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.
On Friday, by the wonders of the Internet, I listened to a podcast of my old college tutor giving a Bible Study on Isaiah 43. In it, he made a provocative statement. He said that many modern worship songs were like adverts for toilet paper. What he meant was this: the typical advert for toilet paper will tell you how soft it is and how strong it is, but it will never tell you what it is for. No advert for toilet paper tells you its purpose is for wiping your bottom. Similarly, some of our worship songs say how loving, kind and gentle Jesus is, but they never say what he came to do.
And I suggest – if it’s not too provocative for you – that we have treated our passage from Mark like an advert for toilet paper in a similar way. We have thought about the coming of Jesus, the call to discipleship and the invitation to make ‘fishers of men’ [sic] in a soft and strong, comforting way. But when we do, we miss dangerously what Jesus came to do here. I want to set that within these headings: coming, calling and commissioning.
Quick Bible trivia quiz – no one who has studied Theology is allowed to answer: which one of the four Gospels has none of the Christmas stories? Answer: Mark, the Gospel from which we have heard this morning. Mark is more concerned with the coming of Jesus in terms of his arrival on the scene as an adult, and that’s what happens here:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Verses 14-15)
At Christmas that in Christ God had come near to us. He is Immanuel, God with us. Mark shows us Jesus putting that into practice. In not just the birth of Jesus but his ministry too, God comes near. He comes near in space and near in time. In space he comes close – ‘Jesus came to Galilee’. And he comes close in time – ‘The time is fulfilled’.
Now here I want to suggest the ‘advert for toilet paper’ principle comes in again. Because that’s the way we sometimes talk about the coming of Jesus at Christmas. All the nice warm and fuzzy bits, but forgetting what Jesus came to do and why. Well, here is his coming portrayed by Mark not through the lens of Dickensian Christmas cards but through the closeness of his coming. And the closeness of Jesus’ coming in space and time makes things urgent.
Put it this way. If Jesus turned up physically in our midst today, how would we react? My guess is it wouldn’t be anything like the way we talk at Christmas. We might be nervous. We might think of our sins and failures. We might get down on our knees. We might not even dare to look at him. Because if the living God comes close, I think that’s a more likely reaction.
When Jesus comes to Galilee and announces that God’s time is fulfilled, then anyone who catches half a glimpse of who he is and a little bit of what this might mean is not going to sing Jingle Bells. No, there is something urgent about the coming of Jesus. In his coming, the kingdom of God is coming near. He is here on God’s business. Like a space mission perfectly timing the launch of a rocket to leave Earth’s orbit and land its lunar module at the right part of the Moon, so Jesus has come on God’s mission with precision timing. So we’d better believe this isn’t just the spiritual equivalent of ET showing up, or reruns of Robin Williams goofing around as an alien visitor in Mork and Mindy. The coming of Jesus is serious. It’s about the salvation of the world and all creation. Mark is telling us we’d better listen up. So what should we do? That follows in the second and third elements of the passage.
Well, if Jesus’ coming displays a sense of urgency and seriousness, it will be little surprise if the call he issues to people is of the same tone:
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Verse 15)
Repent and believe the good news. There is good news to believe about a God characterised by love, grace and mercy. But the route to receiving that good news is via repentance. That’s urgent. That’s serious.
Before very long we will hit Lent, and with my sabbatical I shall have no opportunity to share anything on that theme with you this year. However, the Lent themes are highlighted here: repent. We have to get beyond the giving up of chocolate, because this is about serious lifestyle changes (much as not eating chocs will be lifestyle alterations for some of us). Repentance is more than being sorry. It is about being sorry enough to commit to change. It is about taking a u-turn in our lives.
The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means to change one’s mind. In repentance, we change our minds about God, our lives and the world. We turn around a go a different way.
Now something as major as that is urgent and life-changing. To speak of ‘repenting at leisure’ is an outright contradiction. To wait for a death-bed conversion is playing fast and loose with God, even a merciful God.
You might think this just has to do with conversion and the initial discovery of faith in Jesus. It does have to do with that, but it is something that needs to become a habit. It’s no good thinking, ‘Phew, I got all that challenging repentance stuff done and dusted when I found Christ’ and then sit back for the ride with our ticket to heaven, because God will not be mocked. Repentance is the Christian’s regular habit. Not because we are people with a permanent downer about ourselves – ‘I’m just a worm’ and all that. No: it’s because God has set about a lifelong project of transforming us.
Jesus calls us to keep short accounts with God. Repentance is like a commitment to pay our bills on time, not to let our debts build up. I’m not saying, of course, that we would still pay for our sins: when we ‘repent and believe the Good News’ that is completely taken care of through the Cross of Christ. But I am using this as a metaphor: if God calls us to account about something, then are we in the habit of responding to him quickly?
And by the way, let us note also that when God calls us to repentance it is for something specific. It is never a general condemnation, as if he says, ‘You are worthless, hopeless and useless’ – that is the work of the enemy. He puts his finger on something in particular. And for that, he calls us to urgent action in changing our minds and making a u-turn.
Might he specifically call us to repent of those sins which undermine our life together as Christian community? Isn’t that why he has so much to say about the spiritual sickness of unforgiveness? Is it not the bitterness and petty quarrels that sometimes stain our churches that are worse denials of the Gospel than any arguments by atheists? Repentance becomes an urgent task for the sake of having a credible witness.
We move from the general message Jesus gave when he began his ministry, to the specific one he issued to Simon and Andrew (and presumably to James and John, too):
‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ (Verse 17)
Whenever I’ve quoted that saying of Jesus in a sermon, I’ve usually given a little reminder of the old chorus ‘I will make you fishers of men if you follow me’ and talked about how the disciples’ working life as fishermen was not wasted, but was a preparation for their ministry with Jesus. I’ve done that in this pulpit.
I still believe that. But this week as I prepared, I discovered something else about the call to be ‘fishers’ in a spiritual sense. It’s another ‘advert for toilet paper’ moment, where we may have missed the force of the meaning.
For once again, there is something urgent about this summons from Jesus, this commission to ‘fish for people’. There is an Old Testament background to this expression. It’s more than Jesus just making a clever play on words, based on their profession. No, the prophets see God as the great ‘fisher for people’, and whenever they speak that way, there is an ominous tone of judgment. Jeremiah 16:16, Ezekiel 29:4-5 and 38:4, Amos 4:2 and Habakkuk 1:14-17 all speak this way.
Combine that Old Testament context with the unusual sign of Jesus calling people to follow him, in contrast to the way the rabbis of his day waited for potential disciples to come to them, and you can’t miss the urgency of his words here. ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’ is a way of saying that if the kingdom of God is near, then not only is it time for us to get our lives in order, we need to find ways of calling other people to do the same. It’s the call to be evangelistic and prophetic in the world.
That kind of call is never popular or easy. Jesus came with his message ‘after John was arrested’ (verse 14) – arrested for condemning adultery in high places.
It is no easier today. People say, ‘Who are you to say that to us?’ Sadly, they are sometimes right to do so, given the track record of Christian hypocrisy. They call us ‘self-appointed moral guardians.’ Others say that we each have our own truth and we mustn’t impose whatever works for us on others.
So we’re tempted to backtrack, be very British and keep our religion to ourselves – just as our critics want. Yet isn’t there an alternative that falls in between strident judgmentalism on one hand and being ashamed of the Gospel on the other?
I think there is. It involves actively living out our faith in the world in such a way as to earn our right to be heard. Tony Campolo used to tell a story about a poverty-stricken nation close to his heart, the Dominican Republic. In one village where the communists were highly influential, a Christian doctor would spend his days treating the sick, especially from the poorest groups who could not afford to pay for medical care. By night he would go around the village, preaching the Gospel. The local communist leader grudgingly admitted that the doctor had earned his right to be heard.
I believe we are called to something similar. It involves us living out a full-blooded compassionate lifestylee in the world, so much so that people want to know what makes us do it. Then we tell them about Jesus, no holds barred.
I can’t guarantee such an approach will protect us from criticism – Jesus warned us that goodness will always face opposition. But I can suggest that this is a Christlike response to our commissioning that can get under the radar in a society that is decreasingly sympathetic to the Good News.
In a recession, we might just have what they need. After all, the ‘atheist bus campaign’ with its advertising slogan ‘There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’ looks a bit sick in these economically straitened times, doesn’t it?
So isn’t it time that we responded again to the urgency at the heart of Jesus’ coming, the urgency in his call to repent and believe, and the urgency of taking up his commission to be and to share Good News in our communities?