Reflecting on Time

Last night, December 31 2013, was New Year’s Eve. Our church traditionally has a service to celebrate the end of the old and the beginning of the new. The night was stormy and only a small group made it out. We had a good service together. The sermon was a short one and suitable for posting here.

Sermon: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

December 31 2013

This last week of the year is a time when the media just seems to go crazy making lists. Time magazine has its list of the 100 most influential people of 2013. They also do the `top ten of everything lists`. They make for interesting reading, reminding us of the year that passed, the issues, and events which will make it memorable in five, ten, twenty five years. Some of the lists are quirky, the top ten buzzwords of 2013, the top ten apologies (I`ll bet all of us can name the Canadian on that list), the top ten babies, the top ten scandals

If we were to have a little survey and come up with a list of the 50 best known scripture passages in the Bible, our text would likely be somewhere on that list, and it is in itself a list. The first eight verses are the best known, popularized by Pete Seeger`s song `to everything there is a season“ written in the late 1950`s. The song was number 1 on the Billboard top 100 in 1965. It showed up again in the movie Forrest Gump. It continues to be covered by musicians the latest being Tori Amos on tour in 2010. The song was a plea for peace, focusing on the last verses of the list, claiming that it’s not to late for peace, there must be a time for peace.

A closer reading of the text, in its context, would reveal that the ultimate goal of the text is not a plea for peace, but rather, an understanding that everything that goes on in the world is under God`s control.  The first eight verses, used as the basis for the song, recognize the ebb and flow of life and give the impression that man, the worker, is caught in a meaningless, never ending cycle.

The anonymous writer, is sometimes referred to by the name  Koheleth (meaning “Gatherer”, but traditionally translated as “Teacher” or “Preacher”). There is considerable disagreement among scholars as to just what Ecclesiastes is about; is it positive and life-affirming or deeply pessimistic? Is the Preacher coherent or incoherent, insightful or confused? Is the ultimate message of the book to copy the Preacher, the wise man, or to avoid his errors? The Preacher is definitely on a quest for knowledge and in it all he finds that life seems to be futile, the ebbs and flows meaningless, and for the average person, out of control.

His writing in the first eight verses of our text is extremely poetic with its fourteen pairs of comparisons. Two times seven. Seven in Hebrew writing would automatically make the reader sit up and take notice, it is a complete number. Two times seven makes this list all encompassing, totally complete, it describes all of the positive and all negative aspects of everything in life. His list encompasses all of life and really says if there is good, there will be bad somewhere nearby, if you are happy now, you will be sad later, if you are suffering now, good times will come again. Oh, and by the way, you don`t have any control over how things will be. It feels like a pessimistic approach to life, although he does often start his couplet with the negative so sometimes he is able to see the silver lining in the clouds.

We are often no different from the Preacher. We describe our lives as being part of the rat race. We rush along, trying to find some fulfillment in life, only to be brought up short by the realities of our credit card statement, worries about job security, the expensive dental repairs our children need, The transmission that comes out of a vehicle which just had to last one more year. Our lives seem to be a constant flow of ups and downs, positives and negatives. Every time we feel like we are getting ahead, we have a serious premonition of the next bad thing coming to set us back even further than we were before.

The first half of the text ends with a note of pessimism. Life is a rollercoaster and we cannot get off the ride. There is no way to stop time, to stop the flow and just enjoy a little bit of space, take a breather.

The Preacher`s tone changes somewhat at the end of our passage. He, in effect looks behind time and realizes that while life seemed to be full of never ending natural cycles that just kept repeating themselves there was a higher power at the controls, God. I like the translation of this text in the NRSV 10I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.

11He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

The Preacher realizes that from a human perspective life does often seem pointless a continual ebb and flow that doesn`t seem to lead anywhere, but then when he looks up and sees God, he recognizes that there is a higher power involved and that this higher power has actually arranged everything so that it is suitable for the time. The NIV uses the word beautiful.

He also says that we as humans have been given the gift of recognizing the power of God in the world around us through our ability to remember the past and dream about the future. A gift no other part of creation has been given. We can recollect the past, right down to minute conversations and events, we can also anticipate the future, not just the nearby events but we can plan years into the future, imagine, create, organize. We are limited in our understanding in that we cannot know what God has done from beginning to end, that is still a secret, God`s business, but we have the gift of memory and anticipation of our own activities.

The first eight verses of this chapter give us a picture of the hazard that comes with this ability to sense the past and the future. It can make us discouraged as we recognize the ebb and flow of time as the Preacher describes it, Since we can see the seasons, recognize the flow without really being able to control it we become discouraged. On the other side, we can also become proud in our ability to imagine the future and think that we are somehow in control of our own destiny and that of others.

The advice of the passage is to enjoy the ride. The Preacher encourages us to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we live;  it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all our toil. But in it all we need to recognize it as God`s work not ours. Everything that God does will endure, our work, not matter how permanent it might seem now, will eventually break down, the seasons will destroy it, but God`s work, and the work God does through us will endure.

As we look back over 2013 and forward to 2014 some of us may become discouraged at the sameness of it all, another run through the seasons and celebrations, another long year of more of the same. The preacher saw this too, and it wasn`t until he recognized the hand of God in it, the beauty that could be found there, the invitation to enjoy all of it that he is able to recognize and praise God for it all.

As we move into this coming year as a church, as individuals, we do not go alone. Looking backward we can see God`s hand, building and shaping a kingdom, using us to do that, a kingdom which will endure, a kingdom built on the cross of Christ, enduring through centuries already. We can see God`s hand in our lives as well, in our joys and in our struggles, in our strength and in our weakness, in all the seasons of our lives.

Looking forward, we know we do not go alone, we have a God, a shepherd, who walks with us through all the seasons of life, through all of the uncertainty of the future. A God who loves us and cares for us.

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