Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
As you’ll see in your bulletin (and perhaps saw in your email this week) we had a whole list of questions we were originally going to talk about during our sermon slot this morning. We were going to use the timing of our annual congregational meeting as an excuse to think together about what it means to be the church, and how we are demonstrating we are the church, here in our neighborhood.
But God had some different timing in mind for us as a congregation this weekend, with a death sneaking up on us more quickly than we’d expected. Judy Flanagan was a treasured longtime member of our MPC choir; she was a dear friend to many of you, and an important part of our church family. So while our original questions may be perfectly good questions, worth considering on a future occasion, they aren’t today’s questions.
As for today’s questions, they may be familiar to you even if you didn’t know Judy. They go something like this: Seriously, Lord, another friend lost to cancer? She fought so hard, God, putting every ounce of energy she had into her treatment. She didn’t want to give in, didn’t have any intention of losing this fight. We thought we’d at least have her with us awhile longer, thought she might rally from this latest setback. We weren’t ready to say goodbye. Some may even be wondering - where are you, God, and why aren’t you getting to work healing people like Judy who are so dear to us?
Today’s gospel text reminds us we are not alone in these kinds of questions.
In fact it interests me that in a story I’ve always heard referred to as ‘the raising of Lazarus’ neither Lazarus himself nor his grand exit from the grave get top billing from the narrator. In fact, “of the forty-four verses that constitute this story, only seven of them take place at Lazarus’ tomb (11:38-44) . . . Jesus’ raising of Lazarus actually occupies a very small part of this story.” As it turns out, the real focus of the chapter is on the series of conversations Jesus has before he raises this man from the dead. And the primary characters that engage Jesus in conversation here in John 11 are Martha and Mary. We would do well to take our cue from the narrator, then, and pause long enough to reflect on the words exchanged between these two women and their dear friend.
First, the telegram from Bethany. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” The request isn’t exactly made explicit, but the women obviously expect Jesus to intervene. The subtext of the message is clear enough: “do something!”
And how does Jesus respond? At first by doing nothing. He stays right where he is and just offers this cryptic speech about things not being as bad as they appear and this really all being about the glory of God.
I’ll confess this is my least favorite part of the story. But part of what makes me so mad about it is that it does resonate fairly well with my own experience—and perhaps yours as well, if you allow yourself to substitute the name of another patient for the critically ill Lazarus here. Why didn’t Jesus immediately catch the next bus for Bethany and heal his friend? Why doesn’t God always intervene to save the day? Why do some people come back fighting after rounds and rounds of chemotherapy and others don’t? Why do some recover miraculously from crippling injuries and others don’t have that chance?
But if at this point in the story we find ourselves feeling frustrated, confused, even let down by Jesus, we are probably right on track. Remember, we’re watching this all unfold through Mary and Martha’s eyes this time around, and I imagine that’s about how they would have felt by the time Jesus finally came into town.
Let’s turn, then, to the second major part of the conversation, initiated by the sisters’ words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Each one speaks it from her own perspective, with her own particular concerns.
First Martha, marching out to meet Jesus while her sister stays home, dissolved in tears. So it’s the take-charge, practical sister on whose lips we first hear the words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You could have done something about it, says Martha. You should have done something about it. Both complaint and confidence are evident in Martha’s words. She “evokes a Jewish tradition of faithful prayer—lament, which dares to take God by the lapels, as it were, and speak honestly about the pain of human experience. [At the same time] her complaint is intertwined with her faith in Jesus’ power, for she clearly believes that Jesus could have done something about their desperate need had he been there, and even now God will give him whatever he asks.”
Jesus responds to Martha with words of promise that are at first misunderstood: “Your brother will rise again.” She seems to me to receive this with about as much enthusiasm as she would have mustered for that line about God being glorified through her brother’s terminal illness. “Sure, I know about the resurrection on the last day,” she seems to say, “now help me to understand what that has to do with my family, today.” But then Jesus is able to reach her on a deeper level: “It’s about me, Martha. I am the resurrection and the life. Can you believe that?” And Martha responds with this tremendous statement of faith: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Notice – Jesus stands there and takes her anger, receives her lament, allows her legitimate questions, and then offers her words of promise and hope she can actually hear.
It’s at this point that sister Mary takes center stage, leaving the house too to meet Jesus, and addressing him in the same way: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But if they are the same words, Mary seems to speak them not so much out of anger or frustration as through her tears. “Do you have any idea how awful it’s been?” she seems to ask as she collapses at his feet. “I miss him so much.” And having met Martha where she was, with great theological truths and words of promise, Jesus now meets Mary where she is. Himself “greatly disturbed in spirit” and “deeply moved,” all he says is “where have you laid him?” And then he weeps.
What an important reminder that the biblical God doesn’t sit removed from the world simply observing it from a distance. God doesn’t move us around like so many little pawns on a chessboard, saying in a detached tone, “Hmm. Lost another one.” No! Ours is a God who stands with us, grieves with us, suffers with us when we are in pain. The biblical God weeps over the tragedies of our world.
Finally, of course, the conversation does bring Jesus and the two sisters as far as the tomb. And there, in those final seven verses, Jesus answers their concerns decisively by turning away from them to address others. First the onlookers with a command: “Take away the stone.” And then the dead man himself with a shout: “Lazarus, come out!”
Never mind that the ever-pragmatic Martha, in spite of that great statement of faith back in v. 27, was still concerned about the way the way her brother’s dead body would smell after four days. It’s the “dilemma of all believers,” isn’t it? Can we really “let go of the limits [we place] on what is possible in order to embrace the limitless possibilities offered by Jesus?”
Still Jesus insists: “Lazarus, come out!” And he does! It’s overwhelming. It’s magnificent. But why does it happen for Mary and Martha’s family and not for ours? I’ll bet any of you who have shared this particular Bible story with young children have had to do a bit of fancy footwork about this point – “No, honey, I’m sorry, but that’s not exactly what’s going to happen to Aunt Agnes.” But I’ve got to tell you I’m kind of in there with the kids on this one. How come Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t march onto the scene four days later and invite all of our dear ones to rise up and rejoin our families...
Like many of you, my daughter Alina and I sent a card to Judy last weekend. The one we chose for her said something on the front like “when life gets really hard, I pause for a moment to lie down, take a deep breath, gaze up at a beautiful starry sky…” continuing on the inside … “and I shout, give me a &*#%@$ break!!!”
This wasn’t the kind of break we had in mind for Judy, when we sent that card. “God, maybe you didn’t understand,” I found myself praying as I drove home from the hospital Thursday night. “When I said give her a bleeping break, I meant give her some genuine relief from her pain, give her some good rest, give her a chance to get her life back again. Lord, if you had just been there… Oh, right. But of course you were there. And you heard my prayers and our prayers and Judy’s prayers at a whole different level, and answered them with a break of an entirely different kind.” Genuine relief from pain? Check. Good rest? Check. The gift of her life back? It’s as if God said “I’ll see that well intentioned prayer, and raise you a whole new life in which she won’t have to face another chemo treatment or its ghastly side effects, ever again.” Trading a life that was limited and limiting, for eternal life.
But oh, how we’ll miss her. And that’s where Jesus’ tears are such an important part of this story from John’s gospel, too. He wept, as we weep, over the death of dear friends. He gets it. He knows that even our belief in the resurrection isn’t enough to keep us from hurting when we lose people we love.
And if on any given day your loss or my loss is too big to allow us to believe Jesus’ promises; if your pain should ever be too great even to quite know how to pray, remember that we are in this together. We are part of a community of faith in which others can hold the light for us, for a bit, perhaps even handle the praying for us for awhile, until we can catch our breath, and get our feet back under us again.
We are not alone, as individuals, or even as a whole church family. We are part of a community of believers that has affirmed around the globe, for two millennia, the promise we heard from Jesus today. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” It’s as if it’s all been telescoped here in John 11. Obviously there’s a substantial gap between the four days these sisters wept for their brother and the length of time most of us will have to grieve before we are reunited. But that gap is filled with hope, because the final scene for each of us will essentially be the same.
I suspect part of the reason today’s gospel story gives us the chills is that when Jesus says “Lazarus, come out!” we can hear off in the distance the names of our own loved ones being called. We believe that one day God will say not only to Judy but to the long list of people you have lost, and I have lost, and our congregation has lost… and ultimately to every entombed one of us: “Rise up! Come out!” Stones will be rolled away right and left. For with God, the impossible has become possible. And the world will never be the same.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother (my spouse, my parent, my friend) would not have died.”
Ah, but he is here. Always. And death is never the final word.
Heaven knows God’s ways are not our ways, and he may not have answered our prayers for Judy with the outcome we’d hoped for, back when she was first diagnosed. Still, we can be thankful for the break God did give her, in the end, allowing her to transition far more quickly than expected from her earthly suffering to her rightful place in the heavenly choir.
 Gail O’Day, The Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 297.
 Frances Gench, “Women and the Word: Studies in the Gospel of John,” 2000-2001 Horizons Bible Study, Presbyterian Church (USA), p. 35.
 O’Day, WBC, p. 299
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
OK, that was different. Not quite your usual “thus says the Lord” Scripture readings, were they? Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you shall die? Sure, we’ve heard these kinds of things before – but from the Bible?!
What on earth is Ecclesiastes up to today?
Well, let’s dive in and see...
At first, it sounds like he’s saying work is a bad thing. The question “what gain have the workers from their toil?” in today’s first reading actually echoes a similar sentiment in our text for last week: “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” (Ecc 1:3) But then just a couple verses later he says it’s “God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil.” (3:13) And if we jump ahead to our second reading he advises: “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” (9:10) So which is it? Is work good or bad?
The answer of course that work can be either good or bad. It depends on our perspective. Ecclesiastes was well-schooled in the Wisdom tradition, after all, and that good old proverbial work ethic. No sense lying around in bed all day – get up and be productive. “Go to the ant, you lazybones, consider his ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6), and all that. Work can be a good thing. But the word toil, in Ecclesiastes, occurs with a whole host of negative words, words about weariness, and dissatisfaction. Toil, as he seems to define it, is not work or labor in its best sense, but something more like ‘the old grind.’ Toil implies work that’s draining, rather than life-giving.
And let’s face it. Sometimes that’s out of your ycontrol – if you’re stuck in a job that isn’t a good match with your gifts or interest, that doesn’t feel rewarding, that has more than it’s fair share of headaches with not a lot to show for it. Unfortunately, some kinds of work are like that.
I think in this particular context, though, Ecclesiastes is also talking about the old assumption that if we just toil long enough and hard enough—at whatever job we may have--we’ll have it made. That ever-popular (though false!) equation we try to operate with that tells us that an increase in our workload will automatically lead to an increase in our quality of life, even an increase in our control over life. Because when Ecclesiastes asks “what gain have the workers from their toil,” that little word “gain” is loaded too. It means advantage, surplus, excess, an extra edge, a protective buffer in life. And that’s something toil simply cannot guarantee.
Work can be a good thing, so long as we don’t expect it to solve all of life’s problems. Work can be rewarding and fulfilling when we keep it in perspective, and focus on doing our best, in the present, with our God-given gifts. But work can also be unhealthy—when it becomes only about getting ahead and storing up treasure for ourselves, or when it becomes the sole focus of our lives, completely out of balance with other priorities.
Because life is unpredictable, as Ecclesiastes keeps reminding us. We work and work and sometimes it pays off the way we hope it will. But sometimes we input and input and there’s no output—a feeling you’ll be all too familiar with if your computer has ever crashed before an important deadline, or if you’ve ever been laid off from a job to which you’d devoted yourself.
Ecclesiastes is not saying don’t work hard, but that being a workaholic doesn’t bring you any ultimate advantage in life. You’ve heard this logic before: no one wishes on their deathbed they’d spent more time at the office. Surely the same could be said about time spent running errands. Or cleaning the house. It’s human nature to think we can control life, make things come out the way we want them to, if we just try hard enough. But it doesn’t always work that way. And instead of ultimate mastery over our lives, we can be rewarded with burnout, exhaustion, disillusionment.
It needn’t be so, says Ecclesiastes. There’s a better way.
So then, what do we do? Let’s say the logic of this book appeals to you so far. Let’s say you’ve resonated over the last couple of weeks with its descriptive words about the rhythms and patterns of life, its candid observations about the uncertainties of life, and you’ve been waiting with baited breath for the punch line of Ecclesiastes. The “so what.” The how, then, do we live part.
Here it is: CARPE DIEM! Seize the day!
There’s a famous old bumper sticker slogan—I’ll resist quoting it verbatim from the pulpit—but let’s just say it puts forth very succinctly the observation that CRUD HAPPENS. . . And I’ll admit it could be considered a loose paraphrase of parts of the book of Ecclesiastes. Bad stuff happens. There’s no denying it. But here’s the flip side. Good happens and Joy happens too. And as concerned as Ecclesiastes is with not glossing over the tough times, he is just as concerned with reminding us to notice the good in life, to embrace it, to enjoy it. That’s what today’s Scripture lessons are really all about.
“I know” he says, “that there is nothing better for [us] than to be happy and enjoy [ourselves] as long as [we] live; moreover it is God’s gift that [we] should eat and drink and take pleasure in all [our] toil.” (3:12-13) “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart.” (9:7) And while you’re at it, pull those party clothes out of storage, get yourself spiffed up, and head out on the town. Treasure your relationships. Enjoy your work. (9:8-10)
In other words, live for the present! Seize the day! Life can be a real pain in the neck sometimes. It can also be wonderful. Give thanks for the wonderful bits. In the midst of life’s many uncertainties, make the most of what you can. Work can be good – enjoy it. Play can also be good – enjoy that. Try to keep a healthy balance between the two. Food and drink can be good, in moderation of course, and time with the people you care about can be very good – enjoy them too. Recognize all these things as the gifts of God they are. Don’t let your few days under the sun slip away without taking advantage of the best life has to offer.
January is a great time to pause and consider – how can we make the most of the moments we’re given this year? Whether it be a beautiful afternoon of sunshine in an otherwise gray month. Or a half-hour of quiet in a busy week. A call from an old friend. Or an evening at home with the family. Don’t let that precious gift slip by, says Ecclesiastes. Seize it. Enjoy it.
Kids can be great models for us in seizing the moment – like the toddler who, even on the way to her favorite swing at the playground, will suddenly stop dead in her tracks to examine a rock or a dandelion from every possible angle, and then present it with great flourish to her parent.
Children are a good reminder to take this advice in another way, too. You may have heard it said that “100 years from now, it won’t matter what the balance in my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.” And of course it can be as true of friends & neighbors as it is of our family. What is lasting in this life, really? What are the things that really make a difference? Put your energy there, says Ecclesiastes. Don’t just stumble past God-given opportunities to be kind, to be loving, to be generous. And don’t put them on hold, assuming they’ll be around when you finish your to do list. Seize those moments as the gifts they are.
Again, this isn’t about denial – the author of Ecclesiastes looks at the tragic side of life head-on. It’s not because he doesn’t notice that bad things happen, but precisely because of that observation that he gives this advice. It takes a fair amount of courage, in fact, to look life and death squarely in the face, and then instead of crawling into a hole somewhere to get away from it all, to absolutely embrace life.
Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die. A dangerous message? Absolutely. You can see how, read out of context, these kinds of words could sound like a call to hedonism – to seeking out pleasure for its own sake. This book came very close to being left out of the Bible – and I expect that was part of the reason. But in context, we know that’s not at all what he’s saying. Remember, enjoyment isn’t necessarily lasting. We can’t really save it up for later. And joy or pleasure isn’t an end in itself, either – the author told us back in chapters 1 and 2 that he tried that for awhile, and found it to be a chasing after the wind.
But when your work or your family or your schedule offers you a chance to be joyful – grab it! That’s certainly how Jesus lived his life. No one could accuse him of ignoring its tragic side – of that, he was painfully aware. But as you read through the gospels, notice how he also took advantage of the beautiful moments that came his way, celebrating with friends, eating a great meal, spending time with a child, stealing a moment alone on a mountaintop or at the edge of the water.
There’s no point denying that bad things happen in this world. Things will happen around you, to you, at you, that you cannot control. But remember that there are good surprises in the mix, along with the bad. Embrace them. Enjoy them. In the face of life’s many challenges, grab hold of the good, in your play and in your work, as God’s gracious gift to you. In the midst of all its uncertainty, life is worth living, and worth living well. So carpe diem, friends! Seize the day!
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
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.
“Vanity of vanities,” says the old teacher, “all is vanity.” Kind of sounds like Eeyore, doesn’t it? “’Good morning, Pooh Bear. . . if it is a good morning,’ he says, ‘which I doubt,’ says he.” And while we’re on the subject, Pooh. . . “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Where’s the gospel in that? What were the editors of Scripture thinking when they let this thing in?
Without question, there is a strong element in Ecclesiastes of “been there, done that, didn’t work.” The author appears to have been an older wisdom teacher who’d kind of seen it all. We see him sitting back now, reflecting on what he’s learned.
And the lessons are on one level a little depressing. It’s not just that he’d tried it all and found it less than satisfying – the mansion with the gorgeous landscaping and the in-ground swimming pool, the parties, the pretty girls, the fast cars. Those of us who’ve done any reading around in the Bible are a little too savvy not to see that part coming. You know – rich people can have trouble entering the kingdom of heaven, you could build bigger barns to hold your possessions and then find that night your soul is required of you, and all that. Of course that part wasn’t enough.
But did you catch the punch line? Here’s someone trained in those Wisdom Schools we talked about back in the fall – someone who would have felt that the pursuit of knowledge, at least, would bring him fulfillment – here he is saying that even Wisdom itself has turned out to be a chasing after wind. The authors of Proverbs must have been rolling in their graves! But he’s tried wisdom too, he says, just like he’s tried everything else, and you can almost hear behind his words the lyrics of that old U2 song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Even Wisdom, declares this Wisdom teacher, even Wisdom – as fantastic a goal as it is – has its limitations.
Generations of Christian commentators have come to the conclusion that Ecclesiastes cries out for a New Testament answer, and they find that answer in the person of Christ. That is one way to read the book—as such all-out bad news that it can’t help but prepare the way for the great good news to come. But I would argue that the message of Ecclesiastes isn’t actually so depressing after all, and that it can also be appreciated on its own.
First let’s get back to that famous opening: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Many take ‘vanity’ in this context to mean emptiness at best, if not utter futility. As if this guy is saying: look, it’s all pointless, all meaningless, why bother. But here’s one of those times our understanding of the Scriptures can be enriched by a little foray into the original Hebrew. There’s an incredibly loaded word here that’s not coming across in English, because there’s no single English word that can really capture it. That word is hebel. (Pronounced H-E-V-E-L. Rhymes with level.)
So that opening line again: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Or “hebel of hebels, all is hebel.” And what is hebel exactly? Think about one of those grey Seattle mornings that starts out in a thick fog. Then, just a couple hours later, the fog lifts. The mist dissipates, and suddenly we find ourselves enjoying a clear sunny day. Or think about a really cold day, cold enough to see your breath as you talk; your warm breath appears and then instantly disappears.
Hebel is a word that is used in the Hebrew Bible both for mist, or vapor, and for breath, for precisely those reasons. It’s got this sort of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t quality to it. If something is hebel, it can’t be grasped, can’t be pinned down; it’s here one minute and gone the next. It’s real, but it’s fleeting. That’s why the word pairs so nicely with the phrase “chasing after wind,” which we also heard a couple times in our readings today. We can chase the wind all we want and never catch up to it, never lay hold of it. Ecclesiastes tells us that’s what life is like. Uncertain. Fleeting. Sometimes irrational. Sometimes ironic. Something that can’t be pinned down or grasped or counted on to unfold in predictable ways. Does that make him an Eeyore? I’m not sure.
At the very least, the message of Ecclesiastes can be interpreted rather differently when we go with one of these other meanings of the Hebrew word hebel, instead of reading it as total futility. We’ll also see over the next couple of weeks that the author of this book actually counseled his readers to enjoy life, to find good work to do, to appreciate food and drink with family and friends and generally to make the most of our days. Did he think life was entirely empty, or meaningless? I don’t think so. But he knew it was uncertain, full of surprises, with many things out of his control. “Hebel of hebels, all is hebel.” Some find this a discouraging word. I find it profoundly realistic.
We began the fall in the book of Proverbs – there are many important lessons to be learned from its pages, but one thing Proverbs does not do well is allow for the unexpected. It doesn’t address the unpredictability of life. Instead, we read over and over again that the righteous get what they deserve, and the wicked get what they deserve. You come away with the sense that if you just follow the rule-book to the letter all will be well. This action will result in these consequences. Life will play itself out according to your best-laid plans. But of course for the vast majority of us, life just isn’t that tidy.
That’s where Ecclesiastes comes in. And I love the fact that it’s found its place in the Bible immediately following Proverbs. As if to help complete the picture. As if to say to those of us who are left wanting more – hang on, here’s another way of looking at things.
If Wisdom is the art of steering, a way of charting our course through life, then Proverbs teaches us how to do that when everything’s going pretty well. Proverbs is a good instruction manual for smooth sailing on fair weather days. But we may want to turn elsewhere for advice when the rules we’ve been taught don’t make sense anymore. The author of Ecclesiastes calls it like he sees it, and what he sees is “righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (Ecc. 8:14) Whether it’s Alzheimer’s or a stroke, a miscarriage or a layoff, a car accident or cancer, all that nice, neat logic we were taught can vanish like so much breath, and we can find ourselves once again asking why bad things keep on happening to good people.
“Hebel of hebels, all is hebel.” I’ve often wished that biblical books were available on DVD –not with a famous actor reading the King James Version grandly in a classic British accent, but to showcase the voices and facial expressions of the original authors. Like the author of Ecclesiastes. “Hebel of hebels, all is hebel.” Fleeting. Uncertain. Ironic. Did he say it with a casual shrug? Did he sound sad? Or more resigned? What was his tone of voice? Was there a little twinkle in his eye?
Again, some find this a discouraging word. I find it deeply realistic. Think about it -- no matter what in this world we hold up as important, if we make it our ultimate value, we will eventually encounter a situation where that too turns out to be hebel. The economy could take another dive. A loved one could die. And poof—it’s gone. That sense of order. That illusion of control. And we’re left standing there like Wile E. Coyote, clutching a purple feather in our fists, wondering how that doggone Road Runner got away again. We look at our feet, suspended in mid-air for a second, and wonder how someone managed to pull the earth out from under us when we weren’t looking. Then down we go.
We do our best to grasp and control life. We make predictions and plan and store away for later. . . And we can even appear to succeed for little awhile at a time. But then the mist dissipates. And where does that leave us?
Whether you consider it bad news or the very best news, it leaves us right where we have always been: in God’s hands. If there is one thing the author of Ecclesiastes is certain of, it is that God is in control.
God is God, and we are not – and in this proclamation, Ecclesiastes doesn’t sound so unbiblical after all. The bad news is that there will obviously be many things in life that don’t make sense to us. Things that don’t happen the way they would, if you’ll pardon the expression, if I were God. (Some of you know how I prefer life to be tidy and under control!) But that God is God and we are not is of course very good news. Because even when our present reality suggests otherwise, we know there’s a bigger picture out there, a picture in which good ultimately triumphs and things are finally set right. Even when everything else around us turns out to be hebel (temporary, uncertain, unpredictable), God remains – a solid rock, standing firm, while fleeting mists appear and disappear.
“Hebel of hebels, all is hebel.” Where’s the gospel in that? The good news is that it’s true a lot of the time, and here’s a biblical author who wasn’t afraid to say so. The good news is that we’re invited to speak the truth, too, when our own experience flies in the face of what we’ve been taught. Sometimes life doesn’t work according to those old proverbial rules. Exceptions can be disorienting, even painful. But God is still God, even in the face of life’s exceptions. And the God who saw to it that these kinds of words were preserved in the pages of Scripture won’t be scandalized by hearing similar sentiments from any of us. So don’t be afraid to call it like you see it. The author of Ecclesiastes would want you to know, first of all, that you’re in good company. And more importantly, that God’s not going anywhere, no matter what. Amen.