What Life is Really All About

Slide1‘This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. ‘Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’ Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror— indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy— but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows is one of my favourite children’s stories. Rat and Mole’s encounter with the Piper at the Gates of Dawn sums up what happens when we recognise the Almighty God as our Creator, as our Shepherd and Lord.

During the Summer we have been exploring Ecclesiastes together. Solomon has encouraged us to identify with those whose world view is secular, whether of an atheist or agnostic. Solomon describes their world view 27x as “under the sun.”

He forces us to enter their shoes and takes us to the logical end of their world view. Life is meaningless. You may have found the journey uncomfortable, even disconcerting, to imagine the world without God, but we need to do if we are to identify with our family and friends who live without God. “What is the point of life?” Solomon has been asking over and over again in eleven chapters. Now in Chapter 12 he brings his investigation to a conclusion and reiterates what we saw glimpses of earlier.  There is indeed no meaning in life unless, and until, we find it, like Mole and Rat, in God our Creator, our Shepherd, and our Lord.

  1. We all know God as Creator through Creation

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”— (Ecclesiastes 12:1)

You know you’re getting older when you actually eat breakfast food at breakfast time. When over 90% of the time you spend in front of a computer is for real work. When the local pharmacist becomes a really good friend. When happy hour is a nap. When you’re on vacation and your energy runs out before your money does. When you bend down and wonder what else you might as well do while you’re down there. When everything hurts, and what doesn’t hurt, doesn’t work anymore.

When you wonder how you could be over the hill when you don’t even remember being on top of it. When thankfully they stop showing repeats on TV. When your idea of weight lifting is standing up. When it takes more than two tries to get up from the couch. And ultimately when you sit in a rocking chair and you just can’t get it going. Then perhaps you can identify with Solomon’s moving description of the aging process….

“Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:6-7)

The silver cord, golden bowl, pitcher, and the wheel symbolize life’s fragility.  How easily death comes to us. How swiftly and unexpectedly we can return to the dust from which we came. Therefore, says Solomon, remember life is a precious gift from your Creator. Invest it wisely and not squander it frivolously.

Life is perishable, it’s fragile, so handle with care.

A life without God can produce a bitter, lonely, and hopeless old age.   A life cantered around God our Creator and sustainer, is energizing no matter how old your body says you are. He makes the “days of trouble”–when disabilities, sickness, and handicaps cause barriers to enjoying life—nevertheless he gives contentment.

Creation is sufficient proof to start our spiritual journey.  But it is insufficient to tell us what God is like, and who He is.   For that we need further revelation. And Solomon provides it.

  1. We can only know God as Shepherd through Scripture

“Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd.” (Ecclesiastes 12:9-11)

The second term used to describe God is “the One Shepherd”.

It is a welcome personal complement to the majestic but distant title of verse 1 “Your Creator”. The God who is on the one hand Infinite and far off, is at the same time personal and near.

A God who knows and can be known. A God who has created us in His image and yet who also speaks to us with a human voice.  Christianity is a revealed faith, it’s not a philosophy. It is not based on unsubstantiated theories or speculations, or a series of religious mystical experiences. We believe in a God who has come into our world, who has revealed Himself in space time history objectively and authoritatively, and supremely in the one who said: “I am the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep.”  (John 10:11).  Not only that, He has provided an inspired, infallible account of that revelation.

In scripture we learn about what He is like, what he has done,  how we can know Him, and why we are here.

The title “The teacher” in 12:9 is used to describe Moses (Deut 6:1), David (2 Sam 1:18), Ezra (7:10), and of Jesus extensively in the Gospels.  It describes the person ordained by God to reveal the Word of God. Since the Apostolic period, that role has been fulfilled by pastor teachers who serve as under-shepherds of the One Shepherd. Our role as clergy is not to reveal the Word of God but to explain it to help you apply it. At the ordination service clergy are given a bible with the instruction to teach it. We are not given a chalice to drink from, not a personal organiser, nor a baton to orchestrate, but a bible to feed Christ’s flock.

The Ordination Service includes this declaration.

“In the name of the Lord, we bid you remember the greatness of the trust now to be committed to your charge,…. You are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord. You are to teach and to admonish, to feed and to provide for the Lord’s family, to search for His children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations and to guide them through its confusions, so that they may be saved through Christ for ever.

Any notion that a pastor can just get into the pulpit with a few notes scribbled on the back of an envelope believing  the Lord will give inspiration is naive and irresponsible.

We cannot teach the Word of God without careful study and preparation. Notice the words Solomon uses to describe the process of preparation.

Pondered  12:9 = “weighed”  =  honesty, caution, balance.

Searched  12:9 = thoroughness and diligence

Arranged  12:10 = “skilfull orderliness” = logical presentation

Two very graphic words are used to describe the effective use of Scripture, whether coming from the preacher, or you as you’re sharing it with a friend. A goad was a sharp metal tip attached to a handle and used to keep oxen or cattle moving. Like a goad, a wise word or important truth might be unpleasant when first applied, but it will keep us moving in God’s direction. Solomon uses another illustration firmly embedded nails = establish teaching in memory and way of life.  We should not be surprised if the Scriptures seem like goads or firmly embedded nails for this isn’t any ordinary book.  It is God’s Word.  It is the sword of the Spirit, living and active, sharper than any two edged sword.

Although written by many different scribes, over 1000’s of years it has one Author. These are the words of the One Shepherd, with one purpose, to lead us back to God and create one new people of God – of all races, tribes, languages and peoples.

So, we know God as Creator through Creation; We can know God as Shepherd through Scripture.  And one day,

  1. We will know God as Lord through Judgment

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of every human being. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

Solomon presents his antidotes for the two main ailments presented in this book. Those who lack purpose and direction in life should fear God and keep his commandments. Those who think life is unfair should remember that God will review every one’s life to determine how he or she has responded to him. Here is the purpose for which we have been created. To live in a right relationship, with God, to know Him through Jesus Christ, with respect and love, for He is the Good Shepherd.  The last verse of all drives home the point just made, with a final blow that is sharp enough to convict, but shrewd enough to jolt us out of apathy. It kills complacency to know that nothing goes unnoticed or unassessed….and one day will be revealed and redressed, if it is not already laid at the foot of the Cross.  Stripped of God’s Spirit, our bodies return to dust. Stripped of God’s purpose, our work is in vain. Stripped of God’s love, our service is futile. We must put God first over all we do and in all we do because without him we have nothing.

This perspective transforms life. If God cares this much, nothing can be pointless.  For God loved the world so much that He went way beyond the truth contained here in Ecclesiastes.  He loved us so much that He gave His only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

The Apostle Paul writes a two sentence commentary on Ecclesiastes 12,

“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory… Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:54, 58)

To conclude our journey, lets return to the scene in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows,

“Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; …

All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’ ‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet— and yet— O, Mole, I am afraid!’

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.  Sudden and magnificent, the sun’s broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.”

Lets pray. A prayer of William Laud.

Grant, O Lord, that we may live in thy fear,
Die in they favour, rest in thy peace,
rise in thy power, reign in thy glory;
for thine own beloved Son’s sake,
Jesus Christ our Lord.