This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Most Relevant Book of the Bible: Ecclesiastes". See series.
A few years back when I was pastoring Aspen Grove Community Church, we had a terrific team of volunteers for VBS and a great plan for that week. It was being held at the home of some folks in our church who owned about four acres next to a family with some horse for the kids to ride as part of the week's activities. To encourage the team, I stopped by the third morning to say hi and things were hoppin!
The smallest kids were in this big play pen on the lawn and having fun, some of the older kids were out back doing some crafts, while the majority of kids were lined up out front where some of our volunteers were leading them in some great worship songs. It was a great time and you could just sense the Spirit of God in the lives of everyone there. As I drove back to the church office I was on a real high; praising God, thanking him for how well everything was going and all the lives that were being touched with the Good News of Jesus.
Within 10 minutes after I arrived at the church office I got four calls and two emails saying that one of our little gals had been thrown from a horse, which then fell over on top of her and she was in the hospital. In something of a miracle, her leg was torn open but she had no internal injuries or broken bones and she was ok. Here we were at VBS—what you'd think is about the safest environment on planet earth—and yet a little girl gets thrown from a horse, narrowly escapes serious injury and the whole episode scares everyone to death.
The very first line of his great book The Road Less Traveled psychologist Scott Peck says "Life is difficult." And that's true.
The Teacher saw that life is tangled up
Solomon, the Teacher, would agree with that. Even though he was the most affluent and well-educated man of his time, even though he sat atop his society in one of its golden eras, he knew how painful, unfair, and topsy-turvy life can be.
Ecclesiastes 7:15 says, "In this fleeting life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness." That's not how it should be, but that's how it is sometimes, isn't it? The righteous die young and the wicked live a long time. Kids get shot and killed in schools and movie theaters while one of the worst dictators of the 20th/21st centuries, Fidel Castro, lives to a ripe old age.
We want life to be fair but it's not; we want to everything to work out but sometimes it doesn't; we want to live happily ever after but things go wrong because life is all tangled up. The Bible tells us that the reason it's tangled is because we live in a fallen world and we're all fallen creatures and that affects the environment, our health, the other people around us, and sometimes our own attitudes.
In one Peanuts cartoon Lucy Van Pelt says to Charlie Brown, "I hate everything. I hate everyone. I hate the whole wide world!" Charlie says "But I thought you had inner peace." Lucy says, "I do have inner peace but I still have outer obnoxiousness." Lucy speaks for me—at least on my bad days and maybe she speaks for you. We're like that because we've all wandered from God; as Solomon noted: "This only have I found: God made mankind upright but men (and women) have gone in search of many schemes."
In chapter three of the book of Romans in the New Testament, the apostle Paul says "No seeks after God, no not one. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." By nature, we're all part of a larger system that has a plan to manage life but that plan that doesn't align itself with how God made reality. Consequently, the world is tangled up, our jobs and careers get tangled and relationships do too.
Life is mysterious
Not only is life tangled—sometimes it's downright mysterious. The unexpected happens or what is supposed to happen doesn't and none of it seems to make any sense. The tragic death of Robin Williams; rich, famous, funny and now tragically gone. How do you explain that?
The Teacher stood on the balcony of his palace and reflected on similar things that he had observed. Look what he says in Ecclesiastes 9:11: "The race is not always to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all."
He's not talking about the kinds of mysteries we read about on the cover of the Inquirer when we're standing in line at the grocery store that say Elvis was seen working at a 7-11 in Cleveland or some woman in England gave birth to a 28lb child with the head of an alien. He's referring to the strange things that happen that can't be explained because they appear to be out of natural order of cause and effect. The fastest runner doesn't always win. The greatest army doesn't always get the victory. Health and wealth don't always come to the smarted or the most gifted
Perhaps the greatest man of the 20th century was Winston Churchill. He pretty much saved England during WWII and had a brilliant career as both a statesman and scholar. Early on he recognized the threat of Nazi Germany and immediately began to work with America to defeat that regime. Throughout his career Churchill was never at a loss for words and he was almost always incredibly eloquent. But the one country that continually threw him for a loop was Russia. On one occasion, in the middle of the war, once again confounded by another surprising and unexpected decision by the Russians, he said "That government is a riddle, wrapped up in a mystery and set in an enigma." That's about as complicated as something can get.
Solomon says that sometimes, life is like that. Even more mysterious and disturbing is the fact that suffering can come so quickly—as if out of nowhere. "Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them."
We see the same types of things that the teacher saw, don't we? Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy came out of nowhere AND destroyed major sections of our country. Couples who are healthy and happy and mature and would make great parents are infertile. People who are in good health suddenly get sick and die. One of the men who taught at Denver Seminary was 59 years old and in peak condition; worked out every day, drank a lot of water, never drank Starbucks, came from a family where his dad lived to his late 70s and his mom was in her late 80s going really strong. A few years ago he got cancer and died in a very short time.
Life is mysterious and it's all tangled up, and that's not easy for us to face up to or deal with and so we look for help. Our culture is all too eager to show us how to manage the mystery and the tangles of life. Let me share two ways it tells us how to do that.
Contemporary solutions to the mysteries of life: fantasy and formulas
The first way our culture teaches us to deal with the tangled and mysterious realities of life is by medicating ourselves with fantasy. Woody Allen once said, "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 cope with in some way. What we do is escape into fantasy and it does give us moments of relief." Because we live in such a brilliantly creative culture, we've developed new medications or updated old ones to help us feel better.
Alcohol's been around for centuries, but now we've added designer drugs. Pornography has been around since the Roman era, but we've made it accessible to any home at any time and in a million different forms. Gambling has been around since Adam and Eve got kicked out of Eden, but you don't have to go to Vegas or Atlantic City any more; now you can do it 24/7 from home, on the TV, or at the local town. And then, of course, there's the provision of Endless Entertainment.
Melanie and I have Basic Cable TV; but now they're telling me—on cable—that I should switch to Direct TV so I can have an even greater assortment of mindless shows to medicate me from the pain of life. Years ago a sociologist by the name of Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death and while I don't agree with everything in there, I agree with it more now than I did when it first came out. Fantasy is one strategy for dealing with the tangled and mysterious reality of life. For those of us who are part of the church crowd and don't want to admit that we cave into fantasy, we've adopted another one.
We try to manipulate reality with formulas. We have the privilege of living in the most scientifically advanced and technologically developed civilization the world has ever seen. Huge advances are being made every day and those have subtly taught us that we can circumvent the mysteries of life and manipulate it for our advantage. Hear me well: I am a big fan of science and technology.
In the church sub-culture we've adopted the formulaic technique to help us manipulate God and control life so we won't have to face the tangles of life or live with the ambiguity of mystery. We have lots of books and videos that sell thousands of copies telling us the four steps to a more fulfilling marriage or the five ways to living at your full potential or even, the six steps to raising perfect kids. Here's the problem: formulas aren't biblical and they don't work. If Jesus had a formula for fixing life and making it work, he would have given it to us rather than suffering and dying on a Cross for our sins.
So, if fantasies are phony and formulas are failures, how do we face the mysterious realities of life? The Teacher gives us some really good help here. The first place he points us is to wisdom.
The Teacher's recommended tools of wisdom and grace
In the Bible the word "wisdom" is the God-given ability to see life with rare objectivity and handle life with rare stability. It's not intelligence, education, competence, or cultural acclaim. It's the ability to manage life with all its tangles, mysteries, and ambiguities in a positive and fruitful way. Wisdom is valuable because it pays; as the Teachers says in 7:19, "Wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city." So where do we get the wisdom to live life well?
First, we go to God in prayer. James 1:5 says "If any of you lacks wisdom ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him." Second, we go to the Bible, particularly the book of Proverbs. Much of Proverbs was written by the Teacher, Solomon, and it provides a wealth of instruction about living life well. Third, find some good role models. Look around at some people are living life well—who love God and love others and love his church and have good relationships and are stable and balanced. Go to them and ask, "Hey, can I buy you a cup of coffee? I want to know what you're doing that is working so well." Listen and learn from them.
Given all the temptations, tangles and mysteries of life in the early 21st century we need wisdom. There's a second tool we need that the Teacher provides in chapter nine verse one.
The Teacher's recommended tool of grace
Solomon is right; we don't know the future; we can't predict what will happen to us—or as he says here—we don't know whether love or hate awaits us. But the more important truth, the bigger truth, the foundational truth is that we are in the hands of the sovereign God who loves us more than we can know.
As we walk thru life we're all going to face a lot of tangles and we're going to encounter some mysteries. That's the nature of reality. But we don't want to use formulas to manage that because they're not biblical. We don't want follow fantasies because they lead to nowhere. Instead we want to seek God's wisdom and put our total trust in him because he is crazy about us and he is always on the loose.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.