The text for this week’s sermon is Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 in which the writer, called Koheleth, concludes that life is a participation in vanity and meaninglessness. The whole book, except for the last chapter is a journey through his despair and inability to find meaning in life. Although he concludes in the last verses of the book that he finally understands that the purpose of man’s pursuits is to “fear God and keep God’s commandments.” The futility of Koheleth is a good description of the popular mindset today and the reason that I wanted to begin in this text.
Through the first two-thirds of the sermon, I want to lay a foundation for what I want to say in the last third. And I begin with a Greek story. The story takes place in the 300’s BC at the city of Troy in what is now modern Turkey. Outside the gates of Troy, a Greek ship pulled into the harbor, and a huge wooden horse was off-loaded and rolled up to the gates of the city of Troy. The ship then sailed out of the harbor and out of sight of the city. The people of Troy thought it was a gift from Agamemnon, King of Greece, and so they rolled it through the city gates. What they didn’t know, however, is that the huge horse contained a large number of Greek soldiers.
When night fell and all of the Trojans were asleep, a trap door opened in the horse’s belly and scores of soldiers scrambled out of it into the city square. Some opened the gates as of the city so that the soldiers on the boat, now returned to the harbor, could join in the raid on the city. Troy was defeated. Two commonly used ideas come from this story: the Trojan Horse used to describe something that has hidden implications, and “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” referring to the need to be wise when accepting an idea or a gift.
The Trojan Horse is the basis for what I want to say about ideas that are all around us and that we sometimes adopt without examination (like a Trojan Horse).
When I was a child I was taught that the church we belonged to was free of cultural or historical influences. That first-century ideas came uninfluenced and pure directly to our church. Of course, I know that was not true. William Hasker, a philosophy teacher at Huntington College, wrote that Greek philosophy is responsible for some of our theological traditions today. “The philosophy of [the Greeks] was a powerful molding force in ancient and medieval theology. Today it continues to have considerable indirect influence through theological tradition.”
It doesn’t take much investigation to see that Hasker’s warnings about external influencers are true. Terms like “Hedge of Protection” and predicted events like the Rapture are not biblical doctrines yet we use them and consider them as if they came to us straight from the first century. They didn’t. The Rapture, for example, dates from the 1800s and was taught by a British individual named Darby. Karma is a Hindu idea that points to reincarnation. In other words, if you don’t live your life well, now, you will be reincarnated as a bug or something noxious. Dante was a Roman whose ideas of Heaven and Hell sharply affect the way we think about them today.
What I am suggesting is that we have accepted ideas like the Trojans accepted the Trojan Horse, without examination and without seeing their potential for influence.
Enter Nihilism. Nihilism has been around for centuries, but it became an organized idea in the 1800s in Germany and Russia. Nieztche is a philosopher famous for his nihilistic ideas. Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana are famous for their nihilistic music, and Cobain committed suicide, presumably because of his dark, nihilistic universe.
Nihilism is defined this way. “A philosophy that holds that human values are baseless. 2) That life is meaningless. 3) That knowledge is impossible. The term is sometimes used to explain the general mood of despair at the pointlessness of existence. (See the relevance of Ecclesiastes 1:1-11?)
A good example would be helpful. You see a $100 bill laying on the sidewalk near the door of a shop. You pick it up and walk it into the store and give it to the manager saying, “I saw this on the sidewalk and someone is, clearly, going to be panicked to find it missing. So would you hold this for a week or two in case someone comes for it?” A person walking by, noticing the way you handled the money says, “Why on earth did you do that? Finders keepers, losers weepers.” The difference between you and the person walking by? You believe in the principle of “treating others the way you want to be treated.” You believe there is a standard for living given to us by Christ and by which you must live. The guy walking by is a nihilist and believes there is no basis or foundation for such behavior. “Make it up as you go. Do what is right for YOU.”
My desire in this sermon is to give you a vocabulary for thinking about what you hear and experience.
It is important to see the implications of Nihilism for our lives as disciples of Jesus.
- Nihilism does not believe in a basic, knowable truth. Alan Bloom wrote that, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes or says he believes, that truth is relative.” In other words, your truth may not be true to me. Objective truth is a myth.
- Nihilism does not have a basic trust in others. No one is considered to have any truth or reliability. You can see how nihilism erodes trust. If a trained person tells you something you don’t want to believe then it is false. Like those who tell us that Dr. Fauci is a liar. Or that Dr. Frances Collins, a Christian, doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
- Nihilism does not have basic optimism. Why? Nihilistic people can’t be optimistic because they mistrust and disbelieve everything. In scanning pictures and memorabilia for a project we’re doing for our children, we found a vaccination certificate that showed both dates for my polio vaccinations. This vaccine was discovered by Jonas Salk about 70 years ago. We trusted Salk because of his scholarship and work, and we lined up. Polio was stamped out by this. Pessimistic people don’t line up.
- Nihilistic people don’t believe in social participation because nihilism erodes human connection. One of the things that struck me about Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina was the way they forgave the young man that killed nine of their members, and they, then, went on with their lives, helping each other to grieve. How could they do that? Because of a commitment to community.
- Nihilism gets expressed in the disbelief of scientific, knowable, measurable truth because that truth conflicts with something they want to believe.
- Finally, if we pray to God, “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done ON EARTH as it is IN HEAVEN, then we must believe that God’s presence is being felt in good things that are discovered, created, and enacted in our world. For example, extraordinary medical advancements. How do you deny the truth of these advancements if you believe God is working in our world.
In an interesting text in Deuteronomy, Moses’ last communication to Israel before they went into Canaan, he told them how to know truth versus a lie. Isn’t that extraordinary? Of all the things that he might have said to them, he told them to be cautious about liars and to believe their eyes. “If what a prophet tells you actually proves to be true, believe him.”
A congressman was filmed helping to stack a barricade in front of the doors of the chamber on January 6. His face was contorted in fear as rioters were attempting to break in. Another picture showed him standing to the left of the barricade grimacing at the terror of the moment. In recent pronouncements, the same congressman said, “If you saw the crowds on January 6, you’d think that they are nothing more than a group of tourists touring the Capital on that day.” Using Moses’ criterion to evaluate this, the man was not telling the truth based on what our eyes told us.
That is the fruit of nihilism. Nothing is knowable. What is true for you may not be true for me. Really? That is certainly not what Jesus taught.
Prayer: God of truth, we thank you for the certainties of following you and no other. We thank you for the hope you bring us, for the promise of your conquering, enduring Kingdom to which we pledge our energy and engagement. Please help us to not fall prey to the prevailing philosophy of our times and to trust only you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.