Of this I am sure

*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:

Fear God.
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:

  1. That Christ came that all might enter into life real and eternal.
  2. That it is ultimately our choice to live in His light or give in to the smoke and the shadows.
  3. 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.

Amen.

It’s nothing but smoke

* contemplating in community Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 and James 1:2-11*

You will need:

  • a central altar or table,
  • a black table cloth,
  • a large candle (with three wicks is helpful to invoke visually the image of a Triune God),
  • smaller tea lights (sufficient for the group),
  • a lighter or matches,
  • copies of the service, one per participant.

Ritual actions indicated in red and congregational/group responses in purple. 

Part 1: Nearing the light
1.1 Welcome and an invitation to silence

1.2 A suitable piece of music is played or sung e.g. Be still for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One is here

1.3. Praying the Psalms (based on Ps. 119:145-152) 

<the black tablecloth is placed on altar and unfolded >

Like those watching and waiting for the sunrise,
we cry out to You, O God, – our Help and our Salvation –
for our eyes have seen the darkness of night
and the gloom that grows 
as the world wanders
farther and farther from Your truth.

<the large candle is placed in the centre of the altar and lit>
Our deepest desire is to come closer to You,
to live in Your Light,
to learn from the Word that will last forever.

In Your love, hear our voice;

in Your justice, keep us alive;

in Your mercy, draw us near.

1.4 A suitable piece of music is played or sung e.g. So you would come

during which <people are invited to bring their candles forward, light them from the central candle and place them upon the altar>

Part 2: Seeing the smoke
2.1 Old Testament reading – Ecclesiastes 1:3-11 (The Message)
Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]
There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.

<the candles that each participant has lit are blown out and a moment of silent kept as they smoke>

What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old planet earth.

The sun comes up and the sun goes down,
then does it again, and again—the same old round.
The wind blows south, the wind blows north.
Around and around and around it blows, blowing this way, then that
—the whirling, erratic wind.
All the rivers flow into the sea, but the sea never fills up.
The rivers keep flowing to the same old place, and then start all over and do it again.

Everything’s boring, utterly boring—no one can find any meaning in it.
Boring to the eye, boring to the ear.
What was will be again, what happened will happen again.
There’s nothing new on this earth. Year after year it’s the same old thing.
Does someone call out, “Hey, this is new”?
Don’t get excited—it’s the same old story.

Nobody remembers what happened yesterday.
And the things that will happen tomorrow?
Nobody’ll remember them either. Don’t count on being remembered.

2.2. Prayer of confession
Lord of Love, of Light, of Life 
how grateful we are for the gentle whisper to draw near;
to leave at the door, the busyness and the burdens of the week gone by;
to bring to the cross, the brokenness and the bitterness both inflicted upon us and by us,
in thought and word and deed;
to see through the darkness, the bold blaze of Your Spirit at work – with and within us.

<silence>

Yet even as we unwind in Your presence,
even as our lives are renewed by Your love,
we know too well how quickly this hour passes
and how easily our delightful dance with Your Spirit
 is replaced
by the relentless pursuit of smoke
that is such an accepted part of daily life.

Forgive us this day/night for the shortness of our attention 

and the shallowness of our commitment to walk in Your light;

show us how insubstantial the power, the popularity,
the possessions we pursue really are

against Your eternal promises;

guard us against the disease of dissatisfaction that demands we give in
to our greed, our laziness, our pride, our lust;
And help us to persevere in the way of humility, justice and love.
Amen.

2.3 A suitable piece of music is played or sung e.g. Create in me a clean heart ...

Part 3: Reigniting the flame

3.1 New Testament reading: James 1:2-11 (The Message)

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open.

When down-and-outers get a break, cheer! And when the arrogant rich are brought down to size, cheer! Prosperity is as short-lived as a wildflower, so don’t ever count on it. You know that as soon as the sun rises, pouring down its scorching heat, the flower withers. Its petals wilt and, before you know it, that beautiful face is a barren stem. Well, that’s a picture of the “prosperous life.” At the very moment everyone is looking on in admiration, it fades away to nothing.

3.2 A brief meditation is offered or participants are invited to share the grace that they have received through the passages.

<silence>

3.3. Prayers for one another and/or the world
The apostle James challenges us to consider the tests and challenges that life brings our way as a gift for they force our faith-life into the open. But he also reminds us that we do not face them alone but with the help of the Father who loves us and listens to what we ask. So we pray this day – boldly, believingly – for those who are wilting and withering under life’s pressure and problems.

<as prayers are offered by the members, the candles are solemnly lifted up one by one and relit from the central flame as an invitation for Christ’s love to shine in the places of darkness and pain;>

The leader concludes:

Great God who set the sun in place and flung the night’s stars into space,
shine Your light upon our world with such power and compassion 
that the shadows of sin and shame, of worry and uncertainty may fade away;
touch the deep places of pain, of disappointment, of broken relationship 
with such healing warmth that hope and wholeness and health may bloom;
and colour our lives like sunset skies with perfect peace and joy everlasting.

Part 4: Bearing the light

4.1 Sharing the peace

<the peace of the Lord is shared with each person collecting a candle and offering it to another>

4.2. Benediction

<when all the candles have been given, the group blesses one another with the words:>  

The light of God surrounds us.
The love of God enfolds us.
The power of God protects us.
The presence of God watches over us.
Wherever we are, God is.
May we bear God’s light well.

4.3 A suitable piece of music is played or sung e.g. We’ll walk this land …