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Sermon: Eternity Versus Meaninglessness

Ecclesiastes 3:1-22

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[1]:

  1. Creative management of God’s world;
  2. Moral management for the good of all;
  3. 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.

[1] Graham Dow, A Christian Understanding of Daily Work, Grove Books Pastoral Series #57, 1994.

Sermon: The Majesty of God in Creation

Psalm 8

Last Sunday evening, I got in after Richard Goldstraw’s farewell service and tea at Addlestone to find that we had a new temporary resident in the manse.

The Queen.

OK, it was a life-size cardboard cut-out of her, and apparently it is doing the rounds of every house in our road that will have her, ever since the Diamond Jubilee street party.

Jokingly, I put up a comment on my Facebook page, saying that this had happened, and asking any of my friends if they had any messages they would like me to relay to her. These included one friend who had recently been to a Buckingham Palace garden party asking me to give her a cheery wave and say ‘thanks’ for the tea. Another thought I could ask her to whip up a sermon for today. Somebody wanted to know if she had changed her mobile number. And another saw the opportunity for a lucrative business opening. I could advertise my services to parents who are regularly nagging their children over their manners by offering a practice Royal Garden Party. They could ‘meet the Queen’ and ‘have tea with the vicar’.

Of course, I wanted to have some fun with this, but our concept of a ruler’s majesty has declined over the years. The Psalmist, on the other hand, has a rich view of God’s majesty. Yet even then, the way in which that majesty is expressed on earth and in the heavens (verse 1) is surprising at times.

Firstly, God shows his glory in weakness.

Recently I had to take our daughter Rebekah on a Brownies’ trip to the dry ski slope at Aldershot, where the girls had an hour of ‘donutting’ – that is, coming down the dry ski slope in a glorified large rubber tyre, while wearing helmets for safety. As we arrived at the car park, Brown Owl suddenly got very excited and shouted to everyone, “Look! A Vulcan!”

I should explain that this was not a reference to Star Trek but to a Vulcan bomber that could be seen in the sky. The Farnborough Air Show was about to start.

And maybe an air show like that is what we expect in terms of rulers showing their power and might. They use displays of military hardware or force. Think back to all those parades of the Soviet Army through Red Square that we used to see on the news.

But God goes explicitly against this in the display of his majesty:

Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger. (Verse 2)

What could contradict military might much more than ‘the mouths of babes and infants’? Those who claim might and majesty by force are those God treats as enemies. He shows his glory instead in a tiny, fragile life.

The Psalmist wasn’t to know this, but several hundred years later God would show this explicitly. His majesty would be seen not in the palaces of Rome or Jerusalem, but in a manger in Bethlehem. Supremely Christians see this in the incarnation of Jesus. There is God’s upside-down majesty. Wonder at his glory in, say, the words of Charles Wesley:

Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

For me, this is captured in the words of a contemporary Christian poet and singer, Bruce Cockburn, in two of his songs. One is called ‘Cry of a Tiny Babe’.

The chorus says:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

Why does ‘redemption [rip] through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe’? Because this is how God shows the splendour of his glory – his majesty. He does so in a reversal of the world’s ways and the world’s values. In the scandal of humility, God reveals his glory.

What does that mean for us? Go to another Cockburn song, one called ‘Shipwrecked at the Stable Door’.

The stable door of the song is the stable in Bethlehem. In the lyrics of the final verse, Cockburn connects the frailty of the Incarnation with the revolutionary words of the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit –
Blessed are the meek
For theirs shall be the kingdom
That the power mongers seek
Blessed are the dead for love
And those who cry for peace
And those who love the gift of earth –
May their gene pool increase

Cockburn took inspiration here from a wonderful spiritual writer called Brennan Manning. The final chapter of one of his books, ‘The Lion and the Lamb’, is called ‘The Shipwrecked at the Stable’. Manning makes the case that it is the poor and the weak who find hope in the infant Christ:

The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences – “Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!

All the time they are battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they are being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought was important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.

The God who comes to us in weakness and vulnerability can only be encountered in weakness and humility. Strutting pride and forceful power are not the entry tickets to the kingdom of God. The vulnerable God of Bethlehem meets those who are weak, who admit their need of him, and in doing so reveals his majesty.

Secondly, God shows his glory in insignificance.

I grew up as the son of an amateur astronomer. Even now, my father still belongs to the British Astronomical Association. One Saturday, Dad took me to London for a BAA lecture given by Patrick Moore. I didn’t understand it, but I noticed how he spent as much time afterwards answering the children’s questions as he did the adults’. Conversations at home were punctuated with Sirius, Orion, the Plough, the Pleiades, Aldebaran and the star I as a child called Beetlejuice. Television meant the Apollo missions, Tomorrow’s World and James Burke science shows. To learn that the nearest star outside our solar system was four light years away – that’s 23 trillion miles – was mind-blowing and awe-inspiring. Later, when I came to faith in my mid-teens, although I had not kept up the interest in astronomy, to gaze up at a clear night sky was to engender a spirit of worship:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Verses 3-4)

The Psalmist didn’t know what we know about the night sky, but what we know gives these words even greater force: our Sun is but one star among between two and four hundred billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. There are one hundred and seventy billion known galaxies in the observable universe.

In a world like that, don’t you feel tiny and insignificant? No wonder some people say our own planet Earth is just ‘the third stone from the Sun’.

No wonder others say that humans are just ‘dust in the wind’.

The contemporary atheist movement makes a lot of this. It says that the scale of things are such that it is ludicrous to see human beings as in any way special. We are just an impersonal consequence of the Big Bang and evolution.

What is difficult for these arguments is the evidence for the fine-tuning of the universe. An apologist for the Christian faith called Andrew Wilson lays out some of these in his recent book ‘If God, Then What?’ According to Wilson, there are fifteen different mathematical constant numbers that all have to be right to one part in a million (or even more precisely) for life to exist. If the ratio between the strong nuclear constant and the electromagnetic constant were different by one part in ten million billion, we would have no stars. If the balance between the gravity constant and the electromagnetic constant altered by one part in 1040, the stars would not be able to sustain life. And there are many others. Wilson quotes scientists who say that it is like ‘the universe knew we were coming’ and laid out a ‘cosmic welcome mat’.

But more than this, the Psalmist sees human beings as having a specific status and dignity in creation:

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour. (Verse 5)

And not only that, this special status comes with a particular function on God’s behalf:

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
(Verses 6-8)

Instead of being meaningless, human beings have dignity and responsibility in creation. In the face of feeling insignificant amidst the vastness and power of creation, God grants to the human race the moral management of creation on earth. This is our calling as a race, and it has huge implications.

For one, this is a restatement of Genesis chapter one, where the function of human beings made in God’s image was to look after this planet. That is far from insignificant. It is humans who feel insignificant. That is not how God regards us.

‘Looking after this planet’ implies our daily work. One sadness I encounter in pastoral conversations is with Christians who think that because they are not ordained or do not work for the church, what they do is of little value to God. I think this is a legacy of our past. The Catholic understanding of vocation was indeed something like this. You had vocations into the priesthood, or into a religious order as a nun or a monk. The Protestant Reformation widened this, and so we began praying for people in the healing, caring and education professions.

But there are all sorts of opportunities for Christian vocation if our calling as people made in God’s image is to look after his world. Graham Dow, who was Bishop of Carlisle until three years ago, wrote a booklet on ‘A Christian Understanding of Daily Work’. He argued that there were three purposes of work for Christians:

  1. Creative management of God’s world.
  2. Moral management for the good of all.
  3. A community of good relationships.

While he didn’t go as far as Martin Luther, who once said that if the job of village hangman fell vacant, the conscientious Christian should apply, we can see from these three purposes of work that we have many opportunities to give glory to God in everyday life and work.

Although it would take a whole sermon to explore the three purposes of work, I want you to see that tomorrow morning, you have an opportunity to give glory to our majestic God in your work. Whether you are in paid employment, doing unpaid work, unemployed or retired, God has set us in a world where we may work to his praise and glory, whether what we do is overtly religious or not.

Yes, in weakness and in work, we can live our lives in ways that reflect the words with which the Psalmist both begins and ends here:

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Verses 1 and 9)