We’re just three weeks into 2018, and everything is suggesting that this year will be just like every other year. We are already seeing on our facebook feeds that a baby has been born, a friend has died, it’s a niece’s birthday, a workmate is getting married, a cousin is getting divorced, and a parent has cancer. The news reports tell us of another war, another murder, another terrorist killing, and another round of peace negotiations. We know that 2018 will be the same as every other year because there is a time, a season, for everything.
A friend once told me that he read a newspaper from beginning to end while he was on his holidays. Unsurprising, really. But what he didn’t realize was it was three months old! He didn’t notice along the way because nothing ever changes.
Our passage today, Ecclesiastes chapter 3, is a favourite at funerals. It speaks not so much about how we ought to live our lives, as much as how life under the sun is actually and in reality lived. Our passage is telling us that there are the seasons of life under heaven. It speaks of the tyranny of time—that one day, sooner or later, there will be a time for everything. Verse 1:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.
There are events that come upon us at their appointed times. Some of these things we like, and welcome, and long for. Some of these things we wish we could avoid. Our passage presents us with a string of opposites, and for every positive thing there is a negative thing. For every good thing that we accept with joy there is a bad thing which we dread and fear, and yet both come to us in their own time, and have their own season. The teacher has said that everything is meaningless, so he is not afraid to cover everything—even the bad things.
We start with the first part of verse 2, “a time to be born and a time to die”. We find ourselves at one time rejoicing at a birth, then at another time crying at a funeral. Sometimes these two events are separated by only two minutes—as in the case of a stillbirth—or by 90 years. And sometimes as we live our lives under the sun, we experience them both on the same day—the day my uncle died was the day my niece was born. That is the nature of life under the sun.
Between our births and our deaths we experience a range of positive and negative experiences. So in the next three comparisons, the teacher pictures for us and sets against one another both creative and destructive acts.
First, verse 2b, there’s “a time to plant and a time to uproot”. I am a farmer’s son, and as such, I was either planting seeds for the next crop or pulling up weeds to be burnt in the fire.
Second, verse 3a, there’s “a time to kill and a time to heal”. We make the trip to the vet, and there we will decide whether to heal the cat or put it down.
Third, verse 3b, there’s “a time to tear down and a time to build”. All over our city of Sydney, old houses are coming down, making way for new apartment blocks going up in their place.
And with these diverse and contrasting experiences in our lives come the different and opposite emotions. This is what the next four pairs of ‘times’ talk about.
First, verse 4a, there’s “a time to weep and a time to laugh”. The emotional life of a healthy human includes both weeping and laughter. And that include us men. It is normal to experience joy and sorrows, weddings and funerals, and to experience the emotion that accompany them.
Second, verse 4b, there’s “a time to mourn and a time to dance”. We mourn at funerals, and we dance at weddings. In their place, each response is good and proper, healthy and fully human.
Third, verse 5a, there’s “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them”. You gather stones to clear a field for farming. You scatter stones over the field for revenge. Vengeance is a desire, and anger is an emotion, that we must deal with under the sun. We cannot escape them.
Fourth, verse 5b, there’s “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing”. Physical affection is important, but it is not always appropriate, and it does not fix every problem. I’ve seen people use hugs to smother the tears of another. It is wisdom to know the difference.
Living with our eyes open and with realism in our world involves recognizing these opposite and contrasting emotions are a part of life. This is the reality we must engage in. We must reckon with our experiences of grief, loss, and our desire for revenge, and as much as our joy shown in laughter, dancing, and hugs.
There’s much talk about ‘resilience’ these days, and particularly ‘resilient parenting’. Resilient parenting is about helping our children live in each time of life and learn from every season—both the painful and the joyous—and not to try to create some sort of cocoon or bubble with which to shield them from life as it actually is.
The next four observations are reflections on the reality of a fallen and frustrating world.
First, verse 6a, there’s “a time to search and a time to give up”. Who has lost something in the last month? Recently I lost my watch. I looked and looked, and then had to spend $80 on a new one. We all know about the search for a lost key, or a lost child. Most of the time such searches thankfully turn out to be only minor inconveniences in the great scheme of things. But sometimes they have a tragic outcome. We have seen this with a lost sailor, or rock fisherman, or jumbo jet. Then comes the tragedy of having to call off the search, when all hope is gone. There’s a time to stop searching.
Second, verse 6b, there’s “a time to keep and a time to throw away”. Take note, hoarders of the world! There is actually a time for throwing away. Am I really going to lose that 20 kilos and fit into those jeans I’ve been hanging on to in hope for these 20 years? Here’s a word to the wives and mothers of Australia: It may be just a torn t-shirt to you, but to your husband or son, it’s an old friend.
Third, verse 7a, there’s “a time to tear and a time to mend”. ‘Tearing’ or ‘rending’ garments is a metaphor for mourning. In the ancient world, grieving people tore their clothes as a sign of their grief. In a fallen world, legitimate causes of grief will come upon us, but eventually that grief needs to come to an end for the sake of others—there is a time to mend as well as to rend.
Fourth, verse 7b, there’s “a time to be silent and a time to speak”. The ability to know when to speak and when to hold your tongue is what makes you wise. Keep this in mind when you write your next online comment.
The last two pairs in verse 8 have to do with the affections and their consequences. There’s “a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace”. The teacher starts off with the personal category—‘love’ and ‘hate’—and ends up with the international category—‘war’ and ‘peace’. And of course, there is a link between the two.
Remember, the teacher is not saying what should happen in this world. He is telling us what does happen in this world. We all want peace in our time. But in the words of Bob Dylan, “There will be no peace, the war won’t cease until he returns.”
In verse 11, the teacher says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” But the better understanding of the verse is, “He has made everything appropriate in it’s time.” There is a God given order in this world. Under the sun, each of the times, both good and bad, has a place, and we must accept them both to live wisely under the sun.
Yet, it is a burden to live life in a fallen world. Verse 10:
I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race.
Life is not just about births, love, laughter, planting, building, embracing, dancing, and peace—all the good, positive things we want. The stiff arm of life under the sun hits us with the opposite of these things: death, hated, killing, mourning, scattering, rejection, destruction, and war. These negative, awful things are just as much part of life as the good, positive things. And the fact is that there is no beauty in these horrible seasons of life—at least, not when we are in the midst of them.
I don’t know why some of us experience more suffering than others. The uneven distribution of suffering in the world and the church is one enormous mystery to me. We are simply not told why God has arranged it this way. But, as I told one of my non-Christian relatives who happens to have been very lucky so far, “Sooner or later the luck will run out”. For there is a season for everything, whether it is good or bad.
In verse 16, the teacher tells us that there is a time for injustice. Remember, he is not saying what ought to be, but what is under the sun:
And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment—wickedness was there, in the place of justice—wickedness was there.
Have you ever thought that right now, as we enjoy our comforts and freedoms, there are innocent people imprisoned in jail, enduring all the shame and anger and injustice yet knowing they are innocence, and there are guilty people walking the streets, who should be in jail. In verse 11, you get the feeling that there is no balance between justice and injustice under the sun—that there is only injustice. The teacher gives only one side of life under the sun—the injustice—and only resolves this question of injustice at the very end of the book of Ecclesiastes.
But the ultimate solution to the problem of injustice takes us to the reality of life under the sun—that no-one gets out of here alive. This is what renders life meaningless under the sun—the reality of death, and what it does to our lives. The tyranny of time, the burden and meaninglessness of the seasons, is that no-one escapes, whether humans or animals. Verses 19 and 20:
Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
From the dust we came and to the dust we return. Whether you end up six centimeters under in my backyard like my budgies, or you end up six feet under in Pinegrove Cemetery like my father, death is the great leveler, for both humans and animals.
But what sets humans apart from animals is this: God has also set eternity in the hearts of humans, and not in the hearts of dogs. Verse 11, again:
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end
We as humans have what the animals do not have. We have the privilege and curse of wanting to live forever. This is the tyranny of eternity that remains in the human heart.
I remember the New Years Eve celebrations in 1999, when the word ‘eternity’ was written on Sydney Harbour Bridge. This inscription ushered in the new millenium. But before it was written in fireworks on the bridge, the word ‘eternity’ had already been written on every the human heart by God himself. That is why the word ‘eternity’ touched the hearts of so many who saw it light up the bridge. Every human longs to reach beyond what we have into eternity. This life is not enough. We want to reach out for immortality. We want eternity while we are trapped in a body that will enter a season of death.
Sometimes we see this desire for eternity among us and within ourselves. We see the desire for eternity with health obsessions, trying to milk another five years out of our bodies, or squeezing ten lifetimes into one with frenetic activity.
Albert Camus said that “life is a sustained protest against death”. Hebrews chapter 2 says the same thing, that we are all enslaved to the fear of death, and yet all the while desperate to live forever. That sense of exasperation forces Solomon to concede reluctantly in verses 12 to 13:
I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.
These are God-given concessions. If you don’t know how life began and how it will end, if birth marks the beginning and death marks the end, then eat and drink, do some good, and enjoy your work. This is the best you can hope for. This is all you’ve got, the divine concession you need to live with.
When you think about it, verses 12 to 13 describe twenty-first century Australia: seeking satisfaction with the divine concession of eating, drinking, working, reproducing. This enables people to not have to think too hard about life, and it numbs the pain. And so most Australians live with the pursuit of the trivial. The modern Australian way is to try and live for the moment—to throw yourself into the job, the next gourmet meal, the new craft beer, the upcoming long weekend. And these are undoubtedly gifts from God. They do really give us a degree of happiness and joy. But if that is all there is, then the burden is heavy.
Our bishop Ivan Lee when he was seven years old asked his atheist father, “What is the meaning of life?” His father was brutally honest. He said, “Son, there is no meaning to life. There is no god. You were nothing. You became something when you were born. You grow up. You get a job. You make some money and have a family. Then you die. They put you in a box. Then the worms eat you. Then you are nothing again.”
Ivan said he appreciated his dad’s honesty, but it stressed him out from the age of 7 till he became a Christian at 19 years of age.
With that mindset, there is nothing else but clinging to the concessions of God, those good but temporary gifts like marriage and family and work and eating and drinking. But even in the midst of them, the reality of death breaks in.
Take getting married. Two people come together, the day is built up to be one of the most important days of their lives, and they hear the words, “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health […] till death do us part.” There is ‘death’ again, forcing its way into life, saying to us, “you cannot get away from me in the concessions and distractions of life”.
Think of the bride who was tragically killed in Bali by a freak wave while on her honeymoon , or the bride who died on her honeymoon in Fiji from extreme pneumonia. There are two husbands coming home to Australia from their honeymoons without their new brides.
Marriage is a real joy and gift, but it is temporary, and can be taken away at any time, even at the very beginning, almost before it starts. And others never get married. Yes, we do enjoy food, and drink, and work, and marriage. But they are not enough, not even if you survive the honeymoon and get to enjoy marriage and a family.
Eternity drives us to want more than the concessions. Augustine once famously said, “Our souls are restless until they find rest in you”.
We cry at funerals because we know there is more to life than the concessions. I remember one philosopher at university who apologized for crying at his wife’s funeral. He always taught at university that we humans are no more than a collection of atoms. So why should he cry when the collection of atoms that constituted his wife is now simply re-configured? But his tears exposed that we are not just a bunch of atoms, and that God has indeed placed eternity in our hearts. This life is not long enough. Nothing less than forever will do.
The teacher has some confidence in God and his purposes. He sees that in the midst of his life under the sun, the knowledge of God and his purposes is like a shaft of light probing the darkness. However, the teacher is unclear on the details. Verse 14:
I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
There is some hope in the midst of meaninglessness, but it lies in the purposes of God. The one thing the teacher does know is that everything that God does will last into eternity. Again, why does God order the seasons and times? Verse 14c:
God does it so that men will revere him.
He may not know much, but the teacher knows that the answer is found in the fear of God. The tyranny of time makes us hungry for eternity, and maybe, just maybe, we will share that forever with God.
The teacher leaves so many questions unanswered. Verse 21:
Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?
Fear God, enjoy life, and who knows? Perhaps you may end up different to your dead gold fish. Who knows?
But that can’t be right! Trapped in time, we yearn for eternity and yearn for certainty.
While we are trapped in our seasons of time, God is not trapped in time. God is from everlasting to everlasting. His plan breaks into time.
We know that in the fullness of time God sent his Son to set us free from a world marked by death as well as birth, hate as well as love, and mourning as well as dancing. Jesus entered every one of our seasons—joy and sorrow, birth and death. When the time had come, the child of the manger became the man of the cross, and by that cross bought our forgiveness. By rising from the dead, he defeated death and put eternity onto everyone’s agenda.
While the universal experience under the sun is that everyone goes down to the grave, with Jesus Christ one of us has now come up out of it again. And the rest of us who trust in Jesus will follow him and also come up out of the grave. The God who set eternity in our hearts has also satisfied that desire of our hearts with this promise in John chapter 11 verses 25 to 26:
25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Where will you be five minutes after you die? Today is the day of salvation. It is appointed for a person to die once and after that face judgment. It is the resurrection that cracks open the tyranny of time. It is the resurrection that also transforms us. I would not be faithful to my wife if Jesus didn’t rise from dead. Jesus is alive, and because he is alive, he is Lord of my body, as well as the universe.
You see that there is a time for everything, and that includes salvation.
We now know the beginning, for God has made that known to us. The past has been made known to us. He has told us that before the creation of the world, God chose his Son to die and save a world scourged with meaninglessness. Before the creation of the world God also chose you who believe in Christ to be adopted as his sons.
God has also made known to us the nature of the present time. He has made known to us that through his blood, we have the forgiveness of sins. Now is the time for salvation.
And God has also made known to us that in the future, we will be resurrected from the dead. He has revealed that there is a resurrection of judgement, and a resurrection of life (John 5:24-30), and that those who believe in Jesus will not be judged but have crossed over from death to life. We have now been sealed with the Spirit, guaranteeing our new body in the new world to come. The mystery hidden for ages has now been revealed to us, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow. We know that in the end there will be a new heaven a new earth, where he will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4). There will be no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
Notice that in this great vision of the future which we have been given, that there are no opposites anymore. That, my friends, is truly beautiful. In the coming world that the Lord Jesus Christ is bringing in, there is not a time for everything. There is not a season for every activity in heaven, as there was in the meaningless world under the sun. There is only a time for life, planting, healing, building, laughing, dancing, embracing, loving, and enjoying peace. Finally, our deepest longings which stem from the eternity God has placed in our hearts will be satisfied. In the new heaven and the new earth there are no phone calls to say that your father has died.
With eternity comes certainty. John says, 1 John 5:13:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
So we who believe in the name of the Son of God now enjoy God’s good gifts we have in this world no longer as a concession wrested from God’s unwilling hand. We no longer take God’s gifts from him in an attempt to impose some meaning upon our otherwise meaningless lives apart from him. But we gratefully receive God’s good gifts in this life as a token from him—as a small reminder—of the gift of eternal life he has promised us and will surely give us.
Early last century, an alcoholic hobo stumbled his way into St Barnabas Anglican church on Broadway, in what is now inner city Sydney. This man listened to a sermon which ended with the question, “Where will you spend eternity?” The preacher invited people afterwards to come forward and make a decision about following Jesus Christ, so that they too could know they would be spending eternity with him. The man, whose name was Arthur, did this, and so came to Christ.
Arthur was illiterate—he could neither read nor write—but he was desperate to do something in service of the one who had saved him. So Arthur Stace decided that he would spend the rest of his life waking up early and writing in chalked copperplate script the only word that he knew on the footpaths of Sydney streets. The word was ‘eternity’. For a long time, no one knew who was doing this. But eventually the Herald ran an enquiry to find out the source of this message. And Arthur Stace was uncovered. Over a period of 35 years, the otherwise illiterate Stace had chalked the word ‘eternity’ around 500,000 times in public spaces across Sydney. A documentary was made about who Arthur Stace was, and in it people came forward, admitting to how they were walking in the city and were confronted by the chalked graffiti that had forced them to think about the very ‘eternity’ that God had already put in their hearts. This one word sermon from an unknown illiterate had provoked in them a search for God.
The word ‘eternity’ strikes a chord in human hearts because God has placed a longing for eternity there. And then in the fullness of time, God has enabled that longing to be satisfied by sending his one and only Son.
Time is running out for you to take hold of eternity.
There’s an old grandfather clock that sits in Chester cathedral in England. It has been there for a hundred and fifty years. It just stands there, keeping time. And on the front of it, there’s a brass plaque, with this poem on it.
When as a child I laughed and wept, time crept. When as a youth I grew more bold, time strolled. When I became a full-grown man, time ran. When older still I daily grew, time flew. Soon I shall find, in passing on, time gone.
To a world trapped in meaninglessness, we need to keep saying that this temporary life is not long enough. This broken world is not good enough. Christ came to usher in a world where there is not a season for everything, but one where there is life not death, love not hate, healing not killing, peace not war, and joy not grief.
We each are now required to redeem the time (Eph 5:16), for there is a world lost in time. Jesus prayed to the Lord of the harvest, and we need more workers of the gospel. We need more men and women who will announce that Jesus’ resurrection has defeated to the tyranny of time. There is now a generation who carry the burden of wanting eternity but not knowing how to get it.
We have 80 ministry trainees here today in our evening service. Let me assure you all, that they are ordinary people just like you. God only ever uses ordinary people. The Ministry Training Scheme, or MTS, is challenging you with one question: “Why have you not taken up the privilege of becoming a ministry trainee?” How many more excuses will you keep throwing up? How long will you purse the good instead of pursuing the best? We need more gospel workers, who will announce that Jesus resurrection has cracked open our tyranny of time. We need more gospel workers who will say, and keep on saying, that this life is not long enough, and this world is not good enough. Christ came to usher in a new world, one where there is life and not death, love and not hate, healing and not killing, peace and not war, joy and not grief. We need men and women to announce that there is a place of no more crying or grief or pain, and no more death.
Now is the time for salvation. Now is the day to accept Jesus as Lord. And then now is the season for making Jesus' life giving resurrection known to a meaningless world.