Eccles. 1.2,12-14; 2.18-23, Luke 12.13-21
I recall a time, a while back now, when my husband Philip was in charge of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme in his school. That meant taking pupils away on outdoor activity weekends with other local school groups. One weekend I went along to help him. It was the first time most of the young people had been camping, so, on the first evening one of the other trainers got them together to show them how to use their Trangias, the methylated spirit stoves which they would be cooking on. Quite rightly he emphasized to them how dangerous these stoves were. Get it wrong and you would blow them up and incinerate yourself in spectacular fashion.
I wonder whether he might have laid it on a bit too thick, though, because, by the end of his talk the girls were absolutely terrified. They had decided that, if it was that dangerous, they weren’t going to bother. They were going to eat cold food all weekend. One of them turned to me, her eyes as big as saucers, and said, “It’s so scary, Mrs Le Bas! We’re all going to die!”
Alas, I had to point out to her that she was quite right – we were all going to die – but perhaps, if we followed our instructions, it wouldn’t be that weekend…!
We’re all going to die! What a gloomy thought for a Sunday morning. Gloomy, but true.
And it is that thought which seems to preoccupy the author of that first lesson we heard from the book of Ecclesiastes. It is the work of someone puzzling over an ancient, yet also a very contemporary question. What’s life all about? What does it mean? What’s the point? He looks at the work we do – scurrying around like ants. Yet in the end, he says, it all comes to dust and ashes. The fruits of our labours are left behind for others to use – or misuse. There are no pockets in a shroud, as the old proverb put it. “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.” In a sense the book of Ecclesiastes is the stable mate of the book of Job – one is a meditation on the meaning of life, and the other on the problem of suffering. And both Ecclesiastes and Job end up in the same place, scratching their heads, shrugging their shoulders, forced to admit that, having pondered these great questions, the only answer they can come up with is a resounding “don’t know”. God might have the answer, but we don’t.
It all sounds rather negative and depressing. But does Ecclesiastes mean to depress us? I don’t think he does.
What we take away from the book of Ecclesiastes really depends on how we translate one Hebrew word in it – a word that comes up again and again. It is the word “hebel”. In the version we heard this morning it is translated as “vanity”. “’Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ saith the preacher “ – that phrase comes again and again throughout the book. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that it is nothing to do with standing in front of the mirror wondering whether a bit of cosmetic surgery would be justified. It isn’t that sort of vanity that he means. Some modern translations use words like “emptiness”, “futility” or “meaninglessness” instead. But I’m not sure that they really catch the meaning either. The word “hebel” literally means “breath” or “mist”. It describes things which are wispy, hard to pin down, here today and gone tomorrow – that is where the idea of futility comes from. But we can very soon see, when we stop to think, that sort of leap of interpretation isn’t really justified.
Sure, breath is hard to pin down, but that doesn’t mean it’s futile. Quite the opposite – it is absolutely vital. Without it we die. Mist may be wispy and transient, but it is part of the cycle of evaporation and rainfall without which nothing could live. Both these things – breath and mist – are passing. You can’t hold onto them, but without them we could not survive.
So the point that Ecclesiastes is making is not that life doesn’t matter – this life lived here on earth with its joys and sorrows, its labour and its rest. The point he is making is simply that it is transient. Like the breath which we breathe – in and out – life passes. Each moment passes. You can’t put it in a box, save it for later. You have to live it – a second at a time, a breath at a time. It comes once, and then it is gone. There’s a sadness about that – we can all look back on chances we missed, or mistakes we wish we could undo. But there’s also a sense in which the transience of life makes us aware of its preciousness. It is not just a drag to be got through. It is a gift, given to us to treasure.
The man in the story Jesus tells learns that lesson the hard way. He has heaped up so many possessions that he literally doesn’t know where to put them, having to build a bigger barn to fit them all into. There, he thinks, they will be safe, “laid up for many years”. But he discovers to his cost that he doesn’t have many years; he doesn’t even have many hours. And all that he has will go to others – others who he seems to feel no connection to. It’s an odd story, because if you read it carefully you realise that there is actually just this one man in it. There is no mention of family, or even servants, and yet they must have been around. He couldn’t sow, reap, harvest, or build barns all by himself. Yet he is portrayed as a solitary character, and that probably tells us what we need to know about him. It’s all about him; no one else matters. Not God, not family, not friends or neighbours. He may be rich in possessions, but he is utterly unconnected in the world or beyond it, and that means that he is cut off from the kind of joy and love which can make you feel wealthy even if you have nothing in worldly terms. This is what Jesus means when he talks about being “rich towards God”. It’s not just about spending time in worship and prayer. It is also about loving your neighbour, working for justice, building communities where we are; priorities which feature very often in the Bible. They are God’s priorities and the Bible makes it clear that doing them is just as much a holy task as anything we do here in church.
Of course Christians believe that this life is not all there is – it grows into the life of heaven. But it begins here, in this world which God has given us. This life is not a waiting room, a dummy run, or a trial ground to be endured so we can win our ticket to something better. It is the gift of a loving Creator – made all the sweeter because it is not limitless. If this life was all there was, it would still be worth it.
Like the teenagers I told you about at the beginning of this sermon we all have to face the stark truth that “We’re all going to die”. But we do have a choice about how we respond to that. We can huddle up fearfully, refusing to take any risks - physical, spiritual, or emotional - refusing to live - deciding to eat cold food rather than risk getting burnt. We can decide to squander what we have indiscriminately on our own selfish pleasures – eat, drink and be merry...
Either of those choices, though, will probably mean we come to the end of our lives feeling we have wasted them.
Fortunately there is a third option for us. We can decide to look on life as a precious gift, given to us to delight in by a God who delights in us, in which even the greatest sorrows are mingled with the joys of love, laughter, beauty and friendship. We can view each moment – passing as it is – as a moment to be lived as fully as we can, rich towards others, rich towards God. We may not end up with the biggest barns, or bank balances, by doing that but we will end up with the biggest hearts, and it is the size of your heart, not your bank balance which will tell you at the end of your life, whether it was worth the effort of living it.