ECCLESIASTES & I PETER – TWO APPROACHES TO TIME AND FAITH

A Sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at Evensong at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, on Epiphany 3, Sunday, Janaury 26th, 2020, the Eve of Holocaust Memorial Day.

Psalm 33:1-12, Ecclesiastes 3:1-11, I Peter 1:3-12.

We’ve heard two very contrasting readings this evening – the first from Ecclesiastes 3, the famous passage, often used at funerals: ‘A time to be born and a time to die’; and the second from the first Letter of Peter, chapter 1, written to ‘You…who are being protected by the power of God for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’.  So, I thought that for a few moments I’d reflect on what these two readings have to say about time and faith.

Time is one of the concerns of the Teacher, Quoheleth, the, speaker in the Old Testament Book, Ecclesiastes.  We know nothing about him, apart from what we read in the book, and scholars are very hazy about when the book was written, where, why and so on.  It was probably written between the 5th and the 2nd centuries BC, probably nearer the 2nd than the 5th, written in Hebrew, but with Aramaic influences – Aramaic being the local variation of Hebrew spoken by the people of Israel before and around the time of Jesus.

It’s a complicated and confusing book – it may have been written that way, or it might have been re-worked by later editors.  The Teacher’s first words in the book are, ‘Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity’ [Eccles 1:2].  Which opening lines rather set the tone for the book!  Everything is but a breath of wind – the literal translation of the word he uses, everything is transient, useless, deceptive.

Quoheleth’s view of the world is fatalistic.  He sees ‘The world as changeless, with humans unable to comprehend its workings or to make any lasting impact upon it’ [Ox Bible Comm, p.423, q.v. for some of the background].  Humans can see all the injustice and pain in the world, but can’t do anything about it.  Quoheleth sees this as the way God has planned the world, and wonders how we should make the best of this situation.  ‘His answer, after reflection on his own experiences, is that humans should simply enjoy what they have: they are in no position to seek more, and greater comprehension is a source only of unhappiness’ [Ibid.].

Which takes us back to chapter 3: ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die’, and so on.

These words are ‘Often taken as a celebration of this fact, with each and every action given its own appropriate hour, [but] the context suggests that, for Quoheleth, it is more a source of resignation’ [Ibid., p. 424].

God has created and maintains a sealed system, in which nothing has a beginning or an end, in which there is ‘Nothing new under the sun’ – another of Quoheleth’s famous phrases [1:9], and in which humans can make no real difference, but can only stand in awe of the God who created such a system, and who keeps it in being.

Interestingly, during the 18th century, a strand of philosophy and theology flourished in England, known as Deism, following famous writers such as Matthew Lock and David Hume.  They had a very similar view of the world, with God as the so-called ‘Blind Watchmaker’, who set the world in process, but then has very little else to do with it, and just leaves it, like a clock that has been wound, to its own devices.

And there are still many people today who would take Quoheleth’s line.  Everything is just as it is; we can’t make a difference; ‘What will be will be’, and so on.

And yet, contrast that with what was read from the first chapter of the First Letter of Peter: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed’ [I Pet 1:3-7].

This is not a passive, circular view of time. That everything that has been will be again, that there is nothing new under the sun, that what will be will be.

This is a directional view of time.  The birth, life, teaching, death and Resurrection of Jesus have made a difference.  God has intervened in his world, and urges us to intervene as well.  Peter, in this Letter, is looking towards the end time, to which we are all heading, in our living hope, suffering trials and tribulations, loving God and loving our neighbour, and ‘receiving the outcome of [our] faith, the salvation of [our] souls’ [v.9].

You probably know that the Greeks had two words for time: Cronoß (Chronos), and Kairoß (Kairos) [Apologies – the website can’t cope with the Greek!].  Cronoß is time as a measurable resource, time measured in minutes and seconds, time as we tend to live it day by day, getting on with what has to be done, plodding through our daily lives, going from one thing to the next.  Cronoß is the sort of time that Quoheleth, the Teacher, is thinking about.

Kairoß, however, is time as the decisive moment, the now, the time of decision, the time when we have to make a choice, the time which is the right moment to act.

It’s not quite fair to say that Old Testament time was Cronoß time, and New Testament time is Kairoß time – but there is something in that.

Christ’s command to ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself’ means that Christians are expected to make a difference to the world they inhabit, the world of which they are called to be good stewards. 

And the New Testament’s insistence that we are in the last times, that the end is near, whatever the different New Testament writers mean by that, also gives a new urgency to the decisions we make in our lives.

We are not just caught in an eternal loop, where everything is the same, and nothing changes.

We’re called to make a difference, to co-operate with God in the bringing in of his Kingdom. 

Today is the Eve of the Liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, discovered almost accidentally by the Red Army as it advanced across Poland towards the end of the Second World War 75 years ago.  The camp was run by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland, and between 1940 and 1945, 1.3 million people, mostly Jews – children, women and men – were deported there, 1.1 million of whom were murdered.

It was only as the camps were discovered and liberated that the full scale of horrors perpetrated on the Jews and others were realized, something not helped by widespread anti-Semitism outside the German territories.  As the camps were liberated, efforts were made to document what had happened there.

Battle-hardened soldiers who were used to death were shocked by the Nazis’ treatment of prisoners. Red Army General, Vasilii Petrenko, commander of the 107th Infantry Division, remarked, ‘I, who saw people dying every day, was shocked by the Nazis’ indescribable hatred toward the inmates who had turned into living skeletons.  I read about the Nazis’ treatment of Jews in various leaflets, but there was nothing about the Nazis’ treatment of women, children, and old men.  It was in Auschwitz that I found out about the fate of the Jews’.   The few articles about the liberation in Soviet newspapers such as Pravda, in line with Soviet propaganda, failed to mention that Jews were the ones being written about. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberation_of_Auschwitz_concentration_camp]

In our prayers I’ll use a prayer written for Holocaust Memorial Day written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, and the Senior Imam, Qari Asim.  It feels like a real Kairoß moment that these three have come together to write a prayer which people of all three of the Abrahamic Faiths can use with integrity.

The Germans were working in Cronoß time.  For them the Jews were an inconvenience which had methodically, and with careful planning, to be eradicated – 6 million of them.  The Red Army, whether they knew it or not, were working in Kairoß time – a significant moment, as Auschwitz was liberated, when some realized what had been going on in Nazi Germany.

There is indeed ‘A time to be born and a time to die’. And there is a ‘Salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’, and we live between those times – we live in the Cronoß, the ever-flowing stream of time, the 14 or so billion years since our current universe was created; but we also live in the Kairoß, the moment in time when we have to choose, and where our decisions make a difference.

I want to finish with a quote from Book one of Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time’, said Frodo.  ‘So do I’, said Gandalf, ‘And so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’ [JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/time].

Good advice!

The  Prayer for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

(The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis and Senior Imam, Qari Asim, have united to write a new prayer for Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) 2020.)

Loving God, we come to you with heavy hearts, remembering the six million Jewish souls murdered during the Holocaust.

In the horrors of that history, when so many groups were targeted because of their identity, and in genocides which followed, we recognise destructive prejudices that drive people apart.

Forgive us when we give space to fear, negativity and hatred of others, simply because they are different from us.

In the light of God, we see everyone as equally precious manifestations of the Divine, and can know the courage to face the darkness.

Through our prayers and actions, help us to stand together with those who are suffering, so that light may banish all darkness, love will prevail over hate and good will triumph over evil.

Amen.

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