Now, because we do not truly believe in our hearts that the day of adversity is as much from God’s hand as the day of prosperity, we believe that there has to be some way to game the system, and if we somehow play the game of life in just the right way, God will reward us with prosperity and long life. Or we bargain with God - God save me and I’ll be a good person. Or we berate God - God, I’ve been a good person, why are you doing this to me? Spirituality becomes a transaction. If I pray right and live right and present myself in the correct way, God will honour that and bless me with life and success.
A common way of understanding the book of Ecclesiastes is that the preacher, Solomon, is observing the perplexities of life and concluding that life is meaningless or vanity and so in the end you may as well give up and grasp on to God. Some of our modern English Bibles make it pretty easy for us to come to that conclusion; for example, the first verse of the NIV declares, “Meaningless, meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
Now, I don’t believe that is the message of the book. As we have seen, Solomon is actually developing a positive case that, yes, life is a breath (a better translation of the key word in the book),however, there is beauty in the breath, when every moment is observed to be a gift from the hand of God.. I’ve suggested to you that the key verse in Ecclesiastes is 3:11: "He has made everything beautiful in His time”
Coming to chapter 7, this chapter of Ecclesiastes makes no sense if Solomon’s message is that “Life is Meaningless”. If life is truly meaningless, then it wouldn’t matter how one lives it. However, this section of Ecclesiastes clearly suggests a better way to live. The word better is used seven times and comparisons are made throughout the chapter.
Yet as this chapter unfolds we will find that Solomon is responding to perhaps the most threatening counter to his thesis that God makes all things beautiful in His time. How does God bring beauty out of death and suffering?
He is going to say that there is a better perspective on life, and what he points us too may be surprising: he is going to suggest that the hardest, most difficult, most sorrowful, moments of our lives are actually good things in the hands of God.
The power to enjoy the gifts of God and the ability to accept our lot and rejoice in toil, is itself a gift of God. This is what Adam last week defined as contentment: “Contentment is finding joy in the lot that God has given you.” Well this week we’ll find that Solomon presses on deeper to explore this idea of contentment, and we’ll see him press his argument forward by pointing out three simple observations, and then really press in upon our hearts. The first two observations are related:
Joy Comes From God, Not Stuff.
You Can Have it All and Still Have Nothing
While these are the extreme views there are also views that should be more familiar to those of us who are urban North American evangelicals. On the one hand, there is what I would call, Christian conservatism. Those of us who hold to this view are tempted to look at the homeless among us or the brother or sister who is struggling financially or is out of work and conclude that that such brothers and sisters are simply not faithful. They must be wasting their money. They must be lazy. They must just be irresponsible. For these people, being poor is the mark of a bad Christian and being middle-class is a mark of being a good Christian. This perspective is suspiciously similar to the pull-yourself-up-by-your-boots-straps individualism of political conservatism. The result is that middle-class-ness becomes akin to godliness.
On the other side, there’s the view I call, radical Christianity. Often a response to Christian conservatism, radical Christianity emerges from Christians who grew up in middle-class homes, became disillusioned by what they perceived as worldliness and hypocrisy in their home churches and their Christian families, and therefore decided that, even though they are university educated, academically gifted, and have lots of opportunities, they were called by God to intentionally live in the worst neighbourhoods in town, to abandon career paths to work at McDonalds, and to urge other Christians to do likewise lest they waste their lives and ruin the Church’s witness.
Perhaps this simply reflects my own experience, but these two views appear to be popular perspectives on prosperity: Christian conservatism and radical Christianity. But what does the Bible say? What does God think of prosperity? And with that question in mind, let’s turn to Ecclesiastes 5:8-20.
I’d say that one of the major areas in which Evangelical churches lack discernment is the area of worship. We do not have a well-considered biblical understanding of worship. We either just follow our own tradition, kind of what the church did as we grew up; follow our preferences, this is what I like and what blesses me; or follow the culture, this is what will attract people and fill the seats. I went through seven years of theological training to become a pastor, and I don’t think I spent even one class period discussing a real theological understanding of worship. Which is weird, because that’s kind of one of the big things we do as a church - we are worshippers.
Which brings us to chapter 5. For the first time in this book he is going to address us directly and instruct us what to do. Up until now he’s been describing life, making observations; and now begins prescribing to us how are to live, giving us instruction. And he begins with worship.
Solomon is now looking carefully at life in the breath. He has considered that only God can bring beauty into the life because he has appointed every season and time for his purposes. Yet when Solomon looks carefully into the breath, he sees much that is not beautiful, in fact, much that is ugly. Solomon is a realist, it doesn’t do to ignore the harsh realities of life, but he knows the must be explored, discerned. He’s not running from the hard questions, but realizes that if he really wants to make full sense of life, he’s got to evaluate both the good and the bad.
This brings us to the problem of evil - for Solomon observes much that would be fittingly described as evil. If God is sovereign over all things - does this mean that he is also sovereign over evil? Solomon in this chapter pears into the problem of what we might call institutional or structural evil - evil that corrupts our social systems, specifically he considers our systems of justice and economics. What’s the problem with these two systems - we are. We made them and we use them and we are used by them.
As we begin Chapter 3, Solomon is going to press the argument he is making further by describing the activities of this God in our world. This is the key section in the entire book of Ecclesiastes, and it should be clear now that Solomon’s argument is not that everything is meaningless or futile - our striving may be futile, yes, but life itself cannot be, for God is, like a masterful conductor, setting every event and season of all of our lives together for his purpose. This is not the work of an absent, disinterested God, but of a God who is intimately involved in the day-to-day, moment-to-moment unfolding of our lives. And the key idea of this section - the answer Ecclesiastes gives to the problems of the breath and the dish is that: Every Moment of Our Lives is Appointed By God and Therefore, there is beauty to be found in the breath.
The section we are looking at today, is by far what Ecclesiastes is best known for - the preacher’s personal search for meaning and value in this world. It is such a pivotal and provocative section that some interpreters of Ecclesiastes never get beyond it and interpret the entire book through the themes of this chapter. I don’t go that far, but I will say personally, that the argument and the experience set forth in this chapter are convincing to me, so convincing to me that it has carried me through my own seasons of doubt or times in which I have been tempted to give up my faith.
I want to start today by talking about dishes. You may think, what do dishes have to do with Ecclesiastes. You may know that Ecclesiastes is one of the most philosophical and complex books of the Bible, but I’m starting out the beginning of the series by telling you it's about dishes. See, here is the mystery of dishes. Think about the dishes in your home. You wash them everyday, every meal. You prepare the water, the soap, the sponge; set your dirty dishes in order, wash them, scrub them, rinse them; set them in the drying rack, wipe down the counter, the sink; set the soap and the sponge back in their designated places. And then you leave the room for a minute - and come back to find more dirty dishes in the sink! Where did they come from? How did they get there? And guess what: they will be there tomorrow and the next day and everyday of your meaningless life! And that’s an exaggeration - your life isn’t meaningless … but it will feel meaningless because you spend it all doing dishes! How much time do you spend doing dishes? Well, according to a study in “Changing Rhythms of American Family Life”, the average American woman spends 66 minutes a week doing dishes, the average American man 42 minutes. What is funny is that when they asked men and women how much they thought they did dishes, women said 5 1/2 hours and men 2 hours 40 minutes! So we don’t actually spend all that much time doing dishes - it just feels like we do! And if it is not dishes, its laundry, or commuting, or shopping, or changing kids diapers, or sitting at your desk doing the daily grind, or scrolling and scrolling and surfing and scrolling, whatever, so many tedious things that need to be done every day, just to live. How many times have you woken up with amazing plans of what to do today, and then past through the day and wonder what you did?
Whenever I’m trying to figure out our next sermon series I reflect back on conversations I’ve had with you and I brainstorm notes. Some of the topics I wrote down on that reflection were things like, dealing with the monotony of life, finding my purpose, struggling with anxiety or a feeling that I am missing out, what’s God’s point in putting me in a dead end job, how do I redeem the moments of my life and live for something greater, what do I do about these doubts and hard questions that creep in at night - these were all things I jotted down and as I reflected on them, as often happens, a book of the Bible came into focus and I realize that it addresses head-on many of the topics and issues that I had written down. And so that brings us to the Book of Ecclesiastes. For Ecclesiastes teaches us how to deal with the dish-iness of life. Today I want to just look at the first few verses, and really get to the question that the Preacher raises:
What’s your favorite Christmas song? Radio stations play them 24/7, its amazing.
We need these songs to be reminded of the season. The truth of the season. The meaning of the season. They get in our heads and remind us that Christmas in coming, that Jesus is come.
Have you ever considered the Psalms as Christmas song? A whole book of the Bible written as songs, and we noticed last week, Jesus said in Luke 24:44, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” So yes, the Psalms must be Christmas songs.
And so, having last week given an overview of Christmas in the Law of Moses, in which we saw that the Offspring of Eve, a Descendent of Abraham was going to come as Prophet, Priest and King, to restore paradise and bless the nations, today I’d like to do a quick overview of the book of Psalms, and see if we what we can learn about Christmas from them.