Forever young? - Ecclesiastes 12
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Here is a little exercise that those of us touching 50 and over might want to try when we get home to pass a good half hour.1. Place your set of keys in your right hand. 2.With your left hand, phone a friend and invite them around for a meal. 3. Hang up the phone. 4.Now, look for your keys. Lapses of memory at 50 are, I gather, quite common so I reassure myself I am not to panic now that it has started to happen to me. Although I have to admit it can be a little embarrassing when you phone a friend to invite them along to your birthday party and then five minutes later you call him back and invite him to the same party all over again. But it is all part of that process called growing old.
The thing is, it seems to catch us unawares and it is up to other people to remind us of what is actually happening. So you go to the barbers 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 30th secondary school reunion. Worst still is when your children say: 'Now tell us again Dad, just exactly, who were the Beatles?' And inevitably there are the jokes: 'Forty is when you stop patting yourself on the back and start patting yourself under the chin.' '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.' Of course not everyone laughs, especially in a society like ours which is fixated with youth. And I guess we all are to a greater of lesser extent.
It is 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. Those were the days when you could eat like a horse without looking like one. All the policemen were older than you. Life was a wide open road which stretched out endlessly before you and death? Well, that was a millennium away.
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 it is some of that advice that I want us to think about this morning as we find it in chapter 12 of the Book of Ecclesiastes. So let's turn to that chapter as we look at it under three headings: the inevitability of growing old; the effects of growing old, and the response to growing old.
First, the inevitability of growing old-v1 '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 start to mumble and you are so glad for teletext 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.
But what was the occasional shower suddenly becomes a torrent- the empty nest, the forty 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- as the writer says 'the clouds return after the rain.'
The Bible being the realistic book it is, is realistic about this too. 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 clever 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 Arnold Schwarzenegger 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 failing hearing the sound gets fainter and fainter. There is also that increasing sense of vulnerability and nervousness we feel, 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.
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. The 'strong men stooping' -the legs. The 'grinders' are teeth. Those 'looking through windows growing dim' are the eyes. The 'almond tree blossoms' is the hair turning white whilst 'the grasshopper dragging himself along' is a picture of ungainly walking. We no longer conduct ourselves with a spring in our step but with a stick by our side. Time, they says 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. 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 form God a world where chaos mingles with order, evil with good, ugliness with beauty, death with life. This is our world he is describing and our experience. His conclusion?: v8 ' Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.' By that he doesn't mean that life ultimately makes no sense, because it can, as we shall see. Rather it is that our experience of life has this 'here today and gone tomorrow' quality about it. It is so fleeting, insubstantial. Time does seem to fly by. When we were children it was an age between one Christmas and the next, now it seems that Easter eggs are on sale on Boxing Day. |The result is that we are left feeling empty. 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.
Now, there are two wrong responses and a right response.
The first wrong turn we can take, and which many do, is to give in to regret. The feeling can be suffocating. You have given the best years of your life to the company and at then end of it the mahogany desk is left feeling cold, the obligatory retirement watch seems so meagre and our achievements so hollow. This is the 'meaningless' of Ecclesiastes. You look around for lasting satisfaction in what you have done but it is nowhere to be found. The result is that we wallow in regret chanting the mantra: 'If only'If only I had worked harder at school.' 'If only I had not worked every hour God sent and missed the children growing up.' 'If only I had pursued a career and forgot about a family' 'If only, if only.' Tell me, is that you?
But secondly there is rebellion. Rebellion against the demands. Rebellion against the mundane. And so you turn against your job, your church, even family.
This is when the mid-life crisis opens up into one of the devil's oldest traps- adultery. There is the pretty young secretary who not only brings you a heap of papers but a whole heap of sympathyThen there is the man next door who simply can't believe that you have had four children and still keep your figure so trim
And so an attempt to retrieve some sort of significance out of your life by a desperate rekindling of youthful passions begin as we flatter ourselves- 'There is still life in the old boy yet' only to deceive ourselves its only a bit of fun- until eventually we hurt ourselves- and others. Make no mistake, the fruits of such rebellion are very short lived and regret comes back to haunt us with a vengeance. There is guilt associated with the family you have abandoned and the vows you have broken. There is the suspicion which hangs in the air of the new relationship- for if he or she has betrayed once, who is to say they will not do it again, and again and again? Misery is added to misery, but that is not the way the Romantic paperbacks will portray it nor Hollywood. The grass may look greener on the other side of the fence, but the moment you step onto it, it becomes scorched earth.
No, there is a far better way than wallowing in regret or launching out in rebellion and it is there in verse 1 and verse 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.'
You see, contrary to what the media in particular and society at large will tell us, we are not nothings, coming from nowhere and going nowhere and so are free to do our own thing. We are responsible beings made by a good and caring Creator and we are to give an account to him for the way we have lived our lives. You may want to think of it like this: by our lives we are all writing a story, a story which is to be read at the end of time by God and judged by him. Tell me: How do you want your life story to look? More to the point, how do you want your final chapters to read? Simply as a catalogue of complaints, a list of vain regrets? Something shameful which you really would not want your children or grandchildren to view, let alone God? I would hope not. Surely, the final chapters of our lives can be some of the grandest chapters .
Just think about others who have done just that.
Winston Churchill was 66 years old when he became Prime Minister in 1940 and embarked upon his greatest achievement. He was 79 years old when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. A friend of the famous American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes asked him why he had taken up the study of Greek at the age of 94. He replied, 'Well, my good sir, it is now our never.' After Michael Angelo died, someone found in his studio a note written to himself which read: ''Draw Antonio, draw, and do not waste time.' Times slips away. Days pass. Years fade. And life comes to an end. And what God wants us to do while there is time we must do.
You see, our society may be ageist but the Bible is not. God's oldest have been amongst his choicest since their characters have been finely honed by time and experience. The Moses who at over 80 led the people out of Egypt was much more effective than the young prince of Egypt in his 20's. Anna was an 85 year old widow who, although having failing eyesight, had enough vision to recognise the infant Messiah when he came. And think of the apostle John. Maybe we would have thought he had achieved his life's work having penned his Gospel, but not God. There still had to come the Book of Revelation, written when he was probably well on into his 90's.
And maybe God intends the same with you and me. Perhaps, not as striking but just as significant. Getting older doesn't mean that our sense of adventure has to correspondingly diminish. Instead of building a fire in our hearth maybe we should ask God to build a fire in our heart.
A friend of mine who was an Archdeacon decided to take early retirement from that job at 65 in order to go over to Kenya to set up a Bible training course. He was tired of inspecting church roofs and clogged drains and wanted to make a difference, so he did. The children had grown, and left home, so why not spend 5 years abroad ploughing through rugged country with a four wheel drive in the service of the Gospel?
Think of the evangelist Michael Green who was a here a few years ago. He is still going strong at 71 even having had two heart attacks. Why, when he was lying in hospital on the operating table after the first one he was busy telling the nurses how they can find eternal life by trusting in Jesus. I tell you, that's the way I want to go out don't you?
You may retire as a postman. You may finish as a teacher. But you never retire as a Christian. How can you? You belong to God. You are as much his now at fifty as you were at fifteen. Your own family may have flown the nest, but you still belong to God's family- and these young people and children here need your advice, your love and prayers just as much as your own did. Surely, all those things you have learned in your profession or job you can turn and use for God's kingdom and his church? That practical insight you have in ordering a building, sorting out finances, motivating people, teaching a bible class. Why not?
But of course, all of this assumes that you are a Christian. What is a Christian? Well, quite simply, a Christian is someone who has come to recognise that they are naturally on the wrong side of God because of their sin and that through trusting and following God's Son, Jesus, they are put on the right side of God. It is knowing God personally as we find him in Christ. That is when you discover that life far from being 'meaningless' has direction. Trusting Christ who has conquered death, enables you to face death not as the end, but the beginning of a new chapter, a chapter written in heaven when these tired failing bodies of ours are replaced with brand new resurrected bodies which will last into eternity. If you are here this morning and not yet a Christian, I tell you plainly, you have no hope- all that awaits you is the broken pitcher of verse 6 and the judgement of verse 14. But that need not be, not if you come to the one who said, 'I came that they may have life in all its fullness.' The best is you to come. Age for the Christian is simply a mile marker. Home is where we are heading and that is with Christ and there is no more glorious prospect than that. Let us pray.
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