Preacher: Dr Baden Teague, Lay Preacher

Readings: Ecclesiastes 1 : 12 – 2 : 2, 9 – 11, Luke 8 : 16 – 21

Our Old Testament text this evening is from the first chapter of Ecclesiastes:

“I have seen all the deeds that are done here under the sun; they are all emptiness and chasing the wind.” (Eccl 1 : 14)

All is Vanity. All is empty. The sun rises and the sun sets. The wind blows south, the wind blows north, round and round it goes and returns full circle. What has happened will happen again.  There is nothing new under the sun. All is vanity.

Wisdom is better than ignorance but the wise person can still suffer sickness or setback just like the rest. Wealth may be the outcome of hard work but why bother if your wealth is going to be inherited by fools. Pleasure! Yes, I will plunge into pleasure and enjoy myself. But this too turns out to be empty. Public works and great houses and gardens, water features, singers: all this turns out (says our Teacher in Ecclesiastes) to be ( I quote ) “emptiness and chasing the wind, of  no profit under the sun.”

So our Teacher then turns to despair: “Then I turned and gave myself up to despair.” But even this despair is also found to be ( I quote ) “emptiness and utterly wrong.”

The Teacher does, however go on to reach a positive conclusion, and that is to recognize and be thankful for the gifts of God: (I quote) “There is nothing better for any person to do than to eat and drink and enjoy themselves in return for their labours. And yet I saw that this comes from the hand of God.” The solution offered by our Teacher in Ecclesiastes is to recognize, receive and enjoy the gifts of God.

This solution becomes amplified in the New Testament by the writings of St Luke. His amplification is that God’s nature is love and the best gift of God is love. Jesus himself demonstrated the love of God to us. Jesus said that all the wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures is summarised in this: ‘Love God and love your neighbour’. Jesus demonstrated the love of God through his death on the Cross and his Resurrection.

The New Testament’s response to ‘the emptiness of life’ (as described in Ecclesiastes) is to respond to the love of God. The Christian receives this love of God, not as something we can earn by hard work but as something we receive as the gracious gift of God. The good news of the Gospel is that this gift is freely given to all who choose to receive it. Love is available to all of us.

St Luke writes about God’s love sometimes by using the metaphor of light. God’s love is the light of the world. In our Reading tonight from Chapter 8, Luke has recorded the words of Jesus about this metaphor of ‘light’. Jesus said, “Nobody lights a lamp and then covers it with a basin or puts it under a bed. On the contrary, he puts it on a lampstand so that those who come in may see the light.”

Christians are called to share the light, to share the love of God, to care about others and to love them. Christians are called to allow the light of God to transform the world. We are not to conform to the emptiness of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our lives in the love of God.

All of us, as Christians, are called to action for the Kingdom of God. “Holy Spirit, breath of the living God, renew me and all the world.”

This gospel encouragement has both a present and a future meaning to it. This Christian transformation applies equally to the ‘now’ and to the ‘not yet’. This is how our hope about the future Kingdom of God reaches from the future back into our present, actually transforming our lives now. The presence of the love of God is not only in a future paradise; rather, the love of God can transform our emptiness now.

Our reading in Luke 8 goes straight on to address this parallel between God’s Kingdom now and God’s Kingdom in the future. These words of Jesus both profoundly encourage and intriguingly warn. Jesus said, “There is nothing hidden that will not become public, nothing under cover that will not be made known and brought into the open.” That’s the encouragement. But then follows the warning: Jesus said, “Take care, then, how you listen; for the person who has will be given more, and the person who has not will forfeit even what he thinks he has.”

Both in Ecclesiastes and in the Gospel, the ultimate consolation for both emptiness and hiddenness is the eventual Glory of God. It is the light and love of God which ultimately will be victorious. Life has meaning now in these terms through hope, and life has ultimate meaning in the coming Kingdom of God. The Bible teaches us to live in the hope of everlasting life. The Resurrection of Jesus is the first fruit of our own resurrections, both now and in the future.

The Creed of the Christian Church is this: “ I believe in Jesus Christ – who rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven…. from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in…the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

To help us understand these Christian affirmations we need to read all of the Scripture, not just the 8th chapter of Luke, and we need prayerfully  to reflect on the living and the dead, the Last Judgement, and the Glory of God.

The good news is that the Scriptures do not teach anything at all about a violent and vengeful Judge, and not anything at all about eternal damnation or the fires of a so-called everlasting hell. These notions are not at all Christian. They come from the Egypt of the Pharaohs and have some parallels in ancient China and more generally in animist religions. It is true that the Church was misled into these notions especially in the Middle Ages, for example, in the fanciful writings of the great Italian scholar, Dante; and in the sculptures about the Last Judgement that still decorate especially French cathedrals.

We need to add that hellish experience is sadly a real experience, maybe for all of us at some time or another. Suffering from cruelty and injustice can be real. But there is no such thing as an eternal hell. ‘Hell’ can be rightly described as the felt absence of God or as the alienation from God. Hell does not exist as a place of punishment. There is no vengeful God. There is no ultimate hell. Rather God is love. Twenty-one years ago, in 1995, the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England did away with hell, replacing it with the phrase, ‘total non-being’. It is now mainly fundamentalist preachers who insist on hell to engender fear and torment.

We should always remember the Christian affirmations that God is not violent, not now and not in the future. God is not punitive but rather has a justice that requires righteousness, healing and reconciliation. God is the God of hope and love and everlasting life. Moreover, the just restoration of all things will be in another world, another dimension, that is beyond this temporal life of worldliness and death. Our hope is a ‘new creation’, a new heaven and a new earth, a new resurrected body, a new righting of wrongs, a new harmony.

St Paul’s vision is that God will in the end be “all in all” (1 Cor 15 : 28 ). Nothing present and nothing past is excluded here. But we can only describe this Christian vision by using metaphors. This ‘new creation’ will be like the present creation but transformed and in harmony. And this is not only about individuals. It has cosmic dimensions as well. All things will be “united in Christ” (Eph 1: 10). All things will be “ reconciled to Christ, whether on earth or in heaven”. (Col 1:16) And “every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father.”(Phil 2:11)

May I quote our friend, the wise Christian theologian, Jurgen Moltmann: “The (final) Judgement does not have a merely negative sense but has above all a positive one. That is, it will not only destroy but will above all save; it will not merely dissolve but will above all fulfil. It is the annihilating No to all the powers hostile to God, and is the dissolution of the world of evil; but it is the saving and fulfilling Yes of creation: “Behold, I will make all things new!” (“In the End – the Beginning: the Life of Hope”, 2004) This eventual reconciliation not only reconciles us with God and with others (including perpetrators and victims) but also reconciles us with ourselves.

To conclude, may I return to our text in the gospel of St Luke: “For there is nothing hidden that will not become public, nothing under cover that will not be made known and brought into the open.” We can apply these words of Jesus to our present lives now and we can also hold these words in hope for the future.

All of us, as Christians, are called to action for the Kingdom of God. “Holy Spirit, breath of the living God, renew me and all the world.”