Monday, January 20, 2014

Next preach (3)

I have little opportunity to collaborate on my sermon for Caius, but I can report its great challenge of preaching two set lectionary readings.  Elsewhere (in Preaching as Worship) I have listed some pros and cons of following the lectionary's prescribed Scriptures, but here I have met an inspiring contrast between Old Testament and New Testament texts.  

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-11 describes human life dispassionately setting within time two contrasting parts:  , recognizing how positive events are (inevitably) accompanied by negative. One positive- being born, planting, healing, building up, laughing, dancing, mending, times for love and peace. And each is accompanied by its counterpart: dying, plucking up, killing, breaking down, weeping, mourning, hate and war. These are unavoidable in human life – on one side great beauty is possible and on the other the burden of being human. This is how God orders human life. There is some bleakness here: What gain have the workers from their toil? V9 I have seen the business that God has given everyone to be busy with v 10.  

Yet, the most critical aspect of this analysis, the most troubling verse of all, concludes the set reading: 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 the beginning to the end NRSV v11).    Made in God’s image humankind has a capacity for eternal things, we sense there is a bigger picture than going round in circles;  that there is a big story which had a beginning in creation, which has suffered in the Fall, yet still has purpose.   We sense this but we cannot find it out, says Ecclesiastes. There is resonance with Augustine later:  You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find peace in you.   We cannot know.   If only it could be clearer.  A time to be born and a time to die;  a time to kill, and a time to heal.

And we cannot, of course, ever know the bigger story, unless the God who created humans in time breaks into human life.   This seems utterly unlikely.  In fact, if you even open your mind up seriously to consider how a creator God outside time might communicate it would seem impossible that we might witness a baby in a manger and hear;  today for you in the city of David is born a saviour.  That God enters time  and humanity to save the world in Jesus Christ.   

The reading from 1 Peter 1:3-12 is as big a contrast with Ecclesiastes as you can imagine.   While Ecclesiastes is dispassionate and impersonal,  Peter lets rip with praise language on fire with conviction that he has seen the Christ,  no, experienced him, as new birth, living hope, inheritance that cannot perish, spoil or fade because of the Saviour who has a died and risen from the dead.  And in a world of dying, plucking up, killing, breaking down, weeping, mourning, hate and war where people suffer all kinds of trials – in this world  he testifies to a new reality - living hope.   The bleak words:  God has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end are met with radiant new faith in a God who encounter us, who  from the beginning loved creation and in Christ has redeemed creation and will not give up on it until the end in glory.  This testimony changes everything. No longer cyclical living but straight line purpose with all the demands of serious thinking and living this makes. 

We can recognize the contrast between texts. Ecclesiastes invites us to a realism about human life where most people find themselves, caught in a cycle.   Peter blazes the trail of the God who is writing a big story that if it is true challenges us to the core, for we now know. 
I have preached on Ecclesiastes several times and you can certainly emphasize the responsibility that God gives within human life to discern and act wisely and to recognize his order.  But when you put the other NT reading with it, you really hear it preach!  Keep praying as I work on!

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