Broadway Christian Church · Columbia, Missouri
The Worship of God · March 4, 2012
The Second Sunday of Lent
Litany of Praise
Based on Psalm 22
When we feel forsaken, forgotten and alone,
like God is far away from us and we are far from God.
We cry, we plead, we search, but often find no rest for our souls.
Our ancestors trusted in you; they trusted and were delivered.
But we find no relief, no pause, and no break.
Remember people of God:
It was the Holy One who plucked you from the womb, gave you a name and
a destiny, and poured praise into your mouths like honey into willing hearts.
Confession and Pardon
Let us confess our sin and brokenness to God:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought,
word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors
As ourselves. Have mercy on us and forgive us.
God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. The old is gone, behold the new has come. We are free and forgiven!
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
And now, we receive the gift of silence as we turn our hearts to our God. Let us pray.
[Moments of Silence]
O Spirit of God, who drove Jesus into the desert, we come as a wilderness people, longing for the moving of your Spirit among us. We pray for courage to enter our own wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, for how many ever days and nights it takes.
As winter gives way to the warmth of spring, we ask that, through your grace, we might peel away whatever does not matter, whatever is false in ourselves, in our communities, in our church.
Some of us come to you knowing the fatigue of a burden that will not be lifted, the pain of an illness that will not give way to healing, the weary path of a loneliness whose ache cannot be managed. And we wish, like the psalmist, for wings of a dove that we could fly away. But where can we go but to you, O God, our comfort, our refuge, our strength.
Hear our prayers for all your children, who have known the devastations of natural disasters, of the tornadoes that have so harmed. Move among us, O God. Remind us again of the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds on earth. Sew it in our hearts, O God; plant it there that it might grow and give shelter to the birds of the kingdom.
Accept our prayers, especially the prayer our Lord taught us, saying…
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
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 forever.
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.
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been, in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
Ecclesiastes in the Wilderness: Dust in the Wind
I want to begin by asking the existential question that is probably on your mind right now. “What kind of book is this? Was there some kind of committee meeting where they were voting on putting books in the Bible, and there was someone who said, ‘Oh yeah, put that one in. It’s a real pick me up.’”
Holy Cow! Ecclesiastes is, indeed, a strange book, and unlike most others that are contained within Scripture. Perhaps you have not spent much time in the book from which our text comes this morning. But in our Lenten series on the way of the wilderness, it represents step two, and it is quite the step. Watch out. It’s a doozy.
Last week, we examined Moses and the burning bush, one way that God might speak to us in the desert moments of our lives. Today, we unpack another such way that God might use the wilderness.
Now, most biblical scholars will tell you that this book of Ecclesiastes is a book of wisdom literature, and perhaps it is, but it is also unlike the majority of wisdom literature in ancient near east, in eastern, or western philosophy.
Most wisdom literature sets up with a basic structure. It’s one I’m sure you’re familiar with, even if you’ve never heard it before. Basically, it goes like this: I (the teacher) have learned X, and in order for you to learn X, I have to convince you that it is better than Y.
In this view, wisdom is characterized by two paths: the wise path and the foolish path. So, what traditional wisdom teachers do is contrast the wise and the foolish. Wisdom is then characterized by polar opposites. The wise are careful with their words. The foolish are promiscuous with theirs. The wise are prudent; the foolish are rash.
The teacher typically works hard to set up the dichotomy: on one hand, the wise are prudent. On the other hand, the foolish are rash and foolish.
For many of us, this makes sense, and our response to this idea of their being two paths is to do the right thing, to do the wise thing. So, you’ll head in this direction [Nick points upward] and get what is right. Or, you will head in this direction [Nick points downward] and end up with folly.
This is not what is happening in our text this morning. The writer, this morning, does not establish two categories, and the master teacher is not telling us if you do A, then you get B, then you’ll get C, etc, etc. The teacher, instead, is saying there is only one category.
The wilderness of Ecclesiastes is not the typical type of wisdom literature. It’s the type of wisdom that is offered to those who did all the right things, made the moral choices, played by the rules, that you were righteous, and you gave it your best shot, and you still got cheated.
Or perhaps, you’re on the other end of this spectrum. You’ve made some horrific choices in your life, some completely destructive choices, which had serious consequences. And when you slammed into that brick wall, you came to the very end of yourself, only to find a God who loved you and rescued you, even when you didn’t deserve one ounce of it.
When either of these two things happens, all those nice, neat categories of traditional wisdom no longer apply. They are basically chucked out the window. And we remember there is no binary where right produces right and wrong produces wrong. As our writer says, “There is only vanity.”
The wisdom that is being offered by the writer is about this word. You may have picked up in our text that he seems to have quite a fascination with this particular word: vanity. “Vanity is Vanity. All is Vanity.”
Now this word translated vanity, is the Hebrew word hevel. Say it with me, hevel. Hevel literally translated is vapor, mist, almost like a breath. Some biblical scholars translate the word “meaningless.” Meaningless is meaningless, All is meaningless!
The writer is basically saying it is all vapor. It’s all vanity; it’s all mist; a sudden burst of moisture that lingers in the air for only the briefest of moments only to fade from existence as if it were never there in the first place.
All created things are all vapor. Everything that was ever or will ever be created will not last. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
Your wealth, vapor. Your cars, your house, your 401k; mist. According to this teacher, he achieved all great things: houses, vineyards, horses, slaves, gardens, and parks. He planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. He made for himself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. He gathered for himself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces. He got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh. But yet, it is all mist. All was vanity, as if chasing after the wind.
It is like as you get to your mid-life, and you bought that Corvette that you were always dreaming about. Then, you go to the garage, look at it, and say, “Is this it? Have I arrived?”
Our teacher, today, says that not only the physical things, but also that understanding, that knowledge, that wisdom, that learning, that education, that deep thoughts, and right-ordered thinking is all mist. It’s all hevel. Horses, silver, vineyards, wealth, water, wind, earth, generations, the wise, and the foolish alike: vapor. It’s all just dust in the wind.
This idea of hevel is critical to understanding where we are headed with this teacher. He is saying your body is vapor; it will droop and sag. Your life, your friend’s life; here today and gone tomorrow. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come.
The one that you love and that you have pledged to love till death do you part, its terrible to say, but one of you is going to stand over the grave of the other, and lay them to rest.
This writer, this morning, is challenging the very nature of wisdom itself. This dual way of viewing the world gets shattered. Basically, it all boils down to the idea that it’s no secret. Life is difficult.
Yet, most of us expend a great deal of time and energy attempting to avoid a direct confrontation with this reality. The problem, however, is that our attempt to avoid the inherent difficulties of life does not free us from suffering, but rather, may even oppress us further.
The wisdom teacher is saying by filling our lives with any number of activities, we are only trying to avoid that most frightening of things. What I am referring to is not the idea of becoming silent, but rather the realization that silence is all but impossible for us.
When we stop what we are doing and attempt to become still, we discover that there are fears, and anxieties, and thoughts within us that fill our minds and shake our very souls to their core. It’s the kind of realization that comes with making all the right moves, all the right decisions, to be morally superior to all those around you, and yet, to be outlived by the idiot.
This is wisdom beyond wisdom. This is something else. This is why we have to tune our frequencies to this concept to read this book. This is why we must be careful of the popular wisdom that says we must simply become still in order to work things through. For it may actually be better to say that the ability to be truly still is a sign that you have done the work to get there.
However good at avoiding the truth that life is difficult, that you think you are, there are still times when we will go through a particularly traumatic event. And when you do, the way of the wilderness has something to offer you. The wisdom in the book of Ecclesiastes can speak to you like none other.
The way of the wilderness offers a place where we can confront the reality of our humanity, not so that we linger in despair, but so that we will be free of the despair that already lurks within us, the despair that enslaves us, the despair that we too often refuse to acknowledge.
Lent offers us a different way to handle the traumatic events of our lives. It is one that seeks neither to repress the pain, nor to confront it directly. This other way, this way of the wilderness, this way of Ecclesiastes, involves participation in something that represents that very ache. This way in the wilderness is yet another path on the way to Easter morning.
For example, you might go to hear a poet who puts into music the sufferings of a loss; an individual who is able to speak the type of anger, of frustration, of pain you feel in your very soul in lyrical form. In such a poet, we encounter an individual who has demonstrated profound courage. For being able to sing her suffering, she shows that she is not overcome by it. That while it is still real, speaking of it is what has robbed it of its sting.
As we listen to the very music that speaks to our souls, we are invited to participate in it in a form of communion. A call is being issued asking us to touch our own deep chord, that of the music so that we encounter it in our very bodies. Yet the artistic form is such that when we encounter this darkness, it is somehow more bearable. We encounter our pain and anger in a way that we can cope with and we begin the work of mourning.
Like a professional mourner, who is paid at a funeral to wail on behalf of another, we might witness it. By paying someone else to cry on our behalf. This is not so that we can avoid our suffering, but so that we may be able to access it in a way that does not crush us.
Lent is an opportunity to partake in this, to stand before you and to cry, and to wail, and to call all things vanity is to stand up and become a comedian who can only tell the truth about the pain of life. Or a poet, who places in words that which cannot be named.
In other words, what if Lent could be a place where we find a liturgical structure that would not treat God as another product that would make us whole but as a mystery that enables us to live differently, abundantly in the midst of the wilderness. A place where we are invited to confront the reality of our humanity, to be able to call it all vanity, and yet to see beyond the mist, and remember that, as Tim put it last week, on the road to someplace else, God can set us upon a new path.
That sometimes we pass right by the burning bush, only to be confronted by our own tragedy, which, in the end, helps us appreciate the gift that is life, and the resurrection that awaits us on the other side of the wilderness.
Thanks be to God. Let us pray.
Gracious God, we just give you thanks for those ways in which you have transformed darkness into light. We thank you for the ways that you have spoken to our very ache, and for the realization that all these things that we hold dear are vanity and vanity. They are meaningless compared to you – that which had no beginning and has no end, and lives on and on and raises your Son from the dead, showing us that on the other side of death, of pain, of suffering there is only you with love. This we pray through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Go forth into the world, knowing that even though all life is vanity, God is not. Go forth with the grace of God, the love of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit this day and forever more. Amen.