Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow. . .
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow. — Selections from Ecclesiastes 1
I’m a week late to preach a New Year’s sermon. But I’ve been more than a week behind on most everything lately, so that’s not too bad. Anyway, that’s what this sermon is going to be.
Actually, most sermons could be New Year’s sermons, inasmuch as they should present the good news as a choice for living. In any good new years resolution, the challenges have to be clear so that we can make fresh commitments to meet in good cheer.
I know that we have a tendency to think about faith in a much more permanent way than a new years resolution. But here I have to agree with Qohelet, the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, nothing in this world of ours it’s permanent. We humans are far more transient, even on a moment by moment basis. We are free in each of these moments to go a different path. Nothing is permanent, all its vanity.
But if nothing is permanent, is anything of value? Do we need to bother with faith? Or perhaps the question should be, ” do we, who take faith seriously, need to bother with Ecclesiastes?”
I think the answer is yes on both counts. We shall take faith seriously and we should take what Qohelet says seriously. I aim to do that this morning.
Given all of this, you might wonder if this sermon is going to be an update or a continuance of the sermon I gave a month ago — the take away line of which seemed to be the moment when, in reference to what the prophet seemed to be thinking when God called him to deliver his message of comfort to Israel, I proposed he said something like — “comfort? How can I preach comfort? Life sucks.”
This New Year’s sermon is not a sequel to that one. There is a long history of protest sermons and protest prayers in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But today, for my second sermon of the new year, a different genre is required.
Qohelet is a protestor. He puts God on the spot, but he does not bring the angry protest of I did last month. He is more sober. He notes in our reading that it is “an unhappy business that God has given to human beings.” Qohelet seems mostly concerned to point out the folly and the madness of those who seek to make of life something God had not given it, namely, for those who seek something new under the sun — all, in that regard, he says is “vanitynd a chasing after the wind.”
III. Qohelet’s critique
That said Qohelet is not a mere pessimist. His protest actually constructs a purpose for us, a way for us to think about our living together. He writes not simply because he wants to convince us of his dour view of things, but because that dour view can help us live better. He has dreams. In the end he says, “Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.”
I think he would shake his head and be doubly dismayed if he were to read the papers lately.
2012 is obviously an election year — but with elections need not come empty proclamations and hate speech against blacks or muslims or gays, as we have seen.
Qohelet would sound the alarm. He would be dismayed once over the vain speech of so many; he would be doubly dismayed, by the preponderance of people who claim to want to speak for the public, who yet promote vile intolerance.
The latest one that got my attention was just last night — a new law in Tennessee would prevent bullying in public schools, with the exception of bullying for religious purposes. Talk about vexation! I don’t even know what that means — you can bully, but only if you do it for religious reasons!?
Last week, when I started thinking about Qohelet’s new year’s message, I came across this story from Georgia, and saw in a flash that it was the whole point of Qohelet’s protest.
I have not explicitly stated what I think is his whole message: let me do that now and then tell the news story that is so distressing. He might argue that iIt is best to be humble, humble in terms of hopes, humble in terms of what you think you can acheive, humbe in terms of knowledge. When Qohelet writes that those who “increase knowledge increase sorrow” he does not deny the importance of knowledge, instead he warns against the kind of knowledge that proceeds from any other ground than the socratic ground — I know only that I know so little.
A representative from Georgia turns that on its head. And she increases sorrow. Speaking of the candidates, she said, “I think Mitt Romney is a nice man, but I’m afraid of his Mormon faith,” And then she said. “It’s better than a Muslim. “ This kind of knowledge increases sorrow, it diminishes the dreams we have for tomorrow, it ruins people’s lives.
Let me unpack some of this by beginning where Qohelet begins — with the question of the word vanity. In Hebrew it’s hebel. Other translations of hebel are possible — a quick check of three different versions yields meaningless, futility and smoke.
It’s a famously difficult word to translate.
When trying to translate an ancient word that is no longer in use, it is always helpful to go back to the places it has been used. And in this case, Genesis is helpful, not only because Qohelet refers to Genesis quite often in his own story, but because hebel is the Hebrew for Abel, the son of Adam slain by Cain.
Remembering that Adam was not just a proper name for the first human, but a more general word for humankind which had its derivation from the word for earth or dirt, should lead us to expect that perhaps his first son might also have an etymology that reveals a perspective on what humans are. We are, as the Ash Wednesday exhortation reminds us — from the dust, and to the dust we shall return.
Abel, according to Genesis is the righteous son. But without provocation he was executed. He was not created to survive. He was innocent and righteous and he died. All is smoke. Everything bears Abel’s name. We are children of Abel. We are hebel.
IV. The New Year’s Dream
Here we begin to see the difficulty of Qohelet and his philosophy for a people hell bent on making things go our way — whether that way is small and fearful and resorts to bullying, or grand with resort to high ideas — Everything we see as power, grandeur, and success — all of this belongs in advance to the category of vanity. It is all condemned to disappear, to vanish, without any kind of posterity. We are mere whiffs of insignificance.
But that does not mean lacking moral purpose and compass.
For Qohelet, as for Matthew, the author of that extraordianry story we read with the children this morning, the God functions for us to give us hope, no matter who squarely we face our human situation.
For Qohelet, as for Matthew — that hope does not lie in a hereafter — when these difficulties shall be no more. The reality is simpler and more down to earth. For Qohelet true living, means handing over these special interests in power and grandeur and kneeling.
The Christian story of the coming of God in flesh is just this story. For this New Year’s opportunity, let’s hear what this handing over means from the perspective of the three magi.
One magi hands over Gold. It is our economic interest. The magi place all their wealth, gained illicitly or fairly, we suspect both, at the feet of a newborn child. Qohelet’s call, is the Christmas call — the call to surrender our greed and obsession with things so that we might find life’s pleasures without having to make the crooked straight.
Another magi gives up his Frankincense. Frankincense was used for religious ritual purposes. It stands for the good and the bad here too — We hand over our Frankencense and remember the words of Ecclesiastes — let us not be too proud in our moral base — it is a vexation. Others suffer by our insistence that our moral vision is the only one. Let us not value our creed, our article of knowledge, as the ancient church called them, more than we value Qohelet’s admonition, which Socrates took as his motto — let us know only one thing well — that we know nothing.
The last magi hans over his myrrh. Myrrh preserves things as they are. To give up our myrrh is to hand over our power interests — to recognize that with Qohelet that all are mere whiffs of insignificance and to find peace in that. To give up our myrrh might just be the hardest new year’s goal, for it implies taking seriously our faith as the moment by moment evaluation of oruselves — not as fearful hoarders of the past, with a timid face to the future, but as descendents of Abel. What have we to lose?
The kings gave these things up. What had they to lose? It turns out nothing. But they had everything to gain.
And so with the story-teller’s trick, letting us know they had gained the world, the magi went home by a different road
May your new year be blessed. May the different road by crooked and do not count what is lacking. Amen.