Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 1, 2017
Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 Commentary
Does anyone know what time it is? The rock group Chicago sang a song entitled, “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?” It’s about people who have watches but don’t really know what time it is: “People running around everywhere, Don’t know what way to go … Don’t know where I am. Have no time to look around. Just run around, run around, and think why?”
Nearly all of us have deadlines to meet, trains to catch, a papers to turn in. As a result, suggests a colleague, calendars and clocks have become society’s modern masters. So does anyone know what time it is?
The Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for today helps answer that question. It’s part of the Old Testament genre that’s called Wisdom Literature. That means Ecclesiastes 3 is mostly interested in describing what the Teacher has learned from careful observation, years of experience and accumulated wisdom. It’s mostly interested in life and what we learn from living it.
In Ecclesiastes 3 the Teacher insists, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” So we need to know what time it is. Whether it’s “A time to be born,” or “A time to die … a time to weep [or] a time to laugh … a time to mourn [or] a time to dance.”
Our text’s list of times is partly descriptive. They reflect on the way life goes. So, for example, Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that there are times when children enter the world and there are times when we leave this world. Of course, we don’t get to choose some of those times. Few of us would, for example, choose to weep with pain, mourn with sadness or even die. And, frankly, none of us chooses our time to be born.
Often we can’t understand why God lets happen what happens. We’ll never understand, for example, why there must be a time for a parent to bury a child or an aunt to grieve a young nephew’s death. We don’t choose those things. They, as a colleague points out, in some ways, choose us.
Yet we do get to choose some of the times the teacher describes. We don’t usually get to choose when we must mourn. However, we do get to choose, at least to some extent, when to dance again. Things happen to you and me that make us weep. But we get to choose, at least to some extent, when we’re ready to laugh again. Evil makes us hate it. But we get to choose when we will love rather than hate.
God gives us the freedom to make choices about how we respond to what God chooses to let happen to us. We can choose to live into the time we’ve been given, and to find the holiness that exists in nearly all of it. Ecclesiastes’ Preacher reminds us that God is the initiator. We are the responders. God is the author not just of grace, but also of every good gift. We respond to those gifts with our faith that is yet another good gift from God.
The wise person always knows which time is which. As my colleague Scott Hoezee points out, “It’s not just that now and again a war comes up and that in between wars there is peace. A wise person knows when it’s time to fight them.” In a similar way, it’s not just that there are times when we’re talking and times when we’re quiet. Wise people also know when it’s time to just listen in silence and when it’s time to speak into that silence.
We know there are times when we can say something that will help. Yet wise people also know that no matter what we say, sometimes speaking only makes things worse. They know what time it is.
The rest of Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that our time is short. If we’re alive, we were born. But if we were born, we will also, unless Jesus comes back first, die. Period. The time between the maternity ward and the funeral home is what Hoezee calls “a kind of in the meantime” scenario. It’s really little more than the blink of an eye. So what we will do with that little bit of time God gives us?
In verses 12 and 13 the Teacher invites us to “be happy and do good while” we “live … [to] eat and drink and find satisfaction in all” our “toil.” We sense he’s describing two kinds of general activities here.
On the one hand, the Preacher invites us to “do good” and “find satisfaction” in our work. On the other hand, he invites us to “be happy” as well as “eat and drink.” Wise people know when it’s time to do one or the other. Yet we also know that we need to do both. The wise person looks for work that’s meaningful and will put bread and wine on the table. However, the wise person also makes sure that he or she finds the time to enjoy both that bread and wine.
So on the first day of the year of our Lord, 2017, Ecclesiastes 3’s preachers and teachers need to know what time it is. We ask our hearers and ourselves if need to take more time this year find satisfaction in our work. Or do we need to take more time to enjoy God’s gifts?
Historically, many people have chosen work over enjoyment. How many of us don’t, for example, wrestle with the specter of figuratively if not literally absentee parents? How many of us sought attention elsewhere because our parents didn’t or just couldn’t take time away from their work?
“Workaholic” became a kind of catchword in the 20th century. It referred to people who worked nearly as compulsively as some people abuse drugs or alcohol. Some did so because they felt guilty if they didn’t somehow work long hours. Others worked long hours because they enjoyed it. Still others worked long hours because their bosses expected them to do so.
Now, perhaps, however, the greater danger is that some people are choosing pleasure over work. It’s not just that countries like the United States has a large population that’s chronically unemployed. That, after all, is often shaped by factors beyond our control.
However, some people have simply chosen to not work so that they can stay home and enjoy themselves. There are disturbing statistics about college graduates who are choosing to live in their parents’ basements and play some kind of games all day.
This morning Ecclesiastes’ Teacher reminds us that truly wise people know when it’s time to work and when it’s time to enjoy the fruits of that work. But he also throws a kind of wrinkle into promoting such wisdom. In verses 10 and 11 the Teacher adds, “I have seen the burden God has laid on people. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.”
Ecclesiastes’ Teacher reminds us that God created us in time to make us, in many ways, creatures of time. Yet smack in the middle of that discussion he throws in the word “eternity.” And this eternity is that which begins now but it largely spent in the new creation. We are in time that in some ways limits us as it does all living creatures. But unlike other living creatures, in that time we also have a sense of eternity. God has given us a sense of something more.
We sense there’s something beyond our watches, calendars, cell phones and history books. Time will not stop. Yet there’s no way around the fact that we will die, unless Christ returns first. That death will be for each of us ether the end or a beginning. It’s that eternity that gives that death’s beginning meaning.
I’ve always wondered what it’s like to die while ignoring that sense of eternity that God puts in our hearts. How can life be fully meaningful in the short term if in the long run it simply disappears, never remembered by God and soon forgotten by virtually everyone?
Hoezee makes the analogy of watching someone enjoy a steak dinner, but then also sadly watching that person die because the steak poisoned her. Would you say, “At least her steak tasted good. That’s something, isn’t it?”
Death still sometimes packs a powerful wallop, a venomous enough sting even for those who recognize the eternity God has set in our hearts. But finally that wallop and sting can’t help but feel fatal for those who choose to ignore eternity.
We can’t fully understand what God does from the beginning of measured time to its end. Yet we can move into a new year in faith that God is at work, in time and in eternity. And because we know God is at work, we can enjoy what we’ve got during the time we have it. We can give thanks to the God who graciously gives it to us. And we can move ahead into the time God gives us, knowing it’s just the beginning of a glorious eternity God has graciously prepared for us.
In the 21st century, the line between work and pleasure seems to be thinning. In his article, “Why Do We Work So Hard?” in the April/May 2016 issue of The Economist, Ryan Avent writes, “You might have thought that whereas, before [the 1970’s], a male professional worked 50 hours a week while his wife stayed at home with the children, a couple of married professionals might instead each opt to work 35 hours a week, sharing more of the housework, and ending up with both more money and more leisure.
That didn’t happen. Rather, both are now more likely to work 60 hours a week and pay several people to care for the house and children … Why? One possibility is that we have all got stuck on a treadmill. Technology and globalization mean that an increasing number of good jobs are winner-take-most competitions …
The dollars and hours pile up as we aim for a good life that always stays just out of reach. In moments of exhaustion we imagine simpler lives in smaller towns with more hours free for family and hobbies and ourselves. Perhaps we just live in a nightmarish arms race: if we were all to disarm, collectively, then we could all live a calmer, happier, more equal life.
But that is not quite how it is. The problem is not that overworked professionals are all miserable. The problem is that they are not … Here is the alternative to the treadmill thesis. As professional life has evolved over the past generation, it has become much more pleasant.
Software and information technology have eliminated much of the drudgery of the workplace. The duller sorts of labor have gone, performed by people in offshore service-centers or by machines. Offices in the rich world’s capitals are packed not with drones filing paperwork or adding up numbers but with clever people working collaboratively…
It is a cognitive and emotional relief to immerse oneself in something all-consuming while other difficulties float by. The complexities of intellectual puzzles are nothing to those of emotional ones. Work is a wonderful refuge…”
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