in Up, you’ll find yourself smashing that coin jar, or it might get hidden on the book shelf, and your dreams, your Paradise Falls will fade with it.

And if you let it, the disappointments of life will seize you, they’ll grind you down, and in time turn to disillusionment, then cynicism.

In the light of that, you could take the first ¾ of verse 9 ‘be happy young man, and let your heart give you joy in your youth, Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see’ and see it as an invitation to go and sow your wild oats, live recklessly.

You could – but for two checks.

One is all that offers is a path which the Teacher outlined all those weeks ago in his quest to just get enough and I can’t get no satisfaction. The other is those words ‘but know that God will bring you to judgement’ and the call to ‘remember your creator in the days of your youth.’

Given that for the vast bulk of the book we seem to have encountered a grumpy old man, it would be easy to assume he’ll be resentful of the youth for all his energy, vigour and passion, and true he acknowledges that they won’t be enough in the long run, he doesn’t despise them. He’s actually encouraging him to go off and seize life, to channel all that energy and enthusiasm but to live now in a way which acknowledges that he is part of a bigger story. The word know is not just about mentally being aware of something but about allowing that knowledge to shape how you approach life. The same is true for the word to remember.

 

That first verse of chapter 12 is quite a fascinating one for the Teacher, because it is as close as we get in Ecclesiastes to a real assertion of faith. He chooses his words very carefully. At first this might seem a little pedantic, but stick with me. Note that he doesn’t say remember God in the days of your youth, which is how we are probably reading it anyway. But it’s not what he says and it is significant.

He says remember your Creator.

So what, you might think. The poor guy fancied a bit of variety, it’s been a miserable journey, leave him alone. Except he’s mentioned God around 40 times so far and felt no need to change his terminology.

So why change it now unless he is pointing us towards something different?

 

Let’s remind ourselves, for the last time in this series, that when the Teacher has spoken of God, this God has always been out there, aloof and distant. So when instead he points towards the Creator, what’s he doing, what’s he pointing towards?

Most likely our thoughts are expected to be taken back to chapter 3 when he speaks of everything made beautiful in his time. Of the one who has set eternity in the heart, even if we can’t fathom what he’s up to from beginning to end.

He makes two references to judgment in our reading this morning, and we can read that in a very negative way. We can read verse 9 and think he’s saying ‘sow your wild oats but remember you’re going to pay for it.’ We read it almost like a cosmic version of the proverb ‘a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.’

 

But that’s not really the whole story. Judgment is about God setting right a world gone wrong, restoring things as he intended them to be. It’s about God making everything beautiful in his time. And one of the, if not the major way in which God is doing this is through us and I spoke a few weeks back about how, even if we can’t fathom how he’s doing it, what God accomplishes through us to make everything beautiful in his time will last into eternity.

To remember your creator is to remember you are created and to remember that even when we can’t see it, there is one making everything beautiful in his time, and that you are part of that everything. I heard a psychologist on the radio a while ago commenting that when people are young and successful they tend to think they are invulnerable. Bad stuff does happen, but to other people. Then something happens to shatter that perception.

That’s what the Teacher is saying when he reminds the young man to remember his Creator. To shape your life around the knowledge that you are created is to acknowledge that however invincible you might feel you are dependent on someone.

 

But that remembrance is also quite liberating because when disaster strikes, when days of darkness come and you feel powerless to stop it, it doesn’t all depend on you, and though you cannot see it right now, there is one who is working all things together, there is one whose job is to make everything beautiful in his time.

There is a time for everything and everything has its season, everything will come and go and the only thing you get to keep is you.

Circumstances will come and go but what you become will largely be a product of the choices you make. As Arthur Schopenhauer once said The first 40 years of life give us the text. The next 30 supply the commentary.

What the Teacher points us towards is the thought that when you’ve got all that energy, when you’ve got all that passion, when you’ve got all those ideals, that’s the time to build into your narrative the thought that you are part of something bigger. Because that coin jar is going to be smashed and it you tend and nurture that narrative then, it’s much more likely to sustain you when days of darkness approach, you are much more likely to receive life gratefully, and you are much less likely to fall into cynicism.

 

You see, these words are a little more ambiguous than they are at first appear. Even if scientists tell us the aging process is slowing down, we can’t halt it, so you could read verse 2-5 as inevitable. Things will fall out, wear out and spread out. But at another level it is not.

 

I recognise that I am preaching to a mostly, let’s be generous, 50+ congregation. But I don’t think his negative assertions about aging are what I experience in all of you.

 

The Teacher assumes that with all the energy and vigour will go the passion, likes it’s one of those childish things we put off when we grow to maturity. I have serious doubts about that. Because every now and then I find out something you do or have done and I’m blown away by it. You may channel passion differently, cos let’s face it we have to – but it’s still there.

I think this is an appropriate place to bring in the second of our two clips this morning. It’s a little bit of a spoiler for those who haven’t seen the film, but not completely.

Same link as above Scene 21: Stuff we did

 

In Up Ellie was someone who kept the passions through the days of darkness, when the sun and moon and the stars grew dark and the clouds returned after the rain.

It can be very easy when the energy and the vigour we used to be able to bring to all we did dissipates to assume that that’s it, to perhaps even resent it, to allow the passion to go. The narrative of our lives is never going to work out as we planned it, circumstance and brokenness will come into every life and we can lose sight that even in that there is one who is working all things together for good, who is making everything beautiful in his time, even if we can’t fathom it.

Or we can remember and cling to that narrative and sustain the passion and go off and seek the new adventure, remembering as Ellie points out in her Adventure book that it’s just as likely to be found in the ordinary.

As I wrap up this morning and wrap up on Ecclesiastes, I respectfully realise that some of you might be thinking all this stuff about the young doesn’t apply to you. But realise that the Teachers words are not only for the young.

 

They are not the only ones whom he calls on to remember and shape their lives around the knowledge that are created and sustained by a creator who is making everything beautiful in his time.

He, and I, reserve his last words to say ‘remember him, before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken, before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel is broken at the well, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

In short he’s saying Remember him while you can, whilst you still have life.

As long as we have life and breath given to us by God there is always an invitation to join him in making everything beautiful in his time. It may take very different forms – you may still have the energy and strength to go off and be physically active in service, but even if not, you have wisdom and knowledge to offer that spring chickens like me, sort of, can never have.

Throughout my ministry I can think of some very old people I have met who kept telling me they were done, yet every time we spoke they said really challenged me.

Dare I say it, you may not have the energy but you may have the money to fund someone who has.

And you have prayer, without which none of the rest is possible.

I’m not saying that’s all you have to offer and some time  I’ll return to that topic, but for now that is all the time I have.

 

But if we take nothing else from the last few weeks in Ecclesiastes remember this – We don’t have to accept that everything is meaningless, because we don’t have to listen to the voice that tells us that under the sun is all there is. There is an alternative narrative for our lives and the world because, going right back to the start, our God is not just Elohim, out there, transcendent, but Yahweh, intimately interested and involved in all we do, a Creator who has created us in love, and invites us to see that our lives do matter, do have meaning, that he can bring to all areas of our lives, but only as we listen to the whisper of eternity in the heart and mould our lives around joining him in making everything, bit by bit, beautiful in his time.

Posted in Ecclesiastes: Under the Sun

Ecclesiastes Part VIII: Bread on the Water

chumming

Reading: Ecclesiastes 11: 1-6

I opened with a story I have opted not to include here…

Our culture is rather result-driven. We want results – and quickly, now, yesterday if possible. If we’re not getting the results we think we should, we watch what someone who is getting those results is up to and try to do what they do. When one of our national sports teams is doing badly, we start looking at what successful countries are doing and start copying that.

Church life isn’t entirely different. We might say numbers don’t matter, might even believe it, but if I go to a conference, almost every speaker will be from big churches. There’ll be a lot of stuff about ‘how they did it.’ Again not all bad – there’s stuff we can learn from each other. But even if I get past all that, there’s still this niggling thing of does the stuff I do matter? Is it making any difference to anyone? Every now and then an anniversary of my times as a minister, or my time here will come around and I’ll admit a certain ‘achievement angst.’ What have I achieved? What have I done?

 

Such self-examination is not all bad. It is good to examine what we do, ask whether it’s right, whether we might approach things differently. The easiest thing in the world is to just drift through life and never ask those kinds of questions.

It’s fine – so long as we don’t miss the other side. The God element in what we do. It is God who is building his church. It is God who is bringing to completion his purposes in our lives and in our world, shaping us to what he has called us to be.

One of the wisest bits of advice I was ever given was to remind myself fairly regularly that there is a Redeemer – and it’s not me!

 

But you can also go too far down that route. It’s God’s job so sit back and enjoy the ride. An extreme version of that occurred when William Carey proposed the formation of BMS. When Carey raised the question of the duty of Christians to spread the Gospel around the world, someone is reported to have said ‘young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.’

Paul dealt with this tension of our dependence on God balanced against our role when he wrote to the Corinthians. He said ‘I planted the seed and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow.’  Ultimately it’s God’s responsibility but we have a role to play. The growth was God, but the seed needed to be planted and watered.

That ‘achievement angst’ along with all sort of other angst is not entirely out of place when we come to the collection of proverbs which the Teacher offers towards the end of Ecclesiastes. Our approach throughout the series has been to assume that the Teacher is asking the question ‘if I had everything this life had to offer me, could I make a success of a life lived out under the sun?’

There is some kind of results, performance or achievement agenda going on in the background.

I’ve suggested that one of the reasons he has come to this ‘everything is meaningless’ conclusion is because his ‘under the sun’ worldview removes God from the picture – God is out there, aloof. But that doesn’t mean that every time he speaks of God he gets it completely wrong. And this morning is one place we might hear him.

 

In my, admittedly limited, experience of proverbs in the Bible, catching a flow to what is being said isn’t always obvious. They often seem almost random ‘oh, and another thing’ type comments.

I’m going to deal with this morning’s passage a little out of order, but I want to suggest to you that what links these proverbs is the tension between our role and God’s role, our responsibility and God’s responsibility.

The underlying message is ‘take every opportunity to do good, and leave it to God to take care of the rest. You have no way of knowing what impact the good that you do will have.’

 

The key to understating this little series of proverbs, I believe, lies in verse 5. ‘As you do not know the path of the wind, or how life (or the spirit) enters the body being formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.’

 

We might not consciously think this way, but at some level everyone who takes a relationship with God seriously will face that tension between our responsibility and God’s responsibility. We can talk about God being eternal and sovereign and how, even if we don’t understand right now, God’s got it all in control.

But we don’t live like that – we get worried when life gets out of our control, and we try to make things happen. The underlying question is ‘is God the one making everything happen, or are we the ones who have to make it all happen?’

And the answer is ‘yes!’

Most of the other proverbs surrounding verse 5 do speak of our responsibility. They remind us that what we do matters, we have real responsibility for the difference we make.

But it’s not always predictable – it’s not always what we think.

Because verse 5 takes us to God’s ultimate responsibility.

The Teacher reminds us we don’t understand everything. It might be nice and convenient for us to be able to guess how things will work out and measure everything but God moves in mysterious ways. Grace is extremely mysterious. Some things just defy explanation and grace is certainly one of them. When we work alongside God, God brings a whole new dimension to what we do, and we may never know the full impact of anything we do.

But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t working through us, or that what we do doesn’t matter. In fact what we do is vital. For even if the result of our actions is unpredictable, we can behave in ways which make some outcomes more likely than others. If we can’t be certain of the impact of our actions we do live in a world with some degree of predictability. We get this in verse 3. If clouds are full of water, it’s going to rain. If a tree falls in a certain direction, guess where it’s going to land? We live in a world of cause and effect. What goes up must come down.

There was a man who went to his pastor and said ‘pastor, I’ve come across this family and we need to help them. They’re about to be made homeless. They’re one day late with the rent, they have no money to pay it cos he’s lost his job and their landlord’s about to boot them out. And they’ve got two little children and they haven’t got the money to feed them. The church has got to help them.

The pastor agrees and starts to think who he can ring to get help. Then he asks the guy ‘how do you know this family.’ And the guy says ‘I’m their landlord.’

And sometimes I think we act that way with God. We say we’d love for such and such a thing to happen, we can even pray for it to happen, but then we can then live and act in ways which means it probably won’t. We can pray for affects without ever really looking at the cause. I never buy a national lottery ticket, so I’m very unlikely to win.

I know someone who had a friend with a drink problem. This guy would pray regularly for his friend to be delivered from this problem. Then on Friday nights he would take this friend to the pub and buy them drinks.

 

Sometimes we pray for something and we’re asking God to create the effect without considering the cause – and we might even be part of the problem. There’s no point in praying ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ if we’re not prepared to have it happen here.

Yes there is that tension between God’s role and our role in our lives but they go together, and we can act in ways which make certain outcomes more likely than others.

So how does he suggest we do behave? Well he offers a series of proverbs. ‘cast your bread on the waters, after many days you will find it again.’ It’s a bit of a bizarre saying. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it – bread either dissolves or gets eaten, in which case do you want it back?

But variations on this proverb appear in other cultures which help explain what the Teacher means. The ancient Egyptians said ‘Do a good deed and throw it on the water; when it dries you will find it.’ The Arabians said  ‘Do good, throw your bread on the waters, and one day you will find it.’ He’s talking about doing the right thing.

 

I’ve never done any fishing, but I’m told there’s a practice called chumming. What it involves is that the fisherman throws some food on the water, and in time some fish will gobble it up. He returns to the same place, at the same time, next day and does the same thing. And the next, and the next. The fish become aware that it’s feeding time and come to that part of the water. To the uninitiated, it could seem like such a waste of time. But then it comes to the time to the job is so much easier, cos the fish are coming to the fisherman.

It’s a slightly dodgy metaphor – he’s tricking the fish, but it has something valuable to say. It’s saying if you want something to happen in the future, have the discipline to lay the groundwork now. You want a good outcome in the future, do the right thing now and leave God to take care of the rest

The next one builds on that. Give portions to 7 or 8, cos you don’t know what’s going to happen. We have a variation on that – remember who you’re passing on the way up, cos you’ll meet the same people on the way back down. If you want a friend, be one. He’s saying do the right thing and don’t be selective who you do the right thing to. Do good and do it widely.

Then in verse 4 when we speaks of watching the wind and looking at the clouds, he warns against waiting for the perfect time to do it. There is a balance to be struck here. It’s not an invitation to blunder in and do something irrespective of whether you’re equipped for it. Jesus told those who would follow him to count the cost. He spoke of how people building a tower should make certain they’ve got the funds to complete the job or of rulers making certain they’re equipped to win the war before they go in.

But there is the opposite danger – procrastination. When you know what the right thing to do is, you will always be able to find a reason why now is not the right time to do it. And if you listen to those voices, it’s like watching the wind and the clouds and the job never get done.

Then finally, in verse 6, whilst you can never tell what impact your actions will have, you make the outcome you desire that much more likely if you work hard. I’ve lost count of how many areas of life I’ve come across where the question is asked what’s the difference between the people who are good and the people who are great, and the answer is ‘they work harder.’

 

It’s the old joke ‘how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practise.

For all the other stuff that people might say about David Beckham the reason he was so good with a dead ball (and he was) was the hours he spent after training kicking one after another, day after day, week after week, so that when it came to the key moments he was ready. Someone wiser than me once said Talent can take you so far, hard work will make talent work for you. And then he said the great thing about hard work is that eventually someone will mistake it for talent.

I’ll leave it with a few lines from a book called Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver. A young lady called Hallie has left America and gone to Nicaragua to help the poor. She’s writing to her sister who has wondered why Hallie’s bothering. What good is she going to do when civil war is all around her. She writes ‘wars and elections are both too big and too small to matter in the long run. The daily work – that goes on, it adds up. It goes into the ground, into crops, into children’s bellies and their bright eyes. Good things don’t get lost.’

It can be easy to lose heart and think why am I bothering, when you keep trying to do the right thing, but it seems to get nowhere. Whatever we do we will never be able to really know what impact our actions might have. We will always live with the tension of our responsibility versus God’s responsibility. The way God takes and uses what we offer him will always be mysterious.

But that doesn’t mean give up or that our actions have no impact. And to that end the Teacher offers us some hints on how to proceed. Do good, do good to as many as possible, don’t wait for the perfect moment and don’t despise hard work and effort. And leave God to take care of the rest. And do it trusting that with God good things don’t get lost.

Posted in Ecclesiastes: Under the Sun

Ecclesiastes Part VII: Against All Odds

OddsAgainstMe

Reading: Ecclesiastes 9: 11-18

A young, rich socialite was invited to go on safari. She really wanted to go, but she had one small problem. She had a pet Chihuahua who went everywhere with her, quite often in her handbag, and she couldn’t bear to be parted from it. But she had money to burn, so Chihuahua came too.

A couple of days into the trip the inevitable happened. The socialite and her dog got separated. The Chihuahua found herself all alone in the jungle. This was not a good place to be alone. Everywhere the Chihuahua looked she saw bones of recently-eaten animals . She was stood next to one such carcass when suddenly, not too far away, she saw a leopard… coming her way.

This called for quick thinking. So the Chihuahua turned her back on the leopard and began to gnaw at one of the bones on the ground.

The leopard had never seen a Chihuahua before and didn’t know what it was, but the first word that popped into his mind was ‘starter.’ He slowly began to creep up on the Chihuahua, who continued to gnaw away at the bones.

But just as the leopard was about to pounce, suddenly the Chihuahua said loudly ‘boy, that leopard was delicious. I wonder if there are any more like that.’ The leopard stopped mid-stride, thought better of it and slinked back into the trees thinking ‘that evil little thing could have had me there.’

Nearby, watching everything that happened, was a monkey. Life wasn’t easy for the monkey. Other animals picked on him, so he was always looking for ways he could get big animals, like the leopard, on his side. This was too good a chance to miss. So he went and told the leopard everything. You can imagine how mad the leopard was. No little mutt was making a fool out of him. And, after monkey persuaded him not to eat the messenger, the leopard began to make his way back to where he’d first seen the Chihuahua.

What neither realised was that the Chihuahua had seen the monkey head off in the same direction as the leopard and reckoned there was a fair chance of being rumbled. So she wasn’t that surprised when she spotted the leopard sneaking around close by and approaching her direction.

As before, she turned her back and began to gnaw on some bones. Then, as the leopard came into earshot, she said loudly ‘what is keeping that monkey? It’s ages since I sent him out to fetch me another leopard!’

 

Much as I love dogs, it pains me to make a Chihuahua the hero of any story. But if there’s one type of story that is universally popular it’s the story where the little guy gets one over on the big guy, or the person who struggles against all kinds of adversity and succeeds against the odds.

We Brits love an underdog. But we’re not the only ones to be stirred by stories of those who may start from a bad place, and face opposition and trial, but stick to their ideals or hold onto that sense of destiny and have overcome it all. It’s the stuff of mythology down through the ages. Even today Hollywood is packed full of it. From The Blind Side to The Last Samurai, Robin Hood to Star Wars, Gladiator to My Left Foot.

Or those Susan Boyle moments when everyone’s expecting to have a good giggle at her expense: then she starts singing. Some reality shows are accused of exploiting what they call ‘back stories’ about the adversity the contestant is overcoming just to get us their side, which shows how powerful such stories can be.

One such story pops up, almost from nowhere, within Ecclesiastes.  We read it together this morning and that’s where I want us to focus our attentions. It stands out for several reasons.

We’ve spent quite a few weeks with the Teacher in Ecclesiastes. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the Teacher’s view, of life ‘under the sun’ has been cynical or pessimistic. Which makes it all the more noticeable when suddenly in the midst of all the pessimism, the Teacher says ‘I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom which greatly impressed me.’

You find yourself thinking ‘something impressed this guy?’

I sometimes feel our world is quite cynical, yet at the same time it’s easily impressed. A footballer has one good season and suddenly he’s worth silly money. A cricketer takes 5 wickets against the Aussies at Lords and there are calls for him to be knighted. Celebrities write autobiographies at 21, then have to update it next year to include a chapter on their ‘lifetime achievement’ award.

We come to take the views of a lot of pundits and experts with a pinch of salt. Yet we know from our own experience that when someone who’s not given to that kind of mentality says ‘that was good’ it catches our attention. That’s what we’ve got here, when they Teacher says ‘this greatly impressed me.’

And what was it? A story of someone who struggled with adversity and battled against insurmountable odds to achieve something quite remarkable. The story of a poor, but wise man, who lived in a small city, with only a few people. It’s under attack from a powerful king, but like the Chihuahua outsmarting the leopard, the poor man, by his wisdom, saves not just himself, but his whole city.

We don’t really know how this poor, but wise, man saved the city. We don’t know how he applied his wisdom, or what he did. Several attempts have been made to pinpoint a particular event about which the Teacher’s speaking, but the only consensus reached is that ‘we don’t know.’

But there’s another reason this passage stand out.

Throughout the series we’ve assumed the Teacher is asking the question ‘if I had everything the world had to offer, could I find some fulfilment, meaning or satisfaction in a life lived under the sun?

I’ve suggested that his Exhibit A is King Solomon – the ultimate man who had everything… in abundance.

Yet for 9 chapters the Teacher has examined him and remained unimpressed. Solomon has everything but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

What greatly impresses the Teacher is this story of the poor, but wise, man.

Yet, rather perversely, after his assessment of Solomon, it’s his almost sacrilegious assertion that ‘everything is meaningless’ which give Ecclesiastes it’s power, or enables it to speak to us, thousands of years later.

Let me explain what I mean. Please don’t take this as ‘Andrew does class warfare’ but it’s not really news when someone is born into a wealthy family, is educated at the best schools, goes to a top university, then climbs the ladder to reach the top. Social mobility might be desirable, but really that’s how we expect society to function. It’s called the Establishment because it’s established.

I’m not saying that such people don’t have to apply themselves or there’s nothing ordinary Joe or Josephine can learn from them, but it’s sometimes difficult to separate what they achieved on merit from what they achieved because of the advantages with which they grew up. That sense of ‘I can’t achieve what they did because I didn’t have the advantages they had’ always remains an option.

The same is not true when someone starts with nothing and comes from nowhere. That is news.

When Solomon is Exhibit A you face that problem. Solomon grew up in the shadow of King David; the shepherd boy who was ignored and forgotten when all the other brothers were invited to the sacrifice. David started at the very bottom of his own house, before working his way to the top of the country.

Solomon more or less had it handed to him on a plate. His reign was the Golden era for Israel. He was blessed with immense wisdom and skill, but from the start things were stacked in his favour. Historians tell us his reign was peaceful because the superpowers of the region were too weak at that time to be a threat. Even the achievement with which Solomon is most identified, the temple, was David’s idea. Although David never built it, a fair bit of the groundwork was completed before he died.

I know it’s easy to revise and warp history, and I know God worked through all of that, but it becomes hard to distinguish between what Solomon achieved, for want of a better term, on his own merit, and how much was achieved because everything was stacked in his favour.

What allows Ecclesiastes to speak to the rest of us, who don’t have it handed to them like Solomon, is its message that if you think the only way to a satisfied, fulfilled meaningful life is to have everything stacked in your favour, you’re wrong. Ecclesiastes says take it from someone who had it all, who tried it all and found it all just meaningless.

 

Besides, you can have it all and lose the lot. In verses 11 and 12, he warns that even those who are endowed with great advantage can be thwarted by circumstance. We do what we can, but the only real control we have is self-control. The athlete succumbs to injury, a freak incident costs a top commander a battle, circumstances turn bad on us.

Now bear in mind, at no point does the Teacher or the Bible say that adversity is good in and of itself. What he does say is that the pathway to meaning and fulfilment in life is not an absence of adversity, of having everything in your favour, but in confronting and overcoming adversity when it arises.

Then the Teacher witnesses something that takes his breath away. He can’t get his head around it, because so far he has suggested at several points that in life lived under the sun the best you can hope for is to accept your lot, put up and shut up.

He encounters someone who faced a situation which seemed insurmountable. But this person seems to have planted within him this sense that he was made for more than this, a sense of calling to do something about it.

I imagine if you’d asked anyone around him they’d have laughed at the idea that he could make a difference. This is a powerful king attacking a small town with just a few people. This guy’s not even a big fish in a small pond. More like a tadpole in a puddle.

It might even have sounded like madness to him. I mean, who is he? What could he do?

Yet despite all the adversity and in the face of the odds, he’s empowered by God to do something way beyond his wildest imaginings.

And the city winds up being saved, because of this one man.

This is what blows the Teacher away. Having spent so long examining someone who had everything, yet reaching the conclusion that everything was meaningless, he discovers someone who had nothing and yet somehow managed to take what God had planted within him and make his life count.

Yet at the same time the Teacher is scandalised.

For having done that no-one remembers him.

They forget all about him, his wisdom and what he achieved and return to how they were.

For the Teacher, this is the final insult: just another example of the words with which he started ‘there is no remembrance of people of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.’

Yet the Teacher still cannot shake this sense that he has stumbled on something which matters. Finally something has left him ‘greatly impressed.’ And the reason for this I believe is much the same reason we find ourselves moved or stirred by stories of the one person who makes a difference, of people who face adversity yet refuse to give up.

Is it because it disturbs something within us which says our lives matter, that we were created in love by God, to relate to God and we were created with intention and purpose?

We matter. We count. Our lives can and were intended to make a difference.

But another reason why it makes such an impact is because it is confronting a worldview into which we can be sucked, which tells us that what we can experience with our five senses is all there is. It runs so contrary to the narrative of scripture that we were made for more than this. That God has a plan and a purpose for us and our world and has committed himself to taking us there.

The minute we seek to build our lives around that narrative, open ourselves to God and allow him to take us towards what he made us to be, I guarantee that two things will happen.

One, like the experience of the poor, but wise man we will face adversity

and two, in the face of that adversity we will feel insignificant.

Virtually everyone I know who commits themselves to anything, and certainly almost everyone who commits themselves to that kind of relationship with God of feeling inadequate. They have that sense of insignificance or of at times feeling that they are faking it and one of these days, perhaps at the next challenge, they’ll be found out.

Mother Theresa once said ‘I might know that God will not give me anything I cannot handle, but sometimes I wish he wouldn’t trust me quite so much.’

Living in relationship to God won’t mean we won’t face adversity, but what makes the difference is not the level of adversity, but what is going on inside of us, of our commitment to the hope that God has placed within us.

All God asks is that we take care of that, and allow him to take care of the rest.

That’s a narrative which dominates the whole Bible. The grand story might be God taking the world on a journey from creation to new creation but we could also sum up the story as death came through one man and through one man we’re all being brought to life.

Scripture’s overarching story is made up almost entirely of stories of the significance of the one person, or one group of people to God. And almost none of them are those who have life stacked in their favour.

For every David, or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who come across so confident, most are only too aware of their own insignificance and that they’re not up to the job. From the aging childless Abraham, through Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, Jeremiah.

God chooses Israel when they’re slaves. It’s a bunch of oppressed, colonised, weakened people that Jesus calls ‘the salt of the earth and the light of the world.’

In Acts we read that the disciples are unschooled, not the cream of the crop, but Jesus says to them ‘you didn’t choose me, I chose you and have appointed you to go and bear fruit.; Paul tell the Corinthians that not many of them were smart, wealthy, powerful or influential, but like the poor, but wise man, who saved the city by his wisdom, God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and the weak of the world to shame the strong.

I could go on. It’s the narrative of so much of the Bible. However insignificant we feel, we matter. We count. You were created with intention and with a purpose by a God who has committed himself to us. In the death and resurrection of Jesus he’s conquered on our behalf everything that stands in the way of him fulfilling that purpose in each one of us.

That purpose might be public and massive, but equally it might not be noticed. Like the man in Ecclesiastes, we might even be forgotten. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. This is not the final court, and it is precious to God.

What is asked of us is to do what we can, have courage to do right, trusting in the God who has committed himself to us. To allow him to strengthen us in the face of adversity and accept that what we do might go unnoticed. If you do that, you’ll have lived the life you were called to live and that, at the last will be what matters when you hear the words ‘well done, good and faithful servant.’

Those stories of conquering adversity and of the weak overcoming the strong speak to our spirits because somehow or other they are written into the very nature of the universe.

It’s the way that God has chosen to work in the world. If we want proof, we need look no further than his coming to us in Jesus. For God in Christ, in one man, and one who seemed to have nothing, was saving not just a city, but the whole world.

 

It is outlined beautifully in a play called ‘The Long Silence.’ The play is set at the end of time; billions stand before God’s throne. Most shrank back in fear of judgment, but some groups come not with shame, but with anger. ‘Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?’ snapped a young woman. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. ‘We endured terror…  beatings… torture… death!’ Another young man lowers his collar. ‘What about this?’ he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. ‘Lynched for no crime… but being black!’ A pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes murmurs ‘Why should I suffer? it wasn’t my fault.’

There were hundreds of these groups. Each complained about the evil and suffering God permitted in his world. Whereas God lived in heaven where there was no weeping, fear, hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world?

Each group picked a leader, who had suffered the most. A Jew, a young black man, a woman from Hiroshima, a deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. Before the throne of God they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured.

He should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man! Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.

‘At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die in front of huge crowd of witnesses so that there can be no doubt that he died.’ As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. But when they had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No-one uttered another word. No-one moved. For all knew that God had served his sentence.

Posted in Ecclesiastes: Under the Sun

Ecclesiastes Part VI: Let Your Words Be Few

Going.Through.MotionsReading: Ecclesiastes 5: 1-7

There’s always a risk with putting stuff on the internet. You never know who is going to access it. In particular this week, I’m hoping one of my tutors is not checking out the sermon section of our website, or my blog…

At college I studied Church History. Our tutor was knowledgeable and Godly. But he was a strict essay-marker. He was a serious historian and wanted us to be the same. When we were writing history essays so he wanted us to write like historians, which seems reasonable.

But most of us weren’t.

Including me.

I was glad my first essay didn’t count towards my final result because I scored a good 15-20% lower than my average in other courses.

The problem was I was quoting what historians call secondary rather than primary sources. A primary source would be a figure from church history – say, Martin Luther. A secondary source would be someone who wrote about Martin Luther.

Rather than talking about what Martin Luther said, I was commenting on whmore recent historians were saying Martin Luther had said. See what I mean?

Now I had a dilemma. I wanted better marks. But I had neither the time nor the inclination to go through loads of really old books. I needed a plan.

I wasn’t dishonest, I cited everything properly in my bibliography, but the history books I was reading contained quotes from Martin Luther. I worked out if I just used those quotes, rather than the quoting the more modern historians, I could create the impression I was using the primary sources.

It’d read like a history essay. I could write a more or less identical essay and regain the 15-20%, without any extra work.

And it worked!

What can I say, there’s a lot to be said for public confession.

I won’t insult the tutor’s intelligence by claiming I fooled him into thinking I’d dug out 400 year old books. But do you see what I had done?

I’d learned to perform in a way which got the tutor on my side. I didn’t have to do any extra work, or any more research. I just put the right words in place to get the result I wanted.

It’s possible to behave that way with God. To do just enough to keep God happy, or at least not make him unhappy. But we can also not want to let it get in the way of our lives.

That’s not a new idea. It’s there in the New Testament. When Paul, one of Jesus’ early followers wrote to Christians in Rome, one of the ideas he challenged was that just because God in his grace forgave their sins, that wasn’t an excuse to keep doing the same things over and over. Faith wasn’t a get out of jail free card.

Later he wrote to his young apprentice Timothy about people who, he said would have a form of godliness but deny its power. There was probably a whole range of attitudes covered by that phrase, but amongst them would be this idea of having a faith that’s not really ‘access all areas.’ That doesn’t shape who we are or what we do. What goes on in here, or on other occasions when we’re together, or in the time we spend, if any, throughout the rest of week, reading the Bible, praying or developing our understanding of God, is kept separate from the rest of our lives.

That kind of thinking is even older than Paul. It’s there in the Old Testament prophets. But it was also one of the concerns of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes.

We’ve been following his journey for several weeks now. We’ve followed his quest to discover that if he had all this world had to offer, and the knowhow to work it, could he make a good, fulfilled, meaningful life.

He’s mentioned God several times so far, but this is the first time he speaks at any length about faith, religion or God.

We’ve had to question and challenge so much of his thinking thus far. So it’d probably make more comfortable reading if, when the Teacher did turn to the subject of God, he trod the path of many Christian testimonies – those stories in which people tried this and that, got into all sorts of scrapes and trouble, but it all just left them empty, then they got Jesus and everything changed.

Now, I praise God that so many of those stories are true. The Gospel and Resurrection power of Jesus Christ still does have power to transform lives. If I didn’t believe that then it really would be meaningless to seek to minister amongst you or any church.

But we’re probably well enough acquainted with the Teacher by now to guess that’s not where we’re going. In fact beyond saying ‘be careful’ or ‘fear God’ he offers very little in the way of how to relate to God.

Instead, when he first turns to the subject of faith, religion or God, what he really offers is a warning. He says don’t reckon that the mere addition of God to the mix of an otherwise meaningless life is going to make all the rest make sense.

You see, we can allow God into our lives in such a way that we still have a meaningless spiritual existence. And the Teacher discusses two broad traps people fall into when it comes to relating to God, which render that relationship meaningless.

They’re not unrelated, there is some crossover between them but I’ve called them the performance and the manipulation approaches.

Incidentally, today’s reading suggests the Teacher wasn’t Baptist. Baptists have a reputation for hogging the back row, or filling up from the back. So I doubt they would ever begin by saying ‘Go near to listen…’ (Front couple of rows feeling quite smug now).

Equally he wasn’t a Baptist minister, else he’d never have encouraged anyone to ‘let their words be few!’

 

To be fair to our back row, the language of drawing near to listen has more to do with attentiveness to what’s going on than to do with physical location within a worship space. It’s about being drawn into what’s going on.

Jools will tell you that when I’m watching the rugby, as Ireland edge closer to the try line, I’m often edge closer and closer to the telly. I’m being drawn in. Needless to say the bit of carpet right in front of our telly wasn’t overly worn in the last few weeks!

Or we use language like ‘lean in’ because that is the kind of posture people adopt when they’re being drawn into a story.

When the Old Testament speaks of listening it’s not just about the physical act of hearing. It’s about absorbing it, challenging or testing it, saying God what is it you are trying to say to me through the songs, prayers, readings, sermon, silence, this morning? How should this shape the way I view the world or act in the rest of life?

 

Do we come with any expectation that it will?

Or is a good service one of which we can say ‘I enjoyed that’ like any form of entertainment?

Such ‘going near to listen’ is contrasted to offering the sacrifice of fools who don’t know they do wrong, can’t help doing wrong. You see worship can become all about performance in the negative sense of the term. Like my church history essays we can learn a way to behave, or right phrases to use without ever truly engaging with the worship, or with God, or allowing it to affect our lives.

A lot of life is performance. We predict what others want and behave accordingly. It is not a bad thing. It’s how much of civilised society functions. In fact, we have a word which describes those circumstances in which we can drop the persona, be ourselves and live in authentic relationship.

Intimacy.

We’ll return to this in a few minutes, because intimacy is the key to a meaningful relationship with God.

But performance can characterise the way we relate to God. It’s can be about trying to get God off our back or on our side. To do this we can learn to say and do the right things, try to create the right impression, but we’re just going through the motions. Our bodies are physically present but we’re not really there.

Even preaching can be to an extent about performance. I try not to bore you. I put thought into what I say, how I phrase, illustrate and vocalise it. I don’t feel that guilty about that. Preaching’s part of my worship to God and I want God to have the best I can give. Bad, unprepared presentation can be a hindrance to God communicating with us. But if entertaining you or impressing someone becomes the most important thing to me, I’ve lost the plot.

It can characterise all forms of worship. Free churches can look down our noses at other churches with prayer books and so on and complain about learning things off by rote, going through the motions.

But we can all come to church without any expectation that God is going to meet with us in a meaningful way. Instead our mind is on lunch, on problems we need to sort out, whether Wales are beating South Africa…

…and the Teacher says be careful – that is the sacrifice of the fool, going through the motions but not truly engaging in it. There’s lot of words, but our hearts are from what we’re saying. We’re far from God and what he wants for us and from us.

It’s not the style of worship, the knowledge of what comes next or the extent to which prayer are written down that makes worship meaningful. That’s more to do with personality.

Truly meaningful worship lies in the heart of the worshipper, their openness to God our willingness to be challenged or changed.

When it comes to relating to God, if we fall into the ‘performance trap’ we might fool each other, maybe even have a good time, but we won’t fool God and our relationship with him will be meaningless.

 

But the Teacher alludes to another, related dimension to this. I’ve called it the manipulation trap. Much of our reading dealt with vows and warns about not being quick with our mouths or hasty with our hearts. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.

Oddly, given what I have said about the Teacher’s view of God over the last few weeks, when he talks of God in heaven, he’s not saying that God is absent from earth. It’s emphasising God’s greatness over us, beyond our understanding, our heart, mind, feelings, expectations.

It’s a warning to approach God with caution and respect, to know whom you’re dealing with. That’s not all bad. Some worship can be really overfamiliar with God, losing any sense of reverence.

It’s been said that Christians don’t tell lies: they sing them. I mean, consider the words we sing. Even this morning. Do I really want Jesus to be my centre, my hope, my song, my light, my guide? I challenge you read the words to Take My Life, and Let it Be or O Jesus I Have Promised and ask yourself what are we actually saying here.

We don’t use necessarily use the same kind of language, but vows were an big part of the worship life of the ancient world. It covered promises to God as part of a blessing or spontaneous gratitude or promises of allegiance. They were made voluntarily. But they contained a danger. That danger was making a relationship with God transactional or manipulative: bribery. God I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine. I’ll do this for you, you do this for me.

This is perhaps most apparent in times of trouble or distress. The Teacher says ‘A dream comes when there are many cares and many words mark the speech of a fool.’

When trouble comes we dream up things we can do for God, to persuade him to help us out. God if you just do this for me, I promise I’ll… Or ‘God, if you don’t do x, I’m off.’

It needn’t be so blatant:  it can quite subtle. It might seem to make sense or be shrouded in Biblical principles. When people say to me ‘I really need something to happen so can you pray really hard.’

Or when preachers claim that whatever you give to God, God will give you back x times more.

Do I believe that prayer is effective and that somehow God uses our prayers to brings about a difference in our lives and in our world? Absolutely.

Do I believe that God takes delight in loving, sacrificial giving and will be no man’s debtor? Yes, I do.

What I don’t believe is that God has the heavenly equivalent of those fundraising thermometers we sometimes see outside churches, measuring the amount and intensity of prayer and thinking ‘I can’t answer that prayer – they’ve not hit the target.’

Nor do I think there’s archangel with a ledger book saying ‘that was a £2 coin Andrew put in the charity tin, we owe him a tenner.’

 

What I’m talking about here is motive.

Prayer and giving are two wonderful Godly things, but they can’t be reduced to something mechanistic. God is in heaven, we are on earth. God is beyond our understanding and the ways in which he moves through every aspect our lives are mysterious.

If we slip into a transactional view of God, and it becomes about trying to manipulate God to get the desired result, it’s actually insulting God’s intelligence.

Do we not think he’ll see through it?

But above all we head towards the meaninglessness of which the Teacher speaks.

 

I had some hilarious examples from the ancient world, but they can wait for another day. I’ll settle for one in the Bible. I Kings 18, Elijah has a contest with the prophets of Baal. From morning to noon the prophets of Baal call out ‘Baal, answer us.’ When there’s no response they start dancing round their altar. Elijah starts taking the mickey so they shout louder and louder and begin to harm themselves.

What’s going on there? It’s Baal hasn’t answered so we must not have pushed the right button.

Contrast that to Elijah. He builds his altar then pours 12 barrels of water over it. I’ve always thought that but feels like he’s just showing off and after 3 years of drought probably breached a hosepipe ban.

Then he steps forward to pray “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

In English, around 60 words, depending on which Bible you use. He needed no more. He could let his words be few, just like the Teacher said.

But as I draw things to a close, with a subtle difference.

For yes, the Teacher warned that if we try to fool God with performance, or manipulate him with some kind of business arrangement we head for meaningless, he doesn’t really speak much of intimacy. When he called on them to let their words be few, it was a warning about false promises. Say nothing, then you won’t make God mad.

But Jesus said something quite similar to the Teacher. ‘When you pray, don’t babble like pagans, who think they’ll be heard because of their many words. Don’t be like them for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. So when you pray say ‘Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name…’

Jesus offered even fewer words than Elijah prayed on Carmel. Don’t babble like pagans… let your words be few.

Whilst Jesus too acknowledges that distinction between God in heaven and us on earth, and maintained the Teachers sense of need for reverence, his invitation is more akin to the attitude of Elijah, based on the knowledge that the one who is in heaven is not out there, aloof, waiting to get mad. This God is one who invites us to relate to him intimately as a loving Father to a child. As one who knows what we need before we ask.

Yes, he is sovereign and not open to manipulation or bribery, but he knows us completely and loves us intimately.

And the Lord’s Prayer unpacks just how he can be trusted in all areas of life.

True faith is not about the promises we make to God, but about the promises he has made to us. And he’s a God for whom performance is not only unnecessary but futile. He can see through it anyway.

 

He invites us to join him in an intimate relationship, which was after all what he made us for. The extent to which he has prepared to go to restore that is laid bare on the cross where his arms are extended in welcome to any who’ll accept the invitation to drop the performance and come as we are.

He invites us to join him on the journey he has marked out for us, to know intimacy. To grow. To be challenged and transformed. But if that is to happen we need to be honest about where we are and take those first meaning-filled steps toward where he wants us to be.

But we can trust him, not having to cajole or coerce, not desperately making promises, trying to get him onside. He can be trusted.

And because of that we can approach him in prayer and let our words be few.

Posted in Ecclesiastes: Under the Sun

Ecclesiastes V: Stand By Me

isolate

Reading: Ecclesiastes 4: 4-12

Last weekend, the Roman Catholic church formally recognised the 19th century cleric and scholar John Henry Newman as a saint. Whilst in our tradition we may not have the same understanding of what a ‘saint’ is, the story did catch my attention. Partly because of an article in the Wall Street journal, which called him a Saint for the Age of Loneliness. They said it was his writings on friendship which still struck a chord in our age. In one place he wrote,

No-one, man nor woman, can stand alone; we are no so constituted by nature.

It’s not how we are made.

 

Loneliness is one of the big challenges of our age. A quick google search of new stories on the subject offered me numerous stories just in the last few weeks. Loneliness is often associated with the elderly. Esther Rantzen set up a charity called Silver Line to offer someone for those suffering loneliness to talk to. One of the reasons why the proposal to scrap free TV licences for the over 75s, was that the television was sometimes their only company.

 

However it is not only the elderly who are prone to loneliness. A recent survey of millennials, that’s those born between 1981 and 1996 found that over 1/3 of them either ‘always’ or ‘often’ felt lonely. For all the ways of communicating we have available to us 1/could not name a single friend.

 

Mother Theresa once claimed that loneliness was the single biggest problem facing Western society. Comparing our society to life in Calcutta, she said ‘here, you have a different type of poverty. Your biggest disease is not leprosy or cancer. It is the feeling of being uncared for, unwanted – of being deserted and alone.’

Most of us, I imagine, however ‘got it together’ we seem, at some stage experience feeling utterly alone. It needn’t be when we are physically by ourselves. There’s more that a hint of truth in the cliché that people can feel loneliest when they are in a crowd. But we do experience it.

It can even affect those who on the surface seem so glamorous, successful, in demand.

Albert Einstein, one of the cleverest and most respected men of his era, once said ‘it is strange to be known so universally – yet to be so lonely.’

One writer on the life of Sigmund Freud notes that for all he achieved in the field of psychiatry, Freud died friendless, bitter and disillusioned, having cut himself off from every one of his followers.

 

It has been said that no man is an island, but sadly it is possible, whether consciously or unconsciously, to live in such a way that being alone becomes the product of your choices.

And it’s not a new feeling. We see the same concerns in the almost 3000 year old words of the Teacher in our passage in Ecclesiastes this morning. From here on, we’ll skip through the book much more quickly than we have up to now. Much of the middle section of the book deals, in a little more depth, with subjects we’ve covered already.

Throughout the series so far, I have suggested that one way of reading Ecclesiastes, is to assume that the Teacher is asking ‘if I had everything this world has to offer, could I make a success of my life?’ In these last few weeks we have seen his quest bring him to a series of dead ends.

But this morning’s, the Teacher changes tack slightly. And it’s one of the most potent and profound parts of the whole book. Here he describes not so much what he tried to achieve, but how he went about it or the lengths to which he was prepared to go.

Given the rather bleak outlook of life that the Teacher has presented thus far, it would have been no surprise to find him believing that the best way forward was trust no-one – everyone for themselves, look after number one. But actually it takes him to a very different place. Instead this morning’s we find 3 short, punchy snippets. What links them together is the need for community, relationship, companionship.

It’s as if he says ‘if your forget everything else I’ve told you, living your life like this is one sure fire way of ensuring you do come to the point where you say ‘it’s all just meaningless.’

And what is he talking about?

It’s about living in a way that you cut yourself off from those around you. That you allow your world contract until you get to the point where you’ve left yourself utterly alone. If you reach that point, he says, whatever you try to achieve in life, you’ll wind up empty. Fail here, and you just fail.

Now, before I go any further, I want to highlight what I’m not talking about. This is not primarily about people who are single, widowed, or divorced.

Bear in mind that throughout Ecclesiastes the Teacher’s Exhibit A has been none other than Solomon – a man with a combined total of 1000 wives and concubines.

It’s not even so much about liking your own company. Some of us are better at being along than others.

What’s being talked about here can affect those who are constantly surrounded by people. Solomon was. I Kings tells us that other rulers came from all over the place to catch a glimpse of his wisdom. Word got out that Solomon was successful and others wanted to see how he did it.

But even that is a dangerous place to be. I don’t know if you’ve ever witnessed somebody being taken over by drink or drugs, to the extent that they alienate everyone around them. It’s tragic enough. But there are other, more subtle thing, which can alienate us is not dissimilar ways. Being important to people, or having that sense of being needed or being indispensible can become as much a drug as anything else. That’s largely how Freud ended up where he did.

What’s going on here is a picture of someone’s values which have got bent out of shape. To borrow from chapter 1, he’s reached a point where it feels like what is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted. And the Teacher says it doesn’t matter how noble you feel what you are trying to achieve is, if you lose sight of what, or more importantly, who, is really important, you’re embarking on a really destructive path.

At some point you have to make the decision for people.

To my mind it’s almost alarming that however old these words that were read to us are, that tragic picture of the workaholic cutting himself off from truly meaningful relationships, is so contemporary. It could form the synopsis of any number of Hollywood movies. It conjures up images of the broken promises and the empty seat at the child’s nativity play. Or the wife, alone at the dinner table, toying with the food on her plate, whilst the husband’s special dinner dries out in the oven. It’s a car crash waiting to happen, and you’re waiting for the key moment when disaster strikes and they realise that what is truly important are the people who love them and have given themselves to them. For their sake it better be before it’s too late.

 

It reminds me of my favourite joke of all time. It’s a Star Wars joke. Darth Vader is chatting to Obi Wan Kenobi and he says ‘I know what Skywalker is getting for Christmas.’ Obi Wan Kenobi says ‘oh, how do you know that?’ and Vader replies ‘I have felt his presents.’ It is not that uncommon for people to act like presents, with a ts at the end can ever make up for presence with a ce.

So much of what we struggle to achieve in life can pull us away from people. And it’s subtle because some of it is necessary  – we do have to work, and some of it on the surface is good, noble even. And so often it is the people closest to us, the people we say love the most, the people for whom we say we do it, who suffer.

I don’t have to look further than my own house to find evidence of this. However good or rubbish a pastor you think I am, I guarantee you of one thing. There are times when the person in this room who has the worst pastor is Jools. It can be so subtle and insidious cos, well, it’s God’s work, innit? He says as if anyone else’s job wasn’t.

But there was one occasion when this struck me particularly forcefully. A few years ago now, the details are unimportant, but it suddenly dawned on me that if anyone else had just had the conversation I’d just shared with Julie, it would not have ended before I said ‘let’s just pray about that.’

But amazingly I hadn’t with Julie. That’s not saying we never pray together – it was just a failure then. I’d love to say I’d learnt my lesson, but I need to learn and re-learn it every day.

 

It’s so easy to lose sight of those who are really important, because those who love you tolerate so much more. Fail to turn up or behave appropriately at work and they’ll sack you. But a friend or a lover or a child is someone who has invested so much faith in you and will give you so much more slack, give you so much more time, in the hope that one day you will live up to the faith they placed in you. But keep heading down the path described by the Teacher, it’ll wear out. Yet it’s such an easy trap.

What is it within us that makes us think that there is anything more important than the people who give themselves to us?

 

I think in part it’s because even in churches we’ve bought into a cultural set of lies. Independence is something that is highly prized in our world. It’s good to appear strong, got it together. For so many it’s almost a defect to appear need something, or anyone.

But perhaps it’s rooted in something deeper, about he views other people. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard someone say ‘the only person you can rely on is yourself.’ I’ve told you the story before of the man who takes his son into the woods, gets him to climb up onto a big rock, then tells him to jump off and the father promises to catch him. But as the boy flies through the air, dad steps out of the way and he hits the ground with a crash. And as he scrambles up, battered and bruised the father says ‘let that be a lesson to you, trust no-one.’

And the journey of the guy in verses 7-8 to the place where he winds up alienated from everyone started in verse 4 – where he comes to believe that all toil and all achievement is the product of one person’s envy of another. It’s a worldview were everybody’s got a price, everyone is simply out for themselves to get what they can, everyone is driven by this need not to be the best they can be but to be better than everyone else. That they have a craving to outshine others or certainly not to be outshone. If that is the worldview you embrace you will find yourself trusting no-one.

 

I came across an example of this a number of years ago, in a study about executives in major Japanese corporations. The study asked why these executives spent so many hours at the office. What made them so devoted to their jobs?

Do you know what they discovered?

For large amounts of the time they weren’t actually engaged in any work. It’s just no-one wanted to be seen to be the first to go home. They didn’t want to go home before the other managers at their level and certainly not before their junior staff.

Going home first says you’re dispensable.

In a fairly subtle way our society is built on the premise that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy or another. Mine is a generation which has really unquestionably embraced the notion that competition of itself is always a good thing, as is the need to introduce competition to the market. But even something as noble as the search for a cure for HIV or AIDS can ultimately be presented as a scramble for wealth, power or status.

I remember a couple of my more advanced Economics classes at St Andrews and in particular one course where a huge chunk being taken up with one students insistence that there was no such thing as altruism, that no-one does good for good’s sake, that it might not be money but there is always something in it for them.

I remember another course in which we were taught about conditions under which rational people will co-operate with others for the common good and when they won’t. Then we were shown this experiment which had been conducted to see if people did indeed behave the way economics suggested.

Do you know what they discovered? That the people who were most likely to behave in that way were the people who had been taught the theory.

And I remember the lecturer saying ‘The question you should be asking yourself right now is this? What is Economics turning me into?’

If you imbibe that worldview you are so much more likely to end up behaving that way. The people in life I have found to be most trustworthy are mostly people who trust others, often despite all the evidence to the contrary. If you start from the Teacher’s position in verse 4, and embrace the notion that everyone is out from themselves, if you decide that no-one is to be trusted, be warned, you’re heading down a road that leads to the place of aloneness that the Teacher describes.

If you choose to inhabit a dog eat dog world, I hope you like the taste of dog.

The problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.

As we’ve gone through the rest of the series, we’ve seen how when the Teacher has tried to make his way back to the beginning, he’s never quite made all the way back to the beginning. He’s got stuck in the story of Genesis 3&4 without ever making it all the way back to the way things were meant to be. But this morning it’s as if, through bitter experience he’s been given a sneak preview behind that curtain, to the first thing in creation that God described as ‘not good’ – that man should be alone.

It’s here he offers the alternative to aloneness. In some ways the benefits he suggests are almost self-evident, utilitarian even. As someone in a role which demands so much time on my own it never ceases to amaze me how really when I chat thru stuff with others I make better decisions.

The other benefits are rooted in catastrophe and threat. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you achieve, life will throw stuff at you. Life comes as a mix of good and bad and we can’t control the circumstances we find ourselves in. But it’s not so much how many times you fall, but how many people you have with you with pull you back up. In error and mishap, in adversity and hostility, when the night comes and the land is dark and the moon is the only light we see or when the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall or the mountains crumble to the sea, we are so much more likely to withstand if we have not chosen to journey alone.

 

That we should never walk alone, that there should be someone standing by us, is what Jesus came into this world to bring about. Not just in terms of a relationship with God, but to bring us into relationship with each other.

We live in a very individualistic world and so is much of our spirituality. Growing up I used to hear a lot about knowing Jesus as my own and personal Saviour. We emphasise things like quiet times, but you know Jesus spent for more time and energy talking about journeying with others. Almost every miracles in some sense was about restoring people to community.

 

Ours is a God who knows aloneness, alienation and abandonment because along with all the other consequences of sin which he took on himself on the cross he entered into that sense of isolation that forced him to cry My God My God why have you forsaken me.

And as Paul would later say on the cross he has destroyed the barriers and dividing walls of hostility we erect and through the cross he has put that hostility to death, so that in relationship with him there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, from we are all brought together and held together in Christ.

Yet the Teacher would not have to spell out the benefits of giving ourselves to relationship if they came without cost. People can be hard work, relationships require attention, love is an act of will as often as it is a feeling of the heart. It requires thinking of someone else, sacrificing your independence, sometimes adjusting to their pace, and doing it all knowing with the ever-present possibility they will let you down. And trust me, they will, whomever you give yourself to. And sometimes you’ll let them down.

 

But this morning, and I’ve not said this much in the series, we do well to heed the words of the Teacher and consider the alternative.

That self-giving love I’ve just described is precisely the love with which Jesus loves us. Knowing us for all we are, even those bits that we hope no-one else knows about, he says things like I’ve redeemed you, I’ve called you by name. You are mine – the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

To choose to live this way is costly, because love makes us vulnerable. We can choose the alternative, allowing our own world to fold in around us. Expect nothing and avoid disappointment. You might shield yourself from rejection or loss, but we’ll also never know true love. Or we can accept that we need each other, grasp the importance of the love of and loving those whom God has placed in our lives. And however little we achieve in life, if we wind up in a loving community of those we love and who love us, to whom we have given ourselves and who have given themselves to us, we will die having lived a life with real meaning.

Love

Posted in Ecclesiastes: Under the Sun

Ecclesiastes IV: Dust on the Soles, Eternity in the Heart

immortal

Reading: Ecclesiastes 3:1-14, 3:18 – 4:3

I had one of those moments a few weeks ago. Jools and I were on holiday in Austria. Both of us would agree it was probably one of the best holidays we’ve had. 10 days walking in hills, surrounded by the most fantastic scenery, in the freshest of air…

It was the last day of the holiday and we were following yet another mountain path. And suddenly this feeling came over me.

It was a real contentment, the like of which I hadn’t felt in a long, long time.

It was fleeting and I knew that. Much as I would have liked it to stay, I knew it couldn’t last.

It’s pointless trying to clinging onto it, wishing it could, because then I would be spoiling the moment, which is a rather foolish thing to do. And yes, I have enough photos to bore you for a month, but however good they are, they never quite catch it. Best just to appreciate it. This moment is a gift. Enjoy it for what it is…

We’ve spent a few weeks with the Teacher in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. We’ve been following his quest to see if he had everything the world had to offer, could he make a success of a life lived ‘under the sun.’

I don’t know how familiar you were with the book of Ecclesiastes before I started preaching the series. I’d be surprised if that many of you had read it that much before. But, especially if you’re over a certain age, you may have been familiar with part of this morning’s reading, even if you didn’t know where the words came from. Turn, Turn, Turn was song was written by Pete Seeger in the late 50s, but is probably most famous from The Byrds version in the 60s.

 

Up until now, whatever he has turned his attention to, the Teacher seems to have come to the conclusion that it’s all just meaningless, useless, to use the old King James language vanity.

A more literal meaning of the word is ‘vapour.’ Fleeting. Here one moment, gone before you can fully grasp it.

At first glance, at the start of chapter 3, he appears to change his mind. He starts talks talking about how there is a season for everything, and a time for every purpose. He seems to be thinking about things having a purpose, that things aren’t just totally meaningless. They’re going somewhere.

 

A bit later, it’s slightly obscured in our church Good News Bibles, but some other translations have verse 11 as he [that’s God] has made everything beautiful in its time.  Life has its mix of good and bad, positives and negatives, dark and light, but everything is being made beautiful in its time.

But any sense that this is what he means is as fleeting as that sense of contentment on a mountain. Dig deeper and you realise that’s not what’s going on.

Look what he says…

What do we have to gain from all our work? I know the heavy burdens that God has laid on us. He has set the right time for everything. He has given us a desire to know the future, but never gives us the satisfaction of fully understanding what he does.

Within the teacher there is this sense, and it might feel quite familiar to some of us, where he’s thinking God might be up to something here, but if he is, I wish he’d let me in on the secret, cos I haven’t a clue what to make of it all.

 

The Teacher’s frustration comes from a good place. Last week I talked about work, and how, even when our work might not be obviously ‘spiritual,’ it can still be can be a way in which we express our meaning and purpose, working with God to make out world a bit better, a bit more like God intended it to be.

It’s like the Teacher wants to do that, to see his work like that, but things never work out the way he expects. Maybe he feels like he keeps trying to solve one problem and creating another.

But there’s something deeper and darker going on here. It’s been lurking in the background all along, but it’s more explicit here.

Ecclesiastes is often associated with the latter days of Solomon’s life. And here he’s very much aware of his own mortality. He says things like ‘the same fate awaits humans and animals alike. They start as dust and will return to dust.’

In chapter 2 he has said much the same thing about different types of people. Whether wise or foolish we all exit the world’s stage the same way. One out of one of us eventually dies.

He’s also bemoaned that however much he achieves in life, there’s no guarantee that any of it will outlive him. His life’s work could fall into the hands of fools, all the good he’s done can be undone. It can all be dismantled.

We may not think in such grand terms, but most of us, I suspect, would like to make some mark in our world, however small. We may not want a plaque or a stone in a wall. But something which says we were here. That we mattered. That we made a difference to somebody. That someone was glad we were here.

It’s not uncommon amongst leaders in our world. In an election  governments will often warn us not to vote for the other lot, lest all their good work be undone.

It was certainly not uncommon in the ancient world in which the Teacher lived. They had good reason to be aware of their mortality. Their life expectancy, even amongst the very wealthiest, was much lower than ours.

 

About 10 years ago, Jools and I went on a Nile cruise. I’m just realising I sound like I’m always on holiday! We visited a lot of the sights associated with Ancient Egypt and caught a glimpse of what’s going on in our reading this morning.

We were told that when a new Pharaoh came to the throne, they started work on 3 projects. They would build a temple, or make a significant addition to an existing temple. This was so future generations would know they had been here.

But they’d also start work on their tomb, and build what was called a funerary temple, which would stand as a memorial after their death, and be where their body was prepared for burial.

Three projects.

Two of them directly connected with their death! One kind of connected with it.

When I heard that, I thought ‘good grief, those guys were morbid. They hit the top and instantly start preparing to die.’

 

Yet as I’ve worked through Ecclesiastes I’ve noticed they were expressing the same tension as the Teacher. They were aware of their mortality, but found themselves reaching for something else, something that says they were there, that something of themselves will outlast this life, some sort of immortality.

They wanted to believe that something they did mattered.

But if they shared that longing for legacy or immortality, so it was clear that it was often futile – like chasing after the wind.

Another Pharaoh would come along and scratch the face off their statues, eradicating a predecessor’s memory. They’d be buried with all their possessions, then their tomb would be plundered, if not almost immediately, then by archaeologists in later generations.

We might look at the stuff they built and think ‘wow,’ but most of what we see today was found under layer after layer of rubble. Future generations built homes on top of it. Part of one of the temples was even used as a church, with an altar turned into a communion table.

 

You or I move into a new house and get rid of that hideous wallpaper the previous owners loved so much. In Ancient Egypt the history and legacy of once-great Pharaohs were simply scratched off the walls.

They longed to be eternal, but in the grand scheme of things they were dust, like the rest of us. Their time as fleeting as vapour.

I call this tension ‘dust on the soles, eternity in the heart.’

 

Oh life’s not all bad. It has its good and bad, highs and lows. But we have no control those stages in life. According to the Teacher we’re merely prisoners of time, trapped within these cycles.

The Message translation of verse 14 sums it up perfectly

I’ve also concluded that whatever God does, that’s the way it’s going to be, always. No addition, no subtraction. God’s done it and that’s it… Whatever was, is; whatever will be, is; that’s how it always is with God.

We could think of verses 1-8 like a bank statement, with a mixture of plusses and minuses, credits and debits. He quite deliberately varies the order in this series of contrasts. Sometimes he begins with the positive; a time to be born, before switching to the negative; a time to die. Sometimes he reverses that order, a time to kill, a time to heal.

Life comes at us, sometimes good, we’re in the black, other times we slip into the red. But what does he suggest we get for all the effort? A big, fat zero. He has 14 plusses, 14 minuses. Every action has its equal and opposite reaction.

Allowed to stand alone the poem reads like a thing of beauty, but read in context it’s just reaffirming the meaningless cycle with which we began.

 

It wouldn’t be unfair to describe the teacher as an over-thinker. As someone who has suffered from anxiety I recognise some of what’s going on here. There’s a great word for this kind of thinking.

Catastrophising.

Something starts out as a very minor worry. But you start off following a train of thought and pretty soon it’s a runaway train and before you know it, in your mind at least, it’s a full-blown crisis. The teacher’s doing this on a big scale.

The teacher hasn’t finished yet. Although experience suggests all our attempts to get somewhere come to nothing, something within us whispers we were made for more than this. We’re part of something bigger than ourselves. We have meaning and purpose. We are placed in creation, to do something with it. We long to have made a difference, to leave the world better than we found it, to be part of something that will last…

We start off as dust and are returning to dust. But something within us tries to deny that. It makes us concerned for the future, perceives something beyond us, something which transcends what we experience.

The Teacher calls it ‘eternity in the heart.’

Towards the end of our reading this morning, the Teacher moves beyond his own world, considers the inequalities and suffering his world. He wants to make the world better, for someone to act for the powerless, for the meek to inherit the earth.  But even though he’s king, and this stuff should be his job, he effectively suggests he can’t do anything.

We have this sense that there is something more, something beyond us, we have a purpose, but before we can work it out, it’s snatched away.

It’s then he bottoms out and suggests we delude ourselves if we really think we’re any better than animals. He might have eternity in the heart but the dust on his soles seems more real. We’ve come from dust and we’ll return to it.

Who knows if there is any difference in the destiny of humans and animals?

Who knows if our spirits rise upwards and those of the animals just descend into the earth?

We might hear whispers of something transcendent, or sense that we are part of something bigger. But are we just deluding ourselves?

Is it not just madness to spend our lives trying to build what’s only going to be destroyed, then make sense of our behaviour by dreaming up stuff that does not exist?

If this is all there is, if we die and the dead don’t rise, if when the light goes out that’s it, then surely, surely it’s a curse to be unable to shake the dreams of eternity in the heart!

Are we not better off just to let go of it?

That train of thought takes him to a very dark place, because he suggests that if this is how it is, animals are better off because they just live for today, not seeking an eternity which does exist!

If this is how it is, then the dead are better off than we are, for at least they’re out of it, but better still are those never born because they have had to experience this!

If this is all there is, if we just listen to that whisper in our heart which points towards something more, something eternal, and it deceives us, and if there is nothing transcendent and eternal, then truly he says we’re to be pitied because everything, including all our love, hopes, dreams come to nothing.

Why bother with all this meaning and purpose stuff and making a better world? Why not just eat, drink and be merry?

You might remember the atheist bus campaign from a few years ago; the buses which said ‘there’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life!’ The Teacher’s not a million miles from that kind of thinking.

Except this is not a Richard Dawkins Bus Ad.

It’s in the pages of sacred scripture.

 

How does he get there?

Well his thinking’s rooted in an idea of God that I’ve spoken about in the last few weeks. The Teacher is no atheist. He believes in God. He talks about God a lot. But mostly he talks about a particular type of God. A God who is out there, remote, aloof, not interested or actively involved in the world, or in our lives.

If that’s your view of God, it makes sense to see things in this kind of way, to see ourselves trapped in meaningless cycles, at the mercy of whatever life throws at us.

But what if we introduce a very different God?

A God who creates and loves the world and has purposes for all he has made?

A God who is actively involved in the world and is taking it towards his conclusion?

A God who wants to relate to us and join him in taking it there.

A God who is not content to watch his world from a distance, but is prepared to take on flesh, comes to us in Jesus, enters this world in Christ.

A God who lives, dies and is buried amongst us, but on the third day is raised from the dead.

 

Introduce that God and the cycle is broken by Resurrection.

Resurrection changes everything.

There’s a passage in the New Testament which contains echoes of what the Teacher is talking about here. It’s in a letter written by Paul, one of the Jesus’ earliest followers to Christians in Corinth. It’s in 1 Corinthians 15.

He says things like without Resurrection his preaching is useless and their faith is futile. Those descriptions could equally well be translated ‘meaningless.’ Then he echoes the sentiments of the Teacher he say ‘if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all the others.’ Without resurrection we can try to live with meaning and purpose, like we matter, but in the end we’re deluding ourselves. We might have eternity in the heart, but we’re ultimately no more than the dust on our soles.

We need to be clear by what we mean by Resurrection. Often it is reduced to little more than something that happens when we die. It becomes about something that happens in another place, another time. It has very little connection to this life, except that at some point we say yes to Jesus. Important as that is, it can make the rest of life as a waiting room for somewhere else.

But if that’s true, then the Teacher is largely right. Much of life is just meaningless. Everything we do, will pretty much mean nothing.

 

But Resurrection makes some big claims.

One is that what we do in this life matters.

We say we can’t take it with us when we’re gone. The teacher surveyed a life lived ‘under the sun,’ disconnected from God and found it a meaningless, trapped in the midst of creative and destructive forces, with whatever we achieve coming to nothing, stripped away by our mortality. Resurrection says that when we take what God has given us and allow him to work through us, what’s achieved will be part of God’s new creation.

Chris Wright says it so much better than I can, in his book The God I Don’t Understand…

He says the new creation will be filled not just with the rescued souls of people from many nations… it will not be a blank page, as if God will simply crumble up the whole of historical human life in this creation and toss it in the cosmic bin, and then hand us a new sheet to start all over again.

 The new creation will start with the unimaginable reservoir of all that human civilisation has accomplished in the old creation: but purged, cleansed, disinfected, sanctified and blessed. I don’t understand how it will be so, but the biblical affirmation is that it will be so.

 All human culture, language, literature, art, music, science, business, sport, technological achievement, actual and potential, all available to us. All of it with the poison of evil and sin sucked out of it forever. All of it glorifying God. All of it under his loving and approving smile. All of it for us to enjoy with God and being enjoyed by God.

 

This life matters.

The reason we are not bound to accept the Teacher’s worldview is not just because our God is intimately interested and involved in his creation, but because of Resurrection. Resurrection changes everything. It’s the work of the same God whose Spirit hovered over the waters of chaos at creation, and brought new life and new possibilities from them.

In response to the Teacher and his view that life comes with its good and bad, the God who comes to us in Jesus points to the cross and resurrection. He invites us to acknowledge the reality of the dust on our soles, but also the eternity in the heart.

We are not just at the mercy of the good and the bad. We can enjoy the good, whilst not needing to cling to it, and we can face the struggle for this God can be at work in all of it. We might not be able to see it or fully understand it, but God is at work in all things. There is nothing we can bring to him that he cannot use to make all things new, all things beautiful in his time.

 

Resurrection means that what we do with the life and the gifts he gives us matters, for the power of death to snatch it all away has been broken.

I cannot tell how God’s going to do it, but Resurrection says he will.

Posted in Ecclesiastes: Under the Sun

Ecclesiastes 3: Slave to the Wage

find purpose

Reading: Ecclesiastes 2: 12-26

Once in a while you find something which puts everything in perspective. As I was preparing for today I had one of those moments. This is for anyone who ever who feels over-worked, unappreciated, governed by stupid rules, which is probably most of us at sometime or other. What follows is a genuine memo, dating from 1852 found in the ruins of an office building in London.

This firm has reduced the hours of work, and clerical staff will now only have to be present between the hours of 7am and 6pm weekdays. 

Clothing must be of a sober nature. Clerical staff will not disport themselves in raiment of bright colours, nor will they wear hose unless in good repair. 

Overshoes and topcoats may not be worn in the office, but neck scarves and headwear may be worn in inclement weather. 

A stove is provided for the benefit of the clerical staff. Coal and wood must be kept in the locker. It is recommended that each member of clerical staff bring four pounds of coal each day during the cold weather. 

No member of clerical staff may leave the room without permission from the supervisor. 

No talking is allowed during business hours. 

The craving for tobacco, wine, or spirits is a human weakness, and as such is forbidden to all members of clerical staff.       (ok, so some things don’t change!) 

Now that the hours of business have been drastically reduced, the partaking of food is allowed between 11:30 and noon, but work will not on any account cease. 

Members of clerical staff will provide their own pens. A new sharpener is available on application to the supervisor. (Actually that does happen in some places even today). 

The supervisor will nominate a senior clerk to be responsible for the cleanliness of the main office and the private office. All boys and juniors will report to him 40 minutes before prayers and will remain after closing hours for similar work. Brushes, brooms, scrubber, and soap are provided by the owners.

But they saved the best line til last – this is the classic …

The owners recognize the generosity of the new labour laws, but will expect a great rise in output of work to compensate for these near-Utopian conditions.

Most weeks, whilst I’m trying to turn my thoughts into a sensible sermon, at some point I’ll pause to participate in a phenomena of modern living called ‘the Facebook break.’ Almost invariably, come Friday afternoon, someone will express delight that Friday has arrived. Almost as often, come Sunday evening someone will bemoan the shortness of the weekend.

This tells me something.

However ‘near-utopian’ or otherwise their working conditions, anecdotal evidence suggests that many of my friends aren’t exactly in love with their jobs.

It would be fair to say that work is in need of a good spin doctor – for it’s had some seriously bad press. Baron Bruce Grocott once remarked that he had ‘long been of the opinion that if work were such a splendid thing, the rich would have kept more of it for themselves.’ 

Recently I received an unsolicited e-mail asking me if I had ever thought of a career in which I could take home between 100k to 2m per year? And this is how the advert started – ‘if you already work just one hour a day, then sorry to have troubled you…’ (ok, I’ll say it before anyone else does – why would I want a job with longer hours than the one I already have?)

Work is seen as something to be avoided or at least minimised.

Yet work is a vital part of our existence. We spend roughly a third of our life asleep. Much of the rest we spend involved in work – not always paid, but working. However low we claim it lies in our priorities, work is the dominant consumer of our time. We build other stuff around it. We may find ourselves bringing our work home, but even in our more enlightened, flexible working climate, it’s likely to be frowned upon if we bring our home to work.

Work doesn’t just monopolise our conscious hours. It’s happy to interfere with that sleeping third of life. I don’t know if the words of the Teacher in verse 23, ‘even at night his mind does not rest’ struck a chord with anyone else, but they did with me. There are some people, who, when it comes to transferring their thoughts to the part of the brain that allows them to sleep, seem to have mega-speed broadband and shut down instantly. I’m not one of them. My brain never really upgraded from painfully slow dial-up.

However counterproductive it is, I know I’m not alone when it comes to mulling over that little bit of work we left hanging, mentally juggling tasks that will need done tomorrow when I should be sleeping. You might even find yourself dreaming about work.

Yet for all the time we spend in it, very few have any real sense of job satisfaction. In recent years, perhaps due to the economic environment were people are just happy to have a job, job satisfaction figures have gone up. Yet, even so, a recent survey found that over 1/3 of UK employees were unhappy in their job. Over half of us planned to get a new one within a year.

 

All of which begs the question – if something is to consume this quantity of our lives, is it not a tragedy that so many derive no sense of meaning or satisfaction from it? That so many people spend 5 days waiting for 2 days to arrive, then spend part of the 2 days dreading the 5 days?

Is it a good deal to spend 48 weeks a year doing something you hate, to have a four weeks you enjoy?

This is not specific to our age, or even to the post-industrial revolution world. Once more the words of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes echo down the ages ‘the work that was done under the sun was grievous to me, my heart to began to despair over the toilsome labour under the sun, what do people get for all the toil and anxious striving for which they labour under the sun. All their days their work is grief and pain, even at night their minds do not rest…’

Now before I move on, there is just one little thing I want to mention. Running through the passage we have shared together this morning, and indeed last week’s passage has been this sense of mortality, a consciousness of impending death. We can see that this is very much part of the Teacher’s angst – he’s working so hard for all these things then he’ll die, leave them all behind and his ancestors will blow it.  In a few weeks, just to give you something to really look forward to, we will return to this subject. But for today, I want to consider what the Teacher says about work per se.

I imagine if we asked the 34% who were unhappy in their work, for their reasons, most would cite something to do with the job. That might be part of it. Some people are quite simply in a job for which they’re not suited. It is hard to ever see them thriving in that environment. Also the conditions under which some people are expected to operate can contribute to a justifiable sense of dissatisfaction. Christians should be at the forefront of any moves to ensure safeworking environments which bring dignity to people at work.

 

But those are not the only causes. It’s not what’s going on in our reading. The route the Teacher takes to get to the point where he despairs over his toilsome labour is quite interesting and links into what we spoke about last week. Last week we looked at The Teacher’s quest to find meaning and satisfaction in just getting enough, in acquiring more and more. And then he said his heart took delight in all his labours, the things he had were the reward for all his work.

It’s when he surveys all he has and discovers that quest’s impossible that work becomes grievous to him. He hates all the things he toiled for under the sun, then despairs about work. What seems to be happening here is his work is a means to an end, so when he becomes disillusioned with the end he’s trying to achieve, it is not surprising that he becomes disillusioned with the means by which he’s trying to achieve it.

One reason so many people wind up hating their lives, or certainly hating their jobs and living for the weekend and/or the bliss of the fortnight away is because they have taken the journey of the Teacher. Their job is no more than a means to an end. We have to pay the bills somehow.

It is good to be paid for the work that we do. I would say it’s even better to be paid well. There is no joy in a life where we know we can’t meet the bills. However, if money becomes the sole reason we are in the job we are in, or the primary motivator for our efforts, trust me, you won’t ever find meaning or satisfaction in our work.

I remember my very first job whilst I was still at school. It was in a supermarket called Wellworths (we imaginatively called it ‘Hellworths’) earning a whopper £1.58 an hour! When I turned 17, it went up to £1.69. It was great – I could afford records, and clothes. I’d fancied this girl  for ages and I was able to take her to see Good Morning Vietnam in the cinema….

Doing a job because it paid the bills can be fine for a time. There might be times when it is all you can do. But when it becomes a life choice, if we never leave that place where the job is just a means to an end, and an end which will never be fulfilled itself, don’t be surprised if you find no satisfaction in work. You’ll live out the tragedy that so much of your conscious life is spent in activity from which you derive no happiness or joy.

I’m fully aware that some of what I’m saying today won’t be popular. I’m know some people will be think it’s all very well for the vicar to talk like that. When I talk about what I do, particularly with people outside Christian circles, a phrase which comes up fairly frequently is that ‘it must be very rewarding.’

We have a word for certain types of jobs – we call them vocations.

I do feel blessed. I do find my life and my work, most of the time rewarding. And I don’t believe there will ever be a job which doesn’t have some bits which are a bit more of a drag.

But we can get the idea that certain jobs are just intrinsically meaningful or satisfying. Like they have meaning built into them. Whereas other jobs simply, well, don’t.

That is simply not the case. Two people can have the same job and one can derive a wealth of satisfaction from it and the other loathe it to death. I guarantee you, whatever your dream job is, you could find someone who has that job and derives no satisfaction from it whatsoever.

On parks all round the country Sunday to Sunday there are people from little lads to great big men playing football. The vast majority would give their eye teeth to play for a living. Yet some big name professionals hate the game.

You could be in what everyone regards as a dream job, and be employed in truly near-utopian conditions yet still reach the same stage as the Teacher.

Let’s remember the back story to what we read together – let’s remember the Teacher’s Exhibit A, the case which he claims proves his point, is King Solomon. A man with the top job in a Kingdom at the height of its power. Whatever job you could get, it wasn’t going to be better than his. And to all intents and purposes he’s exceptionally good at it. Other kings come to him to see how he does it. Yet we find him coming to the place where he says it’s all just meaningless.

I remember once a visit to Cheddar Gorge with some other ministers. We got chatting to a woman who was sweeping part of the street. If ever there was a job which could have been said to feel like a chasing after the wind this was it – quite literally. No sooner would she be sweeping away one lot of rubbish, than the wind would blow another lot from the gorge onto the street.

It wasn’t all she did, but she talked about it with enthusiasm. About how much she loved making people’s visits to Cheddar a bit nicer.

The reality is that there are not certain types of work which are inherently more satisfying, or rewarding, or meaningful than others. It works the other way round – work is merely a vehicle for us to express our meaning or our purpose.

So, how does the Teacher come to this point in life, and is there anything we can do to avoid treading the same path? As Christians how should we approach the subject of work?

In previous sermons I have talked about how when the Teacher speaks of God, he is always talking of a remote, out there God, not a God who wants to connect with us, to relate to us, who has a purpose for us and who has committed himself to fulfilling that purpose. The Teacher’s worldview  is not rooted in a story of God who created the world and who has an intention and  purpose for it. It’s like he traces the Bible story back to Genesis 3, to the story of the fall, and the curses which followed, but goes no further.

If that’s where we start, it influences how we view work. You see in Genesis 3, at the time of the fall, we read these words about work – ‘cursed is the ground because of you, through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food.’

Some people read that and assume that work is a punishment from God. Mark Twain once said ‘let us be grateful to Adam, our benefactor. He cut us out of the blessing of idleness and won for us the curse of labour.

But that’s not what the Bible says. It’s not where the Bible begins. In Genesis 1:11 we read ‘and God said let the land produce vegetation.’ God planted within creation the capacity to create. When he creates people, he creates them for a purpose. In Genesis 2 the man is put in the garden to work it and take care of it. In Genesis 1 people are made that they might rule over the rest of his creation. The first thing God says to them is to ‘be fruitful and increase in number. Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’

The meaning behind that word ‘rule’ is about becoming a partner with God in the work of creation. We often have this understanding of Eden as ‘Perfect’ which conjures up images of something static and unchanging – after all, how can you improve on perfection? But that’s not how the Bible describes it – the Bible calls it good, or very good.

In one sense it wasn’t the finished article. God created this world then made us to do something with it. Work wasn’t a punishment – it was frustration and futility in work that were products of the fall, not work itself. I’m sorry if this causes anyone to groan, but I’d go so far as to say that satisfying, fulfilling work will be part of our eternal life with God.

If we shift our perspective and see God not as remote, out there, but intimately connected with our lives, longing to take our world somewhere, a God who has created us for a purpose, can that help us avoid the pitfalls of the Teacher?

I think it can. But it involves getting away from the idea that some jobs are just inherently rewarding and meaningful and other aren’t. It involves dispensing the idea that some roles are vocations and others are ‘just jobs.’ It involves dispensing with the idea that work brings meaning or purpose to our lives and instead seeing it as a vehicle to express our meaning and our purpose.

We can trace it back to the fact that God made each of us with a purpose. That God has created a world and invited us to share with him in taking that world somewhere. That’s what work was supposed to be all about – not just a means to an end we can never fulfil. And the people I find who are most satisfied in work and in life are not necessarily those with ‘great job’s or ‘rewarding jobs’ but who have work which taps into that sense of purpose within each one of us.

 

Within each one of us there are things which tap into that sense of yeah, this is what it’s all about. It’s different for us all, which is why two people can have the same job and one love it and the other hate it. For some it’s the capacity to be creative with their hands, they make things, they cook you name it. Others love to work with children, raising them, caring for them, teaching them. Some have a strong sense of the need for the elderly to have dignity. For others, and these people are weird, there’s a love of organisation. Even that drawer, which we all have, into which we place all the stuff we don’t know where else to put it is immaculate. If the rest of us saw that it’s chill us to the bone. For some it is just the thrill of solving the problem.

I could go on. But they all have one thing in common. They’re all impulses placed within us by a creator God who made us for a purpose. And when we are able to bring those impulses to our work and allow them to shape the application of the gifts and talents which God has given us, that’s when we are well on the path to finding meaning and satisfaction in our work, for it’s then we share in the work of the creator, even when it’s not specifically God-dy. And we should not be surprised if that’s where we find meaning and satisfaction for it’s then we share with him in the journey from creation to new creation.

It’s then we are what he called us to be.

 

Posted in Ecclesiastes: Under the Sun

Ecclesiastes 2: Supersize Me

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Reading: Ecclesiastes 1: 12 – 2:11

Some of you might remember the fireman’s strike of the late 1970s. I have very vague recollections of watching news footage at my grandmother’s house. But whilst the firemen were on strike, the Army stepped in to fulfil their role.

One day they were called out to attend to that most serious of fireman’s duties: rescuing a cat stuck up a tree. Tiddles was reunited with a grateful owner who invited them all to stay for tea.

Later, they climbed into their vehicle, said goodbye and set off back to base. But a few yards down the road, something dashed out in front of them and there was a thump.

They’d run over the cat they’d just saved!

As I hear that story, I find myself imagining the voice of the Teacher, Son of David, King of Jerusalem, in Ecclesiastes, saying ‘that’s just like us!’ When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, nothing was gained under the sun.

 They’d gone to all that effort and thought they’d achieved something, not least in terms of one happy elderly lady. But the end result was worse than if they hadn’t bothered.

 

We’ve begun a series in Ecclesiastes, where someone who calls himself the Teacher, sets out to study and explore all that is done ‘under the sun’ or ‘under the heavens.’ I suggested to you that his idea of life ‘under the sun’ or ‘under the heavens’ is one which isn’t really taking God into account as much as we might.

The Teacher’s description of God is one where God is very out there, remote. His god winds up the world, sets it in motion, but is not that bothered about what happens afterwards. He’s not involved in the world or interested in us or our lives. This God might exist, but life can largely carry on as if he does not.

 

There are two ways to approach what the Teacher says.

We could take what he has to say at face value and assume, even, if at times it sounds almost sacrilegious, that he really means what he says, even momentarily. Even those who have had a genuine encounter with God and have a real relationship with Jesus can have seasons in life where things don’t add up. It’s ok to not understand. That Ecclesiastes is in our Bibles suggests God is less bothered about being asked awkward questions than we are about asking them.

In fact some questions only make sense to ask if you do believe in a God who loves the world and is actively involved in it. Things like evil, suffering and why God doesn’t do something about it, are only sensible for those whose God passes both the existence test and the caring test. If we are all just products of chance then the world just is as it is.

Alternatively the Teacher might be playing devil’s advocate. He might not view the world this way, but is aware that others do. What might be going on in Ecclesiastes is that the Teacher challenges those with that kind of worldview to pursue that path to its logical conclusion. We could say it’s bit like Imagine by John Lennon, but with starkly different conclusions.

For the most part you could choose either of those 2 levels and my approach is unaffected.

But, however we understand the Teacher’s viewpoint, a good way of reading Ecclesiastes is to imagine someone asking the question ‘if I had everything the world had to offer, could I make a success of my life under the sun?’

Can we find some purpose or meaning, or gain a lasting sense of satisfaction?

In his quest he offers us Exhibit A – King Solomon: The ultimate example of a man who could claim to have done it all and had it all. Solomon was a man of seemingly limitless genius and wealth. He had the time, resources, prestige and power to carry out the fullest of investigations. Ecclesiastes might be the words of Solomon himself, or someone assuming his persona and commentating on where Solomon found himself towards the end of his life.

Most of the time the Teacher is fairly specific or clear about where his search is taking him. But in today’s reading we seem to find him taking a scattergun approach to his quest. It’s almost like he’s saying ‘I tried this and it didn’t work, so I moved on and tried that, and that didn’t really get me anywhere either, then I went on to something else and that didn’t help…

On and on he goes, thru pleasure, wealth, possessions, power and people and it’s not immediately obvious just what is connects all of these things.

But two other words dropped into the conversation  help us make a little more sense of what’s going on. They In 1:17 we read ‘I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly.’ Later in 2:12 he says ‘I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly.’

Madness and folly.

Now understand what’s going on here. This is not some kind of anthropological study where the Teacher observes people who are perceived as mad, wise or fools. The impression we are supposed to get is that this is something that was lived out. Madness is quite a value-laden word. I want you to get a sense of what is being described.

Folly is when you know the right thing to do, but choose the wrong thing. No amount of knowing what the right thing to do is can save you if what your heart truly longs for is the wrong thing. A few weeks ago we considered Solomon the fool and saw how the way the writer of Kings presented Solomon’s story in a way which almost offers us a checklist of all the things Deuteronomy had suggested a king should not behave.

Madness on the other hand has to do with taking things to excess. It is more subtle because it need not be dealing with things that are wrong of themselves. They might even be good things. But too much even of a good thing can be bad. It is possible to take something which of itself is good and use it in quite destructive ways.

The occasional cream cake – lovely.

20 at a time you’ll make yourself ill.

Or to borrow an example from the life of Solomon – 1 wife? A good thing. I heartily recommend it.

2? I wouldn’t go there.

700 wives and 300 concubines? Are you mad?

 

These ideas of folly and madness connect this seemingly scattergun quest for meaning or satisfaction in our reading this morning. The Teacher claims he’s lived the life of someone who ‘didn’t knock it til he tried it.’ He describes a single-minded, cynical, self-indulgent romp through everything this world had to offer him. He denied himself nothing he wanted, and passed up no pleasure. He samples everything from highest brow of culture to the lowest common denominator. On an on he goes. Houses, vineyards, gardens, parks, reservoirs, slaves, herds, flocks, silver, gold, treasure, entertainment. as many sexual partners as he could possibly want, all to satisfy his every desire.

He offers us a picture of a secular Eden he’s trying to create for himself, an earthly paradise, minus those irritating forbidden fruits and where he is lord of all he surveys. It’s as if he’s wondering if he can find meaning, or purpose or satisfaction, by just getting enough – of anything. It doesn’t really seem to matter what – just can he get enough?

This kind of thinking is not entirely alien to us. How often have we heard, or said, ‘if I just had a bigger car, or if I just got that promotion, or if I just was just a little more successful, or if I just had … [add your own example here] then I’d be happy.’

None of those things are bad. Often they are good. But as we say those words there’s this undercurrent of dissatisfaction whispering into our lives saying ‘it’s not that I’m pursuing the wrong things – it’s just that I don’t have enough. If I just had a little bit more – then I’d be satisfied.’

Yet so often, the more we have, the more we want. And the more we have, the less what we do have seems to satisfy us. And thousands of years after the Teacher confessed that his quest had failed, it was meaningless, like chasing after the wind, a very different secular prophet sang 5 words which perhaps like no others summed up a generation –

I

Can’t

Get No

Satisfaction.

For a while The Teacher’s efforts seemed to work – his heart took delight in all his work, he saw it as a reward for all his effort. But even success can go bad on us. For when we turn to verse 11, we witness the morning after the night before and we find a pile up of terms – toil, meaningless, chasing the wind, nothing gained under the sun to convey the sheer extent of his disillusionment.

It’s like he gained the whole world and whilst it may be too strong to say he lost his soul, he certainly didn’t find it. The Teacher points us to Solomon, the man who had everything he could want, the man who denied himself nothing he desired, who got his hands on everything his imagination could conjure up… and it still wasn’t enough.

These words speak into our own ‘supersize me’ generation. I’m reminded of the early Walls Vienetta adverts which seductively described ‘deliciously rich ice cream and the irresistible dark layers of chocolate’ before warning us that we were left with one small problem… One slice is never enough.

Or the Pringles ad which claims that once you pop you just can’t stop.

Ours is the generation which has been encouraged to deny ourselves nothing our heart desires and refuse our hearts no pleasure. Any sense of self-denial has seriously gone out of fashion. We’ve got a wonderful word for it – repressed.

I would go so far as to say that it’s even true amongst people of faith. For example, when was the last time any of us intentionally fasted for anything other than medical reasons?

We might be quick to challenge the ‘if it feels good do it’ approach to sexual ethics, but what about the more subtle ‘buy now, pay later’ mentality which has promised so much and proved so destructive to so many.

You want it? Why deny your heart that pleasure? Have it and have it now.

 

Napolean once disparagingly referred to Britain as a nation of shopkeepers. Today we’re largely a nation of consumers. That has  been the deliberate aim of western policy makers, particularly in Britain and America since World War II. It was best summed up in 1955 by Economist Vincent Lebow who said ‘our enormously productive society demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burnt up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.’

Effectively he’s saying your self-fulfilment and spiritual satisfaction means denying yourself nothing your heart desires, refuse your heart no pleasure. It’s an invitation down the path trodden by the Teacher.

And the results… are they any different?

I’m going to show a clip from an educational video called The Story of Stuff. It’s an American educational video and the woman in the video will mention a difference between America and Europe, but bear in mind that Britain is much closer economically to America than the rest of Europe.

As we watch this clip ask yourself two questions…

Is there any truth is what she is saying?

Can we see how it fits with what we read in Ecclesiastes?

Before I leave this all behind and consider how we might avoid the pitfalls about which the Teacher warns us, I want to build a check into how we understand this. It has been there in what I’ve said so far but it needs to be made explicit.

If you go too far down this route you can be made to feel guilty about having anything. I heard recently about a guy who had done really well at work and was rewarded with quite a flash, new company car. He was frightened to drive it to church because he was worried about what other people might say.

You know me well enough by now to know that I’m not into prosperity style Gospels. But some Christians are blessed with material things and condemning them means disrespecting the good gift God has given them.

Mature Christians can mourn with those who mourn, but they can also celebrate others’ success. Those who can’t do that should consider whether they might be trapped in the meaningless quest about which the Teacher warns us in our reading this morning.

The Teacher is asking if we can find some purpose or meaning, or gain a lasting sense of satisfaction in a life lived under the sun? And the response comes back that if the path you pursue in that quest is the one where you seek to maximise what you consume and just try to get enough, then, you’ll wind up trapped in that cycle of meaninglessness, which I feel was well portrayed in that video clip.

 

Because the message of Ecclesiastes is that if you just want to get enough, under the sun you will find that you can’t. The Teacher tells us to take that advice from one who had it all and had done it all.

But what if we shift our perspective? What if we stop considering God as Elohim, the God of the ‘under the sun’ worldview, out there, remote disinterested, and see God as Yahweh, who loves us, cares for us and wants to actively be involved in our lives.

Can we do that with what we shared this morning?

 

Well that’s what Jesus himself encouraged us to do. And when he did so Jesus’ Exhibit A was the same as the Teacher’s – Solomon in all his splendour. He speaks of that same meaningless quest outlined by the Teacher in Ecclesiastes and warns us against getting trapped on that treadmill.

Note that Jesus doesn’t say we don’t need any material possessions – quite the opposite he says that God knows we do need them. But to come back to where we started this morning, Jesus warns us however much we claim to believe in him, if we allow ourselves to get trapped on that treadmill, if we find ourselves constantly on that quest for something more, we’re acting like we don’t have a God to care for us, that we don’t have a God who knows exactly what we need.

And if we read carefully what Jesus says he goes further than that. The Teacher holds up Solomon as exhibit A, the man caught up in the culture of the more, who made chasing after more and more in the bid to just get enough, of anything.

And alongside that Exhibit A Jesus holds up Exhibit B – the lilies of the field and says ‘you know what? Solomon had limitless genius, wealth, time, resources, prestige and power to apply to his quest and what he managed was pretty special. But for all his efforts, he still couldn’t match what God could do for some flowers and if he can do it for the flowers do you not think he can do it for you?’

This is not a licence for laziness, to sit back and let God do everything. One of the ways, probably the main way in which God provides for us is in the capacity he gives us to apply our God-given abilities to become a source of his provision.

But at the same time if we try to do everything in our own strength and spend our time chasing after what this world has to offer, we’ll get trapped in that cycle and we never will get that satisfaction. We simply won’t be able to get enough. And that was not God’s intention for us.

By contrast the life that Jesus offers is one centred around a real relationship with a God who loves us, cares for us and counted us as so precious that he sent Jesus into the world for us. Jesus says that if we believe in a God like that then we are free to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, to set our minds to seeking what his purposes are for us, to live generously, and we can do so confident that he will bring into our lives those things God knows we need if we’re to live the life he intended for us.

I know that’s difficult for us. Something within us wants that control. Then I see that graph that measures our increase in consumption against our happiness, and I realise the people who just seem so much more fulfilled and seem to have meaningful lives are almost invariably those who somehow have the confidence to live generously. Who know that God will supply what they need.

I confess that I have been as guilty as anyone of all the things I have spoken of this morning. This is certainly one way in which I can live without really giving God full credit for all he’s done for me. I don’t really need to question whether I have more than I need. I know I do. Yet I can find myself on the treadmill of wanting more and more. And maybe you can too.

The pursuit of happiness, fulfilment and meaning in that kind of way can be like trying to quench your thirst with salt water. The more you get the worse your thirst will be.

But Jesus offers a different path. One in which God does not just exist, but cares and cares intimately. We have a God who knows precisely what we need and is able to care for us. What makes us think that God can care for the birds and the flowers but won’t do it for us? May we come to know that different path. To know that  we are held in the detailed, loving care of a God who considered himself so precious that in Jesus he gave himself for us.

We are invited to live in an atmosphere, and awareness, of unremitting love. To grow in awareness of the kind of abba God we have. As we grow into that knowledge we discover a different source of meaning. We can be free to step off that treadmill. To discover that he is not only sovereign but invites us to throw the full weight of our anxieties onto him, knowing we are his personal concern.