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Living well through every season

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Ecclesiastes 3

The Great Resignation

Many of us have probably come across the term ‘the great resignation’ over the past year. It was coined by Professor Andrew Klotz in the US as he predicted up to 40% of the global workforce would retire early or resign and move on to something else as an outcome of the COVID pandemic. Certainly, the US and the UK have seen record numbers of people voluntarily leave their jobs in the search for greener pastures. There’s debate about whether it will really play out in Australia, but many are predicting it will.

And if you read the articles you can see there are lots of reasons for this phenomenon. Workers are burnt out and looking for greater recognition and flexibility. Reduction in travel and immigration has led to a skills shortage, which in turn makes skilled workers more in demand. There are lots of complex factors at play. The pandemic didn’t cause all of them, but it has certainly sped up the process and brought issues to the surface. One survey showed that 2/3s of people say that the pandemic has made them rethink the place that work should have in their life and long for a bigger change in their life.

The need for control and purpose

And I think this is part of a broader effect the pandemic has had for all of us. One thing it made us all realise very quickly is how little control we really have over our lives. Yes, we always have the ability and the responsibility to make choices, which can have real significance. But COVID showed us how vulnerable we are – how limited our control of our circumstances really is. So much changed so quickly and so often, and we had so little say in it all.

And the other affect has been to heighten our sense of need for purpose – to make sense of what’s happening to us and to feel like our lives have meaning. This is always true for us. You might have seen the ‘human needs pyramid’ by Abraham Maslow. Down the bottom are basic needs like food, water and shelter… you can’t go without these things, but in a sense, they are not the most important things. Towards the top of the pyramid are things like purpose, identity and a sense of fulfilling your potential. Chickens need food and water and shelter. They like to feel safe, and they even like having other chickens around. But they don’t really need a sense of purpose in life. You and I are more complex beings. We have more complex needs. We want to see that our actions and the things we experience are part of a bigger story – that it’s heading somewhere and there’s a purpose to it all.

And I think COVID has heightened this sense of need, particularly because it has made us aware of how out of control we are. Life seems more random, and so we have a greater desire to bring things under control and make sense of it all. And I think this is definitely part of what’s going on with the great resignation. We want to be doing something meaningful, and we want to exert some control over our situation.

A Warning from the Teacher – You won’t find what you’re looking for…

But the book of the Bible we’ve been reading over the past few weeks, and which was read out for us earlier, the book of Ecclesiastes, throws a bit of a wet blanket on all this. Ecclesiastes tells us that any renewed sense of purpose and control in our work and life will fade before long….

This book is the depressing ‘deconstruction’ book of the Bible. It follows the self-described journey of ‘the Teacher’ who is pondering what we really gain from all our efforts in this life. The Teacher forces us to ask hard questions about life and we end up with some pretty depressing conclusions. It all just seems to be futile! Like a chasing after the wind…

He uses a word over and over again to describe what it’s like to try to find meaning and significance in our lives – a word than can mean ‘meaningless’ or ‘futile’, but which literally means ‘smoke’ or ‘vapor’. Seeking gain or significance through our toil in this life is like grasping at a puff of smoke… there’s no point.

Now it’s not all bad news, and the final message of the book is not that there’s no purpose to life or no point to doing anything. Rather it’s saying that if this 80 years or so of life in this world as we experience it is all we have, then yes, the whole thing does seem to be a pointless gasping at mist… any real significance or personal gain will elude us in the end.

And the main reason for this is simple fact that we all die, and before long, whatever we might have done or achieved here and now fades into nothingness… and on top of that, while we’re here, life seems so chaotic and random. Being wise or good doesn’t protect you from getting cancer or your kids getting bullied at school. It doesn’t shield you from global pandemics or personal tragedy. So, what’s the point?

Again, the point of the book is not just to depress us, but to get us to see the problem with living as if this life ‘under the sun’ is all we have going for us. It’s rubbing our faces in the reality of that worldview, to prompt us and prod us to move beyond it to something else. Ecclesiastes deconstructs the humanist idea of creating lasting significance through our efforts as human beings apart from God, so that we can see a better way to live.

And it’s important to appreciate that all of us here may in effect be approaching life like this, whether or not we believe in God… we may technically know that there is more to life than what we experience and achieve in this world, but in reality, we live as if there isn’t – our assumptions, our attitudes, our decisions, our reactions… they all betray the deep-seated worldview of someone who expects life to pay off for us here and now. And in fact, we can assume that our religion is meant to ensure that this life here and now IS the kind of life we want… we think that’s what God is meant to do for us.

But this is not Christianity, and so whether or not we consider ourselves Christian or believe in God, we need to see the futility of that approach to life. We need to have it deconstructed and cleared out to make way for a more robust worldview…

You see Ecclesiastes is like a gardener that pulls the weeds out of the garden of our lives, clearing away the unbiblical ideas that have crept in, or perhaps clearing the way for a fresh start altogether…

And the passage we read from today continues this ‘gardening project’ of pulling the weeds out to clear the way, by drawing attention to the struggle we experience attempting to control our circumstances and to make meaning out of the ups and downs of life. This passage in particular ‘tightens the screws’ so to speak, by highlighting our inability to control our circumstances and make meaning out of the varied situations we face, and yet at the same time, pointing out that we are right to assume life isn’t just random and empty. We suspect there is something more, that there is some bigger story that the seasons of life and situations we face are all part of… we know it’s there, but we just can’t quite grasp it. We need help from outside…

But thankfully the passage doesn’t just rub our faces in the frustrations of life; it also gives us some guidance and clues about how we can in fact live well in every season of life, whether or not we can control what’s happening and make sense of it all.

A Time for Everything

So, turning to the passage we read out earlier, the thing that jumps out to us is the poem in verses 1-8. It’s familiar to many of us – it was even turned into a pop rock song in the 1960s!

The big idea is stated up front in verse 1: ‘there is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven’. Under heaven is another way of saying ‘under the sun’, which is a common phrase in this book referring to our experience of life in this world.

So the poem is about the fact that life is full of varied experiences and ups and downs. As time marches on, it brings very different experiences and situations, and so calls for very different responses from us.

And this is then expressed and illustrated very eloquently through the verses to come, isn’t it?

“          a time to give birth and a time to die;

            a time to plant and a time to uproot;

3           a time to kill and a time to heal;

            a time to tear down and a time to build;

4           a time to weep and a time to laugh;

            a time to mourn and a time to dance…”

And on it goes…

The way the poem pairs together opposites is a powerful way of pointing to the full range of activities and experiences we face. Life throws a lot at you. Some of it is wonderful, some of it is awful. And there’s a time for everything. Sooner or later, we face it all.

You open up a letter from the university you’re hoping to get into, and you’ve got a place! You laugh and dance around your lounge room. Another day you receive a call, and it’s your brother telling you that your mum has been in a serious accident. It’s not looking good. It’s a time to mourn and weep.

A wedding or family reunion is usually a time to embrace. And then, sadly, the past two years have largely been a time to ‘avoid embracing’ – thanks COVID…

A right (and a wrong) time for everything

Now we could step through the poem slowly, contemplating each phrase and considering the times and occasions which might call for one activity or response rather than another. And there might be something therapeutic about that! I’d encourage you to read over it slowly later today and contemplate the reality of the situations we all face…

But the point of the poem is not necessarily to get us to think about these particular 28 situations. It’s about that idea that life passes through many seasons, and we find ourselves in different circumstances, which all call for different responses. The pairs of opposites also draw attention to the fact that what might seem appropriate on one occasion is precisely the opposite of what’s required on another occasion.

And the wise person is the one who recognises what ‘time’ they are in, what situation they are facing, and responds appropriately, as much as they are able. So the point is not that mourning is good or bad in and of itself, but that you will find yourself in circumstances where mourning is the right response, and other times when dancing and laughing is much more fitting. The wise person knows which is which, while ‘the fool’ stumbles around responding inappropriately to their circumstances.

If you’re a parent and you’ve been warning your child to stop jumping from a ledge, and they do it one more time and they land badly and break a bone… is that the time to laugh? To smugly tell them “I told you so!” Or is it time to mourn and comfort?

The Real Reason for the Poem – what does it all mean in the end??

But this is not even the ultimate point of the poem, at least in terms of what the Teacher wants to say through it.

If you look at verse 9 in the passage, after this poem the Teacher immediately returns to the overarching question he has been exploring: what does the worker gain from their struggles?

It seems out of context and disconnected to the poem. How does it relate?

It turns out that the Teacher doesn’t actually seem to be saying, ‘make sure you learn to read the situation well and respond wisely.’ No, he’s reflecting on the constant churning of our lives, the turning of seasons and situations, and noting, honestly, how random it all is.

Even if we are good at reading the situation and responding appropriately… what then? What good does it do in the long run? Why is there a time to build and a time to tear down? Why am I stuck in a time to uproot right now? What if I don’t want to be in a time to mourn? Is there any reason I’m in this particular situation? Will my actions really change anything?

We can’t control the times and situations we find ourselves in and we can’t make sense of it all… so what do we really gain from our efforts!?

The frustration of being human – knowing there’s an eternal purpose we just can’t grasp

The Teacher goes on to flesh out these ideas in the following sentences, in verses 10-11.

10 I have seen the task that God has given the children of Adam to keep them occupied. 11 He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also put eternity in their hearts, but no one can discover the work God has done from beginning to end.

What is the Teacher really saying here?

When he mentions that ‘God has made everything appropriate in its time’, he’s reflecting on the fact that Godis the one who makes one day a time for weeping and another a time for laughing. He’s saying more than simply that everything is good and right in its proper time. He’s pointing out that God is the one in control of what situations we face, and we are not.

And on top of that, we can’t even really understand what God is doing through all the varied experiences and situations we face. “No one can discover the work God has done from beginning to end” explains the Teacher. We can’t see the big picture from the inside – we just experience the churning and changing landscape of our lives from our limited perspective. It doesn’t make sense to us – what’s the purpose of it all?

And then, to make things even worse, we know that there is some kind of overarching purpose to it all – some bigger, lasting reality – we just can’t quite grasp it clearly! The Teacher tells us that God has put eternity in our hearts. It’s a beautiful phrase isn’t it? In a sense, it’s what it means to be human. It’s what makes us different from chickens! We have eternity in our hearts. We know – we’re sure – there’s more to life than what we experience under the sun. God has put that conviction in our hearts.

But the problem is we can’t see eternity clearly through our experience of life. It’s like you’re cooking some food and you taste it and you know it’s missing something… you just don’t know what.

This is the frustrating task that God has given the ‘children of Adam’ – human beings – to keep us occupied. We know our lives have some ultimate significance, but it’s beyond us.

We can’t determine our purpose – we’re not in control. And we can’t grasp clearly God’s purpose in it all.

Stop Stressing & Enjoy the Ride

So what does the Teacher recommend in light of these confronting truths?

12 I know that there is nothing better for them [the children of Adam] than to rejoice and enjoy the good life. 13 It is also the gift of God whenever anyone eats, drinks, and enjoys all his efforts.

The provisional wisdom of the Teacher is to stop fighting it and just enjoy the ride. Stop stressing. Stop trying to control your situation or figure out the purpose of it all, and just enjoy life as much as you can. Enjoy the ride, if God gives you the opportunity.

And it’s genuinely good advice, isn’t it?

If you’re not able to control a situation, and seeing any ultimate purpose in it is beyond you, then the best thing you can do is just enjoy the ride as much as possible. If you’re on a roller coaster, there’s no point screaming for help and pushing on your harness or trying to grab hold of something to slow you down… that’s only going to get you hurt or make you look silly. You may as well just enjoy the ride.

As a parent of young children I need to keep absorbing this message. I’m often trying to control behaviour and make sure things happen in the way I want them to. “Don’t jump in that puddle! That’s not how you’re supposed to do that! Do it like this…” Or I’m expecting things to happen in a way that makes sense to me. “Why did you do that??” I would do better to just focus on enjoying being with my kids in their randomness, rather than trying too hard to control the outcomes…

This is a big part of what the book of Ecclesiastes is saying to us. Don’t overestimate what you can control in life or gain from your efforts in this world. Face the reality of your limits and so free yourself up to actually enjoy what you can in life. That’s living well through every season…

Maybe you’re spending a lot of energy and emotion trying to secure a certain step up in your career. Now, if you see value in that step for a whole bunch of reasons, and you’re confident the sacrifices you’re making are worth it – and the people around you agree, then great. But remember that there’s a whole lot out of your control, and that time you’re looking forward to may never come. And it would be a shame if your striving for the next step robbed you of any enjoyment of the current situation, wouldn’t it?

Stop trying to force things to work out a certain way and enjoy life for what it is…

Trust the one who does have a plan

But there’s more to say. The Teacher himself has more to say, even if it’s subtle.

You see we don’t want to live life freaking out at our lack of control or understanding of the bigger picture. But neither do we simply want to lay back and enjoy simple moments as if that’s all there really is to it.

There is a bigger picture, and we can live in light of it. We can enjoy life as it comes to us, but as people who know and trust that God does have a plan and is working out his good purposes in it all. We can enjoy life, not indulgently or selfishly, but as people who know God and who know that the way we act does actually matter…

In verse 14, the Teacher comes back to the idea that there is an eternity that God is in control of: “I know that everything God does will last forever” – there is a meaningful eternity beyond the churning and repetitive seasons of our lives. And “there is no adding to it or taking from it.” God is the one shaping this reality, not us.

But God’s actions affect us and call for a response from us. The Teacher goes on, “God works so that people will be in awe of him.” The right response to wrestling with what we can and can’t control or understand about time and circumstances is ultimately to recognise that God is God and we are not. Our best chance of living well in any and every circumstance will come from this realisation and so living in awe of God.

God’s Plan in Jesus

And thankfully, because of Jesus, this doesn’t just mean stumbling along assuming that God has some mysterious plan. The good news is that God has revealed his eternal purposes to us through Jesus and helps us live each moment in light of this plan.

In the opening verses of his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul explains that God has now ‘made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he purposed in Christ as a plan for the right time – to bring everything together in Christ, both things in heaven and things on earth in him’ (1:9-10). All of history, through all the seasons of life, in the mourning and the dancing and everything else, God has been working towards his plan to bring everything together in unity and peace under the good authority of Jesus Christ.

And in his letter to the Romans, in chapter 8:28-29, Paul explains what this plan means for us individually as we ‘ride the waves’ of the ups and downs of life’s circumstances: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”

We may not be able to make sense of our experience at the time, and we certainly can’t be in complete control of what we face and when it happens… but we can know that the ultimate purpose of God’s work in all these times is to bring us to faith and maturity in Christ so that we might become like him and share in the love of God the Father with him for eternity.

All this drastically shapes the way we face our present circumstances.

We don’t need to anxiously strive to control our circumstances or grasp some kind of purpose in what’s happening to us. But neither do we just ‘ride the waves’, being grateful for the good times as they come. Because of Jesus, because of our confidence about what God is doing through it all, we can be content and joyful regardless of our circumstances. In his letter to the Philippians, which he wrote while in prison because of his faith in Christ, Paul testified to the fact that he had learnt to be content in any and every situation through the strength and hope Jesus gave him (Phil 4:12-13).

Ultimately Christians find our meaning and purpose not in controlling our circumstances for our personal gain, or even making some kind of sense of the situations we face, but rather learning to please the Lord in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, trusting that God is at work in it all for our good and the glory of Jesus. This is ultimately what it means to live through the seasons of life with eternity in our hearts and in awe of God.

Living well in every season

Whether or not you’re a statistic in the ‘great resignation’ and left your job or made some big change in your life, no doubt you’ve felt that heightened desire to see purpose in your life and to exert some control over your circumstances.

As you grapple with that desire, make sure you hear the sober reflections of the Teacher: there’s a time for everything – life will bring one thing after another; you won’t be able to control what happens next, and you won’t necessarily be able to make sense of it all.

Come to terms with that reality and learn to enjoy life as it comes. It’s far better to enjoy the ride than fight it.

Join in the ‘gardening project’ that the Teacher in Ecclesiastes wants to do in all our lives – exposing assumptions and approaches to life that will ultimately frustrate us. It can be confronting at times, but I encourage you to keep digging.

But don’t just stop at pulling out the weeds. Plant the good news of Jesus in your life. There is a bigger picture. The seemingly random events of our lives can be part of a bigger story of God transforming us to be like Jesus and to bring us home to him. Be freed from trying to control or seek meaning in your circumstances from day to day. Grasp hold of the purpose and direction that God offers in Jesus.