The author of Ecclesiastes wasn’t exactly a person who looked at the world through rose-colored glasses. If you were here last week, you’ll remember him as someone who knew from personal experience and observation that life isn’t always fair. That the going can get pretty rough sometimes. That the things we tend to count on in this world will sooner or later fade away. Glance through the book and you'll find sayings like: "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. . .but time and chance happen to them all." (9:11) Calling it like he sees it. Saying: that’s just the way it is.
I remember having a conversation with a friend of our family, my sister’s godmother and a committed pacifist, just before my sister’s wedding years ago. She was supposed to read Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 in the service, and she told me she didn’t think in good conscience she could read it all the way through. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” So far, so good. But a time to kill? (v. 3) A time for war? (v. 8) I could see her point.
Let’s back up for a minute and return to our other Scripture reading from chapter 1 to see if it can help us out here. I included the first few verses again with all its talk of ‘vanity’ as a reminder of that funny little Hebrew word, hebel that we talked about last week. Remember, hebel in the Hebrew Bible often refers to mist, or vapor, or breath. It’s a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t word. If something is hebel, it can’t be grasped, can’t be pinned down; it’s here one minute and gone the next. Ecclesiastes tells us that’s what life is like. Uncertain. Sometimes irrational. Sometimes ironic. Something that can’t be pinned down or grasped or counted on to unfold in predictable ways. And that’s how he starts his book – declaring that all of life is like that.
But notice how he quickly moves from the temporary, fleeting nature of human life to the more predictable patterns of the natural world. “A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth remains forever.” (1:4) The sun rises and sets. The wind blows around and around. Streams continually run to the sea. That’s what they do. In part, the picture he’s painted here simply functions to support his theory that there’s really nothing new under the sun. But I think he’s also balancing his own emphasis on the uncertainties of life with a nod to its more predictable side. As if to say: OK, life is full of surprises, some good, some bad. But there are at least a few things you can count on.
Notice – it’s a descriptive word, telling it like it is, rather than a prescriptive word, telling us what to do about it. Rivers run and the sun rises and sets and the wind blows. In the midst of so many things that can fade away, these things remain the same. Like the good wisdom teacher he is, he’s recording what he’s observed.
I think when we return to chapter 3, with all its talk of times and seasons, we’re finding a word that may also be more descriptive than prescriptive. He’s not saying this is what you should do, here are all the items to be checked off on your monthly ‘to do’ list: kill and heal, seek and lose, make war and make peace—no. Simply: this, too, is the way life is. There are times of war and times of peace, just as there are times of mourning and times of dancing, times of love and times of hate, times of breaking down and times of building up. He’s telling it like it is.
This isn’t meant to be a sweet poem about only beautiful things. This isn’t Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” much as I do love that song. This is “What a Wonderful World” as it was used in “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Played as a soundtrack for some of the most disturbing war footage in that movie. Because the world around us is both, isn’t it? It’s wonderful and awful, it’s filled with moments of bitter grief and moments of profound joy. People are born and they die. We weep and we laugh. We work and we play. Again, in the midst of all of life’s uncertainties, there are certain things we can expect to encounter sooner or later. Some are fantastic. Some are painful. Some are pretty ordinary. That’s just the way it is. A descriptive word from a man who feels like he’s seen it all.
I’ve noted that the book of Proverbs, while it has a great deal to offer us, is incomplete without the voice of Ecclesiastes to complement it. So it’s only fair to point out that Ecclesiastes is incomplete, too, without the balancing influence of other biblical books.
The fact that this author describes what he sees without pulling any punches is a tremendous gift to us. We need this kind of honesty in the Scriptures. We need it because we should be able to speak the truth here too. We need to know that we won’t be judged, as people of faith, for calling it like we see it. That we don’t have to stick to some kind of script of acceptable topics for Christian conversation.
But where’s the cry for social justice in this book? Where’s the author’s righteous indignation over the fact that people do tear, and break down, and hate, and kill? Where is the call for us not simply to reflect on what we see around us, but get up off our seats and do something about it? I’m afraid we won’t find that in Ecclesiastes. For that, we’ll need to flip ahead to the prophets and the gospels, or turn back to the law. Again, each biblical book offers us a piece of the whole. None is by itself the complete word of God.
Some of you may remember an exercise we did in Proverbs earlier this fall, where we looked at two contradictory pieces of advice sitting right next to each other. The first verse said “do X.” The second verse said “don’t do X.” We said: Wisdom is the art of discernment, knowing which piece of advice to follow at which time. So too, there is an art to making our way through the Bible as whole, finding messages that speak the truth we need to hear in different seasons of our lives.
Certainly there were times in ancient Israel’s history when they needed words of comfort. There were also times when they needed strong words of challenge to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with their God. The more we learn about the history of the people among whom the Scriptures first circulated, the more it becomes clear that its various parts were written to address them in strikingly different situations. The right word from God for the right moment. Whether to afflict the comfortable. Or to comfort the afflicted.
The beauty of the Scriptures is that we now find so many of these messages preserved side by side. Like a mosaic, a kaleidoscope even, of colors that will look a little different to us depending on where we stand at a particular moment, and how we hold them up to the light.
Because we know there are seasons we can move through as individuals. In any given sanctuary on any given Sunday, you’ll likely find people who are celebrating new life, and people who are concerned about the end of life, people who are struggling, and people who are deeply content.
There are seasons we move through as a congregation too. Over the past several years, for instance, I know you’ve been grieved to watch the health of beloved longtime members deteriorate to the point where they can’t be with us anymore in worship; you’ve had to say farewell to a number of these dear friends, too …but you’ve also rejoiced together at the gift of new life as you’ve welcomed several babies to the church family, and enjoyed watching all those little sheep and shepherds, wise men and angels in the Christmas pageant, and celebrated the addition of wonderful new members to our church family. Endings and new beginnings. Times for grieving, and times for celebrating.
At my sister’s wedding we also reflected on how much the vows she and her husband took that day were reminiscent of this text from Ecclesiastes 3. When we marry, we promise to be faithful to one another in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow. So marriage, at its best, is about rejoicing together in times of planting, healing, and building up. It's also about hanging in there together in times of breaking down, weeping, and loss.
That’s what it means to be a church family too – to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. To build one another up. Not just to play for the same team, but to be one another’s cheerleaders. For better or for worse. Whether we find ourselves in a season of dancing and embracing or a season of loss and disappointment.
So no matter which season you find yourself in at the moment, you are part of a church family that cares about you. No matter what season you live in today, there is a word from God for you in this multi-faceted, many-layered, disarmingly colorful book we call the Bible. And no matter how exhilarating, confusing, or infuriating life may be from one day to the next, remember that the sun will rise and it will set, the wind will blow, those streams will keep running to the sea, and—more importantly—God will stand firm through it all.
In thinking about God’s presence—not seasonal, but eternal—I was tempted to quote that old song made famous by James Taylor: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call . . .” But you know, God’s there whether we can muster the strength to call or not. And there for that matter, whether we even notice on a given day. Transcending all times and seasons. With us in every awful moment and in all the wonderful ones too. With us on days as ordinary as they come.
That’s just the way it is.