Texts: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Luke 2:21-40
Speaker: Joel Miller
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.
We needed 28 readers for that. I’m guessing that’s a record for a scripture reading at Columbus Mennonite Church, although I’m glad to be corrected. 28 different happenings, seasons of life, arranged as 14 pairs. Seven is the biblical number of completeness, so these pairs are seven twice over, double completeness. A representative sample of everything. “For everything there is a season.”
Our third commitment calls on us to “honor all seasons of life, caring for one another through joys and hardships.”
Those of us who live in Ohio, and similar latitudes, know a thing or two, or four about seasons. It’s one of my favorite features of this place I’ve called home for most of my life. Four distinct seasons. With cold winters, blooming springs, hot summers, and the cooling air and colorful leaves of fall that do eventually fall as the cycle repeats. Live here long enough and you get accustomed to these constant transitions of the seasons. We settle in to their rhythm and come to anticipate the unique gifts of each. Like when Ila told me a couple years back that she really wanted winter to come soon because she wanted to eat snow.
We accept the seasons of our planet as a regular, even inevitable, part of life. But we’re often surprised by the seasons of our own lives. As soon as life takes on a familiar rhythm, something changes. Slowly – like a child growing up, or our minds getting sharper and then less so. Or suddenly – like an unexpected job opportunity, the death of a loved one. We do our work of adjusting to this new season, only to have the wind blow in something else that marks another transition.
Even though we know the seasons of life are a thing, we’re regularly surprised, or at least knocked off balance, when they actually happen to us. Like one of my favorite lines about aging: “I don’t feel like an old man, I feel like a young man with something wrong with me.”
The basic observation of Ecclesiastes 3 is that life happens in seasons.
Ecclesiastes is one of the Wisdom writings of the Old Testament, a group that includes Job and Proverbs, and extra-biblical books like the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. One of the characteristics of the Wisdom writings is that they make no reference to any of those particular narrative events of Jewish identity. The promises to the patriarchs and matriarchs, the Exodus, and Sinai, are not mentioned. Instead, Wisdom concerns itself with the raw material of life. It is a universal category of literature, a shared language across cultures. It concerns itself with things that can be seen and observed. The object of observation is life itself, in all its joyous, brutal, and boring aspects.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under the heavens. A time to be born, and a time to die.” Except for that first pairing, birth and death, the writer of Ecclesiastes does not concern himself with what we think of as the seasons of life that unfold chronologically. From infancy through adolescence and young adulthood, into middle age and elderhood. Or anything like the stages of development that psychologists like Eric Erikson helped us recognize.
Instead, Ecclesiastes presents us with pairings of seasons that can happen at any point in life, no matter our stage of psycho-social development. A time to tear, and a time to sew. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.
Overlay these with the aging process, and we have a multi-layered journey of seasonhood.
There is a time to weep: But a child’s cry is different than the tears of an 80 year old man. There is a time to dance: But a teenager’s dance is different than the dance of a 90 year old woman.
Not all of the 28 representative seasons are ones we hope to participate in:
“A time to kill. A time to hate. A time for war.” The naming of these seasons can raise our awareness that they do indeed exist. Our nation is currently engaged in the longest war of its history, in Afghanistan. For those of us civilians who don’t feel its daily effects, especially those of us who light peace candles and pray for an end to all wars, it’s important to remember that we live in a time of war.
We are painfully aware of the rise of hate speech and crimes, even as we struggle to not mirror that toxic energy.
We share a moral commitment to not kill human life, but we do all eat. Our nourishment comes from the displacement and death of other living things. For those of us who eat meat but don’t do the killing of the animal ourselves, it’s important to remember that for someone, working at a slaughterhouse somewhere, it’s killing season. A time to kill. Perhaps this ongoing awareness will better help us eat in such a way that life can continue to flourish.
It’s been observed that the structure of the opening and closing couplets of these seasons might speak a message in itself: A time to be born, and a time to die; (first line) a time for war, and a time for peace (final line). Death and war are a part of what time holds, but neither one gets the first or last word. They are enclosed within birth and peace.
Ecclesiastes is not concerned with the time of life in which these season happen, but we are time bound creatures. And even though we as a species aspire to burst from the limits of our earth-bound animal inheritance, there is still an inevitability to the basic outline of the unfolding of our lives through time.
And so, it’s a beautiful thing when you see people embracing the particular season of life that they are in. Children do this naturally, with their exuberant playfulness and curiosity. You can see it in the charged energy of youth, in the freedom of young adulthood for travel and exploring the world and one’s identity. We see the seasons of life being embraced in the happiness of a newlywed couple or the contentment of someone who is single, investing in friendships. We see it when expectant parents focus their attention and energy on preparing a safe and loving space for a birth, or an adoption. Or when partners decide or accept that they will not have children. When an aging athlete shifts their attention toward mentoring young people. During the householding years when people give their passion and creativity toward a career or business venture, making a home, raising children. When someone slowly recovers from a painful divorce and faces this unknown future they never thought would be theirs with an open heart; embracing this season. It’s a beautiful thing when a couple walks through the disorientation of an empty nest and rediscovers their love for each other in new and simple ways. When the retired person pursues an interest that fills them with joy. When the aging woman embraces being the elder, the wise woman, a mentor who distributes blessings and calls everyone “dear” because she has come to know that everyone is dear. It’s a beautiful thing when a man in his twilight years need only give that sharp, mischievous smile to say more than words are able.
It’s a beautiful thing when you see people embracing the particular season of life that they are in, although it can also be beautiful when people defy age stereotypes. When you see the 60 year old woman running in the 5k race, or the adolescent boy playing gently with young children.
Accepting and embracing the shift from one season to another can be one of the most difficult parts of the human journey. To fully acknowledge that one season has ended and another has begun. To treasure the seasons of the past without pretending they are the current season.
Our commitment statement says we will “honor all seasons of life, caring for one another through joys and hardships.”
One of the great joys of congregational life, at least the way this congregation is composed right now, is that all of the seasons are present at the same time. We’ve got winter, spring, summer, fall, and everything in between going on right in this space. It makes for a very complex weather forecast, let me tell you. But it means we get to experience and honor seasons that put our own seasonal patterns in a much larger view.
At is best, it’s kind of life getting to watch daffodils bloom, swim in a lake, take a walk in the woods with golden leaves crunching under your feet, and eat snow, all at the same time. These are the joys. But we are committing to sharing joys and hardships. So it’s also kind of like bearing with one another through the seasons of cold and loneliness, torrential downpours, scorching heat, and bare vulnerability. Personally speaking, being in the midst of all these seasons at the same time is one of the things I love most about being a pastor, coupled with watching the ways you care for one another through these times.
There’s this scene early on in Luke’s gospel that illustrates something of what this can be like. Jesus is only eight days old, Mary and Joseph still new and likely exhausted parents. As was the custom, it’s time for Jesus to be presented in the temple, circumcised, and officially named. As they are making their way through the temple they are met first by Simeon, then by Anna. Both elderly. Both “righteous and devout,” as Luke says. Simeon takes the infant Jesus in his arms and praises God, proclaiming that Jesus will be a light to the nation. 84 year old Anna had outlived her husband and likely just about all of her peers, and she too, when she sees Jesus, begins to proclaim blessings and praise.
And so, we have these three very distinct generations, each in a completely different season of life. Baby Jesus, still adjusting to the cold, dry air outside the womb; Mary and Joseph, wide eyed new parents, clueless about what all this will take but guided by the rituals and customs of their people. And Simeon and Anna, aware that most of their years are behind them, their physical abilities waning but in the prime of their lives to honor life and distribute blessing.
All of these together in the same space. And so, Jesus is blessed, “the child’s father and mother were amazed,” – those are direct words from Luke. And Simeon and Anna are filled with joy and contentment.
Jesus will grow up and bless the young and the old, the poor and even some of the wealthy. But first, he himself was blessed.
A final thought: Abbie and I subscribe to Yes Magazine and the most recent issue introduced yet another way of thinking about seasons. Rather than four, it highlighted the ancient Japanese calendar that has 24 15-day seasons, with each of those further divided by 3, thus recognizing 72 distinct seasonal shifts. You can actually get an app on your phone called 72 Seasons that keeps you alert to these subtle shifts. Some of these 72 mini-seasons include: Mist starts to linger, sparrows start to nest, worms surface, plums turn yellow, rice ripens, insects burrow underground, maple leaves and ivy turn yellow, deer shed antlers, wheat sprouts under snow.
This feels very much like the raw material of life that Wisdom loves to concern herself with.
The invitation is to honor and bless the season we are in. To remember there is a season for everything, and no season lasts forever. To have these collective seasons that help order our lives and set our small seasons within a larger pattern. Like a Labor Day weekend on our national calendar, the start of Sunday school next week on our church calendar. A baby dedication the week after that.
Just as Jesus was blessed and then became a blessing, may you be blessed in this season of your life. May you treasure it, but hold it loosely in order to receive the next. And may we be a blessing for one another, no matter the season.