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Is That All There Is?

August 4, 2019


August 4, 2019 (Eighth Sunday after Pentecost)

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas


Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14

2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
   vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Ecclesiastes 2:18-23

18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

Generous Giver,
you pour forth your extravagant bounty without measure
upon your whole creation.
Teach us such generosity,
that the fruits of our spirits
and the works of our hands may be used
for the building of your commonwealth of blessing. Amen.


You may wonder why Ecclesiastes is part of our Scripture.  It makes no mention to salvation, forgiveness, or some of the other great themes of the Hebrew and New Testaments.  Ecclesiastes doesn’t mention the Law of Moses (Torah), Abraham, or any of the covenantal promises of the Hebrew Testament.  And one doesn’t find evidence of hope for the future – whether short or long term – in the words of this author whose repeated message seems to be that his life of disciplined duty was wasted.  If you have ever thought and felt that all you’ve tried to do was useless, Ecclesiastes speaks your language.


Ecclesiastes was written by someone who had taken a long and hard look at life and faced realities honest people have wrestled with across the ages.  People who have taken an honest look at life admit that death is inevitable.  They admit that living involves repetition.  We wake up and get to work.  We learn.  We make mistakes, experience setbacks, and celebrate accomplishments.  We age and grow weary.  We die.  Then others repeat that process.  In many cases, they do not value what we have done, what we have tried to do, what we have learned, and the lessons to be taken from our living so they will not repeat our mistakes.  

These realities happen to wealthy people and paupers.  They happen to people who are learned and those who are uneducated.  The author of Ecclesiastes concludes that nobody is able to escape this fate. It is inevitable, or to put it in current terms, “it is what it is.”  So the author of Ecclesiastes reached a conclusion declared at the second verse of the book and repeated many time afterwards:  All is vanity.  


That thought has been repeated by poets, prophets, philosophers, and other observers across the ages.  Amid the changes and constant activity of life, the world remains the same.  Despite generations marked by birth, growth, aging, and death of people, the world doesn’t seem to change.  The rich continue to prosper.  The poor and weak continue to suffer.  Cruel people continue to hurt others.  People go about their business with practiced indifference about the plight of others.  We die.  


Then what good is faith?  Why do we talk about faith, love, hope, justice, truth, and peace if they matter?  And let’s be clear.  People who live by faith live with the same realities the Preacher identified.  People who love their neighbors as themselves aren’t exempt from those realities.  People who believe in justice have always been challenged and tempted to despair because injustice is widespread.  People who live in truth have always wrestled with the lies, half-truths, and other misrepresentations that too many people accept as true.  


So why do we bother?  If death is inevitable and if the troubles and burdens of living are constant, what’s the use of living by faith?  What’s the use of living in love?  What’s the use of talking about justice, let alone going to the trouble of trying to do it?  


Is that all there is?  


The Preacher in Ecclesiastes appears to have thought so judging from this statement.


So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.  (Ecclesiastes 1:20-23)


If this is true, what are we to do with the gospel of Jesus?  If “all the toil” of our living is for nothing, what do we do about the Hebrew prophets who condemned societies that mistreated people who were weak, vulnerable, poor, and strangers?  If all our days are spent in futile effort, what do we do with what Jesus declared about God’s concern for how we treat “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46)?


If the message in Ecclesiastes is the final word, why should we even ponder the Great Commandment to love God with all being and love others as neighbors, let alone criticize ourselves and others for not following it?  If our effort to do justice doesn’t matter, why go to the trouble to teach people to be fair, generous, hospitable, kind, and peaceful?  Why should we bother with the Great Commission if none of this stuff matters?  


If none of it matters, why was Jesus in the world to show us what loving God and others looks like if it never mattered?  


If none of it matters, why does St. Paul’s message about faith, hope, and love at 1 Corinthians 13 matter?  What’s the point of talking about love, living by faith, and persevering through life out of a sense of hope?  If love doesn’t matter, faith doesn’t matter, and hope is simply pipe dream, then why do we put so much stock on loving, faithfulness, and being hopeful?


And if love and justice matter, why is Ecclesiastes part of Scripture?  If faithfulness to the divine imperatives of love and justice matters, why should we even ponder what is written in Ecclesiastes?  If faithfulness and perseverance in the face of hardships and oppressive people and systems matter, why should I even preach this sermon, and why should anyone ponder it?  


Ecclesiastes matters because the issue it raises is universal and inescapable.  The issues of human mortality and our sense of inevitable death challenge us to consider not only how long we live, but how we will use the time and energies we have.  The writer of Ecclesiastes speaks the truth about human pain and despair.  Sensible and honest people do not pretend that pain, trouble, despair, and death can be avoided.  


Yet, Scripture teaches another truth that is deeper than this.  That deeper truth is the sovereignty of God!  That truth meets us at the beginning of Scripture in these words:  In the beginning God…!  


When we were children we learned arithmetic to begin our knowledge of mathematics.  We learned about addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Arithmetic truths did not become untrue when we learned algebra.  We simply learned that mathematics is more than arithmetic.  


But mathematics involved not is bigger than arithmetic and algebra, as anyone will confirm who pondered calculus!  Mathematics is bigger than arithmetic and algebra, but we need to know the truths of arithmetic and algebra in order to delve into the mysteries of calculus, differential equations, and advanced applied algebra.  Arithmetic knowledge is true, but it will not work if one is figuring out how to travel to the edge of our solar system.  That requires deeper math!


I use this example to stress that the sovereignty of God is the “deeper truth” beyond the arithmetic of Ecclesiastes.  Because of God, we speak of love despite knowing that we live in a hateful world where people choose to be hateful rather than loving.


Because of God, we speak of freedom despite knowing that people often believe they don’t have choices, that their choices don’t matter, and that the effort they take to fulfill their choices will be marked by frustration, risk of failure, and eventually death.


Because of God, we dare to hope.  We dare to hope because of other lessons in Scripture aside from what we find in Ecclesiastes.  We speak, sing, write, teach, and call on one another to live in hope because God cannot be ruled out.  


Whoever wrote Ecclesiastes did not have the benefit of the gospel of Jesus with its window into the sovereignty of God over human frailty, mortality, and fallibility. The “deeper truth” of God’s sovereignty revealed by the gospel of Jesus calls and claims us.  That “good news” inspires us to hold on because as the song says, “there’s a bright side somewhere, don’t you rest until you find it.”  


Yes, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes wrote the truth about life being full of repetition, frustration, and the inevitable end to our mortal existence.  Yes, we should admit that truth.


But the Preacher did not ponder the deeper truth that the power of God has always operated to counter the forces of God sin and death.  The message of prophetic people in every age and place is that God is sovereign!  


When inevitability appears to define our living, remember the “deeper truth” that God is sovereign?  


When wickedness seems to rule the day, remember that God’s justice is sovereign!  


When hateful people oppress us, remember that God’s love is faithful!  


And because God is sovereign in justice, sovereign in love, sovereign in truth, and sovereign in faithfulness, we walk by faith rather than by sight.  We will not stop believing in love even in the face of hatefulness. 


Because of God, we know we are free to love.  We are free to hope.  We are free to live by faith.  We are free to help others.  We are free to confront evil knowing that we are not alone.  Even as the reality of death is around us and draws near to us, the sovereignty of God comforts and strengthens us!  


I thank God for Ecclesiastes because it speaks honestly about the frustrations of our mortality.  Yet the deeper truth is that God’s grace is sovereign.  God is faithful to strengthen us to meet the challenges the Preacher mentioned in Ecclesiastes.  


The great message we receive in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus is that God’s grace and truth are sovereign over the facts and forces of our mortality.  This is what keeps us going when we would despair.  This is what inspires us to “walk by faith and not by sight.”  This is the message of the Holy Spirit that runs deeper than our worst trouble.  


We refuse to live in despair because we will not count God out.  We press on despite sorrows because we will not count God out.  We speak of overcoming oppression because we will not count God out.  We know about tribulation, but because of God, we also know about being more than conquerors.  


We know that life is as the Preacher described it in Ecclesiastes.  Yet we know that because God is sovereign, that is not all there is.  Because we know this, we say, with faithful people everywhere, “Hallelujah [Praise the Lord]!”




©Wendell Griffen, 2019