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Sermon: Idols And Vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)

We start a new sermon series at Knaphill this Sunday on the book of Ecclesiastes. The morning service will be all age, but this is the sermon I plan to preach in the evening, going into more depth than we can in the morning.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

This weekend, Debbie has been indulging her love of musicals, going to see ‘Wicked’ with one of her best friends. Although she also loves moving and emotional shows such as ‘Les Miserables’, I think she mainly enjoys the bouncy, singalong nature of a musical. It goes with other parts of her musical taste, such as her love of Abba – something she has imparted to Rebekah, who even did a school project about them last year.

It will not surprise you to know that I am rather different. I like more ‘serious’ rock music, even some of the miserable stuff. I like grumpy, curmudgeonly artists such as Van Morrison. I like the wonderful singer and guitarist Richard Thompson, who sometimes deals in very bleak themes – some of them even too dark for me:

So perhaps you won’t be surprised when I was pleased that someone asked us to have a sermon series on Ecclesiastes!

But actually there were more serious reasons. Ecclesiastes may be unconventional in its tone, compared to many other books in Holy Scripture. It does so to preserve an important voice for us to hear. Sometimes we are so quick as believers to jump in with our perspective on life based on the existence of God and of eternal life. Ecclesiastes helps us to hear what life is like when God is not placed at the centre (even if someone believes in God) and if everything ends with death.

And that’s why you get the cries of ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ or ‘Vanity! Vanity!’ that you may be familiar with in the older translations. One scholar has argued that the Hebrew refers to a fleeting breath, and so he translates this expression as ‘Breath of breaths! Everything is temporary.’[1] Nothing is going to last. It’s all transient. Enjoy it while you can. But soon it will be gone and the world will continue without you, as if you never happened.

Some people try to live like that. The rock guitarist Wilko Johnson has recently been in the news, talking about the fact that he has terminal pancreatic cancer and how he has turned down chemotherapy but is going out on what will genuinely be a farewell tour. In an interview with the BBC he said that cancer has made him feel more alive, because he is appreciating the detail of things before he dies. But that’s it. Then it’s all gone.

You will say as a Christian that while it’s a brave outlook on life, it’s missing something fundamental. Ecclesiastes helps us appreciate how such people think and live.

In a world that doesn’t put God at the centre, people look to other things to find fulfilment and purpose. And such things can become so pervasive in society that Christians get sucked into the lies, too. In our passage today there are two such examples, where created things take centre stage instead of the Creator, and if we’re not careful, we Christians can absorb these values as much as everyone else. So I’m going to reflect on these two things in this sermon from a Christian perspective. There will be quite a few more as we progress through the book in the next few months.

The first is our work:

What do people gain from all their labours
at which they toil under the sun? (Verse 3)

What’s the point of loading all your sense of self-worth, achievement and meaning on what you accomplish in the world of work? As someone has once observed, “No-one ever wants inscribed on their tombstone, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’”

But some people do. Their career and promotion is all they care about. Families and friends are sacrificed on this altar. Perhaps they have been brought up since childhood to get a good job. As an uncle of my Mum’s told his children, “Make sure you work hard so that you are the one giving the orders, not taking them.” Their sense of identity and purpose is wrapped up in what they do at work.

And of course we collude with this in our society. Meet a person for the first time and after asking their name, the follow-up question is often, “What do you do?” We reinforce the idea that a person’s worth to society and to themselves is based on their employment status.

Yet we also know it can’t be all like that. I once had a manager at work who clearly lived to work, and made life unpleasant for those to instead worked to live. There is the catchphrase of some, “I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.” These people have more of a sense of the futility – the meaninglessness – of work. And that sense of frustration at work has quite early roots in the Bible. After Adam and Eve sin, God tells Adam that he will find his daily toil frustrating. Ultimately, all ambitions to make work the centre of our being are crippled by human sin and finish their days in dust and ashes.

However, when we make God the focus of our lives, our attitude to work changes. It doesn’t come out in Ecclesiastes 1, which simply knocks the idol of work off its pedestal and smashes it. But the wider Christian revelation gives a dignity to work, without letting it become a false god. When God sets the first humans to work, it makes employment a key part of human flourishing. It also means that good and worthwhile work is not limited to ‘religious’ jobs, as if what I do is superior to the work others do. Many jobs can fulfil the creation of mandate of exercising moral management for the Lord over elements of his creation.

And it’s more than our doctrine of creation that makes work worthwhile. As I’ve already said, sin turns work into toil, labour and frustration. Yet it can be redeemed, too, and we see that in the Resurrection. As some of you know, my favourite Bible verse over the last five or six years has been the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection of Jesus. In that verse, verse 58, Paul urges his hearers to make every effort in all their work, because – he tells them – ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ All our work as Christians, whatever kind of work it is, will be taken up into the fullness of God’s kingdom, through the Resurrection, says Paul. It will not be futile, it will have value.

So – as Ecclesiastes says in dethroning the idol of work – death brings an end to everything. Indeed, ‘everything is temporary.’ But our faith does not end in death, it goes on to resurrection, and that is where we find meaning. Hence in the face of secular attitudes to work – either idolising it or seeing it as pointless – the Christian witness is one of hopefulness about work having a lasting value, when committed to Jesus Christ. Can we dedicate our work to him tomorrow morning?

The second idol is our senses:

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing. (Verse 8)

How often we see today the attempt to gratify the senses as the way of finding pleasure and even fulfilment in life. It is no accident that more effort is put into making products visually appealing. Adverts are made to be persuasive, not with rational arguments about the superiority of something but by making a visual and emotional appeal. We live in front of screens – televisions, desktop and laptop computers, tablets, games consoles, smartphones and doubtless others yet to be invented.

The aural is another arena of appeal. What started when Gordon Selfridge became the first shop owner to turn shopping into an experience rather than a utilitarian necessity later became the advent of muzak in lifts and piped songs in shops and shopping centres. Certain chains even have their own dedicated programming that is like a radio station you can only hear in that shop.

If we continue with the senses, it wouldn’t be difficult to make a case for the elevation of taste in our culture. We have the rise of coffee shops that make most tea and coffee after church services look out of place, such that you can now go to the Christian Resources Exhibition each year and meet companies that will sell you the equipment to reach Starbuck’s or Costa levels of coffee in your church. (And let’s be honest, what would people outside the church expect these days?) We also have the powerful place of the celebrity chefs, where not only can a Nigella Lawson present her recipes in an overtly sensual way, Jamie Oliver can become a political influence, if only on a single issue of children’s school dinners.

And perhaps straddling all the sensory overload today is pornography, appealing to a multitude of human senses, making false claims about intimacy and satisfaction, then like a drug dealer leaving its customers addicted and desperate for stronger ‘highs’.

It’s not hard to see how the devotion to the satiation of the senses today is an idol, but one which comes crashing down in the face of decay and death. Beauty fades, senses weaken and all who have put their stock in living for those senses find life becoming futile.

Is there a Christian answer to this way of living? Surely there is. Some have responded by expecting Christians to live by denying their senses, and in limited ways that may be a calling for some. So some Christians may be called to be teetotal, as a witness to the fact that you do not need alcohol in order to be happy. Some Christians too may be called to celibacy, as a sign against our culture’s devotion to sex. Other disciples may take vows of poverty, in contrast to the way much of our world seeks sensory pleasure through material possessions.

But those acts of self-denial are not God’s calling for all people, especially because the very sensory experiences that people have made into idols are not fundamentally bad. They simply should not be the objects of our devotion. Only God has that right. If we put our hope in God first and foremost, then we can gratefully enjoy what our senses bring to our attention. As Paul told Timothy:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17)

Of course, even then putting God first is not then a ticket to get drunk on sensory overload. The same chapter reminds us that ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’ (verse 6) and calls on the wealthy ‘to be rich in good deeds’ (verse 18) and so ‘lay up treasure … for the coming age’ (verse 19). Yet when we do put God first and foremost, central in our lives, we may gratefully enjoy the gifts of his creation, returning further praise to him and sharing those riches with those around us, especially those who do not enjoy the many blessings we have.

And how pertinent to reach that point in our thinking tonight, in a week when a hundred aid charities have launched the biggest joint campaign since Make Poverty History, the Enough Food If initiative that is calling for sustained action so that everyone in the world can have enough food to eat. Christians putting God first and sensory enjoyment second can and should have a significant part to play in this movement. Is it not now more important than ever to ensure that we as Christians ensure that we treat our Lord as Sovereign over our lives, making everything else relative, for the sake of the world?

Sermon: Overcoming Sin

1 John 2:12-17
The highest grossing film in British cinema history is ‘Mamma Mia!’. You may well know that it began life as a West End musical, in which the story is woven around songs by ABBA. It tells of a bride-to-be named Sophie, who is trying to find her real father. She discovers from reading her mother’s diary that her father could be any one of three different men, and so invites them all to the wedding.

In a conversation with her fiancé, a character called Sky, she says, “I want to know who I am.”

He replies, “That doesn’t come from finding your father; that comes from finding yourself.”[1]

Knowing who you are is vital to healthy living. And knowing who we are seems to be John’s point here in the battle against sin. When he tells us not to ‘love the world’ (verse 15) – that is, the parts of creation organised in rebellion against God – it would be easy to issue a list of what to do and what not to do. A set of rules. He could tell us what is wrong in terms of the greed and lust he describes ‘the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of riches’ (verse 16), naming and shaming all the wrong behaviour. It would all be so easy.

And so wrong.

It would fail. A list of rules on its own doesn’t work. Telling us what is right and wrong isn’t enough to induce good behaviour. It doesn’t transform us. If anything, it makes wrongdoing more appealing.

John has a different tactic here. He encourages us to know our identity first. He wants us to know who we are in the sight of God. Because that will make a difference.

So to get to how we resist the allure of a world in opposition to God, we examine the words before that, the words addressed to ‘children’, ‘young people’ and ‘fathers’ – because in spiritual terms,

All Christians should have the innocence of childhood, the strength of youth, and the mature knowledge of age.[2]

To be innocent, strong and mature in the face of temptation to sin requires knowing our spiritual identity. We need to know who we are in God’s eyes.

Firstly, we are forgiven:

I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name. (Verse 12)

You will recall, no doubt, that my predecessor was a big fan of Doctor Who. I do not share his passion. However, Rebekah and Mark avidly watch repeats of the children’s spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures and Debbie loves the adult spin-off, Torchwood. This last summer, there was a Torchwood story called Miracle Day, where suddenly humanity becomes immortal. A convicted child killer thus survives execution and lives to make this statement:

I have been forgiven, a substantial number of people have forgiven me. I can feel that in my heart, my guts. And forgiveness is like a tide or storm – it clears the air. I’m very lucky to have been forgiven and I feel very blessed. And I think of forgiveness as a cure.[3]

The character is right. Forgiveness clears the air. It is a cure. Amongst other things, it is not only a cure for past wrongs, it is a cure as we face present temptation.

How so? Like this: if we face temptation and simply invoke the ‘right and wrong’ approach, we shall get worked up about failure, because we shall feel both guilt and hopelessness on the occasions when we fail. There is no good news for someone who breaks the rules, if that is all there is.

But what if we know we are forgiven? People who are forgiven still have a deep sense of right and wrong. They too do not want to depart from God’s ways. However, their motive is different. They know they are loved, even when they transgress God’s laws. They still want to do what is right, but it is not out of fear. It is because they long to please the God who loves them enough to forgive them in Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Next time you face temptation, remember that God has already forgiven you in Jesus Christ. Remember what that tells you about the God of love, grace and mercy. When fear paralyses you, remember what kind of God we believe in: the God of the manger, the Cross and the empty tomb. He offers forgiveness before we receive it. Let that set you free in the face of temptation.

Secondly, we know Jesus:

I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning. (Verse 13)

‘Him who is from the beginning’ could be God the Father, but he gets a name check in the next verse, so we’ll assume this is Jesus[4]. In any case, knowledge of one is similar to knowledge of the other. However, for the purposes of this point we’ll stick with knowing Jesus, and see that as covering what John says about knowing the Father, too. But what is the significance to overcoming sin of knowing Jesus?
Let me approach it this way. I expect you remember the quiz show Mr and Mrs. Husbands and wives took it in turns to answer questions about each other while their spouse could not hear their replies. Then the spouse came back and we saw whether the answers were correct. You would see how well they knew each other. Sometimes it was surprisingly accurate, sometimes the surprise came in what they didn’t know about each other, however many years they’d been married.

Let me venture to suggest that our relationship with Jesus is a little bit like that. We come to know him through the forgiveness we have just talked about, and that relationship grows over the years. Our knowledge of him is far from perfect, but as we get to know him better we discover someone who is an amazing support in our struggle against sin.

It isn’t that Jesus is like an indulgent grandfather who trivialises the misdeeds of his grandchildren, who explains away their actions and makes easy excuses for their wrongdoing. Such an answer would not go down well on a spiritual ‘Mr and Mrs’.

Nor is it true to envisage Jesus as a severe monster, ready to rip to shreds any being that puts the slightest foot wrong. Again, that would be a wrong answer about our relationship with him.

The Bible presents an image of Jesus as full of both acceptance and holiness. His holiness means he cannot abide sin, but he also accepts us through the Cross, in which he has conquered sin. And furthermore, he is the Lord of the broken and the weak. If he has a particular group that he targets for criticism, it is religious leaders who harshly apply the rules and end up excluding people for no good reason.

When you know you are loved, warts and all, you can stand strong. If you doubt whether you are loved or accepted, you will wobble in the face of sin. If you are unsure of Jesus and his love, you will struggle. But if you know a relationship with Jesus in which you are accepted then yes, you will still stumble and fall from time to time, but you will be able to pick yourself up because Jesus does that for you and sets you on your way again. To know he loves you is to be in a different place when facing temptation.

Remember – Jesus is ‘him who is from the beginning’ – and since the beginning of all things, the Father and Jesus have had grand designs on your life. They have planned good things for you. Jesus is called ‘the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world’ (Revelation 13:8). Jesus is on our side in the war against sin. He is not standing back, waiting to condemn us at the earliest opportunity. He is for us, he has always been planning for our welfare, he is our cheerleader and he gives us all we need to fight against the lusts and desires of the world.

Thirdly and finally, we are winners. Compare the two statements John makes to those he calls ‘young people’:

I am writing to you, young people,
because you have conquered the evil one. (Verse 13)

I write to you, young people,
because you are strong
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one. (Verse 14)

When our children are having one of their altogether too frequent wars with each other, they insult one another by calling out, ‘Loser!’ And sadly that’s what a lot of us think we are. We don’t see ourselves as winners, but as losers. We know our failures. The idea that we are in any sense winners makes little sense to us. We are conscious of our many failures, and some of us go further, tipping into low self-esteem, practising what someone once called ‘worm theology’ – as if we say, ‘I am only a worm.’ We might see ourselves the way Elvis Costello once described in a song:

I was a fine idea at the time
But now I’m a brilliant mistake.[5]

So talk of being winners in the spiritual life may sound like a foreign language to us. But John says we have conquered the evil one, we are strong, the word of God abides in us and we have overcome the evil one. In other words, whatever mess we have made of our lives, whatever mistakes and failures we can count, whatever disappointments we have caused, the Holy Spirit gives us the tools that can enable us to be winners – to ‘conquer’ or ‘overcome’ the evil one.

What are those tools? They come in our being ‘strong’ and in ‘the word of God [abiding] in [us]’. We have a new strength in that the Gospel is about more than the forgiveness of our sins. The kingdom message is not only that we are forgiven through the Cross of Christ. It is also that we are given power to live differently, because the Holy Spirit lives in us. Therefore, in the face of temptation, we have new resources to call on. When we struggle on our own, we frequently fail. But we are a new creation in Christ, the Spirit of God resides within us, and sometimes what we need to do is call out to the Holy Spirit for help.

We also have the ‘tool’ of ‘the word of God [which] abides in [us]’. The message of the Gospel, encapsulated in the Scriptures, is available to us, just as Jesus used it time and again in the wilderness when he was tempted. One of the things we can do to build up our defences ready to withstand seasons of temptation is to soak ourselves in the Scriptures. Not so much the quickly dashed off reading of the Bible for daily devotions, but taking the time to meditate on the Scriptures and give time for them to soak into us.

All in all, then, we don’t have to face the temptations of worldly lusts and desires with just our own willpower. We face temptation, knowing that it is not about struggling to achieve a certain performance level of holiness, because we are already forgiven. We face it too, in the knowledge that we are known and loved by Jesus and his Father. We cannot earn their love by attaining perfection; rather, we know already they are on our side, full of grace, mercy and love for the broken and the failures. And to our astonishment, we are no longer weak but strong, because the Holy Spirit gives us not only his own power but also unlocks the power of the Scriptures, as we take deliberate steps to store them up in our hearts and minds during our ‘seven years of plenty’ before the spiritual famine comes.

Let us be encouraged, then, that by the grace of God, the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the resources to resist worldly appetites. May we live more closely according to this Good News.


[1] Tools For Talks; subscription required.

[3] Tools For Talks; subscription required.

[4] Marshall, op. cit.. p 140.

[5] Elvis Costello, Brilliant Mistake.

Carol Service Address: Who Is Christmas For?

Luke 2:1-20

Poverty
Father Christmas has let me in on the present my parents have bought for my wife. It’s the DVD of Mamma Mia. You may have heard that this has become the fastest-selling DVD or video of all time in the UK – faster even than Titanic. Maybe it’s more than the catchy songs of Abba.

Or it might have to do with the fact that when times are hard, we look for some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. Admittedly the current revived interest in stage musicals predates the recession, but it would be nothing new for there to be a revival of them during a recession. Certainly that was true in the nineteen thirties.

In the current climate, how many of us are spending less this Christmas? Or are we putting even more on the plastic and postponing the evil day? Could the Christmas story have a message for people whose credit is being crunched?

I think it does.

Sometimes we get the wrong image of Mary and Joseph. Some people assume that Joseph as a carpenter is some kind of self-employed businessman with a decent income – rather like the reputation of plumbers.  Then we grab hold of the attempts to book into an inn and think of them trying to get into the Bethlehem Travelodge. It’s not quite what you’d expect from people on benefits.

However, the traditional English translations that say ‘there was no room at the inn’ are almost certainly mistaken. The word translated ‘inn’ from the original Greek of the New Testament is one that means a guest room. That could be a guest room in an inn, but it could also be a guest room attached to a typical single-room Palestinian peasant dwelling.

Given the Palestinian emphasis on hospitality, that is more likely. Joseph’s relatives try to do what is expected of them and take the couple in, but all they can offer is the raised area where they keep their livestock. And hence the baby is laid in a feeding trough. This is a picture of poverty.

And later on, when the infant Jesus has to be dedicated in the Jerusalem Temple according to Jewish tradition, his parents make the lowest cost offering, the offering prescribed for the poor.

What do we have, then, in the arrival of Jesus to his mother and legal father? We have the presence of God in the middle of poverty.

The recession will mean poverty for some (although not on first century Palestinian terms), and reduced standards of living for others. But Jesus promises to turn up in the middle of difficult circumstances. Focussing on his presence – rather than presents – will make Christmas a celebration, whether we have a lot of gifts to open or not.

So if you are struggling this Christmas, invite Jesus in. He’s probably hanging around somewhere close already. Ask him to make his spiritual presence known in your time of difficulty. He’s used to that kind of situation. And his love transforms it.

Exclusion
Something else about my wife. Until she married me, she had lived all her life in the town where she was born: Lewes in East Sussex. If there is one thing for which Lewes is famous, it is the annual bonfire. Six ‘bonfire societies’ produce amazing public displays for the Fifth of November every year. You may know that historically, as a town steeped in the tradition of dissent, the Lewes Bonfire has paraded an effigy of Pope Paul V, alongside one of Guy Fawkes and of contemporary bogeymen, such as Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Ulrika Jonsson in recent years.

But you might recall the national controversy five years ago when one of the bonfire societies from the village of Firle made an effigy of gypsies in a caravan. The effigies are traditionally burned every year to the cry of ‘Burn them! Burn them!’ A group of travellers had particularly annoyed the residents of Firle that year, and hence the choice.

But several members of the bonfire society were arrested by police, and an investigation was carried out into whether criminal offences relating to racial hatred had been committed.

Why talk about Bonfire Night at Christmas? Because if you get a flavour of popular disdain for travellers and gypsies, you will get a feel for how shepherds were regarded in Palestine around the time of Jesus.

We have cuddly images of shepherds from our nativity plays, Christmas cards and perhaps from our carols, too. But the reality is that they weren’t liked that much. Oh, the Bethelehm shepherds could supply sheep for the Temple sacrifices in nearby Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t be allowed inside the Temple themselves. Popular opinion saw them as thieves.

Yet the angels show up for a group of first century pikeys. Excluded people. A group that suffered discrimination and prejudice. Were the birth of Jesus to have happened in our day, we might imagine angels showing up in a deportation centre for failed asylum seekers or an AIDS clinic.

Perhaps there is some aspect of your life that pushes you to the fringes of society. Maybe it’s a reason for people rejecting you. If so, then the Christmas message is one of Jesus coming to offer his love precisely for somebody like you.

And …
But what about everyone else? It’s very nice to say that Jesus has come for the poor and the excluded, but didn’t he come for everyone? Yes he did, and the message of the angels to the shepherds is a message for us all. The newborn baby is a Saviour (verse 11), and the angels sing that God is bringing peace on earth among those he favours (verse 14).

Now if we’ve heard the Christmas story over and over again in our lives, these references to ‘Saviour’ and ‘peace on earth’ might become part of the words that trip off our tongues without thinking. But we need to connect them to one other detail in the story. It came right at the beginning. Who issued the decree about the census? The Emperor Augustus (verse 1). Who was described as a saviour, because he had come to bring peace and an end to all wars? Augustus. Whose birthday became the beginning of the new year for many cities in the Empire? Augustus’.

Did he bring peace on earth? What do you think?

I don’t mention all this just to give you a history lesson, two days after the school term has finished. I think it has important connections today. Having talked about the poor and the excluded, let’s talk about one person who this year has been far from poor and certainly not excluded. Barack Obama.

Remember his slogan? ‘Change we can believe in.’ As one magazine said, it sounds like Yoda from Star Wars came up with it. Change was the word he kept emphasising. So much so that even his ‘change’ slogans kept changing!

The same magazine that likened his slogan to Yoda also interviewed John Oliver, the British comedian who appears on the American satirical TV programme The Daily Show. The journalist asked him, ‘How long will we be living in an Obama Wonderland?’ Three weeks, or at most four, said Oliver.

Why? Because politicians can’t deliver peace on earth. Augustus couldn’t. Obama won’t. It will be just as The Who sang, ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.’

Well, you might reasonably say that Jesus hasn’t brought peace on earth, either. Sometimes the Church has made sure of that, and we have a lot for which we need to apologise. It isn’t just the wars in the name of religion (although atheism and liberal democracy have a lot to answer for, too). It’s been our attitudes in ordinary relationships.

What we the Church have departed from has been the prescription of Jesus for peace on earth. Peace on earth means not only peace with God, because Jesus would die on the Cross to bring the forgiveness of our sins. That peace requires peaceable attitudes with one another.

The Christmas message, then, for all of us, is one not of indulgence but of sacrifice. In Jesus, God descends – even condescends – in humility to human flesh and a life of poverty, blessing the poor and the excluded. The descent continues all the way to the Cross, where he suffers for all. And having done all that, we cannot presume it’s just to receive a private blessing of forgiveness. It’s so that the peace we receive from him at great cost can be shared with one and all.

May peace be with us all this Christmas. May the peace of Christ be the most precious gift we give and receive.