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.

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