(a sermon for January 1, 2017, the 1st Sunday after Christmas and New Year’s Day, based on Ecclesiastes 3:1-13)
I’ll be honest with you: as holidays go, I’ve never been much of a fan of New Year’s Day or Eve. Frankly, from my perspective, the best thing New Year’s has got going for it is that it is not a religious holiday, and – this particular year notwithstanding – we don’t usually plan any special services!
Granted, it is kind of nice to just be able to stay home and just “chill out,” as it were, especially in the wake of all the activity that surrounds the Advent and Christmas seasons. But mostly, I’ve always thought of New Year’s Eve and Day as a time for restaurateurs, champagne vendors, and partiers to do their thing – which is fine, and in fact, I spent a great many New Year’s Eves in my younger days playing music (and making good money) at those parties (!) – but these days I must confess that my biggest challenge on this holiday is whether I can stay awake long enough to watch the ball drop on Times Square!
But all that said, given that the beginning of a new year does traditionally seem to be a time for reflecting on the past, present and future, even if this isn’t a Christian holiday, per se, it is good for us as people of faith to not only reflect on the ways that God has met us and led us in the year just past, but also to look to the horizon for the advent of God in the year ahead! Today is actually the perfect time for us to renew our hearts to the truth, as echoed in the old hymn, that God has been “our help in ages past, our hope for years to come;” to pray for peace on earth and for the “day of God [to] draw nigh in beauty and in power.”
Perhaps I spoke too soon; maybe New Year’s should be a liturgical holiday after all!
Actually, I suspect that as most of us look back upon 2016, we’ll recall a very eventful year; one in which there was indeed “a time for every matter under heaven.” We’ll remember times of joy as well as times of sorrow; times of ease and contentment mingled with those of struggle and uncertainty. I know that’s certainly been true for me this year, as it’s been for so many of us. It’s the stuff of life “as we know it” filled with moments teeming with great and utter joy; and yet, we’d be less than honest if we didn’t acknowledge that there’s been also some grief and despair along the way, and times in which we’ve learned what it means to “bear one another’s burdens” in very real and cogent ways. And I don’t have to tell you that this has been the year that we’ve all had a front row seat to the spectacle of a nation and world in turmoil! But even with all of that, I dare say that in the presence of Jesus Christ and by the movement of God’s Holy Spirit we are also discovering that “it is well” with our souls.
That’s the thing about the passing of time: everything in life – the good and bad, easy and hard, joyous and painful – seems, sooner or later, to have its time. I think that’s why in getting ready for this morning I was drawn to that familiar passage from Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal…”
Now I know that for a lot of us, just hearing those words evokes memories of the ‘60’s, and the music of the Byrds (or Pete Seeger, if you are a purist!); and they represent unending hope and our dreams for the future. It’s the message that the seasons do roll along and times passes, but things do change for the better. Fear not – despair not (!) – for everything has its time. And yet, when we read this passage of scripture in its context, that’s not exactly the message that comes through! In fact, the words of this text actually come of sounding a bit dark! There’s “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance… a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing… a time to love and a time to hate.” Everything that’s good and desirable about life and living seems to be connected to that which is inherently bad! And then, after this litany of all the good and bad “times of our lives,” there’s this: “What gain have the workers from their toil?”
In other words, yes, there is a time for everything: a time for work and maybe a time for vacation; a time for making twelve car payments and twelve too many mortgage payments; and yes, there’s time buy the groceries and to debate politics and to take in a couple of football games. But where does it all lead, and what good comes of it? I’m reminded of a very old “Peanuts” comic strip in which Sally, jump rope in hand, is crying her eyes out; Charlie Brown rushes to her and says to his sister, “Why are you crying?” To which Sally answers, “I was just standing here jumping rope, and suddenly, it all seemed so futile!” Quite honestly, sometimes we get the same feeling! After all is said and done (and for 2016 at least, it all really is said and done), the question remains: what in the world does it all mean?
Understand that the book of Ecclesiastes was written as a wisdom teaching regarding the truth of human life. Taken as a whole, it’s a very direct and profound warning against putting one’s security upon that which is created by human intent and ego. It was written after the Babylonian Exile, an experience that had taught the Hebrew people that life was never meant to be an uninterrupted walk in the park! In fact, one commentator I read has actually accused the writer of Ecclesiastes as being “the ultimate cynic,” and I have to say that there’s some truth to that. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Teacher, something he says 38 times (!) through the course of this book. “All is vanity,” a very blunt message to anyone who would only look at life through rose colored glasses.
But… here’s the thing; life might not always be wonderful, but it’s not all bad, either; it simply moves on. You see, as any people borne of a rural culture understand, time here is seen as cyclical, without beginning or end. There’s a time to plant, a time to pull up what is planted, then a time to plant again. One of the stories that we love to tell in our family is about our nephew Joshua, who’s all grown up now, but when he was little was a farmer’s son with a way of thinking and speaking that belied his years. One winter night I was dispatched, as I always was in those days, to take all the kids to the movies; and as we were driving along the potato fields that line the roads up there, my son makes the comment that he really loves to see the snow covering all the fields. And to this Joshua replies, “Well, you know, Jake, when I look at those fields, all I see is seedtime and harvest, seedtime and harvest!”
I nearly drove off the road, I was laughing so hard; but, you know, he was right! In life, there is this constant movement from seedtime to harvest, from winter to spring, around and around. And there’s nothing that you or I do or not do that changes that! Likewise, people are born, people die; there are going to be wars just as there is will be peace; and yes, people live and move through the seasons of their own lives. In short, life happens; life goes on, and we really have very little to do with it. The task of creating and shaping life belongs to God and God alone.
I realize that to think of life this way is a bit depressing! But the question from Ecclesiastes is a valid one: what gain have the workers from their toil? Perhaps the answer to that question is already there in the words of the Teacher: “I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with,’ he says. God “has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to the end.”
So, it’s not simply about life proceeding in some long, boring, repetitive fashion. It’s not simply about there being a time for every purpose under heaven; it’s that there is a right time for every purpose under heaven; a right time to speak, a right time to stay quiet, a right time to tear things apart, a right time to put things back together. There’s a right time to mourn, and, yes, a right time to dance!
What’s the old saying? “Timing is everything?” Some of us, I’m sure, can tell stories about an occasion where we said or did something unexpected, but perhaps for reasons we can’t begin to understand it was the perfect thing to do or say in that particular moment; or else, we’ve struggled to figure out if “the timing’s right” for whatever we’re planning, even if hesitating results in a missed opportunity!
Well, Ecclesiastes tells us that timing is everything, but time, the right time is in God’s hands rather than ours. What we’re given is a sense of past and future, and the ability to learn from what’s gone on before even if we don’t know how our particular story is going to come out. We’re given the gift of faith, which enables us to respond to all the “times of our lives” with courage, joy and with an inner assurance (however tentative sometimes) that whatever happens, happens at the right time. I like what William Willimon says about this: he writes that it “would be wisdom always to know the right time. But Ecclesiastes says that it is greater wisdom to face the facts, to accept our finite creaturely status… [and know] that the seasons of [our lives] are held in God’s hand, and [that] by God’s grace, it will be well.”
In other words, it’s all part of the plan; and, friends, it always has been. Whether we’re talking the birth of a baby in a manger, or the cross itself, God’s presence and saving love has always come to us with perfect timing; as scripture so often puts it, “in the fullness of time.” And in grace, God continues to meet us and lead us along the movement of time, guiding us in all the timely (and untimely) actions of our living.
With the beginning of a new year, there will be much in the coming months that will certainly come about because of our effort and hard work; but the truth is that so much more will happen by God’s leading and grace. I would suggest to you this morning that this is the key to a truly happy new year, one filled with the awareness of God’s perfect timing in your life and living; it will certainly make a difference for us in the year ahead. As Frederick Beuchner once wrote about a particularly difficult time in his life, “I discovered that if you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, [life] opened up onto extraordinary vistas. Taking your children to school and kissing your wife goodbye. Eating lunch with a friend. Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the window.” Truly, writes Beuchner, “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hidden, always leaving you room to recognize him.”
Beloved, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven;” and so it will be in 2017. In whatever happens around us, to us and for us in this year that’s now just beginning to unfold, I pray may we always recognize God’s presence and love within it all.
And may we give thanks to God as we do.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry