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

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

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first is our work:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second idol is our senses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: The Prologue – Word, Life And Light

And here beginneth the first blog entry in a few weeks. Not only have I spent the last two Sundays either repeating an old sermon 0r taking part in all-age worship, other matters have drained my time and energies – not least a painful situation that led to us urgently transferring our children to a new school.

But now, we begin a new sermon series for Advent, based on the Prologue to John’s Gospel. I’ve wanted to do this for a few years at Advent, and this is my chance. We kick off tomorrow morning with the first five verses from John 1:1-18.

John 1:1-5
He is the man for whom the word ‘curmudgeon’ was probably invented. Bitter that he has not become the international superstar he deserves to be, jealous of others and angry at the machinations of the music industry in which he works. He fluctuates between belief in God and a raw atheism.

Yet when he sings of things spiritual, and he combines his Celtic roots with the blues traditions he loves, his music transports me to another place. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr Van Morrison.

And he’s here this morning. (If only.)

In one of my favourite songs of his, the chorus says,

Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder?
Didn’t I come to lift your fiery vision bright?
Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder in the flame?[1]

A sense of wonder is what this Advent sermon series is all about. For me, there is nothing like reading the Prologue to John’s Gospel for giving me a sense of wonder about Jesus, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate again.

Why not share for a moment with your neighbour what gives you a sense of wonder about the coming of Jesus?

What gives me a sense of wonder about the coming of Jesus is to think about who this Jesus is, who came in flesh. This morning, the first five verses of the Prologue give us three words to meditate on that give me that sense of wonder about the One who came.

And the first word is … Word:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. (Verses 1-2)

The Word. Because Jesus isn’t called Jesus until he is born, fully human, fully divine. Before the Incarnation, Jesus is the Word. Even before his birth, he is God speaking to us. He is God’s self-expression. We talk about the Bible as the Word of God, but because the Bible itself says that Jesus is the Word, we should refer to the Bible as the Word of God written, whereas Jesus is the living Word of God. Jesus is the guarantee that God speaks. God is not silent. In the Second Person of the Trinity, God speaks.

This Word of God is part of the divine fellowship: he is with God, and he is God, and he was with God from the beginning. Here, before all things, is the fellowship of love that is the Trinity. During our sermon series on 1 John, I argued that the statement ‘God is love’ only makes sense if God can express love within creation. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit; the Son loves the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. We get a hint of that here: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Here is that fellowship of love that has existed since before creation. Here, the Word is part of that love which must extend beyond its own boundaries. When we read that the Word was with God, we get hints of the love that led to creation and the love that led to redemption.
Jesus, the Word, expresses this inner love of the Trinity that will lead to creation and redemption. In these coming weeks, as we sing carols such as ‘Love came down at Christmas’, we shall be singing of this truth. It is a truth that has been since before the foundation of the universe. What we celebrate at Advent and Christmas is something that goes back before the Big Bang. Look into the night sky at the stars, whose light we see so many aeons since they emitted the waves that finally reach the Earth, and realise that way before that light ever left those celestial bodies, God was love and God was speaking. In the Incarnation we are about to celebrate, we look with awe at the constellations and galaxies that fill our skies and our telescopes, and however much we marvel at them, we remember that before they were flung on their journeys through space, there was a Word. That Word, part of the eternal Godhead, sharing in love and speech, would one day share that love and speech with the world in human flesh. And so we are filled with a sense of wonder.

The second word is life:

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. (Verses 3-4)

So – the inner relationship of love in the Trinity that is hinted at when we say that the Word was with God from the beginning explodes beyond its boundaries into creation. Love cannot be contained within itself: love has to love outside itself. So God creates, and the Word is God’s agent of creation. Here, in the act of creation, is the first bursting out of God’s love. From Big Bang to infant worlds, from early microbes to human beings made in the image of God, here is the hand of God. The Bible never tells us how the world was made, for it is not a scientific text book, but it points us to the Maker.

In fact, God’s creative love involves giving life from within himself – ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of men’. Just as human parents give of their own lives to create life, so the Word does the same. This loving act of creation is an act of self-giving love. The life of God given to the pinnacle of creation, human beings, made in God’s image, is imparted. Remember the emphasis in Genesis upon God breathing life into human beings? Here is another way of saying that.

Moreover, as the Word gives life, ‘that life was the light of men’. Wherever there is light, it originates from the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity. Wherever you find truth, beauty and goodness in life, you find it because the Word of God gave life which is light to all.

Am I saying that all religions lead to God? By no means. But I am affirming what Paul said to the people of Lystra in Acts. Paul told them,

We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy. (Acts 14:15b-17)

‘He has not left himself without testimony.’ ‘That life was the light of men.’ It’s what John Calvin called God’s common grace. In creation, God is good to all. And we affirm from the Prologue to John’s Gospel that it is through the Word, whom we came to know as Jesus, that God is good to all in creation.

How wonderful, then, to know that the One who was the agent of this loving creation, and whose gift of life provided for all goodness, would not only create but enter creation. As we enter Advent and prepare to mark the coming of the Christ child, we remember that the One who entered creation, born of a virgin, was God’s agent in making this creation, and his life already bestows beauty and truth throughout it. Look in the manger and see more than a baby boy. See the Life-giver. And then see if you are not filled with a sense of wonder.

We have heard the third and final word already, but it carries over from verse 4 to verse 5. The third word is light:

In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (Verses 4-5)

I said earlier during the first point about the Word that the love in the Trinity had to go beyond the boundaries of the Godhead, and it did so in creation and redemption. In thinking about our second word, ‘life’, I showed that love in creation. Now in our third word, ‘light’, we see the love of the Trinity extending to redemption.

How? The light is not just the source of truth, beauty and goodness – ‘that life was the light of men’. It is more: there is not only light, there is darkness. Light is needed, because there is darkness. So the truth, beauty and goodness that come from the life-giving Word stand as a testimony in the face of sin. They are a testimony to the ways of God in opposition to the ways of a world that rejects that God.
But there is more. The light was to shine in the darkness in a more profound way. For the love of God sent into creation through the Word, which testified to love in contrast to hate and fear, could not stand still. The light would enter creation. It is what we celebrate as we approach Christmas by the route of Advent. So we marvel as, in the words of John Henry Newman, ‘A second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.’ Darkness may abound, but light is coming. And on Christmas Day, we shall say: light has come! The baby of Bethlehem is born as a warrior of light, a sworn enemy of darkness.

And – again – there is more! This is no equal contest between light and darkness. Light and darkness, truth and falsehood, are not equal and opposite enemies. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it.’ This is not an intellectual statement. To understand something is not merely to comprehend it, it is for that understanding to mean power over the other. The word ‘understood’ here can also be translated ‘overcome’ or ‘come to terms’. John is telling us that the darkness of the world cannot get to grips with the light of the Word. Once there is even a chink of light, the hold of darkness is broken. Though we still live in an age where light and darkness both exist, the light of the Second Person of the Trinity conquers, and will conquer.
How that light conquers, though, is another matter. Not for nothing did Graham Kendrick imagine Mary looking at Jesus lying in the manger and seeing thorns in the straw. Light would overcome darkness not by violence but by suffering, the suffering of the Cross.

Darkness will not have the final word. Light will. It is already guaranteed, in the coming of the Word who took the name Jesus. His birth, life, death and resurrection make light shine in the midst of a darkness that cannot come to terms with him.

Yes, the Word who experiences love within the Trinity is then the One who makes that love spill out in creation through his Life. And that love will stop at nothing, for it is the Light seen in sacrificial suffering to overcome the darkness.

Now tell me you’re not filled with a sense of wonder.


[1] Van Morrison, ‘A Sense of Wonder’, © Exile Music, 1984.