Age concern - Ecclesiastes 11:7 - 12:14
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A few years ago I was speaking at a ‘20-30’s’ something’ Christian houseparty in Northern Ireland, in a delightful place called ‘The Castle’ which is located on the foothills of the stunning Mountains of Mourne. I was using a small pocket bible for reference as I was speaking, which had very small print. I wasn’t wearing glasses at the time and it son became obvious that I was straining to read the text. Well, after the break at lunchtime I returned to give my next talk and there on the lectern was this- a gift from the punters- ‘The Seniors’ Bible.’ It is all that it claims be, a Bible specially designed for those getting on in years with large print and all. It also has daily devotions which are aimed at the target audience with such thoughts as what to do when your Zimmer frame ceases up- well not quite, but things like that. It is also not very subtle either for the picture on the front of the Bible is of a pocket watch whose hands are set at one minute to midnight as if to convey the message: ‘That’s all the time left folks. You are already waiting in the departure lounge.’
The thing is, getting older seems to catch us unawares leaving it up to other people to remind us of what is actually happening. So you go to the hairdresser and he suggests that instead of combing you hair it might be an idea simply to rearrange it. Then there is the invitation through the letter box to your 40th college reunion- was it really that long ago? And inevitably there are the jokes: ‘You know when you are getting older when you try to straighten out the wrinkles in your socks only to realise you aren’t wearing any.’
But it’s odd, isn’t it? That for decades you worried about everything except getting older. Out of all the things you couldn’t count on there was one thing you could, - your youth- so you thought. Those were the days when you could eat like a horse without looking like one. Life was a wide open road which stretched out endlessly before you and death? Well, that was a millennium away. Being old and being dead was what happened to other people, not to you.
But we all know it is coming. It is not as if God has kept the aging process a secret from us. If growing older does catch us by surprise then we certainly can’t blame God for it, he has given us ample time to prepare as well as plenty of advice. And some of the most pertinent advice is found in the Book of Ecclesiastes. And interestingly enough, what he says is primarily directed to young people before they become old people, although what he says is also applicable to the older ones amongst us as well.
Over the last few weeks we have been listening to God’s voice through the teaching of someone called ‘The Teacher’ -‘Qoheleth’. This is a man who has been there, done it, and designed the ‘T’ shirt, let alone bought it! And his experience is the experience of everyone living on this planet, that no matter what we do, we are left with a deep sense of frustration, and a sense of incompleteness, what he calls ‘hebel’- ‘meaningless’. This is the awareness that nothing is substantial, everything is like a vapour, having a ‘here today gone tomorrow’ quality about it. There are so many good things in life, so many things to enjoy in life, and yet… and yet you are still left with that aching void inside. Why? Well, because he tells us that God has put ‘eternity into our hearts’ that is, we feel that life is meant to have a purpose and direction, but we are not sure what it is. Even if we make up our own meaning to life, it is not the real meaning to life, it is something we have just made up, like we can make up a fairy tale, it doesn’t make it real. No, the only way we are going to know what we are here for, is if God tells us.
Well, this morning we come to the climax of the Teacher’s research project as he comes to the climax of life- namely, death, and what often precedes it- old age. So, the big question to keep in mind is this: in the face of death can our lives have any meaning, or is it, as Shakespeare put it, nothing but ‘a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury’? Let’s find out.
First, the Teacher points out the inevitability of growing old-12:1 ‘Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, "I find no pleasure in them. Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain.’
First, there are the subtle messages of our own mortality. You are driving with a friend and they ask why you squint at all the road signs. You are walking down the street and you notice that policemen really do look younger.
Initially, it is the odd raindrop which acts as a reminder of your passing youth, and then with time the raindrops become more persistent and stronger. So everything hurts when you wake up. And what doesn’t hurt, doesn’t work. The actors on TV seem to mumble nowadays and you therefore are so glad for subtitles. The smile lines don’t go away when you stop smiling. Even the music of the 70’s appears better than the music of today, not to mention the fashion- and that is serious- ‘I find no pleasure in them’.
But what was the occasional shower suddenly becomes a torrent- the empty nest, the fifty candles, the bifocals, the Atkins diet. Now there is no denying it, although we try. Black hair gone grey suddenly becomes black again, or better still blond. Wrinkles disappear and the skin becomes shiny courtesy of Botox. The family estate car is traded in for a white sports car and for a while we delude ourselves that the aging process has been put on hold. But the calendar pages still turn, the clock steadily ticks and time relentlessly marches on and there is no escaping it, as the writer says ‘the clouds return after the rain.’ You are not going to wake up one morning and suddenly find yourself young again. You may still feel as if you are 30 years old on the inside but the outside of your body reminds you that you are not.
And so we have a description of the effects of growing old –v 3- 5 ‘when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim; when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when men rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along and desire no longer is stirred. Then man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets.’
Now this is a very imaginative way of describing what eventually happens to us as it operates at two levels; the literal and the metaphorical. So at the literal level, yes, even strong men like some of the athletes the world has been idolising over the summer eventually begin to stoop. The days of having a ‘lie in’ are gone; because no matter how hard you try you can’t help but wake up early to the sound of the dawn chorus, except that because of your failing hearing the sound gets fainter and fainter, until you can’t hear anything at all without the cochlea implant. There is also that increasing sense of vulnerability and nervousness we feel as we get older, so that climbing ladders becomes a scary business- ‘men are afraid of heights.’ And it does seem rather unwise to venture out on your own onto the street at night because-who knows- you might get mugged or have an accident- ‘dangers in the street’ you see. And it doesn’t end there for even the libido, our sexual appetite is affected, ‘desire is no longer stirred’- all perfectly natural says our writer and all part of the ‘meaninglessness’ of life-‘bubbles’.
But at the same time we have picture language being employed to describe what happens as the body is likened to a house falling into disrepair. So there are the, ‘keepers of the house trembling’ referring to the arms, they are no longer as strong as they once were, you lift a weight and they shake. The ‘strong men stooping’ refers to the legs. The ‘grinders’ are obviously teeth, they begin to fall out or disintegrate. Those ‘looking through windows growing dim’ are the eyes- yes, we all need specs eventually. The ‘almond tree blossoms’ is the hair turning white whilst ‘the grasshopper dragging himself along’ is a picture of ungainly walking, as we shuffle along the road. We no longer conduct ourselves with a spring in our step but with a stick by our side or a frame in our hands. Time, they say ‘is a great healer but a lousy beautician. And where is all of this leading? Well, death-v6 Remember him(that is God)--before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.’
Life is portrayed as a slender ‘silver cord’ to which is attached a golden bowl. When this is severed by death the bowl simply falls to the ground, rolling around empty until it comes to rest. Or life might be thought of as being like a pitcher which is lowered into a well by a pulley. The pitcher is shattered when the wheel is broken by death so that the waters of life can no longer be renewed. Friends, that is where we are all heading. As we saw from that clip from the film ‘About Schmidt, with jack Nicholson going up the escalator, with the comment, ‘life is short and we are all pretty small in the great scheme of things’- that about sums it up. And we are given a clue as to why this is so in v 7 ‘the dust returns to the ground it came from’. Here is an allusion to Genesis 3 and God’s judgement upon our rebellion against him. You see, we were made for a relationship with God, and it is in this we were to find meaning and satisfaction. But like Adam we decided to go our own way and sever that relationship and this always brings in its wake judgement- dissatisfaction and ultimately, death- the most poignant and inescapable reminder that all is not well between us and our Maker. Death symbolises the accumulation of evil, sorrow, suffering and despair which the moral infection of sin brings in its wake. The writer of Ecclesiastes undertakes a wide ranging survey of a world on the run from God – a world where chaos mingles with order, vice with virtue, ugliness with beauty, death with life. This is our world he is describing and our experience. His conclusion: v8 ‘Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.’ So what are we to do in the face of this feeling of emptiness?
Well, to answer that question we turn to the response to growing old. In fact, it might better be described as the response to living and it is there in Chapter 12 verses 1 and 6 –it is to remember, ‘Remember your Creator’. What does that involve?- v 13, ‘Now all has been heard: here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man’ ‘Why?’ ‘For God will bring every deed into judgement including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.’
Drawing on everything the Teacher has been saying, which from one angle, living ‘under the sun’, ‘life as we know it’, things seem pretty pointless, ultimately. Our significance on this tiny, tiny planet, in galaxy of a billion stars, with a billion other galaxies in a vast impersonal universe is of no consequence at all-if that is all there is. How can it be? But our writer knows that there is more; that there is ‘the Creator’ and knowing that makes all the difference in the world. Let me explain how.
You see, only created things can have meaning. Here we have a microphone. What meaning does it have? In and of itself it has no meaning. The meaning it has is what its creator, owner and judge give it. Whoever made it did so with a purpose in mind, namely, to pick up a voice or sound and then once fed into an amplifier and speaker projects that sound. The creator gave it that meaning or purpose. But once it has been sold the owner can, if he wanted give it meaning. If you were the owner you could take it and stir a bucket of wall paper paste with it or use it as truncheon or scratch your back with it. Those may be odd uses, but meaningful uses nonetheless. But one day its judge will give it meaning too and evaluate it saying, ‘this is a useless microphone, it no longer works I am going to throw it in the bin. Or it has been a great microphone, let’s get some more like it.’ The Maker of it, the Owner of it and the Judge of it-all give it meaning. The microphone, even if in some Disney- like way could be given consciousness and a voice could not give itself its own meaning- for example, ‘I am a fruit for eating.’ And so it is with us. But the great thing is we don’t have to even try, for we do have a Creator, we are made to have a relationship with him, which is what is behind that word ‘fear’ or ‘awe’, that is part of the proper response of the creature to the Creator, he is to be worshipped, adored, and obeyed. Since he is the one who designed us he knows better than anyone else how we best function and since he has given us his commands in the Bible, following those wisely means we can live meaningful lives, lives of love- love for God, love for each other.
But if it is the case, as the Teacher’s experience and our own confirms, that we are out of sorts with our Maker and so not properly aligned with the world, such that things keep jarring, how are we going to get back in touch with him? The message of the New Testament to which this book points is that the Maker has got in touch with us in the person of Jesus Christ, ‘The Teacher and King of Israel, Son of David.’ And notice that the writer urges us to get things sorted out while we are young, 11:9 ‘Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment.’ The most productive time in our lives, when we do have energy, idealism and vigour is in our twenties and thirties. Any time is a good time to become a Christian, but especially when you are young, and then you can make your life count for something. Then you can really enjoy life, because you know what life is all about. You see that food and drink and friendships and clothes and a whole host of things have not just appeared out of nowhere, but are wonderful gifts coming from the hands of the great Giver you can know personally as your heavenly Father. You can use your youth and energy not just being a couch potato stuck in front of the box- X-box or TV box, but out sharing the Gospel with others, using whatever talents you have in serving him and his people, not just yourself. Don’t listen to the lie that you can live a hedonistic life now and then later on become a Christian, maybe when you are old and on your death bed. That is stupidity in the extreme. For a start it assumes you are going to have time to prepare for your death which is not necessarily the case. And if you do die in old age in hospital you may be so drugged up to the eyeballs you probably won’t have a clue as to what is going on anyway. No now is the time to become a Christian and make something of your life for you are going to be judged. And thank God it is so, for that judgement will give meaning to your life. And do you know who is going to judge you? It is Jesus.
And for those of us who are getting older, how do we want to spend what little time we have left on earth? Surely it can’t be like most of our contemporaries, putting your feet up in retirement, chasing the sun and the sand? You may have white hair, but the Bible says it is a man’s (and woman’s) glory, for it should denote wisdom which you are to share with others and use in the service of God’s people. And if you are here and not yet a Christian, the remaining few grains at the top of your hour glass should impress upon you the desperate need to get right with your Maker before it is too late. He wants you to do that, which is why he has providentially ordered this series of sermons for you to hear.
Friends, once you come to meet the one who came from Eternity, the Lord Jesus Christ, then the whole purpose of your existence begins to make sense. Yes, like everyone else on this plant we will feel the effects of a sinful, fractured world, but it will not be meaningless. We will know why it is fractured and we will have come to know the one who has come to put things right, for we will have come to know the One who loved us so much, that he gave his life to rescue us from vanity and to ensure an eternity brimful with meaning, experiencing the full pleasure of his love and goodness. Tell me, why wouldn’t you want that?
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