There is a time for everything,
And a season for every activity under heaven…
A time to be born…a time to die
A time to plant, and a time to uproot
A time to kill, and a time to heal
To tear down…and to build
To weep…to laugh
To mourn…to dance
What we have here is some very beautiful poetry. *
Qoheleth – our inspired poet, our seeker, our Quester – is employing a certain literary device here to convey a very important truth. It’s called a mer - is - mus. A merismus is a series of statements that are polar extremes. The statements are given as a way of embracing everything that lies in between.
Now this is very important to understand, because – in the past – this poem has been used to justify all kinds of evil.
“Why did you kill that innocent person?” …“Well, there’s a time to kill…”
“Why did you throw acid on the DaVinci?” …“Well, there’s a time to tear down…”
I mean this passage was used to justify the movie Footloose. Remember Kevin Bacon? Kenny Loggins? Evil behavior!
This is entirely missing the point of what Qoheleth is writing here. He’s not saying, “Given the appropriate time, you have license to do whatever you want.” He is not prescribing that we do all these things. He’s not prescribing he’s describing. He’s giving an account – it’s a whole landscape – of the things that already make up the human experience.
So what Qoheleth has done here is that he has captured the totality of life. And he lays this mosaic in front of us and says, “here”. Stop. Look and See how – in time – things play themselves out. Stop and Look. Stop and Look. See time.
I think this has more application to our world than it did for Qoheleth. Because we don’t stop and look.
Time worries us. It is the enemy. Sometimes, we try to deny the enemy by keeping ourselves busy. Our lives end up looking like the ball in a pinball machine that’s being bounced from one bumper to another: the more it bounces around the more points we get. So in desperation we keep pushing the buttons that pump those paddles to keep the ball in play.
Oddly, I think, the reason we live this way is because we want to be in control. At least it gives off the impression that we are in control. When we are driven by our own wills, at least we are in the driver’s seat.
So we become rugged independent individuals. We are going to take life and bend it to our wills. And the tragedy is this: the more we try to become these self-governing individuals, the less grounded we become.
Look around…the most determined people are quite frequently the least grounded. Because ultimately you can’t be grounded in yourself.
Qoheleth says, “Stop and look around. See the totality of life. See that time has a flow and a regularity to it that is bigger than any one of us. See that there are things here that are way beyond your control.”
And the wise person lives life in the light of this massive truth.
I was in a classroom last week that had an international flavor to it.
One morning before class, our Prof. asked if there were any prayer requests. A Protestant youth worker from Northern Ireland asked if we could pray for his parish. An American military chaplain asked if we would pray for the troops in Iraq. A physician who ran a medical clinic in the Congo had a physician-friend die in a plane accident.
And here we are sitting in a classroom in Vancouver. Things happen that are way beyond our control. Why do we pray at times such as these? Because we believe that there is a true Actor.
This is one of those moments when Qoheleth peels back a corner on the universe and lets us see the grandeur of God. This isn’t a “toiling under the sun” moment. So – when he gives us these brief moments of eternal clarity – we have to listen.
He says that God makes things beautiful. In fact, he says that – given time – God makes everything beautiful. What’s he talking about?
He’s not saying that – given time – we will all look prettier. The cross wasn’t pretty, but it was beautiful. He’s talking about God being the Actor who will bring healing and redemption to all things: that, in time, things will come together beautifully. We can’t push it.
You get later echoes of this in the writings of the Apostle Paul when he writes, “all things will be brought together under Christ.”
Sometimes we get glimpses of this. Sometimes we even get to participate in what’s going on. But as mortal beings we “cannot fathom it all”. We can’t fathom everything that God is doing.
Again, look at the cross: God hanging naked on a killing machine. Do you get it? Sometimes, you may find yourself – out of obedience to God – in a very hard and strange place. It may look like a place of failure. But we can’t fathom what God is doing.
We can’t discover the key to unlock the mystery. All we can really do – sometimes – is stand in wonder. Sometimes the wonder is incredible…sometimes it is really disorienting.
But most of us who are still human keep seeking understanding in the struggle. Why? Because God has placed ‘eternity in our hearts’.
What does it mean? I have found artists have done a better job than theologians have in presenting what it means.
Here’s a song lyric by Carolyn Arends…
It’s the sense we are meant for a journey
But we don’t know where to start
It’s the restlessness nothing can settle *
…Eternity in our hearts
It’s the questions without any answers
It’s a puzzle missing parts
It’s the secret we’ve all but forgotten
…Eternity in out hearts
And for mere flesh and bone to contain it
We are almost torn apart
But it’s the one thing that completes us
…Eternity in our hearts
And so it’s believing that someday
We will see things as they are
And then we will know there was always
…Eternity in our hearts
Whatever that voice is, it is calling us to reorient our lives towards our Creator. It’s to look around and confess, “wow…I’m really not the center of the universe after all.” Life can be great but life is hard, and God is mysterious …and wonder–full: full of wonder.
What does this reorientation look like? Eat, drink. Find the good in your work. Put one foot in front on the other. Because the way of the pilgrim is measure in footprints not mountaintops.
I won’t go into to it in detail because Launa did a good job on this last week. Embrace joy as it comes to you. People at school*. Receive it as a gift from God. “Revere God”. Why?
Because – says Qoheleth – because life ‘under the sun’ is unfair. The wealthy and the powerful often escape ‘human justice’ since they often control it.
Frequently, when we assert ourselves as rugged individuals, the end result is that we often bring suffering upon others. And we live in a world in which this is the norm.
Don’t you hate injustice? Ex? Movie therapy?
So life is unfair and – furthermore – in the end, says Qoheleth, we all die.
Our human ambitions, our aspirations and pretensions come to nothing when we die. He says, in this, we share the same fate as animals…and we need to reflect on life from this position. Novel concept.
Medieval Scholars and Skulls. There were certain monastic orders…a habit and a coffin to sleep in at night. Seems morbid. But maybe there was more truth-facing in those monks than our youth obsessed, death-denying culture. Perhaps they lived every day ‘seizing the day’ in a way that we don’t.
One day…we will all die. Here, there is no difference between a king and a fool, between a beast of the field and a human made in God’s image.
So Qoheleth has covered a lot of ground here…
So Summary and Question:
In a world where time plays itself out in rhythms beyond our control…
In a world where, for the most part, the mysteries of God simply unfold before us…
In a world that – despite God’s activity – is still full of injustice…
In a world where everybody dies in the end…
…how ought we to live? Should we resolve to do nothing? Are we supposed to be passive agents? Are we just to let life happen to us?
What difference does it make to our reading of Ecclesiastes now that we read it as part of the gospel story? There is something of the puzzle that we can solve here that Qoheleth – given his point of reference – could not? Yes. Lots.
The biggest thing – I think – is that we have a greater sense of our participation in what God is already doing. We can have things like beauty and engagement as core values.
Things that we can actively participate in, with the Holy Spirit, as He is bringing redemption to the world. We can’t expect justice, but we can be justice makers. We can participate.
But still, there is something to be learned here…
Qoheleth doesn’t resolve all our questions about the future, but he gets us thinking a certain way about the present. This is a real message for evangelical Christians. Yes, we have a future hope…firmer than today. But are we obsessed with the future? And does that pacify us in the now?
Do we see Christianity only as a system of beliefs that orients us towards a future hope, or do we see it, also, as a way of life for today?
I think this is the most unfortunate thing about all the hype and obsession surrounding “end times”, the Left Behind series, and all the apocalyptic books that are out there right now. It’s not that they are all wrong. I think it’s that less and less are Christians equipped for faith and life now.
Buddhist books (way of life) sell way better than Christian books (systems of belief)…How do we live now?
Dead Poets Society: Robin Williams gathers pupils around the trophy cabinet…Invites the students to imagine what these ancient heroes, whose moments of glory has passed, would have to say to them…he whispers carpe diem.
The reality of the times lies in the hands of God. We will be judged by how we respond to today. And I really believe we should worrying less about how things are going to work out in the end and concentrate on living in the moment currently given to us.
Now, this isn’t a self-centered/self indulgent response to the uncertainties of the future, but a worshipful response to a God who is already at work – making all things beautiful. He is the God of creation, new creation, redemption and resurrection. He is the Coming King.
But will we take the time ‘under the sun’ to see what He is doing now? Only then can we be responsive. Only then can we truly seize the day.
This carpe diem is God centered. “Eat, Drink and find the good in your work” has a context. It’s an expression of faith. To “Eat, Drink and Be Merry” is an expression of faith…not self-fulfillment. As Launa stated last week. Sometimes this carpe diem means embracing the cross that is right in front of us.
Jesus is never more ‘seizing the day’ than when he is confronting the devil in the wilderness, or when he takes the cup in the garden of Gethsemane.
Tonight, when we seize the bread and the wine, we get to seize the day.
It’s an expression of the past…we remember the price…the cost of our salvation. But it’s not a memorial. The past is alive in us.
It’s an expression of our future glory…someday we will join all tribes and nations at the Table of the Lord: and the feast won’t be symbolic. But we are tasting some of that future glory right here.
Today, in this moment, salvation has come to you.
Tonight we get to re-orient our lives towards that salvation: we get to commit to God in this moment. We get to eat and drink, to enjoy community. And the fellowship of God’s Spirit.