Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3:1-14
Based off the posts I have been seeing on facebook, I get the impression that a lot of people are really happy that today is January 1st. A lot of people are happy that 2016 is over. I have seen a lot of commentators refer to the year that just ended as a dumpster fire of a year. A lot of people remember 2016 as a year marked by death. Every year will bring celebrity deaths but 2016 seemed to have more than the fair share from David Bowie to Harambe to Carrie Fisher a lot of beloved cultural icons passed away in 2016. On the global stage, the Syrian refugee crisis and the tragedy of Aleppo will stain 2016 and cast a long shadow over future years. Nationally, 2016 held what may be the most caustic, venomous, and exhausting presidential election in the history of our country. Even something is generally considered a bright positive convergence in the world, the Olympics, was marred. Instead of being wowed by stories of competition and accomplishment, we instead will remember the Rio games for the frat boy antics of an American swimmer. Given all of that, it is no wonder that so many people are willing to put 2016 behind them. However, all of that negativity is only one aspect of the year. We may tend to remember the negative, but there is a positive side to 2016 as well. In 2016 the giant panda, humpback whale, green sea turtle, Columbian white tail deer, and manatee all came off of the endangered species list because conservation efforts increased populations. Globally, world hunger is at its lowest point in twenty five years, a fifty year long civil war in Columbia came to an end, and on a single day India planted fifty million trees as part of a massive reforestation effort. Nationally, the high school graduation rate reached an all-time high in 2016 and the teen birth rate reached an all-time low. Plus, the Cubs won the World Series.
That does not even take into account how the year was personally for people. For some 2016 was a terrible year where a loved one died, finances fell apart, or the doctor had bad news. Yet then there are other people for who this past year will be remembered as a year with a great joy. For them it was the year that the adoption finally came through, that their dreams were realized, or they got word the cancer was gone. Perhaps it is not very fair to refer to 2016 as a dumpster fire of a year. To steal a phrase from Charles Dickens, perhaps we could say 2016 was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Of course, this morning’s scripture reminds us that could be said about every year. This morning’s scripture reminds us that there is a time for everything. As we stand on the cusp of a new year, this scripture from Ecclesiastes gives us a sage and reflective viewpoint, but it also reminds us that no matter what the season of our life is there is always a reason for hope.
Ecclesiastes can be a very hard book to read and an even harder book to understand. Ecclesiastes is a book of philosophical ponderings that tradition often attributes to King Solomon. Ecclesiastes wrestles with the big questions of life such as why do bad things happen? Why does it seem that the wicked are never really punished for their evils? What is the meaning of life? Where does God fit in all of this? We tend to look at the Bible as book that is full of answers, but Ecclesiastes is a section that is full of questions. We want very clear cut black and white answers, but Ecclesiastes does not provide those. Ecclesiastes is very much grounded in the human experience, and as the books “nothing is new under the sun.” Life was just as confusing, muddled, and devoid of easy answers in the 9th century BCE as it is today. Yet, just as our own ponderings can lead us today, Ecclesiastes shows that life is not without hope.
We get a sense of the wisdom and searching for answers that is present in Ecclesiastes just from this morning’s scripture. The scripture makes the obvious but at the same time profound observation that there is a time for everything. The list contains opposites and often one is what we consider positive, and the other negative. The message here is that our life experience is a collection of negative and positive events. This is a common sense truth, but it is profound because it is a truth we seek to deny. We wish and semi-expect that life will only be an upward progress of positive experiences. That is why when a year like 2016 comes along it hits people so hard, but as we have already expressed, in a year that many view as terrible 2016 had many highlights as well. There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.
This scripture goes on to address the questions that we ask ourselves all of the time. In the midst of everything that happens where is God? Where is God in the refugee crisis? Where is God in political strife? Where is God in the world today? However, the conclusions that Ecclesiastes arrives to are nebulous at best. Verse 11 states that God has made everything beautiful in its time. Verse 12 goes on to state that “no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Essentially Ecclesiastes offers a somewhat vague notion, that no matter what happens God is still in charge and we cannot understand God’s ways. Much like the fact there is a time for every season, this may be true but it is not exactly comforting.
The final bit of wisdom that this morning’s scripture offers up, is that it pegs what many people want out of life. Verse 13 states that the very gift of God is eat, drink, and find satisfaction in their work. For many people that encapsulates the majority of what is a good year. Anytime we can have all of our needs met, a modest amount of our wants, and find fulfillment in a job well done, then we consider that a smashing success. That is all good, and I agree with the scripture that finding that kind of happiness in life is absolutely the gift of God. It’s all good, but. . .maybe I am in the minority but I want a greater purpose in life other than to eat, drink, and be merry.
Ecclesiastes communicates the human experience well, and it contains a lot of truth in it. Many commentators will point out that when evaluated on its own though Ecclesiastes tends to have a pessimistic vibe to it. However, we have to remember that Ecclesiastes is just one part of the entire scriptures. It is best understood when taken in that fuller context. Ecclesiastes captures the human experience as it is, other parts of the Bible dream as to what it will be. Ecclesiastes frames the question what is it to be a person in this world, but other scripture provide a more full answer.
Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for every season. That in every year, there will be good and bad. The gospel of Matthew reminds us that Christ said “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. There may be a time for every season, but in each one Jesus, the Emmanuel, is with us. Even though this coming year may be filled with setbacks, bad surprises, and hardships there is always a reason to have hope. On those more down days when we would like to hear at least a little good news, we can remember the promise of the gospels-the good news is already here! God is in the world, Christ has come. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus our sins have been forgiven and we have been reunited with out creator. It does not matter what time of the year we are in, what season of life we are experiencing, the good news of Jesus Christ is always in season.
Ecclesiastes reminds us that we do not always understand the ways and nature of God. It reminds us that even though we can know in our heads that God is control, we may not always feel that way in our hearts. Other scriptures help us focus our hearts. In the book of Romans Paul reminds us in Romans 8:28 “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” We have the assurance that even if we do not understand what is happening in the world, we know that God still has our back. The scriptures as a whole also remind us that even though we may not control or impact the big factors at play in the world around us, we can make a large impact in our immediate area. The message that Jesus preached is that the kingdom of heaven is near. We can help bring about that kingdom in our personal spheres of influence. We do this by loving our neighbor as ourselves. We do this by seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Instead of approaching a new year looking at the doom and gloom on the horizons, we should instead focus on how we can be the light to those in front of us. When we do this, then no matter what the year throws at us, our focus will be on God and God’s heavenly kingdom.
This leads to the final point. IN 2017, may we want more out of life than just to get by. May we seek more than just basic contentment. May we seek to make a heavenly difference. When we look at how Jesus talked to his disciples, he never said follow me so that you may eat, drink, and find satisfaction. He said follow me, and I will make you fishers of people. He referred to them as things like the sons of thunder and the rock upon whom he will build his church. Jesus believed his disciples could do greater things than just get by, and I believe that is still true today. We can follow Jesus into this new year, be faithful to wherever God is leading you, and you can make the eternal difference in the life of someone else.
Perhaps you are one of the people who is glad that 2016 is over, or perhaps you are one of the people who had a great year. Either way on this first day of the new year, you are probably approaching it with your own fears and your own hopes. This morning scripture reminds us that like 2016, in 2017 there will be a time for every season and every purpose. This new year will have unexpected surprises and blessings we could not anticipate. It will also have troubles, trials, and tribulations. Throughout it all though we should remember that Christ is the solid rock upon which stand, and all other ground is sinking sand. No matter what this year brings, no matter what it is time for in your life, you can keep your hope in Christ. As Ecclesiastes 3:14 states, “everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing can be taken away from it.” This includes the great love that God has for us, and the grace that we are offered through Jesus Christ.
In our Methodist heritage there is the concept of a Covenant service that was traditionally held on New Year’s ever or New Year ’s Day. During this service the people of God renewed their faith commitment. It was a declaration that no matter what seasons or times the new year held, the faithful would ultimately place their faith in God through Christ. We are not going to do the whole service, but I am going to ask you to pray with me the prayer of covenant renewal in the Wesleyan tradition. It can be found in the hymnals on page 607. Before we pray though, here these words of proclamation from the Covenant service: “Brothers and sisters in Christ, the Christian life is redeemed from sin and consecrated to God. Through baptism, we have entered this life and have been admitted into the new covenant of which Jesus Christ is the mediator. He sealed it with his own blood, that it might last forever. One the one side God promises to give us new life in Christ, the Source and Perfecter of our faith. One the other side, we are pledge to live no more four ourselves but only for Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself to us. . .Today, we meet as the generations before us have met, to renew the covenant that binds us to God. Let us make this covenant of God our own.