Sunday, May 28, 2006

Emptiness & Eternity - Ecclesiastes 2

Sermon Script. Ecclesiastes ch2. Preached at Arborfield, 28-May-06
ENTERTAINMENT was EMPTY? (v1-11)

Once it was said - Cogito Ergo Sum... I think therefore, I am... Today? Perhaps “Tesco, ergo sum”. I shop, therefore... I am... or even, iPod Ergo Sum... I am entertained, therefore I am.... The entertainment industry offering the keys to happiness wherever we turn.

And we shop, not because we need things but because we think it might satisfy. The Teacher sets up a grand experiment. Richer than Roman Abrahamovich or Bill Gates. He had a flair for pleasure greater than Elton John. It's said of certain things, “that if you have to ask, you can't afford it”. For The Teacher money was no object.

Look at verses 1-11. v1, he turns his heart to consider pleasure. Why? v1, to find out what is good. A noble plan?
v1, but it was meaningless. Why?
v2, what does it accomplish?
He tries wine, v3, and folly. You can imagine him, stumbling out of a pub on Friar Street in Reading on a Friday night... and yet as he walks away, shaking his head in despair... meaningless.

Ah, we say, that's the folly of youth.... we know that's limited. Aim higher! So he did.... v4, he undertook great projects – houses, vineyards, v5, gardens, parks, trees, v6, reservoirs, groves, v7, slaves, herds, flocks, v8, silver, gold, singers, a harem... “the delights of the heart of man”. That's more like it!! Indeed, v9, he was the greatest man of his day.
v10, he denied himself nothing. Refused no pleasure. He enjoyed his work and its great rewards. He pushed the limits further than us. He did well and worked hard.

Surely with all these great projects and accomplishments he was the happiest man on earth? And that's what v11 concludes isn't it? “I gained the world, and retired with my fortune, truly happy.”

v11. “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was.... meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” Meaningless?! Chasing the wind?! He surveys his empire and with refreshing honesty says – its empty.

Instinctively I don't believe him. Give me the money – let me show you how to be happy. Yet, across the nation are miserable lottery winners... He tried it all, and yet his words are like those of John Reid this week. Much like the Home Office... earthly pleasures are not fit for purpose. They can't truly satisfy. We're left “amusing ourselves to death”

A church bigger than Westminster Abbey once stood in the centre of Reading. Now, only ruins remain. A new cathedral has arisen... a cathedral of consumerism, offering satisfaction to any who worship there. Culture cries “Let me entertain you”. Yet another series of Big Brother begins... “13 weeks, 14 freaks” as someone has said. Offering us escape from emptiness.

I'm not immune to the lure of materialism. Easily deceived as I walk through that cathedral of consumerism, The Oracle. Even on a modest budget gathering an alarming amount of earthly possessions.

The Teacher stops us in our tracks. He says “wake up”. We want more, but entertainment is not fit for purpose. It's empty.

EDUCATION was EMPTY? (v12-16)
If not entertainment, how about education. Wisdom... Today 43% of 18-21 year olds are herded into University by our Government... rising towards 50% by 2010. “Education, education, education” was the cry back in 1997.

A better world by means of better education... plausible enough... and more education might mean more money... which might help, but we'll come back to that in a few minutes.

v12, The Teacher says he tried wisdom. He also considered folly. A fair test. What does he observe?
v13. Firstly, it is probably better to be wise than to be a fool. Its better to walk in the light rather than in darkness. Safer. Some glimmer of hope. Ignorance is not bliss...
But, secondly, v14, the same fate awaits the wise and the fool. That is, everyone dies. v15, he is wise, but like the fool he will die. “what ultimate gain achieved?”
Thirdly, v16, the wise and the fool are not long remembered. Both will be forgotten, when they die.

Two examples from the early years of the 19th Century... a mere 200 years ago. The first a poem, by a distant relative who lived from 1792-1832. He recalls a great Egyptian King, Rameses II, known here as Ozymandias.

I met a traveler
from an antique landWho said: Two vast and
trunkless legs of stoneStand in the desert.
Near them, on the sand,Half sunk,
a shattered visage lies....
...."My name is Ozymandias,
King of Kings:Look upon my works,
ye Mighty, and despair!"Nothing beside remains.
Round the decayOf that colossal wreck,
boundless and bareThe lone and level sands
stretch far away

Once great, now forgotten in the sands of time.

How about Henry Hodgkinson? Surely you remember him? 42 years Rector of this church from 1797-1839... A man who, presumably, preached in the old Arborfield church building over 2000 times.

What remains? A small metal plaque by the door.... and one next to it for his wife, who died two years after they married. All his work and life forgotten. All his sermons. He served from the age of 44 to 86, and then died. Forgotten, but for a bit of brass by the door.

The best that education can do is to dull the pain... And yet as The Teacher writes there are things to be learned. And he would direct us to a knowledge worth gaining... to knowing the Lord Jesus Christ. The Teacher reflects, entertainment, education... both were empty.

ENRICHMENT was EMPTY? (v17—23)

Third time lucky? Perhaps we've not looked hard enough. “Get rich, be happy!”. But, money doesn't grow on trees – so work harder, and eventually you'll be happier.... The Teacher's despair is transparent – v17. He hated life. Life under the sun, life in this world, was grievous to him.

Why does he hate life so much? v18. His work brings him money. And money brings him possessions. And he has to leave them all behind. Old King Rameses was rich, buried with his treasures... and yet he's gone, and they remain for others to gain.

v19, and perhaps that person may be wise, but they may be an utter fool... squandering the fruits of HIS labour. v19, owning all he worked to gain. It is,... meaningless. v20, his heart despairs at this labour, “under the sun”. Life in this world, lacks lacks happiness. v21, meaningless.

Consider Paris Hilton. Famous for being famous. Rich beyond her own imagination. Has she worked for it? No. Another man worked, but she reaps the benefits. Hilton Hotel Heiress, Paris Hilton.

Meaningless? v22 – Surely some gain for all this striving? “What does a man gain for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labours 'under the sun'?”. v23, the only gain, under the sun, is grief and pain. With a refreshing honesty The Teachers describes the monotony of work.

We resonate with him, don't we? Some perhaps literally working on a production line... others experiencing the repetitive cycle of housework, clinching another deal, teaching another class, driving another mile... Paining us by day, preoccupying us by night.

We say, “no pain no gain”. And yet it seems more like “much pain... no gain”.
Sure, you gain money, but you can't take that with you... and someone else benefits from your suffering. Life under the sun seems hopeless... is there no other way?

ETERNITY need not be EMPTY! (v24-26)

The Teacher reflects and concludes. v24. “there is nothing better then than to eat, drink and enjoy your work”. Look he says, on reflection – there are some good things in this world. They're not ultimate realities.

They're not finally satisfying. But, embrace life. Live life to the full. In fact, v24 – the good things in life are gifts from God.

What else is there to do? Some despair deeply, wondering if its worth going on living at all.... Today most approach it a bit differently. We “live on the surface, not in the depths” (Wells/Kundera). Keeping things trivial and shallow. Allowing only the kind of despair that "requires little more serious than a sitcom to escape" (ibid). Fighting emptiness by keeping life light.

We consider ourselves free, unaccountable to God. Such a life is described as that of the sinner in the second half of v26. A life of “gathering and storing” up whatever we can... taking what we can from entertainment, education and enrichment.... only to have it taken from us in the end. Maintaining only the illusion of meaning. Misery.

The alternative is to concede that we are accountable to our Creator. Required to fear him. That's terrifying, because we know we're far from innocent. Some of us so aware of that that even sitting here in a Christian meeting is uncomfortable. Uncomfortable guilt might fill some of the emptiness, but that is much less than God offers.

There are those, v25 who please him. Notice the subtle shift, from seeking to please ourselves... to seeking to please God. Such people gain wisdom, knowledge, happiness and, v26, the fruit of sinners' labours – not so much financial gain, but heavenly treasure. Surely better than utter emptiness?

Yet who pleases God? We all rebel against him. But he offers forgiveness. A new start. Not for the religious. Nor the good and the decent and the proper. Forgiveness for sinners. Forgiveness from Jesus.

Jesus who entered into this world, in history. Jesus who experienced the struggle and emptiness. And who died and was raised to life. “It is not that life loses its emptiness because there is life beyond the grave, but that what has made life empty is destroyed by Christ's death and resurrection”. (David Wells)

Futility is defeated, though its experience remains. And we stand forgiven, able then to enter into eternal life. We can stand forgiven. Forgiven so we can come to God. Entering into eternal life with Jesus. Away from absolute emptiness, into eternal joy.

If Jesus had not died and were not raised, we'd be left with this empty existence... seeking pleasure, “gathering and collecting” but never satisfied. Never finding a “fit for purpose” solution to our desire for joy. BUT, Jesus has both died and been raised... and now offers resurrection life to any who trust in him. Eternal life.

Not self-indulgent entertainment and self-satisfaction. Not a heavenly bank vault... but pleasure forever in Jesus. Seeing and savouring him forever. Finding rest from our emptiness. Abandoning the pursuit of pleasure in self, and seeking pleasure in the Lord Jesus.

Which is worse? Which is better?
Living without accountability to God. With nothing more than fleeting pleasures and emptiness. Or, concede accountability to God. Accept his free offer of forgiveness... and come to know the resurrected Lord Jesus, now and forever.

Gaining eternal life, and living life accountable to God doesn't make this life easy. I can make no trite offer that “Become a Christian and all your troubles will be gone”. Life remains hard for all of us. Hard, but marked by knowing Jesus. In the struggle saying, “to live is Christ, to die is gain”. Experiencing emptiness, but also anticipating eternity.

The Teacher set up a vast experiment. He tested the limits of what the God's world has to offer.

Those who enjoy the menu of life are warned. Fear God, know that you're accountable to your Creator. Enjoy what he gives... and know that what seems like freedom away from him, has no future.

Those wearied by life are comforted. Your diagnosis is shared by God, here in his book. But remember also, v25... Life under the sun, v25, includes good gifts from God to be enjoyed. Don't chase the wind, but enjoy God's gifts, in the emptiness.

Hear the Teacher. Consider life. Consider your Creator. Counsider yourself accountable to Him. Consider his offer of wisdom, knowledge and happiness in relationship with Jesus now. No easy answers. But, what stands is an invitation to know the Lord Jesus.

5 comments:

  1. This was the sermon preached at Millmead! its well good :-)

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  2. hey dave
    just thought you might be interested - we had danny rurlander teaching a great series through ecclesiastes, "can't get no satisfaction"...
    you can download the bible talks themselves at ww.moorlands.org.uk. It was really good stuff.

    enjoying the blog, worried that everything uccf seems slowly to be conformed into the same image from one degree of uniformity to another... see you at R3.
    with love from chris

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  3. Hi Dave

    One thing I wanted to ask about the sermon was on the third part, enrichment. I'm not sure if enrichment is the principle element (as Chapter 5 seems to cover this), more work as its own reward. Although there is a lot on the things one toils for, enrichment doesn't quite chime for me. Perhaps it's just my twisted sense of work ethic? It certainly made me think, so thanks for it.

    Rich F

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  4. Thanks Rich. Yeah I think it was a bit of a twisting it to fit my line of thought... must catch up soon.

    ReplyDelete