Sermon preached at the Mint Methodist Church, Exeter,
“Vanity of vanities – all is vanity”
The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes was not the most cheery of souls – not the sort of person you’d want to come t0 cheer you up after a hard day at the office –
He begins his work characteristically: Vanity of Vanity, says the preacher, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
The Original Hebrew word rendered as Vanity is actually Hebel. Traditional English versions have tended to follow the very ancient Latin Vulgate translation of the passage from 404 - “Vanitas Vanitatum”.
Modern translations tend towards a rather different emphasis – translating it not as Vanity (with its sense of unfounded pride in self and appearance) – but with words like emptiness, futility, meaninglessness, as short lived a s breath of wind.
The point that the writer of Ecclesiastes is making is fairly clear and downbeat:
emptiness, meaninglessness, vanity – this is what life is about, and the longer
you life the more it becomes clear, there’s nothing new in the world, and its
all just the same futile thing coming round and round again. – Life is a
merry-go-round of pointless self seeking.
Some people have asked why the Book of Ecclesiastes is even in the Bible – in fact it only made it by the play-offs – and probably sneaked a last minute place in the Old Testament on account of the (mistaken) belief that it was written by King Solomon?
provides in large part a pretty miserable message along the lines of
“Life is hellish dark and smells of cheese”,
”100,000 lemmings can’t be wrong” and
“Life may be like a box of chocolates - but there are only coffee creams left and I don’t like them.”
John Bunyan writing his Pilgrims Progress from Bedford Gaol in 1678 includes a reference to Ecclesisates about Vanity. His pilgrims travelling through the wicked world, reach a town in which there is a permanent fair. The fair is organized by the devil and is called Vanity Fair.
describing the fair Bunyan quotes our text from Eccles – for he too is deeply
critical of the world and its vanity and ultimate shallowness and futility -
As the Pilgrims go around Vanity fair they find that people are there buying and selling everything and everyone – the traders traded in sin and depravity – their trade done purely for personal profit and selfish gain – as Oscar Wilde was to say later, they were people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
And from 1670s to the 1840s – and we find Vanity Fair appearing again – this time in Thackeray’s novel.
Those of you who saw the brilliant Northcott Theatre production will have laughed at the immensely witty production – but Thackeray’s underlying message is as downbeat as that of Ecclesiastes, whom he also quotes.
The world of 19th C vanity fair – like that of Bunyan’s stall holders and of Ecclesiastes – is made up of people seeking wealth, power and self gratification, happy to manipulate and use others in an endless round of futile self seeking. Those who do not join are largely helpless and ineffective victims of those who buy and sell themselves and others in Vanity Fair.
And with every generation, the sin of Adam is passed on, and modern writers continue to chronicle the same human depravity.
So for London in 1815 read New York in the 1980s – with the arrival of Tom Wolfe’s novel the Bonfire of the Vanities – about Sherman McCoy, a trader in vanity fair – to be precise a Stock Market trader who looks at his daughter’s Masters of the Universe plastic models and says to himself as a he makes a huge stock market killing, “I am the master of my universe”
But in the end, for Tom Wolfe’s characters, as for Thackeray’s, it all falls apart and all is revealed as Vanity of Vanities – puffed up humanity getting nowhere.
So much for a tour of literature – but of course Vanity Fair is there in real life as well as in fiction. How many stall holders are there in Britain today – peddling drugs, sex or arms – or selling the good things of life in order to exploit the producers and con the customers?
And on Remembrance Sunday we think of war – and the waste and futility of so many conflicts down thru history - those Masters of war who in every generation abuse their power to wage wars, and the victims of that evil.
So is the author Ecclesiastes right? Is it all hellish dark and smells of cheese and might we as well give up on life, because it’s just one long frantic and hopeless merry –go-round of futility?
Well – let us go back to Bunyan.
He recalls how Christ walked the stalls of Vanity Fair but bought nothing. Though the devil tempted him to buy, he spent not a farthing. And following in Christ’s footsteps came Christian and Faithful – who when offered wares declined, saying they would buy only truth. And so – says Bunyan – there is a way to break the cycle of depravity – it is not inevitable.
Later in this service we will share in a responsive affirmation from South Africa. It takes the form of statements beginning “It is not true…” – each statement rebutting the pessimism and despair of Ecclesiastes – Vanity Fair is not the last word.
The last word is with the Christ who will not buy and bids us walk the streets of Vanity Fair and hold firm to God’s truth and take no other.
This is the way of truth and purity and strength, it is the way of those who are meek and merciful, peacemakers and the poor in spirit.
So, says Christ, the merry go round of vanity fair sin can be stopped in Christ’s name.
But the beatitudes say blessed are the meek and the poor etc, but they conclude “Blessed or those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.”
And if we are to stand firm against evil, that will undoubtedly mean suffering.
That suffering can take many forms.
· Today on Remembrance Sunday we think especially of those who have give their lives in order to fight evil.
· But of course in every generation, whether in times of war or so called peace we are all called to fight against evil and persevere as Christ’s faithful soldier and servant.
It is not coincidental that when Faithful and Christian refused to buy the wares of vanity fair, the stall holders turned on them, and faithful was killed.
But note this – Bunyan says: straightway his way took him from that place to the Celestial City –
Death, sacrifice and suffering are not a vindication of Vanity Fair’s victory – quite the reverse, they are the means whereby Vanity Fair is defeated – for sacrifice and suffering are weapons by which Vanity Fair is defeated.
(Indeed later on in the second part of Pilgrims Progress those who oppose vanity begin to gain strength from the blood of faithful which had been shed).
How many shopping days are there till Christmas? Are you busy window shopping?
They tell me this year’s Vanity Fair Catalogue is as glossy as ever – the devil has an excellent marketing department. And the selfish and preening delights of the world are ever more irresistible.
But never fear – this is not the last word.
We are called to look the merchant in the eye and say “I will but nothing but the truth”
That may lead us into suffering and sacrifice – but fear not, for if and when that happens we, like Faithful, will be heading for the celestial City.
For always remember – “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
And when the tawdry booths of vanity fair, with their powders and paints and what have you, are finally consigned to the bonfire, the City of God remaineth.