From December 31, 2017
By Rev. Shawn Coons
A mountain climber, who had summited Mt. Everest multiple times, was once asked what the secret was to climbing the world’s tallest mountain. His response was, “The secret to climbing Mt. Everest is the same as climbing any mountain. One step at a time.” This reminded me of the old joke, “How do you eat an elephant?” And the answer, “One bite at a time.”
One bite at a time, one step at a time. I’ve been thinking about these bits of advice as we stand at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018. I imagine looking into the coming year may be a lot like standing at the bottom of Mt. Everest. Some people will look at it and gleefully exclaim that they can’t wait for what lies ahead of them. The coming year holds challenge and opportunities for new adventures and rising to new heights.
Other people may look at 2018 as one large uphill climb, full of potentially harsh and dangerous conditions. It’s not an adventure to be undertaken, but something that will need perseverance just to get over.
I don’t know which kind of person you are. I don’t know if you are looking forward to 2018 and what it will bring, or the coming new year fills you with a sense of unease for what lies ahead. Either way, I hope to bring you a word of encouragement from scripture this morning, and that is simply to take the next year one step at a time, and that each step you take, God will be there with you.
This morning, we stand in an interesting place in the church year. Last week, we celebrated Christmas, and we are now in the midst of the proverbial twelve days of Christmas. Today is the sixth day of Christmas, so hopefully your true love has six gees a laying waiting at home for you. So we still have the Christmas decorations up here, we are still singing Christmas songs, but we are also moving forward. We acknowledge the season of Christmas and yet life continues.
This is kind of the theme of our scripture lesson this morning. Things happen in their time and season, but life moves forward through it all. So let’s listen to Ecclesiastes 3:1-13.
3For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
9What gain have the workers from their toil? 10I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11He 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. 12I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.
This is the Word of the Lord.
This may be a familiar scripture to you. If you are like me, it brings to mind the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds.
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
And if you are like me, that will be stuck in your head for the rest of the morning.
Often when people quote this scripture or make reference to it, it’s used at a time where things aren’t going well, where something bad has recently happened or is happening. When someone dies, when an illness is diagnosed, a job lost, a relationship ended. “Everything has its season.” It’s a way of trying to make sense why this bad thing has taken place. There must be a reason, it was appointed to happen eventually. It can also be a way of stating that if bad things are happening now, because it’s their appointed time, then there will be a time, a season, where good things happen to. If there is a time to die, there is a time for birth, for new life as well.
But if we look closer at this passage, we will find out that that may not be what is meant here. The author is not trying to say that there is a divine order to when good things and bad things happen. It would be great, as we stand on the threshold between years, to look at God’s divine schedule and know which season we are about to enter. Are we entering the time to heal, to laugh, and to build, or should we prepare for the time of mourning and loss? But that’s not what’s going on here.
The author of Ecclesiastes is reflecting on life as he has known it in the past and present, not trying to predict what is in store for the future. The author is listing the good and the bad that has happened, but can make no sense of why it happens at a particular time or at all, and so he simply states that everything must have a time or season for happening eventually.
We don’t know who the author of Ecclesiastes is. The only clue we have to their identity is there self-given moniker, “Qoholet” which literally means “the gatherer” but is often translated as “teacher.” Ecclesiastes falls into the category of Biblical writing that we call wisdom literature. Later Jewish tradition says that the author was Solomon in his old age.
But in reality, we know nothing about the author other than what is supplied in the text. Scholars date Ecclesiastes to a time in Israel’s history when they had been divided and conquered. A time of turmoil and rapid change. One commentator writes:
Qohelet and his audience live in a world of rapid political, social and economic change...It is a world full of inconveniences, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Nothing that mortals do or have is ultimately reliable -- not wealth, pleasure, wisdom, toil, or even life itself. People try to cope with the situation...in various ways. They worry. They are never satisfied. They are obsessed with discovering any formula that will bring success and happiness...They strive to gain an immortality of sorts through fame, progeny, wealth, or accomplishments. They try to gain some control, if not actually secure an advantage in life. Nothing works, however.
Sound familiar? It does to me. Or to quote another line from Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Our lives are full of uncertainty. The world is full of uncertainty. Good things happen, bad things happen, and it can seem impossible to ascribe rhyme or reason to it. What does 2018 hold for us? Who really knows?
Merry Christmas, eh?
I’m not trying to bring us crashing down from our holiday high, but as we move through Christmas into the new year, I want to acknowledge that life can be challenging, and life can also be great, but through it all God is with us. Ecclesiastes says that wealth, power, status, and health may be fleeting and fickle, but God is not. There are good times and there are bad times, and they will come and go, but God will be by your side regardless.
In changing times, we are called the one who does not change. The one who came to us, in the flesh, 2000 years ago. When Jesus was born in the Middle East, when Jesus walked among us, laughed and cried, loved and hurt, when Jesus was arrested and killed and rose again. We were given new life. We were shown a better way. We were brought into God’s kingdom, here on earth.
But Jesus’ coming didn’t end uncertainty in our lives. Jesus’ coming didn’t put an end to war, and death, and sadness, and mourning. But we were shown the way to get through whatever lies ahead of us on our journey. One step at a time.
At the risk of giving you another ear worm, do you know the song Day by Day from Godspell?
Day by day
Oh Dear Lord
Three things I pray
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly
Follow thee more nearly
Day by day
Day by day is how we get through each day of the coming year, each day of our lives. You may be familiar with various 12 step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. The basis of these groups are meetings that members attend to get support and accountability from one another to help them fight their addictions each day. There is a saying among these groups that the most important meeting you will ever attend is always the next one.
The most important day of the coming year is always the next one. And each day begins by trusting God anew. This year, I’d like to invite you to make it a point of starting your day intentionally by trusting God. There are a number of ways that people choose to do this. Many people begin their morning with a reading from scripture or a simple prayer. Others choose a deliberate 5, 10, 15 minutes of quiet prayer and meditation. I’d like to share with you one particular resource that many have found helpful. D365.org is a website that will email you each day with a short devotional that you can read anywhere that you can check your email. They also have an app that you can get for your phone.
So for your homework today, just think of one small thing you can do each day to connect to God. A time of prayer, reading a verse of Scripture, reading a printed out prayer by your toothbrush each morning. Just one thing.