I'd like you to use your imagination this morning and picture our world, your world, as a terrarium. You know what a terrarium is. My version of it, in my mind, is a ten-gallon water bottle that belongs in your office water cooler. It used to say "Sparklets" on it. Some hippie liberated it long ago, and now you have it in your house. Into that ten-gallon, glass water bottle, you pour gravel as a base. Then you put some sand, and then some soil, and then with tweezers you plant seeds of special kinds of plants in that terrarium. Then you put in just the right amount of moisture, and you put a cork in the top.
There's a perfectly balanced little ecosystem inside that terrarium. You set it in the right place in the sun where it gets just the right amount of daylight, and inside that little capsule everything is perfect. The plants grow just right, the water rises to the top and condenses, and it rains inside of there. Everything is just fine and well ordered.
Now I want you to picture your life as being lived in a terrarium like that. Picture yourself as living in a predictable, closed environment where laws are conventional. You can look outside and forecast to a certain extent what the weather will be like. For the most part, this world is a pleasant, predictable, law-abiding type of place in which to live.
Now there does happen to be a cork in the top, but that doesn't bother us right now, because as we look around us there are so many things to do, so many places in this world to explore, and so many issues to uncover. In fact, we could take lifetimes—dozens of lifetimes—just to explore what's inside our world, our Earth, this terrarium in which we live. Just think about it—Jacques Cousteau has spent a whole lifetime exploring the ocean, and he hasn't even started understanding it. Think of Van Cliburn—he's lived his whole life pursuing excellence on the piano. Chris Evert lives and explores the world of tennis. As we look out on this world, there's no limit of things we could explore and adventures we could have. Here inside this bottled world is fascination in every way.
Now, wouldn't that be an ideal environment in which to live? Couldn't life be lived to the fullest inside a capsule where everything is governed by certain laws, and we know that it's a predictable environment? If I could have life in this world to the fullest, couldn't I say: "Enough. I've lived as I want to live"?
Today, I'd like to take us on a guided tour to explore that question. I'd like for us to use as a guide a man who's very famous, a man who wrote a book, in fact, about his exploration of this terrarium that he walked through called Earth. And that guidebook he left behind is the Book of Ecclesiastes.
The bad news is that life is meaningless
Our guide introduces himself in Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, verse 12. He says, "I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem." His name is Solomon, the man who was the richest, most powerful king ever in the history of Israel and Judah. He rose to the throne after his father, David, when it reached its zenith of world influence—the world power in the Middle East at that time. Solomon was rich, handsome, famous, young, intellectually gifted, and inquisitive. Above all that, he had the power to do whatever he wanted. With those credentials and advantages, he decides to go on a journey through the whole broad range of this Earth—this terrarium, we're calling it this morning—and document what he finds.
Let's read the first eight verses of this text:
"'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the Earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing or the ear its fill of hearing.'"
Solomon begins his book with his conclusion. His conclusion to his generation, his conclusion to us by means of God's inspired Word, is that life is meaningless. It is nothing but bad news. He doesn't have anything good to say about life in the terrarium. I want to ask you this morning not to resist that message for a few moments, but to listen to what Solomon has to say, because I am confident that some of us here this morning are making the assumption (and we may not even be aware of the assumption) that, If all I could have were a good life on this Earth, that would be enough. I would be satisfied. Solomon is saying: Listen to me. It's not enough. I've been there; you won't be satisfied.
He says he's the man "under the sun." He's looking at life as if this were all there is. And he uses the special terminology of the man "under the sun"— the man whose whole world is encompassed in a capsule, without any outside intervention. His answer is, "What you'll find is a meaningless existence." How does he know that, anyway? What right does Solomon have to write off 1987 and tell me that would be meaningless?
If you'll look with me, it's because he tried it all. He says in chapter 2, verse 1: "I thought in my heart, 'Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.' But that also proved to be meaningless. 'Laughter,' I said, is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?' I tried cheering myself with wine and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. I undertook great projects" and, Solomon says: I built houses; I planted vineyards for the future. I built ships. I had gold and silver. I built parks and gardens. I had slaves; I had a harem. I gave myself to music and comedy and laughter. I did it all.
Today his resume might read as varied as this: "I flew helicopters in Vietnam. I've built my own solar house. I financed the Ronald McDonald House out of my philanthropy. I saved the whale. I developed hotel property on the Gold Coast of Florida. I've owned an NFL championship franchise. I've performed in the nightclubs. I've lived with the movie stars. I've done it my way."
And, he says, don't think I'm some pallid, little, wheezy killjoy. He says in chapter 2, verse 10, "I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure." And he says: I loved it all. He's saying: I wasn't setting out to prove that it was meaningless. I set out to enjoy it, and I enjoyed it.
So this is not someone who is ready to take all of our joy away. This is a tuned-in person of 2,900 years ago. Then in chapter 2, verse 9, he says, "In all this my wisdom stayed with me. In all the things I tried—pleasure, and music, and travel, and ownership, and dominion over the work world—in all those things, I kept my mind about me to sort and process and evaluate and conclude." You know what his conclusion is? Look at chapter 2, verse 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. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun"—there is that phrase again—"because I must leave them to the one who comes after me."
I think many of you have probably seen the fairly recent film Out of Africa. I have seen nothing in recent years that so captures for me the meaninglessness Solomon is talking about here in Ecclesiastes. If you've seen that film, you'll remember it's a nostalgic reflection of a young Danish woman named Karen Blixen. At an early age, she goes to Kenya. There she marries a man she hardly knows; she plants a coffee plantation; and for a while, paradise belongs to Karen Blixen.
Then, after about 15 years of hard labor, within the span of a few months she loses it all. She loses her health, she loses her lover, she loses her friends, she loses her coffee crop and her farm, and finally she loses her identity. Everything she lived for has been taken away from her. As she is reflecting in that movie—there's one part that gripped me; maybe you'll remember this—she writes with burning, utterly answerless nostalgia and fatigue about how meaningless it all was.
She says: "If I know a song for Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a color that I had had on? Or the children invent a game in which my name was? Or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me? Or would the eagles of the hills look out for me?" She gives her life to Africa, but when she's gone, Africa doesn't remember. There's nothing there that remembers her, even though she remembers it.
Why does Solomon hate life? With every pleasure available, every vehicle for enjoyment, every conceivable advantage to a young man (and a ruler at that), why does he hate life? I'll tell you why he hates life: He has found the boundaries of the terrarium. He has explored it and explored it, and he has found that it's a limited world. No matter how beautiful it is, no matter how pleasant and nice, life under the sun is meaningless because it's not big enough. Solomon is saying: I have discovered the boundaries. I have looked around this Earth, this terrarium, and the one thing I find is this: There's a cork in the top of the bottle, and I can't get out. And that bothers me because I need something more.
He's not the only one to come to that conclusion. Woody Allen has come to that conclusion—that man who is known as a comic, a director, and an actor. His interviewer says: "The funny thing about meeting Woody Allen is that he doesn't even try to make you laugh. Instead of an uproarious stream of one-liners, America's premier comedy director is more apt to launch into a thoughtful discourse on the senselessness of human existence."
And I quote Woody Allen: "In real life people disappoint you. They are cruel, and life is cruel. I think there is no win in life. Reality is a very painful, tough thing that you have to learn and cope with in some way. What we do is escape into fantasy, and it does give us moments of relief."
That's what Solomon found. A few moments of wine-induced stupor and pleasure, and I'll forget about the cork in the bottle. A few moments of side-splitting comedy, and I'll forget about the boundaries around my world. A few moments of sensuous pleasure and its immersion, and I'll find a bit of relief. But, Solomon says, there will be no answer.
And so in chapter 2, verse 20, Solomon says, "So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun." It just keeps rolling along. For some reason it becomes monotonous. There's always something more that we want, and so runners become bikers, and climbers become kayakers, and housewives become executives, and salesmen become engineers, and we keep changing. But there's a limit to what this Earth, this terrarium, can give, no matter how benevolent and beautiful it is.
But I have news for you: That's not even the toughest part of living in this terrarium. Solomon hasn't really reached his full conclusion. If you want to know what Solomon thought was the height of futility while we live here in this world, look at chapter 3, verse 11. The desperation of the terrarium life is set out for us here. Solomon says: "He," (that is, God) "has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end."
You know what the really bad news is about living in the terrarium? It's that the walls of the terrarium are transparent—but impermeable. We can see through them, we know there's something on the other side, but we can't get through them.
Yet running around on this globe under the sun, without some kind of outside intervention, we can't figure it out. And those who are honest like Solomon say: "I've found the boundary, and there are limits on this Earth. You can go round and round in life, and it doesn't satisfy. But the worst thing I've found, the 'baddest' of the bad news, is that I've got my nose plastered up against the glass and I can see that there ought to be more, but I can't get there."
A man named Floyd Collins, in 1925, was exploring near Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and got stuck. He was 55 feet from the surface, and he got stuck. Icy water was dripping in his face. The rescuers came in and diverted the water, and they talked with him, they calmed him down, but they couldn't get him out. He began to come unglued there, stuck in that cave. He was able to see the light, able to see where he wanted to be, hearing voices, getting food, but he was stuck and he couldn't get out. So he slowly began to have raving lunacies about everything from chicken sandwiches to angels in white chariots. The newspapers got in on it, and ten thousand people came to see him. They sold hot dogs and sandwiches. It was a sideshow. Seventeen days later Floyd Collins died in that hole, able to see where he wanted to be and not able to get there.
Solomon is saying: Friends, the worst of the bad news is that we can see what we want, but we can't get it based on life under the sun. We are consistently unable to figure it out.
One of the best known passages of Scripture is found in Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, beginning at verse 1:
There's a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven. The time to be born and the time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
Solomon is not giving us instruction on how to use time. He is not giving us comfort about how you can redeem time. He is warning us that time is our greatest enemy. Time is the most impermeable barrier of the man under the sun. As you watch time, you find there are some non-choice areas, like when you're born and when you die. There are cycles of the seasons that don't change. There's tragedy. There are relationships that warm and cool. There are times to give up things as lost and times to keep on searching. There are times of silent resignation, when that is the best one can do. There are times of love and peace, and there are times of hatred and war.
Everything, he's saying, has an appointed time, and it's ordered by God. And God isn't asking us how to run the world. It's as if we're strapped to the minute hand of a giant clock, and we want to hold back time, but it keeps moving us on. Everyone who's honest recognizes: I've got to deal with time. Time is slipping away. Time is perishing. Time is moving. Time is dying. And there aren't enough days and there aren't enough years to do all that I want to do here on this Earth.
Have you felt the pressure of time this week? Time can be a massive pressure, as we're talking about here, but I enjoyed the story this week of Porris Wittel, a dock worker in Gillingham, England. For 47 years—maybe you've had this experience—he hated his alarm clock. For 47 years, early, in the dark, every morning that thing jangled him awake. For 47 years he longed to ignore it, to shut it off. And for 47 years he submitted to the pressure of that time, that clock. But on the day of his retirement, he got his revenge. He took his alarm clock to work and flattened it in an 80-ton hydraulic press. He said, "It was a lovely feeling."
But does the pressure of time really stop by the squashing of alarm clocks? Does time moving along really get managed by our Day-Timers? The fact that I only have so much time—does that get into control by my fastidious planning? No, it doesn't. The terrarium has its limitations. And the chief limitation is time.
The good news is that Christ gives life everlasting
I want to thank you for enduring this litany of bad tidings. I promise you there is a purpose in it. Because, did you know this Easter morning, this Resurrection Sunday, that the one thing we can tell you about all this bad news is that the good news is the bad news is wrong.
You see, Jesus Christ came out of eternity. He penetrated that barrier of time and our humanity. He lived in this bottle called the world. He died in time. And then he rose from the dead. That's the message of Easter, a message so simple that even a child can understand it. The message of Easter is, "Who wants to live forever?" The answer is, "You can!" The answer is, "Yes, there is something outside there!" and: "Yes, look up! The cork is out of the bottle. There's life everlasting!"
Maybe you're here today as a believer, and you talk about the Resurrection all the time. In that case, you rejoice in the fact that this world is not my home. Time has not bound me in. I'm not straitjacketed by this three-score-and-ten. I've found my home.
But perhaps you're here today and you're asking the question: "What is all this talk about the Resurrection? It's a nice belief, but what does it mean to me?" Well, in the back of the Book, in 1st Corinthians 15, the writer of this book, this epistle, agrees with Solomon. He says in chapter 15, verse 17: "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. If only for this life we have put our hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."
The Old Testament writers and the New Testament writers all agree. If this is all there is—if all it is is an 80-degree day in April in Denver, Colorado—then live it up! If that's all there is, then just enjoy. Because that's all you're gonna get.
But the Scripture says in verse 20 of 1st Corinthians 15, "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead." Eternity can now be figured out. The longing in our hearts, the longing in a child's heart, is answered by the empty tomb and Jesus' appearing before his followers and saying: "Touch me. I have risen from the dead." The cap has been blown off the terrarium. The cork is out of the bottle. The barrier can now be penetrated. We now see it's possible to get there.
Jesus Christ came, and it says he defeated the last enemy, which is death, annihilation, dust to dust, ashes to ashes. The ultimate weapon of time—the fact that time ends—has been defeated. In chapter 15, verse 54, it says: "Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!"
What do you need to understand about the Resurrection today, personally? You need to know that the Resurrection is available to you. The terrarium cannot hold us. I admit to an overstatement. I said the good news is the bad news is wrong. Maybe I should just say it's not complete. In fact, it's not wrong. You will find, if you limit your life to life under the sun, to only what this world can give, that the bad news is in fact very true. But the Scripture says there has been an outside intervention. It happened in time. It happened in history. It is God's only Son.
I'm going to close by reading without commentary three verses you have heard many times, to show you how much sense the Resurrection means to us today. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son."
Just because it's available doesn't mean you have appropriated it. Jesus Christ said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. There is only one way. It is through me." I ask you this morning, is it time? Have you found the boundaries? Can you see the boundaries coming up? Have you experienced the cogwheels of time? Have you looked outside the glass and seen there must be something more? I want to invite you today to put your trust in God, the Interventionist who has come into our life and said, "This is the way." Is it time for you today to put your faith in that hope?
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
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Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?