The wonder of life and why it is given
Peter Seal, 4 August 2019
Ecclesiastes 1: 2, 12–14; 2: 18–23; Luke 12: 13–21
It’s sometimes in our wakeful night hours that we ponder life’s questions, small and big.
To give an example from the animal world, I remember so clearly a dog on a Cornish beach looking into the sky at birds flying to and fro along the shoreline. It wasn’t just watching, it was racing up and down, up and down, and having the most marvellous time – but without any chance at all of catching, indeed getting anywhere near, these birds.
Our own dog, Darcy, is deaf and has very limited mobility. She likes nothing better than to sit in the garden looking into the sky. Somehow she can spot, or maybe hear, an aeroplane some distance away – her response is to bark in indignation. It’s as though she thinks her barking will see the aeroplane off.
You could say that such dog activities are futile, pointless, a waste of time. Why do they engage in such activity?
Our questions about our own lives, be they small or great, are perhaps more sophisticated, with their own human challenges. Today’s Collect used at the 9.30 service phrases this rather beautifully: ‘Only by your grace can we rightly understand the wonder of life and why it is given’.
The writer of our first reading from Ecclesiastes expresses his life questions this way, ‘I, the Teacher … applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven’. And his conclusion: ‘I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind’.
The word usually translated as ‘vanity’ comes from the Hebrew word hebel, which means something more like ‘the steam that rises in a bathroom; the mist that evaporates at sunrise’. Understood in this sense, the book of Ecclesiastes begins with a plain statement of fact: human life is nothing more than a breath. In Genesis 2: 7 we read, ‘The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being’.
The Teacher’s message in Ecclesiastes is that, without God, ‘everything under the sun’ is as insignificant as steam, mist or vapour. What today’s writer is doing is looking at existence without belief in a life after death, and with great honesty considering the implications. In our deeper pondering we know that this message rings true. Our lives have a time-limited span. All our efforts and achievements will fall into perspective as we get older and then die. Our priorities will change.
What today’s writer is doing is looking at existence without belief in a life after death, and with great honesty considering the implications.
I’ve been reading a book titled Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein. He says at one point that as you get older mealtimes become much less about what you’re eating than who you’re eating with. In our most realistic and honest moments we know that we came from dust and to dust we will return.
We believe, too, that all is not lost. We have experienced, in different ways in this life, the great truth that ‘Only by God’s grace can we rightly understand the wonder of life and why it is given’. It’s important to acknowledge that the writer of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, develops his thought. While advising us not to set our hearts on things that are ‘under the sun’ he goes on in chapter 3: 14 to celebrate these same things as gifts of a benevolent creator.
This brings us to today’s New Testament reading, often known as the parable of the rich fool. Here we see a successful, and thereby rich, farmer who is growing perishable food. He’s doing rather well and understandably needs to build bigger barns to store the fruit of his labours – a sensible thing to do.
But then there are the tell-tale words Jesus puts on the lips of the rich man, ‘And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’. Again, at face value there’s nothing wrong in doing this; but we hear the Teacher from Ecclesiastes whispering in our ears: ‘It will all pass away. His life will come to an end – what then?’
The trap that the allure of wealth-creation sets is that of idolatry. To put it another way, the wholehearted search after material things becomes the driving force to the exclusion of all else. We see this in so much of modern life. We see so many folk – good folk – caught up in, ensnared by, the pursuit of acquiring wealth and all that wealth can buy.
The trap that the allure of wealth-creation sets is that of idolatry … the wholehearted search after material things becomes the driving force to the exclusion of all else.
Material things are not in themselves in any way bad. I recall Brother Sam at Hilfield Friary saying on a men’s weekend, ‘It’s not that we’re too materialistic; it’s that we’re not materialistic enough’. In other words, we need to look after and care for whatever material things by God’s grace we are given. Our calling is to use them well and enjoy them, making do with what we’ve got and being content. There’s a real godly freedom in this. This sort of wholesome, healthy approach to the created world is hugely applicable to our day, as we wrestle with the increasingly urgent implications of the way we are consuming the finite resources of our world.
We have a gospel to proclaim; we have good news to share with the folk around us. All is not lost. Barking, happy, crazy dogs have their place in it all. I leave you with words from that Collect again: ‘Lord God, only by your grace can we rightly understand the wonder of life and why it is given’.