Time and Chance and Providence
Ecclesiastes is a very interesting book in the Old Testament. The writer introduces himself as "son of David, king in Jerusalem", implying that he is Solomon. Some scholars think that he may however have been a son of David in the broader sense that we are all children of Abraham. But the phrase 'the wisdom of Solomon' fits with the content of Ecclesiastes. The sense of world weariness accords with the life of this great monarch who had seen it all and done it all and who realised that he was going to die anyway at the end of his life, leaving his wealth and achievements and families behind.
Not everyone who whose works appear in the Bible is full of untrammelled faith and vision and commitment. There is a great contrast between the style and content of Ecclesiastes and that for example of Revelation. Revelation is formidable, complex, end of the world orientated and full of passionate intensity. Ecclesiastes is philosophical and reflective, realistic and humane. The well known words 'There is a time for everything...a time to be born, a time to die'… are found in Ecclesiastes 3. 'Cast your bread upon the waters for after many days you will find it again' belong to chapter 11. 'Remember your creator is the days of your youth' begins chapter 12. The writer of Ecclesiastes endorses wisdom as a means for a well-lived earthly life, but he is unable to ascribe eternal meaning to it. In light of this, he says that one should enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life, such as eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in one's work, which are gifts from the hand of God. The book concludes with the injunction: 'Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone' (12:13). It is Christianity not Judaism which offers the world the Gospel of eternal life and salvation through Jesus Christ our risen and ascended Lord.
The words of Ecclesiastes are part of western life understanding. Ecclesiastes has had a deep influence on Western literature: American novelist Thomas Wolfe who was born in 1900 and died in 1938 of tuberculosis wrote: 'Of all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man's life upon this earth — and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound'.
'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 favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them' all as we heard read to us earlier. I mention this today because unless it has escaped your notice, there is a general election this Thursday. James Callaghan was Prime Minister from 1976 to 1979. He wrote and published his memoirs and titled his book Time and Chance. He came from a Christian Baptist family but described himself as an atheist. Yet he chose the words of Scripture for their meaning for his book. Winston Churchill offered no strong Christian testimony but neither did he disbelieve. One of his famous quotes was 'I am prepared to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter'. I take that to be self-deprecating humour and not arrogance. Clement Attlee Prime Minister from 1945 – 1951 came from a devout Christian family. Although one of his brothers became a clergyman and one of his sisters a missionary, Attlee himself is usually regarded as an agnostic. He was married in Church though. In an interview he described himself as 'incapable of religious feeling', saying that he believed in 'the ethics of Christianity' but not 'the mumbo-jumbo'. When asked whether he was an agnostic, Attlee replied 'I don't know'. Harold MacMillan was a worshipping Christian in the high Anglican Church. Harold Wilson came from a Christian Congregational Church background. He did not give up his inherited faith and was known to read the Bible and to pray while Prime Minister. Edward Heath was a practising Anglican Christian all his life. He retired to a house in Salisbury Cathedral compound and his museum is there. It is well known that Margaret Thatcher was brought up in the Methodist Church and she remained a Christian throughout her life. John Major was baptised as an Anglican Christian as a child and he has remained an Anglican. Neil Kinnock who was sure that he was going to be Prime Minister is an avowed atheist. Tony Blair famously 'didn't do God' as his spin doctor Alistair Campbell said. Actually it was Campbell who didn't do God. Blair very much wanted to talk about his Christian faith while he was Prime Minister. He converted to Roman Catholicism after leaving office but he is a 'pick and mix' convert not accepting Roman Catholicism in its entirety. Gordon Brown famously is a son of the manse whose father's Christianity moulded his own political values. Alex Salmond's father was an elder in Linlithgow and he was imbued with Church of Scotland faith values. David Cameron is not an atheist but he describes his Christianity as being like a faulty mobile phone signal on the Chiltern Hills.
What is fascinating is the extent to which Christianity has played such an influential role in the lives of those who became Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom. This matters to us because of where we are in 2015. We might have the first elected avowing atheist Prime Minister in our history. That would be Ed Miliband, Jewish by race, atheist by profession. Nick Clegg is an avowed atheist although he is married to a practising Roman Catholic. Nicola Sturgeon expresses no Christian Faith whatsoever. Neither she nor Alex Salmond attended the Service of Reconciliation held in St Giles in Edinburgh after the Referendum while other political leaders did.
'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 favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all'. Does God have a say in the running of our country? It is hard to prove so. Politicians have deliberately departed from Christianity as a source of advice, wisdom and ethics and as our historic over-arching explanation for life itself. Politicians are elected, of course, and so they reflect the values of those who elect them. Whenever someone stands in an election as a Christian, they receive only a handful of votes. Even Christians don't vote for them. More people will vote for the Monster Raving Loony Candidate than for a Christian candidate.
Christians pray for the leaders of nations in Churches every Sunday. You would wonder if it does any good. Think of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown fighting and arguing and swearing and sulking and throwing things at each other for years. Think of David Cameron bullying the Church of England on the subject of homosexual marriage. Think of all the things politicians get wrong over the years. What seems to be a good idea turns out to have been mistaken. With hindsight everything seems so much more obvious, so much easier and straightforward. The political process demands supermen and superwomen but there are none. Their mistakes are recorded in history. Ours are not. The current overall election debate is false and contrived. It is dishonest and misleading. It bears little reflection of reality. Winston Churchill said in 1947, 'Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time'.
In the reading from Romans, we were reminded that Paul was no political revolutionary. Neither, of course, was Jesus. Christianity exists in the world as a distinct entity from national politics. It is bigger; it is greater; it is more lasting and it is more influential than any political party at any time in world history. It stretches further and goes deeper into the human mind and heart and soul than political opinion and allegiance. Paul thought that God actively orders the leadership of nations and peoples. John Calvin thought so too. By and large they thought that the ordering of nations was helpful for human existence and was part of Providence. Paul's view was that a good citizen had nothing to fear from the state. Calvin's view was that the state recognises good citizens and punishes miscreants and that this is within God's Providence. Paul did not apply Jesus Christ's great liberating teaching to political campaigning. He did not for example believe in rebelling against slavery as an institution. He did though teach that in God's sight slave and master are equal. Paul wrote that Christians should be obedient tax-paying citizens and respect their rulers.
We cannot have the same confidence. Our politicians enact laws which go against the teaching of the Bible and of the Church itself for nearly 2000 years. Only one politician in this election campaign has made any reference to God. Leanne Wood the leader of the Welsh national party Plaid Cymru did so briefly in the first televised leaders' debate. Otherwise, she is a left wing republican who calls The Queen 'Mrs Windsor' and who has long campaigned against the Trident nuclear deterrent and who shares Nicola Sturgeon's feminist views. If our politicians were to be seen attending Churches this Sunday, it would be seen as hypocrisy. Some will be doing so because they are Christians and have always worshipped. But we don't know who they are. ;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 favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all;. That's not what Jesus thought, what Paul thought or what John Calvin thought. They all thought that political power is given from the providence of God. Jesus said so to Pilate. Paul as we have heard wrote it. Calvin codified it.
Christians have been in the vanguard of social change for centuries. Nearly everything good in our society has its origins in Christian activism. But – the agenda for change has passed from Christianity to others who have no Christianity. Europe has left its spiritual genius. It has wandered away from the Good Shepherd. It has exorcised the name of God from its constitutions. We must continue to pray for those who put themselves forward for election and for those who lead our country. We have the comfort and consolation of placing what they say and do within the context of our Christian Faith which tells us that we belong to the eternal kingdom, the eternal city, the everlasting community of our salvation in Jesus Christ. Politics is the visible collective picture of human nature, our wants, our needs, our values our aspirations. The Church at its best, the Kingdom of God, our living Christian faith within us - these are the expression of our Maker's nature and greater goodness and we remain within that higher Providence who believe and persevere for the sake of Jesus Christ.