Summary: Two men think about life as they face the end of their journey on earth. Has life been meaningless or relevant? Do they look forward to a joyless process of degradation, a painful descent towards the valley of death, or to something more glorious beyond the horizon?
[Sermon preached on 11 November 2018, 25th Sunday after Pentecost / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
A man of about my age—sixty, give or take a few years—sits down, takes up pen and parchment, and starts to write. Or perhaps he calls his secretary and starts to dictate. He senses that his life is coming to an end very soon. All the signs are there. He knows that he will not be roaming on this earth much longer. But before his time is up, there is a lot that he wants to share with the younger generation.
He has been thinking about life. He has tried to make an assessment of his own life, of what he has done, what he has achieved, and what the impact of his life has been. He also looks ahead, beyond the horizon of this earthly life. He knows that life doesn’t end when we breathe our last breath. He knows that he is going to meet his Creator, the One whose image he bears, the One who has guided him through life to the point where he is now, the One who will be his Judge after his life on earth is over.
Actually, I am not talking about one man only. There are two in the Bible readings for today.
In the Old Testament reading, the man is called Qohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Tradition ascribes this book to king Solomon who reigned in Jerusalem after his father David. Solomon was renowned for his wisdom and his piety. But the truth is that he also has a long and dark history of foolish choices and outright idolatry. Whether it was Solomon or somebody else penning down those words doesn’t really matter. But what is very obvious when we read the book from beginning to end is that the author takes a very cynical approach to life.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says Qohelet. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
Not a very uplifting message, is it? As he rambles on and on, he looks at the various aspects of human life. Look at work: it is meaningless. Look at leisure and pleasure: it is meaningless. Look at wisdom and study: it is meaningless. Look at success and wealth: it is meaningless. Not surprising, then, that Martin Luther and many other great leaders of the church questioned whether this book really belongs in the Canon of the Holy Scriptures.
In the passage from chapter 12, he looks at the last phase of life: getting old. He describes the experience of getting older and finding that our physical and mental faculties gradually degenerate. I remember when my parents were aging, they sometimes shared their own experience: pain here and there; stiffness of the limbs; sleepless nights; fatigue and lack of strength; trouble hearing and seeing things like before; lack of appetite or of desire to do things and go to places; a fading memory… You name it. It was not nice to hear that, particularly because there was nothing that they or I could really do about it.
The author of Ecclesiastes is a bit like that. He goes in detail through the most typical symptoms that accompany the aging process. But he takes great effort to put the ugly aging process into beautiful images and words of poetry. Of course, it doesn’t make aging any easier, but it captures the holistic experience much better. It is as if the author looks around—to the sky, to the houses in the village, to the trees and the animals, and to the people—and he finds points of identification. When he sees the old grasshopper dragging itself along, it is as if the man is saying: “I know what you are going through, grasshopper. I can feel your fatigue and your weakness in my own body.”
Immediately following the passage, in verse 8, the author repeats the words that he started the book with:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says Qohelet. “Everything is meaningless.”
And yet, the way he describes the aging process—the final descent to the valley of death—shows that there is a way of thinking about it that gives meaning to it. It is a process of saying farewells, of letting go, in order to be prepared for the journey to the other side. We are not being deprived of the good things that life offers without getting anything in return. Twice, Qohelet points out to the destination of his journey, first in verse 5:
Then people go to their eternal home…
And then in verse 7:
The dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
Qohelet is going home, on his way from what in his poetic description looks like a ghost town to the eternal dwellings of God. Compared to what is ahead, everything he must leave behind may look utterly meaningless. But it would be wrong to conclude—like unfortunately so many Christians do—that this life on earth, this life in our mortal body, does not matter; that our heavenly destination and our eternal life with God are the only things that matter.