At the end of the year, most of us will spend some time pondering about the events of the past year. The television and the news papers feature numerous items about the last 12 months where the highs and lows, the pros and cons, the good and the bad will be considered and evaluated either to revel in our wonderful achievements and accomplishments, be grateful for our good fortune or see what lessons may be learned for the future.
12 Months have passed since one digit changed in the number indicating which year we are in and tonight that same digit will change again because another year has passed. Time passes and in it our lives take shape, inevitably and inexorably. We are born, we grow, we change, we work, we feel, we experience, and we die in an eternal cycle of life where much the same things seem to repeat themselves in different ways over and over again. Nothing changes, the sun rises and sets over good and bad, and in the end there is nothing but the ebb and flow of life.
Thats what Ecclesiastes, or Qohelet, or the preacher, tells us in chapter 1 of his book. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
All things are wearisome, more than one can express
There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.
Words that were written down long ago, most probably some time around the 3rd century BC by an unknown man who calls himself "the teacher" or "the gatherer". Teacher or gatherer of wisdom, brought together in a rather random and lateral way, as if, one Sunday morning just before the New Year was to begin, an old man has sat down and pondered, looking back, not only over the last year, but probably over many years of his life considering his personal experience and perception of life, comparing it with what he has been taught through faith and philosophy about the meaning of life and the order that lies behind it.
They are critical words, because he finds the accepted wisdom of his day lacking and not congruent with his own perception of how the world works and what makes a difference. He is a soul mate of Jobs who also refused to accept popular theory on the art of living and the aim of human toil and suffering.
No says the preacher, it is not true that as long as you do the right thing the Lord will be on your side and make life easy and wonderful for you. It is not true that good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour punished. It is not true that hard work will always pay off in the end. The "natural order" is not fair and will not, in the end, make things work out better for everyone. And the gaining of wisdom and knowledge do not always, automatically, lead to more and deeper understanding or positive developments. Reality is much more complicated than that. There is a lot in life that makes no sense, and the longer one looks at it and the deeper one thinks about it, the more one has to come to the conclusion that none of these theories about the order of things, about rationally understandable laws governing life, about the tapestry of life in the end showing pattern, structure and beauty is nonsense. That life doesnt make sense a lot of the time, at least no sense for us to discover and understand.
The big picture makes no sense, children dying of hunger and hardship, wars raging on inexorably, natural disasters hitting the most vulnerable. It does not make sense, however way you look at it.
And it is no different at the personal level: sickness and health, happiness and loss, satisfaction and frustration, they all seem too random, too cruelly and unequally distributed to make any sense or be in any way fair.
And most of us, especially those with a bit of life experience will agree with Qohelet here: There is too much we dont understand about life, there is too much that we see that makes no sense in a painful and dissatisfying way. And at the same time there is as much we have every reason to be grateful for, much we enjoy and are able to celebrate about that, if we think about it, does not necessarily make sense either because we know we didnt deserve it, work for it or even had a right to it.
And it is this enigma that Ecclesiastes comes up against in his musing and writing. Not a particularly pious or necessarily inspiring view and because of that he has dwelt on the fringes of the Old Testament for most of its history. But he is there, somehow his words found their way into scripture and have been there, for thousands of years with their penetrating and confronting honesty and integrity, acknowledging the incomprehensibleness of life and the limitedness of our understanding of it.
Looking back over the year for me there was good and bad, positive and negative, sadness and joy to consider and I assume that that was no different for any of you.
When we look at our life in community the same applies: there were highs and lows, positives and negatives, inspiration and frustration and in hindsight it is not easy to say which of those will benefit us most in the future. Some of the frustration will bear more fruit than the inspiration we also may have received! We have been surprised by the unexpected, and some things have worked out in ways that could not be foreseen or anticipated beforehand.
On a larger scale this is even more profoundly clear: history happens and seems to follow its own logic, but at the same time there seems to be no structure, no rationale, but only a fairly random sequence of cause and effect where one thing leads to another and we are, before we know it, in deep trouble or making a positive difference. Could Iraq have worked out differently?
God only knows, we dont.
It is this enigma of life Ecclesiastes ponders about and by the time the preacher arrives at chapter 3 he has exhausted every traditional answer before God comes in. Hard work, good behaviour, a "natural order" that guarantees a happy conclusion to life in the end dont work says the preacher, in my experience of life they do not give a satisfying answer to the lifes deeper questions.
There is nothing better for mortals than to eat, drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God. For apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and chasing after wind.
In the end says this gatherer of wisdom there is nothing better than to eat and drink and find enjoyment and accept it as coming from the hand of God. Wisdom and knowledge and joy come to those who seek to live their lives pleasing God, gathering and heaping are for those who dont and in the end it really doesnt make that much difference if you do one or the other.
This is not a negative conclusion and further on in the book this will worked out further. Wisdom, knowledge and joy will come to those who accept what comes from the hand of God, those who spend their time gathering and heaping end up with only air and vanity in the end.
Part of that wisdom is the recognition that there is an appointed time for everything. That even the negative has a place in the scheme of things, however incomprehensible and impenetrable the truth of that may seem to us. That is more a matter of trust than of experience, a matter of faith that somehow, somewhere God is holding the universe no matter how illogical and irrational it all may seem to us, that somehow our lives and the life of our world is in his care, safe in his love, held together by his mercy.
Looking back over the year, or over the years, Ecclesiastes discovers the trust that somehow, in all the intricacies of life, deeply hidden and mostly unfathomable there is a sense of that care, that love, that holding notwithstanding all the incomprehensible aspects of reality that are also there. And comes to a deep faith in the one who is beyond, beneath, above and around it all. A faith that is able to, in the face of the naked truth of the inconsistency and painfulness of lifes experience, say: that which is, already has been, that which is to be already is; and God is in all of it.
That there is an appointed time for everything and that nothing happens outside Gods knowing and loving.
Birth, death, planting and harvesting, killing and healing, breaking down and building up, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, a time for making love and a time to refrain from it (throwing stones apparently has everything to do with sex), embracing, not embracing, seeking and losing, keeping and throwing away, tearing and sewing, silence and speaking, love and hate, war and peace, somehow they all find their place in that incomprehensible whole which is our reality.
And for us the only thing to do is to accept and to adjust and to try and live a life that pleases God so we will gain wisdom, knowledge and find joy in what we do. In the end it doesnt matter, good or bad, positive or negative, they are all part of life, in the end there is God, holding it all, and that, in the end, is what matters and what will hold life together. Ours and the worlds. Amen.