SERMON ON ECCLESIASTES 1
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.”
THEME: By reminding us of our true condition, Ecclesiastes teaches us to turn our eyes towards God for real newness of life.
Brothers and sisters, if Ecclesiastes was coming to visit us at the beginning of the twenty-first century, would he repeat the words we have just read: “Nothing new under the sun...”? Would he not find the products of our industrial and electronic revolution very new? Would he not think that being able to communicate on the E-Mail is both new and refreshing? Would he not like to cross the ocean by plane and be in New York City in less than 14 hours? Would he not be amazed at the possibility of cloning sheep and mice, and may be one day human beings? How would he react at the wonder of digital photography, or at the special effects of Hollywood movies? Maybe Ecclesiastes missed the right epoch: he should have appeared during the twenty first century; his life would have been filled with the novelty and the happenings he seemed to have searched in vain in his own time… But let us stop fantasying over what Ecclesiastes would have thought had he come back to visit us, for we shall never know it. In any case, how could one compare the times when Ecclesiastes lived, a few centuries before our era, with our own time, at the eve of the twenty-first century? And that is perhaps where a deeper question lies, behind all these artificial questions which will never get an answer. A deeper question which is also a very problematic one for us, Christians of today: can we still identify with what Ecclesiastes wrote such a long time ago? After all, we are the ones confronted with the technological revolution, with the communication revolution. They bear their mark on our everyday life. We are the ones who have to adapt to so many new things year after year, even month after month (look at computer programs for instance). Actually, we can hardly keep track with novelty. So what does Ecclesiastes have to tell us today, with his words: “Nothing new under the sun”? If he had gone through what we are going through, would he have ever written them?… Maybe part of the answer lies in a saying which disillusioned people in France say when they take note of the inability of politicians to solve chronic problems of the country. They say: “The more it changes, the more it remains the same”. In a sense, that is where the strength of Ecclesiastes’ message lies. Under the surface of that which changes, there is a deeper layer in human life: the level of that which does not change, the level of the things which stay permanently at the very core of our existence. Those are the ones Ecclesiastes is addressing.
By reminding us of our true condition, Ecclesiastes teaches us to turn
our eyes towards God for real newness of life.
warns us about trying to escape our condition.
You see, we might have mesmerized ourselves to the point of believing that the changes we bring at the surface are actually capable of changing the deepest of our being. Perhaps we indulge in all kinds of changes (technological or others) precisely in order to forget that there is a deeper core in our existence. Perhaps that core, that central point in our lives, what the Bible calls our “soul”, bothers us too much: perhaps we don’t want to face its real needs, its real and naked condition. So we surround ourselves with many-coloured candy-floss and pretend to be happier. And now, Ecclesiastes comes to us from the ancient world and dispels our illusions: he brings us back to the basic reality of our existence, to the level of things unchangeable.
There are probably quite a few reasons why Ecclesiastes decided to write down these words which make the object of our meditation today: first, he must have known a lot about the history of his country, and of the nations and civilizations surrounding him. And pondering about the history of peoples, he must have realized that many historical events looked like the mere repetition of one and the same pattern: the rise and fall of empires, for instance. Something we have been able to observe in exactly the same way during our own century. He must also have observed the process of growing old. Who could escape such a process? Who can escape it, even today? Another reason for Ecclesiastes to write down his thoughts, was perhaps a certain irritation towards people who introduced new things and pretended that times had really changed. Ecclesiastes wanted to prove them wrong, to show them that what they called “new” was actually very well known. These people too might have tried to forget about the core of their existence and indulged in their dreams of novelty. They might have wanted to bury their past, as we often try to do with our own past. The dream of being a new creature, brothers and sisters, of living in a new world, is also at the core of our existence, but what does it signify, at the deepest level? All the novelty which we bring about should not be seen merely as normal human development, merely as something which distinguishes us from animals. This novelty brought about by mankind certainly testifies that we have been created in God’s image and that we can be creative and innovative as well. But there is much more into it: our quest for the new is in many respects an attempt to forget that we are mortals, that we shall die. By inventing new things, or creating a new environment, humans often try to liberate themselves from some obsessions, like the obsession of death, or of a dark past: look at the thriving economic progress of a country like Germany after Second World War: Germany rushed towards novelty and prosperity, not just because it had been left in ruins by the war, but also because people wanted to forget about the horrors which they had let to happen in their own country. And still, fourty years later, the memories of these atrocities caught them up. They could not escape to face them. All these efforts to forget were made in vain. In his own time, Ecclesiastes understood and uncovered with a remarkable perspicacity the motives of people to search for new things.
We find another striking example of the search for novelty and its deeper meaning in a passage of the New Testament: namely when Paul visits Athens, the intellectual capital of the Western world of the time. We read, in Acts 17, verse 21, that “ all the Athenians and the foreigners who live there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas”. Like in the modern Western capitals, New York, London or Paris, the people of Athens were thirsty for news, for something creating movement in their life: they hated static, fixed situations. So they were very eager to hear about new gods and new religions as well. But the question is: were all these idols really satisfying them? What was the real drive behind their insatiable curiosity, behind their brilliant minds? “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing”, Ecclesiastes reminds us in verse 8. Do you see now, brothers and sisters, why the message of Ecclesiastes remains actual for us today? He uncovers our deep motivations, he questions our assumptions and forces us to leave the level of the surface, of these things we take for granted so that we would not have to ask ourselves more basic questions about the meaning of our existence.
But you will now ask: “Fine, but where is the Gospel in the message of Ecclesiastes? What hope does he give us, after forcing us to look at so-called new things in a different way?” Is he not perhaps an old grumpy man full of frustrations, someone who never managed to enjoy anything in his own life, even not his harem, “the delights of the hearts of man (2:8)?
2. Ecclesiastes redirects our look towards The One Who really can make
On the base of the same questions many people have wondered what the Book of Ecclesiastes was doing in the canon of the Bible. But it is precisely because we read all the other books of the Bible that we can also read and make sense of the book of Ecclesiastes. Reading Ecclesiastes starts making sense when we read him in the context of the whole Bible. We would not understand the extraordinary impact of the words in the Book of Revelation (21:5) “He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” if we had not read first the words of Ecclesiastes “there is nothing new under the sun” and deeply meditated about them. Ecclesiastes tells us, in so many words, how meaningless is a life not filled by God. He does not just imply it, he says it very explicitly, listen for example to his words in chapter 2, verse 24 and 25: “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hands of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” In line with the whole Old Testament, Ecclesiastes expects fulfillment from God and from Him only. But this expectation takes sometimes unusual forms in his words: as if it was necessary to state certain things in an almost brutal way for people to accept to be confronted with their true condition. For Ecclesiastes knows that mankind loves escapism to avoid having to ponder about its naked condition, after the Fall. In reading Ecclesiastes, we read like a premonition of what Paul will write a few hundred years later, in Romans 8, verses 22 to 24: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Surely, Ecclesiastes too would love to see something really new. But not the caricature of novelty which his fellow men brought forward. No doubt, he would not have received with joy and enthusiasm the news of being able to clone sheep, mice and soon humans: in any case, what is the interest of reproducing very exactly all the sins of a given individual? Here too we could say, with Ecclesiastes, “nothing new under the sun”; we have seen exactly the same sins in the original individual. The copy does not bring anything new. No, Ecclesiastes is searching for something more: that which can fill him totally, without any regret or sense of uncompleteness. Are we, men and women living at the beginning of the twenty-first century, also looking for that which can bring real fulfillment to us? And where to find it? Brothers and sisters, God is the One who brings that fulfillment. God is not against making things new, bringing novelty in our lives. Actually, God is the only One Who can make things completely new. He is the One who announced to his prophet, Jeremiah (31:31): “The time is coming”, declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah”. He is the One who fulfilled His promise, when Jesus-Christ ate and drank the Lord’s Supper with His disciples: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (I Cor. 11:25). He is the One Who gives new life to those who have been grafted in the same Lord Jesus-Christ: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted with its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). God is the one Who created heaven and earth, and it was completely “new” when He created them. He is also the One who is re-creating us by His mighty Spirit, and making of us totally new creatures in Christ.
The voice of Ecclesiastes is not a mere human voice. Behind what some would think is only a desillusioned look upon life, there is a call to look deeper, to search for God beyond man’s made novelties. We still live in a world where the prince of darkness disguises himself into an angel of light: he tries to make us believe that we can redeem ourselves with our own inventions. As long as we will live in this world, the God-breathed voice of Ecclesiastes will resound and call us to wake up to the reality of this lie and of our true condition before God. And this God-breathed voice will direct our look towards The One Who really can make things new. Reading Ecclesiastes again and again will render us even more eager to await the promised heritage which God disclosed to His servant John: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”