Grace Presbyterian Church
July 5, 2020, Pentecost 5A (livestream)
Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, 12-18; 2:1-2, 9-11, 24-26 (link includes all of Ecclesiastes 1-2)
Is That All There Is?
We are in a strange time. Simply going out is an act that requires far more preparation than we’re accustomed to exerting on a trip to the store. Medieval knights once prepared with their trusty sword and shield; now we prepare with our trusty facemask and hand sanitizer. We just passed the strangest Independence Day observance in my memory at least, the new case numbers are leaping in ways that dwarf the previous the peak of this pandemic, and it frankly seems that nobody with the power to do anything about it cares.
If anything can bring us to the point of confronting the limitations and absurdities of life, no matter how much we’d prefer to avoid that, this perplexing virus and resulting pandemic is just the thing. And when that confrontation is upon us, the place to go in scripture is the book of Ecclesiastes.
The unknown author of this book, who goes by the name Qohelet (roughly translated as “the Teacher”), is about seeing those things in life and the world that don’t match up with all that he (or she, you never know) was taught from youth. Qohelet is not interested in using such discrepancies as an excuse to bail out on faith, but he (or she) is quite willing and determined to call out how extremely righteous and rather pat teachings long imbibed (like the entire book of Proverbs) don’t hold up in the cold light of real life.
Qohelet’s book is virtually summed up in verse 2: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” A bit of background here: the word here translated “vanity” is the Hebrew word hevel, which at its most straightforward might be translated “breath.” Here, though, the meaning of “breath” is not like another word we encounter in scripture that might also be translated that way. Where ru’ah might also be translated “breath,” it also translates as “wind” or – especially in its scriptural uses – “spirit.” Hevel, on the other hand, captures the idea of “breath” as an ephemeral thing – you breathe, and then that breath is gone. Think of a mist, or a vapor, or that fog that happens when you breathe out on a cold day and is immediately gone. That’s hevel, or what the NRSV and many other translations render as “vanity.” It is a thing that is there and gone, that does not endure; it is ephemeral, unsubstantial, and utterly temporary. Remember that, because you will see that word a lot in this book.
What, then, is hevel to Qohelet? Darn near everything. We skipped a wonderful poetic discourse in verses 3-11 that you really should read, but Qohelet gets down to business in verse 12 when, taking the role of Solomon, begins to explore those things we humans so strive after. Wisdom, in verses 12-18, is tried and found wanting; “in much wisdom is much vexation,” concludes Qohelet, “and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” You can almost hear Qohelet breaking into that old Peggy Lee song, “is that all there is?”
The first two verses of chapter 2 turn to Qohelet’s exploration of pleasure (also a pursuit of Solomon’s), and it proves equally unfulfilling and unsubstantial; it is “vanity, and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (2:11). Again, cue the chorus: “is that all there is?” Finally Qohelet concludes that all the toil expended on pursuing wisdom and power and pleasure ultimately gained nothing; it all passes, and life ends, and it devolves down to one who did not work for it and is not ready for it. Qohelet is vexed by it all, declaring that “all their days are full of vexation, and their work is a vexation” by 2:23. Is that all there is?
At last, though, Qohelet hits on something worth holding on to. If all these things are “vanity” or “a vexation” then what is there? There is this: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.” To receive the gifts that God gives for our provision, and to find joy in the work one does; this is to acknowledge one’s dependence on God rather than to strive after and to hoard all of the world’s goodies. And, amazingly enough, Qohelet turns out to be striving for justice without even talking about it; when one receives with gratitude what the Lord gives rather than grasping after more and more and more, there’s a lot better chance of there being enough for everybody, which kinda seems like the point.
To center this receiving of God’s provision in the enjoyment of food and drink becomes of interest (again quite unawares to Qohelet) when we look at the life that Jesus spent on earth, many moments in which were spent at table in the fellowship of a meal. Indeed, it was in that context, the disciples at the table, in which Jesus took bread [take bread and break and eat] and broke it, gave it to his disciples and told them to remember him. Then he took a cup and did the same [take cup and drink]. In the most basic context of God’s provision for God’s people, the sacrament is given. It is when we are content to receive what God gives that God gives what we need. And that’s all there needs to be.
We humans, even we Christians, have such trouble remembering this. We are as bad about striving and grasping and hoarding as anybody, and sometimes worse when it comes to things like power and money (churches and denominations can be especially bad about this). And yet, what God gives is waiting for us to receive with gladness. Will we ever receive?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #817, We Walk By Faith and Not By Sight; #835, Just a Closer Walk With Thee