A sermon at the turn of the year - 2023/2024. Based on the Book of Ecclesiastes.
We mark the turning of the calendar year together – here in prayer and, in a short while, in covenant to the future….to God’s future, for ourselves, and for our churches. Others will ignore the turn of the calendar, entirely, preferring to sleep their way into the next orbit round the sun. Still others will be partying hard, drinking their regrets away, and drunkenly singing ‘auld lang syne’. Few will, of course, understand what that phrase, auld lang syne, actually means. Directly translated from old Scots, it can be rendered as ‘old times since’, meaning ‘times long ago’ or times past. It is, I suppose, a way of honouring the past as we move forward into the future. It is a call to remember, and cherish, the good things of the past – like ‘old acquaintances’ – friendships which have sustained us on our journey; or perhaps those we have lost through the cycle of the years.
But as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes grimly reminds us, nothing actually changes in reality. There is a time for everything under the sun, and just as the earth orbits the Sun for another year, so the time for all things will come again. Time to sow, time to reap, time to live and time to die.
The Book of Ecclesiastes is a puzzling inclusion in the canon of Scripture. But it is well worth considering at the turn of a year. It starts with those strident lines, ‘Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!’ and the startling statement, by a biblical text, that ‘there is nothing new under the Sun’. The translation of the Hebrew word hevel as vanity is somewhat disputed. It literally translates as “breath” or "vapour". Figuratively, it can be translated to mean “vain”, but also "insubstantial", "futile", or "meaningless".
So much of Scripture has a trajectory through time. Its grand narrative is of a Universe created from nothing, then the coming of life, the arrival of sin, then its redemption and ultimately the completion of all things in a new heaven and a new earth. There is a direction of travel, through the pages of Scripture. We are encouraged to hold on to the coat-tails of history as we traverse a part of that great road to the future. But the writer of Ecclesiastes, who may have been King Solomon, has an entirely different view of history. For him, history repeats itself. It goes round and round. And none of it really matters. It’s all meaningless, futile; vanity. He underlines his view with some really dark comments. Like these, (from chapter 1):
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun” (verse 9).
“Is there a thing of which it is said ‘See, this is new’? It has already been, in the ages before us” (verse 10)
And then, even more bleakly, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” (verse 11).
Even more bleakly, the writer of Ecclesiastes notices the reality of oppression in our world. In chapter 4, he says this:
“I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no-one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power – with no-one to comfort them. And I thought of the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun”!
As we look back over the awful events of the last year, especially in Ukraine, in Israel and Palestine, in the Yemen, and in many other places – we can see exactly what The Teacher means, can’t we? He is right that power often leads to oppression. He is right that the most fortunate person is perhaps the one not yet born – the one who has not had to witness the evil deeds that are done under the sun. He is also right about the circularity of these things – the present wars and conflicts are but the latest examples of such battles in, quite often, the self-same lands. The quest for power – to have it, to exercise it, to use it for one’s own benefit is at the heart of all such conflict. It is all futile. All vanity. For every tyrant will die. Every state will crumble. Every political movement will founder on the rocks of time and reality.
So what is there for us to cling to, amid such a bleak assessment of the passing of time. Only God. At the very end of his book, the Teacher offers us this thought:
“[This is] the end of the matter, all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or ill”.
In the end, God. God is the author of all, the perfector of all, the judge of all. God is the yardstick against which every human action is measured – however often that action is repeated in the cycle of history. God may be a real, living entity, the source of all things, the ground of all being. Or God may be an idea, an insistence upon the human condition, a constant story against which all human action can be weighed, measured and judged. But what history demands of you and I, what the ceaseless round of orbits round the Sun teaches us, is that only that there is only one constant presence, one constant idea, one constant Word worth our attention, our commitment, our effort and our life. It is God. In the end, it is God.