BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 23
Copyright 1991, Biblical Horizons
"Vanity of vanities", says the Preacher. "All is vanity". Life, we are told in the book of Ecclesiastes, is a repetitious, wearisome cycle; all that is and all that will be has already been. There is nothing new under the sun. What is crooked cannot be made straight, what is lacking cannot be counted. Life is grievous, absurd, a striving after wind, full of grief and pain. A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
And why is life vain, meaningless, terrifying, futile? Here again the Preacher is our guide. The great fact that renders life meaningless is the certainty of death. Wisdom is futile because "as is the fate of the fool, so also the fate of the wise" (2:14-15); "the wise man and the fool alike die" (2:16). Riches are vanity, because we "must leave it to the man who will come after [us], and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?" (2:18-19). Pleasure is vanity, for "even if the man lives a thousand years twice, and does not enjoy good things — do not all go to one place?" (6:6).
Indeed, death makes the life of man no better than that of a beast: "the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity" (3:19).
The futility with which death infuses our days is intensified by its randomness: "I have seen everything during my lifetime of futility; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness" (7:15). Death seems arbitrarily to overtake righteous and wicked alike. The Preacher goes so far as to say that a miscarried baby who never saw light is better than a man who dies in obscurity (6:3-4).
For the Preacher, death brings terror not only at the end of life, not only to those who are approaching their last days, but casts its terrifying shadow over the whole of life. Young and old, strong and weak, healthy and ill — all face an eventual but inevitable confrontation with death. Death renders every pleasure, accomplishment, and joy useless because death renders all these temporary. Men are like grass which sprouts anew: in the morning it flourishes, but in the evening it fades and withers away (Ps. 90:6). So says the Preacher, Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived.
These meditations seem hardly appropriate for an Easter sermon. The Easter Gospel is, after all, a gospel of life, joy, hope, and peace. It is the story of resurrection, new life, of immortality and victory. But if we have begun with a sobering reminder of life’s futility, it is because the Apostle Paul himself, in explaining the theology of the resurrection, introduces his subject with equally sobering thoughts. Paul himself uses that favorite term of the Preacher, "vain" (1 Cor. 15:14, 17), to describe the Christian’s condition if, as some believed, the dead are not raised: "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, and your faith also is vain"; and "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins" (v. 17).
So, the gospel of resurrection first points us to the fact of death; the gospel of joy to sadness; the gospel of hope to despair; the gospel of peace to violence; the gospel of the empty tomb points first to the cross; the gospel of forgiveness to sin. Whether we are justified in moving from a consideration of death into a consideration of new life, from sadness into joy, from despair to hope, depends entirely upon the truth of what Paul preaches. The world does not believe that Easter has anything particularly to do with truth. Like Pilate, the world is inclined to ask, What is Truth? Or, it defines truth in a way that excludes the possibility of resurrection. For our half-Christian culture, Easter, like Christmas, has become a time of sentiment, of vague and generalized good will among men, or an equally vague celebration of life in general. But the Bible presents the "Easter story" as the absolutely crucial turning point in history, a central dividing line among men. Easter is the celebration of what the apostles insisted was an historical event, an event that revealed the real meaning of life and death.
If the resurrection is a myth, if it is not true, then the Christian faith is vain, worthless, futile. If Christ is not raised, then the weary meditations of the Preacher provide the ultimate and final perspective on life. If Christ is not raised, "we are of all men most to be pitied" (v. 19). If Christ is not raised, we are foolish to be sitting here, spending our time in prayer and praise. If Christ is not raised, Paul admits, it would be reasonable to become a hedonist; "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." More than that, if the apostles’ preaching of the resurrection is false, then they are guilty of being false witnesses of God, and worthy of death.
But if the apostolic preaching of the resurrection is true, it cannot be ignored. No one can remain neutral to this great fact. No one can stand apart and assess it as an interesting "idea" to be debated among the sophists of Mars Hill. If Christ is raised, it is a fact that demands decision. And it demands a decision that embraces our entire life. If death is the fact that renders life meaningless, the resurrection is the hope that fills life with meaning and purpose. Where sin and the wages of sin abounded, there grace and resurrection life all the more abound. The resurrection of Christ demands from every man, woman, and child a whole-hearted, whole-souled dedication and consecration to the One who was raised. If Christ is raised, it is surely not enough for us to pay our respects to Him once a year, or even once a week. The resurrection of Christ demands a transformation of my entire life. The resurrection demands my soul, my life, my all.
The Church has always taught that the resurrection is to be integrated into the whole fabric of life. One of the ways this has been done is through the liturgy. Each Lord’s Day morning, the people of God gather in His presence for worship. Every member brings with him wounds suffered during the previous week. Here is a man who has just buried his wife. Here is another who has lost his job. Here is another who has been cut to the heart by an unkind word. The world they have experienced during the week is precisely the world described by the Preacher.
As they gather for worship, the very first words of many traditional liturgies are, "Christ is risen!" And the congregation responds, "He is risen indeed!" Across the ages, this affirmation answers the complaint of the Preacher: "Christ is risen!" It echoes and reverberates to the very heart of each worshiper: "Christ is risen!" It touches the wounds with its healing light: "He is risen indeed!" The wounds do not go away. Even after the resurrection, Jesus bore the marks of His suffering. But the resurrection transforms those wounds, it transforms every moment of life, so that each experience becomes a further step in the pilgrimage to the kingdom. As Luther said, all things serve the Christian, whether life or death, health or sickness, prosperity of poverty. The resurrection fills life is filled with meaning, purpose, light and joy. Because Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.