Summer Sermon Series – What Does It Mean to Be Wise?
Week 7 (Final) – Ecclesiastes: Nevertheless, Joy
Preached by Rev. Lori Wunder at First Presbyterian Church, Mount Vernon, Iowa on August 27, 2017
So, I’m reading a novel right now. Actually, I’m re-reading it. I finished it on vacation and decided it was so good, I wanted to read it again. It’s called When the English Fall by David Williams and it was just published last month. (Fun Fact: The author is also a Presbyterian minister, serving a church in Maryland—which is why I know about the novel. Because Presbyterian pastors stick together.)
The book is written as the journal of an Amish man named Jacob as he describes a huge solar storm that causes planes to fall out of the sky, phones and computers and motors of all kinds to cease working, and all that comes after this event. The Amish community in which Jacob and his family live is largely unaffected, but the “modern” (as the Amish call it, “English”) society around them begins to unravel and before long, it reaches the Amish, too.
It’s a fascinating premise and I have to admit—it feels somehow timely with the general madness of the world around us.
It is also a book about faith. Jacob prays and reflects on how he believes God is at work in him, in the crisis, in the world. Even with such a troubling backdrop, there is hope and trust in this book.
Why am I beginning my sermon with a book review? Because I think it is Ecclesiastes in a nutshell.
Just a few reminders about Ecclesiastes:
It is attributed to Keholeth, the Teacher, who is purported to be Solomon, the wise heir of David. Like Proverbs, the collection of wisdom writings here is very likely aimed at young men of means in Hebrew society. Unlike Proverbs, rather than teaching mainstream thinking that living in ways that are righteous, taking the straight and narrow path, will lead to wealth and happiness, Ecclesiastes recognizes that it’s not always that simple. Chapter 7:15 says, “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.”
One of the Teacher’s favorite words is “hebel,” a Hebrew word that is difficult to translate. In the New Revised Standard Version, it is translated as “vanity” but in the Common English Bible that we read two weeks ago, it was “pointless.” Other possible translations include meaninglessness, absurdity and emptiness.
Ecclesiastes begins with, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (1:2, NRSV)
This morning we read, “This also is vanity and chasing after the wind.” That phrase “chasing after the wind” is also a bit difficult to translate; the point is that it is pointless and impossible.
This theme of vanity and pointlessness is heard throughout the 12 chapters.
And so is this:
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.” (2:24)
And a few verses after the “everything has its time” section:
“I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” (3:12)
But let’s be clear—the Teacher is not advocating, “ do whatever feels good.” This is not about a life of hedonism and self-indulgence. It is about finding joy in the everyday things of life—eating and drinking, marriage and friendships, satisfaction in our work. We enjoy these things in spite of the reality that calamity may strike at any moment, and that people don’t always get what they deserve. Rather, the Teacher wants his students to understand that God works in mysterious ways, AND is the creator and provider of life’s blessings and gifts.
As Ecclesiastes 11:5 puts it, “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.”
Ellen Davis again:
“The key verb in the book is not “seize” but “give,” which occurs twenty-eight times in these twelve chapters—and most often the one who gives is God. The essential message, then, is “Receive the gift.” We practice the core religious virtue of humility by noting with pleasure, day by day, the gifts that come to us from God. And the truth is, most of those are given so regularly that we never even pause to recognize them for the gifts they are.”
And this is why the novel I am reading is shouting “Ecclesiastes!” at me. Jacob, the Amish narrator constantly expresses gratitude for God’s good gifts of family and friends and community, the earth that produces so much abundant food, the satisfaction of hard work done well. He sees everything in his life as a gift and blessing—his wife and children, their home and fields and trees and animals, their community, their faith. There is a clear recognition of their need for one another, such as when a tree in a storm lands on a neighbor’s roof and the community comes together to fix it the next day, or to harvest apples or shock oats. Not a blessing goes by that Jacob does not recognize and give thanks for.
He is not immune to the terrible confusion and difficulty that hits the English, and the anxiety that comes with hardship and the unknown. However, through prayer, through trust in God’s provision and those with whom he shares his faith, Jacob and his community persevere in faith, hope and love.
In contrast are the English, who are so busy and distracted, so stressed and unhappy, even before the catastrophe.
While it is “only” a novel, and it’s premise of our technology-based society coming to crashing halt is only fiction (or so I hope!) there is much truth in it.
Our culture, our economy depends upon our relentless consumption and the pursuit of more, as well as a constant injection of whom or what we should fear. When we are busy eating the bread of anxious toil (as Psalm 127 so aptly puts it), how can we possibly be aware of the goodness, kindness, and provision that surround and uphold us?
The Teacher, Kohelet, would say—we can’t determine the future, we can only live in the present and receive the pleasures and opportunities it offers [paraphrased Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God, p. 113].
This is not to say we ignore the problems that exist in our own lives, our communities, the wider society. But it is to say that as we seek to live in God’s way, to teach our children kindness, to demonstrate love in all we do, to work for justice for all creation, we also keep our eyes and hearts and minds wide open to receive the joy.
Henri Nouwen said, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
Here’s an invitation for you: today, or tomorrow, or throughout the week make a list of ten things—at least ten things!—for which you are grateful. Remind yourselves of the many good gifts, the blessings that surround and uphold you. Choose joy.
Life is a mystery, and it is a beautiful gift. It is not a rose garden, but there are roses to be found. And there is nothing better for us than to sing in the lifeboats. Amen.
 Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 2001. pp. 107-108