In the time from Margaret Thatcher’s recent death to her funeral last Wednesday, I have been involved in three funerals. We hosted a funeral at the church, prior to a burial at Brookwood Cemetery, because the chapel there was in too distressing a state for the family. We have had the funeral of a church member’s mother. I am preparing for another funeral tomorrow, too: I had taken an elderly lady’s funeral a year ago, but when her daughter died younger than most, her children asked for ‘the minister who conducted Granny’s funeral.’
None of these three people was famous, and certainly not like Mrs Thatcher. Yet they all share one thing in common with her, as we all do. Death comes to us all, as today’s reading in Ecclesiastes reminds us:
All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. (Verse 2a)
The same destiny overtakes all. (Verse 3)
“Lying here, she is one of us,” said the Bishop of London in his address, and while the trappings of a ceremonial funeral seemed designed to separate the grocer’s daughter of Grantham from mere mortals, death remains the great fact and great equaliser.
When you are younger, you may live as if you are immortal. As you grow older, reality dawns on you. It may come in the death of a friend or loved one; it may come as you notice signs of decay in your own body. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes invites us to ask this question: how do we live well in the certain knowledge of death? I offer two main thoughts this morning.
Firstly, live life well. This seems to be the Preacher’s main advice in the passage:
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labour under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Verses 7-10)
You could easily interpret this along the lines of, ‘This life is all there is, so you might as well make the most of it.’ Even if you substitute the word ‘temporary’ for the word ‘meaningless’ as I’ve suggested in previous weeks, you would still be talking about ‘this temporary life’ and ‘all your temporary days’. It might boil down to little more than, ‘God has only given you this life, so get on with it.’
But that’s rather worrying, isn’t it? And this is one of those Old Testament texts where the Christian has to bring in the New Testament for a fuller understanding. Left on its own, this passage is not fully Christian. It needs filling out with New Testament revelation. Ecclesiastes reminds us of the finality of death and that we need to live life well before dying, rather than just wait for death. However, the story of Jesus Christ reworks this into a fuller picture.
What is that fuller picture? Simply put, it is one word: resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is far bigger than a promise of eternal life for all his followers (although I do not deny that!). It is the promise of a new world to come, a new creation where God makes all things new, just as he made the body of his Son new after crucifixion. It is the foretaste of new heavens and a new earth.
In other words, we are not dealing with some ethereal life, floating on clouds, playing harps. If harp playing is a requirement, then only one person in this congregation has an eternal future! Rather: it is a physical and material future, seen in the way the Risen Lord cooked and ate fish.
Therefore, to eat and drink, to love and to work well, as the Preacher suggests, are appropriate preparations for the life of the age to come. When we enjoy God’s good creation with thankfulness, we tune in to the coming age. When we love and when we work hard, despite the struggles they involve due to the presence of sin in this world, we tune into the life to come.
Sometimes we are tempted to think in life that what we are doing is worthless or pointless. ‘Why am I giving myself to this?’ we ask ourselves. We might even ask God the same question. However, that is where one of Paul’s greatest insights into the meaning of the Resurrection comes into play. It’s a verse that some of you know came to be very important to me during an extremely hard season in my life. It’s the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle’s great chapter on the Resurrection. Just when many of us would expect him to point at the climax of his argument to God’s glorious future, he instead brings us back to this earth with a practical application:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
Aligning yourself with God’s will ‘is not in vain.’ Death will not destroy it. Somehow it will be taken up in the work of building for God’s kingdom. If God has given you a task to do, there is an eternal purpose to it. If God has given you something to enjoy, then do so with gratitude and generosity, not with greed, for that generosity and gratitude is the grain of the wood in his kingdom.
But what is true is this: one day, the opportunity in this life to build for that kingdom will be gone. We have limited time, and as the Preacher says at the end of the passage, ‘no one knows when their hour will come’ (verse 12). So take the opportunity. Do you have an opening to good or to celebrate God’s gifts? Take it! Remember the slogan from the Robin Williams film from 1989, ‘Dead Poets’ Society’; ‘Carpe Diem’ – seize the day. In the face of death but with the hope ofresurrection, that is what the Christian will do in order to live life well, in a manner that pleases God.
Secondly, prepare for death. On the day of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral, Giles Fraser had an excellent piece in The Guardian entitled, ‘How to bury Margaret Thatcher’. If you saw a title like that by a left-wing clergyman like Fraser in a paper like the Guardian, you would probably expect something vitriolic. Not so. Fraser spoke how when he was on the staff of St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘Operation True Blue’, the plans for Mrs Thatcher’s funeral arrangements, were on the books all the time he was there. We know that Mrs T had made certain requests about her funeral, as indeed many more humble people do. But I am not talking about leaving a list of requests for the service – although I have to say that if you do so, it is helpful to your relatives after you have gone.
No: I am talking about preparing for our deaths in squaring our relationship with God in Christ, and all the consequences of it. Fraser tells of how last Sunday, the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, Mark Oakley, told a story in his sermon about the funerals of Habsburg royalty in Austria:
As the funeral procession approached the closed doors of the Imperial chapel in Vienna, a voice from inside would ask, “Who is it?” The grand chamberlain would read out a long list of grand titles. The voice from the church then replied: “We know him not.” The chamberlain would try again, with a shortened version, and received the same reply. Finally, the chamberlain knocks on the door. Again comes the question, “Who is it?”, and this time, eschewing all pomp and ceremony, he answers: “A sinner in need of God’s mercy.” “Him we know; enter,” comes the reply.
Here is how we prepare for death: as ‘a sinner in need of God’s mercy.’ The Preacher in Ecclesiastes writes here as if there is nothing after death:
Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
5 For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
6 Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun. (Verses 4-6)
However, as I’ve already said, the Christian has received further revelation, the revelation of an empty tomb, and we believe in a life to come, preceded by a Last Judgement. We do not intend to present ourselves before God, clutching a eulogy to our lives that exaggerates our good points and airbrushes the bad bits. We are not to be the Pharisee at the temple, telling God how well we have lived for him, but the publican standing at a distance, saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Is that to be morbid and to be miserable? Is that to engage in what I once heard somebody call ‘worm theology’ – ‘O Lord, I am but a worm’?
No. It is to cast ourselves on the grace of God. I’m sure you know the old mnemonic for the word ‘grace’: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. In other words, we are forgiven through Christ’s death on the Cross and made new in his Resurrection.
Or put it this way. Here is a slogan I saw the other day on Facebook:
Grace is the face love wears when it meets imperfection.
We prepare for death by remembering that we are sinners in need of God’s gracious love in Christ. We are, as the late Brennan Manning called himself and all of us, ‘ragamuffins.’ If we come boasting of our good deeds, we shall only be exposed as the hypocrites we are.
There is no room for cover-ups. In his book ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’, Manning tells of being in a group for alcoholics with a man who kept presenting his drinking problem as not too bad. However, the counsellor practised tough love and ruthlessly exposed his lies and deceit, even to the point of having left his daughter in a car on her own during freezing weather while he went on a bender for hours. The daughter developed frostbite and permanently lost her hearing. Only when the man had been brought to honesty about his sins and had put away his egregious attempts to present himself in a good light could redemption come.
It is the same with us before God. If we try to come as good people, decent people, valued pillars of society, God will not be impressed with us. But if we present ourselves as sinners needing forgiveness, and sinners willing to be transformed by the resurrection of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, then just as the imperial chapel was opened to the dead body of Habsburg royalty, so the court of heaven is opened to the deceased pilgrim in Christ.
It’s interesting we come to a passage about justice six days after the death of Margaret Thatcher. Did she uphold the rule of law for the sake of good order in society, or did she use the Police to batter ordinary working people?
I’m not going to express an opinion on that debate. I have my views, and while I tend a certain way about Mrs T, my beliefs can’t be summed up in just a sentence or two.
But we come to the writer of Ecclesiastes, living in a vastly different society from ours, yet asking similar questions about justice and authority to ones that many people ask today. After all, as The Who sang in ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’,
Meet the new boss,
Same as the old boss.
So we’ll look at the questions Qoheleth (‘The Preacher’) raises in this passage. We’ll have to take some of his answers further in order to set them in a New Testament context, but I couldn’t pick just one New Testament passage to complement this one, because there are a few we need to take into account.
Firstly, he advises his readers to keep the law. It’s for a mixture of reasons, though:
Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. 3 Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. 4 Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
5 Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm,
and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure.
6 For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter,
though a person may be weighed down by misery. (Verses 2-6)
It all starts off rather well: obey ‘because you took an oath before God.’ Whether this is like an oath in a court of law, or whether it simply indicates that someone on principle has declared before God that they will obey the king, it is something that takes promises to God seriously. Those who make serious promises to God should keep their word. No-one should be frivolous about their vows to the Lord. If we are not going to keep a commitment to him, we should not say that we will.
Now this has an indirect effect on a just society. Justice requires truth-tellers. Justice requires those committed to honesty. Whether you take an oath to God in court or simply make an affirmation because Jesus said ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no’ in the Sermon on the Mount, false testimony leads to injustice.
But at the same time, just promising to obey the king because he wields power as Qoheleth implies in verse 3 is insufficient in itself. It may be a minimal reason for doing right, but on its own it is no more than a pragmatic reason, based on fear. It’s the social cousin of the parents who say to a child, “Because I say so!”
Ultimately, the New Testament has an even stronger reason for commending a general principle of obedience to the authorities. Paul describes it in Romans 13, where he says that the authorities are instituted by God for the purposes of justice. They are both to punish the wrongdoer and reward those who do right. This is seen by Paul as promoting a stable and healthy society.
Now don’t you think it’s quite remarkable that a man of Paul’s experience should say such positive things about the state? He is someone who on more than one occasion suffered at the hands of the judiciary for the wrong reasons. He was arrested under false charges. He was thrown into prison on trumped-up charges. He was not always protected when he was attacked. Yet despite this, he still wrote about the basic need to submit to those in authority.
I am sure that various questions are forming in your minds about this. One would be: how does this black and white language about rewarding the righteous and punishing the wrongdoer relate to Christian belief in forgiveness? Allow me to tell you a story.
During my ministerial training, I celebrated my thirtieth birthday one Sunday. Another student and his wife invited me over to their flat for a wild celebration over … beans on toast. At the end of the evening, they offered to call a cab for me, but I declined. I felt I knew what I was doing as a city boy – and I didn’t want to shell out unnecessary money as a student.
Big mistake. On the way back to the hall of residence where the single ministerial students lived, I was mugged by a young thug. The first thing he did was to smash my glasses, and he then compounded it by hitting me in the eyes.
When I struggled back to the hall, one student phoned up my bank to cancel my plastic money, and another (who was a former solicitor) took me to the police station, and stayed with me into the early hours while I was interviewed and gave a statement.
I am sure the young hooligan was known to the local community, but the police never made an arrest. I was asked at a later date whether I would have given evidence in court, had he been apprehended. I replied, ‘Yes, just so long as I was sure first that I had forgiven him in my heart.’ It is my conviction that we need to forgive for the sake of our hearts, and to uphold justice for the sake of a stable society.
But there is another question Christians will pose about law-keeping, and it’s this. Do we really have to give our loyalty to an unjust government? How do we cope with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 when obeying a government would put us into conflict with things we know elsewhere are God’s will?
In 1981, while apartheid was still entrenched in South Africa, a black Christian community worker from Soweto, visited London. While he was here, he was interviewed by Simon Jenkins, the editor of a small magazine called Ship Of Fools that is now a large Christian website. During the interview, Jenkins asked him, ‘How do you respond to Paul’s words in Romans 13 about submitting to the governing authorities because they are given by God?’
It is very clear that the South African government is a government which has not been appointed by God, and if God has appointed that government then he must be a very, very unjust God. Personally, I believe that God has nothing to do with the appointment of the apartheid government in South Africa. If I believed that God had appointed that government, then I should not be against apartheid.
Mbeje’s words point, I believe, to the fact that Romans 13 is not the only word in the New Testament about our attitude to authority, just as the call to obey the king in Ecclesiastes 8 is not the only thing the Preacher says about the subject. As well as Romans 13, there is Revelation 13, where Rome is the Beast. They lead us to the second of the two themes in our reading, then, namely the imperfection of justice. In the rest of the chapter, we read about the wicked being praised (verse 10), delayed justice (verse 11), and some occasions where the wicked get what they deserve but others where what they deserve and what the righteous deserve get reversed (verses 12-14). No wonder nobody can make sense of this, he says (verses 16-17).
And this is why I called this sermon ‘Justice and Meaninglessness’ on the sermon series outline. Things don’t always go as they should. We bring up our children on a ‘happy ever after’, people get what they deserve basis, where every story ends with goodness being praised and wrong being punished, but as we grow up we soon discover life doesn’t always cash out like that. For me, I think it was watching an episode of the TV cop show ‘Softly, Softly’ which ended with the police not catching the criminal. I started to ask questions of my parents. How could it be? This was real life, they told me.
And I’d be surprised if there were anyone here today who doesn’t recognise that. Life isn’t fair. The good don’t always win. Bad people get their way. How can this be?
No wonder Qoheleth says in verses 14and 15,
There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.
Note that word ‘meaningless’ that keeps cropping up in Ecclesiastes. The failure of justice always to win can make life seem meaningless. It just seems like a counsel of despair. The commendation to enjoy life then becomes little more than ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’.
But I take you back to the beginning of this series. On the first Sunday of the series, which we introduced with an all age service, we also had an evening service where I looked at chapter 1 in more depth. I pointed out that the familiar words, ‘Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless’ in Ecclesiastes may better be translated, ‘Breath of breaths, everything is temporary’. If you plug that meaning in here, then actually we have words of hope. The failure of justice to prevail at all times is not meaningless, it is temporary. As Christians, we believe that a new world is coming, ushered in by resurrection and final judgement. The imperfections of justice are not for eternity. Sheep will be separated from goats.
And you know what? This is an Easter theme. Paul in Romans 1 speaks about the Resurrection of Jesus as being God’s vindication of his Son. An injustice was done at the Cross. Throughout the Book of Acts, preachers such as Peter remind their hearers of that. But on Easter morning, God reversed the injustice. The world had said ‘no’ to his Son, but he said ‘yes’. It’s another case where the Easter event is a foretaste of all that is to come in the fullness of God’s kingdom.
Let us remember that the imperfection of justice is temporary. That can spur us on to work for justice with a sense of hope. It is also, then, why the Preacher commends ‘the enjoyment of life’ to his hearers. The Christian can enjoy life, even in the midst of an unjust world. It isn’t a closing of deaf ears to the cries of the suffering. It isn’t a making the most of life before it all disappears. It is instead defiant laughter in the face of evil. Eating and drinking and being glad in the midst of our daily toil is one sign on our part that we believe a new world is coming, and that God has served notice to quit on the forces of darkness.
 Ship Of Fools, issue no. 8, December 1981, p 36.
Peter was known as a bit of a lad in the office where I used to work. But one day, his world was turned upside-down. His girlfriend became a Christian. She joined a local evangelical church, and invited him to the Sunday night youth group.
Knowing I was a Christian, he talked to me about the experience on the Monday morning.
“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I thought you Christians were not supposed to be worried about wealth and possessions. But we went to the home of the old boy who ran the group, and he kept going on and on about how much he loved his expensive new three-piece suite. How do you square that with Christianity?”
You can’t, can you?
Peter had a point. And maybe behind it for me is a thought that we as Christians have more of a problem with wealth and materialism than we like to admit.
And so in a week when our time in Ecclesiastes brings us to this trenchant passage about money, I think we need to consider the subject. Is it possible that we are not as distinctive from the world as we might be? Is it even possible that rather than hearing the biblical admonition not to love the world, we are more like spiritual chameleons, adopting the local colour with ease?
Make no mistake: we cannot dismiss this as just some stereotyping of Surrey residents. The statistics support it. Measured by property prices, we live in the wealthiest county in the UK. We have the second highest ratio of multimillionaires, beaten only by the concentration of Premier League footballers in Greater Manchester. I can assure you that my children have noticed it. They ask me why their school friends have multiple foreign holidays every year, while we always stay in the UK. I’m not complaining about being on a stipend, which technically is a living allowance and not a salary – I knew what I was letting myself in for. (Although I confess I’m touched when Mark observes that ministers do one of the most important jobs in the world, so they should be highly paid!) I just want you to know how obvious it is.
And if we do merge in with the local background, then consider this: I think I have told you before that in my first few weeks here, one of my colleagues raised this question: ‘Is the Gospel against Surrey?’ Does the Gospel stand against the values espoused by so many people in this wealthy county?
I would have thought it does. I am aware that there are a number of people in our congregation on very limited, fixed incomes, and if that is you, I promise you I do not have you in mind. I also know that there are people here on considerable incomes, who are also generous. I am privy to some wonderful stories of generosity in this congregation. But generally it is always a danger for Christians that we accommodate to the culture. Partly that may be out of a desire to be accepted, but it is also partly because we find that culture attractive anyway.
So do we need to hear the force of the Preacher’s words in this passage, that wealth is meaningless? Hear chapter 5, verse 10 again:
Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
One of the extremely rich members of a past generation – and I confess I can’t remember whether this was Rothschild or Rockefeller – was once asked, ‘How much money is enough?’ He replied, ‘Always just a little bit more than you already have.’
Furthermore, increased wealth is to some extent an inbuilt factor in Christian conversion. John Wesley noticed the phenomenon called ‘redemption and lift’. Finding Christ led to a reduced spending on bad habits, making for more disposable income. Not only that, imbibing Christian values of hard work led people to earn more money. Put these effects together and conversion helped people financially. Indeed, as Wesley’s own fame increased and he sold more books and pamphlets, he noticed that his own annual income rose from £30 (remember we’re talking about the eighteenth century!) to £120. However, he calculated that throughout those years he only needed £28 on which to live, and therefore he gave away any income he had over that amount.
I shall come a little later to some of the thoughts about how we might handle the financial blessings many of us have, but that was Wesley’s approach.
All around us we find the trappings and the temptations of wealth. I am fast thinking that there is a local catchphrase. I have heard it so often in this village: ‘You should go private.’ Whether we’re talking healthcare or education, there seems to be a local assumption for many: you should go private. More than one person who knows we have a very bright son has told us we should send him to the Royal Grammar School at Guildford. If we’re lucky, they have a second thought along the lines of ‘Oh, I suppose you can’t afford that.’ There can be occasions when there is no alternative but to take the private route, but around Knaphill I find many people who treat that option as an easy default.
All this happens in a world where at Addlestone we host one of the three hundred food banks in this country, where our denomination has contributed to the ecumenical report by the Joint Public Issues Team called ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty’, which forcefully exposes the demonisation of the poor in our society. In the USA, a film has just been released called ‘A Place at the Table’, which documents the fact that 49 million people in that nation including one in four children – don’t know where their next meal is coming from. How appropriate is it for us to drink in Surrey values, especially in the light of this, let alone what is happening elsewhere in the world?
Some people deal with this by downsizing and simplifying their lives. A dear friend of mine quit as a director of his company, and he and his wife moved to a hamlet in the West Country, where they got involved in the local community in various ways. However, that approach isn’t possible for everybody. For some Christians to do that would involve denying the position of responsibility they have been given at work, and their sense of calling to it.
How, then, might Christians respond and live distinctively within a culture that ignores God and worships Mammon instead? I would commend a passage such as 1 Timothy 6 as a great antidote to the perils of caving in to our culture. In the face of people who have wandered from the faith into deep distress due to their love of money (verse 10) he urges ‘godliness with contentment’ (verse 6). He then commands the rich to be generous, while at the same time remembering that God provides us with everything for our enjoyment (verse 17).
So what kind of Christian lifestyle might we pursue if we were content with the basics God gives us? It will look different for each of us – there is no uniform response – so if you are looking for a very simple ‘We should all just tithe’ sermon, I’m sorry. But let me offer the following thoughts.
I said earlier that I am paid a stipend, not a salary, and that the key difference is this: theoretically, a salary is ‘the rate for the job’ (or, perhaps, simply the result of a power struggle in bargaining between employer and employees). A stipend is a living allowance. It is meant to be enough so as not to be in want, and to free me to concentrate on my calling without the need to spend a lot of time elsewhere, supplementing my income. Now while that is a rather idealistic description and the reality can be somewhat harder, let me ask this: what if we as Christians prayerfully determined what would be a reasonable level of income for ourselves (including savings) and gave money away that would otherwise take us above that standard of living?
You could say I am suggesting something that is a variation on Wesley’s approach. You’ll remember I said that he continued to live on £28 a year, whether his income was £30 or £120. His motto was ‘Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.’ Is that an approach that commends itself to us?
I said also this wouldn’t be a simple ‘We should all tithe’ response, but tithing needs a mention. The tithes of the Old Testament were rather more complicated than some people like to make out, and the simplified version that is often preached – ‘Give ten per cent of your income to the church’ – doesn’t do that justice and also puts a disproportionate burden on the poor and lets the rich off lightly. However, back in the late 1970s, the American Christian social activist Ronald Sider suggested a variation that tried to address this problem. He called for Christians to adopt the principle of what he called the ‘graduated tithe’. People started out at a base level of giving a certain percentage of their income – say, the ten per cent. However, as their income increased, not only would their giving increase pro rata, they would also increase the percentage of their income that they gave away to the church and to the poor. Alongside that, he proposed other lifestyle decisions, like only buying a new suit no more frequently than every three years. If you want to read more about his ideas, pick up his book ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.’
Let me commend another practice to you. I believe this won’t be entirely new to some of you. I call it the ‘Bob and Kay Fund.’ Bob and Kay were a couple – both now sadly deceased – who were great friends with my parents. Bob had been an executive in the advertising industry but quit that to be the publicity and appeals director of the Shaftesbury Society. I know of at least one occasion when Bob and Kay were generous to my parents in difficult times. When pressed about it, they said they kept a special fund into which they put money, in additional to their regular giving to their church. They then used that sporadically to meet specific needs they came across. Is that something you could do, perhaps administering it out of a separate bank account?
What about our homes? I have heard it said that many people in this area are ‘asset rich but cash poor.’ Hospitality is one of the sadly unsung spiritual gifts in Scripture. Are there ways in which you could be more hospitable, and not just to your close friends?
Whatever giving you do, I recommend this question: am I doing this as a sign of my desire to build for the kingdom of God, and to play an active part in the kingdom community, that is, the church? Or am I just putting something in that I regard in a similar way to the subs I pay to the golf club, the tennis club or the fitness centre?
A final story: Martin Smith was the lead vocalist of the Christian rock band Delirious? Even if you don’t follow Christian rock, you may well know some of their songs, such as ‘I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.’ They sold huge numbers of CDs – at least, by the standards of the religious scene. Also gaining royalties as the main songwriter, Smith earned a very comfortable living. The band toured the world and occasionally made the pop charts.
It was on a visit to India, though, that Smith had his heart broken by meeting a young girl through an outreach to prostitutes and their children. He realised that these girls witnessed things they should never see, and would almost certainly soon end up in prostitution themselves. As a father himself, this distressed him hugely. He and the band set out to support Christian outreaches to them and their mothers.
But at a later date, he realised that he needed to build his own recording studio. He then had an attack of conscience. Could he really do this when the need in India was so great? The money he planned to spend on the studio would fund ten workers with the Indian poor. What should he do?
He built the recording studio. It was central to his calling to make music to promote Jesus Christ, and therefore he concluded it wasn’t greedy to do so. Hence that’s my last point: in the use of your wealth, consider God’s calling on your life.
How, then, will you and I determine to use our resources in a way that makes our wealth meaningful rather than meaningless?
 Martin Smith, Delirious: My Journey with the Band, a Growing Family, and an Army of Historymakers, p 189.
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.
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.
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.’ 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?