Friday, April 26, 2013

Starting Ecclesiastes

For those who'd rather read than listen here is my opening to our series of sermons on Ecclesiastes. If you want to compare delivery to script go to our church's web-site.


Ecclesiastes Series

Chapter 1 Life is a bag of pants.

So when I wrote some notes on this book for a teenage Bible study series some years ago that was what we called it.

It's my favourite book of the Bible so I've been very patient not timetabling it for a sermon series for six years.

I've got three parts today. An introduction to the whole book, some comments on the content of chapter one, and four spiritual exercises you might like to pick one from.

Feeling down? Weary? Need a helping hand? Tough. Read Ecclesiastes and you’ll discover, that the only way is down, down, deeper and down.

If you've ever listened to a song and thought, ‘That’s a great line but I’ve no idea what the song is about,' welcome to Ecclesiastesworld; a world where there are some great one-liners but the theme of the song is a little hard to grasp. Our author starts his (it was probably a ‘him’) look at life by leaving God out of the equation and looking at life through atheistic spectacles.

Still, mustn’t grumble. Sometimes it can help you when you’re down to discover that other people have been down there too and got back up again, at least a bit.

So prepare for ‘...Meaningless! Meaningless! ..Everything is meaningless.’ (1:2), ‘The more the words, the less the meaning...’ (6:11) and, ‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.’ (12:12).

In Ecclesiastes we look at life from the non-God point of view. The conclusion? Well it’s used pants, frankly. Life is useless, meaningless, vanity and a chasing after wind.

And it is true. Without an understanding of a creator/sustainer God, the world certainly has pants-like tendencies. Ecclesiastes is going to help us explore our world-view.

But the writer occasionally offers glimmers of hope and snatches of wisdom. Life looked at from a purely human point of view seems largely pointless. But God is in the picture and you can’t ignore him.

We will spend the next few weeks in the company of a teacher and philosopher who saw a lot of stuff going on, wondered what it all meant and ended up seeing God in the midst of the chaos.

Ecclesiastes is not a particularly clearly structured book and the chapter headings in the Bible are not especially significant.

Ecclesiastes has recurring themes rather than clear structure.

It feels like a collection of recollections (Those two words - interesting.)

So who is this ‘teacher’ (v1)? The actual Hebrew word Quoheleth is not easy to translate. ‘Teacher’ is one attempt, but it could just as easily be ‘philosopher’. Probably not ‘preacher’. This person had a school of followers not a pulpit for the public.

Vv12-18 tell us that this book has been placed on the lips of a great king with a reputation for wisdom. That can only mean Solomon, a man who enjoyed many of the great things the writer of the book seems to attain but finds useless.

But a word of caution. In the world of the Old Testament it would be a tribute to ascribe a book of wisdom to the school of Solomon. It does not mean he wrote it all.

So here are today’s philosophy starters, and remember you’re not allowed to answer as if God exists. Not today, anyway. (I know that’s rude to God but bear with me; it’s just a training exercise):

Why bother to work? (v3)

Why doesn’t the sea fill up? (v7)

Is there anything new? (v10)

Will anybody remember you when you’re dead? (v11)

Is life pointless? (whole passage)

Try and think of the different world-views (ways that other people make sense of the world). Christians, hopefully, have a biblical world-view. What other world views are there?

(Talk to neighbour then shout some out)

The second half of our chapter has some explanation (not necessarily answers). Vv12-18. Unless wisdom starts with God it will not get us anywhere.

We are also privileged in a way that the philosopher of Ecclesiastes wasn't.

We read Ecclesiastes from the other side of Jesus.

1. We asked the question, ‘Is anything new?’ Ponder on. There are all sorts of inventions and loads of creative people, but is anything really ‘new’ rather than simply advancement. What about the creation of a piece of music? Is that creation out of nothing?

2. The passage seems to suggest not that we are uncreative but that each generation faces the same type of problems. They just come round again. We don’t learn from experience. Resolve to learn from every mistake you make. The most trainable people in the world are those for whom even a negative experience is a learning experience. Review and learn.

3. We often give a copy of one of the Gospels to friends interested in exploring Christianity. Why not give them a Bible and suggest they start with Ecclesiastes? Its absence of easy answers and its relevance to the human condition might make it the perfect starting point for the unconventional explorer. You’ll need to be around to answer questions but you might have a better conversation if you give them a copy of Ecclesiastes.

4. Some Christians find Ecclesiastes a very difficult book. They ask questions such as, ‘What’s it doing in the Bible?’ Others love it and consider it their favourite book. You might like to think about why it has managed to be so divisive?

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