Written by Pastor Ed
January 1, 2017
Eccl. 3: 1-13
Rev. 21: 1-6a
“Turn, turn turn”
It was Pete Seeger who put this passage from Ecclesiastes into song back in the 50’sand then the Byrds who made a popular hit out of it back in the 70’s. (Have you ever noticed how all these songs I choose seem to be from the 70’s? Showing my age here I guess.) It is rather interesting that a passage from the Bible could become a popular song, but perhaps not surprising that Seeger would do so, and it was seen at the time as an anti-war song, given his turn of phrase at the end.
For the writer of Ecclesiastes, it was more a commentary on life and could be taken as a rather fatalistic view. And some have taken it that way. I’ve heard people who say, “Well it must have been their time,” even when it was very untimely.
When we come to the end of a year and the beginning of a new one, it is always a time to reflect on what the past year has held, and perhaps think about the year ahead. And when we reflect on the year just past, we discover that most all of the things mentioned by the writer of Ecclesiastes have been true.
There have been births, and there have been deaths; times of joy as well as times of sorrow. There have been things that build us up, and other things that have torn away at us. There has been love and there has been hate. It is the universal condition of humanity.
It’s very easy sometimes to get caught looking only at one side of this equation. We tend to see one of each pair as a positive, and the other as a negative. But I had to ponder what life would be like if only one side of these opposites were the case. Would we really be happy if everything were always upbeat? And what would happen to us if we only experienced the negative side of life?
I’ve known people who always seemed to be upbeat, always cheerful, even in the face of loss. But I’ve also seen those people crash and burn when they are suddenly faced with tragedy or their own mortality. As Matthew Henry said in his commentary on this passage, “To expect unchanging happiness in a changing world, must end in disappointment.” And I’ve also known people who seem to only experience the down side of life, who often end up in despair and even suicide because they come to believe that life would be better off without them in it.
One of the classes I took long ago talked about emotions and said that if you take opposite emotions and put them on a continuum, you will only be able to experience one side of the scale to the extent that you also experience its opposite. That is, you need to experience mourning if you want to experience dancing, to use one of the pairs in our passage.
That’s the whole point behind the seasons of Advent and particularly Lent, recognizing that to experience the full joy of Christmas and Easter, you have to experience a time of not rejoicing beforehand. It’s why preachers do these strange things like suggest that we not sing carols until Christmas, or not sing any Alleluias during Lent. But I digress.
It would be easy to become fatalistic if we just read this passage and decide that that’s the way it has always been and always will be. Life happens. But life doesn’t just happen to us. We also play a role in what happens in our lives, and in our outlook on life.
We believe that life is not cyclical; it doesn’t just repeat itself over and over, although many things happen over and over. Our faith is an historical one, that recognizes that there was beginning, that throughout history there have been those unique moments, such as the one we celebrated last Sunday, and that history is moving toward a conclusion in the future, spoken of in the passage we read from the book of Revelation.
It is knowing that long history that keeps us from despair in the down times of our lives, and tempers the highs, knowing that life is not all a bowl of cherries, or whatever metaphor you want to use. For as the writer of Ecclesiastes notes, God is the one constant throughout all of life and history, the alpha and the omega, beginning and end.
But that doesn’t mean that we can simply sit back and let life happen to us. We are called to be active participants and what we do does make a difference in the world. While we may not be able to bring about world peace, we can make the neighbourhood we live in a more peaceful place. While we may not be able to comfort the people caught in war around the world, we can comfort those who mourn around us, and bring some hope and joy to refugees who escape, like Manal, Aliss, Akmed and Ayham.
I don’t know what the New Year has in store for us, as individuals, as a congregation, or as a country. We know that some things are going to change. There will be a new president in the US, with lots of unknowns about what all that will mean. There will be proposals for new structures in Mennonite Church Canada, with lots of unknowns as to what all that will mean. We will have a new Area Pastor in Mennonite Church Alberta and I’d tell you who it is but the official announcement hasn’t been made yet so I’ll refrain.
We can be fairly certain that there will be some among us who will not live to see the end of this year. At this point I don’t know if we will have any births among us, perhaps some of you know but that hasn’t been announced yet either. There will be joys and sorrows, new experiences and experiences that have become expected and routine. As one poster I saw said, “Whether we want them or not, the New Year will bring new challenges; whether we seize them or not, the New Year will bring new opportunities.” (Michael Josephson)
Today we begin writing a new chapter in our lives, and in the life of First Mennonite. While there is much to be written, we know, as did the writer of Ecclesiastes, that “whatever God does endures forever” and that whatever happens, God will be there among us and with us. Because of that we can approach the new year without fear and with an assurance of faith for the road ahead.