How many of you drifted back to your youth in the 1960s when you heard today’s Bible passage and started humming this under your breath?
Of course, in the spirit of the folk-rock revolution at that time, Pete Seeger changed the last line about ‘a time for war and a time for peace’ to ‘A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.’
Or perhaps you have memories of funerals where those opening eight verses about a time for everything from ‘a time to be born’ to ‘a time to die’ (verses 1-2) have been read, and we may say that at death a person’s time has come.
But rather than default to the popular associations of this passage, we need to ask what problem the Preacher in Ecclesiastes is struggling with. I suggest to you that in this chapter he is grappling with the question of eternity. The faithful people of his day understood the idea of God’s eternal nature, but they didn’t have the perspective Christians have of eternal life. Not for them the understanding that Christ’s resurrection brings, and the hope it carries with them. There is very little in the Old Testament that connects with that.
The Preacher navigates three issues that we struggle with, and he knows they all require the setting of eternity. Let’s explore them together.
The first is the question of time. So yes, we’re into those first eight verses about there being a time for every activity under the heavens (verse 1). The point of the language here is that most of these areas of life are ones where we have some control over the decision-making, even though they don’t always sound like that in English. For example, we have no control over our ‘time to be born’ but the Hebrew is more about ‘a time for birthing’ and while expectant mothers can’t have complete control over when they give birth, the Preacher is alluding to all those decisions we freely make which lead up to the birth of a child. Similarly with ‘a time to die’: to a large extent we cannot control that, but we do make decisions over the years which contribute hugely to the outcome.
What Ecclesiastes is facing us with here, then, is the whole question of how we make decisions in the space and time allotted to us. Life is filled with decision-making. In our (still) wealthy western consumer society, we are faced with even more decisions. Go to the supermarket and view your options in the different categories of food. Just to type in the word ‘tomatoes’ on Tesco’s website returns 175 results for the Sandhurst store that makes online deliveries to Knaphill. We have so many decisions to make, some important, others trivial, that we can become fatigued by the very need to do so. Go into my favourite world of computing and one reason a company like Apple has become so popular is because it has narrowed down the choices for people and made life easier.
Some of this for us is what is called a ‘first world problem’ – that is, we who live in a rich country are faced with many more possibilities than someone living in a famine-ravaged region of Africa. And that is undeniably true. However, all Christians have a responsibility to make good decisions in life, in the light of eternity.
I am not of course talking about seemingly trivial decisions. This is not a sermon about how to decide what shirt to put on in the morning, or whether to buy a Mars bar. I am not suggesting that we start seeking specific divine guidance over such matters. We have a range of decisions to make in life. In some cases, I believe we need to consult God specifically, and in others he has given us the freedom and responsibility to make good moral and ethical choices.
The point for all of us is that our decision-making in life has significance. If life ended in the grave and that was all there was, then despite what the atheists say, life would be emptied of all meaning. But because we believe there is more, and because we believe that our choices in this life impact the life of the world to come, Christians can rejoice that their decisions have meaning and importance. I do not say this so that we feel terrified about the consequences of every potential decision, but rather to encourage us. Whenever we thoughtfully and prayerfully engage in a life choice, doing so because we want to please Christ and work for his kingdom, then we are putting small yet eternal building blocks in place for the life of the new heavens and new earth that he will bring with him when he appears.
Be encouraged, then, that the holy decisions you make now will play out for eternity.
The second issue to think about this morning is our toil. Two weeks ago in the evening service, where we looked at the opening verses of Ecclesiastes in greater depth than we were able to in that morning’s all age worship service, we touched on the subject of work. To the Christian, work is something that was created as good by God, yet which was tainted with frustration and struggle through sin, yet which is redeemed through the resurrection of Jesus, in very similar terms to what I have just said about our decision-making. The work we do now ‘in the Lord’ is not in vain, but will be taken up into the kingdom of God.
Here, in chapter three of Ecclesiastes, we revisit that but go a little wider. The Preacher wonders what workers gain from their toil (verse 9), recognising the burden (verse 10) that although God has made everything beautiful in its time and set eternity in our hearts, we cannot fathom what he has done (verse 11). However much we labour and toil, and however much we know there is an eternal context, we still struggle to understand the meaning and purpose of what we do.
I have heard people talk about their sense of futility in their daily jobs. Some have thought that by giving up a regular job and working for the church or a Christian organisation, they would find greater fulfilment. It isn’t always the case. The other morning, I called in here at KMC after the school run and chatted with our friends who run the Pied Piper Pre-School. It was about fifteen minutes before any parents and carers were due to drop off their children, and Karen joked with me that I had arrived too early to play on any of the soft toys.
“Sometimes,” I said, “you don’t know how attractive an option that would be.”
Many – perhaps most, or even possibly all – of us go through periods of feeling like work is little more than a pay packet at best. How can we find some meaning and significance in that part of life? Graham Dow, who is now a retired Anglican bishop, gave this some thought when he was a tutor training ordinands for the ministry. He used to ask new students to write an essay about the jobs they worked in before their training. Many would refer to the opportunity for Christian witness at work, but few saw their previous careers as fulfilling a Christian calling. But Dow claimed there were three major purposes for all kinds of good work (not just ‘church work’) in the Scriptures:
- Creative management of God’s world;
- Moral management for the good of all;
- A community of good relationships.
I cannot promise that when you arrive at the office tomorrow morning you will find that all eight hours (or however long) you spend there will suddenly become fulfilling. Sin and futility will still have their say. But I can suggest that if you can look for the possibilities that in your daily work you can either creatively manage part of God’s world, or exercise moral management for the common good, or you can contribute to a community of good relationships then you will start to make connections between the eternity that God has set in your heart and the purposeful work of him who has made everything beautiful in its time.
The third issue we need to face in the light of eternity is testing. In the last few verses of the chapter, the Preacher gives us various bits of data that sum up the conundrum of living. He tells us there is nothing new in life (verse 15). He speaks about wickedness supplanting justice (verse 16), yet trusts that there will be a time for God’s justice (verse 17). God’s testing of human beings simply exposes us as no different from the animals, because like them we die (verses 18-21), so enjoy your work while you can (verse 22).
A famous Christian physicist and neuroscientist of a previous generation, Donald Mackay, used to bemoan a line of thinking that he called ‘nothing buttery’. No, it wasn’t anything to do with margarine or low fat spreads, for Mackay ‘nothing buttery’ was the idea that something or someone was ‘nothing but’: for example, in the terms of our passage, human beings are ‘nothing but’ animals; human beings are ‘nothing but’ mortal creatures. Mackay said it wasn’t the statement that people are animals or that people are mortal that was the problem. The problem was to say they were ‘nothing but’ that.
And that’s the difficulty here at the end of Ecclesiastes 3. If we say that humans are nothing but animals, then where is the special sense of dignity we feel? If we say that human beings are nothing but mortal and will die, then where do we stand in the context of eternity, because everything we do returns to dust and that’s that?
Mackay would say we are animals and we are mortals, but we are more than that. We are more than animals, because we are made in the image of God. While we share characteristics with the animal world, we have a special dignity due to the divine design. And yes, we are dust and to dust we shall return – but we shall not stay there. The God of eternity will one day raise us from the dead with new bodies animated by the Holy Spirit, and we shall live rejoicing in God’s new creation.
These are the truths to sustain us when life tests us, and test us is surely does. We do see injustice. People die, and one day we shall join them. Nothing lasts. Those who live without God may make brave statements about finding beauty and wonder within the confines of this life, but ultimately – on their own admission – it all disappears.
In contrast, the Christian can live with a sense of hope and purpose in the face of the bleak hand that life sometimes deals us. That doesn’t mean we know all the answers now. We have to hold on with what my former college Principal George Carey used to call a ‘reverent agnosticism’ – we don’t know, but we trust God. We too may walk in a dark tunnel, but we have reasons for our faith that we shall one day walk into the light.
However, I would hate for that promise to come across in some glib way. I have known times in my life when the darkness has seemed too intense, too all-encompassing. Only later have I known it was worth hanging on.
But because of my experiences, let me offer you the gentle word of hope that one day you will find the light again. Whatever life tells you, and however desolate the picture the Preacher of Ecclesiastes is at times, hear this promise and tuck it away in your mind: resurrection light is coming.