Ecclesiastes 1:4-11 Poetic Plight Part 3: Generations--brief and uncertain
In Cottage Grove Minnesota, Grove United Methodist Church will close its doors in June only to reopen in November. Did you read about this this week. The news first reported was that older members were asked to find a new church. That’s not exactly what is happening but it is close. For the past 10 years the church has been stagnant in growth while this suburb of Minneapolis has been one of the fastest growing cities in Minnesota. Weekly, about 30 people attend the church. Now the church is made up of senior adults with a mix of millenials. In November a 32 year old pastor will begin leading the church in the place of the 55-year old current pastor and the current members have been asked to attend alternative worship for 15-18 months before applying to return if they then do desire to return. Even a 34-year old member stated that she would not return if the United Methodist District follows through with this idea. Change is hard and seems to always bring conflict. However, perhaps a look at our passage today can find stability for all change, .
When I was a teenager, there seemed to be a war between my generation and the generations older. In fact a few movies were made with that idea in mind. And since my youth, more, like “Logan’s Run”, have followed. The fiction in these movies was founded in the fact of the restlessness and desire for freedom of the new generation from any restraint. All these movies called for the killing off of the old--in most cases killing off those over 30 years of age. The conflict between generations has not stopped but is, in fact, no worse than the past. Every generation that follows another is looked upon as lazy, liberal, uncouth, unconcerned, drifting from the mores of past generations. Each new generation looks on the older as outdated and controlling; hampering the progress of the new. Arguments over clothing, music, literature, media--both social and information gathering and dispersing--the approaches that should be taken by government, and, today, we can add to that housing and income. Some, such as businesses and even churches, attempt to attract clients by catering to a specific generation--silent generation (those born before 1945); boomers (those born 1946-1964); Gen X (those born 1965-1976); millennials/Gen Y (born 1977-1995); Gen Z (born 1996 to present). However, there were many generations that came before these--just read the “begats” of the Old Testament that span from the beginning to, well, the birth of Jesus. In most of those it is the naming of a generation and not a direct line of birth by person that is listed. Just as we study the generations of our day, like the Barna Group studies each generation with a focus on their beliefs, views, and vocations, so Solomon did his research in the generations of his day comparing it to that which was before. He concludes that in the uncertainty of human life, there are constants in God’s created world. Those constants of God are to push us toward faith and not away from a relationship with God. They also push us toward loving our neighbor.
Drawing from the elements of God’s creation, Solomon uses science to prove his point regarding human generations coming and going. There are four contrasts between man and God’s creation: 1) the earth itself; 2) the sun; 3) the wind; 4) the rivers.
Regarding the earth (v. 4), we know that the same sun that warmed Solomon 3,000 years ago is the same sun under which Adam was created; Abel was murdered; Noah was saved by grace; Abraham’s faith was counted unto him as righteousness; Sodom was destroyed; Jacob fathered 12 sons; Joseph interpreted dreams and saved his family; the children of Israel were enslaved in labor and toil. Under that same sun, Moses led the soon named nation across the Red Sea and God made a Covenant with His people then named Israel at Mt Sinai. Under that sun, Joshua fought at Jericho, the elderly Caleb claimed his mountain, Gideon, Samson, and Samuel were judges over Israel. Under that sun David, Solomon’s father, had been king before him. That same sun shines on us in this age. The same stars that twinkled the night God pointed Abraham to the sky and used the stars as an illustration of the number of Abraham’s descendants to come (Genesis 15) are the same stars over the shepherds in Bethlehem the night of our Lord’s birth. Those stars, more or less, also continue to shine over us. This earth that God called into existence continues to spin around the sun. Generations have come and generations go… but this earth continues to turn and the emptiness, meaninglessness, and brevity of life continues. Oh, you say Methuselah lived to be 969-years old! But what is that compared to the thousands of years or more of the earth’s existence? Is it any wonder the Psalmist sings (104:5) in a hymn that praises God for His care over all His works, “He established the earth upon its foundations, so that it will not totter forever and ever.” And again, in Psalm 119:90, the praise is made to God, “Your faithfulness continues throughout all generations; You established the earth, and it stands.” Yes, all generations have been concerned about the destruction of the earth, the fragile nature of this earth, the scientific theories regarding the earth’s future, but let us rest in God’s unchanging and powerful hand. He will finish what He starts and this old earth will not be finished until He has taken home His own! God said, (Genesis 8:22) “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” This earth remains until we like John see (Rev. 21:1 “... a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.’ We are the ones who are born and who die. What good does it do to hold on to the world and lose your own soul? For our soul is templed in this brief body of flesh that returns to the dust from which it came.
He speaks of the sun’s continual course of rising and setting and, it seems, of the short night’s sleep that comes as the sun hastens to its place to rise again (v. 5). It is certain that the sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening. However, it is also certain that one may or may not see the rising of the sun or perhaps its setting. I’m not talking cloud cover. Rather, I speak of death. We have no promise of tomorrow or even this afternoon. This body is fragile. Our immune system changes. Anything from the shut down of an internal organ to the impact from outside the body can cause our death. Yet, know that, live or die, the sun will rise in the east in the morning and set in the west in the afternoon. Even when God made the sun stand still for Joshua in battle and when He moved the sun back 15 steps for Hezekiah, when God released the sun, it continued on its course. We have a limited number of sun rises and sunsets. Their beauty can only be overcome by the beauty of what is over the sun--1) the beauty of living in God’s kingdom in this life and 2) later living in heaven and its splendor for the believer. How vital it is that one be ready for death? (Hebrews 9:27-28) “..inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment...” God made His plan for us when He sent His Son to die on the cross that we might be redeemed--”so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Man may sing of the circle of life, but let me assure you that the circle we need to trust is the first advent leading to the second advent of our Lord!
Solomon was something of a meteorologist (v. 6). His study of the wind and its currents that never cease moving across the face of the earth provides evidence of his curiosity. He noted the winds travel the globe. Consider the four jet streams that blow across the earth. Five to seven miles above us, the jet streams influence our atmosphere. The ribbons of very strong winds travel around 200 miles an hour. Affected by warm and cold, these streams of air create the weather we experience. We, like Solomon, are more familiar with lower level air that is either sweater or shorts, dry or humid, still or go- fly-a-kite. The air keeps moving and keeps changing our weather. Every generation experiences the effect of the wind. It was the God-sent wind that began to dry the earth after the flood of judgment in Noah’s day (Genesis 8:1). It was the east wind that brought the plague of locusts in Egypt (Exodus 10) and an all-day and all-night strong east wind that parted the sea for Moses and the children of Israel (Exodus 14). At the house where Job’s children are celebrating, it was a wind that struck and destroyed the house resulting in their death when the house fell on them. It was the wind that tossed Jonah’s escape route, the sea, and withered the plant that was his shade at Nineveh. We could name far more regarding the work of the ever present wind at God’s bidding... but I want to remind you that the wind also speaks of the Holy Spirit as Jesus speaks of the continuing wind--John 3:8, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” No generation can harness the wind nor totally understand the wind but we can see its effect. So the Spirit’s works are undeniable and unmistakable evidence of His presence in the life of the believer, the church, and the world. Again, God is constant, consistent, and in Him is freedom and contentment for the soul of anyone in every generation of mankind, who by grace through faith believes God.
The waters of the sea evaporate by the effect of the sun, clouds form and are pushed by wind currents, along the way, they dump their moisture on the earth through rain, snow, and hail. Small creeks and streams carry the water to rivers and ultimately the water flows back into the sea (v. 7). The sea is never full. The rivers continue their work of flowing into the sea. All the elements continue their course without ceasing but man, God’s highest creation, is not like that. Human life is described in scripture as being like grass or flowers that grow in their season and are then cut down or die (I Peter 1:24). No matter how hard we try to extend life--diet, exercise, rest, medication--we cannot; no more than we can add an inch to our height.
This human emptiness versus the continuance of creation comparison is heard in the song, Ole Man River, from the Broadway play to movie “Showboat” by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern. Picture the African-American dock worker as he reveals his heart in this song. In his heart is toil, oppression, fear, weariness in the pain of body, the desire for a better life. He wishes he was old enough to die because his faith sustains him and gives him hope for that which is over the sun. He looks to the river to learn a hidden message that does not seem to be revealed.
There's an old man called the Mississippi
Here we all work 'long the Mississippi
Here we all work while the white folk play
Pulling' them boats from the dawn till sunset
Getting no rest till the judgement day
Don't look up and don't look down
You don't dare make the white boss frown
Bend your knees and bow your head
And pull that rope until you're dead
Let me go 'way from the Mississippi
Let me go 'way from the white man boss
Show me that stream called the River Jordan
That's the old stream that I long to cross
That's the old man I’d like to be!
What does he care if the world's got troubles?
What does he care if the land ain't free?
Old man river, That old man river
He must know sumpin'
But don't say nuthin',
He just keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along.
He don't plant taters, He don't plant cotton,
And them that plants 'em Is soon forgotten,
But old man river,
He just keeps rollin' along.
You and me, we sweat and strain,
Body all achin' and racked with pain,
Tote that barge! And lift that bale!
Get a little drunk And you lands in jail
But I keeps laughin' Instead of cryin'
I must keep fightin' Until I'm dyin'
And old man river, He just keeps rollin' along
Like the dock worker in this song, we ask, “What has my generation achieved?” We answer with Psalm 39:5-6, “Behold you [God] have made my days as handbreadths, and my lifetime as nothing in Your sight; surely every man at his best is a mere breath. Surely every man walks about as a phantom; surely they make an uproar for nothing; he amasses riches and does not know who will gather them.” In light of the emptiness of man, the brevity of man, is it not more valuable to say, “And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in You.” (Psalm 39:7) One would think the holocaust would have ended anti-semitism. One would think the efforts and martyrdom of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have ended all prejudice driving separation. Nope! Every generation continues to wrestle with hope. Our task is not to focus our church on catering to the whims of one generation or another but too provide the constant hope of community and transformation found in Jesus Christ our Lord.
So, why hope in the Lord? Martha and Mary are grieving the loss of their brother and wonder why Jesus has taken so long to arrive. Lazarus could have been healed if Jesus had been there, they said. Martha confessed her believe in the resurrection of the dead on the last day but Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And that’s my question to you. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior who can transform your brief life that ends in death into an abundant life now and a forever-life in the eternal heaven? His invitation, “Follow Me” moves us, during this brief existence, from the fear of drowning in life to a trust that enables us to walk on the water and to a faith that moves mountains. That’s a message for all generations!
Let me ask, wouldn’t you rather be free in Christ Jesus to celebrate the short lifetime you have on earth rather than squander the brevity by holding on to that which rusts, rots, and ruins? How empty and meaningless can you get? Generations come and go.