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A New Year Reflection - Ecclesiastes 3:2-15

Wednesday, 18 January 2017  | Barbara Deutschmann

New Year’s Day – the day of new things, new beginnings, new resolutions to make, new leaves to be turned over, new habits to initiate. Out with the old and in with the new.

I don’t think so. Most of us find that life goes on much as before, and rarely does the New Year bring change, much as we might wish it. I don’t believe the New Year leads to change and neither does the subject of the book of Ecclesiastes. Let’s call him the preacher. In fact, there could not be a more robust opponent to the idea of a New Year, a new start or a new anything, than our preacher. The preacher is convinced that there is nothing new under the sun. He (and it is most likely a ‘he’) is convinced that things cycle, turn and return. The sun sets, then cycles and returns as sunrise; winds blow in cycles from one direction then another, water cycles through streams into the ocean then falls as rain again; humans are born only to return to dust as one generation succeeds another.

The preacher thinks differently about his world than we do. We tend to think that things move forward in straight lines – that history progresses, that things improve and get better, that one historical era replaces another with fresh new thinking. Not so, our preacher. He is a person of another age, another time, and reading today’s text reminds us that there are lots of ways of thinking about life.

I would like to approach our text today in three different ways: the first, a surface reading as a pleasant reflection on time; the second, digging a bit deeper, as a harsher complaint about toil and work; and the third, in the light of the coming of Christ – a New Testament reflection.

As the reading began today, I bet that at least some of you were tempted to hum Pete Seeger’s catchy song, part of the soundtrack of my adolescence, which set the time poem (verses 2-8) to music. Apart from the ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ in the chorus, the only words Seeger added to the song were the last phrase in the closing line: ‘A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late’. That addition marked the song as a peace anthem, one of the memorable songs of the peace movement of the 60s. It was a great song but somewhat stretched the idea of the time poem which gives equal weight to war as to peace, to hate as to love, and to killing as to healing.

But Seeger was right about these things having their time, and there is some comfort in that. There is something good about one thing giving way to another – even the movement of generations as one generation gives way to another. Each year, my siblings and I get together with our children and grandchildren on the date of my mother’s birthday (23rd December). Each year, as well as reminiscences of Mum, there are milestones to commemorate: engagements, weddings, babies conceived and born. I am vividly reminded each December 23rd that the seasons of life turn, turn, turn, and there is great satisfaction in that.

The time poem, vv.2-8, by the way it sets out pairs (weeping, laughing; keeping, throwing away; keeping silence, speaking up), is about both promise and finality – that things begin and end. It is positive that there will be an end to times that are painful. Things will move on. What a comfort it can be to people undergoing difficult times to be reminded that this, too, will pass.

The fact is we need both pain and pleasure in life. Our experience of the joys of life is heightened when we have had sorrows. Our sorrows and toils are balanced and eased by the experiences of pleasure. A lukewarm life of neither joy nor pain is not real life. To be human is to experience pleasure and pain in equal measure. I had an experience of that three years ago when, on the day our first grandchild was born, my mother had a serious fall and entered the last stage of her life. For two weeks, I spent my days between helping Julia settle into motherhood and sitting with my mother as she slipped away. It was a time of exquisite joy and pain, each balancing and giving meaning to the other.

That is one reading of the passage – that it speaks of the flux of time that decrees that nothing stays the same, that pain and pleasure will visit us from time to time and be part of our lives. That is a positive reading of this passage, but that is not all that can be said about this text. When we look carefully, we notice that these are all things that happen to us. This passage is not about choosing things, it is about the way we are subject to things that we cannot control: birth, death, war, peace, mourning, joy. It expresses that feeling that we often experience of being helpless in some bigger drama of life where we are affected objects not active agents.

The preacher is making the case that these things are part of an inscrutable grand design. That bigger purpose and design is hidden from us.

What gain have workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time, moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end. (vv.9-11)

We are not just goldfish going around in bowl and encountering every view as new. We have a sense that life is more than this, that God ought to want more for us than this.

Sir Michael Marmot, who delivered the 2016 ABC Boyer lectures, is a world leader in the social determinants of health and an advocate of the need to investigate the underlying causes of ill-health in a community, or, in his words, ‘the causes of the causes’. One of his memorable contributions is the idea that work that is high-demand but low-control is risky to health.

Marmot tells the story of ‘Alan’ (see The Health Gap: The Challenge of an Unequal World, 2015, 170-73). Alan is a picker in a vast warehouse. You order goods on line, and Alan goes to the shelf where they are stored and takes them to a packer who boxes them and sends them to you.

Here is what Alan’s work looks like: A typical night shift is 10.5 hours, punctuated by one hour of breaks. On arrival, Alan is handed a device which is his ‘controller’ and conscience: this instructs him to go to Row X to pick up item Y and put it in his trolley, then go to Row P to pick up item Q and so on. When his trolley reaches a weight of 250kms, the device directs him to take it to the packers. Then he does another load. Repeat for 9.5 working hours of his shift. His target is 110 large items an hour (more for smaller items). His electronic device constantly feeds back what he has done so his performance can be monitored. If he falls far behind, he incurs penalty points (three points and he can be dismissed). Not once has Alan ever finished his shift with a sense of achievement.

How do his fellow employees feel about the work? Alan does not know. He rarely speaks to his line manager whose job it is to warn him of his failure to meet targets. There is no time to talk to employees while the shift is on. During the break, the walk from warehouse to canteen is long, with security checks going in and out of the warehouse further cutting in to Alan’s already short time to eat and rest.

Alan used a pedometer one night and clocked 18km of walking. Bone-weary and feet blistered, he leaves exhausted and unfulfilled after every shift. Marmot’s work has shown that, where effort and reward are imbalanced, and particularly where workers have no control over their conditions and output, there is increased risk of heart disease, mental illness and general sickness.

All of us know about the appalling employment conditions of developing countries, of women who work in the garment factories of Bangladesh and Cambodia, of men whose only job is to bash large rocks into small ones. But it is shocking to us to be reminded that Western capitalism also produces Dickensian work conditions and unequal health status is a visible reminder of that fact.

Our preacher would not be surprised. ‘What gain have the workers from their toil?’ The preacher finds one way forward: ‘God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil’ (v.13). This is meagre comfort, perhaps, but I think the preacher is serious when he says that eating and drinking is a gift of God. My husband, Peter, has been trying a diet that involves periods of fasting each week, and I sometimes join him in it. One of the side benefits is the reminder it gives us of how good it is to eat. Normally, we eat by the clock, not by hunger; but with this diet, periods of hunger are part of the deal - and how we look forward to the dinner that breaks the fasting period!

So, to sum up, we can only agree with the preacher that there is much toil in his world and in our own. A large part of this toil is high-demand and low-control work: just ask any young mother or carer. We all experience from time to time a sense of helplessness, a sense that we are caught up in a machine that rolls on, regardless of how we happen to be feeling. This, says the preacher, is that ‘sense of past and future, … yet without knowing what God has done from beginning to end’.

He puts it in the form of a refrain that punctuates the whole book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities. All is vanity and a chasing after wind’. We could translate this as: ‘Temporary, temporary. All is temporary’ or ‘Futile, futile. All is futile’.

So, we have taken two approaches to the text so far: as a counsel of comfort about the seasons of time; and as a text about the frustration of pointless toil. The third approach I want to take is how this book challenges our thinking about scripture. What do we make of a text that is basically giving a very negative view, not only of what it means to be human, but also about God? What do we make of the fact that there sits within the canon of scripture a book that tells what it feels like to be a finite creature, that gives a worm’s eye view – even a jaundiced worm at that, that even gets God wrong, that allows God to be portrayed as controlling and deliberately inscrutable?

I want to end with a few thoughts about this conundrum. First, we need to remind ourselves that scripture talks to itself. One part can comment on and balance another. There are three types of writings in the Old Testament: law, prophecy, wisdom. The book of Ecclesiastes is what is called a wisdom book. The wisdom books such as Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes play a role similar to a good journalist, cartoonist or even novelist of today: they write about life as we know it and give a sometimes critical perspective on the certainties of the other parts of scripture such as law and prophecy. Think of Job’s comforters spouting theological truths that only added more pain in Job’s situation. The preacher joins this group saying: ‘Sometimes, God, it all seems too much. Work is pointless and hard and, what is more, God, You are not listening!’ As one commentator, Robert Gordis, said: ‘Whoever has dreamt great dreams in his youth and seen the vision flee, or has loved and lost, or has beaten bare-handed at the fortress of injustice and come back bleeding and broken, has passed the Preacher’s door, and tarried beneath the shadow of his roof’.

The thing is, scripture is not just prescriptive (that is prescribing what we must do) but also descriptive of life as we know it. That’s what I love about it. It is internally disputatious at times and invites the reader in to consider the life of faith from different perspectives. It gives expression to the fact that our daily experience is often in tension with the core testimony of our faith. The preacher and, in fact, God, invites honesty and integrity about what we experience. This is what makes it scripture, not the fact that it conforms to a list of timeless truths about God.

As Christians, we bring another important perspective to this text. We are invited to consider what the coming of Christ might mean. We do this not just to trump the Preacher’s complaints with some kind of anodyne ‘all will be well because Jesus has come’ notion. There is no sense in which Jesus’ coming has made work any less burdensome.

The thing about Christ’s coming is that it gives meaning to time. The New Testament has a nice word to capture this: kairos, the propitious time, the right time, the opportune time, the decisive moment. Galatians 4:4: ‘When the time had fully come, God sent his son…‘. There is a sense in the New Testament that time is no longer just flux (‘vanity of vanities’, ‘temporary, temporary’) but is in fact pregnant with opportunity, made so by the way God has graced it and invested it with significance by sending Jesus to die and rise again. Time is opportunity as never before, not endlessly passing but full of meaning, hope and significance because God has declared it so by sending a Son, at the decisive time. Not only that, but God has declared that there will come a time of renewal of the earth and heaven and has given a down payment in Christ’s resurrection.

So, to all of us here today, in the light of Christ’s coming and coming again, Happy New Year!

Barbara Deutschmann is a PhD student researching gender relationships in the Garden of Eden story of Genesis. She is a TEAR Australia Board member, a founding member of Christians for Biblical Equality, a mother and grandmother and a member of St Mark’s Spotswood, Melbourne.

This article is based on a New Year’s Day sermon given on 1st January 2017 at St Mark’s Spotswood, Melbourne.

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