DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

Enjoying God’s Daily Gifts (Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:9)

The website WikiHow is a handy resource to learning how to do pretty much everything. You can learn how to stay out of a truck’s blind spots, how to make a home brewery, how to get six pack abs, how to know if a guy or girl likes you. You can even learn how to get rich:

It seems that everyone wants to get rich. Many books have been written on this subject, classes have been taught by many who claim to show you an easy way to get rich, rich people have given advice on how to get rich, and many other schemes have been developed that guarantee you will get rich fast. Getting rich is one of the main goals of many people. Here are some techniques that may help you succeed if this is what you want to do.

Are you ready? You may want to write this down. Actually, it’s a pretty boring list. It’s a disappointing one, actually:

  • Define rich
  • Get a job
  • Keep your eyes and ears open
  • Delay gratification and cut expenses
  • Save money fast
  • Then stay rich

There’s also this piece of sobering advice:

Get rich quick schemes are invariably scams. Avoid them. There is no such thing as free money unless you inherit it. Then you must handle it wisely, or you will lose that as well. As there is no free lunch, nothing can be obtained without struggling for it. The best way to get rich quickly is having a plan and able to implement it successfully, if possible with a well-experienced team interested in helping you.

It seems like everyone wants to get rich. In the past, thousands joined the gold rush. Today, we search for high paying jobs. Some try lotteries and casinos or rolling up the rim to win. It’s highly unlikely that any of us are going to become filthy rich, but we sure want to get enough so that we’ll be comfortable. We want to have a comfortable life, to earn just a little more money, to be debt-free, to buy some nice things and travel if we want, and to have enough money until we die.

We’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes together. There was also a huge hunger for riches when the Teacher wrote Ecclesiastes. The land of Israel had become a province in a huge empire. International trade was booming. Some people struck it rich; others dreamt and worked hard hoping that they too could join the ranks of the rich, or at least the rich enough.

The Teacher, though, gives us a warning. The warning is this: there’s danger in pursuing wealth. Do you remember those commercials for prescription drugs in the States? They sound awesome for the first part of the commercial. Near the end you hear something like this: “Side-effects may include heart failure, coma or death. Ask your doctor if this drug is right for you.” At the end of the commercial, you want to say, “No! There’s not a chance that I’m going to take that medication!”

We live in a world that highlights all of the benefits of our desire for wealth. In this passage the Teacher says, “The side effects of desiring wealth may include…” So let’s pay attention to what the Teacher says, because he can spare us a lot of heartache. He’s cluing us in on how to live faithfully and well in this world.

Let me describe how the text before us is structured. What we have before us is something called a chiasm. You can picture a chiasm as a matted frame that draws our attention to what’s at the center of the frame. The outside pictures - the beginning and the end of the passage - tell us something. Then the middle pictures - the matte in the frame - tell us something else. Then at the centre of the frame we get the main idea. Another way to look at it is as a pair of staggered bookends around a central point, or a stacked pyramid building up to its main point.

So let’s look at what the Teacher says in the beginning and the end of this passage, which is kind of like the frame of the picture that he’s painting for us. And at the beginning and end of this passage he tells us something we really need to hear:

1. People who pursue wealth won’t be satisfied.

That’s the first thing he tells us in 5:8-12 and 6:7-9, which bookend this entire passage. The Teacher makes the point in repeated ways that people who pursue wealth won’t be satisfied. This is a pretty harsh reality, but it’s much better to know this up front than to spend a lifetime pursuing wealth and finding this out when it’s too late.

The Teacher gives us three reasons why we won’t be satisfied pursuing wealth.

For one thing, our greed often leads to injustice and oppression. Our desire to get ahead can lead to us making choices that will hurt those who are more economically vulnerable than we are. In verses 8 to 9 he talks about the effect of our pursuit of wealth upon those who have less. The problem with the poor is that they often work for someone who’s trying to maximize profits from their labor. The goal is to get as much from them as possible for the least amount of pay possible, so that you can make the most amount of money from them possible. But that boss also has a boss who’s trying to do the same with them. Human greed, left unchecked, prevents justice for the poor.

There’s a second reason that we won’t be satisfied in pursuing wealth. It’s that more money brings more headaches. Read verses 10-12:

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

The Teacher says that more money and wealth don’t satisfy. Why not? The more money you have, the more headaches you’ll have. Verse 11 talks about all the increased expenses that come when you have more money.

When people become rich, they will need a maid to clean their house, a gardener to trim their lawns, a nanny to watch their kids, a chauffeur to drive their car, an accountant to keep their books, a broker to invest their money, a bodyguard to protect themselves and their family. All these people and more have to be paid. In addition, the tax man will require a good cut, and charities will fill their mailboxes with requests for donations. They will also discover that they have many so-called friends who would like to relieve them of their money. “When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has the owner?” Nothing! There is no gain. All the owner can do is “to see them with his eyes.” The owner merely gets to watch as others consume his goods. There is no gain for the owner. (Sidney Greidanus)

This is so much so the case that the Teacher says that it can keep the rich awake at night. The laborer who doesn’t make as much lies asleep at night. The rich, he says, can lie awake at night worrying about their riches. They see it slipping away as more and more people want a piece of the pie. They fret about their investments and what the markets are going to do. They second-guess themselves about that trade they made yesterday. They’re anxious about a recession. Will they lose everything? After all, they have much more to lose. The desire for wealth can actually cause you to lose sleep.

There’s a third reason why we won’t be satisfied in pursuing wealth. It’s at the other bookend, in chapter 6:7-9. It’s that no matter how much money we have, we never quite have enough. If you’re famished after church, I can take you out for lunch and order enough food so that eventually you say, “I’ve had enough. I can’t eat anything more.” That’s not the way that it works with money. No matter how much we make, we want just a little bit more. 6:7 says, “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied.” We never have enough. We always want just a little bit more.

If you buy a child a battery-operated toy, the box will often say “batteries not included.” The Teacher is telling us that if we pursue wealth, we need to understand that the wealth comes with a sign, “satisfaction not included.” What you’re looking for can’t be found in wealth, no matter how much you have. George Hebert once wrote a poem about that. He pictured God making man by taking a glass, and pouring out as much blessing as he could on us: riches, beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure. But when the glass was almost empty, God decided to stop pouring. The only thing that God didn’t pour out was rest, deep soul rest. “For if I should (said he) / Bestow this jewel also on my creature, / He would adore my gifts instead of me.” God has made this world, the Teacher says, so that no amount of money will ever satisfy our search for meaning. We’ll never find rest and satisfaction in wealth, because we’re meant to find it in God.

“If anything is worse than the addiction money brings,” writes Derek Kidner, “it is the emptiness it leaves.”

The Teacher says that if we pursue wealth, we won’t be satisfied. We’ll be tempted to oppress others; we’ll have all kinds of headaches because of our money; and we will never have enough to truly be satisfied.

But that’s not all. The Teacher has give us the bookends, the frame, of the chiasm. He now moves closer to the main point he’s going to make by coming in and making a second point:

2. It’s evil when people don’t enjoy life like they’re supposed to.

We’ve seen the first set of bookends. Now we’re going to move in a bit closer to the central point. The Teacher has told us that people who pursue wealth won’t be satisfied. Now he’s telling us that this is wrong. It’s evil. We were meant to find joy and satisfaction in life. Turn back to 5:13:

There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand.

The Teacher calls this a “grievous evil.” You could literally call it “a sickening evil.” The Teacher is saying that it makes him sick to even think about this. What is he talking about? It’s about somebody who hoarded riches and then lost it all. We don’t know how it happened. It could have been a bank failure, or a recession, or a war. Overnight, they lost everything. Verse 15 describes the result: no net gain. Everything lost. Again in verse 16 the Teacher says that this is a grievous evil. You can spend your whole lifetime accumulating wealth, and in the end it can slip through your fingers, and you can lose it all. All it takes is one bad venture, and an entire lifetime is wasted. The result in verse 17 isn’t pretty: vexation, sickness, resentment.

The Teacher then gives us another picture, this one even more tragic. In chapter 6:1-6 he adds another story of a rich person who doesn’t enjoy life. He has everything: wealth, possessions, and even honor. He has everything that his heart desires. He has a hundred children. He lives a long life. He has everything that an Israelite desired: many children, a long life, and financial success.

He has everything except for one thing: the ability to enjoy God’s daily gifts. We read in 6:2, “God does not give him power to enjoy them.”

We don’t know why he wasn’t able to enjoy everything that he had, but we know that there are lots of people like him. In his autobiography Just As I Am, Billy Graham recalls a story of such a man:

Some years ago Ruth and I had a vivid illustration of this on an island in the Caribbean. One of the wealthiest men in the world had asked us to come to his lavish home for lunch. He was 75 years old, and throughout the entire meal he seemed close to tears. "I am the most miserable man in the world," he said. "Out there is my yacht. I can go anywhere I want to. I have my private plane, my helicopters. I have everything I want to make my life happy, yet I am as miserable as hell." We talked to him and prayed with him, trying to point him to Christ, who alone gives lasting meaning to life.

Then we went down the hill to a small cottage where we were staying. That afternoon the pastor of the local Baptist church came to call. He was an Englishman, and he too was a widower who spent most of his time taking care of his two invalid sisters. He was full of enthusiasm and love for Christ and others. "I don't have two pounds to my name," he said with a smile, "but I am the happiest man on this island."

Billy Graham relates how he asked his wife Ruth after they left, "Who do you think is the richer man?" She didn't have to reply because they both already knew the answer.

Martin Luther said that these verses are “a description of a rich man who lacks nothing for a good and happy life and yet does not have one.” It’s a story that’s repeated countless times even in our neighborhood - people who have everything except for happiness.

Not only that, but this man dies, and for whatever reason he doesn’t receive a proper burial. Again, we don’t know why, but his death goes largely unnoticed. He had everything but ends up with nothing. Karl Barth once talked about the day that he would die:

Some day a company of men will process out to a churchyard and lower a coffin and everyone will go home; but one will not come back, and that will be me.

This is the future of the man who has everything. Eventually he too will die and have nothing.

The Teacher concludes that a stillborn child is better off. This is harsh. “A long life without enjoyment…is far worse than no life at all” (William Brown).

You can’t make the point more strongly than this. The first thing that the Teacher has told us is that when we pursue wealth we won’t find satisfaction. The second thing that the Teacher has told us is that this is evil. It’s a tragedy when people do not enjoy their lives. It makes him sick.

What, then, are we supposed to do?

So: Enjoy God’s daily gifts.

I mentioned that this passage is a chiasm. It’s bracketed with sub-points, building up to the main point. The main point is found in verses 18-20:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

People who pursue wealth won’t be satisfied. It’s sickening to see someone who has everything except for enjoyment. So, the Teacher says, enjoy God’s daily gifts. I like how Sidney Greidanus puts it:

It is true that God has given us but few days here on earth. There is nothing we can do about this. But there is something we can do about how we live those few days on earth. We can use them to pursue money and end up with vexation, sickness, and resentment. Or we can begin every morning with the goal of enjoying the day God is giving us. We can start with the common, everyday things, the Teacher suggests: find enjoyment in our food, and drink, and our toil. We don’t have to be rich to find something to enjoy each day.

Instead of pursuing wealth, enjoy God’s daily gifts. More isn’t necessarily better. Enjoy what God has given you. Life is meant to be enjoyed with laughter, dance, love, and thankfulness. It’s only when we treat the good things of life as ends in themselves that they become deterrents to happiness.

By the way, this is not just the message of Ecclesiastes. The apostle Paul wrote much later:

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:6-10)

If we have food and clothing and Jesus, we have enough.

Bryan Wilkerson tells the story of a couple who exemplifies what the Teacher is saying:

Charlie and Agnes are some of the meekest people I've ever known. Charlie is a bright, energetic, hard-working man who could have been successful at just about anything he set out to do. What he set out to do was mission work. He spent his entire career working with some of the lowliest people on earth—alcoholics on skid row…At a time in life when most people his age were playing golf or taking cruises, Charlie would commute every day to minister to homeless men on the streets of New York.

You don't get rich doing mission work your whole life, but every once in a while, Charlie and his wife, Agnes, would get to do something special. One year they invited me and my wife, Karen, to join them for a night on the town. Someone had given them tickets to hear Handel's Messiah at Carnegie Hall—velvet-covered seats in a private booth. It was a great night, and we all enjoyed it. As they drove us home that night, Karen and I were sitting in the back seat, and I was admiring Charlie and Agnes. They were all dressed up for their big night out. She was sitting close to him, like they were high school sweethearts. They struck me in that moment as two of the happiest people on earth. Just then I noticed a little plaque they had stuck to the dashboard of their old Chevy. It explained everything: “God always gives what's best to those who leave the choice to him.”

Charlie and Agnes had long ago given up striving, fretting, and demanding things from God and from life. Instead they had surrendered to God their talents, their careers, their safety, their material needs, and even their retirement. Instead of chasing the abundant life, they waited for God bring it to them.

Instead of pursuing wealth, enjoy God’s daily gifts. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32 ESV)

The Danger of Worship (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7)

This morning you’ve come from home. You may have fought with your family on the way. You may have come on time; you may have come late. You may be thinking about what you’re doing for lunch. But what many of you may not have realized is that you’ve come to a dangerous place this morning. Please don’t tell our insurance broker, but this is a dangerous place. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson put it this way:

Sometimes I think that all religious sites should be posted with signs reading, "Beware the God." The places and occasions that people gather to attend to God are dangerous. They're glorious places and occasions, true, but they're also dangerous. Danger signs should be conspicuously placed, as they are at nuclear power stations. Religion is the death of some people.

Did you hear that? Beware the God. You are coming to a dangerous place this morning. In the book of Exodus, Moses went up the mountain to meet with God. Think about the privilege that it would have been to meet with holy God. In the preparations for this meeting, the people were warned not to come near the mountain because of the danger. We read in Exodus 19 that the mountain was wrapped in smoke, and that God descended in fire, and that the entire mountain trembled. The sound was overwhelming. God warned the people to stay back from the mountain so that God didn’t break out against them. Even an animal approaching the mountain would have to be stoned to death. Beware the God!

Let me say it again: you are coming to a dangerous place this morning. It’s dangerous to worship God, so be careful. We’re especially in danger because many of us have had mornings like the one we just saw on the film. You may have stayed up too late last night. You may have fought on the way here. Who knows what’s happened? It’s easy to come in here without adequately preparing for what’s going to take place.

This morning’s passage helps us understand the danger we face when we come to worship God together, and how we should act as a result.

Guard Your Steps

We’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes together. Ecclesiastes is a book of the Bible that’s intended to help us understand how to live wisely in the world. It’s probing the meaning of life and helping us understand where and how to find true meaning. He’s visited the courtroom, the marketplace, the highway, and the palace. Now he visits the temple and considers what happens there.

Listen to what the Teacher says about worshiping God. Verse 1 says, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” There you have the core of what he’s going to tell us in this passage. He’s putting up a danger sign for us. He’s essentially saying:

Be careful...Think of what you are about to do. You are not just dropping in on a neighbor for a friendly chat. You are not just passing time with a friend. You are going to “the house of God.” You are going to the place where the almighty Creator stoops down to meet with you. “Guard your steps!” Think of Moses meeting God at the burning bush. God said to him, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). “Guard your steps!” (Sidney Greidanus)

What he’s doing is issuing a warning, and it’s one we probably need to hear. His warning isn’t for people who never go to church. It’s for those of us who are well-meaning and who show up for church, who like to sing a good song and hear a good sermon, but sometimes find it hard to pay attention. It’s for those of us whose thoughts wander, and who are full of good intentions, but who never quite follow through. The Teacher is warning us against sleepwalking through church. You don’t come to worship God half-awake and stumble your way through worship and then stumble out.

Did you see the video of the lady who was texting while walking though a mall? She walked out of a department store texting on her phone. She kept walking and she walked right into the fountain out of the store. A security video caught this, and they posted it on YouTube. I checked the other day, and 3.5 million people have watched this video. She’s an example of how many of us spend our lives: half-present, not even aware of what’s going on around us.

Business guru Seth Godin writes:

Yes, you shouldn't text while driving, or talk on the cell phone, or argue with your dog or drive blindfolded. It's an idiot move, one that often leads to death (yours or someone else's).

I don't think you should text while working, either. Or use social networking software of any kind for that matter. And you probably shouldn't eat crunchy chips, either.

He’s saying: Don’t go through life half-present. I think the Teacher would add: Even if you do go through life half-there, don’t do this at church. Don’t text and worship. Don’t show up half-awake and stumble through what’s taking place here, because we come to meet with the God of the universe. This is not safe. It shouldn’t be approached casually.

What does this mean? The Teacher gives us two specific instructions on how we can guard our steps as we come to worship God.

First: Come prepared to hear from God and his Word.

Read verses 1 to 3 with me:

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool's voice with many words.

There’s something strange going on as we gather together. There’s an old book on writing called If You Want to Write that’s become a classic. The first chapter of the book is: “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.” We’re steeped now in this way of thinking. Self-expression is huge. We tweet. We blog. We share our thoughts on Facebook. We’re used to speaking and telling others what we have to think.

The danger is that we’ll come to worship with this attitude as well. The Teacher essentially says in these verses that we should come to worship with the expectation that we listen more than talk. The picture is that of a worshiper walking into the house of God, the holy sanctuary. It would have been the temple in Jerusalem when this was written, but it applies to any place that is set aside for worship. The Teacher is telling us that there’s a right way and a wrong way to enter as we come to worship God.

The right way is to come with our ears wide-open. We come to sit and to receive what God has written in his Holy Word. As we worship, it’s time to read and preach the Word of God. Philip Ryken says, “Understand that whenever we go to worship, we enter the presence of a holy God who has gathered his holy people to hear his Holy Word.”

The wrong way is to come a little too quick to speak. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter.

The Teacher would agree. He cautions us not to be rash with our mouths, not to be quick to utter words before God. We should come prepared to hear what God has to say.

The reason he gives us is at the end of verse 2: “For God is in heaven and you are on earth.” In other words, remember the tremendous distance between God and us. God is in heaven; we are on earth. God is far superior to us. He is infinite; we are limited. He is Creator; we are created. His thoughts aren’t our thoughts; his ways are higher than our ways. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Knowing how widely the divine nature differs from our own, let us quietly remain within our proper limits.”

So we have to come to listen, to hear. I can’t tell you how important this is. Take what we’re doing right now. I’m speaking; you’re listening. It seems wrong for one person to do all the speaking - unless the person doing the speaking isn’t speaking for themselves. The only way it makes sense for one person to be speaking is if the person is speaking on behalf of someone else who does deserve to be heard. Thabiti Anyabwile puts it this way:

The Christian worship service is inherently dialogical. The dialogue, however, involves a more important party than any living human. The Lord of the Universe speaks during the service. We have the wondrous privilege of being able to speak to Him as a community of saints. When God speaks through the exposition of His word there certainly will be many reactions, but as our Sovereign speaks there should not be an interruption in favor of our pooling our comments and sharing our insights. Our best wisdom is foolishness before God. Better to first listen to the One who speaks, then talk with one another about it afterward.

So I’d better come prepared to speak not my words but God’s. And all of us should come, guarding our steps, prepared to hear from God and his Word. Come expecting God to speak, and don’t interrupt. Respond, but don’t interrupt.

But that’s not all.

Second, the Teacher says, do what you say.

Read verses 4-6 with me:

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?

In Bible times, people made vows to God, often in the context of public worship. The problem is that it’s much easier to make a vow than to keep it. The Bible is very clear that when we make a vow to God, we’re required to keep it. It’s much better to not make a vow than to make a vow and then not keep it. Deuteronomy 23:21-23 says:

If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.

That’s exactly what the Teacher is saying. God takes it very seriously when we make promises to him and then fail to keep them. It’s a dangerous thing to come into worship and make promises to God and then not keep them.

It’s dangerous thing to stand before God and to promise to live together as husband and wife “till death do us part.”

It’s dangerous thing to present our children before the Lord and vow to instruct them in the Christian faith and to lead them into Christian discipleship.

It’s dangerous to read a covenant in church as we did last week and make vows before the Lord of how we will relate to each other.

It’s dangerous to pray and make commitments to God.

It’s dangerous to sing many of the songs we sing: “O Jesus, I have promised to serve thee to the end.” “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.” “Jesus, all for Jesus, all I am and have and ever hope to be.” “I will follow you all of my days.”

It’s dangerous to vow to give a certain amount to God and then renege. Verse 6 is about that. The Teacher seems to be referring to the vow that people made to pay a certain sum to the temple treasury. When they failed to come through, the priest or some other messenger would come and visit them to remind them of their vow. People might respond that their vow was unintentional, a mistake. The Teacher says that God isn’t fooled by our games. “Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?”

It’s a dangerous thing to make promises to God. So think carefully before you do. Guard your steps when you go into the house of God. Listen to his Word, and make sure you keep the promises you make before him. Don’t be a deadbeat worshiper.

All of this is capped off with verse 7: “For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.” It’s dangerous to worship God, so listen well and do what you say. Fear God. Instead of multiplying words, fear God. Fear is not cowering in terror. It’s recognizing that God is God, and that we’re to enter his presence with reverence and awe. Guard your steps as you come to worship him. God struck down seventy people because they looked into the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 6:19). He struck down another for touching the Ark of the Covenant when it was about to fall (2 Samuel 6). In Acts 5 a husband and wife died for lying to the LORD. Our God is a consuming fire. We come to a God who is good, but he is not safe.

Our Response

What we really need is what one person experienced with a tornado. You can talk about tornados and read about tornados. You can watch Twister dozens of times but not be changed. But what happens when you’re actually in a tornado? Don Ratzlaff writes:

[Since] last spring ... I look for tornadoes. ... One personal encounter with a power that before was only theoretical can make all the difference. You live differently after that. You respect the power. You live in awe of its presence and tremble to think of its potential. Above all, you live in profound humility because you recognize your inability to control it.

If all this for tornadoes, then what of the Almighty God? I am reminded of the quote from C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Mr. Beaver describes the might and majesty of Aslan, the lion-God. When he finishes, Lucy asks, "Is--is he safe?" Replies Mr. Beaver: "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King I tell you." This is our God: hardly safe but thoroughly good. We cling to the King in fear, but much too afraid to let go.

What happens when we experience God, when we get a glimpse of his other-ness, when we’re gripped with holy fear? It will change you.

Somebody paraphrased this passage:

How brazen and dishonest people are
with their religion. They will go so far
with it as suits their needs; so they attend
the services and sing the hymns, and when
they have to, give a little money to
the Lord. But do they live as one should do
who’s made a vow to God? Don’t kid yourself.
Among their friends their faith is on the shelf….

Remember, God knows everything.
He knows our hearts when we before him bring
our worship, and you can’t fool him. So take
a good look at yourself before you make
your next appearance before the Lord. And go
to listen, not to speak, for he will know
just what you need. Why, any fool can spout
a lovely prayer or sing a hymn about
his faith. His words are mindless, like a dream,
although to people looking on they seem
impressive. Not to God….

For words are cheap,
just like the dreams you have while you’re asleep.
God wants your heart, my son, not just a show.
Get right with him before you to him go.

Annie Dillard writes:

Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.

Let me tell you a couple of ways that we need to respond.

First: we need a new reverence of God, a new sense of awe for what takes place here. We really need to raise the stakes and raise our expectations. We can’t afford to worship casually. We come to a God who is a consuming fire.

Second: we need to ground our confidence. Listen: the people could not approach God’s holy mountain. God told them to stay away. Moses himself trembled in fear before God. They had to kill even animals that approached the mountain. God is a consuming fire. But the writer to the Hebrews says we can approach God with confidence.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

It’s dangerous to worship God, so listen well and do what you say. And most of all, put your hope in the great high priest in reverent fear and worship.

Three Ways to Live (Ecclesiastes 4:7-16)

I had lunch with a friend this week who’s planning a trip to Europe - Portugal and Italy. He said he’s planning it himself. If you’ve ever planned a trip on your own, you know how difficult this can be. You really have no idea what the hotel is going to be like until you get there. I can remember a couple of surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. It’s scary to commit to going somewhere if you don’t know what it’s going to be like when you get there.

So I asked my friend if he’s using TripAdvisor, and he said yes. Have you heard of TripAdvisor? It’s “World's Most Trusted Travel Advice™.” You go to the website and search for any destination, and you can read hundreds of reviews. As an example, here are two very different reviews for the last place we went on vacation:

“Amazing.....Beautiful......Romantic......Sunny & Warm!!!”

“Please don't waste your money”

You can read all kinds of reviews and see the percentage of people who were happy and unhappy. You can see pictures of your destination - not just the professional images that have been through Photoshop, but real images from people who’ve been there. In essence, you get to know what it’s like before you get there. That way you can choose your destination knowing what you’ll find when you get there.

This morning’s passage is kind of like TripAdvisor for the soul. The passage we just read in Ecclesiastes gives us three pictures of what life could look like. He’s helping us a lot, because it really helps to know what you’re signing up for before you get there.

So let’s look at the three pictures. Let’s take a few moments to consider where we’re going with our lives, and what the Teacher has to say about our destination.

First Picture

Here’s the first picture, found in verses 7 and 8:

Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.

You already get the sense that this isn’t going to be a positive picture. It’s a common one, though. Picture someone who rises early every morning and takes transit to work. The days are long, and it’s rare to get home much before bedtime. There have been some difficult choices along the way. There’s already been one failed marriage, but you really have to choose, and the marriage just seemed like it was getting in the way. But business has been good. The mortgage is paid off. The retirement fund is looking good. There’s really nothing that couldn’t be bought. Life is working really well, as long as one keeps moving and never stops too long.

You meet people like this every week. In fact, we praise this type of person. They know what they want. They make tough choices to get there. If you’re hiring, you’d gladly have this person working for you. Although this passage was written thousands of years ago, you see this person on the GO Train and in the subway every day.

Yet there are problems with this picture. The Teacher examines this picture and finds two problems. The first is that success comes at a pretty steep price. Verse 8 speaks of a viscous circle: there’s no end to the toil. Why? Because they’re never satisfied. No matter how much they earn, it’s never quite enough. Last year’s bonus was nice, but unless you beat last year’s performance you’re not going to get a bonus this year, so you have to work even harder this year. So you’re caught in this treadmill of never having done quite enough. The carrot on the stick is always just slightly out of reach no matter how fast you run, so you keep running faster, but you never quite catch up.

There’s another problem. This person is successful but solitary. Verse eight says that they have “no other, either son nor brother.” It doesn’t really bother them most of the time, but it’s only because they try to avoid thinking about it. Verse 8 says that they never ask, “Why am I doing this? Who is it all for?” The Teacher concludes with these words: “This also is vanity and an unhappy business.”

This is a big help. The Teacher is warning us not to do this with our lives. Don’t become a successful, solitary person, he’s saying. It’s just not worth it. You’ll end up enslaved to your work, never really satisfied, and you’ll have no-one to share it with.

Let’s pause here and take a minute to reflect. We live in a world in which we have to make choices. You can’t have it all. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Perpetual devotion to what man calls his business is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” I know that some of you are facing pressures at work and you’re making difficult choices. If you don’t keep up, there are others who will gladly take your place.

The Teacher is holding up a picture and asking, “Is this what you want?” Are you sacrificing your relationships for the sake of a career that will leave you successful but solitary? I like how Tim Keller puts it:

Sin isn't only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry…

If you center your life and identity on your work and career, you will be a driven workaholic and a boring, shallow person. At worst you will lose family and friends and, if your career goes poorly, develop deep depression.

If you center your life and identity on money and possessions, you'll be eaten up by worry or jealousy about money. You'll be willing to do unethical things to maintain your lifestyle, which will eventually blow up your life.

So don’t aspire to the first picture that the Teacher shows us. Don’t aim to be a successful but solitary person.

Final Picture

I want to look now at the last picture that the Teacher gives us, before we return and look at the middle picture. The first picture is of a successful, solitary person. The last picture is of a politically successful but solitary individual. It’s a little hard to untangle, but let’s see if we can understand the picture that he gives us in verses 13 to 16:

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king's place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

There’s some debate about the details of this picture. Here is, as best as I can see, what it means. There’s an old and foolish king who’s lost touch and who won’t take advice. Perhaps he’s fired his advisors. I can think of a number of politicians who have done this. Once they reach the top they stop listening, and eventually they drift towards irrelevance. Everyone’s glad when they’re gone.

But then someone new and better comes along. He comes from nowhere. He was born poor. He captures the imagination of the people and inspires them to hope again. He’s immensely popular. “There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led.” Again, I can think of many examples of new leaders who have come to power and have inspired hope. Their popularity levels have been off the charts.

But the Teacher shows us where this leads. “Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him.” People are fickle. This new and better king will become yesterday’s news before very long. The Teacher is showing us that the life guided by wisdom, who rises from obscurity to the pinnacles of achievement, and who receives the adulation of millions - that life is also futile and useless in the end. The Teacher says it’s “also is vanity and a striving after wind.”

It’s like what the actor Jim Carrey said: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.” The Teacher would agree with that. You can attain the respect and admiration of the crowds, but in the end be left alone because your friends are not true friends. They’re just fans who will eventually move on to the next new thing.

Do you realize that the Teacher has just put the spotlight on two of the things that we value most: career success, and fame and popularity? George Harrison - one of the Beatles - said:

At first we all thought we wanted the fame. After a bit we realized that fame wasn't really what we were after at all, just the fruits of it. After the initial excitement and thrill had worn off, I, for one, became depressed. Is this all we have to look forward to in life? Being chased around by a crowd of hooting lunatics from one crappy hotel room to the next?

Maybe on a more personal level, the Teacher would caution us about building surface relationships that aren’t really true friendships. You can have a lot of Facebook friends without really having intimate connections. Don’t live to become a successful, solitary person, the Teacher tells us. And don’t live to become someone who lives for the acclaim of the people, because you’ll die as alone as the solitary person in the first picture. Neither one is really the destination you want to choose for your life.

The Middle Picture

How, then, should we live? In the middle of these two negative pictures, the Teacher gives us a positive one. Read verses 9 to 12:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

In contrast to the successful and solitary person, or the person who achieves temporary fame and acclaim, the Teacher offers us a picture of someone who is in genuine community. It’s the only one of the three pictures that doesn’t end with a pronouncement of vanity. This, the Teacher says, is what we should aim for. Genuine community is better than solitary success or popularity. It’s what we need in our lives.

The Teacher tells us four benefits of genuine community.

First, we’ll have a larger profit. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.” Two people working together often produce more than twice what they’d produce alone. Not only that, but it’s a lot more fulfilling to share the rewards of hard work with another.

Second, we’ll find help in times of need. “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” When you used to go swimming as a kid, you were probably told to use the buddy system. When they blow the whistle, you need to make sure that your buddy is okay. You can’t be responsible for everyone in the pool, but you can be responsible for your buddy. We need the same thing in life. We need others who have our back.

Third, we’ll have more comfort. “Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?” This one sounds strange to us. It’s not talking about a married couple. It’s probably speaking of the travel that took place on dangerous roads in the ancient Middle East. They would sleep outdoors at night. On cold nights, a single cloak would not be enough. You may not be comfortable with the thought of huddling under a pair of cloaks on the side of the road, and that’s okay. But you too have found comfort in community. You’ve experienced the warmth of friendship. You know what he’s talking about.

Finally, you have greater protection. “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” When you’re alone, you’re vulnerable. When you’re in community, you have greater protection. Spurgeon said, “Communion is strength; solitude is weakness. Alone, the free old beech yields to the blast and lies prone on the meadow. In the forest, supporting each other, the trees laugh at the hurricane. The sheep of Jesus flock together. The social element is the genius of Christianity.”

Genuine community is better than solitary success or popularity. It’s what we need in our lives.

This morning’s passage obviously has huge implications for us. It may mean that you rethink what you’re aiming for in life. Some of you may have to rethink some of the career decisions you’ve been making so you don’t end up a successful, solitary person. Some of you may need to take a step back from your focus on winning the acclaim of the crowds.

One of the biggest implications is for how we’re going to function as a church. I want to ask you honestly to answer four questions this morning from this text:

  • Do you have someone in your life who is helping you be more productive spiritually?
  • Do you have a buddy who knows you’re down, who will notice when you’re in trouble, and who will pick you up when you fall?
  • Do you know what it’s like to find comfort in the friendships you have with other believers?
  • Do you have the protection that comes from being in this together rather than going at it alone?

There’s a limit to what you can do in life alone. It’s futile! Jesus invites us into community characterized by love. I never get tired of reading what Jesus said right before he offered his life for us:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:15-17)

I don’t want us to think that church is just this - sitting in pews and then leaving. Church is community. It’s loving. It’s costly love. We can get started by taking relational risks and just beginning to build strong connections with others in this room. It’s time to break through.

Here’s an example of someone who did this:

One of the most important moments of my spiritual life was when I sat down with a longtime friend and said, "I don't want to have any secrets anymore."

I told him everything I was most ashamed of. I told him about my jealousies, my cowardice, how I hurt my wife with my anger. I told him about my history with money and my history with sex. I told him about deceit and regrets that keep me up at night. I felt vulnerable because I was afraid that I was going to lose connection with him. Much to my surprise, he did not even look away.

I will never forget his next words. "John," he said. "I have never loved you more than I love you right now." The very truth about me that I thought would drive him away became a bond that drew us closer together. He then went on to speak with me about secrets he had been carrying.

If I keep part of my life secret from you, you may tell me you love me. But inside I think that you would not love me if you knew the whole truth about me. I can only receive love from you to the extent that I am known by you. (John Ortberg)

Here’s what you can do. You can become someone who pushes toward genuine community. If enough of us do this, it won’t take long before we infect this whole church with a taste of what it’s like.

Choose your destination carefully. Don’t become a solitary, successful person. Don’t become someone who lives for popular acclaim. Develop genuine community. Let’s begin by seeing Jesus who called us friends, and who called us to become friends who love one another.

Living and Working in an Unjust Wicked World (Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:6)

A number of years ago a soccer-loving family helped host a boys' soccer team from Costa Rica. They were amazed by the skill level of the visiting team. With their advanced ball-handling and passing skills, this elite team reached the finals of the tournament.

In that final game they obviously possessed better skills than the other team, a big and physical American team that relied on bullying and cheap shots. Unfortunately, the officials were oblivious to every foul. They called nothing, allowing even outright "muggings." After the Costa Rican boys lost 2-1, the man who hosted the team had to restrain himself from yelling at the inept officials. He didn’t mind if the Americans won. He just wanted them to notice the injustices, to intervene like they're supposed to, and make a few calls. Instead, they didn't do their jobs, and the game wasn't played fairly.

Reflecting on the game, he writes:

Sometimes people feel that way about God and the way God "officiates" the world. We all know that there are big problems: world hunger, a global economic crisis, mistreatment of the poor, political oppression, and worldwide sex trafficking. Then there are also more personal problems: a friend's addiction, a marital crisis, a church split, friends who despise each other. At times we feel like crying out, "Why doesn't God intervene? Why doesn't God make a few calls and keep the game fair? Why does God let the bullies of life win?"

It’s a good question. Why does a good God allow so much injustice in the world? Why are so many people experiencing so much hardship all over the world? It’s not just a theoretical question either. It’s a personal one as well when we see injustice right in front of us: a friend who’s fired without cause; or who’s a victim of medical malpractice but is powerless to sue. “Why doesn’t God intervene? Why doesn’t God make a few calls and keep the game fair? Why does God let the bullies of life win?”

That’s the question that we have before us this morning. We’re studying the book of Ecclesiastes. In this book the Teacher is taking a good look at life. He’s examining life to see if he can make sense of it all. In the passage we have before us, he notices two things about life that cause him to lose all hope. The two things he notices are timeless, and they are things that cause us to despair as well today.

Injustice is Rampant

Here’s the first. In Ecclesiastes 3:16, the Teacher observes: “Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness.”

This is serious. He’s talking about “the place of justice” - in other words, the courts. If there’s anywhere where one would expect justice, it’s in the courts. You’ve seen courtrooms. Many of them have sculptures of Lady Justice, holding a set of scales. She’s often pictured wearing a blindfold to show that she’s impartial, and she has a sword in her right hand symbolizing the power of reason and justice that she can wield in the pursuit of truth and fairness. She weighs carefully what is right and what is wrong, and is impartial in her deliberations. But the Teacher observed that instead of finding justice there he found injustice. Instead of finding righteousness there, he found wickedness.

Things haven’t changed. A recent book was written by a lawyer who spent eight years investigating courtroom failures. The blurb for the book says:

What she found was an assembly-line approach to justice: a system that rewards mediocre advocacy, bypasses due process, and shortchanges both defendants and victims to keep the court calendar moving.

Here is the public defender who pleads most of his clients guilty with scant knowledge about their circumstances; the judge who sets outrageous bail for negligible crimes; the prosecutor who habitually declines to pursue significant cases; the court that works together to achieve a wrongful conviction. Going beyond the usual explanations of bad apples and meager funding, Ordinary Injustice reveals a clubby legal culture of compromise, and shows the tragic consequences that result when communities mistake the rules that lawyers play by for the rule of law.

I can’t vouch for the book, but it sounds about right. Lawyers and judges recognize that the system has many challenges, that the results aren’t always equitable, and that as good as the system is, there are inequities and injustices that need to be fixed.

The Teacher finds himself holding out for divine justice in verse 18. But then he makes a more depressing statement in verses 18 to 22. Let’s read verses 18-20:

I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

That’s rather depressing, isn’t it? The Teacher is looking for justice. He comes to the conclusion that many die without ever having found justice. In light of this, he sees that we’re no better than animals. If this life is all there is, then he’s right. Clashes in Egypt left many dead this week. They died without seeing the justice they longed for. Many animals also died this week. You may have read of a case about sled dogs in British Columbia that were put to death inhumanely. The Teacher would say that it’s not so different. If this life is all there is, then there really is no justice, and we end up no better than animals in the end.

So this is the first thing that the Teacher notices. Injustice is rampant in this world. Where you’d expect to find justice, you find wickedness in its place.

So Is Oppression

But that’s not all. The Teacher goes on to describe another problem in the first verse of chapter 4. “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.”

You have injustice on one hand; on the other, you have oppression. Oppression involves cheating, defrauding, and robbing at the cost of others; seeking profit without regard to the needs and rights of other people. What he’s talking about here is about a power imbalance, in which those in power used the power for their own advantage, and those who were oppressed suffered with no recourse. The teacher saw the powerful abusing their positions, and the victim at the mercy of the oppressor. As he saw this it led him to despair. Verses 2 and 3 say:

And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

This may seem a little extreme, but I get it. Miroslav Volf was born in Croatia and lived in Serbia. He’s seen a lot of violence and conflict. He writes:

I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect non-coercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

Let me put it slightly differently. We can afford to be theoretical about the issues of suffering and oppression from the relative comfort of our lives. But in the middle of the injustice and oppression that the Teacher rights about, one sometimes despairs of life itself. The injustice and oppression are so overwhelming that one wonders sometimes if it would have been better to have never been born.

How Do We Respond?

It’s a pretty bleak picture, and the Teacher doesn’t offer many easy answers. Injustice and oppression are rampant. It’s enough to make you wonder whether we’re any better off than animals, whether it’s better off never having lived. This is tough.

I want to return to the image we began with, the image of the soccer game that’s not being played fairly. Remember the questions: "Why doesn't God intervene? Why doesn't God make a few calls and keep the game fair? Why does God let the bullies of life win?" How do we live and work in a world that isn’t being played fairly?

Two things, and the first has to do with how we play the game - actually, how we work. The Teacher gives us two wrong ways and one right way to work in verses 4-6:

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.

Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.

It’s an unfair world full of injustice and oppression, and it looks like we’re powerless to change it. How do we respond?

One way is competition and accumulation. To use the soccer metaphor, it’s to realize the tournament’s not fair, so we may as well try to use any advantage we can to get ahead. Work hard so you can buy enough stuff so you can be happy. Our work, he says in verse 4, can be all about keeping up with others, trying to accumulate more and more. New York psychologist Paul Wachtel says:

[People’s] entire orientation to how [they] are doing is based on comparison. That's why as an entire society grows, people don't feel any better, because they're still in the same relative position. There's a sense of being on an endless treadmill and of never getting to where you thought you were going to get.

That’s what this is like. The Teacher says it’s like chasing the wind. You never get there. It’s meaningless.

Another approach is basically laziness. It’s throwing up our hands and giving up. This is meaningless too. The Teacher said it’s like eating your own flesh. It’s like you’ll kill yourself by starvation. This is becoming more common today. According to recent statistics, single young men are wandering in a prolonged phase of immaturity and irresponsibility. Researcher Kay S. Hymowitz claims that single young men (or SYM's) often loiter "in a hormonal limbo between adolescence and adulthood." In this limbo SYM's "often seem to hang out in a playground of drinking, hooking up, playing [video games], and, in many cases, underachieving," Video games used to be for children, but now men between the ages of 18 and 34 are now the biggest gamers. They play, on average, two hours and 43 minutes per day. She says: "With no one to challenge [young men] to deeper connections, they swim across life's surfaces … . Young men especially need a culture that can help them define worthy aspirations. Adults don't emerge. They're made." This is the second wrong approach: don’t give into laziness and waste your life doing nothing.

Here’s what we should do: “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.” In a world full of injustice and oppression, the Teacher says, get out there and work, but do so with contentment and quietness. Fight oppression and injustice, yes, but don’t be consumed by an insatiable desire to get ahead. Do so out of a quiet center. Live for others, but do so as you learn contentment.

It’s amazing how timeless this advice is. James Davison Hunter wrote a recent book called To Change the World. He says that we ought to stop trying to change the world, and instead learn how to be a faithful presence within it. Do your part faithfully, and leave the rest up to God. Learn to work with a handful of quietness, knowing that your work matters to God.

But that’s not all. The Teacher also gives us another key to living in this unjust world. Trust that God will judge. Trust that God will set things right. Back in chapter 4 verse 17 he said:

I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.

Remember the questions at the soccer game? "Why doesn't God intervene? Why doesn't God make a few calls and keep the game fair? Why does God let the bullies of life win?" The Teacher is telling us that God will judge, that God will set things right one day. Life isn’t as unfair as we think, because God does see the injustice and oppression and he will set this right.

Does the idea of God as judge bother you? N.T. Wright says:

The biblical doctrine of God's wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts, or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.

God does not let the bullies of life win. He does step in, and he does set things right in the end.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the case of Jesus Christ. God did not stay distant from the oppression and injustice of this world. In the person of Jesus Christ, he entered it. Tim Keller says:

Christianity does not so much offer solutions to the problems of suffering, but rather provides the promise of a God who is completely present with us in suffering. Only Christians believe in a God who says, "Here I am alongside you. I have experienced the same suffering you have. I know what it is like." No other religion even begins to offer that assurance.

Or, as John Stott put it:

I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I turn to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness.

That is the God for me. He set aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.

Let’s pray.