Sunday, August 04, 2019

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-26; August 4, 2019; The 8th Sunday after Pentecost

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-26; August 4, 2019; The 8th Sunday after Pentecost
Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, ESV)
I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:12–14, ESV)
I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and striving of 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. This also is vanity. There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 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 to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:18–26, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Meaningless! Meaningless!  Like vapor, wind.  Like the little breeze that blows around in the desert.  Everything is meaningless, says the writer of Ecclesiastes.  In fact, the theme of the book could easily be summed up with that one word, “meaningless.”  What’s going on here?  What in the world is a book like this doing in the bible anyway?  Isn’t the world full of enough pessimism?  I don’t really think we need anymore here in the bible, do you?  Over the years there has been a great deal of discussion on that very point.  Even the ancient Rabbis, discussed whether this book should truly be a part of the canon.  It just doesn’t seem to fit the general character of so much of the bible, let alone the Old Testament itself.
And it’s an interesting selection for this text to be read here at this time of year too!  I mean I don’t think with school starting soon, that this is a great time for our children to hear that ‘life is meaningless.’  We have enough trouble motivating them for school in the first place.  I don’t think they need to hear right now that work is meaningless, vapor, and dust in the wind.  I don’t really think it will be helpful to tell them that no matter how hard they work in life, it all amounts to nothing, like a puff of air, or the breath of a fly.  Joshua would you please take out the trash, oh by the way, it’s meaningless.  Miciah please do your homework even though it’s meaningless.  I don’t think that’s going to rate high on the motivational chart, do you?
OK, well maybe it isn’t the best thing to tell our children at night before they go to bed, but the truth of the matter is that the text is right.  When life is focused on all that we can gain by our hard work, it is meaningless.  The real problem is this…  we don’t act like we believe it.  As a matter of fact a person might be hard pressed to see how we … who are suppose to be the ones who “please God,” and to whom he “gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness,” are any different from those who the text calls “sinners.”
We are, just like everyone around us, can be very possession centered.  Our lives at times seem to revolve around what we can get for ourselves.  We are just as guilty of “keeping ahead of the Jones” as anyone.  The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.  Cell phones, computers, table saws, and big screen TVs…  etc. He who dies with the most toys, wins! The popular bumper sticker says.  We want all these things…  and many more.  And we know that hard work pays for them. 
The author of our text today is also in our shoes.  “… all the things I toiled for, under the sun,” he calls them.  He had worked hard to gain what he had, and yet he calls it all “meaningless.”  In fact, he says he hated all the things he had worked for.  After all the work, after all the toil to gain them, he only was left to worry about them.  The new car meant higher insurance, a new garage to protect it, and worry about what would happen to it when he left on vacation.  Just like the commercial, “I can finally relax!” says the man, who is placing his trust in a home alarm system. 
What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 2:22, ESV)
All that he has accomplished with his hard work is worry and more hard work. 
But ultimately, when all is said and done, the one thing that places all our hard work in meaningless category is… death.  All that we work for, all that we gain in our lives, is lost at the very moment our heart stops beating.  Ecclesiastes talks about how all the things we gain by our hard work are given to others who haven’t worked for them.  Another bumper sticker put it this way, “He who dies with the most toys… still dies.”  All our toil, all our work is rendered meaningless, and evaporates just like the escaping air of our final breath. 
Don’t get this message wrong…  I’m not advocating laziness.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work hard.  What I am saying is that we sometimes work for the wrong reasons.  We often work to get things, and when we get them, we work to maintain them, and then to replace them…  Ecclesiastes understands the problem very well.  And it doesn’t advocate not working either.  Look back at the line
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God,” (Ecclesiastes 2:24, ESV)
It doesn’t say, work is meaningless so don’t do it.  Possessions are meaningless so don’t get them.  What it does say is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in our work.  It would be good to remember that work is a blessing.  Work was not the result of sin, Genesis 2:15 says
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15, ESV)
Adam was given work to do as a blessing.  His work became hard work, and toil after he sinned.  What the text does say is that no one can find satisfaction in their work without God.
There is a lot packed in the words “without God,” here.  The text asks, “Without God, who can eat or find enjoyment?” and the answer is an emphatic, “No one!”  In fact, without God, all there is in life is the things that one works for.  All that there is the nest egg that can be built, or the security found in a theft deterrent system.  Without God, all there is, is a life that a person can build for himself.  A life that is over in an instant, a life that is fleeting and unsure.  Without God, all that a person accomplishes is for the benefit of someone else…  death comes and all of it is left to someone who didn’t earn it.  To be “Without God” is to be hopeless, breath, vapor… meaningless. 
But God does not want our lives to be meaningless.  He doesn’t want our lives to be lived without him, without hope.   And so, he sent Jesus Christ who changes meaningless into meaningful.  Since death is what takes meaning from life, Jesus Christ came to destroy death.   He took away death’s power over us by dying and rising again.  He showed us that his power over death is greater than our fear of it.  His power over death is so great that what was once an end, eternal separation from God, became instead a beginning.  To die with Jesus Christ is to be with him forever.  So, the question of death is no longer, “What do we lose?” but, “What do we gain?”
But it isn’t only by our death that we gain Jesus Christ.  He promises to be with us always.  “… I am with you always to the very end of the age.”  Through faith in him we are truly with him and his presence changes everything.  The Epistle lesson today says this. 
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1–4, ESV)
To set your mind on earthly things it the meaninglessness of Ecclesiastes.  But Christ comes to you and me, and through him we can set our minds on the things above. 
To set our mind on things above is to remember what Jesus Christ did for us.  That by his death he set us free from death.  Its treat no longer hangs over our heads, threatening to take all that we have gained away.  When we set our minds on things above, we are focused on Jesus Christ, faithfully trusting that he will give us whatever we need.  When those gifts come, we realize that they are not the purpose in life but only good gifts that God wishes us to have and enjoy. 
God created this world, this physical world, for us.  He intends for us to have good gifts from it.  It isn’t wrong to work hard to provide for your family or even to enjoy the blessings that God provides you through your hard work.  All of that is what God intended it to be… but, it all becomes meaningless when the things we can gain from hard work become the purpose of our lives. 
You know what.  We aren’t always going to set our minds on the things above.  There will be days when our lives will be filled with meaningless struggle, focused on our own material gain.  But God has done something about that too!  Remember Paul’s words. 
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above… For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1–2, ESV) 
Paul is talking about baptism.  To die and be raised with Christ is to be baptized into his death and life.  To be baptized into Christ’s death and life is to change meaningless into meaningful.  To be changed from a life that is bound only for death, to a life that has been rescued from death by Jesus Christ himself.  With death defeated all those meaningless things, and even the hard work isn’t meaningless any longer.  Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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