Ecclesiastes 9:1-12 "Time, Chance, and God"
That is not a word which Christians like very much. Our mothers taught us to resist referring to a certain person as just being "lucky" in life. Most of us were taught to avoid thinking that once we got out of college, we'd "try out our luck" at a certain profession. We prefer to call successful people "blessed." We prefer not "to try out our luck" but to "seek God's providential guidance." I was even upbraided once for using the word "unfortunately" in a sermon. We Christians do not believe in "fortune," this earnest man informed me. There is nothing either "fortunate" or "unfortunate" in life. (Thereafter I began to substitute the word "unhappily" every time I was tempted to use "unfortunately" in a sermon!)
Curiously, however, science has been talking about luck, chance, and randomness a lot more in the last seventy-five or so years. Quantum indeterminancy, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and so-called "Chaos Theory" have all pointed to a universe which, at least on the physical level, seems to have a certain degree of randomness built into it. Ironically, one of the discoveries that has led to this is something which we Christians would probably applaud: namely, science has discovered that the universe is much more unified and interconnected than was once thought. The physical world looks like a delicately designed web instead of a long string of disconnected particles.
Since we Christians believe that God designed this cosmos, we are not surprised to learn that it has a certain unity to it. But it is that very interconnectedness which has led to "Chaos Theory." Basically what this postulate states is that at the quantum level of physics--way down at that very tiny, most fundamental level of particles--everything is so influenced by everything else that there is never any predicting just how events will turn out. The classic example is the "butterfly effect." Ever wonder why it can be so hard to predict the weather? Science may now have an answer because it turns out that the flap of a butterfly's wing over Calder Plaza today may well influence the whipping up of a thunderstorm over Bangladesh next week! That, by the way, is not some cutesy exaggeration: it looks like the truth!
Einstein is the one who kicked off the chain of discoveries which led to such theories but he didn't like the results one bit. "God does not play dice with the universe," he famously said. Reality just cannot be that sensitive and seemingly random. Over the fireplace in the math department at Princeton University is another, somewhat less famous, quote of Einstein: "Raffiniert is der Herr Gott, aber boshaft ist Er nicht." "The Lord God is clever but he's not devious." God does not play tricks on us, in other words. Life has to make sense on both the subtle and the obvious level. There is a plan, a blueprint, a reliable equation which undergirds all events, things, creatures, and certainly human beings.
I'll leave it for another occasion to ponder whether Christians could accept a universe into which God himself may have programmed a degree of randomness. But for tonight it will be enough to see that, not surprisingly, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes joins contemporary science in casting into doubt just how predictable this life is. You expect that much from Qoheleth! Just one thing is certain, he says: we will all die. Beyond that, however, the Teacher is wide open to a great many seemingly random events of, as he puts it in verse 11, "time and chance."
In verse 1 the Teacher even leaves open the question of what God will do with the most holy of people after they die. Even if you lived a good life, the Teacher says, you face this question: After you die, will you encounter love or hate; a divine smile or a terrifying scowl? Like the verse from chapter 3 which questioned whether human souls really do go to God after death, so also this verse may be highly unsettling to us.
But it's not just this one verse. The whole chapter is unsettling (again!). Life looks so random, the Teacher says. Dim-witted folks whose minds resemble 25-watt bulbs are as likely to succeed as bright intellectuals who shine like 300-watt floodlights. Swift runners may well trip and lose a race to slower contenders. A well-trained and highly equipped army may lose the battle to an inferior opponent just because a thunderstorm made their tanks get stuck in the mud. There are lots of wealthy people who never bothered with college even as there are people with two Ph.D's who cannot find work.
In verses 11-12 the Teacher underscores something we all know only too well: life is not fair. We perhaps are no longer as vocal about it as when we were young children out on the playgrounds of life, but even most of us who are now well-seasoned adults have many times when we want to shout out at the top of our lungs that childhood cry, "But that's not fair!" We worked harder than Harry but guess who got the promotion? We studied longer than Laurie but guess who got the top-notch teaching post? We got better grades than Jeremy but guess who, even before he graduated, had to beat off job offers with a stick whereas all the resumés we sent out seem to have vanished in the mist?
Ours is a backwards, mixed-up world. As Christians, we chalk this up to sin. Life is not the way it's supposed to be. Our neighbor cuts corners on his taxes every year and never hears a peep out of the IRS. We try to be scrupulously honest every year but guess who gets caught on a math error (and then fined for it to boot)? Somewhat devious wheelers and dealers play the stock market in ways which raise all kinds of ethical issues but they make a fortune doing it. A kindly widow in West Michigan makes precisely one big investment in her life in something called IRM, and guess what happens?
When the Teacher notes in verse 11 that "the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned," he is not merely recording what he sees under the sun, he's lamenting it! His only explanation is that "time and chance happen to them all." In other words, this is just how things shake out in a world as weirdly broken as this one. Life looks chaotically random. The wrong people as often as not get ahead, get away with it, get the reward.
Although more poignant and curmudgeonly than other parts of the Bible, Ecclesiastes is hardly the only passage that notes these inconsistencies. The entire Book of Job could be seen as a kind of extended argument against reducing life to simple quid quo pro formulations whereby people always get rewarded or punished according to their just deserts. A fair number of the psalms of lament in the Book of Psalms decry how the wicked prosper even while the righteous suffer injustice. And although many of the Old Testament prophets speak words of judgment on those who get away with murder by unfair business practices, the fact of the matter was that those merchants did get away with it.
But if this were all the Bible had to say on the subject--if the Teacher's bitter lament about the blind luck of life were the Scripture's last word--then we would be left with only cynicism and bitterness. If the only sure thing in an unfair world were death--and if our only comfort were the fact that death, as the great leveler and equalizer of all, will at last even out the scales of life--then the Bible would be a grim book after all. But there is most certainly something more in the Bible. We can move beyond only noting and shaking our heads over life's inherent unfairness.
We don't need to be so grim. Why? Because God himself was not content with life's lop-sidedness. Instead God himself got deep inside the unfairness of life and exploded (or imploded) that imbalance from the inside out. God did an end-run on unfairness by letting himself become the victim of it! In a sense, God through Jesus the Son took advantage of and exploited the upside-down, backwards nature of life in a fallen creation.
Because of sin it is true that as often as not the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the strong. So God the Son didn't even try to compete on those levels--Jesus did not try to be swift or strong. Instead Jesus emptied himself, gave up divine strength. As Paul put it in Philippians 2, Jesus made himself nothing for our sakes. Jesus let himself lose the race and seemingly lose the battle. The cross, Paul said more than once in his New Testament letters, looks like foolishness to the world. As symbols of hope go, the cross is ludicrous! Yet it is the very wisdom of God.
God the Son sunk himself deep down into the unfairness of life by letting himself become the victim of the ultimate unfairness, of the ultimate cosmic example of justice miscarried. But through the unfair thing that happened to Jesus, because of the miscarriage of justice which Pontius Pilate so blithely oversaw, there is hope and salvation for all the rest of us who suffer unfairly and unjustly in this backwards world.
"Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless, all is Phhht," the Teacher of Ecclesiastes says over and over again, numbing his readers with this dismal refrain. As we said in the first sermon in this series, it is utter candor and honesty that leads to that mournfully cynical cry. But precisely because God did not disagree with this fundamental assessment of a world gone bad, precisely because God himself both recognized and despised the way things mostly go in this world, he sent Jesus the Son to meet the "meaninglessness" of Qoheleth head on. Jesus entered the void, dove into the abyss of this world's unfairness. He died what was by all appearances a meaningless, senseless death.
"What a waste," passersby to the cross on Skull Hill might have said that dark Friday afternoon. Jesus let himself get "wasted"-- ever notice that slang term that refers to killing someone in an act of wanton violence? But by being wasted as the victim of an unfair world Jesus somehow saves us from the unfairness of this life. Jesus identified himself with anyone who ever felt that he deserved better than he got. He was strong and yet let himself get shoved around by a group of rowdy Roman soldiers as though he were a fifty-pound weakling. Jesus knows what it's like to be strong but still lose. He was the very wisdom of God incarnate and yet allowed himself to be treated like a fool, dressed up in a moth-eaten purple curtain and paraded through the streets like the village idiot. Jesus knows what it's like to be intelligent but still watch dim-witted people come out on top.
Jesus met the unfairness, the backwardness, the inexplicable randomness of raw meaninglessness head on. But . . . that colossus of unfairness, that juggernaut of injustice that landed him on a cross, somehow turned things around. And one of the principal things affected was death itself. Like many writers in the Old Testament era, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes sees death as a very dark, very uncertain, possibly finally end to anything which makes human life valuable. What happens to us after we die is uncertain, whether God will be friendly or hostile to even the best of people is uncertain, and just generally it looks like the dead--if they have a conscious existence at all in the grave--are in some kind of morbid paralyzed state, unable to do anything, think anything, say anything.
In a book full of life's meaninglessness, death is the nadir, the very epitome, of all meaninglessness. But in Christ we believe meaninglessness has been met and so even the grave is now redolent of resurrection hope. For now death is still a tragedy, but it is not a final or ultimate tragedy. It is not the end of everything for all those whose spiritual address is "in Christ." Yes, death does come to all, it is a common fate. It can even can serve as a reminder that no matter what social, economic, racial, or other stratifications people try to live by on this earth, in the end everybody arrives at the same level playing field of a death they cannot prevent.
But for those in Christ the utter meaninglessness and seeming "dead end" road of the grave is gone. Jesus entered the rhythms of life's fundamental unfairness to rescue each victim of inequity in a salvation and a love stronger than death.
Yet it is grander, more startling than even just that. In one of his lovely sermons about ten years ago Neal Plantinga pondered the story of Cain and Abel. In a way, for our purpose tonight, we can see that story as perhaps the Bible's first example not just of fratricide, not just of envy, but also as the first instance of gross unfairness. Abel was the innocent and good and righteous man. He was the pious one whose offering was more pure, more deserving. Abel's sacrifice was from the firstfruits of his harvest, an offering consistent with the God who deserves a portion not of our leftovers but of our best. Cain, on the other hand, was the slouch, the one who grabbed just any old lamb from his flock, reserving his firstborn and best sheep for himself.
In God's eyes Abel deserved to get ahead, deserved the extra favor from God he got. But that was just from the divine perspective--a viewpoint as often as not hidden from the eyes of the world. From the human side of things Abel was the nice guy who finished last. He was the good son who died too soon, a victim of injustice, just the first example in a long series calamatis, a never-ending string of unjust calamities wherein the more deserving end up on the bottom of the heap while the dim-witted and slovenly like Cain go on to live a long life. As Plantinga said, we look to Jesus for hope where this world's Abels are concerned. We look to Jesus to raise up in the resurrection all the saintly people whose blood cries out from the soil of this unfair world.
But in encountering and ultimately unmaking the meaninglessness and unfairnesses of life, Jesus did more. He raises Cain, too. Jesus went down into that grave which looked so hopeless and bleak to the Teacher and in so doing Jesus took the place of innocent Abel and of every nice, good person who ever finished last. But he took Cain's place, too. "He who knew no sin was made to be sin for our sakes," the New Testament tells us. He who was not Cain became Cain for us, and Abel, too. And on Easter morning when the stone was rolled away and Jesus emerged from the grave "leading captives in his train," those who stumbled out of the tomb with Jesus, squinting against the bright light of the new dawn's sunlight, were all of this worlds Abels and all its Cains as well.
In his own flesh Jesus took all that is innocent and brought it together with all that is guilty. He took all that is fair in God's desires for this world and brought it into reconciling contact with all that is unfair in a world gone bad. He reconciled them in his own flesh, Paul says, and so won a cosmic victory over death--this is a victory the full effects of which we have only begun to suspect and see.
Time and chance may happen to us all. But thanks be to God that Christ Jesus has "happened" to us, too. In our time and space, in a world of chaos and luck, randomness and chance, the providence of God won the victory after all. And if you know Christ Jesus and the power of his resurrection life hidden in you, then it really is true what your mother told you: you're not lucky, you are blessed.