As I mentioned last week, I decided to do this sermon series on Ecclesiastes because it was suggested when I asked you for some ideas. It was a good suggestion, because only one passage from this book makes an appearance in our lectionary, and that’s on New Year’s Day. Since we don’t typically have a New Year’s Day service, that means that that passage shows up only once every six years, when New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday. So, this gives us an opportunity to explore some new territory. And, that’s a good thing, because newness is the focus of today’s passage.
Before we dive into our passage, though, let’s set the stage a little. First, the author. King Solomon usually gets the credit for this book, because in the first verse, the narrator calls himself the son of David, king in Jerusalem, and later describes himself as king over Israel. It sounds plausible. After all, Solomon was known for his wisdom. But, this is one of those cases we’ve talked about before—where an author writes in the name of someone else to add authority to what he’s writing.
We know this because, first of all, the author drops the royal persona in the middle of chapter 2. He also has some pretty harsh things to say about kings later on, and he offers advice to people who would wait upon kings as though he’s one of those courtiers. The language the book is written in and the author’s outlook suggest that it was probably written around 250 BCE, hundreds of years after King Solomon’s reign and after Greek thinking had begun to take hold. But, the author wasn’t being dishonest by writing as Solomon, because the original readers would have known that this was a literary device.
The title itself is intriguing. In Hebrew, it’s called Qohelet (ko-HEL-et). Qohelet is usually translated as “teacher” or “preacher,” but it also refers to someone who collects or assembles things, like sentences or people. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, Qohelet became Ecclesiastes. That name comes from the Greek word ekklesia (ek-le-SEE-a), which simply means a gathering or assembly. The Church was an ekklesia of people who believed in Jesus. That’s why we use the word “ecclesiastical” to refer to the Christian church. So, when you read Ecclesiastes, picture an anonymous author who wrote from the perspective of a wise and respected teacher, who collected and shared observations and advice, probably to a gathering of students, maybe in a royal or priestly household or some other kind of school-like setting.
One more bit of background. Throughout the book, the author uses the word “vanity.” The Hebrew word that our version translates as “vanity” is hebel (ha-BEL). We don’t actually have a clear idea of what that word originally meant, so you’ll see it translated in many different ways, depending on the Bible version you’re reading. When you come across that word, think “absurd”—something that doesn’t make any sense and would be worthless even if it did.
So, on to our passage. Did you feel kind of bummed out after reading it? It’s so “been there, done that.” A dog chasing its tail. History doomed to repeat itself. Nothing lasts. Nothing changes. The Teacher, in his guise as Solomon, explains that he set out to understand all the workings of the world and came up short. He throws a little shade toward God by suggesting that God has given human beings this “unhappy business” of trying to figure out what can’t be figured out, just to keep us occupied. The Teacher has figured it out, though. Life is absurd. Nothing makes sense, so don’t bother trying. It’s all “vanity and a chasing after wind.”
It would be tempting to just dismiss this gloomy teacher right now. After all, he doesn’t have the whole picture, right? If he knew about Jesus, surely he’d be singing a different tune. Why read this book which, I warn you, doesn’t get any happier or more hopeful? Why not just stop here and skip to something in the New Testament instead?
The reason we should stick with the Teacher is that, of all the voices in the Old Testament, he is the one most willing to challenge conventional wisdom and easy platitudes. He’s willing to say what we observe but won’t say out loud: “No, hard work doesn’t always pay off. Bad people don’t always get their just desserts or good people their just rewards. There isn’t necessarily a silver lining to every dark cloud or a light at the end of every tunnel.” Sometimes the world just doesn’t make sense.
The Teacher is unafraid to express feelings that most, if not all, of us have had from time to time. Who among us hasn’t just shaken our heads and thought, “Nothing ever changes”? Who among us hasn’t thought, maybe with a touch of discouragement, “Nothing I do matters”? Reading this bold if gloomy teacher forces us to think through these ideas with him, and to clarify and challenge our own thinking, especially about where God fits into all this.
Our passage gives one example after another to support the Teacher’s contention that there is nothing new under the sun. In a sense, this could be considered a good thing. We are glad we can count on nature’s reliability—that we can count on things like the sun rising and setting each day. But clearly, the Teacher is unhappy about the lack of newness in the world. We share his desire for newness. As COVID has confined us to our homes and limited our activities, we’ve discovered just how much we crave new experiences and interactions.
Why should the Teacher despair over sameness? Where does our desire for newness and variety come from? I’d say that it’s built into our very nature.
God is a creating and recreating God. We see this all through Scripture. “Behold, I am doing a new thing!” God announces through Isaiah. “Morning by morning, new mercies I see,” we sing according to the words of Lamentations. From the creation of the world in Genesis to the new heaven and the new earth of Revelation, God is creating and creating anew. No wonder the Psalms encourage us, over and over, to sing to the Lord a new song!
We are made in the image of our creating and recreating God, so we too have a yearning to create and recreate. Newness is the result of our creativity. The desire to express this part of the divine image in us, and our enjoyment in what we create, is a gift. The problem lies not in our desire for newness; it’s in how we seek to satisfy that need it.
We look to new toys and new people and new experiences as we try to scratch that itch. We apply new approaches and new programs to old problems but never do more than scratch the surface. Because this newness is superficial, this newness soon wears off and we’re right back to where we started, looking for the next infusion of novelty. We are never filled, because the things we reach for offer only empty calories, and we soon become hungry again. Or, as the Teacher puts it, “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.”
If we think we can create things that are truly new on our own, we will continue to chase after wind. We are limited by our human imagination. We are short-sighted when to comes to our vision of what can be. We can come up with new toys, but we can’t create the truly earth-shaking or world-changing on our own. If we rely only on ourselves, we’ll just keep recycling the same old mistakes.
But, we don’t have to rely on ourselves to satisfy our desire for true newness. To the Teacher’s “Nothing is new,” we can respond with this good news: that by the power of the Holy Spirit, everything is new for the one who is in Christ Jesus. We ourselves are born anew and we are in the process of being remade in love every single moment of every single day.
As we grow into that perfect love of God and neighbor, we see everything through a new lens. We see other people from a new perspective—as those whom Jesus loves. We see the world around us in a new way—as God’s creation that is waiting to be remade right along with us—a valuable gift that has been placed in our hands to treasure and care for.
We see social, political, and economic systems in a new way. We see how they are either life-giving or life-denying, how they either foster or hinder opportunity for all people to live fully human lives. When, through our newly-sharpened awareness, we see that change must come, we are given the ability to imagine and create new systems and ways of being that are consistent with God’s intention for the world and all its peoples.
This kind of newness can only spring from what God has done for us and is doing in us. With our sins forgiven, we can be unafraid to look honestly at the present and boldly toward the future to see what new thing God is doing. With hearts that, more and more, are powered by the love of God and our love for God, new vision and new actions are possible.
But this capacity for newness remains unfulfilled, like an unhatched egg, if we don’t act on it. Newness flourishes when we recognize our old ways of thinking and behaving, and commit ourselves to living in new ways. This recognition happens as we search the words of Scripture and heed what we find there. We ponder the role of the tradition of the Church, and learn from the ways it has evolved to meet the need of a changing world. We seek out the wisdom of reason. We listen to our neighbors—modern-day prophets who can help us see more clearly if we will only listen with open hearts and minds, and then we place our experiences alongside theirs. As we do, we uncover the places where we are mired in old patterns of the past that prevent us from moving forward into the new things God is doing and would have us be part of.
To the Teacher’s gloomy assessment of a world where nothing is new, we exclaim with Paul, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new!” We are made with the creative image of God stamped on our nature. We are made new by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And, we are made capable by the power of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to envision and work toward a truly new world—one of justice and compassion, one that looks more like the kingdom of God. In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to allow the Teacher to have his say. But, we’ll do it knowing that we are living in a world that is being made new every day by our creating and re-creating God. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young