Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds;
Help us grasp the heights of your plans for us.
Good evening everyone! Can I add my welcome to all new students? And can I also say "Congratulations"! Making it to university is a great achievement and a great opportunity. And if you've moved to Newcastle to study here even better – I know I'm biased – but this city is an amazing place to live and study!
"For everything there is a season". For many who have chosen that path, their time at uni is a time when they develop personally, make lifelong friends and stretch their mind academically. But it is also a time for hard work. A degree worth having will require years of attendance at lectures and seminars, practicals and placements and then hours in the library and working on assignments. The work you do is designed to be hard and alongside the academic pressures there are the massive financial demands and for many, the stress of learning to live without mum or dad.
I can laugh about it now, but the first time I tried to wash my own clothes I ended up chucking them (carefully sorted into dark and light because I knew that was important) with some washing powder into what turned out to be a tumble dryer!
Why? Why put yourself through this season of hard work and no money? "What gain has the worker from his toil?" Perhaps the short-term satisfaction of finally getting to study something you've chosen yourself! Or longer term, better career opportunities. Most graduates do go on to earn far more over their careers than the few years of hardship cost them. Or perhaps it's the dream of being able to create for yourself a better future, to discover more of who you are and decide what you want to be. The world's your oyster. You're in control now, you can shape your life how you want it.
But does it not just mean that you work hard so you can get a job with higher responsibility? Which means more hard work. Which hopefully leads to promotion and more pay. But also, yet more hard work. So why put yourself through it all. What will you gain? What's the point of it all? That's one of the questions raised by the book of Ecclesiastes.
I don't know if you remember the ice bucket challenge from a few years ago when people all over the world allowed others to throw buckets full of ice cold water over them to raise money for charity. Well, reading Ecclesiastes should be the spiritual equivalent of that cold, sharp shock to the system! If you really listen to what the book is saying you face up to the often-disturbing reality of the world that we live in. The main voice in the book belongs to a, frankly, rather intense character whose name is translated here as 'The Preacher'. The title is used for a person who gathers people together and speaks to them. He lived around 1000 years before Jesus. But he's not really the kind of person you'd want to invite to your next dinner party. He's quite difficult to listen to.
The Preacher's words have been collected together by the author of the book, who introduces him to us because all of us need to listen to what he says. Whether you're a super keen Christian just back from a gap year doing missions work. Or someone who has grown up all your life going to church but just recently have begun to wonder if uni would be the ideal time to move on from it all, but mum and dad haven't driven home yet so you're here with them tonight! Or maybe you'd not call yourself a Christian and you're not even sure you believe in God but are interested in what it's all about or just have big questions about life. We all need to hear what God says to us through the Preacher of Ecclesiastes.
So turn to Ecclesiastes 3, which is my text for tonight. The key idea of this chapter is that life in this world is full of frustrating reminders that we are not God. As strange as it may seem, we need those reminders because we won't face reality that we are not in control of this world. We are not all-knowing or all-powerful. We are finite beings. We die. We are not God! We all need to really understand that. So, my first heading is this:
1. God is in control – and we're not
Verses 1-8 remind us that we are not God by showing us that life is an endless cycle. Verse 1:
"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:"
The poem begins with a general statement that there is a right time for everything. This can be taken in a few ways. Maybe it is saying that the right thing to do depends on the circumstances and so we should remain fluid about what's right and what's wrong. I'm not convinced by that. Let's read on, verses 2-3:
"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;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;"
So, the pattern is clear. The activities of man described in pairs of opposites. One adds, the other subtracts. One step forward and then another backwards. Something is created and then it is destroyed. Each has their time. Are they good? Bad? We don't know. The rhythm is pleasing but what does it achieve? One ladder up, one snake down and we're still on square one. Let's go on, verse 4:
"a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;"
Now we're talking about our emotions as well as our activities. Neither right or wrong. Each just appropriate each to their season. But who chooses the seasons? Do we ever choose a time of weeping or mourning? Verses 5-6:
"a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;"
On and on life goes. Endlessly to and fro. Back and forward like the pendulum under a grand old clock. Tick Tock. Tick Tock. But who's really in control? Who decided when it's time for the wind to change direction? Verses 7-8?
"a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace."
So that is our poem. Lovely at first glance. Cue soft lighting and romantic songs. But is that right? One thing follows another, but I can't direct it, can I? Nor can I stop the change. And what does it all achieve. We've been round and round before. Will peace last forever? Can we get to the point where there will no longer be tears?
Life as a student is full of seasons too. Lots of those seasons are unchosen. Exam time, end of the summer break, graduation and time to head into the big wide world. Even when the decision feels like it is mine – the reality is that it is not under my control but under God's. Look back to verse 1.
"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven"
Can we make the sun rise when we want it to? We can plant a seed in the ground. But can we make it grow and produce a harvest? No – because it's not under us, it's under heaven. Under God. To be God is to be all-knowing and all-powerful. To be God is to determine the seasons and times. Nothing is out of his control. He knows what he is doing and he has a plan behind the apparent randomness of things.
All around us we are encouraged to think that my life belongs to me and that I determine my own destiny; I'm in control of my life. It's an attractive view isn't it, but even brief reflection helps us see that it cannot be true. I don't have enough information to be in control. I don't have enough influence to be in control. I don't have enough wisdom to be in control.
When I think back now, it's kind of funny to think of some of the things I thought, said and did when I was a student and how utterly convinced of them I was at the time. I now see that many of my opinions and ideas were either silly or questionable. If that is true, it could mean that what I think now, and how I behave now will be equally as suspect in 20 years' time! It's plainly ridiculous to think that I am God not a human being. But we do. And if we live as if we really are in control, that only leads us to end up frustrated and disappointed– we're not God.
The truth is that this is God's world and he's God! I am his creature and he's the Creator. He is infallibly wise, uncompromisingly good and I am none of those things. That is the reality that I need to confront. How then can I make sense of life? How should I live in the light of that truth? Let's read on and we'll see that….
2. Only God gives us purpose – we can't create it for ourselves
Have a look at verses 9-10:
"What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with."
What does our hard work produce? Does my life have any meaning? Or will my hard work just result in more hard work with more stress and frustrations along the way?
There are a couple of phrases that appear over and over again in this book. The first is "all is vanity". And the second is "under the sun". The original Hebrew word that's translated 'vanity', has two meanings: 1) something that is temporary, fleeting and 2) something that is enigma, paradox. When the Preacher uses it, he is not saying that life has no meaning. He has just observed that life is confusing and disorienting and uncontrollable. 'Under the Sun' is in contrast with 'under heaven' that we've already seen in verse 1. It shows up that there are only two ways to live. We can live recognising that the God of the Bible is there, or we can live as if the God of the Bible isn't there. Life under heaven or life under the sun. Look back to the opening words of the book, Ecclesiastes 1.1-3:
"The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?"
The Preacher is not suffering from depression. He's just helping us to see that living our lives without reference to God will mean our lives lack purpose. Life can often be full of frustrations, transience, perplexities and mortality. That's because we live in a fallen world. If this were a film this would be a good moment for a flashback to that moment when God judged man's rebellion against him and laid on him a burden with these words in Genesis 3.19:
"By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."
We live in a world that only exists because God created it. A world that was made perfect and good, but is now broken and suffering the effects of man's rebellion against his maker. In God's grace and mercy, he has arranged things so that our attempts to live 'under the sun' - without reference to him– are frustrated. He kindly allows us to experience the meaninglessness of such an existence to show us the foolishness of trying to live life under the sun rather than under heaven.
"The fact of the world's brokenness … are not meant to bring us to despair but to … humble us; to bring us to the point of recognising that we are finite – sinful creatures before an infinite-holy Creator"
Verse 11 goes on:
"He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end."
Genesis makes it clear God has created us in his image. In that regard, we are not like animals. We may not be God but we long for meaning and for significance and for something else. We have a hunger inside us that leaves us screaming – there must be more to life than this. But we are not God. We don't have his perspective. We don't see all, we don't see from the beginning to end. We cannot understand everything. We want our lives to have meaning, purpose and to matter, but the reality can leave us frustrated because it shows up what has always been true: that we are not God.
Maybe you wouldn't yet call yourself a Christian. You're unsure if God exists. But you recognise that description of the seemingly meaningless cycle of life and you wonder if there is more to life than this. There is! Can I urge you to find out more? Keep coming to Sunday services each week – and come along to any of our series of Big Question events. I'd love for you to join our Life Explored course which begins very soon - to explain more how our deepest desires for happiness can only be satisfied in one person, Jesus Christ. The best gift God can give us is himself. Everything else promises us so much, yet delivers so little. There's details on these flyers or you can come and chat to me at the end.
My guess is that most of us here are seeking to live life under heaven. We've come to believe that God has revealed himself to us by his son Jesus who became a man. We believe he came into the world to call us back from living as if God wasn't there and that he died on the cross to pay for the forgiveness we need if we're to come back into friendship with God. Like the disciples in our earlier reading from Luke 5, you've 'left everything and followed him'.
I remember when I was on the train, coming up to Newcastle for the very first time to begin a course at the university. I sat in that carriage thinking to myself, 'This is a fresh start. I can do, and be, and believe anything I want.' I didn't use that language but I faced a choice: life under heaven or life under the sun.
What about you? What will it be? Will you listen to the Preacher and continue to live your life acknowledging our loving, heavenly Father in heaven? Will you continue to trust the promise Jesus made that he saves all who believe in him and live to please him. Will you continue to love him, pray to him and willingly obey his word and serve him? If you take to heart what Ecclesiastes is saying, then you will continue to live for him in this season of life. Look at verses 12-13:
"I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man."
This is how we are to live under God and for him. It includes accepting and enjoying the life we have as a good gift from God – friendships, our work, food (even on a student budget) and occasionally – this is Newcastle after all – the odd sunny day. It means not just studying as a means to an end, but that your goal at university would be to please God. How we are to live is summed up perfectly in the words of a song we sing together:
"Come and stand before your maker
Full of wonder, full of fear;
Come behold his power and glory
Yet with confidence draw near,
For the one who holds the heavens
And commands the stars above
Is the God who bends to bless us
With an unrelenting love."
So, can I encourage you to not hide the fact that you're a Christian? You'll face pressure to think and act and live as if God doesn't exist, pressure to live a life under the sun. Just taking the step of making it known to those around you that you are a Christian will help you to keep living for him.
And make it your top priority to find and settle in a church family – strong Christian friendships and regularly meeting with other believers to study God's word and pray together are key to keep living for God when there is so much pressure not to do so. We'd love it if you settle here – and pray that the time you spend with us will cause your love for Jesus to grow – that you would not just survive but thrive in your faith.
So is our work meaningless? Do our lives have purpose?
God is infinite and what he does will last for ever. Nothing can stand in his way, nothing will undo his hard work. He is God and we are not. So, live humbly and joyfully under his sovereign rule and what matters to him will soon matter to you. He'll fill your life with meaning and purpose. Uni life is full of amazing opportunities and if you follow his lead, you'll find yourself working for fruit that will last forever – including being used by God to bring many others to know how amazing he is.
I love the account of Jesus calling the first disciples in Luke 5. The fishermen had been fishing all night but caught nothing. What gain has the worker from his toil? Jesus showed them who really was in control and when they reluctantly let down their nets as he instructed them to, they discovered the truth of who he was and fell down before their maker, full of wonder, full of fear. He said to them, "do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men."
It is not our place to control the universe! But when we leave everything and follow him he gives us purpose. He invites us to play our part in his eternal plans that are being made a reality through Jesus. This world is broken and under a curse. One day that will be undone – Jesus has come and one day all will be put right. He will make everything beautiful in its time. Until then he will use us to turn those living under the sun to those living under grace and acknowledging Jesus as their king.
Psalm 39.4-7 (NLT):
"LORD, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.
Remind me that my days are numbered—
how fleeting my life is.
You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
at best, each of us is but a breath."
We are merely moving shadows,
and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.
We heap up wealth,
not knowing who will spend it.
And so, Lord, where do I put my hope?
My only hope is in you."