Saturday, 11 January 2020

Trusting God as we grow old (Ecc. 12:1-8)

‘Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
    and the years approach when you will say,
    “I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
    and the moon and the stars grow dark,
    and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
    and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
    and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
    and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
    but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
    and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
    and the grasshopper drags itself along
    and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
    and mourners go about the streets.

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
    “Everything is meaningless!” (NIV).

My dad was a doctor, and at one stage he was supervising a group of young medics.  He brought them to the bedside of an elderly lady and asked one of the students to give a diagnosis.  The insensitive young man assumed the woman could not hear him, so he didn’t hold back in describing how decrepit this patient was.  After his assessment there was a moment of silence, and then a weak voice came from the bed, ‘Your no spring chicken yourself.’

The last chapter of Ecclesiastes describes the painful reality of aging.  It is in the form of a beautiful poem.  The old person is pictured as a crumbling house. 

‘The keepers of the house tremble’—these are the arms which have become weak and shaky.  ‘The strong men stoop’—their once athletic figure is now bent over.  ‘The grinders cease for they are few’—teeth have fallen out and it can be hard to eat.  The windows are the eyes, which have grown dim.  The doors are the ears, which are shut and can no longer hear what is going on outside on the street.  Sleep can become a problem, and so the elderly may be awake when the morning birds sound.  ‘But all their songs grow faint’—for the vocal cords are no longer elastic and the voice is not what it once was.  This poem tells us that elderly people are vulnerable and that this can bring fear.  The almond blossoms, turning white, like our greying hair.  Then there is the sad figure of an old grasshopper, who no longer springs from place to place, but is now dragging itself along the ground.  Desires fade.  ‘Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about on the street.’

Aging can be one of the most difficult experiences in life.  We can try to hide the signs of aging, but our days are numbered.  So, what should we do?  Solomon tells us to remember God when we are young, trust God as you age and look to God as you die.

Remember God while you are young

‘Remember your creator in the days of your youth.’  One puritan wrote, ‘many have remembered too late—none too soon.’  Remembering here isn’t simply just a passing thought about God.  Solomon is telling young people that they need to place the whole of their goals and ambitions in the hands of the one who made them and loves them.

Many people have regrets when they look back on their reckless youth.  Many husband or wife feels comfortable about memories of people they slept with before they married.  God can heal those memories.  I am embarrassed to think about how immature I was with alcohol, and how my behaviour would have broken my parents’ hearts.  Some young people are so focused on sport or study that their lives become spiritually barren.  They develop the habit of putting other things ahead of God.  Remembering God when you are young can save you many shameful memories and having to live with the consequences of many foolish choices.

Some people are so foolish that they plan to put off God until their deathbeds.  But when people reach the end of their lives, they are often so jaded they no longer care about spiritual things.  They just want to die.  Besides, how do you know that death will not take you suddenly?  And why do you think you will suddenly want to love a God you have been spending a lifetime trying to ignore?  Putting off God is foolish because he wants you to experience enlightenment, peace, purpose and joy now.

Trust God as you age

Why does God give us this beautiful poem about aging?  One commentator suggests that the beauty of this poem is a reminder that God treats aging with dignity.  Old age can be painful, but it also can be fruitful.  Psalm 92 talks of those who still bear fruit in their old age.

Our lives are going in a direction.  You are either going to be old and bitter or old and gentle.  Whether you are old and bitter or old and gentle largely depends on how you think and act as you approach old age.  You are on a trajectory.  Though our bodies are wasting away, we are being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16).  Our old age should be the time of our most mature godliness.  Is that what we are aiming for?

What about the fears that can come with old age?  Peter tells us to cast your anxieties on the Lord because you know he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).  A man in his nineties became confused and it distressed him.  ‘I can’t remember who I am,’ he exclaimed to his wife.  ‘I know who you are, and I can take care of everything you need,’ comforted his wife.  God tells those who have trusted him, ‘I know who you are, and I can take care of everything you need.’

Look to God as you die

Solomon pictures our death as the breaking of something precious.  It is the severing of a silver cord, or the breaking of a gold bowl’ (6).  The psalmist says, ‘precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his holy ones’ (Psalms 116:15).

Having spoken of the dust returning to the ground and the spirit returning to God (8), Solomon cries out ‘meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless’ (8).  Remember that Solomon has been talking about life ‘under the sun’—that is, life without reference to the God of the heavens.  Take God out of the picture and nothing shows life to be a passing vapour more than death.  Death comes quickly and ensures that we will soon be forgotten.  Death renders everyone’s achievements worthless.  We cannot take all the stuff we have lived for beyond the grave.

But for those who remember God, death does not have the last say.  The apostle Paul can cry out in triumph, ‘where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55).  We have chosen to forget God.  We have chosen to rebel against his loving rule.  We have lived for that which is created than he who is the creator.  If you want to see how hostile we are to God, just look at the crowd crying out ‘crucify him?’  But Jesus was crucified for our guilt.  He died so that we can experience eternal life.  ‘The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life’ (Romans 6:23).  Those who remember God can trust him with their death.  ‘For we know that if the tent if our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made by hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Corinthians 5:1).

Let’s wrap up our thoughts.

That great theologian, Bono, explained, ‘Ecclesiastes is one of my favourite books.  It is about a character who wants to find out why he is alive, why he was created.  He tried knowledge.  He tries wealth.  He tries experience.  He tries everything.  You hurry to the end of the book to find out why, and it says, “Remember your creator”.  In a way it is such a let-down!  Yet it isn’t.’

Solomon looked at life ‘under the sun’—life without reference to the God of the heavens.  Without God life is simply short and meaningless.  But we search for meaning because God has placed eternity in our heart.  Life with God is to be enjoyed to the full.  That is what we see in the recurring ‘enjoyment passages’ that litter Ecclesiastes.  Death no longer renders our life meaningless for we will be remembered by God for ever.  We can look forward to our spirit returning to God, for we will enjoying being with Jesus for ever. 

1 comment:

Niamh said...

Hey Paul,
thank you for that .... struggling with the busyness of Christmas and the new year definitely highlights time passing, my family and I growing older and what that means as we care for the generations above and below us....
and I thank you for reminding me to keep my eyes on him....
to help my kids not just to be moral but to remember the Lord and credit him with the grace to be kind and non judgemental of their neighbour and friends help me hold on tight and trust the Lord that while it’s not always obvious he is in charge and as I often feel scared of the sting that death threatens not just for me but for my ageing parents that he is there yesterday , today and tomorrow even if we’re not too sure....x niamh