Preached at Wycliffe Hall Chapel
26th October 2015: Morning Prayer
Come, Creator Spirit, take my human words and through them sound forth the Reality of God. Open our hearts in faith that we might know Christ walking through this congregation as the Word, speaking to us and revealing in Himself the heart of the one He taught us to call Father; for it is in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
““Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
We’re perhaps more accustomed to the traditional rendering: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Hebel is the Hebrew word. It means a mist, a vapour, a breath. It is Abel’s name. But you probably don’t remember Abel, do you? His life only lasted as long as a breath. We read about him for a few short verses in Genesis 4, and then that’s it, he’s gone. Snuffed out. Extinguished. And what does he have to show for his life? Nothing. All we know about him is that he offers God one sacrifice and his brother stabs him in the back for his troubles. Great. What was the point?
And what is the point of you being here now? Be honest, you were thinking it this morning, weren’t you? You looked out of the window and thought to yourself, “What’s the point of getting up on a cold, wet late October morning and cycling into college for 8.20am? What’s the point of sitting in chapel, using some stuffy liturgy and listening to some windbag of a preacher who’s still got his homiletical ‘L’ plates on?” Come on, that’s what you were thinking, isn’t it? And if not today, you have thought it at some point, haven’t you?
And what is the point of me standing preaching to you now? For crying out loud, you’re a load of theologians and training vicars, which means you’re either spotting my heresies or picking holes in my hermeneutics. If you want to know about Ecclesiastes, there’s a library full of books not 100 metres away—go find a book and read it. What original word can I bring you this morning? The gospel hasn’t changed over the weekend. Day after day, week after week, it’s the same old message in this chapel. What has been preached will be preached again. There’s nothing new under the Wycliffe chapel lights. So honestly, I ask you: what is the point?
Let me be quite clear on something, therefore: what we’re doing here is pointless… Pointless, that is, unless God shows up. Unless God shows up, all our prayers are just hollow, opaque, idle words. Unless God shows up, this sermon is just me prattling on about a vaguely religious theme. Unless God shows up, the Church is doomed and all our study is in vain. Unless God shows up, all our worship, all our being Church, all our training, is just a royal waste of time and we are to be pitied above all people for throwing our lives away on something so… pointless!
In v.3, the Teacher (Qoheleth) asks, “What does anyone gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun?” Literally the Hebrew reads, “What profit is there to a person…?” This question is the theme, not only of the first chapter, but also of the entire book. The word for ‘gain’ (יִּתְרוֹן) is an accounting term. It refers to what’s left at the end of the day. Qoheleth’s question is an existential one: What’s the point of it all? Where’s life headed? What’s its meaning? That’s the subject of his research. And like any good essay, he establishes his methodology (vv. 12-18), but before that he tells us his answer: there is no point; life’s going nowhere; it’s all meaningless.
The sun rises, the sun sets, and pants back to the beginning ready for the next day. The wind too just blows round and round and round. The streams keep running to the sea, but the sea is never full. There’s never a point at which our eyes are satisfied with what they’ve seen, or our ears are filled with what they’ve heard. It’s all so pointless. But it’s not the circularity of it that bothers him; it’s the futility of it all. Nothing ever reaches fulfilment. Nothing ever reaches a goal. Things just keep going on and on and on with no apparent end or purpose. Where is life headed? Where is the world headed? Where is history headed? Nowhere, it seems.
The world Qoheleth describes is not a world without God. God is very much present. It’s just that He can’t be known. He’s hidden. Inscrutable. Impenetrable. It is a world without revelation, a world in which God maintains a respectable distance. The words “I” or “my” appear 12 times in vv. 12-18. That gives you a sense of the problem. Qoheleth describes a world in which we have to make the running when it comes to finding out about God. And what does Qoheleth, who speaks in the persona of wise old Solomon, discover? “There ain’t no way to get there from here.” No matter how wise we might be, God is simply not accessible to us through our own intellectual efforts.
“There is nothing new under the sun,” Qoheleth says. Clearly, he’s never heard the intrusive word of a God who says, “See, I am doing a new thing!” (Isaiah 43:19) or, “Behold, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5). Clearly, he’s never encountered the Word become flesh. For, as William Willimon writes: “Every religion offers to help us finite creatures climb up to or dig deep into the infinite. Only Christianity contends that the infinite descended, taking the form of our finitude—Incarnation.” We don’t have to ascend to God. He descends to us. We don’t have to look for God. He comes looking for us.
In Christ, God reveals Himself fully, definitively and conclusively. What’s more, the resurrection shows us precisely where history is headed. Karl Barth is right: “The goal of human life is not death, but resurrection.” The resurrection lifts the veil on the God-ordained destiny of creation. It vindicates Christ’s entire life and ministry culminating at Calvary. It prevents us from looking at the crucified rabbi from Nazareth and asking, “What was the point?” Christ shows us that there is a point to a life lived with and for God, even if it leads to a Cross. When we labour under the Son, we can be sure that there is a lasting gain for our toils in the life of the world to come. For even Abel, though dead, still speaks (Hebrews 11:4).
So what’s the point of our being here? What’s the point of our worship, our preaching and our study? There is no point, none whatsoever… unless God shows up and reveals Himself to us as the bloody, crucified Lamb who sits on the throne. If our lives and our time here at Wycliffe isn’t going to be pointless, it’s only going to be because we’ve been captured, commandeered and commissioned by the revelation of a God, who has revealed His purpose to recapitulate all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). And since that is beyond our doing, therefore, let us learn to continually pray that ancient prayer, which expresses the utter futility of our lives apart from a God who reveals Himself as Jesus Christ: veni, creator spiritus.
Come, Creator Spirit. Amen.