Purpose and Joy (Ecclesiastes 2:1-17)
The word for the year at HillSong is “Joy.” In a few weeks, we will do a church-wide emphasis on Sabbath. All the sermons and all the small groups will for four weeks focus on Sabbath. One of the ends of the practice of Sabbath-keeping is a joy-filled life.
Another major point of concentration at HillSong in 2012 will be evangelism. We are going to preach about it, write about it, and practice it. I hope 90% of us begin living evangelistically. I hope Chapel Hill will know that people at HillSong love Jesus and love helping those outside the church come to faith in Jesus. Our evangelistic bent is only possible when we do evangelism in joy, filled with joy, and with a concern for the joy of the other person whether the other is a Christ-follower or not.
Also in 2012, we will continue to preach and develop our philosophy of ministry. Our community is a safe place where we meet God and are transformed by the encounter, made new as it were. Then, newly born in Christ, we are sent out in His name. That’s HillSong –Safe/New/Sent. It’s safe to come wounded and move from wounding and pain to joy and refreshment because Jesus understands our pain and meets us in it. It’s safe to go out, sent by Him, not because the world out there is safe but because he goes with us. Our coming and our going is in joy.I cannot wait for Lent and Easter.
We’ll spend a lot of time in the New Testament book of Hebrews. I am truly looking forward to many ministries we’ll have. But the point is not to shout about all the cool things they’re doing at HillSong. The point is that our efforts help people – you and me and all who come – know God, and enter God’s joy.
Last year we began with this verse, John 1:12, “To all who received him [Jesus] ... he gave the power to become children of God.” The greatest blessing children of God have is not happiness. Happiness comes and goes. Watching the Sugar bowl, I was happy when Michigan won. That happiness lasted 12 hours or so. The blessing visited upon children of God is joy – a joy that never ends. Children of God have rough moments; I had a few this weeks. But even dark days do not erase the joy that we have – it lasts. Joy from God in Jesus Christ outlasts all other feelings, losses, and disappointments. This year, 2012 at HillSong church, the word is joy.
So why the heck are we beginning with three messages from the most forlorn depressing book in scripture, Ecclesiastes? One of the ways I try to approach studying a book of the Bible whether it is Genesis or Psalms or Amos, or Matthew, Romans, or Revelation is imagination. I pretend that this book, whatever book we’re studying, is the only Bible I have. So if the study is on the prophet Jeremiah, I read Jeremiah as if all I will ever learn about God comes from Jeremiah. It’s just an exercise and in due course I read Jeremiah in relation to other books of the Bible. Ultimately it has to fit the big story.
Ecclesiastes is one book where I do not do that exercise, at least not for long. Depression hangs over Ecclesiastes. It is captured well in The Message. As you know there are many English versions of scripture. I usually read The New Revised Standard Version, which has strengths and weaknesses. I am going to read a bit the same passage from The Message because it vividly depicts what the Speaker is saying in Ecclesiastes.
I said to myself, "Let's go for it—experiment with pleasure, have a good time!" But there was nothing to it, nothing but smoke. What do I think of the fun-filled life? Insane! Inane! My verdict on the pursuit of happiness? Who needs it? With the help of a bottle of wine and all the wisdom I could muster, I tried my level best to penetrate the absurdity of life. Then I took a good look at everything I'd done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing. 12-14 And then I took a hard look at what's smart and what's stupid. What's left to do after you've been king? That's a hard act to follow. You just do what you can, and that's it. But I did see that it's better to be smart than stupid, just as light is better than darkness. Even so, though the smart ones see where they're going and the stupid ones grope in the dark, they're all the same in the end. One fate for all—and that's it. 15-16 When I realized that my fate's the same as the fool's, I had to ask myself, "So why bother being wise?" It's all smoke, nothing but smoke. The smart and the stupid both disappear out of sight. In a day or two they're both forgotten. Yes, both the smart and the stupid die, and that's it. 17 I hate life. As far as I can see, what happens on earth is a bad business. It's smoke—and spitting into the wind.
Please, if you’re going to spend much time in Ecclesiastes, have a thumb in the Gospels, the portions about resurrection. Ecclesiastes is scripture, words inspired by God. But, I think Ecclesiastes is only good news when it is held up as a contrast. By itself, Ecclesiastes shows a crucial truth. The pleasures of life cannot bring lasting joy.
The speaker says, “I will test pleasure.” So, he tries drinking. Obviously someone of means, he can probably import exotic wines and liquors few people would ever taste, but it all leads to the same place. Drink enough and you’re drunk. The cheap stuff whinos drink by bottles covered by paper sacks gets the same result. Get drunk enough, and a nasty hangover follows. Get drunk enough often enough and then you can’t stop. No, wine didn’t work.
The speaker says, “I bought male and female slaves. I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.” This person had no morals and no restrictions. Slaves and concubines – it’s offensive and dehumanizing. How can this be the Bible. Be careful!
We must be careful when reading scripture lest we miss the fact that it is a mirror, especially the brutal passages like Ecclesiastes 2. How many millions in American secretly spend hours destroying their lives on porn-sites? Is it any less dehumanizing because it’s done in the secret of a room that’s completely dark save for the pictures on the computer monitor? Those pictures are of real people – people made in the image of God. Millions of people, millions of church goers, millions of supposed Christ-followers stare at the people in those pictures who are naked, some one’s daughter, for the sake of a thrill. We aren’t better than the speaker in Ecclesiastes. We are the speaker in Ecclesiastes.
He spoke of alcohol, of business, of sex. He saw other people as vehicles, objects that existed to give him pleasure. In the end, what words did he use to describe his pursuit? Different translations render it differently – meaningless, vanity, useless. In The Message the pursuit of pleasure through carnal stimulations is likened to spitting in the wind. Who lives this way? Who thinks this leads to happiness? Based on the number of people in recovery programs and based on the sales of antidepressants and based on divorce statistics and suicide rates, millions of 21st century Americans –our friends, our neighbors, our family members, us. Ecclesiastes wasn’t written by King Solomon or some super wise person in 5th century BC writing in Solomon’s name. Ecclesiastes was written by someone late last year who chased happiness over and over and over and finally discovered it’s a futile pursuit. Meaningless, useless, vanity – the word I think fits is empty.
As we step into 2012, we come to the chilling reality that so much of what fills our time and occupies us in the end leaves us empty. We cannot stop there! We as a community of people who believe that it is a historical reality that Jesus rose from the grave must say more. We believe the resurrection has meaning and implications, so when we dive into the despairing emptiness of Ecclesiastes which is just a depiction of the despairing emptiness of the lives of the people all around us, we have to respond. As church, we have to respond. As Christ-followers, we have to say more!
Our response is the with-God life. Simply put, the with-God life is one where God is involved in everything. The way we get with God is to put our faith in Jesus. We acknowledge our sinfulness and his love and forgiveness and his deity. His death on the cross covers our sins, and we acknowledge and believe it and say it. We ask His Holy Spirit to enter our hearts, and we give him our lives. How does this negate the emptiness? All roads of pleasure seeking, when pleasure seeking ignores and occurs in human terms without regard for others, lead to emptiness and death. How does life with God in Jesus Christ lead somewhere else?
It is eternal. Paul, writing about this life in 1stCorinthians 15, talks about immortality and imperishability, and he mocks the emptiness. “Where O death is your sting?” By going all-in with Jesus, our sinful selves die with him, but we join him in the resurrection, and one resurrected cannot die again. Life with Jesus begins when we receive Him and put our faith in Him, and it never ends even when our bodies die.
Furthermore, it is a joy-filled life.Some Christians act like following Jesus is all work, all drudgery, and they try to root out anything that might be fun or winsome or spontaneous. That would just stink. That’s an eternity of sober doldrums, unlike the actual promises of Jesus. He said, “I have said thing these things [about being connected to him] so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” Recall Heather’s message on Ecclesiastes last week. She told of the pain of a mother whose 18-year-old son died. What could be a greater tragedy?
And yet, in that story, Heather said, quoting C.S. Lewis,“God speaks through laughter but shouts through pain.” And the truth is, we might miss his voice in the laughter if we never heard him shout. Again, neither I nor, Lewis, nor the preacher in Ecclesiastes is saying that God causes painful times – but that he allows us to dwell in them for a season with the purpose of experiencing His greater joy!
Our response to the Preacher’s mournful emptiness in Ecclesiastes is not a yawn-producing, staid Christianity that conforms to a simplistic formula we’d read on an outdated Bible tract. Our response is a faith in a living God who came as a man who experienced real pain, but turned it to resurrection, exchanging ashes for beauty. Our response is faith in that man, Jesus, which leads us into the with-Godlife.
The with-God life takes over every element of our lives; our parenting, our work (be it marketing, teaching, garbage collecting, nursing, or whatever); our play (at the restaurant, watching the game, enjoying our friends and our children). In all arenas, we live with God, living in the joy of Jesus.
This morning, Amy Brown refuses the bleakness of the Ecclesiastes Preacher’s vision. She refuses emptiness and instead responds to God’s call by coming to be ordained into deacon service. Being a deacon is not glamorous. It is night-time meetings, crunching budget numbers, discussing how to maintain our building so that the building can be used by God; it is getting down in the dirt to pull weeds so that the property that is used by God is a beautiful maintained, orderly place. Her simple, “Yes, I’ll serve,” is a “No, I won’t satisfy myself with meaningless things that do not satisfy.” To serve in the community of faith is a step toward purpose and joy.
We all respond with a resounding no to the Speaker’s vanity. We won’t buy into our culture’s sensual attempts at pleasure any more than we would stand in the face a gale force wind and spit. No, not us. We respond to the cries of “Vanity, all is vanity,” by saying it is not vanity when we gather and raise our voices in songs of praise to God. Our worship is joined by angels and untold heavenly beings. With unseen spiritual forces lifting us we declare God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s beauty, and God’s amazing grace.
Service, worship, and so many other things that we do as a people who believe in Jesus –it all comes together to paint another picture, an alternative. The Speaker-Preacher of Ecclesiastes was true and appropriate in bemoaning the emptiness of temporal solutions to human longing. We are equally right in saying in Jesus, there is full, lasting, perfect satisfaction for all who wonder, all who hurt, and all who know how broken then are.
We declare the with-God Gospel alternative to death, and finally, we make it our purpose to draw others in because we know so many people who think happiness is in the bottom of a bottle of Miller Genuine Draught; we weekly talk to friends who are sure happiness will come when the enormous, high-definition, 3D television is hooked to the wall and the stereo surround sound. We can too easily list people we love who are certain all will be right in their lives once they go on that beach vacation.
Empty! And this is people we know and love. We want them to be full, like we are full when we worship, when we service, when we gather in Jesus’ name. We want to share the truth that life is not made up of a few thrills and a lot of grief. True life comes in the joy of Jesus that transcends; the joy that transforms our grief.
No, it is not vanity. It is joy, in Jesus’ Name.