*a reflection based on Ecclesiastes 12 and John 12:44-50*
I want you to think for a moment of something you’re sure of; something you know deep down inside to be absolutely infallible, 100% certain and true.
Perhaps you want to share it with your neighbour or your friend ….
If you don’t, or if you hesitated for a moment, I wonder why. Did you suddenly think that your sure thing was too silly? Or did panic and doubt flare up in you briefly the moment that I asked you to express it rather than just think it that it might not actually be 100% true? Were you worried that it might begin a debate or elicit an opinion contrary to your own?
Perhaps your sure thing was a scientific fact, like the earth is round or the grass is green. But while the world may look like a perfect circle from space, it is more accurately a bumpy sphere; and I don’t know about yours, but my grass is looking decidedly brown beneath the sun’s recent unrelenting heat.
Perhaps you’re certain that butter is bad for you, but these days the processed trans fats found in margarine are regarded as far worse and coconut oil is the in thing for the health conscious. And here’s three cheers to chocolate and caffeine now being linked to increased longevity but you’ve only really got until the next sponsored nutritional study to enjoy that “fact”.
Perhaps your conviction lies among more spiritual lines: in the wonderful assurance of God’s eternal love for you; yet, if you have ever questioned that unconditional love for a pimp; a paedophile; a person from a different race, religion or sexual orientation, then you’ve inadvertently opened yourself up to an uncomfortable little niggle of worry that perhaps there are limitations on God’s welcoming embrace – even for you.
As the season of Advent approaches, our lectionary readings offer a profound word to us in this post-modern era of shifting certainties, fake news, and relative truth; of – as the Quester puts it throughout the book of Ecclesiastes – the insubstantial, swirling smoke that clouds our vision of what is truly important and trustworthy.
It’s all smoke, nothing but smoke.
The Quester says that everything’s smoke.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:8 (The Message)
The fun, the freedom, the exuberance of our youth quickly fades beneath the burdens and worries of adult responsibility. Between bills to be paid, houses to be maintained, children to be raised, the best years seem to fly by until we’re left tired yet unable to sleep; up with the birds yet unable to hear clearly the sweet songs they’re singing; with an abundance of free time to do the things we’d once dreamed of doing, yet unable to come and go as we will as physical limitations and fear of the rapidly-changing world take over.
Life, lovely while it lasts, is soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
The body is put back in the same ground it came from.
The spirit returns to God, who first breathed it.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 (The Message)
Yet the Quester, as he laments the meaninglessness of life, the futility of our toil, and the fickleness of pleasure so dramatically, does not want us to throw our hands up in despair and wonder if there’s even a point to getting ourselves out of bed tomorrow.
I remember quite clearly telling my husband in the early years of our marriage that I fully intended to take a handful of sleeping pills or fall elegantly off a rooftop just after my fiftieth birthday because I didn’t want to experience any of the frailties or the illnesses or the losses that I associated with old age at the time, and I didn’t think God would mind too much getting me back early. Now that I’m in my forties and have been touched by the dignity, the memory, the wisdom, the authentic love of those significantly older than myself, I’m all too eager to revise my position on the matter ….
… because life – lovely while it lasts – is too soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
As he offers these words, the Quester longs to rouse us from our apathy so that we remember the remarkable gift of each new day and honour the One who has given it. He wants to shake us free of the smoke that has suffocated our passion, our vigour, our vision – those people, those “priorities,” those possessions that have actually just filled our lives with clutter and kept us from pursuing the precious and important. He wants to goad us to become people of substance in a world that has lost its way in its pursuit of power, prosperity and pleasure. He wants us to live well.
And of this I am sure: that Christ came into the world to make that good life, life real and eternal, possible for all people.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says of himself:
I am Light that has come into the world so that all who believe in me won’t have to stay any longer in the dark.
~ John 12:46 (The Message)
“Won’t have to,” “should not,” “would not continue to,” “shall not remain …” different Bible versions put it in different ways: that through his love and sacrifice, Christ has enabled us to live differently; through his teaching and actions, Jesus has made possible an alternative way of being in relationship with God and with one another and with the world at large.
But ultimately – and this is another thing I’m sure of – the choice is ours: to live and work and love and play and pray in the light of God’s all-encompassing, liberating love; or to stick to the shadows with which we have been acquainted for so long that we don’t even see them; or even, happily hide within when we begin to speak or think or act in a way that we know falls far short of the measure of God’s love for us and for the Other that we may be judging, deceiving, manipulating, disrespecting, or betraying at the time.
We don’t have to stay any longer in the dark. We don’t have to chase the fleeting, insubstantial smoke of this world of which the Quester so passionately warns us. We don’t have to ….
Yet if we choose to be children of the Light, to honour and make the most of each short day, here’s a sure thing to hold onto in the midst of the uncertainties and distractions of life – the last and final word, the conclusion of the matter, as the Quester puts it:
Do what he tells you.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:13b (The Message)
Jesus says it too, right before his final Passover Feast:
I know that his command leads to eternal life.
~ John 12:50a (NIV)
Fearing God is not about being afraid; it’s not the dread of a sinner or a slave.
It’s the reverence that we have as children for a Father who has consistently and unconditionally demonstrated love for us.
It’s the certainty that our respected Teacher has our best interests at heart that gives us, as lifelong students, the courage to try and to obey.
It’s the wide-eyed wonder at how giving and forgiving our Gracious God has been that inspires us to be giving and forgiving ourselves.
It’s the awe that brings order to our day – replacing appointments in diaries or tasks on to-do lists with opportunities to encounter God’s grace.
It’s the sacrifice of worship that we offer, unrushed by the work of the kingdom and unhindered by the lack of workers for the harvest, but flowing from the deep desire to connect and reconnect with the Spirit who sustains each breath.
It’s the very real wrestling with how hard it is to be people of substance when others get to do whatever they desire – without judging them or resenting them or pitying them.
In his concluding chapter, the Quester writes that:
The words of the wise prod us to live well.
They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together.
They are given by God, the One Shepherd.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:11 (The Message)
I pray that his wise words might prod us to live well, and that today, these three nails have been hammered home:
- That Christ came that all might enter into life real and eternal.
- That it is ultimately our choice to live in His light or give in to the smoke and the shadows.
- That living in His light begins by honouring and enjoying the One who first breathed life into us and to whom our spirit will return.
Life is precious. But it is also fleeting. May we make the most of every moment all the way to our eternal rest and may the Christ who is the same today as he was yesterday and will be forever, keep us standing sure-footed through the trials and temptations of life; and, as we walk in the certain love of God the Father, and the clear leading of his Holy Spirit, may others come to know through our words and deeds the assurance of Christ with them, always.