Yr B ~ Lent 3 ~ Ecclesiastes 11
The book of Ecclesiastes, if it’s thought of at all, tends to get a really bad rap. It seems depressing, dreary, and gloomy. It’s the Eeyore of the bible! The problem is it gives a terrible first impression. You open up the book, and instantly in Chapter 1 verse 2 you get zinged with a line that makes you want to flip right on over to the next book and ignore this one.
Business websites say you’ve got 7 seconds to make a first impression – and some psychologists say that it’s made in 1/10 of a second. Poor Ecclesiastes never had a chance!
Have I piqued your interest?
Are you filled with wonder about what Ecclesiastes 1:2 says that’s so off-putting?
Well, wait no more! Here’s verse 2 in several different biblical translations.
Pointless! Pointless! – says Qoheleth – Utterly meaningless! Nothing matters!
Smoke, nothing but smoke. There’s nothing to anything – it’s all smoke.
Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “utterly meaningless!”
Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher, perfectly pointless. Everything is pointless.
Or the classic version:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Does that make you want to read verse 3? Probably not! But you should, because as we dig into this great book today I think you’re going to love it!
Ecclesiastes is probably the most down to earth, grounded in reality book in the bible. It doesn’t sugar coat anything.
Its basic message is this: life is meaningless and you’re gonna die – so live.
The supposed author is a guy named Qoheleth, which is probably actually a pseudonym because his name translated into Greek is Ecclesiastes which literally means the gatherer or the teacher. Ekklesia is the Greek word for church, but church literally means the gathered ones. So Qoheleth is a teacher, or a preacher, who gathers people together and teaches them his wisdom.
And what a wisdom it is! There’s no fluff, no big promises, no pie-in-the-sky-everything-will-be-great-if-you-just-love-God stuff. No way. Qoheleth tells it straight. In the big picture, life can seem pretty meaningless.
What’s the point? Why bother? What difference does it make? It’s all for nothing anyway. No one’s going to know any way. It’s all pointless, meaningless, like vapour or smoke.
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Now, vanity here doesn’t mean a person who likes to look at themselves in the mirror. It means all is in vain. The great and complex Hebrew word is hevel. It means breath, vapour, ephemerality, absurdity, futility, empty, temporary, and that everything is transitory, and fleeting.
You are probably not going to change the world.
You are probably not going to leave a great mark on the world other than your family.
You are probably not going to be rewarded for all the fantastic things you do in life.
You’re going to experience pain.
You’re going to experience frustration, and disappointment, and loss, and anger, and all sorts of crap that you don’t deserve.
Don’t ya love this guy?!
He says it’s all smoke, vapour, absurd, futile, fleeting. It’s all hevel.
There’s a wonderful popular phrase that I’d like to adapt that perfectly sums up what Qoheleth is saying: Hevel happens!
You know what I’m saying? Hevel happens.
Whether you’re a good person or a not-so-good person hevel happens.
Everyone gets their share and some get more than their share (I know some of you do!) but no one escapes – hevel happens. Is he right or wrong?
The next question is critical. It makes all the difference in the world.
What are you going to do about it?
If you think you can avoid it by turning to a sunnier book of the bible you are only fooling yourself.
So do you throw your hands up in the air and give up? Or does it make you live differently?
Hevel happens and it’s gonna happen to you. How then shall we live?
Qoheleth has some brilliant wisdom for us. It’s pretty much his main theme. He says it 7 times in this short book. The first is in Ecclesiastes 2:24-25
There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from God who can eat or who can have enjoyment?
There is nothing better that to eat and drink and find enjoyment in your work.
There’s nothing better than enjoying every single minute of your life.
There’s nothing better than noticing that the moment you’re in right now is sacred, and it’s worth savouring – so savour it!
Who knows what the next moment might bring?
You may not move mountains, but you will have moments. Savour them!
You may feel like you’re up to your eyeballs in hevel – but right here, right now, in this present moment, revel in the Presence of God. You are not alone!
Now, just in case you think this is some kind of licence to go out and party yourself to death and that the rules don’t matter think again. Qoheleth says nothing of the sort.
He says to work. Do your thing. Do good.
Work like you’re going to live forever, but live like you’re not.
Prepare for tomorrow, prepare for the long term, make plans, be smart – but by the same token know that you never know.
You never know.
Look for tomorrow but realize that now may be all you have. So live!
How many of us float through moments completely unplugged from what’s happening because we’re a million miles away worrying about this or that?
Qoheleth says “Be Present!”
Be in the moment, because in the big picture this moment is all there is.
And if you’re not in this moment what’s the point of having thousands more moments and living forever if you’ve never bothered to live?
Look. It’s true. Hevel happens.
But are you gonna revel in the hevel or wow in the now?!!!!!!
(soon to be on T-shirts everywhere!)
Usually if people know anything about Ecclesiastes they might know 4:12 which says “Two are better than one…(and) a threefold cord is not quickly broken” or probably the bit from chapter 3 about how there’s a time for everything under the sun.
In the 60s a group called The Byrds sang Qoheleth’s philosophy in music with this song:
But the brilliance of the book is this philosophy of enjoying life in the here and now, and right after that list of ‘a time for this and a time for that’ we get Qoheleth’s theme again – there’s nothing better than to eat and drink and enjoy yourself.
It’s about delighting in simple things.
It’s about savouring simple pleasures.
But to do that you have to be aware, awake, present, and accept that while hevel is reality it’s not the sum total of reality. There’s so much more.
Listen again to the scripture reading for today. Listen to the wisdom:
Ecclesiastes 11 MSG
1 Be generous (cast your bread upon the waters): Invest in acts of charity. Charity yields high returns.
2 Don’t hoard your goods; spread them around. Be a blessing to others. This could be your last night.
3 When the clouds are full of water, it rains. When the wind blows down a tree, it lies where it falls.
4 Don’t sit there watching the wind. Do your own work. Don’t stare at the clouds. Get on with your life.
5 Just as you’ll never understand the mystery of life forming in a pregnant woman, So you’ll never understand the mystery at work in all that God does.
6 Go to work in the morning and stick to it until evening without watching the clock. You never know from moment to moment how your work will turn out in the end.
7 Oh, how sweet the light of day, And how wonderful to live in the sunshine!
8 Even if you live a long time, don’t take a single day for granted. Take delight in each light-filled hour, Remembering that there will also be many dark days And that most of what comes your way is hevel (smoke, fleeting).
Enjoy the simple things, because that’s all there is in the end.
So, is this just ancient wisdom or does it apply today?
Have you ever come across this philosophy today?
Enjoy today. Enjoy the simple things. Savour the moment.
I think it’s amazing how popular this idea is still today! Truth is truth! Now, the way we go about living in the moment may have some debate around it, but the philosophy is sound. I think the key difference or key idea is right at the start of the passage I just read: Be generous.
I wonder if “be generous” is as popular an idea as “enjoy today”? Qoheleth has identified a key component of the human condition – a desire to be alive to the moment – carpe diem – but I wonder if our first impulse is to be selfish as we scratch that itch rather than being generous.
I mean, you could argue that having so many toys in your garage that your cars can’t fit in is a sign that people are striving to enjoy the moment.
I think Qoheleth would say “Why are you hoarding all that stuff? It’s all hevel. You could die tomorrow. Be generous. Being generous will make you feel more alive! You don’t need stuff. Just enjoy the simple things.”
A rock group in the 70s had obviously read Ecclesiastes too. This is a Canadian group called Trooper with what seemed to some people like hedonistic crazy new advice for how to live:
That’s not hedonism, that’s Qoheleth.
Last fall I presided at a funeral for a 28 year old man who was tragically killed in a car accident. As their greatest tribute to him his friends selected a song by the rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd called “Simple Man.”
That was the prized vision this group of twenty-somethings had – to live a simple, meaningful life.
Our ancient theologians seemed to get it.
Our musicians and poets seem to get it.
Think about the simple things in life. Think about how wonderful they are. Isn’t that incredible? You don’t necessarily need to plug into extreme adventure, or dazzling delights, or top of the world wonders when the ordinary, everyday stuff of life is already pretty wonderful – if you notice.
Savour a cup of coffee or tea.
Taste chocolate chip cookies!
Watch your garden bloom.
Receive a compliment.
Do something nice for someone just because.
Life’s simple pleasures are pretty wonderful.
The ordinary is teeming with the extraordinary if you take the time to look.
The mundane is actually very, very sacred.
It’s really wondrous how much wonder there is in the mundane things in life. Do you notice?
Think of all the mundane things we do here at the church. Doing dishes, cleaning the church, attending meetings, writing reports, contemplating budgets, attending workshops and programs, doing countless jobs – most of it is pretty mundane stuff. Some of it might even feel like hevel!
But if you remember to wonder
– if you remember to savour the moments
– if you remember that Surely God is in this place and you open yourself moment by moment to notice
– then all these simple, ordinary, mundane things are filled with joy, and life, and Presence, and wonder.
I don’t know if the United Church will survive for 50 more years but I know that this moment is alive with God’s Presence.
I don’t know how all of our lives are going to turn out but I know that we are here together in this time and place and this is sacred.
I don’t know whether we’ll finish the year in a budget surplus or a deficit but I know that if we savour every moment that the rest is all hevel anyway.
And I’m not sure if you’ve seen the connections between wonder, having a reverent awe of God, noticing the sacred in the mundanity of life
– and the journey of a group of people of Faith through the Lenten season where we’re preparing ourselves to encounter the story of Holy Week
– a story of wonder, and reverent awe, and sacredness amid the most mundane and hevel laden stuff that will happen to Jesus –
but even if the connections aren’t so obvious I pray that we’re enjoying the moments
– for I know that there is nothing better for us than to eat and drink and enjoy our journey
– for even the simplest pleasures are wondrous revelations of the Presence of God.
(bonus song – James Taylor’s “Secret of Life”!)