Preacher The Revd Alan Sykes
Today we’re thinking about the Bible and I’m going to try and tease out, as best I can, its one central message. Forget about the details – not that the details are unimportant but sometimes we don’t see the wood for the trees.
So, for starters here’s a question for you. Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question, so you don’t have to say anything.
The question is this: which is the most miserable, depressed book in the Bible? Well, like many things it’s a matter of opinion but a lot of people would say it’s the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament– which, thank goodness, is only a few pages long.
You know the one: it tells us that all is vanity, that there’s nothing new under the sun, that all things are wearisome, more than one can express – and so on. Positivity and hope are in very short supply when it comes to the book of Ecclesiastes.
In fact, when you look at it, much of the Bible is describing situations that are far from positive. It’s often describing some of the multifarious miseries that people have to endure, that they inflict on others and on themselves.
Everything in the human garden is most definitely not rosy.
In our Christian Bibles there are two foundational stories, two stories around which everything else revolves. There are lots of sub-plots but these two are key.
Firstly, in the Old Testament, we have the account of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt. For hundreds of years the Israelites are maltreated by the Egyptians. They’re powerless and trapped, and can see no way out. There seems to be no possible end to their suffering.
And in the New Testament we have the Crucifixion of Jesus. Unlike the Israelites Jesus suffers only a few hours at the hands of his oppressors. But again, there seems to be no way out. Death, a painful death at that, seems the only possible dénouement. End of story. End of Jesus.
Now, you’ll have noticed something pretty essential is missing in my description of both those foundational stories: namely what happens next. The Israelites are ultimately freed from their slavery in Egypt and Jesus conquers the forces of ultimate negation by rising from the dead.
These are stories of hope, of joy emerging from the abyss.
Despite its many passages and episodes of despair – of various sorts – the Bible is fundamentally a book that records how the transformative power of God can transcend despair. Not only can but will transcend that despair.
Whenever we allow God into a situation, enslavement is always followed by freedom, death is always followed by life. Without God slavery or death or absurdity would always be the last word about human affairs.
Now, in our society it seems – at least to me – that we try to protect ourselves from these things – slavery, death, absurdity – by our own efforts. We tell ourselves that we are not enslaved, that we’re not going to die, that our lives are not absurd.
We protect ourselves mainly by accumulation – the accumulation of material things, of a deceitful self-image, of status, of apparent success, of apparent control, of apparent love even. And the list goes on. These become our bulwarks against slavery, death and absurdity.
But these bulwarks are made of sand. The truth is that we are naked and infinitely vulnerable – that’s just a given about human existence – and, if we are to make spiritual progress, there’s no alternative but to recognise the fact.
We simply have to recognise our own poverty and nakedness and vulnerability – and then place them in God’s hands, for there is truly no effective alternative.
To admit poverty, nakedness, vulnerability – well, that’s no easy task. The good news is that God’s universal and eternal benevolence extends to such naked and vulnerable creatures as ourselves. Ultimately, the world is a good place to be. God longs for us to recognise reality and turn to him. Because in the last analysis only he can help.
When God’s in the picture, we may sometimes be down but we are never out. It may even be – at least potentially – that when we are down, we are more open to the mercy and power of God.
We may be down but we’re never out. That’s the big story that the Bible recounts for us.
And if we rely on our own all too limited resources, we block ourselves off from God’s love. That too is a sub-plot that the Bible tells us about.
To end with, let’s return to the book of Ecclesiastes. As I said earlier on, it’s a short book that’s short on hope and the Bible would be a truly depressing read if every other book in its pages were like it.
And yet in a strange way it does earn its place in the 66 books that make up our scriptures. Ecclesiastes tells it the way it is for some people at least some of the time. It certainly has a salutary, pig-headed honesty about it.
But it really earns its place only when seen in the context of the Bible as a whole. It’s the context that gives us hope that even the author of Ecclesiastes can be saved from his misery.
When it comes to the Bible, we must consider the whole trajectory of the story it tells. Yes, we are prone to despair. Yes, we are prone to finding false remedies for our despair but by the mercy and power of God we can transcend despair.