God's gift - Ecclesiastes 3:1-22

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 23rd September 2012.

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Walter Lippmann was one of the major American political commentators of the 20th century. Just listen to what he once wrote about modern Western man and see if it rings any bells with you: ‘At … heart … there are likely to be moments of blank misgiving in which he finds that the civilization of which he is a part leaves a dusty taste in his mouth, he may be very busy with many things, but he discovers one day that he is no longer sure they are worth doing. He has been much preoccupied: but he is no longer sure he knows why. He has become involved in an elaborate routine of pleasures; and they do not seem to amuse him very much. He finds it hard to believe that doing any one thing is better than doing any other thing, or, in fact, that it is better than doing nothing at all. It occurs to him that it is a great deal of trouble to live, and that even in the best lives the thrills are few and far between. He begins more or less consciously to seek satisfactions, because he is no longer satisfied, and all the while he realises that the pursuit of happiness was always a most unhappy quest.’  I think his assessment is pretty accurate don’t you? And you know what? The writer of Ecclesiastes would entirely agree with him, for that was his experience too, some 3,000 years or so earlier- ‘Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless- a chasing after the wind.’ In an attempt to discover if there is a ‘bottom line’ to life, something which gives significance to our short stay on earth, time and time again he is left with a sense of emptiness and frustration. For while things seem good, with so much to enjoy, he will suddenly be knocked sideways and left wondering with Alfie, ‘What’s it all about?’. And yet, deep down there is this sense that while we share the same fate as the animals, namely, death (v 19-20), we are more than the animals. As the literary critic George Steiner put it, ‘More than Homo sapiens, we are Homo quarens, the animal that asks and asks.”  We can’t escape the feeling that there is more to life under the sun, that ‘out there’ somewhere there is something or someone who can tie it all together. And in the passage this morning, Ecclesiastes chapter 3, we find our writer coming tantalising close to discovering the answer- it is not a neat and tidy answer to be sure-but it is a promising nonetheless. The solution to our existence here on earth is to be found in having a proper appreciation of the relationship between time and eternity. So let’s turn to this passage and look at it under three headings: a pattern to be discerned, a God to be revered, and a judgement to face.

First, a pattern to be discerned: vv 1-8. Verse 1 ‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity (it could be translated ‘purpose’) under heaven.’ The Teacher then goes on to compare and contrast the kinds of things which have their ‘season’: birth and death, killing and healing, war and peace, silence and speaking. He is saying that there is a universal recognition of the timeliness of things. No matter where you go on earth, or which culture you care to look at in whichever period of history, everyone recognises that there is a pattern to life, a right time to do certain things and a wrong time. And wisdom involves discerning which is which. For example, you can have the right thing at the right time, but also the right thing at the wrong time which makes it the wrong thing. So, says the Teacher, there is a time for peace and a time for war. Many of you will be familiar with the name David Niven, the English actor who starred in many Hollywood films like ‘The Guns of Navarone’ and ‘The Pink Panther.’ Niven went to Hollywood in the 1930’s and became a close friend of Errol Flynn. He had just made his breakthrough as a leading star in 1939 when the Second World War began in Europe. Out of a deep sense of duty he, unlike many other English actors in Hollywood, left America for Britain and joined the army. In fact he became a Colonel in the Commandos. Niven lost many close friends during the war and saw many dreadful things happen. On returning to Hollywood in 1945 he was given a welcome party by his actor friends. He said he would only speak of the war at that party and then he would never talk about it again. And what he said with the stars of Hollywood gathered, was that he could never forgive the weak willed stupidity of the politicians who allowed the war to happen with the loss of so many lives and the unleashing of such untold misery. As far as he was concerned there was a time for war in order to avoid a greater war, and that was when Hitler marched his troops to re-occupy the Rhineland. Had he been stopped then, while he was relatively weak, the carnage of World War 2 could have been avoided. Instead a policy of appeasement encouraged Hitler on with his totalitarian ambitions. The right thing, ‘peace’ became the wrong thing ‘appeasement’ because it was pursued at the wrong time.

What about love and hate? There was a right time to love Hitler. When he was a baby-it would have been right to love him then. When he came out of the army after the First World War penniless, humiliated, resentful, wouldn’t that have been good a good time for someone to love him? But hate would not be too strong a word to apply to the proper response to Hitler as he authorised the most appalling medical experiments upon little babies and toddlers in the concentration camps and as he facilitated the herding of millions into the gas chambers. There is a time for love and a time for hate.

You see, everyone has a sense of the timeliness of things in the world- things in this universe are not random and chaotic. They have the appearance more of a jig saw puzzle than a slab of crazy paving. In other words, life appears to have a pattern and patterns suggest purpose. So the questions begging to be answered are these: where did this pattern come from? Why is it that we live in a cosmos and not a chaos, why is it that there is a universe rather than a multiverse?

Of course the secularist and atheist can only reply that ‘under the sun’ there is no real pattern or purpose at all. It just seems that there is a pattern which suggests a purpose. But, they say, it is nothing more than an illusion, a cosmic con-trick- for at rock bottom the universe is cold and meaningless, without rhyme or reason- so says the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Of course, even to speak of a ‘cosmic con trick’ suggests intention and purpose, the aim being to delude someone. If this is so, then the conclusion on v 9 is the only one we can come to, ‘What does the worker gain from his toil?’ What is the bottom line? Well, there isn’t one- it is all going to pass away and we with it if this world is all that there is. But it does raise some basic questions doesn’t it? Why does life appear to have a pattern and purpose, if in fact it doesn’t? Where do we get our sense of right and wrong from? Well, could the answer not be that there is something in the pattern of the seasons. Perhaps they are pointers to something beyond this world, to an existence which is more than ‘life under the sun’, indeed that there is ‘life under heaven’- a spiritual dimension.

Which brings us to our next heading, a God to be revered: vv10-15 -v10 ‘I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. 13That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil--this is the gift of God. 14I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.’

The sense that there is more to life than what we can see, hear and touch is a gift of God, although it feels to us like a burden for reasons we shall see in a moment. It is God who ‘has made everything beautiful in its time’. Belief in God or gods is a universal phenomenon, spanning every culture in every age. Atheism is a minority belief; it always has been and always will be. So let’s not be brow beaten into thinking that it is the atheists who are the only intelligent and brave people who are willing to look life squarely in the eyes and say- it is bleak and meaningless, so the majority of mankind have got it wrong and they only have got it right. Why should they? They might have a case if the vast majority of things that happened were chaotic and ugly, but then they would have a problem in using reason to come to their conclusions, because reason is orderly and in a sense beautiful, so where did that come from- their ability to declare that everything is random and meaningless except their reason which is ordered and meaningful? No, the irony is that even their ability to use reason, (in a faulty way) to try and disprove God’s existence is given to them by God! But here the writer of Ecclesiastes, with the majority of humanity, says what we see together with our sense of morality and purpose, act, in the words of the sociologist Peter Berger, as ‘signals of transcendence’. So just like you may pick up a weak signal on your radio which indicates that someone is transmitting a programme, and you try and tune in to pick it up clearly, so the creation itself and life with all its joys and blessings we are meant to delight in-vv 12-13- are meant to cause us to follow the signal to their source, namely, God. This in part is what is meant by that key phrase of verse 11, ‘He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.’ We know there is something bigger than us, something which should make sense of our day- to -day existence- that there is eternity as well as time, heaven as well as earth.

At the funeral of his own father, management consultant Charles Handy suddenly realized how this modest man had affected the lives of hundreds in ways he could never have imagined. He then went on to say, “I realized that what one believes about life and the point of life does matter. I had put my faith, until that moment, in success, money and family, probably in that order. I still think these things are important, although I would now reverse the order, but I hanker after a bigger frame in which to put them.” That’s the point; we need some bigger picture of life in which to place our little lives for things to make sense- that is what, like Charles Handy, we all ‘hanker’ for.

But here is the problem and the burden: we can’t find it- hence the latter part of v11, ‘…yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.’ Deep down we know there is more to life than this, we may have an innate awareness that there is a Maker of it all, but we can’t access him, we can’t fathom what his purpose is. And so we feel frustrated. And in our frustration we make idols- creating religions and ideologies to try to give us purpose, with our own ideas of god which we can control, of the ‘My god would never do this’ variety. But they are all made up and so can never satisfy us and give us the answers we crave- why should they if we have simply fabricated them? Of course, a lot of people simply try to avoid thinking about it altogether. In the words of psychologist Ernest Becker “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.’ In other words, we distract ourselves, that is what the majority of our friends and neighbours are doing today in Hull rather than being in a place like this.

So why has God put us in this seemingly impossible position of seeing patterns in life but never knowing the purpose, of being aware that there is a right and wrong but unable to have a basis for them? We are told in verse 14, ‘God does it so that men will revere him or ‘fear’ him.’ That is, when we are faced with the big questions of life, ‘Who am I?’, ‘Why are we here?’ we are meant to feel hopeless and helpless. We are to sense that there is a God and he is very, very great and we are very, very small. Without having to engage in the kind of thinking process we have to engage in when we are making things- planning that if we do this then we also have to do that- instantaneously and timelessly God knows all things. He just knows and wills into existence the atoms and the galaxies, he just ‘knows’ all the biochemical processes which enable us to live, he just ‘knows’ without having to think- the exact detail of every baby born into this world and every decision they will ever make and a zillion and one other things which make up this complex and amazing universe in which we find ourselves. He doesn’t have to work any of this out- his knowledge is perfect and inexhaustible. And realising this we are meant to be humbled before such a God and want to worship him. As the beauty of a crimson sunset is savoured, as an exquisite piece of music is delighted in, as you hold that little miracle - your baby - in your arms- you are meant to exclaim, ‘What  God can do all of this? What do I know in comparison?’ In other words, we should be humbled. We are meant to say: ‘This is such an awesome, glorious, intricate and complex universe of such vastness and yet with so many blessings coming my way-millions of them on a daily basis- what kind of God is this who creates it and keeps it all going?’- v15. The greatness of it all and the frustration of it all are intended to bring us to the point where we cry out, ‘I don’t know you God! I don’t know what you are doing or why am I here. Please help me!’ And if the truth be known that may be where you are at this morning. If so, that is not a bad place to be- because you could be just one step away from knowing the One who made you and who loved you with an intensity you could not even begin to imagine.

However, there is one more thing which causes our writer, and maybe you, grief, and that is the matter of injustice- our final point- a judgement to face vv 16-22. ‘And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment--wickedness was there, in the place of justice--wickedness was there.’ This is the great stumbling block to many, the questions: where is ultimate justice to be found?  A number of years ago in Nottingham a judge sentenced a family to prison after hearing how the children, some of them in nappies, had been pulled from their beds and sexually assaulted at sex parties. The judge told the two mothers, ‘You must have sat there when these parties were going on and heard your children screaming and did nothing about it.’ And are we not to say that such things are wrong and not simply distasteful? What about the terrible damage done to those children, are we not to think that God did not hear those screams and that he will not call those parents to account? Of course, if there is no God, the answer must be ‘no’- those parents will eventually die like the animals of verse 19, since that is how they have acted and that will be the end of it. Although it is interesting isn’t it that had dogs behaved in this way, we might have just accepted it as ‘dog- like behaviour’ but since it is people we think they shouldn’t behave like that. Where does that idea come from? And so we all have the idea of v 17, ‘I thought in my heart, "God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed.’

You know, people sometimes point to the existence of evil as an argument against the existence of God. But strange though it may seem, this can be turned on its head and the very fact that evil is being perpetrated has been taken by some to point to the existence, or at least the need, of a God who will act justly. This is sometimes called ‘the argument from damnation.’ This is the way the Christian sociologist, Peter Berger puts it: ‘It’s our experience in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offence as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions.’ He goes on to say that, ‘deeds that cry out to heaven also cry out for hell.’ In other words, unless there is final and absolute justice, to which our deepest instincts testify should be the case, then all our actions are ultimately rendered meaningless. The kindness of Mother Teresa and the wickedness of Hitler are reduced to the same insignificant level of value. Hitler liked to kill people, Mother Teresa liked to save them- so what’s the difference if there is no God to judge between the two?  And so the argument goes, only an all powerful, all knowing, all just God can ensure that this will happen. “The evidence that God exists”, Winston Churchill once said, “was the existence of Lenin and Trotsky, for whom hell was needed.”

And for this to be so, there has to be eternity, there has to be life after death which the writer does seem to consider, but is not all that certain about it- v 20, “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?"  But we can know and here is the reason why: it was the philosopher Wittgenstein who said that ‘The meaning of the world is to be found outside the world.’ Left by ourselves we can no more find out the purpose of life than a man can pull himself up by his own shoe laces. What we need is for the meaning to be revealed to us from the outside. 2,000 years ago that is exactly what happened. Someone else, who was also known as ‘the Teacher’, a son of David, came into this world from heaven to live life under the sun, just like us. His name was Jesus. He too experienced all the limitations, disappointments and vanity of life feeling for 33 years. And yet his was a life marked by peace and contentment, brimful with meaning and purpose as he came to do his heavenly Father’s will. He enjoyed food, drink, friendship; full of gratitude to his Father. And he said that he had come that we might ‘have life in all its fullness- not a self -centred life for ever taking, but a other-person centred life, concerned with giving, a life following him. And while he suffered the fate of all humans under the sun- death for all human beings- it could not hold him; he burst from the grave with a transformed body designed to inhabit a transformed universe in eternity. And God has given him all authority and so he is the one who is going to judge each one of us personally as to what we have done with God’s gift of life. So the question this morning is this: what are you going to do with your life? Are you going to let it have all the significance and impact of a bubble, a thin spherical film of soap which you hardly notice, or are you going to make it count for something so that it will go on for ever by following Christ. Friend, those are the only two options, and this morning would be a great time to make your choice.

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