Monday, August 22, 2016

Sermon on Hebrews 12:4-24, for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, "Disciplined to Receive His holiness"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The Olympics always feature dramatic stories of the struggle, perseverance, and the hard-fought victories of athletes, and the hardships and intense training that preceded their competition for the gold medal. The attention focused on the athletes is intense; often they are flattered with praise—but just as quickly they can bear the brunt of criticism, suspicion, or doubt, for their failures inside and outside of the game. Every athlete faces the specter of discouragement and the temptation to quit, when the road gets tough. The stakes are high, with the whole world competing, only once every four years, and with only 3 medals to be captured in each event
Last week Pastor Roschke drew on the imagery of the “race” that we are running “by faith” as Christians. How “Team Emmanuel” is being cheered on by the cloud of witnesses in heaven, who are encouraging us as we run the race, with eyes fixed on Jesus. Just like in the Olympics, we too can face discouragement and feel the temptation to quit. Chapter 11 of Hebrews recounted many examples of struggle and perseverance by faith. But the stakes are even higher in this race by faith—because it’s not a trophy or gold medal that’s on the line, but our eternal salvation. Vs. 15 urges us to make sure that “no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” Hebrews chapter 12:4-24 continues the race metaphor, to address our struggles here on earth, and how God uses them to train and shape us, and focusing us yet again on the final goal or prize.
One of the standard things a coach does in training an athlete, is to toughen them for competition. When the athlete starts to complain of weariness or aching muscles and body, the coach might downplay it, and charge them to push on through. A friend of mine used to say the pain you feel from exercising or healing from an injury is the feeling of “weakness leaving your body.” So also, Hebrews 12:4 reminds us, “in your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Jesus shed His blood in the struggle against the sin of the world. Many Christian martyrs also shed their blood, dying for their faith. The author puts our struggle into perspective against these, and warns against our tendency to over-exaggerate our sufferings. It’s a little challenge to “toughen up”.
The word for struggle, is the root for antagonize, in the Greek. This must be our mindset towards sin—that it’s an antagonistic struggle. This helps us understand the pain of God’s discipline. There’s a spiritual war going on within us, between the new spiritual nature, working by the Holy Spirit, and on the other hand, our old sinful nature and the work of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. These are permanently antagonistic forces in this life. A Christian can never “make friends” with his sin; she can never “cave into” indulging her sin. We must necessarily war against our sin by repentance.
Our reading gives an example of failed responses to sin, in verse 16-17.  It says see to it.. “that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” Esau’s failed response to his sin, was that he never truly repented of his sin; he only wept for what he lost. Esau despised the spiritual gift of his birthright, in exchange for a petty meal. He counted the things of God to be of no value, but the things of his flesh to be of first importance. His sorrow was not genuine, and so Esau was “unholy.” In this same category, we’re warned against sexual immorality. Hebrews 13:4 states it clearly: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” Caving in to our sin, including sexual sin, is another surrender to un-holiness, and risks losing the grace of God.
So we see that sin is not a mere “weakness” that must be driven out by the pain of discipline. Sin is an active force that inclines or steers our feet toward death. Sin has to be put to death, drowned in the waters of baptism and repentance, so that the new person can be raised to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. And this is where God’s discipline plays into our life. Verses 5-11 speak especially about God disciplining us. We experience discipline as hardship, difficulty, resistance, and failure. And just as an athlete exercises and lifts weights to strengthen their body against resistance, so also God uses His discipline to treat us as sons—His adopted children—to strengthen us spiritually against sin and towards holiness. If sin actively steers our feet toward death, God’s holiness steers our feet toward life.
In verse 13, it tells us to make “straight paths for your feet.” This word for “paths” is literally a “wheel track” or rut. We can think of sin as forming deeply worn “ruts” in our life—sinful habits and patterns of behavior that are hard to break. A sharp tongue, a lustful eye, a quick temper, a cruel streak, a greedy hand, a lazy or selfish attitude. When a wheel is rolling in a rut, it easily falls to the bottom, and returns to the bottom. But it takes great leverage and force to push it out of the rut, and to keep it from rolling back in. Likewise, sinful habits are easy to return to and hard to break. But make a “straight wheel track or path for your feet so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” Sin leads to dislocations and injuries, but walking in the straight path leads to healing. How do we make a straight path for our feet? The Psalms are full of invitations to walk on the right path. “Your Word is a Lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). God’s Word illuminates the straight path. God will instruct sinners and the humble in His paths (Psalm 25). “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Walking in the straight paths of the Lord leads to a new, well worn, straight and familiar path for our feet. Like Pastor reminded last week, it requires constant hearing of God’s Word to sustain and keep faith alive and well.
Discipline always seems unpleasant to us—it’s not joyful at the time, but painful. It may even cause us to feel discouraged or ready to give up. But listen to what Pastor Bo Giertz writes about the discipline described in these verses:
This word discipline, that the Bible uses here also means ‘guidance of children,’ “bringing up”. In other words, it can be an expression of God’s love and His kind consideration for us if He takes something from us that we’re fond of or blocks a path we want to follow. When we fail at our job, when we’re criticized and run into unpleasant things, when sickness comes when we least expect it, or we have financial problems to wrestle with, it’s always wise to fold our hands and ask: Lord, is there something You want to teach me out of this?

What we are to learn from the Lord’s discipline may not always be apparent to us in life, and we can’t expect to discern a particular “lesson” out of each and every experience of hardship in life. But in a broad sense, we can always expect that God will always teach us the necessity of humility and repentance, and reliance on Him, rather than ourselves. And, that God’s will is ultimately best, even though it may be nearly impossible for us to see and understand how, in particular situations.
Again and again he reminds us why we endure all this discipline. Because God loves us, He’s treating us as sons, and doing what is good for us. He’s producing the peaceful fruit of righteousness in us. And the end goal of our competition and training—the “gold medal”, if you will: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” To see the Lord! This is our great reward. In order to see the Lord, God must work His holiness in us. That’s why He disciplines us. So that we may “share in His holiness” (v. 10). Since sin cannot stand in the presence of God, we must be purified of all sin before we can see the Lord.
The last, glorious verses of the reading, verses 18-24 focus on this. Two different mountains are described. One of them is terrifying, dark and gloomy, with fire and the dread of judgment hanging over it, and the raw majesty and power of God on blazing display—Mount Sinai. Where the 10 Commandments were given. Even Moses, the great servant of God, trembled with fear to encounter God this way. But the latter verses describe the second mountain—the One we approach right here in worship. A mountain that is resplendent with countless bright angels in festive celebration, with the saints who have died and gone before us—cheering on Team Emmanuel; and God Himself, Judge of all. This mountain is the heavenly Mount Zion—the mountain on which Jesus stands, as the Firstborn from the dead, the Author of Life, the champion and victor over all—the Perfecter of our faith.
This mountain does not terrify us with the dread judgment of our sin, but here we encounter Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Jesus is our mediator—the One who comes between God and man, and reconciles us from the divide of our sins. By His death, Jesus nailed the accusations of our guilt to His cross, and fulfilled all of God’s legal demands. By His death, Jesus satisfied all of God’s wrath and judgment against our sins, so that His wrath would be turned away from us forever. And so Jesus mediates a new covenant. Not the old covenant of law that we broke and our forefathers failed to keep—the covenant of the 10 Commandments, made on Mount Sinai. But the new covenant in His blood, poured out for the forgiveness of your sins. A covenant is a contract, a sacred agreement, or promise—and God has made the sacred promise to forgive us our sins, because of the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. He binds Himself to that covenant. He sprinkles His blood on us for cleansing, in the waters of Holy Baptism. Today in the Lord’s Supper you will participate in that new covenant in His blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins. You will receive the forgiveness He won on the cross.
And His blood speaks. What does it speak? A better word than the blood of Abel. Abel was the first man to be murdered; by his own brother Cain. God told Cain that Abel’s blood cried out from the ground for vengeance, for this great horror of innocent bloodshed. Vengeance was the word Abel’s blood spoke. And Jesus too, was murdered—an innocent man put to death. But His blood, poured out on the cross, does not cry out for vengeance. It does not demand that justice be exacted from those who put Him to death. Pardon! Is the word His blood speaks! Forgiveness! Jesus’ blood declares God’s amnesty toward us—peace for those who did not earn or deserve it. A declaration of innocence, for those who lay down their sin. Holiness bestowed on us to cleanse us from our sin, so that God can make us, the “spirits of the righteous, made perfect.” This is the better word that Jesus’ blood speaks for us!
We have received a great salvation from the Lord! This is why we are disciplined—for our own good, and to receive His holiness. Rejoice and thank Him, and endure it patiently, until the reward is fully ours! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In Hebrews 12:4, the word translated “struggle against”, is the word root for antagonism. How does this describe what our attitude and action toward sin should be? What point is he making, by stating that we have not yet shed our blood? Who is he comparing us to? Hebrews 11:1-12:3
  2. How does discipline seem or feel to us? Contrary to our feelings, what does discipline from God actually mean? Hebrews 12:6-7, 10-11.
  3. Earthly parents are to model God’s love and discipline. What does it mean in verse 10 that our earthly fathers disciplined us “as it seemed best to them”? What is different about the discipline of our heavenly Father? Vs. 10-11. When is it especially hard for us to believe and understand that God’s will is best? See Matthew 26:39, 42.
  4. In verse 11, the author uses a word for “training” that is the word root for gymnasium. How does the athlete use physical resistance and repetition to strengthen the body (v. 12-13) and compete better?
  5. Verse 13 says that we need to make “straight paths” for our feet—using a word that means wheel track. How is sin like a crooked “rut” that a wheel creates over time. What is hard to do when your wheels are stuck in a rut? Sin is easy to fall back into, like a familiar habit or pattern. How do we form a new, straight wheel track (or path) for our feet? Psalm 1:1-2, 6; 18:21, 30, 32; 25:4, 8-12; Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 3:6.
  6. Vs 11 and 14 state that peacefulness with one another is a fruit of the Spirit, and part of the Spirit’s work of making us holy. What evidence or experience do you see or have, that shows that sin destroys peace? How does one “sow peace” into situations that might be bound for discord or strife? Contrast Zechariah 8:12-13 and Proverbs 6:12-19.
  7. What two mountains are contrasted in Hebrews 11:18-24? Why are they different, and who stands on the second? What’s He do for us? Vs 23-24

Monday, August 08, 2016

Sermon on Hebrews 11:1-16, for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, "Living in God's Promises"

            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our reading from Hebrews 11 is a famous chapter in the Bible—sometimes called the “Faith Hall of Fame”. Chapter 11 holds a key place near the end of the book. Just to summarize the main thrust of the book—it’s that Jesus Christ is superior to all other things. From God’s former revelation in the Old Testament; to angels, to Moses, the great lawgiver of Israel, to all forms of the priesthood, to all the sacrifices and worship forms of the Old Testament. The book of Hebrews builds a crescendo of reasons why Christ is over and above all things, and then concludes that we should place all our faith fully in Him. Chapter 11 fits into the book as a list of examples of Old Testament heroes of faith, who did not shrink back and give up when their faith was challenged or put to the test—but they held firm to their faith and lived on in the promise of God.
The faith of these heroes in chapter 11 is firmly anchored in Jesus Christ, as we hear these exhortations to faith before and after: “Since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…(Hebrews 10:19a, 22a) and look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus is the object of faith—the center and reason why we can draw near to God in full confidence. If Jesus were not in the picture, or had He not shed His blood for the forgiveness of our sins, then we could not have the same confidence to approach God. We would have to face God’s wrath. But instead our faith stands firmly on Jesus’ complete intercession for us. It’s vital to know that Jesus is the focus of our faith, as we dive into the examples in Hebrews 11, of those who lived by faith in the Promised Savior.
The word “faith” itself requires some definition. The term “faith” gets borrowed and used loosely in clich├ęs and pop-culture, as well as being central to the language of the Bible and the church; which can lead to some confusion if we don’t define it. Hebrews 11:1 gives a simple definition: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The words assurance and conviction convey that faith is not a matter of wishful thinking or longshot hopes. It’s not something indecisive or wishy washy, but a firmly grounded, confident trust. As we see in the examples of those who lived by faith, this confident trust extended from their heart to taking bold actions of obedience to God.
Also, faith deals with things not yet seen or realized. St. Paul talks about hope, faith’s sibling, in this way: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24-25). Likewise, it takes no faith or trust when you already see or know something. Faith is assurance of things hoped for—something that’s not already in your hands or full possession. It’s the conviction of things not seen—being certain that God exists, although you cannot see Him.
Faith gets a lot of criticism today, especially given the rise of atheism—the rejection of belief in God. Atheists mock that it’s irrational to believe in a God that you can’t see. Or they claim that science has come to a “universal consensus” of evolution, and thus God is unnecessary to our existence. The same people scorn any opposing viewpoints as “faith, not science”. To put a twist on one famous atheist’s words, some people may wonder whether it’s possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled Christian.” If a timid Christian were to “shrink back” and give in to these points, and concede that faith really is some kind of irrationalism—then faith would be a losing proposition. In Hebrews 10:38 God says, “My righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” So faith is not the stuff that backs down from a challenge or trial. Faith is not a matter of jumping on the bandwagon when it’s the cool thing to do, and jumping off when it’s not popular. And the examples of Noah, Abraham, Sarah, and others show us that faith takes its stand against the scorn and powers of the world, and stands solidly on God’s promise.
Ironically, if Christians were to cave in to these criticisms of faith, they would also basically be ignoring the 2,000 plus years that Christians have spent wrestling with Scripture and giving answers to the tough questions of the Christian faith. Christianity, from start till the present day, has implicitly shown that it’s possible to be a thinking Christian. One only has to scratch the surface of the vast number of writings, to see this. We are not of those who shrink back. And not just that it’s possible to be a thinking Christian, but that the very pursuits of science and learning were positively driven by believing what Hebrews 11:3 says: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”
Faith embraces the truth that the universe that we see and inhabit, bears the unmistakable “fingerprints” and “signature of design”, of the unseen God. In the incredible, self-replicating, miniature library of enormous information, called DNA, we see a true signature of Divine Intelligence. In the precise fine tuning of the laws of the universe, to allow life to even exist, we recognize an invisible hand at work, ordering the very fundamental laws of nature. Faith believes that God created a rational, orderly universe, that operates according to laws set by God’s hand. This faith has driven many Christians into the fields of science. In the words of Johannes Kepler, a Lutheran astronomer, mathematician, and theologian: “I was merely thinking God's thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God." So, contrary to modern criticisms of faith, the Christian boldly confesses that faith is no enemy to genuine reason (as one of the faculties created by God)—but human reason must not overrule faith. As Kepler warned, our reason should not be turned to the glorying of our minds, but to the glory of God. Our reason must submit to God’s Word.
Our reading also talks about how faith is central to our relationship to God. In verse 2, the people of old received their commendation from God by faith. In v. 4, Abel’s sacrifice was pleasing to God, and not Cain’s, because Abel offered it in faith. It says God “commended him as righteous.” The only way that we can have this kind of standing with God—this kind of approval from Him, is by faith. In v. 6 it asserts this in the clearest way: “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists, and that He rewards those who seek Him.” It’s impossible to please God without faith. This right here eliminates the whole train of thought that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are a good person. NO! It says without faith it is impossible to please God. We have to have faith, if we are to receive God’s commendation. Otherwise there is only a fiery judgment to fear. But by faith in Jesus, we have full confidence to approach God, because He has reconciled us from our sins, to be in right relation to God. To have God’s commendation, as righteous.
It also said that whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists, and that He rewards those who seek Him. Faith has to have a specific attachment to the One True God, and His existence, or faith is nothing. If we go back to that synonym for faith—which is trust—then we see that faith or trust rely on the person or object in which they trust. People can put their “trust” or “faith” in all sorts of bizarre or silly things—but what matters is whether the person or object can actually deliver what is promised. This is why faith must believe that God exists—because no idols or false gods have any power to save. And Hebrews 11 is just a tiny slice of examples from the Bible, of God delivering on His promises, and saving those who trusted in Him. In each and every generation, and no doubt for each and every believer, there are times when our faith is tested, and we begin to worry or doubt whether God will save. But worry and doubt are the opposite of faith. We call on God in prayer to drive away our worries and fears, and to give us more faith. And He gladly answers. He supplies a faith that is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen. Jesus met a man who was weak in faith, and the man prayed, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!” Jesus answered his prayer and healed the man’s son. God will not deny His Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.
And the other half of that verse, is believing that God rewards those who seek Him. This is an interesting verse because Romans 3, quoting the Old Testament book of Psalms, says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God.” If no one seeks God, then who is there for God to reward? Of course the Romans’ text is speaking of us according to our own sinful nature, apart from the enlivening work of the Holy Spirit in us. Without God’s intervention, truly none of us could seek after and know God. Sin produces a total blindness toward the spiritual things of God. But He sends His Holy Spirit, He gives His Word, God speaking to us through His own Son Jesus; and through His enlivening work, we seek after God. He rewards, not what we’ve earned by our own efforts, but He rewards the faith that He Himself gave, that we might trust in Him. From start to finish, God supplies all that’s needed for our salvation. Salvation isn’t paid out as wages for what we’ve earned, but given freely to all who will take it, as Jesus’ gift. This is the reward of faith, and seeking God.
We’ve hardly finished describing and discussing what faith is—but we see how faith lives and depends on the promise of God. We see in verse 13, that “these all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Many of the promises these heroes of faith trusted in, are promises that they did not see fulfilled in their own lifetimes. But those promises were brought to fullness in and through Jesus Christ. And future promises also await us. The promise of Jesus’ return one day, to judge the living and the dead. The promise of Jesus to bring us into His eternal inheritance. The promise of a new heavens and a new earth. These things are not yet here, and we await them as we await our true homecoming—waiting in confident assurance of what God has promised. Confident faith, because we have heard and believed in the record of the mighty deeds of our God and Savior, and know of the deliverance that we have, in Jesus Christ our Savior. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Hebrews 11:1 says faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. What do these two words convey about faith? How would you respond to someone who says “faith” is just “wishful thinking”?
  2. Which is foolish to think—1) that God exists? or 2) that He does not exist? Psalm 53:1; Hebrews 11:6. What obvious truths must people deny, to deny that God exists? Hebrews 1:3; Romans 1:18-23. What is the self-serving reason for such denials?
  3. Faith lives on the words and promises of the unseen God. Hebrews 11:7-9 introduces another “grace concept” that runs parallel with faith. What is that concept; what did they receive by faith?
  4. How did trusting in God (faith in His promises) direct the actions of Abel, Noah, Abraham, or Sarah? What did they do, when they relied on the promises of God?
  5. Hebrews 11:13 reveals a sobering truth about faith and the things promised. What does it mean for our lives, and how we live in the promise? Faith then points to something beyond—what is it? How does that shape our relationship to this world?
  6. Describe the longing for a homeland or fatherland; either for yourself, or the power this longing has for others. Why is that longing not able to be met here on earth, or in our own particular countries on earth? Hebrews 11:13-16.
  7. How has Christ prepared a better homeland for us? John 14:1-6. What is superior about this city? Hebrews 11:10, 16. How does it compare to the earthly cities and kingdoms we know? Hebrews 12:26-28.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Sermon on the book of Ecclesiastes (1:2, 12-14; 2:18-26), for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, "Not in Vain!"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Some think the book of Ecclesiastes is a rather depressing or bleak book, and you can get a glimpse of why, from the short excerpts you heard in today’s reading. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanityIt is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with…I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun...I gave up my heart to despair over all the toil of my labors…what has a man from all the toil and striving of his heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest.” The words may strike us as an expression of dark pessimism or even leaning towards unbelief…or perhaps we can secretly identify with his frustrations about work and life in general.
Does your work or life ever seem like an unhappy business? Do you even hate your work? Or maybe even if you do like it, do you find many a sleepless night, filled with worry or anxiety? Do you struggle with finding contentment in life, work or relationships? Do the things that you have gained for yourself seem empty, or hollow? Ever since man brought sin and its corruption into the world, we cannot experience the true contentment and joy that God desired for us in His creation. Greed, discontent, anxiety, and a host of other related sins keep us from enjoying our work and the fruits of our labor. Part of the curse spoken to Adam, was that work would become toilsome—a painful and exhausting labor. And worse yet, death finally robs everyone of all the rewards, wealth, pleasure, wisdom, and enjoyment of life.
The message of Ecclesiastes, and also of Jesus’ parable in Luke 12, go right to the heart of these matters. It addresses our heart, and why we lack contentment. It addresses the implications of death for everyone. It addresses our relationship to God and to others, by addressing the sin of coveting. Coveting is a broad sin that is not well understood. It’s a sinful desire for what does not rightfully belong to us. We can covet things, people, relationships, opportunities, the praise of others, and a whole host of other things. Coveting is the opposite of gaining something by honest work and effort, and being content. Coveting keeps you from being satisfied with what you have, and also from being happy for others for what they have. Advertising is a whole business that exploits our weakness for coveting.
Coveting shows up in all kinds of behaviors, and can sour our relationships in life. It does this through jealousy, greed, petty fault-finding that tries to steal the joy of what others have, or gloats over their misfortune. These spring from an inner dissatisfaction or discontentment with our life and our possessions. And the cure for this disorientation of our heart, is to find our contentment and satisfaction in God, in Christ Jesus. The cure is found in being rich toward God, by storing up treasure in heaven—it’s not by storing up treasure on earth for ourselves.
The book of Ecclesiastes was most likely written by King Solomon—the son of King David, who was king over Israel in Jerusalem. He was famous for his wisdom, and later for his incredible indulgence in pleasure, wealth, and women. His deep dive into indulgence turned his heart away from God, till he and his thousand wives were worshiping the empty idols of other nations. God divided the kingdom of Israel in two after Solomon, as punishment for his sins, and just like our reading describes—all the wealth and reward of his toil was inherited by his foolish son Rehoboam, who did not work for it. Solomon saw with his own eyes, the futility or vanity—the emptiness—of all his worldly pursuits. Ecclesiastes seems to be Solomon’s expression of sorrow over his life, and a call for us to listen to wisdom and avoid his errors.
To really understand the book of Ecclesiastes, you have to get to the last chapter and verses of the book. For most of 12 chapters, he explores the meaninglessness of life—typically with an important qualifier—life under the sun. In other words, from an earthly, worldly perspective, everything in life seems meaningless. But the last verses of chapter 12 mark the pivot point—the climax—where the whole book elevates to a higher perspective. Listen to the closing verses, 11-14
11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Goads are sharp sticks used to prod reluctant cattle. Solomon is implying that humans are stubborn, and we put up resistance against “the words of the wise..[which] are like goads”. We don’t always willingly go in the way that God shows us is best. He then says the words of wisdom are given by one Shepherd. God is the Shepherd of His people, and furthermore, Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd. The New Testament also tells us that Jesus became our wisdom. True wisdom and direction for life comes from Him.
            Our teachers being installed and dedicated today, (and not a few students!) might relate to these words: Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Maybe we shouldn’t quote that one on the day before school starts! But part of Solomon’s message is that even the pursuit of wisdom, which is a good pursuit, can lead to weariness. None of us can gain perfect wisdom in this life, and with the growth of wisdom also comes increasing sorrow.
But most important of the words that close the book, are those closing words…hear them again: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. This is the crucial lesson of the whole book. Life under the sun—life considered without God, is indeed empty and meaningless. Vanity of vanities! Wealth, pleasure, wisdom, labor, honor—none of these things are meant to give life its meaning. And that’s why they make poor substitutes for God. Only God can provide meaning to life. Only from the hand of God can we enjoy our work and the fruits of our labor. Only when God fills the void in our life, our heart and soul, can we begin to know real contentment. Fear God and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.
            I remember being amused and laughing with delight when my daughter was just about a year or two old, and we took her to the beach. We were pouring water from one bucket another, and she kept trying to catch the stream of water, and then reached into the bucket to find what had slipped through her fingers. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t hold it in her hand, and find it when it passed through. This is much like the image that Solomon uses for the futility of pursuing everything under the sun, without God. It’s all striving after wind. Like grasping for air. It always eludes our grasp. Though we think we are “mature adults”, doesn’t wealth slip through our grasp in just the same way? Solomon says that all that we toiled for must eventually be given to someone who didn’t work for it. For to the one who pleases Him, God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give it to the one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. Whatever we so desperately want to hold in our hand, Solomon warns us it’s like grasping the wind, or an insubstantial mist. You can’t take it with you to heaven. Most of it is gone lone before then anyway! But to the one who pleases God, He gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy.
            So what does it mean to find satisfaction in God? It means that our needs and security are found in Him. Our Good Shepherd is the One who protects us, teaches us, loves us. It means that we look to and recognize God as our Giver and Provider, and realize that nothing we have comes, except from His gracious hand. Jesus said “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possession”. Jesus also warned against laying up treasure for ourselves, but not being rich toward God. If coveting is a sign of our heart being disoriented and turned away from God and towards treasure for ourselves—then contentment is a sign of being rich toward God. Contentment rests in knowing that God is first, and more than first, Jesus is all in all. Life without Him really is vanity and striving after wind. And life without Him ends in death without Him. And in death without Him, all pleasures, all joys are gone.
            Since life and its labors and pursuits would be in vain without God—then with God, everything obviously changes! And just so, St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians about work that is not in vain: “Therefore my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Laboring in the Lord, is a particular work that is not empty meaningless toil. Why? Because the fact that Jesus defeated death changes everything! Remember how death is the final enemy of all earthly enjoyment and pleasure? Well, since Jesus has defeated death, that means that there is something that endures past death. There is eternal life beyond the grave. To labor in the work of the Lord, is to tell the Good News of what Jesus has done. The message of Jesus’ death for our sins, and His rising from the dead, is the very message that leads us into eternal life. These Good Words of life are given by our One Shepherd also. So to labor in this work of the Lord (as our teachers and parents do every day, when they teach their children about Jesus) is certainly not in vain, because this labor is storing up treasures in heaven. This labor in the Lord seeks heavenly treasure, by knowing the One Shepherd who saves us.
            Ecclesiastes also reflects on this reality. In 3:14, Solomon recognizes: “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before Him.” Earthly wealth and everything under the sun glides away from us like a stream (LSB 732)—but the works and Word of God alone endure forever. His work is not destroyed or erased by death. God’s inheritance isn’t lost or passed to fools, but it is given to those who didn’t work for it. Jesus’ inheritance—all He strove for and worked for in a life of true and perfect obedience to God—all this is given to us freely, as a gift of His unsurpassed grace. Jesus’ work passed through the judgment of death, and God vindicated Him and raised Him to life. So all who believe in Him have everlasting life—a share in His inheritance. No one can add to or take away from Jesus’ work. It is established firmly and endures for all eternity.
            Circling back to where we began—life indeed is not meaningless if Jesus is at the center. Jesus alone can bring us past the grave, and into His eternal joys. And that’s not only a future joy, but a joy that spills backwards into this life too, and allows us to even experience a much greater measure of contentment in this present life. Paul taught that the secret of contentment—whether in times of want or in times of plenty, was this: “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). This contentment orients our heart to Jesus, and away from the empty things of this world. This contentment is the fellowship with Jesus, who rejoices with us, who suffers with us, who sorrows with us, and who carries us through our life, into His eternal joy and peace. With that knowledge we can joyfully live and work, strive and do, face failure and success, loss and gain, with the assurance that in the Lord, our labor, is truly not in vain! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. The Book of Ecclesiastes can portray a very dreary outlook on life. What is it that makes the author (Solomon) see life as futile/meaningless/vain? What are the ways in which life seems unfair, frustrating or unsatisfying?
  2. To properly understand the book, one must read it in its entirety, and see where it is finally going, especially the conclusion in Ecclesiastes 12:9-14, that reflects back on all that was learned in the book. The book repeatedly uses phrases like “under the sun” to reflect on the worldly perspective of the book. What elevated perspective turns everything around in the last section, Eccles. 12:9-14?
  3. What “robs” us of the satisfaction of our toil or labor? 2:18-23. How is God able to bless or give genuine satisfaction in the same? 2:24-26; 3:12-13; 5:18-20. Who alone gives meaning to life?
  4. What brings an end to all enjoyment of all things in life, whether a person is good or evil? Ecclesiastes 9:1-6. What alone endures beyond death? Ecclesiastes 3:14; Isaiah 40:6-8.
  5. Read 1 Corinthians 15:44-58. What does verse 58 tell us is “not in vain?” What truth is this crucial message based on? How does it transform and give meaning to our life and our labor?
  6. Ecclesiastes shows for us the emptiness of materialism, greed, coveting, striving after the pleasures of this world. What is the godly alternative to this empty way of life? 1 Timothy 6:5-10. What is the secret to contentment? Philippians 4:11-13.
  7. By being in relationship with God through Jesus, and having our needs met by Him, how are we also comforted to have Jesus both rejoicing and sorrowing with us? 2 Corinthians 1:3-11.