A sermon given at Choral Evensong on The Second Sunday After Pentecost by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, Honorary Assistant Priest


[Reading: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

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

If, like me, you are of an age, these words from Turn! Turn! Turn!, the 1965 hit by the Byrds will now be a mindworm in your head and, I hope, won’t distract you too much during my sermon.

Clearly, the song is based upon our Hebrew Bible reading this evening – Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; a scripture reading which would be almost as well-known as any other verses in the Bible – and not just amongst believers, but in the general populace as well.

Greeting cards and pop posters with the words emblazoned across pictures of idyllic, often somewhat soft and misty, scenes from nature clearly sell well – as did the Byrds’ song which reached #1 on the US Billboard Top 100 in December 1965. According to Wikipedia, music journalist William Ruhlman said of the hit that:

… the song’s plea for peace and tolerance struck a nerve with the American … public as the VietNam War escalated.

Much the same can be said of the source reading from Ecclesiastes itself – its popularity attests to its capacity to convey a spirit of serenity amidst trouble. It might, however, be imagined that King Solomon wrote these words out of his legendary wisdom at the peak of his greatness – for they just ooze with an easy sense of philosophy:

A time to every purpose under heaven.

One can almost see King Solomon, dressed in splendid raiment, sitting upon his throne, sagely sharing this pearl of wisdom with his troubled populace – calming them, letting them know that he, as father to his people, knew everything would be okay.

But that belies what actually transpired. King Solomon had written the Book of Ecclesiastes not at the peak of his reign, in its golden age, but towards the end of his life, a time when his own time of glory had passed and troubles, not just for his people, but directly for him, were surging. Read 1 Kings 11:14-40 to understand how dramatically his fortunes had turned. Hadad the Edomite and Rezon son of Eliada had risen against him; worse than that, one of his own officials, Jeroboam, rose up in rebellion. According to 1 Kings, all this disturbance was apparently at God’s direction whom we hear quoted in verse 39 as saying:

            I will humble David’s descendants … but not forever.

The cause of God turning his favour away from Solomon was stated in verses 31-33:

I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand … I will do this because (his people) have forsaken me.

So it was, that in the twilight of his forty-year reign, with his prestige gone and trouble surging all around him, Solomon began to reflect on all that had happened through his reign, leading to him write:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die. [3:1-2]

With his own ‘time to die’ then looming before him, Solomon could have left a very different message for his people – he could have written: ‘what was the purpose of all I did before, what benefit did it bring me? God has paid no account to all the good I did, rather he has held me to a dreadful account’. However, that is not what Solomon wrote as his glory crumbled; instead, notwithstanding that he was in ‘a time to lose’ [v6], the nature of his reflection upon his woes could be summarised with these words from the reading:

A time for every matter under heaven … a time to kill, a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together. [vv 1,3-5]

Some read these first eight verses of Ecclesiastes fatalistically, others as dismissive words of superficial comfort – ‘don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay’ … however, Solomon knew that, in this life, everything was not necessarily going to be okay but that it didn’t matter because everything happened ‘under heaven’. The message for us then is that this doesn’t mean God inflicts disasters upon us but that He is there during them all and will also be found waiting for us after we have traversed through them. The call for us, the hope for us, in such circumstances is to ‘turn, turn, turn’ to Him, to see that He has been there all the time and waits to shelter our broken spirit. Psalm 61:2-3 affirmed this:

Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Let me abide in your tent for ever, find refuge under the shelter of your wings.

To understand these words fully requires we accept storms of life do happen, that there is no promise by God that they won’t; only the abiding comfort that, through the love of God, proven by the resurrection of Jesus, there is an eternal assurance that all will be well.

‘All will be well’ – those words evoke another beautiful piece which is likewise often quoted on greeting cards and serenely illustrated posters:

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

We know these as words written by Julian of Norwich, the C14 mystic; but she did not claim authorship of them. When she wrote them in her work Revelations of Divine Love, she said that they were the words Jesus had spoken to her in a vision.

Before discussing this phrase, I need to put her words in the context of her time. When Julian had said that Jesus had spoken to her saying that all would be well, she was living in a world of constant upheaval. She was, for example, born after the start of the famous 100 years war between England and France, dying before it ended; and there was the murderous sacking of her town during Wat Tyler’s revolt. Furthermore, it was also a time of rampant disease with the Black Death, the most lethal plague in recorded history, killing up to 60% of the population of England during her lifetime. All was clearly not only not well in her world, it was disastrous on a dramatic scale. In addition, the vision she had of Jesus speaking to her had occurred when she herself, at the age of 30, had been struck down with illness and thought she was going to die.

As it turned out, Julian didn’t die at that time; she recovered and would remember those words of Jesus later in her life. By writing them for others to read, she was not mocking or making light of all that had been happening around her – death from warfare and disease – no, she wrote them to give comfort, for that is what she felt Jesus had been giving her as she had lain stricken. He had not promised her that bad things would not happen but that, in spite of those things, all would still be well.

To understand this, we need to hear the entire part of what Julian had written in her book about that vision. Firstly, she introduced the incident by explaining where her own thinking had been at the time of her own seeming impending death amidst a world in dreadful turmoil:

And thus, in my folly, afore this time often I wondered why by the great foreseeing wisdom of God the beginning of sin was not letted: for then, methought, all should have been well. {p56]

In other words, she had been questioning God – why didn’t He simply stop all bad things from happening; for then, everything would surely be alright. The answer to her question, Julian wrote, came through the words spoken by Jesus in that vision; but not just the phrase famous to us – there was more that she had heard in her dream. This is the complete quote:

But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me, answered by this word and said: ‘It behoved that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. [p56]

Jesus called Julian of Norwich, and indeed calls upon all of us, to look through his eyes at events that afflict us, not through the limited vision of our own eyes … for when we do, we may see that ‘all manner of things shall be well.’

This reminds us of those other comforting words from Jeremiah:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. [29:11]

God had said these words after His people had traversed through a time of dreadful suffering. They may not have realised it at the time, but God had been there with them as they suffered, and He was there waiting for them when they had traversed through that dark valley.

Earlier I had mentioned how Solomon had written Ecclesiastes as a reflective work written not only at the end of his life, but at a time when his own fortunes had taken a turn for the worse. He had intended the whole work as a gift, based on his meditation of what had happened in his life, the good and the bad. With this in mind, it would make sense for us to consider this evening’s reading in the light of how he finished the whole book. The last chapter of Ecclesiastes opens with:

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come,  and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’ [12:1]

Then it traverses through such seemingly fatalistic sentiments as these:

All must go to their eternal home … the dust returns to the earth as it was and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities … all is vanity. [12:5, 7-8]

Finally, the book closes with these words of counsel:

The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child beware. [12:11]

In contemporary terms, the Byrds probably said it better for our ears:

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

… I swear it’s not too late Through God’s abiding love, it’s never too late.