Today I want us to look at the Book of Ecclesiastes. I feel this text deeply every time I get into it. I pastor a very large, very young church. In the almost nine years I've served as pastor there, I've only done one funeral for someone over the age of 30. I've done dozens of funerals for people under 30, and under 20, and under 10 years old. Because of this, I've had to grasp and understand that life is a lot quicker than I would think it is. I know more fully that this sliver of time we have is truly a gift from God.
We've had multiple babies at our church die of SIDS—who have just gone down for a nap and have never waken up. Walking into the rooms of those families, my legs have been heavy; there is sorrow upon sorrow, and I can't find a theological framework to support the weight of it.
I wanted to be faithful to the Lord and to the people he had asked me to shepherd—to prepare them for the reality of life in a fallen world. In one of the great mercies of Christ in my life, I realized that as I was preparing them, God was preparing me.
It was Thanksgiving morning, and my wife headed out to take some food to my mother-in-law. She asked me to feed our six-month-old, so I fed little Nora and put her in her Johnny-Jump-Up toy. I literally have no further memory of that morning until I woke up in the hospital. Apparently I had had a grand mal seizure in front of my children.
To this day my daughter will not acknowledge that I'd had a seizure but asks me if I remember when I was snoring in front of her, because I was making a weird noise. Even in that the providence of God is protecting her from what was a terrifying ordeal for our family.
I found out that I had a mass in my right frontal lobe. A well-meaning member of our church came in and looked at the scan and said, "Man, it looks encapsulated, which is good. You're going to be fine. They'll just watch this thing and will probably put you on some seizure meds." So I went to the meeting with the neurosurgeon thinking, This is nothing. I was not prepared to hear, "We're going to have to cut out a large chunk of your brain, and this might end badly for you." For the first time I'm on the receiving end of the news. I'd walked other people through bad news hundreds of times, but this was the first time I'd received the news myself. I felt like I got punched in the soul. I'd gone in there having "figured out" how God was going to work in my situation, and I was wrong.
I had the craniotomy and was thinking, Okay, they got it. We're going to be fine. But then I started to pick up on stuff. I'd learned to watch the signs and rules of the hospital. I started asking about the biopsy, and no one would answer my question. I knew that wasn't good. The doctors eventually sat me down and said, "You have stage three oligodendroglioma. You have about two or three years to live." Again, this sent my family reeling.
It wasn't long, though, until we landed on what's tried and true. We landed on the firm foundation that God doesn't drive an ambulance, that this didn't surprise or shock him or knock him loose. Now, I didn't come to this truth right when the doctor told me the news. It took a few days.
When I read this text in Ecclesiastes, I feel it. It creates heat in me, and angst and fire, because I know what you're all thinking: Yes, I know this could happen to anyone. I know a child could die in an accident. I know a spouse can become terminally ill. But do you really believe that it could happen to you? No one thinks it's coming for them. In fact, pastoral experience almost trains us that these tragedies come for others. So when I read this passage of Scripture, the thickness of it, the weight of it, the pain of it, and the heaviness of it, I honestly find it a beautiful thing.
Let's look at Ecclesiastes chapter 11, starting with verse 9: "Rejoice, Oh young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things, God will bring you into judgment." Even the most pagan of men would love the first part of this verse: follow your heart. But then Solomon throws in: you will be judged for all of that.
"Remove vexation from your heart, put away pain from your body, for your youth and the dawn of life are vanity, meaningless." The passage started so beautifully, and now Solomon's gone dark on us. Look at chapter 12:
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, "I find no pleasure in them"—before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain; when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim; when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when people rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when people are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags itself along and desire no longer is stirred. Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!"
There are a lot of problems in this text. To sum it up, Solomon basically says, "Rejoice; enjoy your youth and your passions. But here's the deal: You're going to get judged for all of it. Oh, and by the way, life's going to go by quickly, and there's going to come a day in which you you'll wish you never woke up. You're going to die. It's all vanity."
I think the problems in this text can be solved by looking at the imperatives. The imperatives will lead us to Christ.
Rejoice in your Creator
Imperative one is rejoice. We humans have a rejoicing problem. It's not that we don't rejoice; it's that we only rejoice at a superficial level. In fact, when Paul begins to unpack what's wrong with humanity in Romans 1, you'll see that the problem isn't that humanity rejoices but what humanity rejoices in. He says that man rejoices in creation rather than in the Creator. We don't go deep enough in our rejoicing.
Paul also says that we believe the lie over the truth of God, the lie being that we're smarter than God. I've never met anyone who will actually say that, but I've met hundreds of people who live like that. Once again, man is rejoicing in the wrong thing.
Lastly, in Romans 1:28, Paul says that we fail to acknowledge God. We see this constantly. Look at Shaq. He didn't work to be 7'3''. He was born that way; God made him that way. But when he uses his athletic gift from God to glorify himself, he blasphemes. He rejoices in himself rather than in God.
We don't have a problem rejoicing. The problem is how we rejoice and the fact that we don't get underneath what we're rejoicing in to really give credit where credit is due, which leads us to the second imperative.
Remember your Creator
The second imperative beats like a drum in this text: remember. A good way to read this text would be: Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, remember your Creator before the evil days come, remember also your Creator before you have no pleasure in them, remember your Creator before the bowl is broken …." That word remember echoes through the text.
Is there a way of remembering that redeems how we rejoice? That's the question we have to answer. We see all through the Old Testament this kind of gospel rhythm being established. In the Old Testament, God calls Israel to remember the nature and character of God. God's constantly saying: I am God. I am the Creator. I started this, and I'll finish this. It was all my idea.
In Job 38, God is unrelenting in telling Job who he is: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" Similarly, in Habakkuk, when Habakkuk challenges God's judgment, God responds: I'm coming, and if you think I'll delay, you're wrong. Remember that I am God.
There are also moments of worship like in Psalm 147:4: "He determines the number of starts; he gives to all of them their names." God is calling us to remember who he is—that he is so beyond us.
God not only calls his people to remember who he is, but he calls them to remember what he's done. At the establishment of the Passover feast, in Exodus 12:14, God says, "This day shall be for you a memorial day and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord throughout your generations as a statute forever." God calls his people to remember forever what he's done for them—that he freed them and got them out of Egypt, that he got them across the Red Sea. God calls them to remember his promises to their fathers.
We see it again after the crossing of the Jordan in Joshua 4:6-7: "When your children ask in time to come, 'What do those stones mean to you?' then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever."
Remember God's commands
The third thing we see in the Old Testament that God wants his people to remember is this: his commands. Remember his commands, and remember that his commands are about leading his people into life. God's commands are about lining people up with how he designed the universe to work.
A question my congregation gets tired of me asking is, "How's that working for you?" It's the question we need to ask ourselves regularly. Does how we live reveal that we think we're smarter than God? If so, how's that working out? Let's take sex as an example. Anywhere you go, you'll see magazines claiming to have the secret to better sex. We're a mess when it comes to sex, and we still haven't figured it out. We're not sexually satisfied, and so we just try to come up with better and better techniques. Is our view of sex working? Because all I hear from people are testimonies of how their pursuits led to devastation, heartbreak, pain, disease, sorrow, and loss. God, in his law, is not trying to take from us; rather, he's trying to give to us—to show us that his way is best.
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
If we remember God's law and practice it, we will see how great and beautiful and amazing he is. We will see how much he is for us, how much he loves us, how much he wants to lead us into his design for things, to the glory of his name and for our ultimate joy.
Remembering redeems our rejoicing
What we see being established in the Old Testament is this gospel rhythm, this idea of how remembering rightly redeems our rejoicing.
Then Jesus, God in the flesh, shows up on the scene. Jesus points back and says: See, that was me. He points to the Passover meal and says, "This is the blood of the new covenant." We see it in Luke 22:19: "And he took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, 'This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'" That gospel rhythm in the Old Testament goes unbroken in the New Testament. We have to remember rightly in order to redeem our rejoicing. We will rejoice in what we should be rejoicing in rather than staying on the surface and robbing ourselves of joy and the glory of God.
Paul takes this in 1 Corinthians 11:26 and says, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." He points back to the Lord's Supper as a remembrance of the Cross of Christ and basically says, "Don't forget what Jesus told you not to forget." Paul is preaching this gospel over and over to Christians, because we are so prone to forget and to wander. Even gospel people are prone to forget the gospel.
Romans 1:13-15 says, "I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you but thus far have been prevented in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles." Paul says "brothers," because he's referring to their continued maturation in the faith; they are already believers.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Paul says, "Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preach to you which you received, in which you stand." Paul is talking to fellow Christians. These passages make it clear that the gospel is not something that we walk through and then get onto something else. The imputation of Christ's righteousness, the cleared check, is what saves us and sustains us and brings us safely home. We do not move on from the gospel.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Then in Galatians 2:20-3:5, Paul rattles off a list of questions: Did you come into the kingdom because you did something, or did you come into the kingdom because the Spirit of God made you alive in Christ? After being saved that way, are you now being perfected by the law?
Paul is an incredible man. He truly shares in the sufferings of Christ; he welcomes it. How did he get to be like that? He keeps going back to the gospel again and again. He says in Philippians 1 that his own suffering has emboldened others for the gospel. He knows that his faithfulness, regardless of his circumstances, drives the gospel forward. In fact, you'll find in most of Paul's writings that he always wants to clearly set up the gospel before he gets into the nitty gritty.
Find the substance of joy—God's grace
So when we remember what we've been commanded to remember, our rejoicing is redeemed, because we'll move past the surface and get to the substance. Let's look back on some of the things we're supposed to rejoice in from Ecclesiastes 11.
Verse 9: "Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes." When we remember what Christ has done—not only his Cross, but his resurrection—and we live in that reality, we won't be rejoicing in our youth and our strength; we will rejoice that God in his mercy has granted those things to us. We will get underneath, to the source of it all. We don't rejoice in being young; we rejoice in being redeemed. Youthful strength, youthful zeal, and youthful passion is redeemed so we might rejoice in the fact that we're here.
Control is an illusion. At the end of the day, my rejoicing isn't that I'm young and strong, because that can be taken from me in a second. What can't be ripped from me is that in this moment, at this time, God has given me strength and energy to make much of him. So I don't rejoice that I'm young. I rejoice that in my youth he's opened my eyes to how beautiful and spectacular he is, so that in the energy of my youth, I get to make much of him.
Solomon also says in this text that we should rejoice in the desires of our heart and our eyes. I want to show you how you can get underneath some of that. I have a beautiful wife who I love very much, and the last year and a half has really made her even more spectacular to me. I've had nothing to offer. I've been down for the count and unable to do those things in my family that I long to do. I've been helpless.
And underneath the heart I have for my wife is this beautiful picture of what God has done for me in Christ. When things are difficult between us or when we're facing something really hard, we have to remember who Jesus is. We remember the great analogy—the wedding supper of the Lamb. We remember that we are the bride of Christ. As my heart is for Lauren, I see that underneath that, I get to rejoice in the fact that God has entered a covenant with me, and he's not leaving me. That covenant is not built on my performance but on who God is.
Another thing I love is being a daddy. It's hard to imagine anything greater. And God just blew my mind when our oldest child started to walk. You know how it is: babies learn to sit up, then they start to crawl, then they start scooting along the side of something, and then they take a first step. But they fall, don't they? They take two steps and then fall. But as parents, we're so proud! We run and get the camera! Have you ever heard a parent say when their child falls, "Idiot. We walk in this family." No! Parents celebrate each step and set their child up again when she falls.
Watching my oldest start to walk, I was blown away by the reality of grace. Because so many of us believe the gospel, we don't remember it enough! We think of it as a door we walk through on the way to other things. We have to remember that God has the same delight and grace for us as we're walking forward in faith and falling and that we're dependent on that grace.
When we blow it, God still celebrates his Son in us. In fact, I think the litmus test of whether or not you understand the gospel is what you do when you fail. Do you run from God and go try to clean yourself up a bit before you come back into the throne room, or do you approach the throne of grace with confidence? If you don't approach the throne of grace with confidence, you don't understand the gospel. You are most offensive to God when you come to him with all of your efforts, when you're still trying to earn what's freely given.
What I'm describing—going underneath the surface level of our rejoicing—isn't just a mindset. It's not just changing how we think about things so that we can remember correctly and therefore correct our rejoicing. So how do we get into remembering in a way that leads to rejoicing correctly? I'll be straight: you need to be born again, and not just in your head but in your transformation by the Holy Spirit of God.
My fear for some of you is that you grew up in church and learned early that by saying certain things and acting certain ways, you got power and credibility and applause. You've subtly learned that by making much of Jesus, you can make much of yourself, and ultimately, you have not been converted. You've just been conformed to a pattern of religion. You've got to get into your heart and war with that. We get into remembering rightly to correct our rejoicing by having regenerate hearts.
We also have to constantly meditate on the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all of these years of trying to faithfully serve the Lord by the power of the Spirit sealed inside of me by the grace of God, I still have to preach the gospel to myself.
A few months ago, I drove to my home town to preach there. I decided to stop and take some pictures of the old neighborhood I grew up in so I could show my kids. But as I drove past those houses and fields, all of the memories that flooded my mind were memories of shame. I was being accused, and not by the Holy Spirit. There was a voice taunting me, saying, So you're going to go talk to people about what a man of God you are and what men of God they're supposed to be? What do you think your high school friends would think about your gospel? I began doubting myself and my worthiness to preach there. I had to wrestle with the gospel I believe in. And it was somewhere in the middle of that that the promise of the covenant and blood of Jesus Christ and the knowledge of Scripture really defeated what was the work of the enemy. I got to say, No, that Matt Chandler is dead. He was crucified with Christ. The new Matt Chandler is holy and righteous, not because he is on his own, but because it was granted to him.
Please do not assume the gospel. It has to be explicit, and it has to be constantly explicit. We baptize tons of 20-year-olds who say that grew up in church but never heard the gospel. They were taught not to drink or have sex or listen to secular music. Of course we should call our young people to holiness, but is holiness possible outside of the working of the Holy Spirit to regenerate us in Christ? No. We have to make the gospel explicit week in and week out.
The third thing that gets us into remembering in such a way that fixes our rejoicing problem is this: walking by the Spirit and not by the flesh. I want to stay deeply tuned in to my affections. When I no longer marvel, when I'm no longer overwhelmed and inflamed by the fact that God in his mercy saved me, then I know that I'm not walking by the Spirit, and I need to surround myself with brothers and sisters who can help me walk through that.
As I land the plane here, this is the reality I need you to hear. We are right now several hours closer to standing in front of our great Father or Judge than we were when we walked in here today. I'm wondering how you're doing at rejoicing. Are you remembering in such a way that you're rejoicing? Are you getting underneath how most people rejoice and rejoicing in what God has done for you in Christ? Are you looking at your marriage and thinking, Isn't the Father spectacular? Are you looking at your children or your money or your job, and are they stirring up in you a passion for God's mercy? Or is your rejoicing shallow? Are you swimming in the kiddy pool instead of swimming in the ocean?
My hope for you is deep waters. My hope is that the Holy Spirit would invade in simple acts every day to draw your attention and focus to who he is and what he's done. That's how the foundation becomes unshakable. That's how you become a man or a woman unmoved. That's how you glory in crazy and difficult circumstances.
There's a confidence that comes when your remembering redeems your rejoicing, and it's not simply rejoicing in your youth because you're young, or rejoicing in your money because you have money, or rejoicing in your wife because you've got one and she likes you for now, or rejoicing in your children because they're healthy or they're obedient. All of that can be taken from you. But when remembering leads you to rejoicing in the thing that's underneath all of that, you'll be a man or woman unshaken. That is my hope for you.