Back to series
Good morning, everyone! Welcome to Vieux Carré Baptist Church, online, because church is a people, and not a place. Please go with me to Ecclesiastes, chapter 9. That’s the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 9, starting in v.7.
If you’ve talked with us this past week, you know we’re taking this situation very seriously, and I want to give some shout-outs here at the start—to John in Illinois, who contributed to help some of our congregants who are out of work from the virus, and to John here in NOLA who has been struggling through infection. To my doctor, Robert, himself facing infection, and all of our medical missionaries in NOLA at Baptist Community Health Services. I’ve never been more grateful for you all and everything you sacrifice and risk to care for our neighbors here. Lastly to Stan Statham, Gibbie McMillan, Lloyd Harsch, and others who have contributed PPE during this time at cost to themselves. Our prayers are with you all, in joy and in weeping.
I started off last week sharing some observations that helped me breath and laugh in this current crisis and quarantine. I want to do that again this week, and I want to explain why I think it’s valuable for us to laugh in dark times.
My favorite internet meme this week was from a guy named Winston Chang. “If there’s a baby boom in 9 months, it’ll consist entirely of firstborn children.” “People without kids are like, ‘huh? Why does being a first child have to do with anything?’ But people with kids are like, ‘I feel seen.’” One more shout-out to Kallee this week, by the way, for watching AJ while I worked and Annie was studying for and taking comps.
Phil was walking down through the quarter this week, and there was a street preacher on Bourbon blaming New Orleans for the pandemic. So, since our church is in the French Quarter, in behalf of everyone there: sorry everyone.
My hose broke this week, so. I guess I don’t have a hose anymore. I’ve been laying hands, pentecostal style, on my a/c all month. I thought about anointing it with oil, but I didn’t know what that would do to the mechanism.
I figured out that New Orleans was starting to hit the national news because my mom texted me at almost exactly 6:00 for the past five days telling me to stay home. She told me people around her are hoarding, and they are down to six rolls of toilet paper, and I just tried to imagine how they would redecorate the superdome once Charmin buys it from Mercedes, if they might just paint it white because it’s already roundish, maybe paint a dark circle in the very middle to represent the cardboard; which reminded me of another favorite meme, saying, “when I was young, there was such lavish wealth that we would strew toilet paper in the trees and yards of our enemies.”
Breath in, breathe out. So the reason I think it’s important to laugh in dark times has a lot to do with our passage today. Bonhoeffer, a pastor in Germany during the dark times of the second world war, said that one of the boldest, most meaningful things one could do in dark times is to spread hilaritas, or good humor, as a “gleeful defiance of the Nothing, gleeful audacity.” Chesterton, writing in the dark times leading up to the first world war, writes that the mirth or good humor of God was the “one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth,” and argued that part of the work of God on earth is to spread his joy and mirth in dark times.
If you tuned in on Wednesday or last week, you’ll know that I think it’s wrong for Christians to walk around with acted joy, but whatever we can do to spread the actual, real, unbreakable joy and mirth of Christ, we should do. A joy that wades through fear and pain, not getting bogged down for long, because we know that there is a last chapter written in the story of our lives that is only joy. A joy that is grown from rich, meaningful things in our lives, and not manufactured. I want us to take Ecclesiastes very seriously when it advises us to be merry and seek meaning in the midst of meaninglessness and vanity. It’s one of the most spiritual things we can do.
We’ve been in a series through the book of Ecclesiastes since Mardi Gras, through a season of the church known as lent. It’s a time of reflecting on the brevity of our lives, of discerning the difference between those things that give our lives meaning, and those things which are meaningless. This will be the last sermon in this series as we begin next week, on palm Sunday, to turn our hearts and minds to Easter, because there is nothing—no virus, no economic loss, not even death itself—that can separate us from the life offered to us in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Read with me in Ecclesiastes, chapter 9, starting in v.7. [Ecclesiastes 9:7-17] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Father God, I pray that we would know your truth from your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
The first point from our text today is this: find people to fear God and enjoy life with you. Find people to fear God and enjoy life with you.
We didn’t read this verse, but spoiler alert, at the end of the book, Solomon writes, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” If you’re searching for meaning, if you feel like you’re missing your purpose, consider turning to the one thing in life which is able to give us purpose and meaning—God, who is eternal, and invites us to take part in work and worship that will never fade, unlike everything else in our lives. Seek Christ and his kingdom—follow his commandments, in the midst of a community of believers—and everything else will be added to you. Solomon tells us following God is really the only thing worthwhile.
Then, in our text, in verse 9, you can see Solomon encouraging people to enjoy the wife they love, and you have to remember that this man had hundreds of wives and concubines, women who notably led him away from fearing God and keeping his commandments, so we see in this verse regret of that life. Kings at the time had so many wives for the pleasure of it, but also so that they would be able to have hundreds of children; children who would make his name great, who would provide for him in his old age, and who would carry on his legacy after he died. At the end of his life, he looks back on all the pleasure and security these wives brought him, and he concludes that his life would have been more meaningful, it would have been better, if he had just enjoyed his life with the one woman he actually loved.
Pleasure, security, and legacy. These things still absorb our lives today, and notice—none of them are bad things. God created pleasure—it wasn’t necessary that food and drink taste good and sex be pleasant, and yet God created them both “to make glad the heart of man,” as Solomon writes elsewhere. And praise God for giving good things to us in our brief lives, but as Tim Keller points out, idolatry takes a good thing and makes it an ultimate thing. The law of God teaches us what is ultimate—only God’s work and word.
Pleasure, security, and legacy are good things, but when we begin to spend our lives in pursuit of them—thinking these things are what we really need to give our lives meaning and purpose, that they are our ultimate good, our right end—then according to Solomon, our lives have become meaningless. More meaning is found in enjoying life simply, with people you love who love you.
Solomon mentions his first wife, but love and meaning in life aren’t limited to marriage or romance—Christian friendship is a vital necessity to your spiritual life—even in marriage, you will need friendships with others who fear the Lord for your life to be meaningful. What are the friendships, the family relationships, the church fellowships which fill your life with meaning? And what are the things which pull you away from people you love, things that stop you from joining in those fellowships?
My wife and I got married at 21—which, I’m not suggesting that as a model, I’m just saying that’s what we did. It was probably a terrible idea, but God is gracious to us and we love each other still. But in order to make a life together with her, I took a job working for a company that drove me to spend almost all of my time at work. For the first three months of our marriage, I would wake up by 5 to start work at 6, work until about 6, come home to eat dinner with Anne-Elise, and when she fell asleep, I would start working again. After those first three months, it didn’t improve much, and they would goad us on by paying us well, and telling us that we were making a difference, that we were working toward good goals and achieving real results, and I remember about a year in, coming home and breaking down in tears with Annie, because I realized that my life was meaningless.
And praise God, he gave me the clarity one day to be worse at my job, intentionally, and to disappoint my bosses. To tell them, in so many words, that they can have my time and my talent, but they cannot have my life. To start turning my phone off when I wasn’t there, saving some of my energy for when I got home, and I was no longer the employee they looked at first to promote, or that they held up to others as an example. But my life began to fill with meaning as I stopped long enough to spend time with my wife, whom I love, when I stopped making a good thing, like security as we were starting out, into an ultimate thing, to be pursued at any cost. “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”
Security. Is your boss impressed with all those late nights? How many times have your friends or children asked you to spend time with them, and you waived them off, because you were busy—doing what? chasing after the wind? Was it really so important, when you could have put the work down and enjoyed your life with people who love you?
Pleasure. How many friends and family members have you alienated chasing pleasure? You shut the ones you actually love out, because you’re on the internet or texting with people you don’t even really know, who will never be able to satisfy you or give you meaning. Or you leave your home with family you love, to party, over and over again, until you don’t really have family left?
Legacy. How much time have you spent longing for people to remember you for something, to make a difference in the world, not realizing that the world is small, and even if you’re remembered for a thousand years, that time is brief in light of eternity? In the end, we will all realize that only Christ is good, only he is great, and only the righteous works of God and his spirit are worthy or remembrance? Everything else will be blotted out of the book of life.
It’s good to work, it’s good to enjoy life, and it’s good to be remembered, but none of those things are where you will find meaning and satisfaction in life. They are good things, not ultimate things. I deeply encourage you to find people to fear God and enjoy life with you. That’s the first point from our text, and the second is this: find something worth doing and do it. Find something worth doing and do it. I’m looking mainly at v.10, Solomon writes, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.”
If you hadn’t noticed, the point Solomon is making here, to work with all your strength, is somewhat contrary to the point he made just verses before, to stop toiling and enjoy life, but there is a difference between contrary and contradictory points. Contradictory means one idea disproves the other—both things can’t be true. Contrary means, the ideas are opposed, but they can exist at the same time; they push and pull against each other, and it’s in the struggle that you find meaning and truth, like how a bridge over some impassable gap stands for only so long as the stones of the bridge push against each other. It’s like how the law convicts and kills us as Christians, and the grace of the gospel raises us up and gives us new life.
So here we find the push of enjoying your life with the people you love and the pull of providing for them. I think we’re all familiar with this push and pull in one way or another. If you’re like me, sometimes, I feel almost torn apart by it, but in the push and pull we find truth and meaning.
Work is not a bad thing, and unfortunately, I know, many of us right now are longing for work, a way to provide for ourselves and our families. It’s all well and good to say, eat drink and be merry when the pantries and accounts are full, but when you’re out of work and out of food, it’s not a merry time.
Not only that, but we had work before sin entered the world, and we will have work in the renewed world—just not toil, oppression, and uselessness—work from which we see the benefits for ourselves and our communities, work that fits our talents and allows us to take part in the things our father is doing in the world.
So we feel the push and pull, and we have to live in that tension. In wisdom, I would encourage a balance. First, find something worth doing. I’m not trying to tell you that you need to follow your passions and it’s not work if it’s something you love, and we should all be ski instructors, and superstars, and own coffee shops—no, I mean, not for all of us. I do think Adam should own a coffee shop, and if I had had a ski instructor, I might have avoided a severe concussion at one point.
But what I’m saying is that we should find something that allows for us to enjoy our lives with the ones we love, something that’s worth doing, that benefits the people around us, and we should give it our best while we’re there, and then we should go home to spend time with friends and family. If accounting, or being a server, or answering phones, lets you enjoy your life with the one you love, then great! If it’s being an astronaut cowboy who drives a motorcycle, my son is going to think you’re the coolest. My point is, work is not the point. Your work can’t give you meaning or purpose. Only a life lived in accordance with the will and work of God, together with your community and family, will give your life meaning and purpose.
And lastly, this, this is the third point from our text: foolishness will help you win, but wisdom is better. Foolishness will help you win, but wisdom is better. I’m looking at verses 11-17, where he tells of a great king, who would have had fortunes, and armies at his back—songs were written about this man and his conquerings. No one would have been able to stand against this king, and whenever he spoke, whatever he did, people cheered. But when he attempts to take a small city, he’s foiled by a wise man with nothing except his wisdom, people don’t even remember this man, and Solomon asks, when you compare the possessions of the two men—and we always do compare—what’s worth more? The armies and the cheers and the wealth and the name, or wisdom?
I wonder if Solomon is that great king, and if this is another confession, if he’s remembering a moment when he realized the worth and value of wisdom. But can I tell you? I think most people in our culture and place would rather be the king than the poor man, even with all his wisdom. If ignorance is bliss, and wisdom is poverty, we going to choose ignorance every time. In short, we like to win. Coffee is for closers. What’s the prize? It doesn’t matter; we won. How much money does meaning in life cost? We don’t know; we don’t care. As long as we’re winning, we don’t stop to think about meaning or purpose.
We never consider that one day the winners all die. In your last day, you’ll lose all of your accounts, and all of your holdings, guaranteed—your siege works and armies aren’t able to slow your death even a moment; resurrection and life aren’t for sale—and when you’re gone with all of your boasting about what you’ve done, and how great you are, no one else is going to talk about you. I’m not being harsh, it’s just a harsh reality. With all of his children and all of his wisdom, Solomon’s kingdom didn’t even last through a single generation before it split and began to fall. And there’s probably not a person alive who can name all the kings who ruled in that region after Israel’s fall, people who ruled the known world, had statues and monuments built for them, and were applauded in every room they entered, worshipped as gods. They won and enjoyed all the world had to offer, and now they’re forgotten.
I love that Solomon doesn’t name the king or the poor man in the passage—because it doesn’t matter. What matters is a life lived in accordance to the will and work of God, spent with the people you have loved, doing something worth doing, something that adds to the kingdom of God and to the community around you. We try to do all these other things to win, but the prize when you win is dust and air.
Winning in life is like winning an argument with someone you love. You have this huge argument, because you know that you’re right, and you win the fight, but eventually you fall asleep, and when you wake up in the morning, what do you do? You apologize, if you can. If they’ll let you. Because whether or not you’ve won the argument, you’ve lost something much more valuable—you’ve lost that relationship for a day. And if you’re like me, you look back on the point you were so desperate to make, and it’s nothing! It’s some stupid thing that doesn’t matter. You traded something of priceless value for a win. Friends, in life, we all will sleep, and we’ll wake to clarity that all of these wins were nothing, and they cost us relationship with God and the people around us.
So maybe in life you’re the poor man, and your city is besieged, and no one knows your name. But as long as you have the Lord, as long as you have love, as long as you have wisdom, you have everything that matters. And yes, hopefully you’ll find work and be able to support your families and communities, but work isn’t everything, and not everyone who’s cheered and applauded, even if they own the whole world, will live a life of meaning and purpose.
Through all of lent, through this entire series in Ecclesiastes, I hope you’ve seen, so much of what we do in life is vanity, and so many of the places we go searching for meaning are completely devoid. My prayer for you is that you would search for meaning in the Lord, because he is the only one who is able to satisfy you. As Augustine writes, “Extravagance would be called sufficiency and plenty, but you are the fullness and unfailing source of pleasure incorruptible.”
I know it can feel a bit dark to spend an entire season of the church thinking of our own inevitable end, but church—it’s counterintuitive, I know, but—there’s nothing that can help you live more fully, more richly, than keeping the end in mind. But remember, for those who are in Christ, death is not the end. Today, there may be fear and mourning, but tomorrow, like children, we will run to him with shouts of joy.
If you are searching for meaning today, I hope you’ll let us know how we can pray for you in the comments, or give me a call or message. There is hope, and meaning, and joy in Christ. Pray with me.