A Pity Party of Pessimism, Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:18–26, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13), August 4, 2019
This Sunday has the potential to be a real downer, let’s call it a pity party of pessimism. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity (1). Ecclesiastes brings us down to earth in living out our Christian faith.
The Preacher says living wisely, by faith in the Lord, doesn’t mean we live unscathed by sin. On the contrary, any hope of life outside of a living relationship with the One who made us, brings only meaninglessness. The Preacher summarizes, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” Keeping the grace of God in mind even from our youth is the only thing that makes real sense in life. All else ultimately is “chasing after the wind.”
In the NIV translation the word “meaningless” occurs 34 times in the book of Ecclesiastes, other translations of it include “vanity”, “futility,” “absurdity,” and “brevity.” There is no exception to the rule. Let people do whatever they like, but without God, all they will gain is meaningless. In the end, man’s search for meaning to life apart from God is futile and fleeting, like “chasing after the wind.”
Have you ever tried to catch the wind? It’s impossible. You can run, grab, plan, but it will never happen. Solomon, the Preacher, after experimenting with different ways to chase meaning in life, makes his conclusions.
People chase many different kinds of winds to find fulfillment in life, but in the end, a life without God is meaningless. People only get burned if they live “under the sun.”
Maybe it’s the wind of work we are chasing after. Solomon explains, “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.” (2:22–23).
Get the picture? Work, work, work. Compete, strategize, plan, sacrifice, travel, worry, lose sleep, skip vacations, add hours, increase responsibility, scratch the right back, invest, save, risk, work, work, work! After all this, your life will have meaning and fulfillment, right? Wrong! God tells us it won’t work. Solomon says all the money he has had, all the hours, all the plans, all the years of study, and all the investments of time and energy made no difference in the end. Apart from God, it all became meaningless like “chasing after the wind.”
Dennis Barnhart was the president of an aggressive company called Eagle Computers. From a small beginning, his firm grew incredibly fast. He became a multi-millionaire the day of his company’s public stock offering. Then while driving his red Ferrari only blocks from the company headquarters, he drove his car through 20 feet of guardrail into a ravine and died. A Los Angeles Times account read, “Until about 4:30 Wednesday afternoon, it had been the best of days for Barnhart and the thriving young company. Barnhart’s ownership of 592,000 shares in his little company made him worth 9 million dollars. And that same afternoon he died in an auto accident.”
Maybe it’s the wind of pleasure that we are chasing after. In search for meaning to life, Solomon writes, “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (2:10–11). He says, “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction… this too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (2:24, 26).
Many would agree that this is a nice philosophy. After all, if hard work wouldn’t give meaning, why not sit back, relax, and enjoy the pleasures of life? Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, The Epicureans lived and died by the motto “Eat, drink, and be merry.” The Hugh Hefner philosophy of personal pleasure above all else is attractive to many. But does it work? No, it too is like “chasing after the wind.”
Maybe it’s the wind of wealth that sounds attractive to us. Maybe not money itself but all the things money can buy to make one’s life meaningful and enjoyable. Solomon tried this too.
I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. (2:4–9). But in the end it was all meaningless. His boredom could not be described. He ran out of words.
Just like the man in our Gospel Lesson, in the end, it mattered nothing for his soul. Jesus calls such a person a fool. To the false hope that says, “If only I earn enough, buy this, or have that, I will be happy,” the wise Preacher advises, “Don’t bother. It doesn’t work.”
Have you met anyone who earns enough? Or is beautiful enough? Or has clothes that remain fashionable enough? Or has a car that stays nice enough? Or gadgets that are modern enough? Or houses that are furnished well enough? Or food that is fancy enough? Or relationships that always satisfy enough? Or life that is always full enough?
“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” (5:10).
Stanley Jones, in his book Growing Spiritually, talks about a fictional character who lived a fantasy life. All he had to do was think of it and—poof!—it happened! So the man leans back and imagines a mansion and—Poof! —he has a 15 bedroom mansion with servants to wait on his every need. But the place needed several fine cars, so again he closes his eyes and—poof!—there they were. He continues the same lifestyle with travel and fine foods and women and entertainment. And yet, there is something missing. He isn’t happy. Finally, he grows so terribly bored and unchallenged, that he whispers to one of his attendants, “I really want to get out of this. I want to get my old life back again. I’d rather be in hell than be here.” To which one of the servants quietly replies, “Where do you think you are?”
Life lived under the sun, chasing the winds of self-fulfillment, is futile. But God offers us a better way! In spite of our sinful and selfish attempts, God graciously gives us a new way of life. He enables us to go beyond the horizontal dimension of life lived under the sun, to bask in the light and love of His Son, Jesus Christ.
It isn’t until the final chapter of Ecclesiastes that the Preacher points us in the right direction. “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”. (12:1).
He warns us; don’t try to go through life without the Lord, because it just doesn’t work. By ourselves, life will not be meaningful. True meaning and direction only come from God. The source of meaningful life is in His Son, Jesus Christ.
God did not give up on us and say, “What a bunch of fools!” Rather, He affirmed human life by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ to rescue us and bring us into communion with Him. Jesus gave up His life on the cross as the ransom so that, baptized into His death, our old selfish life might die.
Those lives of frustration and despair and “chasing after the wind”; all those false hopes and dreams we all have, all are taken away from us through the shed blood of Christ Jesus. Baptized into His resurrection, Christ restores us to a life of real and lasting hope. Even though for now we continue to live “under the sun,” we also live in the Son. Jesus said “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
We entrust our lives to the Son, Jesus Christ and we remember the Creator all the days of our lives. God’s grace, given us through His Word and Sacraments, enables us to keep our eyes of faith focused on Him, rather than on ourselves, or the world. We discover that every day is a precious gift from God, who provides for us according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:19). And together, with our Christian brothers and sisters, we set our minds on things that are above, rather than being preoccupied with earthly things (Col 3:2).
The Law is clear in the hopelessness of relying on the flesh to provide meaning. The first 12 chapters of Ecclesiastes are a clear mirror of our current generation. While this morning’s text provides no hope or comfort for life’s rat race, it does force us to deal with God’s presence in life at every turn. Where does meaning come from, except from the One who made us, and the One who remakes us in Christ Jesus? In the end, the Preacher concludes that life without the Lord will never work.
Jesus reaffirms that same truth. The futility of a life consisting of personal gain and the quest for more and better possessions becomes clear when, in the end, none of this makes any difference for the eternal soul. Instead, Jesus reminds us of the necessity of being “rich towards God” (Lk 12:21).
I will never be able to grab hold of the wind, and neither will you. We will never find true meaning only living under the sun, chasing after all the winds that blow this way and that in our world today. But thanks be to God! He has given us a full and meaningful life in His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Life’s meaning is not in “life under the sun,” but in “life in the Son,” Jesus Christ our Lord. He alone provides the forgiveness, strength, and perspective we need to enjoy life, both now and for eternity. Amen.