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January 11 - Ecclesiastes 9 - "Life - Waiting for the Inevitable"
MPC 11th January 2009.
It's hard to find meaning in death. Even when the person who has died has lived a full life, is surrounded by family and made significant contributions to this world... it's still hard to find meaning in death. In dealing with families who are making preparations for funerals, and grieving over those they've loved, each family will remember what that person meant to them. How they changed their life, their quirks, funny stories they remember, things they'll miss. And while there's acceptance of what's happened, there is still the sense that it would be good to turn back time, to have the good times once again, to have those conversations one more time, to have companionship once more. Meaning isn't found in death, it was found in the life that was.
And how much more so with those who are young and innocent that die? How hard it is to see children suffer. How hard it is at the moment to see children's bodies being carried through the Gaza strip followed by their grieving parents. 800 people have been killed over there now. What meaning is there in that? There was meaning, and beauty, and innocence in life. But in death... what meaning? And if you cannot find meaning in death... what does that mean for life?
That to me seems to be the struggle and tension in Ecclesiastes. It is so clear about life. It's fleeting-ness, it's struggles and yet it's goodness... And yet so unclear about what the purpose and meaning of death is. And this passage highlights that tension with absolute clarity I think. Let's have a look.
As Ecclesiastes points out to us over and over... we cannot escape death. v.2 - It's our common destiny. v.3 - The same destiny overtakes us all. The good the bad, the rich the poor, the religious the irreligious. Every single person is heading towards the same fate. (End of v.2)
And the inevitability and finality of it, rob people of hope. v.4-6 - What's the point in being brave but dead? You're better off being a coward and alive, because then at least some hope remains for you. But if you're brave and get yourself killed... well, that's it for you. It seems so glamorous on the movies. Dying bravely and heroically... just like William Wallace in Braveheart. "You can take our lives, but you'll never take our freedom."
But he still died. And Ecclesiastes says that that was it for him. His hope died with him. Sure, he inspired others. But he did nothing for himself. No glory for him. No hope after that death. Just nothingness. (v.5) And eventually even the inspiration he might have been to others faded. Never again would he take part in this world. There's very little that's glamorous about dying. And yet it's inevitable. And it's final. You cannot escape it. And it robs you of hope. Because you just cannot know when it will catch up with you. V.11-12.
And people try any and everything to put off that finality. I read of a study carried out in a German University that said those who smile a lot and say "have a nice day" are headed to an early grave, while the grumpy stay fit. (Sydney Morning Herald, March 11, 2006) So flight attendants, sales personnel, call centre operators, waiters and, I would add, ministers, are seriously at risk of damaging their health. Because in all these jobs, people are called upon to suppress their true feelings which in turn has negative consequences for their health. Instead of telling people what they think and then getting over it... they have to bottle it up which leads to serious health issues apparently. So if you really want to stay healthy and live longer, my suggestion is to become a funeral director. Because they have to do very little smiling.
But Ecclesiastes says that no matter what you do, not matter what you're like, it really boils down to time and chance (v.11) Sometimes the good die young... sometimes the bad. Sometimes the good live to a ripe old age... sometimes the bad. Sometimes those who live healthy lives live for a long time... and sometimes they die early. My grandfather was a smoker all his life... but he died at a ripe old age I'm glad to say with no hint of lung cancer. He was an anomaly. Who can make sense of that? The question for everyone is not then if, but when.
When will I die? When will I lose concentration in my car at the wrong moment? When will someone else? When will I find that I have a disease that they haven't found a cure to yet? When will I... the possibilities are endless.
And the more you dwell on them, the more depressed you get. The more paranoid you get. You'll begin to carry around alcohol wipes with you everywhere you go, because there's germs on everything. You'll begin to only drink bottled water, because you know how easy it is to poison a towns water supplies. You'll only ever drive Volvo's, because while it's uncomfortable to drive with a hat and gloves, you'll minimise the chances of injury or death. You'll never get on an aeroplane, a motorcycle, a helicopter... You'll never go bungee jumping, white-water rafting, you'll never go swimming in the ocean... Because all these things carry to some degree a risk and uncertainty.
And while we need to measure risk... Ecclesiastes says that really death is a foregone conclusion. You're only postponing the inevitable. We're all heading there. It's final and conclusive. You just cannot know when it will come.
Which taints even the good in life hard. Life becomes a poison chalice. Because you drink and drink and drink... but you don't know how much is in your cup. And you know that when you reach the end... that's it.
Now Ecclesiastes gives good advice I think in verses 7-10. We've seen it before in the book, particularly the first week we looked at Ecclesiastes. That you cannot control circumstances in life, so you need to stop and appreciate what you have at that point in time.
Enjoy life when you're hooking in to a lamb roast. Savour the flavours. Because this is a time that God is favouring you with the ability to enjoy His creation. (v.7) Whenever you can, celebrate life. (v.8) Enjoy your wife or your husband. Find the time to enjoy your kids. (v.9) Enjoy our job, and do it with imagination and dedication. (v.10) Because in the grave, none of these things exist. Working, planning, knowledge, wisdom (End of v.10). Now I think this is good advice. Stop and smell the roses. Enjoy the things you have, because you cannot control what will happen. And there will be a day when you don't have it anymore.
But I've got to say as well, that it's not advice that brings long-term comfort. Because it's hard to enjoy a meal, when you know it might be your last. It's hard to live in the moment and enjoy it, when the finality and certainty of the end looms large. Life is like a poison chalice. It's beautiful, it's can taste great... But you know that when you reach the end, that's it for you, and for those you love. And you just don't know how much is in your cup, or in the cups of those close to you. It's hard. It's very hard to take on Ecclesiastes advice to enjoy life, when death is so certain. Even the good seems hollow when death looms.
So doesn't it seem strange to you that the Teacher sandwiches this teaching on enjoyment in between the certainty of death (v.1-6), and the uncertainty of life (v.11-12)? Because I think, as with a lot of Ecclesiastes, it leads you to questions that remain unanswered. How can I cope with life when I know it's going to end? How do we reconcile this desire we have to be a part of and enjoy this world... but the reality that we're going to be leaving it soon? How do we make sense of life, when death seems to render it meaningless?
It's this question that worldviews and religions all seek to answer. How does the certainty of death not render life meaningless?
The Bible's, and God's answer, is that death is not the only certainty for mankind. The other certainty is resurrection. And it's in resurrection that the answers to the questions of meaning, justice, purpose are found. And even before Jesus, resurrection for all mankind was hinted at in the Bible. Daniel 12:2 tells us that the "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt." A hint that there is a certainty other than simply death.
But even clearer is Jesus comment in John 5:28-29. He says when speaking to the Pharisees: "Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out - those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned." So while Ecclesiastes confirms that death is a certainty... Jesus confirms that this isn't the final state we're going to find ourselves in. We will die... and our bodies will go to the grave... But a time will come when God resurrects everyone. Not in a spiritual way, but in a very real, physical way.
Now you might be thinking - how does this in any way answer the questions that Ecclesiastes raises, but never gets to? And the answer is this. Two things.
First, in resurrection we have the opportunity for justice and vindication. That is, those who escaped justice in this life, who did what they wanted, who disregarded God, who hurt others... in the resurrection, God will judge them. They will stand before God, reunited with their bodies, and they will receive one of two options as we've seen in Daniel and John. Some will be resurrected and receive life. And some will be resurrected and receive condemnation. Death is not a let-off, an escape, for those who did evil in this life. The certainty of the resurrection will see them judged based on what they did.
Second, in the resurrection we have the restoration of hope. Life should be full of hope and enjoyment... yet sin and death rob us of it... But the resurrection will restore hope. And this is where it's crucial we understand the resurrection of Jesus. Because if you don't believe not only that Jesus died, but that he was physically, bodily resurrected, then you may as well look for comfort and hope in this life somewhere other than Christianity. But while all people will be resurrected, it's only those who know Jesus who will be resurrected to life. That is, resurrected to eternity without sin, with hope, with God.
Have a look at 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 49 with me. Not only did Jesus die on the cross so that when we are resurrected we don't experience condemnation... But the body he was raised in is the proto-type of the body we will be raised in if we are in Christ. One not wracked by sin. Therefore, not subject to suffering and pain. And not subject to turning away from God. In short, in Christ resurrection, we see what will happen to those who follow Him.
It's not a hope without precedence. Jesus has already come before us to show us what it looks like to be resurrected without sin. So Ecclesiastes will describe for us what we should enjoy in this life while we can... In Jesus' resurrection, we see the promise of life eternal, without pain and suffering, and the possibility of actually enjoying life without the constant knocking of death at our door. We can know that what we will be able to enjoy those things fully and freely in the resurrection because death will no longer be an issue.
So you can see from this the frustration that the Teacher in Ecclesiastes must have had. That he could see the effects of sin in the world, and the seeming randomness of events, the good things around him to be enjoyed, but the absolute certainty of death. It's precisely the same frustration people around us have today. That it's hard to make sense of death. Your friends and family struggle with it. Your work colleagues struggle with it. Everyone struggles with it, and expresses that struggle in different ways. And they're waiting for an answer, just as much as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, and just as much as the rest of the world. Your friends and family fear death. They fear life being rendered pointless, meaningless. And they search for the answer in things that might be good and enjoyable... but those things are not the antidote to death. Yet in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and in the knowledge that resurrection is a certainty for all, and in the hope that we can have life without fear of death... Surely that is something we need to let people know. Surely it's something to shape our lives. Surely it's something that we need to consider putting other things on hold so that others can hear.
What is the point of having hope for the world, if our kids' sporting and schooling shapes our lives instead of it? What is the point of being certain of resurrection, if all our hopes and desires are focused on this life that will certainly end in death? If you are confident in Christ's resurrection and subsequently your own, surely it will shape your life. If you're not confident in Christ's resurrection, you should consider whether you are as nervous as you should be about death.
I was speaking to someone about Test Cricket the other day, and they were saying that while they could sit through 3 hours of 20-20 hit and giggle, there's no way they could go, sit and watch five 6-hour days of it. It was just too boring they said. When I recovered from my shock, and considered how best to rebuke this cultural heathen... I stopped to consider what it was I loved about going to test matches. And I realised that it's not just the cricket. I agree 30 hours of cricket, even spread over five days is a lot. It was that there's more to it than the cricket. It's about having 5 days of peace and quiet. Five days to sit, read, do crosswords, talk about whatever I feel like and eat over-priced food. The key to Test match cricket, is that it's not always about the cricket.
The key to understanding the tension in Ecclesiastes is that death is not the only certainty. And resurrection is the final certainty. The resurrection will help you understand why you want to enjoy this world. Because we were made to live in it. And it'll help you to make sense of the pointlessness of death. That resurrection is as certain as death. And if you are one of those who believe that Christ died for you, and has been resurrected... then that resurrection will be to life... a restoration of goodness, a righting of wrongs, enjoyment with detraction. There are two certainties. Death and resurrection. Which one is shaping your life?