The Animal that asks and the God who answers - Ecclesiastes 74

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 29th September 2002.

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Pablo Picasso was by all accounts a creative genius. But many of his friends described him as a monster. Long before Leonardo de Caprio and Kate Winslet graced the big screen, Picasso said this , 'When I die it will be a shipwreck, and as when a huge ship sinks, many people all around will be sucked down with it.' And that is exactly what happened. When he died in 1973 at the age of 91, three of those closest around him committed suicide-his second wife Jacqueline, an early mistress Marie-Therese and his grandson Pablito. Several others had psychiatric breakdowns, including his first wife Olga and his most famous mistress Dora Maar. In the book 'Life with Picasso', Francois Gilot recalls the ten years she had as his third mistress. She points out that for Picasso there were only two types of women- ' goddesses and doormats' and sooner or later everyone went from the first category to the second. Dora Maar who preceded Gilot as Picasso's mistress once said to him, 'You are the devil'-whereupon Picasso branded her with a cigarette held to her cheek, stopping because, as he put it, ' I may still want to look at you.' What a charming man! He once told Gilot , 'Every time I change wives I should bury the last one. That way I'd be rid of them.' I am sure many of them thought the same about him. Now there is no doubt that such behaviour was linked to his atheism. Picasso was an avowed follower of the philosopher Nitezche and was once heard muttering ' I am God, I am God'. And he acted like it too, driven to produce art and exercise a strangling power over people. And if you think about it, if there is no God and so no objective basis for deciding what is right and wrong, good and bad, then why not do what Picasso did? In such a universe ' might is right.'

But you say, 'Get real', where would we be if everyone acted like that? Well, that is precisely the challenge the Bible lays down to people you and me , calling us to 'get real' to be intellectually consistent by asking what happens when we try to assess life mainly from an 'experience it and see' approach as many are doing today? How far does it take us? Is it possible to get any satisfactory meaning at all? Well, one book in the Bible which does this is the book of Ecclesiastes and if ever there was a book for the 21 century ,this is it. The man who is writing this is called 'Teacher' in v1 of chapter 1 and King of Israel, who decided in v 13 to devote his life to studying 'everything under heaven' using- that is one ambitious project. And what we have here is his final dissertation. He begins by asking a realistic question, which gives rise to a realistic assessment and ends with a realistic answer.

So here is the realistic question in Chapter 1 v 3 ' What does man gain from all his labours under the sun?' - literally , 'What profit is there in life?' Or as we might say, 'What is the bottom line?' Is it at all possible to attain real success and true meaning and value in this life and ever be satisfied with it? If so how? If not, then what is the point of living?

Now this drive for meaning and purpose is a very deep seated one. Back in 1932 in his famous speech entitled 'My Credo', Albert Einstein put it this way: ' Our situation on this earth seems strange. Everyone one of us appears here involuntarily and uninvited for a short stay, without knowing the whys and the wherefore.' The actress Jessica Lang felt the same. 'The main thing that I sensed back in my childhood,' she said, 'was this inescapable yearning that I could never satisfy. Even now at times I experience an inescapable loneliness and isolation..' And this gut feeling, that we are somethings, not nothings, made for Someone or something more, drives us to ask the question Why? According to the psychiatrist Viktor Frankle a victim of the Nazi concentration camp, ' The will to find meaning is the primary motivational force in man,' The literary critic George Steiner says simply , 'More than homo sapiens, we are homo quarens, the animal that asks and asks.' We can't help it. Sometimes we try and avoid it, but the question keeps returning to haunt us-maybe in the small hours of the morning, perhaps after a relationship has ended, and certainly when faced with death and bereavement, we ask 'What is it all about?'

And so our writer goes on to give a realistic assessment. What does life feel like, as he puts it 'under the sun?' Well, his experience is exactly the same as yours and mine- 'Meaningless, Meaningless,' a phrase which appears over and over again and forms the two book ends of this whole essay chapter 1 and v2 and then again in chapter 12 v8. What is he saying? That there is no purpose at all? Well, he isn't saying that. The word translated 'meaningless' is 'hebhel', which could be rendered 'bubbles'. That is, life as we encounter it seems so fleeting, transitory, a chasing after the wind, it has that 'here today gone tomorrow quality about it'. It is like grabbing a bubble in fact, no sooner do you have it in your grasp than it pops and is gone. That is what life feels like 'under heaven' from a purely experiential point of view. And whatever activity we turn to, it will always feel the same, never totally satisfying.

So what do people turn to in order to find the 'bottom line of life'? Well, there is pleasure of course- hedonism- 2: 1-3. I thought in my heart, 'Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.' But that also proved to be meaningless. 'Laughter,' I said, 'is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?' I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly--my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.' Just listen to this, part of an article which has just appeared in a secular counselling magazine: ' He's 29,he has a good job, his own flat, he is in a stable relationship and he is having a mid life crisis. 'It crept upon me by stealth,' says Patrick Winston, a publishing executive from Bath. 'I had a great job, a partner, a good social life-everything I'd wanted, but gradually this sense of ennui took over and it left me feeling blank and demotivated. I started to feel that my life-including me-was fraudulent. kept thinking: what next? I went through a period of heavy promiscuity, which made things worse. I felt that all that was in front of me was the same-acquisition of wealth and status, which had come to mean nothing to me. I became impotent, started drinking heavily and hated myself.' The article goes on to point out that the mid-life crisis is creeping downward and hitting younger people. As the writer says: 'We are living harder, and burning out sooner. The world is dogged by short-termism, in relationships, in work-and this accelerates the process of disenchantment.' And this person has not even read Ecclesiastes.

Well, what about fame? There must be something in that given the 'celeb' culture which is flourishing, with Pop idols and Big Brother pumping up the viewing figures. Maybe that is the way forward? Well, this guy has tried that too, 4:13: 'Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning. The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king's successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.' This is a rags to riches story, the climb from prison to palace. But once you reach the top and become the celebrity then the only way is down with all the anxiety that brings, as he says 'Those who came later were not pleased with their successor.' So is that what life is all about? Get the good degree so that you can get that good job, with good salary , so you can buy big house with the big mortgage and big car? Well, lets think about someone else who has reached the top and still outstrips Will and Gareth - at least in earning power- Madonna. She arrived in New York City with just $35 in her pocket. Within a matter of a few years she was a multimillionaire. Do you know what she says about all of this? She was driven. This is how she puts it: 'When my mother died, all of a sudden I was going to be the best student, get the best grades; I was going to become the best singer, the best dancer, the most famous singer in the world. Everybody was going to love me.' But, then she adds, ' I am a very tormented person. I want to be happy.' Let me tell you something, the graveyard our there is full of people who were just like that.

Well perhaps education, pursuing knowledge for knowledge's sake rather than just as a meal ticket, is what we should be living for? Well, the Teacher has tried that blind alley too, 2:4: 'I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees.' This fellow was doing a David Attenborough before David Attenborough. He wanted to find out how things tick-he was into science. A good thing, but not a lasting thing. Isn't it strange how quickly those things which seemed so important at the time begin to fade. Do you remember all that hard work for those GCSE's? Do you remember how you felt once those grades were posted on the school notice board? It was terrific wasn't it? Well, it was if you got the grades you wanted. How do you feel about them now? Not that much I would guess. Well, let me tell you, the same will happen with A levels, and degrees - honestly. Sorry to disappoint you. Good things, you see, which are not lasting things, they never satisfy.

And what makes it all worse is that there is so much in this world which is simply unfair-there are bad things which make life hard to take: 8: 14 ' There is something else meaningless on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve.' That is pretty obvious isn't it? Many a saint has died in agony at the stake and many a tyrant has died peacefully in his sleep. What are we to make of that? Life seems pretty mixed up doesn't it? A combination of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Well, if there is no God then all you are left with is the ugly. Good and bad have no meaning. If we are the result of a cosmic accident , by definition accidents do not have a purpose. Now can you honestly look at yourself in the mirror tonight and say truthfully, 'I am an accident, I am of no more significance than spilt milk?' There have been several articles recently in the newspapers about the rising incidence of suicide amongst young people and especially young men and it is one of the most pressing concerns of our society. And while there are no doubt several factors at work- unstable family life, pressure for success, there is one deep and underlying cause- lack of identity and significance. We are no longer sure who we are? Well, if we are start seeing ourselves as nothings, which is the logic of living in an impersonal universe, it is not long before we start treating ourselves and others as nothings.

So what is the explanation? Why do we live in a world which is made up of the good, the bad and the ugly? Well, this brings us to the realistic answer which is embedded throughout the essay- for example in 3:10 '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. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil--this is the gift of God. I 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.' Here is an account of reality which really does put the pieces together in the jigsaw and makes sense- the biblical picture.

There is a sense in which we are to find satisfaction in the things mentioned- it is great to have fun, it is good to learn, it is right that we use our abilities and make something of our work and station in life. But what these things can't do is to bear the weight we often place upon them to provide deep, lasting meaning. They were never meant to perform that function, it is like placing an articulated lorry on a frail wooden bridge, it will collapse. And our lives collapse too when we try to invest these good things with too much value because they then become idolatrous. Instead of us seeing them as gifts which are meant to lead us on to the Giver, we become besotted with the gifts and treat them as gods and they will eventually destroy us, as being consumed with money, sex and power are destroying people's lives today.

But the Bible confirms and corrects our experience by revealing to us the true God ,telling us why the world is as it is and why we feel as we feel. So what is this God like? Well, he is an all wise God, he has made everything beautiful in its time- just right. That is why we live in a uni-verse not a multiverse, a cosmos rather than a chaos. Atheism doesn't explain that. He is an all personal God too, for as the Teacher says, he has put eternity in the hearts of men and women. There is that intuitive knowledge that we are made for a love relationship with our Maker which is meant to take us into eternity. We are not just animals, but animals that ask why? And God tells us why, he has made us in his image so that we can only find our true selves when we are properly related to him. He is also the all -giving God, giving us wine, food, and friendships which we are meant to enjoy and in turn be thankful to him. Now this sense of gratitude we feel when we have passed an exam, when a baby is born is not a proof that God exists but a pointer. As Dante Gabriel Rosseti said: 'The worst moment for an atheist is when he is genuinely thankful but has nobody to thank.' Or as GK Chesterton put it, 'If my children wake up on Christmas morning and have someone to thank for putting candy in their stocking, have I no one to thank for putting two feet in mine?' We have all felt like that at sometime in our lives haven't we? And it is no accident, we are meant to pick up the signal.

But what about the bad things or the things that puzzle us? Where does God fit into that? Well, for a start it is obvious that if we live in a marvellous and complex universe and we are small finite creatures, then some things are always going to baffle us, we cant bring God down to our size, otherwise he wouldn't be God- 7: 13 ' Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what He has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made one as well as the other' In the second place the Bible is clear that a lot of the problems we face are of our own doing, not God's. We have already seen that the Teacher talks about 'evil men' and wickedness. The Bible is realistic about those things too. If there is no God, then as Richard Dawkins says, evil is just another way of describing how we dance to our own DNA. But we know differently, evil is when we snub our Maker and like Picasso start acting like God. And we all do it. And when enough people do it, having a world populated with billions of people acting like gods then what else are you going to get but cheating, lying, stealing, wars and the like? You see, our problem, especially if you are a man, is that we don't want there to be a God because if there is that would mean that there was someone bigger than you that you had to listen to and give an account to, and we don't like that idea. We want to be our own boss. It isn't that you particularly have great intellectual problems about God-if so I would be interested to know what you have been doing trying to solve them-the real problem is moral-you don't want it to be different because then you might have to start living differently. Am I not right? Well, what about having the guts to look into the truth? To find out about this God who made us and loves us and cares for us in a world we have messed up? But you say: How? Do we have to be like this man, the Teacher and go on a long search? No,not really. You see, if you turn to the second half of this book called the Bible, you will discover someone else who was called 'The Teacher'. He too is described as King of Israel, one whose wisdom is greater than even that of King Solomon. He also describes himself as a seeker. Not someone seeking the truth, in fact he says that 'I am the Truth'. No, rather he is a seeker of people-people like you and me. In Luke 19: 10 he says this of himself 'The Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost.' To all those who want true life, quality life, he says 'I am the Life'. To those who want to make sense of this broken world and do something about it, he says 'I am the Truth.' To those who desperately want to follow the gifts to the end to which they point-God -he says 'I am the Way- if you have seen me you have seen the Father.' And that someone ,of course, is the Lord Jesus Christ-the God who became man. He came in order die impaled on a cross, giving himself as a sacrifice for all our wrongdoing, taking the punishment in our place that is rightly ours for the appalling way we have treated our Maker, and then literally rising from the dead as the eternal ruler so ensuring that death does not make a final mockery of all our accomplishments, but gives value and dignity to our lives as we come to know him personally now and will know him fully then in heaven.

The question is: Have you? Are you a true born again Christian? I am not asking whether you are religious or have a passing philosophical interest in God . I am asking whether you know God personally, love him, serve him, fear him so he is the one you live for, as it says at the end of this book 12: 13 'When 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.' So let me ask, Do you know the Giver and not just the gifts? If not, now would be a great time to change all of that. So, why not come to him who gave his life so that11 you can be forgiven and become his child-the Lord Jesus.


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