All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
That's from Shakespeare's As You Like It. It's one of his character's take on life. In part it reflects life in our world: we enter it, we exit it. We go from the mewling and puking infant to old man who finds he is too thin for his clothes. In Ecclesiastes we've seen the teacher paint a similar picture. His repeated theme "Everything is meaningless" is a constant reminder that life is subject to fleeting frustration. In other words everything in this life is fallen. It is not as it should be. Death frustrates life here. Yet the Teacher differs from Shakespeare here. Life does not end in mere oblivion. The Teacher constantly affirms we live in God's world and therefore there is more to it than we can observe. The Teacher will not follow the cynicism of Shakespeare. Despite life being frustrating fleeting the Teacher will not deny God. Rather the opposite.
Last week we saw in chapter 11 that we live in God's word. We are to enjoy it but also remember that God will judge. That's really important because it means that everything matters. Every word, thought and action God cares about. In one sense we might not like the idea that God is a judge. Yet in another sense it is good news. Think about a teacher who refuses to mark her children's books. She can't be bothered to mark their exams. She tells them she's not bothered! We know a good teacher expresses care by marking, by judging the work of her students. So God's judgment of people is an expression of his care. So it's important that we live in the reality of a God who cares to judge. It would be mad not to.
So as we come to chapter 12 the Teacher tells us just that: Remember your creator before old age (1-5). That's my first point. If you've closed your Bibles please open them back up to page 475 and come with me to verse 1:
"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" -
The Teacher says remember your creator. It's not merely remembering knowledge like "I remember Mr Hemingway who taught me in Year 6. He was a good teacher." It's a transforming knowledge. Psalm 119:5 says:
"In the night I remember your name, O Lord, and I will keep your law."
Do you see remembering the Lord is dynamic, it leads to action. It's a transforming knowledge. Why must we actively live in the reality of the Lord? The Teacher says he is our creator. We live in his creation! He made you! Why must we remember him now? The Teacher answers by saying this life will not last. Age will come. Death will come. One day we'll meet our creator.
The Teacher says to us remember you were created, you're not just deteriorating cells stuck together. There's a Co-Op Funeral Care advert that ran earlier this year encouraging people to plan their funerals down to the music played at the service. But the Teacher says that's not nearly enough preparation. John Donne, the old poet, posed for a deathbed portrait of himself while alive. He has it put on his wall to remind himself that one day he'd go home to his creator. I don't think that's a necessary application, but do you see the point? The right preparation for death is remembering God today!
What will remembering God look like? In Ecclesiastes terms it will mean living in the reality that each day is a gift from God. 11:8: "However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all." It will walking justly because your Creator is just. 11:9: "Know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment." In short it is to live a life of faith, that is utterly depending, on the gracious creator God who will bring all things to judgment.
To those of us who would consider themselves young, the task is to lay foundations for the challenges of old age now. As we speak to God in prayer we're acknowledging all our daily bread is from him. As we come under God's word we want to let knowledge of God transform our lives. We don't read our Bibles cos it's merely interesting, but we want knowing God to transform us. If you've got children or you're involved in the lives of children from church, know that your job is to help them start remembering God now. Each prayer at meal times helps them see that their spag bog is a gift from God's hand. Each Bible story read at bed time reminds them who their creator is. We practice remembering God is the hum drum of every day.
To those of us feeling our age the application is to keep going. Thank you for modelling what remembering God looks like in the ups and downs of life to us younger folks.
In verse 2 the teacher uses the picture of a storm to show the challenges of old age:
"before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain."
Life is represented by light in chapter 11; here the darkness represent the end of life. The returning clouds picture a succession of problems we might face in old age. In youth we could fight off a cold, in age it sticks around, and is no doubt followed by another issue.
The Teacher switches to a picture of a house to illustrate age in verse 3:
"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 men rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along and desire no longer is stirred. Then man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets."
Where there was once strength, now there is now stooping. Where once the people outside the window were clear, now they are dim. Where once the door was open to the street, now it is closed. Where once the outside world was noisy, now it is dim. Where once sleep lasted throughout the night, now it is interrupted. Where once they were unafraid of the street, now going out is to be feared. Where once the hair on your head was a splash of colour, now it is replaced with a splash of blossom white. Where once grasshopper like movement was normal, now moving is a challenge. And it all climaxes in men and women going to their eternal home. At that same time, there is mourning at the passing of life. Death hurts. Death separates us from our loved ones. Death, whether we lived in ancient Israel or Gateshead in 2017 hurts.
Life is so precious. So the Teacher says to us again in verse 6: Remember your creator before death (6-8). Look with me at verse 6:
"Remember him - before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well."
The Teacher paints a picture of a golden bowl hung by a silver cord. Gold is precious just as life is precious. Just as cutting the silver cord breaks the golden bowl, so death breaks life. The bowl cannot be put back together again. The painter shows us another picture: a broken water pitcher with a broken wheel at a well. Our human frames are capable of being broken, just as the pitcher and wheel are. In verse 7 the Teacher uses a phrase that takes us back to Genesis:
"and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it."
At death our bodies return to dust. Death is the ultimate expression of fleeting frustrating life the Teacher shows us. Verse 8 reminds us that we are in a fallen world. A world that God has put under judgment. In Genesis 3:19 God says to Adam and Eve:
"By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."
The first chapters of Genesis show us how the Creator made us for a relationship with him. Yet the first people, Adam and Eve, rejected that relationship by saying 'We do not want to remember you.' Not only was that a recipe for creating conflict and suffering that we see played out our own lives to this day, but it is incredibly offensive to the Creator – to actively forget the one who gives us everything. This may sound shocking but God's judgment is to impose a blanket judgment of death on the world. Death is the ultimate reminder that we can't be independent of God.
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes says to us that when we die our bodies will return to dust, and hints that our spirits will return to our creator. Our creator who will judge us. And there we come unstuck because by nature we too like Adam and Eve fail to remember God as we should. So often we live as if we were living in our own world where we decide what is good rather than God. So often we fail to live a life of justice. And so meeting God who cares to judge becomes a problem.
The Teacher hints of what is beyond this life. We have an itch too. Look at all the park benches in Saltwell Park, so many have memorial plaques saying, "we'll meet again" or "he's looking down on us."
When we were doing surveys during the mission we met so many folks who said they didn't believe in God but knew that there was something beyond this life! But who can tell us about what is beyond this life? Jesus, the ultimate teacher, comes to reveal what is to come. Jesus is the ultimate teacher, he is fully God and fully man, and teaches with authority. But he's more than just the ultimate teacher.
Unlike Adam, unlike me and you he never disobeys his Father. And yet Jesus enters under the curse of death. In the Psalm 22:15, the psalm of the God forsaken servant we hear Jesus say to his Father, "You lay me in the dust of death." Jesus was laid in the dust of death for us. On the cross he bears the judgment we deserve. At his death he says to his Father, "Into your hands I commit my Spirit" (Lk 23:46). Yet Jesus' death is followed by resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15:21 says: "For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive." Adam brought death, but Christ brings life. And all those who put their faith in Christ will be made alive.
So the Teacher's warning becomes even clearer in the light of Christ. Remember God before death; trust in Jesus today. Maybe you've heard that before but keeping putting Jesus off. The Teacher says remember God now! Perhaps because by the time you get to old age you see little point. Maybe that's why death bed repentances are rare. Someone once said putting off repentance can be a bit like like seeing a weed in your garden. You know you should weed it but you think, I'll do it next year. But next year it's larger, and the year after that it's well too much effort. And twenty years down the line the weed has become a tree! The result is you see little point in acting on it. Have you acted on the Teacher's command yet? He says now is the time to remember God.
For those of us who have put our faith in Jesus, keep remembering him. Let me give the example of two saints who remembered well. Some of you will remember Dick Dellows who was the oldest member of our congregation by a long way who died a few years ago. I remember visiting him in his last weeks. He knew where he was going, and he would say he was looking forward to being home with Jesus. Remembering God wasn't just knowledge for Dick, it was knowledge that transformed the way he lived out his old age. He knew Jesus would not forget his promise to give him eternal life. He knew Jesus will one day give him a resurrection body.
John Donne, the poet I mentioned earlier, died aged 58 on the 31st March 1631 after a battle with cancer. You can still see his memorial in St Paul's Cathedral. It's unusual not only because he planned it, but because in his memorial statue he is standing. He's standing to greet the resurrection. His eyes are not yet open, but he is smiling with expectant delight. The last two sentences on his memorial, which we'll close with, simply read this:
"He lies here in the dust
but beholds Him whose name is Rising."