Ecclesiastes (3): Seeing through the Fog - 26th January 2014 - Dave Walker

Bible readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-14 & 12:9-14

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As any good fireman will tell you, one of the most dangerous things about a fire is the smoke. It’s poisonous, it burns and it blinds you. That old song that my dad sings whenever we have a barbeque is right. Smoke does get in your eyes. And that’s when people panic and get trapped. When they know they’re in danger and they can’t see. So it’s no surprise that one of the best recent inventions in firefighting technology is thermal imaging goggles. With them the firefighter can see through the smoke. It may be blinding in the burning room, but he can see. And if he can see, he can do something.

This month we’ve been studying the enormously realistic Bible book of Ecclesiastes, and as we’ve been doing so we’ve been learning something important about this world. This world is a foggy place. That repeated phrase in the book of Ecclesiastes “everything is meaningless” – do you remember how we saw that that word meaningless literally means ‘foggy’? Life is foggy. Not totally without meaning, not totally pointless, but foggy. Confusing. Blinding. It often doesn’t make sense. Often you can’t see what’s coming; often you don’t know why things happen; often you just don’t know what to do. Life is foggy. If you haven’t been here the last couple of weeks, this is important stuff. It’s not too late to read through this confusing but enormously relevant book of Ecclesiastes. You can catch up on the other talks on the Christ Church North Finchley website.

So life is foggy, we know that. But there’s a crucial thing which Ecclesiastes tells us which we need to know if we’re going to live right in the fog. It’s this:

Life is not foggy for God (3:9-14)

It’s foggy for us, but not for God. This is the big thing that comes out of that reading that Will read for us. Have a look at it again; it’s page 670 – Ecclesiastes 3 verse 10. As I read this bit out have a listen for the contrast between God and men – that’s the old fashioned inclusive “men”, meaning males and females by the way. Listen for that contrast:

Ecclesiastes 3:10-14  I have seen the burden God has laid on men.  11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.  12 I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.  13 That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil--this is the gift of God.  14 I know that everything God does will endure for ever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.

We, and everything else in this world, are stuck in time. That’s the thing that this chapter really rams home to us isn’t it? There’s a time for this and a time for that and we never know from one day to the next what it’s going to be time for. We don’t know whether tomorrow will be a laughing day or a crying day. We don’t know how many days we have left on earth. God has made it like that.

Verse 11 is an important one. It says that God has set eternity in our hearts – that means that he has given us an awareness that there should be more. He’s given us the capacity to understand so much about the past and a sense of the future. We can do history and archaeology and even weather forecasting. But we can’t work out what’s coming. We can’t fathom what God has done from beginning to end. That is how God has set things up. Remember last week how we said that he introduced the fog to the world in response to human sin? Do you remember that? That is why there is so much we can’t work out. Because God has made it that way.

But how different it is for God. Verse 14 – everything he does lasts for ever! Nothing can be added to it or taken from it! That’s utterly different to us, isn’t it? We talk about someone ‘achieving immortality’ when they paint a famous picture or write a famous song that is remembered for generation or two after their death. That’s not immortality. That’s just a slightly slower rate of decay. But God – what he does, his plans and his words – last for ever. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow; God holds tomorrow in his hands. God is not lost in the fog. The temporary nature of it doesn’t apply to him. The confusion of it all doesn’t confuse him. It’s almost like he’s there with the thermal imaging goggles on, while we’re just blinded by the smoke. What a contrast between God and us.

And, says Ecclesiastes 3:14, God has made it like this for a reason. It’s so that we revere him. Or as some other translations have it, so that we fear him. That’s why the world is foggy for us but not for God. So that we fear God.

To fear God in Bible language means to treat God as God. It’s the opposite of treating him lightly, or fobbing him off. The fogginess of life, and our own limitedness, should make us revere God like this. Take him seriously.

This is so important. The world is foggy for us but not for God. Ecclesiastes really brings that message home to us. It’s meant to humble us before God. Some people find that notion offensive. Some people hate to be humbled. But it’s not offensive. It’s realistic. It’s just telling it like it is. Just look across the page at chapter 5 verse 2: “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.”

That’s good isn’t it? Where there are lots of words listen out for the foolishness. Some of you might even now be pricking up your ears and listening carefully. Listen, here comes the foolishness. But actually this is so helpful because so much of our talk is arrogant. You can hear that in the cocky self assured intellectual swagger from so many people in our media when they get on to the subject of God or religion or morality or science. Have you ever watched QI? It’s quite funny sometimes, but it’s totally pervaded with that smug air of “we know”. “Of course, we now know…” How many times do you hear that expression? Ecclesiastes says “you don’t know much. It’s all foggy. God is the one who knows so be humble.”

And it’s not just non-believers who talk like this is it? Remember Ecclesiastes is mostly talking to believers. And you can sometimes hear that same swagger in Christians who seem to know all the right answers and won’t admit to being confused. Or to being wrong about anything. I’ve fallen into that trap before. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes you can mistake “what I think is true” with “what God says”. It’s a particular danger for those of us who teach. The comedian Milton Jones says “beware of people who begin their sentences with “God says”. They’re either very wrong, or very right.” We need to remember that God alone has all the answers, and there are many of them which he hasn’t revealed. We need to be cautious before we claim to make clear what God has hidden. That’s been the issue this week with that story about the guy from UKIP who was saying that the recent floods have been because of the change in the law about gay marriage being against the Bible. Now I’ve no doubt that God in the Bible does clearly teach that marriage is between a man and a woman. And nor do I doubt that God is able to use all sorts of natural phenomena to point us back to him. But to say that these floods are because of that – that’s a claim to be able to see much further through the fog than God has allowed. God alone knows. I need to make sure that I’m listening very carefully to what he has said in the Bible, and I need to make sure I’m aware that I am utterly dependent upon him whenever I open my mouth to speak for him.

Life is not foggy for God, so be humble before him. That’s a corrective. But there’s also something very liberating in this. To be able to admit to not knowing all the outcomes, while still being assured that God does. Because the thing that makes life’s big decisions so hard is that we don’t know the outcomes. We want to be able to say “If I go down this road it will end up there, but if I go down that road it will end up there” before we make the decision. But the truth is we don’t know what will happen. But God does. It’s liberating to be able to trust God with the outcomes. We can pray, we can try to do what is godly, in line with God’s word, we can take advice, and then we’re free to make that decision, trusting God for the outcomes. That’s liberating.

So, life is foggy for us but not for God. So we need to revere him. We need to treat God as God. But we can also be assured of this:

God’s justice will make all things clear (3:17; 8:11-13; 12:13-14)

This is a big theme of Ecclesiastes, and very often it’s the thing which the Teacher holds on to when he is baffled by the fogginess of life. Look at 3:17 – “I thought in my heart ‘God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every activity, a time for every deed.’” Or look at how the book ends, in 12:13-14 – “Now that all has been heard, here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”

There will be a day when all the endless grey of life will be resolved into black and white. When the fog will clear away for good. When God judges. Then everything will be made clear. As that guy Milton Jones also says “the End will be like a bright light coming on a mile under the ocean – a lot of ugly monsters will suddenly be revealed.”

That’s true. That too, says Ecclesiastes, is a reason to fear God, to treat him as God. Because you can’t bluff God. You can’t pull the wool over his eyes.

One of the effects of the fogginess of life is that sometimes bluffers can get ahead in this world. Do you ever see that happen? It doesn’t matter if you don’t really know, as long as you sound confident enough. When the exams come round there’s always some kid who sails through even though they’ve hardly done any revision. It’s tempting to apply that principle in other areas of life. We can become really good at hiding our laziness. That’s especially true with our morality. We can start thinking that it doesn’t matter what our minds and our hearts are like, as long as we can put a good public face on it. As long as we don’t get found out. Fog is great for hiding in. That’s bluffing.

You can’t bluff with God. He is not fooled, even if everybody else in this room is. God’s judgment will make everything clear. In a way, every time I sin I am saying with my actions “I don’t believe in that final judgment.” I am living like the fog goes on for ever.

There are reasons why we might think that the fog does go on for ever. Listen to this from Ecclesiastes 8:11 – “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong.” Sometimes we can get entrenched in our sin, because, well, last time nothing happened, so surely it’ll be ok this time too. Because there is no immediate punishment, we assume that sin is not such a big deal. Because in this foggy world people sometimes do really well out of sin, we assume it’s ok to be like that too. Have you ever thought something like that? It can’t matter much, because I seemed to get away with it last time – or they seem to get away with it.

Ecclesiastes says “remember that this foggy world will clear.” The next verse, chapter 8 verse 12 says “12 Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men, who are reverent before God.” The fact that God hasn’t come in judgment yet doesn’t mean that he’s not going to do it in the future. God will judge, make no mistake. You can’t hide from him.

So again, the message is “fear God.” Not ‘be terrified of him’. That’s not what it means. But take him very seriously. And take your sin very seriously. If you meet him on that day covered in your sin, it will not go well for you. If you are left carrying your own sin on that day, you will have reason to be terrified. There is no room for complacency.

The right thing to do is to fear God now. Now of course that is an incentive not to sin; but it’s also much more than that. As the Bible goes on we discover that the real way to fear the Lord, the real way to treat God as God, to relate to God rightly, is to trust in Jesus Christ. When we trust in Jesus Christ, when we become followers of Jesus, then and only then is our sin taken away. Only as we trust in Jesus Christ can we be assured ahead of time that the judgment day will go well for us. Because only Jesus Christ can take our sin away. Only in Jesus Christ are we declared not guilty.

Fear God and keep his commandments, says Ecclesiastes. That’s the conclusion of the matter. Not that this somehow clears everything up and makes the fog go away. No. The fog remains for now. But this is the thing which can keep us safe now, as we wait for the fog to clear. Fear God. Trust in Christ.

Lighthouses work, even in the thickest sea fog. They don’t clear up the fog so you can see. But they do tell you clearly enough how to avoid the rocks. You can’t see much else, but you can see the lighthouse.

As we come to the end of our series in Ecclesiastes, there is much which is unclear. There’s a lot about life that doesn’t make sense. But there is enough light to live by. The big things we need to know now have been made clear for us. Remember God, remember his judgment. Fear the Lord; treat God as God; don’t try to bluff him; follow Jesus. Those things are clear. The rest is clear only to God. We don’t have to untie all the knots. We don’t have to make sense of everything. As we get on now with following Jesus, we can leave the fog to God.

As we finish, I’d like us to flick on in our Bibles to page 1144. It’s 1 Corinthians 1, verse 18.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  19 For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."  20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 

The message of the cross is that God has stepped into this foggy world. God himself has faced the confusion and the sin and the pain and the death that blight us. The death of Jesus is the foggiest moment in history; the worst example of unjust suffering the world has ever known. It doesn’t seem to make sense at all. And yet. In the baffling wisdom of God, that death of Jesus has become the point of greatest clarity. God was not blinded by the fog. The death of Jesus is the way that we can be saved from the sin and the evil and the death and the pain. At the cross of Jesus we see God come smashing into the fiery, smoke-filled room, complete with the thermal imaging goggles. And because he alone can see, he alone can save.