Eccl. 9.11-10:20 – Wisdom & Folly

Note for a sermon preached on 15.02.09am

For ten long years the Greeks had been besieging the costal city of Troy. They’d tried everything, and thrown all the might and power at their disposal at it, but Troy had stood. It showed no sign of falling. Imagine the elation from the city walls the day they saw the army sailing away having abandoned their efforts. It must have been a glorious moment, relief beyond measure, but there was one thing that concerned them, something that had been left behind. Standing outside the city walls was a large wooden horse.

Stories differ as to what happened next. Some say that they decided to drag the horse into the city as a victory trophy. Others say that they found a Greek soldier cowering in the rocks where he had been abandoned by his retreating colleagues after a falling out. He told them that the horse was an offering to Athena.

Either way, the result is the same; the horse is brought into Troy.

They weren’t to know that the soldier left on the shore was in fact a plant…

They weren’t to know that inside the horse were a crack squad of Grecian warriors waiting to come out at night, slaughter the guards and open the city gates…

They weren’t to know that the retreating ships had in fact under cover of night turned around and returned to their shore…

An angel appears at a university faculty meeting and tells the dean that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behaviour, the Lord will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom or beauty. Without hesitating, the dean selects infinite wisdom.

“Done!” says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. Now, all heads turn toward the dean, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light. At length, one of his colleagues whispers, “Say something.”

The dean looks at them and says, “I should have taken the money.”

I remember seeing a stand up routine by one of my favourite comics Jasper Carrot. In it he remarked that in every survey of women asking what they looked for in men, that the top answer was a sense of humour. In true Carrott fashion, he then turns to the ladies in the audience, “OK, girls, imagine you walk into a pub and standing at the bar is Keven Spacey, not renowned for his sense of humour. Now, he’s standing next to Ken Dodd…”

What characteristics do you prize in a person – whether they are a public figure, a friend or partner? Good looks? Sense of humour? Caring nature? Willingness to listen? Athletic nature? Confidence? Ambition? To the teacher, the top quality is wisdom, almost always missing on our lists.

What is wisdom? It’s not a word we use very often today. We might talk about intelligence, but that isn’t the same thing. Wisdom is not how clever you are, but is to do with having the insight to live a good life. If we look at the proverbs that the Teacher uses in today’s passage, we can gain an image of what a wise person might be like:

• A wise person lives a quiet or humble life rather than a loud, domineering life (9:17)
• A wise person brings peace not destruction (9:18)
• A wise person is a calm person, not a hasty one (10:4)
• A wise person is gracious with their words rather than self promoting (10:12)
• A wise person thinks ahead instead of living just for the moment (10:14)
• A wise person is hardworking and is a good steward of what they’ve been given rather than being lazy of gluttonous (10:16-18)
• A wise person takes care not to antagonize other people needlessly, especially those in authority, instead of being quick to criticize (10:20)

Living a wise life fosters community, peaceful living, and prosperity (in holistic sense). In contrast living a foolish life destroys community through its self-promoting and self-centred actions. Such a life brings destruction.

Funny when you see it put like this that wisdom isn’t valued more than it is.
When the wooden horse was wheeled into Troy, I am sure there was someone in the city who was wise enough to call out – ‘it’s a trap!’ But as always this cry was ignored in favour of the value of the prize or the prestige it brought. The Teacher tells another story about a siege. In this siege a small city is being besieged by a powerful king. There is no way that they can survive. No way can they keep the invaders out. The numbers and machinery of their opponents are just too large and sophisticated. But that doesn’t take into account wisdom. In the city there is one wise man, and he has the insight to overcome the enemies pounding at the gate and to keep them out. Wisdom can’t take away the troubles of the world, but it can help us cope! And yet what happens afterwards? Is this hero celebrated? Is he given a reward and held up as a shining example? No. he is forgotten…

Why isn’t wisdom valued?

Wisdom doesn’t draw attention to itself. In fact points away to others. Wisdom isn’t glamorous or sexy. Wisdom is learnt; you can’t get it in a jar like instant coffee or buy it at Lakeside. In a debate, so often the person that shouts loudest gets heard, even though their point of view might be wrong or unhelpful. At a party, people will navigate towards the attractive ones, without even realising what they might miss out on by not spotting others. Doors will open to someone with money or who knows the right people, but not so well to someone who is unknown who might have something valuable to offer.

It will also come as no surprise to you to realise that being wise won’t give you an easy life – remember back in chapter 2 the Teacher pursues wisdom, but realises that the same fate awaits the wise person as the fool.

But wisdom does have its rewards. What did he say back in Ecclesiastes 8:1? ‘Who is like the wise man? Who knows the explanation of things? Wisdom brightens a man’s face and changes its hard appearance.’ Why is this?

Wisdom may not solve the problems of life, or take them away, but it does enable us to face them, to deal with them. Wisdom breeds peace and relationships. Wisdom stresses grace over judgement. Wisdom looks to others not ones self. These are the qualities that we need to live as part of an imperfect world.

Think of the list of the qualities we drew up to describe wisdom earlier? A wise person lives a quiet or humble life, brings peace, is a calm person, is gracious with their words, thinks ahead, is hardworking and is a good steward of what they’ve been given, and takes care not to antagonize others needlessly.

Does that sound familiar to you? It reminds me of the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I guess this isn’t surprising really when you remember what Solomon says elsewhere about wisdom – ‘the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and disciple’ (Proverbs 1:7).

To seek to be wise is to seek to be like Christ; this is good thing. To seek to be wise, we need to cultivate openness to God, praying for the Spirit to mould us into God’s image, listening to his prompting and direction. It is God who makes us wise, but we can help that process through seeking after him.

Of course we shouldn’t be surprised that when we try and live wise lives that we may get walked over and forgotten like the man in the siege – isn’t that what happened to Jesus? People might think it odd that we seek to live this way rather than putting other more glamorous objectives first. But when this happens, take courage from Christ. The world said that the way he lived was foolish. It wondered why he didn’t fight back or demand power. It was scandalised when he washed people’s feet and ate with the prostitutes and tax collectors. To die on the cross was to suffer defeat. And yet through this foolishness we are saved, just as the inhabitants of that city were rescued by the wise man inside its gates.

God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”’ (1 Corinthians 1:27-31)

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Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:12 – Work & Wealth

Notes from a sermon preached on 25.01.09am

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the more famous of the founders of the theory of evolution (the other being Alfred Wallace). I would imagine that if I was to come up with a phrase that summarises what Charles Darwin was about, I suspect you’d come up with ‘survival of the fittest’, and that was the phrase that came to my mind when I started reading this passage.

‘If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.’ (5:8-9)

The popular understanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution says life is a case of the ‘survival of the fittest’, the fittest thrive at the expense of the weakest. Now I am in danger of doing here what I get passionately frustrated by, well meaning Christians taking sound bites from science to work with – either promote or denounce – without understanding the intricacies behind them. Darwin had a lot more to say than simply life is about ‘survival of the fittest’, but this isn’t the time or place for that discussion. For today, let’s take that bleak sounding sound-bite.

As the Teacher surveys life, he comes to the same conclusion. As Jesus himself saw, he recognises that the poor will always be here and that others trying to get ahead will always oppress them. But his view is starker than ‘survival of the fittest’. Not only are the weakest doomed, but also the lot of the strongest isn’t so good either.

He tells two little stories about seemingly successful people to drive home his point…

…A man hoards wealth, accumulating as much as he can, but in the end his riches bring him harm. Maybe their stash attracts thieves? Maybe their greed gains them ridicule? Maybe those they gain it from become bitter and turn against them?

…What was the point of his striving?

…A certain woman was also in the business of accumulating wealth, but this time not for their own benefit, but in order to pass it on to her children. Something goes wrong. Maybe a stock market crash wipes off the value of her shares? Maybe the government takes most of it away in inheritance taxes? Maybe in her old age, the money she’s earned is needed to pay for her care? When she dies, and the time comes for her fortune to be handed over, there’s nothing left.

…What was the point of all her striving?

…We enter this life with nothing and we leave with nothing.

Now remember what kind of writing this is – it is important to remind ourselves of that fact at this point, as we consider what this means for us. Ecclesiastes is part of the wisdom writings in the Bible; the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. These writings have their own particular style and customs, and it is important to take note of what they are. Here are two:

· Sometimes they contain a conversation. In Job it is between Job, his friends and God. To understand what God might be saying to us you need to ask who’s talking. If it is a character it might be a reflection on life, but not necessarily what God thinks. Where God speaks, you know that is what he thinks and wants! In Ecclesiastes it’s similar. Here we have a conversation alternating between observation by the Teacher on life under the Sun, life as we see and experience it, and life under God, life lived with recognition of God and in faith in him. Just because the writer of Ecclesiastes says something in the context of ‘life under the sun’ that doesn’t mean that that is the truth or God’s will for us – rather that is how people of no faith might see things. There’s an important difference here. That in itself puts a question mark over what he’s been saying so far…

· The other thing to note is that being wisdom writing, Ecclesiastes, like the Proverbs is full of pithy down to life saying. These are used to forcefully make a point. These are of course generalisations, and often the writer exaggerates to make a point. Take today’s passage for example. Of course it is possible to become rich and use it for good. Not all rich people are unhappy. But the point is that the pursuit of wealth for contentment is in many ways a futile thing and it is often done at the expense of others. Wealth cannot guarantee happiness, health, a good future, and can’t keep away death.

So, the Teacher surveys humanity’s striving and comes up with an even bleaker conclusion than the sound bite understanding of Darwin. Life is not just survival of the fittest at the expense of the weakest, but ultimately, even the strongest are left empty. What have I achieved with my life? Have I made a difference, made my mark? Or have I wasted it on the daily drudge? I wonder if the Teacher was going through some kind of mid-life crisis, because that’s what it sounds like?

But wait. Does it need to be this way? Is life meaningless? The Teacher says no!

‘18 Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. 19 Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God. 20 He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.’

Sometimes as Christians we have this feeling that we should be about big things. Our lives should be devoted day and night to changing the world, serving the poor or sharing the gospel with the globe. It is no wonder when we then look at our lives that we can feel someone disappointed!

Sometimes, God does call people to become world-changing figures. God called Mother Teresa to her work with the poor and Billy Graham to his evangelistic campaigns. But that’s the Teacher’s point. God called Mother Teresa to her work, not you. Equally, he called you to your work, and not Mother Teresa. God has given us the life that we have. It is a tailor-made gift from him to you. We don’t need to go chasing after another life to find satisfaction, for this is the one that God has given us, and he knows the one that is right for us. Of course, I’m not saying that every situation we find ourselves in is wonderful, or as God wills it – remember we are living in a fallen world, things are never going to be perfect, but God has given you this gift and offers the possibility of satisfaction in it.

The people in the stories of warning that the Teacher tells are people who endure work, so that they can gain something else at the end of it. Work is seen a means to an ends, a ‘necessary evil’ if you like. How easy it is to see our daily chores that way. But what about the labourer who goes to sleep satisfied at night in verse12. Why is his sleep sweet? He has learnt that work itself, the act of working is in itself a gift, to be enjoyed in its own right. Work is a good thing (paid or otherwise).

Going back to the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall, when God utters the curse after sin enters their lives, work becomes effected:

17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

But work existed before this point! God worked in creating the world – on the seventh day he rested from his work. He looked at what he’d done and it was good. Adam was invited to play a part in that work, naming the animals and keeping the Garden.

Working is part of living out God’s image in us. Being creative is part of who God is, and as we follow his example, then we will find satisfaction as it is part of what God has made us to be. If we give thanks for the work that we have – whether that is paid or not – if we seek God’s Presence in our work, and do it with him and for him, then we shall find that it is satisfying. If we seek to do it as well as we can with the ability that God has given us, rather than rush through it, then we shall find fulfilment in what we do, and that fulfilment may fill that void that those who seek after more and more wealth are seeking to plug.

Equally, enjoying our relationships and our social lives, our rest and recreation, is also part of the image of God in us – he exists in the community of the Trinity, he walked with Adam and Eve. It is right, good and proper to enjoy ourselves and rest – as God himself did. These things are important, and not a waste of our time or energy. Rest is certainly not wrong. Seek God in work and relaxation, work hard at both and do them for and with him, then you will find that you are fulfilling his image in you, and that is the route to fulfilment.

Ecclesiastes 2:24-3:22 – Faith In God: The Alternative to Pessimism

Notes from a sermon preached on 11.01.09am

What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labours under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.’ Eccl. 2:22-23

And so ended the passage we looked at last week, a depressing look at the drudgery that can be life. Last week we started a new sermon series going through the book of Ecclesiastes, in which the Teacher – either King Solomon himself, or someone following in his footsteps – took on the quest of finding meaning in life. What is it that brings us contentment, fulfilment, true happiness? What is the point of it all?

Over the centuries we’ve all been on that same quest, although we may not describe it in some of the lofty terms that the Teacher does. Like him, we’ve tried finding contentment in pursuing pleasure, accumulating knowledge, learning from history and devoting ourselves to WWW. As we called it last week – work, wealth and women (or men depending on your gender!)

Sadly, like him, so often we find these things wanting. They don’t always turn out to be the answers we though they might be – as for several of these the credit crunch is proving right now.

I’m glad you’ve made it through to this week and that the depressive nature of last week’s topic didn’t cause you all to pack it all up and give in! I hinted at the end of last week that the Teacher had some good news for us. Today, you’ll be glad to hear, we come on to that!

Straight after those depressing words we opened with the mood changes completely. He starts talking about eating and drinking – symbolic for being content. He talks about finding satisfaction in work and enjoyment. He talks about receiving gifts and wisdom, knowledge and happiness. Something has definitely changed. But what is it? What is he doing that has transformed things? He’s still talking about the same activities – working, seeking knowledge and wisdom, eating, drinking – and yet these are now positive things.

In a stage show, lighting can have dramatic effect. Bright white lights can make everything seem very clinical, stark, naked. Blue lighting can make it seem cold, secretive, or spooky. Swap for yellow lights, and the same scene becomes much warmer, more friendly. Think of the difference in mood you can experience by walking from a kitchen illuminated by fluorescent strips into a living room light by warm soft lighting. Totally different experiences. Or for those who came to the Carols by Candlelight service here a few weeks ago – how different this room feels under those lights than it does today.

The difference in these passages is caused by the light shining on them.

Again and again in the first couple of chapters the Teacher talks about the activities he sees and tries as being done ‘under the sun’, for example, Eccl. 2:17, ‘So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.’ You can almost picture the scene can’t you of a farm labourer hoeing a field being beaten down by the harshness of the midday sun above him. Each movement is an effort, the heat draining the energy from him as fast as the sweat pours from his brow.

The picture is one of humanity on their own battling against the elements. It’s an aggressive picture, a lonely picture, a hopeless picture, a losing battle. Its also a very earth bound picture. I remember the first time I came to Wormley. I was doing this bicycle trip around the churches in our denomination. To start with it was very much an endurance test, knocking out the miles on the road. So often I would find myself head down, starring at the road a foot in front of the bike, counting out the strokes, one at a time, blocking out the rest of the world.

I don’t know if you noticed, but this sense of isolation is underlined by God being mentioned only once in last weeks passages (1:1-2:23), and even then only to blame for the burden of this heavy life in 1:13, ‘What a heavy burden God has laid on man!’

Then we come to 2:24. Suddenly the Teacher raises his head and looks up. Immediately these references to ‘life under the sun’ simply vanish. Instead, it is God that shines through everything, the divine brings illumination. The mood is transformed. Everything looks so different. Moving from life under the sun to life under God brings a newfound optimism and contentment. Compare our opening verses:

What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labours under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.’ Eccl. 2:22-23

With the subsequent ones:

24 A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

If we live with our eyes to the ground, live under the sun, then our life will appear meaningless. There is no lasting fulfilment here. But if we live with our eyes to God, then everything changes.

So what does it mean to live life under God as opposed to living life under the sun? Does this mean that we need to spend all our time singing worship songs and doing ‘Christian’ things? I sincerely hope not! Whilst I enjoy belting out the odd chorus, a never ending chorus binge – no thanks! The worker in both these sections is working the same field. The activities in chapters 1-2 are the same as those in chapter 3. We still work, do pleasurable things, eat drink and spend time with family and friends, only we do them inspired by God, and for God.

What do I mean? Let’s take the parable I told last week, the parable of the farmer who spent his time building bigger barns in order to house his ever-increasing crops. The story ends with him dying and never getting to enjoy his riches. Why is that farmer condemned in the parable? Is it because he was seeking to be a productive farmer, to grow the best crops he could? No. He is condemned because he is working ‘under the sun’, motivated by greed, harvesting for himself. If he’d been growing them for God, seeking to be a good farmer, using the gifts God had given him in thanksgiving and to help others, then Jesus would have praised him instead. Money is not the root of all evil – it is the love of money…

The same sort of idea can be applied to the other areas of our lives. What drives us as we engage in them? What do we do them for? Who do we do them for?

Do you want to be fulfilled in your work? Then work as if you were working for God not your boss.
Do you want to be fulfilled in your relationships? Then love your family and friends as if they were Christ himself.

Life under the sun and life under God are the same life, just motivated and driven by different sources. One leads to disappointment and the other to fulfilment.

Now, to leave it there would be easy – it would sound great – but if we’re honest, that’s unrealistic and simplistic. Life’s not like that. All this kind of theology does is leave people feeling as if they are inferior Christian, as if somehow they aren’t good enough at pleasing God as they aren’t fulfilled all the time and wondering why some of the folks who live life ‘under the sun’ seem to have a better life than they do

Fortunately, this isn’t the theology of the Teacher. He doesn’t stop at this point but expands it with three other observations.

For starters, he recognises that our finding satisfaction (v.13) is not something we earn, but a gift from God. The fact that we aren’t happy and others are does not mean that they are better at pleasing God that we are, that they are superior Christians. It doesn’t mean that we can earn satisfaction, just as we can’t earn salvation. Satisfaction is the gift of God, given to whom and whenever he chooses is his love and wisdom.

Secondly, although we might be striving to live under God, we can’t escape the fact that sin is still in the world, and that sin has consequences for those it touches upon – even those who are themselves innocent.

Read Eccl. 3:16

How often do you see people on the news torn apart by things that have been done to them or their families, but the culprits have got away with it, or have received what they perceive to be a lenient sentence. This lack of justice can be like a sore that won’t heal, preventing them from ever having closure and finding peace again. How do you reconcile that to the idea of living under God bringing contentment? If you live ‘under the sun’ there is no hope in such situations. How about those living under God? Does this take away our contentment? It needn’t, as we know that our life under God doesn’t end with our death, but continues afterwards. Read Eccl. 3:17. We know that God will act as judge over sin, including those sins which their perpetrators though they’d got away with. Closure can be found in him. Equally, that recognition of our life with God to come, counteracts any disjoint caused by seeing others who aren’t living under God having more enjoyable lives today.

In fact we don’t need to have our sense of contentment ruined today by the imperfections of life lived now. Life will never be perfect today – that’s impossible. We are imperfect people, living with other imperfect people in a world that is tainted. Inevitably there will be good times and bad times. If this life is all we have, then these seasons would ruin our sense of fulfilment. If to be satisfied, we need the perfect life here and now, then we are destined to failure – and that is the trouble with life lived ‘under the sun’. It is good when it is the season for being born, but death snatches that away. It is good when it is time to laugh, but weeping is sometimes louder. Peace is wonderful, but there is always war. But God has set eternity in our hearts. We may not fathom all that God is done, but he has told us that a time will come when these changing seasons will come to an end, and a new season be ushered in, life with him. Life under God knows that this is coming, so enables us to celebrate the good seasons as gifts of God, and to endure the bad, patiently trusting in him.

Until that day, the Teacher concludes there is indeed nothing better for us to do than to live for God, enjoy the work that he gives us and find our satisfaction in him.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:23 – Everything is Meaningless

Notes from an All Age Service, 04.01.09am

Who wrote a letter to Father Christmas this year? I wonder what you asked for?
Pantomime season – imagine you got Aladdin’s lamp and a Djinni popped out and granted you three wishes, what would you ask for?

Read the story of Solomon gaining wisdom – 2 Chronicles 1

We’re going to start a new series today looking at the book of Ecclesiastes. This is written either by Solomon, or someone following Solomon’s lead. They call themselves the Teacher. Listen to what he says about himself: Read Eccl. 1:12-14

The Teacher is on a quest (in the Message, Eugene Peterson calls him the Quester). His quest is to find happiness, success, meaning, contentment. Tries a variety of different things – surprisingly the same as people try today!

Quest to discover what he tried
Letters under chairs. Rearrange to reveal what he tried:

· History (1:3-11)
· Pleasure (2:1-3)
· WWW. (no, not world-wide-web, but Work, wealth and women) (2:4-11)
· Knowledge (2:12-16) (Science & Wisdom)

Have you ever tried to catching bubbles? Try it. Just as you think you’ve got it, they either slip between your fingers or pop. The Teacher spent a lot of time watching what people do, the things they wish for and work for, and came to the conclusion that they were like chasing after the wind, or catching bubbles – pointless. Read 1:2

History (1:3-11) – do we ever learn from past mistakes (Great War, war to end all wars). Have humans improved? changed?
Pleasure (2:1-3) – does anything actually bring us lasting joy?
Work, wealth and women (2:4-11) – all these things can change… desire for bigger, better, faster… feeling that could be more
Knowledge (2:12-16) – can science discover everything? solve all illnesses and problems? despite all we’ve learnt are we wiser people now? During the Industrial Revolution, belief that we were going to get better and better, solve all problems etc.

Problems:
· We may work hard – but someone else profits…
· Work can be pain and grief, with no rest…
· Have things until you die, and then you leave it behind to others…

Someone else realised the same thing, and told the following story: Jesus’ parable of the rich man and his increasing barns! Read Luke 12:13-21

At this time of uncertainty in the world, with the credit crunch and threat of redundancies and other knock on effects, this is being discovered again. The institutions & practises we trusted in & the money we banked on have been reavealed as being less secure than we thought. What is worth investing in? What brings us meaning and purpose?

Our age is an age of cynicism. Lack of trust & hope. In many ways Ecclesiastes seems much like our day. The Teacher cuts through much of the nonsense and hypocrasy to reveal the futility of many things that are thought to be worthy. But, unlike our age, it has something to offer in their place. Despite what is often said about this book, it is full of joy and goodness, and full of God. We will discover more in coming weeks…