given on Sunday, October 11, 2009
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I suppose it was inevitable. There is no way to avoid using that scripture. You know the one I am talking about, the one about the seasons. Here we are rushing through the seasons this year. We are in those typical, fall days when harvest is underway, the days are getting shorter, and winter is rushing in on us.
Those verses we somewhat have memorized are so familiar, but do we understand, truly understand those words? Just understanding the setting adds a dimension we may not have considered before. The Bible places this book after Psalms and Proverbs, right before Isaiah. It is almost hidden, and the words, which wrap around this book, are filled with hope, guidance, and promise. Ecclesiastes tone does not seem to fit beside Proverbs because it is King Solomon’s inner thoughts filled with uncertainty, with doubt, with questions about God and faith rather than those words of advice from confident leaders.
Look at those words that begin the third chapter:
“2 A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to harvest.
3 A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
4 A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance.
5 A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
6 A time to search and a time to quit searching.
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
7 A time to tear and a time to mend.
A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
8 A time to love and a time to hate.
A time for war and a time for peace.”
We have heard these verses used in songs, in speeches, in previous Bible studies and Sunday school materials. We hear it all too often during moments of grieving. Still King Solomon continues in his thoughts and the verses which follow need to be considered:
9” What do people really get for all their hard work? 10 I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. 11 Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. 12 So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. 13 And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God.
14 And I know that whatever God does is final. Nothing can be added to it or taken from it. God’s purpose is that people should fear him.”
If these words are taken apart and looked at under a microscope, we see Solomon’s questions. First, “What do people really get for all their hard work?” Those words sound challenging. The way we read it depends on how optimistic or how pessimistic we are feeling. Listen to what happens when you put emphasis on different words: “What do people really get…. What do people get for all their hard work … What do people get for all their hard work?” See what happens? In my experience, I have used that exercise to get students to listen for changes in tone. In this case it can show how much questioning Solomon had. Solomon may have been wise, but he was a man—not God. He had to go through the same questioning we do.
Yet the other words in verses 10-14, I can imagine how Solomon began seeing through God’s eyes: “I have seen the burden God has placed on us all.” The burden of taking care of this earth may be a heavy one, but when everybody works together the burden is light.
Reading on to verse 12: “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time.” These words provide the rationale for why we have been given the responsibility of taking care of this earth and its people. What God has made is indeed beautiful. Look at this world we have today. We have had one of the most phenomenal summers this year. We have seen green grass all summer. We have seen some of the most gorgeous blossoms, wildflowers and carefully tended. The clouds and the temperatures have awed us this summer.
And, as we all know, since everything has its own time, we know summer turns into fall and fall turns into winter. The cycle of life continues. And our responsibilities continue. Sometimes we wonder why the chore list never ends. Remember what Solomon adds: “He (God) has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” Solomon seems to know what God plans, but he knows people in general—the rest of us—do not get the big picture. What is the full scope of God’s work?
Solomon may be working through all his human uncertainties, but he also wonders if others know how to manage this uncertainty. He tries to explain that even if we do not completely understand, we can do as he does:
“12 So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can.” We are to look at the beauty of this earth, and be happy.
Today we gather here on an October Sunday among friends. We are to follow Solomon’s wise advice—be happy and enjoy, but we also must take care of this world God has provided us. We must take care of our brothers and sisters in Christ, but also all those surrounding us who are hurting—hunting for meaning and purpose in their lives. They have no idea that they are hunting for God.
Today we are out here in the community. We are comfortable; we are happy; and we are among friends. This takes us to the next couple of verses: “13 And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God.” Harvest time in our communities means the hard work is almost over. We are nearing that time of year when the farming calendar ends and a lull occurs. The crops are harvested. The fields are prepared for the next year. The cattle have had their calves, and we go into a quieter time. We enjoy “the fruits of our labor.”
Today we sit out among the farmlands of our communities. We sense the importance of our labor. We need rest from our labor. We need to celebrate, to praise God and to thank him for all the wonders in this grand world we are so fortunate to live in. We must try and understand the big picture as Solomon tried to explain:
“14 And I know that whatever God does is final. Nothing can be added to it or taken from it. God’s purpose is that people should fear [revere] him.”
We may think we know what eternity holds for us, but I suspect we are just seeing a piece of it. When I can drive down the highways and watch the splendor of autumn bursting out in the trees or when I open my ears and hear the birds singing, I am filled with joy and it is easy to praise God. When I hear of a tragedy or see the pictures of horror whether it is war or nature’s fury, my heart cries out. Still, in the midst of misery, I see God working through the hands of his people regardless of their faith, their nationality, their size, or their history. And I know there is so much more to the big picture.
The final words of Ecclesiastes 3 seem to explain the big picture. We can hear King Solomon talking out loud about the uncertainties, about all that we see here on this earth; and we see how he advises us to accept what God asks of us:
“15 What is happening now has happened before, and what will happen in the future has happened before, because God makes the same things happen over and over again.
16 I also noticed that under the sun there is evil in the courtroom. Yes, even the courts of law are corrupt! 17 I said to myself, “In due season God will judge everyone, both good and bad, for all their deeds.”
18 I also thought about the human condition—how God proves to people that they are like animals. 19 For people and animals share the same fate—both breathe and both must die. So people have no real advantage over the animals. How meaningless! 20 Both go to the same place—they came from dust and they return to dust. 21 For who can prove that the human spirit goes up and the spirit of animals goes down into the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is why we are here! No one will bring us back from death to enjoy life after we die.”
We are so fortunate to be here on this earth working with one another. We find joy and contentment in the passing of the seasons. We harvest and know that with God we have done well. We come to a time to rest and we know that all is good. This is indeed the season to praise God, to revere God, to say thanks to God.
Thank you. We often find ourselves grumbling and complaining about the irritations in life. We talk among ourselves and ask questions about why this happens or that happens, but we know we do not see your big picture. Today, let us find the joy in our lives here on this grand earth. Today, let us join in our praises for all that you have provided us. Today, let us know that we are here to do your work and to be happy in it, because we have faith know that for everything there is a season. Thank you, God, for loving us and