‘Whatever is has already been,
and what will be has been before;
and God will call the past to account’
Sermon 24 Nov. 2013 Niek Tramper
Why this Bible passage?
We have read Ecclesiastes 3 on the last Sunday of the church year. In the tradition of the church this Sunday called ‘Sunday of eternity’. On this Sunday the church remembers all the brothers and sisters who passed away last year. The Sunday following is the first Sunday of the church year starting with Advent, the four weeks of preparation for Christmas.
You might have many questions about this book Ecclesiastes. If you only look at the beginning of the book: ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’, says the teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’. This sounds as the words of a sceptic and a pessimist. It might help us to know that the Jews read Ecclesiastes at the feast of boots. When every family makes a little hut from branches on their flat roof or in the garden. It is a remembrance of the 40 years that Israelites wandered through the desert. Children enjoy sleeping in this hut during the feats of boots, and their parents explain the why of the feast of boots: you should know that this world is not our home. We are only passing through.
‘Ecclesiastes’ is the Greek word for the Jewish ‘Cohelet’. It means the one who brings together, the person who calls people together for a meeting. The task of the Cohelet is to collect people to teach them wisdom. In ch. 1 we read that he is the son of David, who was king in Jerusalem. So king Solomon, who was known for his wisdom, might have written or composed the book (although his name is not mentioned). This teacher is not a sceptic, nor a pessimist, but he is a realist. He has collected wisdom in looking around in the world. He noticed what people do, what they suffer, for what they strive. And his conclusion is: it is all nothing, it is just a shadow.
Thinking about time
In chapter 3 Ecclesiastes mentions 28 activities of people in 14 contrasting pairs (verses 2 – 8). Everything is temporary. Nothing will remain. What is has been already, and what will come was there in the past. Nothing new under the sun!
It is like standing at the border of a river. You see all kinds of materials floating in the water. They all pass by, and you cannot bring them back. Time is like a stream that passes. Actually it is not time that floats, but we ourselves are floating away. We are the time.
The one moment we are at the cradle of a child, the other moment we stand near a grave. Existence seems to be a torn apart existence. Human life seems to be like a vase that is broken into many pieces. Every piece can reflect a little bit of the beauty of the vase, but it is only a little piece of something that is broken. The fragments remind us to a plan, a design from God, but it is a mystery how He will bring the pieces together (vs. 11).
Can we escape a fragmentary life?
The Teacher has seen many people trying to escape from this fragmentary existence. And he has tried it himself in one way by working hard, building houses and planting vineyards and gardens. He also tried it in another way by building a career in knowledge and wisdom. Still he couldn’t escape the conclusion: in the end it is vanity. It is summarized in Ecclesiastes’ conclusion in the text (3:15): ‘Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before.’
Goethe, the greatest of German poets, whose life was one long success, seems to have said: “They have called me a child of fortune, nor have I any wish to complain of the course of my life. Yet it has been nothing but labour and sorrow; and I may truly say, that in seventy-five years I have not had four weeks of true comfort.”
How do you cope with a fragmentary, transient existence? You can try the modern way: invest in a career, a good position as much as possible. Create safe place in order you can be secure in life. Try to control life as much as you can. You can also try the postmodern way: enjoy the moment, do what gives pleasure and satisfaction now. Don’t look to the past, don’t be afraid of the future. Eat, drink, have sex and squeeze life as a citron to get the maximum of juice. You only live once (‘Yolo’ !). ‘Yolo’s’ don’t seem to escape frustration however…
Ecclesiastes wants to teach us more
There is a fixed, God given time for each fragment of life. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) you find the word ‘kairos’ here: the God given moment, and not the other Greek word: ‘chronos’ (the time that we measure in seconds, minutes or hours). God has given seasons in nature, He also has given seasons in life.
Added to that, Ecclesiastes says, ‘God also set eternity in the hearts of men’ (vs. 11). He has given the awareness of a reality that surpasses all fragments of life to men. Man isn’t an animal that simply follows instincts. No, he has been made in the image of God, he has a conscience, an awareness of God who holds every fragment of life in his hands. Life cannot be brought back to physical or chemical processes only.
Gods calls back the past.
What else Ecclesiastes wants to say us? Let us concentrate at the second part of the text (3:15). Actually the text says: God searches for what is driven away. What does it mean?
Some explainers say: ‘what is driven away’ means the ones that are expelled, extruded from the land of the living. So it relates to those whom we have lost in the past. We keep our memories, but they are driven away from the living. When God searches for them, it means that He keeps them, guards them. They are not fallen into an eternal nothingness. Their times have been in his hands (Ps. 31:16). He will bring back those who have passed away and He will judge everybody in righteousness. This is a possible explanation, but I propose another one to you.
Bring your past to God
Eccl. 3:15 says that the Lord seeks what has passed, not those who have passed away (NIV: ‘God will call the past to account’). This might sound frightening. It seems that He reopens the past, all kinds of decisions, events, mistakes and sins. Maybe we rather want to hide it and to forget it, because we feel ashamed about it. But God seems to rip it again. God searches the shatters and the splinters, while we want to forget them. Why does He do so? There only can be one reason. He wants to bring us to repentance. He wants to search it together with us, in order that we confess what was shameful and sinful. It is what happened in the life of St Augustine the church father. He wrote a sort of autobiography as a confession. It is called ‘Confession’ (recommended for reading!) As a student and researcher in philosophy Augustine had an egocentric life devoid of any morality. Through the grace of God he could rewrite his life, so that the evil was taken away, reconciled.
Conclusion (1): bring your past (what is driven away) for God in repentance, confess your shame, your sin for Him.
Believe and accept God’s forgiveness
When God calls our past to account, He does more, He draws it through the bath of forgiveness.
Suppose that we can make a calculation of all events and deeds of our life, the plus and the minus. We put everything in one account. What comes beneath the line? Is it plus? Many people hope so. They hope that their goods deeds surpass their bad deeds. And God will accept them on that basis. But even if you have a perfect life till now, and there is only a little spot of evil, that little spot spoils everything. When God looks at us, our best works, our most righteous deeds are a worthless cloth. He is like the teacher that corrects an exam. The teacher has to put a cross. It is a failure. You don’t pass the exam. The beauty of his grace is that He brings another cross, the cross of Christ. He wants to plant this in our life. It is his full grace. He says: because of My Son Jesus the account is positive. It has been paid by his life and by his blood shed on the cross. It is solved. He releases the shame.
Conclusion (2): God wants you to accept His undeserved forgiveness
God’s kairos in sending Jesus, His Son
God finds His pleasure not in revenge, but in grace. (Ps. 85). God wants to bring back, to reconcile what is lost. He has showed it in Jesus, His Son. In the midst of time, in the midst of this endless stream of changing scenes, good and bad actions of people, in this river of fragments, God has sent His Son to the world. It was on His designated time, the fullness of time. His ‘kairos’. At that time Christ came under the sun. Jesus looked for the driven away, the lost ones, the vulnerable and sinful people. He shared his life with them. Actually He was a precious vase that was broken into many pieces. Through his sacrifice at the cross, He took away the emptiness of life. The cross is the great turning point in the world history. There is a time to be born and to die, Ecclesiastes states, but these life fragments are reconciled, are brought together by Him who is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega.
The Holy Communion is a clear sign of His love. When we see the bread broken into fragments, we are reminded to all kinds of fragments in our past life. We cannot repair them. We have to confess them, to bring them to God. That is what we do, when we partake in the Holy Communion. We don’t come because we are complete and perfect. Instead we come with the brokenness and sinfulness of our life. But the bread also recalls us Jesus’ broken body and shed blood. So we may take it in faith, with thankfulness for what He has done, that He has given us a new life, full of hope. The realism of Ecclesiastes about this world has been changed into the new reality of Christ. ‘If anyone is in Christ, he/she is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come’ (2 Cor. 5:17).
Live a thankful life
Ecclesiastes says, if you know that it is God’s concern to bring together the fragments of your life, there is nothing better than to do this: to be happy and to do what is good. Take it as a gift of God with thankfulness (verse 13). Ecclesiastes isn’t a pessimist at all. There are many questions, many why’s, but what you have to do is to eat and drink and do well (this refrain is repeated in 5:17; 8:15; 9:7). It might sound the same comparing the ‘yolo’ slogan: eat, drink and enjoy, because tomorrow you will die. There is an important difference nevertheless: it is a gift of God. Enjoy the gifts of the earth, give thanks to God for it. Because He is the Creator of the earth, He is the Giver of all these goods.
Conclusion (3): Enjoy the goodness of life. Thank God for it, it is His gift. Use all what He has given to enjoy and do what is good for yourself, your neighbours and the world. So you will honour God.