Friday, December 15, 2006

Food for thought - Secret Millionaire

A multi-millionaire disguises himself and goes out to live among the poor and needy with a view to giving away some of his money to those whom he feels are really in need. That’s the basic premise of Channel 4’s ‘Secret Millionaire’.

I caught last week’s show with Durham businessman John Elliott who made his fortune after a childhood of poverty. What a fascinating programme. Elliott himself had to get by on the standard state benefit for the duration. He proved that he was quite capable of looking after himself and shopping in the cheaper section of the supermarket. But it was the people he spoke to who proved the most interesting.

There was the man in the pub who talked about why he didn’t see any need to get a job, he could just about get by on the dole – so why should he bother working. There were the bingo playing ladies whom he sat amongst and who felt that they were happy enough with what they had.

I watched it thinking, “Oh how some of these people will kick themselves when they find out the truth.”

Then there was the young couple who had gotten themselves into debt. They knew it was their fault, and were working at clearing their debt. All the same they invited John Elliott in for a meal, and shared what they had with him. They had no idea who they were entertaining.

He also met Patrick from Kenya who had been granted asylum status and was unable to get a job, but continued to volunteer at a centre for other asylum seekers.

Then came the moment of revelation, when Elliott returned and revealed who he really was, and handed over a cheque to the couple for £10,000 – not to clear their debts, but as a down payment on a house. And to Patrick he gave no money, but an offer of a job as an accountant in his factory.

As I watched the programme I wondered what those who had appeared earlier were now thinking, as they saw the opportunity they had missed.

The parallels with our own lives are sobering. A secret saviour is amongst us. He has the wherewithal to radically transform our lives. However most people think that they are doing ok – what do they need anything extra for?

How different it will be when He reveals himself to us, and we see him for who He is. How many will rue that day, and be kicking themselves for the opportunity missed?

Of course it’s not that Jesus offers ‘extra’ in this life – that’s where the difference is with ‘Secret Millionaire’. Jesus offers something that is essential – that he will clear our debt with God for our ; otherwise we will spend eternity paying it off ourselves.

At Christmas we are apt to remember Jesus’ first coming in the same homely way that the citizens of Kensington, Liverpool, greeted John Elliott – nice to see him, and friendly towards him. It was only when he came a second time, and it was too late that they realised who he was. Will it be the same for you – will you realise too late who Jesus is?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Food for thought - Hypocrisy and party pills

(Local newspaper column)

So the sex shop in Letterkenny has withdrawn mind-altering 'party pills' from shelves after a public outcry on Highland radio.

But they aren’t the only mind-altering substances on sale in the shop. The whole concept of pornography itself is mind altering. Pornography alters our perception of women and reduces them to objects rather than people. It alters our understanding of sex, reducing it to an act of self-gratification, rather than an act of gratifying the other. Pornography with all its fakery gives unrealistic expectations. Porn alters our psyche with regard to what is acceptable behaviour, as thrill seekers have to descend on a downward spiral to find new levels that will excite them. Studies also show that there is a link between pornography and violence against women.

If a drug was available that reduced men’s perception of women to that of sex slaves and made them violent and more likely to rape or abuse, it would bring about a similar public outcry as the current ‘party pills’. Yet because no-one wants to be seen as a prude no-one makes any fuss, and so we strain out the flea while swallowing a camel.

The final irony is that the owner of the shop said in an interview in the Irish Independent, “Looking at it from a parent's point of view, I would not let my children take them.”

Does that mean that he would be happy for his children – daughters, if he has them – to star in the same films that he stocks, or pose for the same magazines he supplies, and become fantasy-fodder and gutter-talk material for the men from the same town in which they live?

There seems to me to be a certain element of hypocrisy in this. In fact the truth comes out later in the same interview: it’s not his children, but his wallet which concerns him, “I have built up a good loyal customer base in this town and we would be shooting ourselves in the foot if we continued to sell them.”

It’s all just further evidence of what happens when we make a god out of money or sex, or anything – we end up not being able to think straight, or see the inconsistency of our position. It is as God says in Rom 1:21

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools… Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator… Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts… Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”

Our only hope is to call men and women not to seek mind-altering drugs, or body-satisfying sex, but to seek the God who alters our damaged souls, and who completely satisfies those who turn from rebellion and put their trust in him.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Book Review - Apostasy, Destruction & Hope

Apostasy, Destruction and Hope – 2 Kings simply Explained
Roger Ellsworth
Evangelical Press


What, two reviews on commentaries on 2 Kings!? I know, but do you do when two good commentaries appear at the one time?

As you will know if you have read many of my reviews, Ellsworth is another of my favourite writers. And this commentary on 2 Kings is no exception.

But what is there to be gained from having two commentaries on 2 Kings? Being honest, unless you are going into the ministry, aim to have one book on every book of the Bible. But not everyone is the same, and some will like Davis and some will like Ellsworth.

Ellsworth is different in his style from Davis. Davis would be a little more technical than Ellsworth (telling you about Hebrew words, and chapter structure), whereas Ellsworth’s book came from a series of sermons he preached. Where Davis tends to take one theme and structure each chapter around it, Ellsworth will look at many different themes within one chapter. With Davis it is like inspecting one jewel in-depth, with Ellsworth it is like looking at many different gems.

Both men demonstrate how the Old Testament is all about the gospel, yet both do it in different ways, Davis points to the broad themes and the character of God which make the gospel necessary and possible, Davis looks at the parallels in the Old Testament stories to the Gospel. Both men point us to Christ, but in different and valid ways.

Ellsworth too is masterly in his application, pushing the details of the passage into our lives. He also considers the original audience that 2 Kings was written for – the Jews in captivity – and asks the question, ‘What would it have meant to them’. This in turn opens up other areas of application.

Both are great commentaries – have a look at each and see which appeals to you. Either way you are in safe hands.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Today's favourite website

I came across this today with the headline:

"DOES PHYSICAL FITNESS REDUCE THE RISK OF DEATH?
MOST LIKELY IT DOES."

And I thought to myself, "Hmm interesting - I wasn't aware of anything that made death less of a certainty."

Must try exercise, maybe that was Elijah's secret.

Food for thought - Las Vegas in the hills of Donegal

(Column for local newspaper)
Donegal band ‘Goats don’t Shave’ appear to belong to the mystical fraternity of prophets and soothsayers. Back in 1992 they were singing about casinos and building “Las Vegas in the hills of Donegal”.

Did they know something that we didn’t? It would seem that way, for if recent talk has been anything to go by then casinos are bound for Letterkenny, if they aren’t already here.

“What’s the harm? Sure it’s just a bit of fun.” I know that we have the EuroMillions jackpot coming up this week, and we have “Winning Streak” and the place is full of bookies and scratch-card outlets; so what harm could a casino do?

It just adds to the pressure. Gambling is destructive to society. Let me give 9 documented reasons why gambling is destructive:
  • It exploits the poor – UK Surveys show that there are three-and-a-half times more problem gamblers among people earning less than £15,600, than among those earning over £31,200. The people who can least afford to gamble are the ones most hurt.
  • It often leads to addiction – The cycle of ‘some you win, some you lose’ which makes gambling so attractive is what makes it extremely addictive, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
  • It allows people to get into serious financial difficulty very quickly. The mathematical rules behind gambling mean that you aren’t meant to come out on top, rather you are meant to get in deeper. Casinos aren’t there for the public good. Organisations that help the public financially are helpfully designated by another name: ‘Charities’.
  • It leads to crime – The state of Wisconsin experienced an average of 5,300 additional major crimes a year due to the presence of casinos. Those who gamble and run out of funds need to find more funds somewhere to satisfy their addiction.
  • It destroys lives and damages society – According to the House of Lords/House of Commons Joint Committee set up to look at the impact of gambling, the harmful consequences include “job loss, absenteeism, poor work/study performance, stress, depression and anxiety, suicide, poor health, financial hardship, debts, asset losses, exposure to loan sharks, bankruptcy, resorting to theft, imprisonment, neglect of family, relationship breakdown, domestic or other violence, burdens on charities and burdens on the public purse.” Gambling is not harmless fun – it destroys lives, it destroys society.
  • It exacerbates weaknesses and develops greed. Gambling confirms some people in their weaknesses and cultivates greed in others. Casinos will draw in more easily those people who need just the opposite, namely, encouragement and guidance in financial matters.
  • It creates a culture of laziness – where people spend more time at the gaming table or the bookies rather than working to get money and contribute to society. If everyone made their money gambling we would have no-one to staff our hospitals or empty our bins, or sell us food.
  • It creates a burden for others – It is estimated that each problem gambler affects approximately 15 people’s lives and costs the state £35,000.
  • It makes a good thing an ultimate thing. Money isn’t evil, but taking a good thing and making it into the ‘be-all and end-all’ around which our life pivots is to make a god out of it. That is called idolatry. Of all the reasons this is the most serious. All the others speak of the damage gambling causes in this life, but this reason speaks of lives wrecked for all eternity. God will not tolerate being substituted by a few measly banknotes.
So often decisions are made for wrong reasons: it will be good for the economy, it will bring people to the area which can only be good for businesses. Seldom are the important factors considered: what will it really mean for people’s lives. Here the evidence abounds: gambling only makes a mess of people’s lives.

As well as all the above evidence, the Bible tells us that: “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction… Some people, eager for money… have pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:9-10). In other words, the desire to be rich brings only grief. And to encourage grief and hardship by permitting casinos is only cruel.

So I urge the town’s councillors to have the courage to stand for what will be good in the long term for our county and not concede to the financial pressures or rewards. Be men and women of compassion and integrity. Take your obligations and responsibilities seriously so that you will not add to the problems of people who are under your care. We don’t want to need more support groups. We don’t want to add to the list of things that push people to the brink of suicide in this county.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Book Review - The Power & The Fury (Dale Ralph Davis)

The Power and the Fury
Dale Ralph Davis

Christian Focus


5 years ago Davis brought out his commentary on 1 Kings, and those who enjoyed it have been eagerly looking forward to the arrival of 2 Kings.

What are we to make of the ministry of Elisha – how always seems to be in the shadow of Elijah? What about the endless succession of kings, where it becomes almost impossible to keep track of who’s who?

Davis is a brilliant at explaining the familiar stories, and showing you what is really happening. So often we read the Old Testament narrative as if it was just a filler between Eden and the Gospels – well we may not actually think that in so many words, but we read it simply as stories with a few moral lessons thrown in, instead of asking ourselves what is God doing here. Dale Ralph Davis always focuses on God, the covenant making and keeping God. The great strength of this book is that it helps us to see God rather than the people who fill the stories.

In a way that is refreshing, humorous and penetrating Davis opens up the book of 2 Kings and provides sound, wholesome teaching. It is only when you look in the footnotes at some of the weird and wonderful interpretations from various scholars that you begin to appreciate the quality of what Davis is giving to you. His quick-fire no-compromising-with-scripture demolition job of these authors, coupled with his simple clarity, reassures the reader.

His writing is deceptively simple, but underneath it lies a wealth of knowledge. And one of the great benefits of Davis’ books is that as you read them you learn how to understand how books of the Bible are put together, and how to see the big themes that Davis himself keeps coming back to.

Like his other commentaries ‘The Power and the Fury’ is pointed in its application, and revealing in its illustration. It is hard to read this book and not be encouraged by who God is, and challenged by our own faithlessness.

As I said the last time I reviewed Davis – go and buy everything he has written on the Old Testament.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Book Review - Corner Conversations by Randy Newman

Corner Conversations: Engaging Dialogues about God and Life
Randy Newman
Kregel Publications

Randy Newman’s first book ‘Questioning Evangelism’ is one of the best books on evangelism around. If you haven’t read it – buy it, read it and put it into practice. ‘Corner Conversations’ is his follow-up, although you won’t need to have read ‘Questioning Evangelism’ to understand ‘Corner Conversations’.

‘Questioning Evangelism’ was marked by conversations where Newman showed how his principles would work out in practice. ‘Corner Conversations’ is all conversation and no theory – or to put it another way, all the theory is imbedded in the conversations. It makes for a great way to learn. It reminded me of one of my other favourite books on apologetics – ‘Persuasions’ by Doug Wilson which also uses the conversational method. In “Corner Conversations” Newman creates fictional conversations which cover 7 topics, including science, suffering, is Jesus the only way, and homosexuality.

The conversations are all evangelistic and Newman has sought to make them as real as possible by running the book past friends who aren’t yet Christians, as well as those who are.

It is a useful approach, and is based on many conversations he has had in his work as an evangelist on university campuses. It is useful also because it allows us to see that evangelism is long term and relational. None of the conversations end in conversion, but each is a step in the journey to understanding more about Christianity. Too often we expect too much from one conversation, or we think we have to get the whole message across in one conversation. If we are doing our evangelism where we should – primarily among those we see regularly – we won’t need to unload everything at once. One of its strengths is that it lets you see how ordinary conversations can come around to deal with some aspect of Christianity, and flit in and out of the subject.

Newman has been clever in many ways, but one that I enjoyed was that the style of the conversations is different – some are very friendly, some employ the cut and thrust of friendly but pointed argument. Yet each conversation is marked by openness and compassion. So there is something here for each of us, and something here for our different types of friendships, each conversation having several points that you feel that you could use yourself. And the chapters finish by pointing you to further resources.

It isn’t a book to read in one sitting though – you can get over-conversationed!

The one area I felt Newman was weak on was the chapter on science. His character, and hence Newman suggests that we don’t need to hold to a literal 6-day creation, and that those who hold to literal 6-day creation aren’t good scientists. His implication is that they (or we) are na├»ve and don’t really understand what is happening in Genesis. I would venture to suggest that the naivety lies elsewhere in allowing the ever-changing views of science to influence our interpretation of the Genesis.

That said, there are enough strengths to the book, and enough help to be gained for it to be worth reading.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:16 - I can’t get no satisfaction

What really satisfies you? Is it work, or food, or friendship, or your car?

The thing is, like many people find, when you get what you want, it has a hollow feel to it, it doesn’t really satisfy, and if you think different just ask yourself how you feel when they bring out a new model?

Like U2's lyric many would say – "I still haven’t found what I’m looking for."

From the tail end of Chapter 3 and all of chapter 4 Solomon points out 6 things that make life unsatisfying, and we will see how they find their ultimate answer in Jesus.

Life doesn’t satisfy
Now some people would disagree with that statement straight off. They would say that they are very satisfied with life – but I would want to ask them, “Are you satisfied with sickness, are you satisfied with unfairness that happens at school to your kids, are you satisfied with the pain you have in your hip because although you have everything, your body is getting old and falling apart, are you satisfied that there are people in parts of the world working in sweatshops so that you can enjoy simple pleasures in life?”

And unless we bury our heads in the sand or live in some sort of isolation chamber we have to face the reality that life is ultimately disappointing.

Solomon sets out six areas which make life unsatisfying

Injustice

v16-17 “And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment—wickedness was there, in the place of justice—wickedness was there.”

Early Friday morning 3 Christians in Indonesia were executed. According to news reports it was for masterminding a series of attacks on Muslims.

Their execution had been postponed three times, then the government removed the police chief who gave the stay of execution and replaced him with a hard-liner who favoured their deaths.

Evidence pointing to their innocence was ignored and death threats made against their legal representatives, and a bomb was planted at the house of one legal advisor.

The three Christians were evacuating children under attack in a church school. Militants burnt the school to the ground. No Muslims have been brought to justice.

According to Jeff King, President of International Christian Concern: 'In the attacks from 1998 to 2003, there were approximately 10,000 Christians murdered, 1,000 churches and 80,000 homes burned down. In that orgy of violence against Christians, the only individuals the government chose to convict were these three Christians - this is a glaring injustice.'

There’s something in us that knows instinctively what justice is and wants it done.

But the great failure of this world is that justice doesn’t always happen and sometimes, worse happens and the innocent are punished because the wicked are in power. And it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

So how do you live in an unjust world?

Death

Death and the prospect of death leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Life gets cut short, we don’t know when this invading force will step in an out lives will be over, and there is something deeply unnatural about death – something in us cries out against it. It doesn’t seem a good enough answer to life.

It’s like staying up late to watch the end of a film and it just finishes abruptly with so much left unsaid, or like reading a book and finding that the last ten pages are missing.

And it doesn’t seem right that conman and Christian, nuisance and neighbour, each so different just come to the same end.

In a sense we all live in a death row cell. And we can enjoy life, but we still live on death row. And there is something in us that cries out for it to be different.

Oppression
And then as Solomon looks around he sees something else that creates in us a longing for something more, a hunger that there has to be more to life than this. Oppression. Injustice is when the judge has found in favour of the guilty, that’s injustice, but Solomon sees oppression as well – its just the fact that bad stuff is happening, not in the courts but everywhere, people are taking advantage of anyone less fortunate than themselves. Tim Keller reminds us that “only a small number of people in the world have lived in relatively safe conditions, and we are part of that privileged minority.” We can’t allow our western comfort to mollycoddle us from the harsh realities that our fellow human beings live under.

And when you watch the news and you see people starving in Africa because rich countries can’t be bothered to use their resources to take their excess. That’s oppression. And when you see people dying in shantytowns in flash floods because those in power have spent all the money on palaces and country retreats. That’s oppression. And it doesn’t stop when the powerful get what they want – they don’t turn around and start to help the needy – power is on the side of the oppressor and the poor still have no comforter. And when you see that, your heart should cry out – there’s got to be more to life than this. The one life that people have is made misery – that’s not right.

Work – dissatisfaction with what we do and get
Solomon turns to the dog eat dog world of work, where envy drives people to get up early, stay late, to get more, to be one step ahead, to have what the neighbours have, to have what they don’t yet have. And when you get what you wanted, you don’t actually enjoy it because the motive for getting it is tainted, and so then how can the fruit satisfy?

Or where work becomes an end in itself, and the endless chase of perfection and excellence comes to dominate all. And even when we get things to where we want them, we aren’t able to slow down because we have worked ourselves into the habit of work.

Or where you work so hard, but don’t have time to enjoy the fruit of your work v8.

And something in us says, “There’s bound to be more to life than this?”

Loneliness
Solomon moves on to something that increasingly is becoming a feature of 21st century life. Loneliness. As big a problem in 10th century BC as in the 21st century AD. The world is becoming smaller, we can communicate globally, but people are becoming increasingly isolated. In America

Social Changes in America over the Past 25 years
  • the number of restaurants is 25%, snack places is down 50%, but fast food outlets are up 100%
  • family dinners are down 33%
  • having friends over to your home is down 45%
  • from 1980-93 America’s #1 participant sport, bowling, was up 10% but bowling leagues were down 40%
In a world where communication abilities have increased incredibly actual communication has decreased. And people are lonely, and here is another factor that leaves an unsatisfactory taste in the mouth – is this what life is about?

Fickleness
Solomon looks then at a scenario in v13ff. He describes a young man who comes from disadvantage to rule a country in the place of a foolish king. People follow him with enthusiasm, but as time goes on the mood changes and his popularity goes. There is a fickleness in politics and in people, where opinions seem to change at the drop of a hat, and you are left wondering “What happened there?”

To be let down by friends or family, or people we have worked with or for is part of life, yet when it happens it leaves a bitter taste in our mouth – and it is just one more area where we find life deeply unsatisfying.

And that is what Solomon is wanting us to see that no matter where we look in life there is a bug in the system, something that prevents us from finding complete satisfaction. He knows that we are apt to ignore it, and just focus on our own little lives, hoping that we will find satisfaction, but then when problems arise we are surprised because we think that an easy life is our right. Solomon says, that isn’t the way it is.

And what he is showing us is that there is a deep set of longings inside us that long for satisfaction that is beyond the scope of this life to produce.

We have an innate hunger for justice, for life, for comfort, for satisfaction, for companionship, for stable relationships. And what Solomon is doing is highlighting all these things so that we will see the collective force and be dissatisfied with life and look for more. Because all these are good God-given longings. And so what people claim as objections to God, or proof that God doesn’t exist are actually given by God to point us to him – to show us that we should make gods out of things, but rather seek him. And Solomon in his own ways provides pointers to God as he goes, but what I want us to see this morning is that all these longings find their ultimate satisfaction in Christ. Now we’ll not find Jesus’ name in Ecclesiastes, but Ecclesiastes is a book of questions that don’t find their ultimate answers until Jesus comes.

Finding Satisfaction in Jesus
As in the ancient Roman Empire all roads led to Rome, so it is in Christ that we find the iultimate answer to these dissatisfactions.

And Jesus is the answer in two ways – first he is the answer because he provides the solution to all these longings, and second, he is the answer because he has stood in each of these places and felt the injustice, and oppression and loneliness and the hollowness of work, and fickleness of the crowd. So when we come to him, not only has he the answer, but he knows how we feel, and the answer comes from the depths of his experience. And that is comforting.

Let me show you how Jesus is the answer to each of these problems. Some of you are still looking for satisfaction in yourselves or your work, remember the Rolling Stones, and U2 “I can’t get no satisfaction” and “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”. I want you to see that Jesus far surpasses all of them. There is nothing that satisfies like Jesus, and his is a multifaceted satisfaction. Some of you are have found peace and forgiveness in Jesus, but its all too easy to replace him with other things when it comes to finding satisfaction.

Jesus will bring justice
Too many of life’s stories end untidily, unless of course this is not the end. That’s what Solomon tells us here in v17.
“I thought in my heart, “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed."

So in Luke 18:7-8 Jesus says:
7And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

It will be a profound justice, every wrong will be righted. And the person who comes to Jesus has the burden of injustice done to them lifted because they know that Jesus will deal with it. He will either deal with it by bringing judgment or bearing it. He will judge those who have not asked him to bear their judgment. And he will bear the judgement deserved by those who have asked him to bear it.

But there will be justice. All loose ends will be tied up. Death doesn’t mean that justice has been escaped, but rather than justice is now guaranteed.

And that gnawing hunger for revenge, or the bitterness of resentment is taken away.

And for those smarting under the feeling of injustice, in Jesus you will find one who knows exactly that feeling – accused and tried for crimes he was innocent of, by men who were desperate just to kill him, and who broke every law in the land to get him killed. You can take your injustice to him, and find one who knows where you are coming from, and will provide the strength to live with it util you see him come.

Jesus defeats death and brings life
Death is not natural. Our longings know that, and that is why Jesus promises in John 10:10:

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

“our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”

Here is the promise of a life that will not be interrupted, which will not be cut short. But it is also a promise of a way of life here and now in which death is no longer an ominous threat. The sting of death has gone, and death becomes a doorway into this wonderful new existence for all those who come to Jesus now.

And he has stood there, he has seen loved ones die, as a boy his father died, as a man his friend Lazarus died. He knows the pain of death as a bereaved one. And he says to the bereaved, let the ache of bereavement and the dissatisfaction that it brings, bring you to me, so that you may find life and have it to the full.

Jesus brings comfort to the Hurt
Solomon makes the statement that it would be better not to have been born than to face the hurt of this life. And many of us think that’s ridiculous, but that’s because our lives haven’t hurt as much as others. Listen to these words of a friend of mine after writing that his mother shouldn’t have been allowed to have children:

“I know that going by this standard I would not exist - I have no problem with this - I honestly believe that my mother should have been forced to abort me.”

How do you identify with someone who has borne so much suffering? I can’t. And it would be patronising to attempt. But can anyone say to one who bore in his body all the sins of his people and the punishment that he can’t know their pain? He has seen all hurt in close up technicolour detail, and experienced the awfulness of it as it was laid on him.

And now he says, “I will wipe away every tear from their eye”. He is the father to the fatherless, the defender of the widow and the orphan, he came to release the oppressed.

And he does so by giving us a hope that nothing in this world can take away, and he does it by taking all our hurt, and turning it into a trowel with which he builds his kingdom. Through our hurt he reaches to others who are hurting so that they can come and find healing and completeness. In all these things we are more than conquerors.

Jesus brings contentment in a world of envy
Solomon’s observation is that it is a dog eat dog world which doesn’t actually satisfy. When we get what we want, we find we want more. That is because we are wired in such a way as to know that somehow somewhere there is more to life, but like little boys without a compass we don’t actually know how to find it, or what it is we are lacking.

Yet what Jesus does on the cross is to purchase for his people everything they will ever need, so that they can say:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack no good thing”
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

So we know that if it is good for us to have something, God will give it to us. We don’t need to get into the rat race. For what’s the point of being top dog in a death row cell. Jesus liberates us from the cell and says, “I’ll give you all you need for this life.”

And then he gives us a task that is born, not out of envy, but out of compassion. “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.” And when you succeed you know that it will last forever.

Jesus is the friend who sticks closer than a brother
Solomon acknowledges that friendship is the cure to loneliness, but in Jesus we find a friend who says, “I will never leave you or forsake you” And why does he make that promise? Because he knows the awful pain of being forsaken by his friends, being despised and rejected of men, and he knows what it is to be forsaken by his father.

And not only that, what Jesus does on the cross is to purchase a welcome into his family and the community of his people for anyone who comes to him.

And loneliness, even the loneliness of being in a crowd of people and still being lonely, is a signal in our hearts that our hearts are still looking for one who will never leave us.

And so to all the lonely Jesus comes and says, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” John 14:18

Jesus is unwavering and faithful
In a fickle and changing world where people change and let us down, when we rely on people only to be disappointed we need one who is unchanging, and who will never drive us away. And so it is only in Jesus that we can find that rock, because even a faithful friend will desert us at death, but here is one who is there for us continually in life and in death.

“whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37)

James describes God as “one who does not change like shifting shadows” – James 1:17

And to those hurt by the changeable opinions of others, Jesus says, I too know what it is like. What musts it have been like to hear your closest friend say, “I never knew you” or to see 11 of your closest friends turn and run, or to be betrayed by one with whom you had shared meals.

He knows and because he knows he is able to bring satisfy those who are hurting because of the fickleness of others.

So in all these areas where life can let us down we find one who never lets us down, one who provides for us in a deeper and more lasting way than anything this life can offer. Every hunger is satisfied.

A life that satisfies

Not found in things but in a person.
We want to finish by applying this. How then should we live?

Put your trust in the one who satisfies
If your stomach is sending out hunger signals you don’t eat chewing gum – although it might suppress the hunger pangs for half and hour or so, it doesn’t solve the problem. You get something that fills you.

Some of you are trying to satisfy yourselves with the chewing gum of life instead of the steak of Christ. Like being in a top class restaurant see menu – all paid for, all you want the lollipop by the till

You need to come to the one who satisfies ultimately and completely. Because sooner or later in life you will find that all the others let you down, the only problem is that often it is too late to change, because you have convinced yourself that they really satisfy, and like a homeless man who has the offer of a house but who is so used to sleeping outside in the gutter that he has convinced himself that it is better.

You need to come to Jesus and ask for forgiveness for putting your ideas of what is important in the place of him. And you need to ask him to come and transform your life so that you can see what is important.

Live like Satisfied people
All this doesn’t mean that life suddenly takes a turn for the better and that you no longer experience injustice, death, loneliness, or envy, or being let down by friends. But it does mean that you have a way of looking at all these problems. You look at them from the perspective of someone who has hope.

We need to keep finding our satisfaction in Jesus and not in our circumstances.
  • With regard to injustice we can leave it all in his hands – we can look beyond and live beyond the injustice done to us.
  • With regard to the uncertainty of life – we know that we will go at exactly the right time, when our saviour calls us home, when our work here is done.
  • With regard to hurt caused by others to us – we can learn to live with gratitude to the one who took hurt and was oppressed so that we wouldn’t be. And if being hurt by others is a consequence of following Jesus, well, surely we can take a few shots for the one who took our hell.
  • With regard to the continuous pursuit of more in life – we can learn to life with contentment because we have a saviour who provides everything. And so we can trust the shepherd to provide for his sheep, whatever happens – illness, or farming, business disaster.
  • With regard to loneliness we need to learn to cultivate our relationship with Jesus, to develop our relationship with him, so that when we find ourselves lonely we turn to him. Develop our relationship with Jesus’ people.
  • With regard to the fickleness of people – we need to realise that people will always let us down, but that Jesus will never. We need to learn to build our self esteem not on others view of us, or even our view of ourselves, but on what Jesus thinks of us. Because no matter what has happened to us, or what we have done, or what we think of ourselves, Jesus tells us that if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. They are his child, they are precious. It is when we build our satisfaction on others that we find dissatisfaction, because only Jesus can sustain the weight of expectation – only Jesus knows how bad we are and is prepared to completely overlook it.
Christ is the only one who will satisfy all our needs. But if we were to stop there we would be wrong.

Ecclesiastes isn’t just about us, it is about living in this world. And so if we are to live like satisfied people we will want others to see that it is Christ that makes the difference, therefore:
  • With regard to injustice, we need to be people who encourage justice, and who deal fairly, and who stand up for those who have been dealt with unfairly. Solomon writes that God allows man to behave in such a way so that man will see the animal likeness of his actions and be shocked. But we are not to be like that. Christians are to stand out for how they treat others.
  • With regard to the uncertainty of life Solomon tells us that we need to live in such a way that people can see that the shadow of death doesn’t hang over us – we are to enjoy all that God gives, family, food, friends, relishing the gifts of God. Also we are to be people that make it clear to others that there is a difference between man and beast.
21 Who knows that the spirit of man rises upward and that the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?"
  • We are to be people who stand up for the oppressed, who seek to make life easier for others. That may mean being like our saviour in living sacrificially – putting yourselves out for the sake of those less well off, so that they will see Christ in us.
  • With regard to work, we need to learn to take Solomon’s advice to heart – better one handful with contentment, than two handfuls with toil and a chasing after the wind. In a world where everyone is encouraged to seek advancement, which means that you have more work heaped on top of you, and more responsibility, the Christian will draw the line and say – this is as far as I want to go. Or of circumstances permit they will say, I can go further. That may mean cutting back on work so that we can enjoy the relationship that God has given to us. It gives us a right perspective on our work. It isn’t the be all and end all of our lives – it comes after our relationship with God, and our family, and our church. We will seek to avoid the rat race.
  • With regard to loneliness we will seek to draw near to others, to befriend. In a world of loneliness, those who have been befriended by Christ should be reaching out to those who are alone. We will also invest in friendship.
  • In a world of fickleness we will seek to mirror Christ’s acceptance, and steadfastness in friendship, even when we are let down.
When Adam and Eve cut the tether that bound all of life to God that had a knock on effect in every area. Life needs to be tethered to God, nothing else provides a solid enough basis. Solomon’s counsel to us is to look to God rather than things for satisfaction in life, because all else will fail, but God will fail you never.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 - Life under the Loom

Imagine two little mice who live in a weaver’s shop, a way back 100 years ago. All day long the steady hum of the loom fills their life. Overhead the shuttle passes back and forth colours appear and disappear. Every so often the loom stops and scissors appear and snip a thread and tie it off. A new spool is loaded on and a new set of colours starts. “What did he do that for?” asks one of the mice. “Black is all wrong – why did he stop that beautiful burgundy?” Then off the noise will go again with different colours mingling in among, black, and reds, golds, and purples, greys, and creams, greens, and then it all stops, and snip and more threads are started in – pinks, and oranges, and sunset tints, with yellow and burnt umber. Then stop and snip. And off it goes again.

"That looks a right mess," says one of the mice.

"Well the weaver knows what he is dong."

"What weaver? I don’t believe in a weaver. Sure that machine goes on and on like it always has – right from the day you were born, it just keeps tramping along. No-one outlasts the loom. It will still be going the day you die. And I don’t believe in a weaver."

"Sure there’s a weaver. What about all the changes, what about the rhythm of the loom? What about the design of the carpet?"

"There can’t be a weaver sure the thing is a shambles. Straggly ends of tails everywhere, colours mixing and clashing."

"Ah but it will look great from the other side says the other. There’s a time for gold, and a time for black, a time for red and time for browns, a time to cut and a time to tie. A time to tighten and a time to slacken. That’s the weaver at work – you mightn’t see him, but each thread is planned and designed by him to create a masterpiece. You have to remember that we live under the loom, and we can’t see the whole thing, and even if we could see it, we’re so small that we couldn’t see it all at once."

Living under the loom means two things: we can’t see the weaver, and we can’t see what he is doing – and so to us it looks a mess.

The way the world deals with this is to either pretend that there isn’t a weaver, or that he’s not very good, or that there are some weaving vandals who sneak in and weave dark threads in and although the weaver sees his work marred by these dark threads there’s nothing he can do about it. So either a non-existent weaver, or a stupid one or a powerless one.

What Solomon is arguing here is that there is a weaver, that his plan incorporates all that happens and that he is both good, clever, and all powerful.

God is in control of your life, not you v1-8
The opening verses of ch 1 speak of the repetitive cycle of life, as if the world were some sort of giant machine that just keeps rolling along. Life as we look at it and as Solomon looked at it seems chaotic random and repetitive. Things seem to happen for no particular reason – illness, death, disaster,. But what Solomon is saying in these opening 8 verses is that there is a pattern, and that that pattern is overseen by God.

There is a time for everything. There is nothing that escapes the control of God. There are no flukes or chance happenings in God’s universe.

These verses aren’t our marching orders – these verses aren’t telling us that we need to make time to tidy up and time to throw stuff out, or that we need to make time to laugh and take time to weep. Those things are true, but that is not what Solomon is saying here.

Solomon is not prescribing what we should do, he is describing what happens regardless of what we do. He is not telling us to put order into our lives, he is telling us that there is order in the events that happen to us in our lives. And more than that he is telling us that so much of our lives is beyond our control. We like to think of us as setting the course of our lives, but Solomon outlines here either things that happen to us, or ways that we react to things which happen to us, all of which are beyond our control.

There is a time to live and a time to die. We have no say about when we arrive in this world. Its not as if we were sitting around some table in Heaven with God and we said, “Well now’s the time I would like to make an appearance”. And neither, in the natural course of things, do we choose the time or manner of our deaths.

These are events over which we have no control. And Solomon is saying much more than the set events of birth and death are decreed, but everything in between. It is all appointed by God.

There is a time to plant – sowing in winter is pointless, God has set the season for planting and the season for harvesting.

And even when man does what he should not – the destructive events of life like murder – these are not outside of God’s decree. God isn’t sitting wringing his hands wondering what’s going on. And although man is utterly sinful and chooses to sin, God is still sovereign. Nothing catches him unawares.

There is a time when healing comes, and we get better from whatever was afflicting us – who chooses that time? Some of you would love to be able to choose that time, but that timing is in God’s hands. Neither do we choose the times of joy in our lives, and we can’t choose the times of sorrow – they come, often when we are least ready. They catch us unawares.

There’s a time of victory – scattering stones on fields was was victorious troops did to render the land unproductive; and there’s a time of defeat – when you are on the receiving end. Again it’s not up to us.

There’s a time when close family love is able to be expressed, but there are times and circumstances that mean we aren’t able to embrace. Distance, work, sickness.

Things get lost and we have to look, things wear out and we have to ditch them. Often the timing of that isn’t in our hands. We don’t plan to lose something and spend half and hour turning the house upside down looking for it. We don’t plan that today I will wear out my washing machine. It happens. So much of our lives are outside of our control.

And so it goes on –

a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,

Grief, along with the tearing of garments comes unbidden, and unannounced. But there is also a time when grief’s pain has subsided and we can mend the garments and start to get life back in order. But these times aren’t something that you plan or orchestrate yourself.

a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,

Times when we are in circumstances where we are filled with love, times we are brought into circumstances where we see things we wished we hadn’t.

a time for war and a time for peace.

All of life is encompassed, all our emotions are included, the whole sweep of human existence, the good and the bad, the creative and the destructive and what Solomon is saying is this – you don’t control your life half as much as you think you do. And he is not being fatalistic, he’s not talking about the tyranny of time, as if he wants us to throw up our hands and say – well it doesn’t matter what I do.

The whole point of this is to put us in our place.

Unlike William Ernest Henley who wrote a famous poem called Invictus which ends like this:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Solomon says, “Oh no, by no means are you the master of your fate or the captain of your soul. You can’t even control what happens to you and around you.”

And how often we are apt to make that same mistake we think, “ I’ll go here and do this, I’ll save for Christ years, and then buy such and such. I’ll retire at 50 and take the rest of life easy.” Or the most famous one, “I’ll become a Christian when I’m older.” As if we are somehow in control of the twists and turns of our lives. As if we know that there will be a later, or a 50, or 7 years time.

These verses are humbling
We are not the mighty intrepid explorers of life that we think we are, instead we have to take what cards we are dealt.

In one sense he does want us to despair. He wants us to despair of thinking that we rule – because that is the whole point of sin, we think we rule our lives, that we can shake our tiny fist at God and say, “How dare you tell me how to live”. Solomon wants us to see the futility of thinking we’re in charge of our own lives.

And as James says,
13Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." 14Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." 16As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. (James 4)

These verses are also realistic
Look at the list and see what Solomon is saying –
Life for us in unpredictable. Life will have its share of pain. Some Christians live as if God has forgotten what he is doing whenever trouble comes – they think that if you trust Jesus all will be rosy for you. Not Solomon. For Solomon, disaster doesn’t mean that God is absent. Too often I hear pastors and Christians after some tragedy or disaster saying something like, “God didn’t want this to happen, God didn’t plan this, God had nothing to do with this.” And while that seems like nice advice at the time and seems to let God off the hook, it simply reduces God to some weak ineffective nice old man who wanted nice stuff to happen but is powerless to make it happen.

Solomon’s God is much more robust than that. Solomon’s God is sovereign over the disasters as well as over the good times. We come to the obvious question in a minute.

These verses also give great confidence to the one who trusts God.
Everything is planned – there are no flukes, no accidents. The Bible tells us that he knows the number of hairs on your head, that he is aware of all the movements of even the smallest birds – and it is not just a case of knowing what is happening, it is a case of directing it. So when God says, “I know the plans I have for you” (Jer 29:11) he means exactly what he says. Everything that comes to you, from the cradle to the grave, comes from the hand of a God who only ever does what is right. Here is a warrant for confidence

This is breathes life into us when the hard times come, this gives us stability when the storms of life batter down on us – everything under the sun is controlled by a sovereign and personal God.

That raises an obvious question – if the universe isn’t a soulless series of events but rather is a series of events orchestrated by a personal God – is that not worse? Consider if a branch falls from a tree and kills your child that is completely different from someone cutting the branch off a tree to land it on your child.

Two aspects to the answer – this world isn’t all that there is, and this world isn’t the way God designed it to be. That doesn’t mean that he is helpless to change it – it just means that the change required is much deeper reaching that we ever imagined. Our world is full of natural disaster and sickness because we are here – God condemned the whole physical universe because of our sin. So if all sickness and suffering and disaster are to be banished, then man will have to be radically dealt with too. We either need to be wiped out, or transformed.

And that is what the Gospel promises. Everyone who comes to Jesus will be transformed, everyone who doesn’t will be punished. And tehn there will be a new earth populated with people who no longer have the ability to sin, and the earth will no longer rebel at our presence or be under God’s curse.

This is what we long for and this is in part what Solomon means when he says, “God has set eternity in our hearts.”

There is a big picture, but you can’t see it v9-11
Solomon expects us to ask this question that’s why he says, “What does the worker gain from his toil?” – this is his way of asking what is the purpose and meaning in life? “I have seen the burden God has laid on the hearts of men” – he means this whole business of the ups and the downs, the good and the bad, the fluctuations of life.

And then he answers his own question and he tells us 3 things

There is a big picture and each piece fits

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Solomon is not saying that everything is beautiful in itself, but in its time. Bad things happen to Christian and non-Christian alike. But what Solomon is saying here is that there is a big picture, and each event has its place in that picture. And what God is doing is creating something beautiful. We get glimpses of that even in our own lives, where something has happened to us, it has been hard at the time, but God has used it for good. And when we get to see the pbig picture we will see that everything has its place.

Here is where part of our confidence comes from – it isn’t all haphazard, each event has a purpose and place.

We know instinctively that there is a big picture
Solomon tells us then that we know instinctively that there is a big picture. “He [God] has set eternity in the hearts of men”. Although it’s kind of hard to prove, monkeys, and cats and cows aren’t sitting wondering why things happen to them, or why they are here, or what their purpose is in life. This belongs to mankind. God has wired us in such a way that we know instinctively that there is more to life than this. Someone dies, and we know they have gone, but somehow we feel that they still exist. There is something in us that knows that there is more to life than this. When we see a great evil done, and the perpetrator takes his own life, we instinctively feel that that isn’t fair, that there has to be some form of justice. That’s not just a fond yearning, God has set eternity in our hearts.

Whenever things happen to us we instinctively want to know why – that is part of eternity being set in our hearts – because God is a rational God, and he has made us in his image and because of that we know that there has to be a reason for everything, things don’t just happen at random. So the very act of wanting to know why is a God given instinct.

We feel that in eternity we will see everything evened out. There we will see the big picture.

We can’t see it in this life
Solomon tells us that “no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end”. What he is saying is that although there is a reason for everything, and although we instinctively know that – we don’t actually know the reason.

We don’t get all the answers. And that’s frustrating. In other words, God gives us a desperate thirst for answers to why – but he only ever gives us glimpses of the answers. Now why would he do that? Because he wants us to set off on a search, not just for the answers, but for the answerer. Our big problem isn’t that the world is puzzling, and that we need solutions, our big problem is that we are messed up and we need help.

God’s big aim is that we get to know him. If you don’t have the answer to something, you set out to look for someone who does. And all the questions that we ask find their answer in God.

But more than that God does it because he wants us to trust him. You see even when you become a Christian you don’t get some sort of answer book, its not as if you have become the teachers pet and get the inside track on everything. Solomon says here, “they cannot fathom” that means no-one.

And that’s comforting in a strange way for many times things happen to the Christian adnd we wonder why – why a miscarriage, why an illness, why did I have to spill water on my keyboard when I was writing this sermon and fry my keyboard. How does that fit in to God’s vast eternal plan? And we never get an answer. And the reason is this, God doesn’t just want to satisfy our curiousity, he wants to satisfy our deepest longings. He isn’t going to be treated as some sort of cosmic answer man, but he wants us to trust him and relate to him.

There are times when as a father you have to do things that you can’t explain to your kids, they just don’t have the mental ability to take it all in – the factors are too complex, so you say to them just trust me. That’s what God is doing.

How then should we live? v12-15
3 responses then

Humble yourself and trust God
If the whole point of the ups and downs of life is to bring us to the point where we see that we aren’t as wonderful as we thought we were; and if God has given us this instinctive reaction that we know there is more to life than this, then the thing to do is to humble ourselves and go to this God and say, I can’t cope, I need you.

That’s what v14 is saying, “God does it so that men will revere him.” The whole purpose of it is to bring men and women into a right relationship with God.

And why would that God accept a person who for years has said “I want nothing to do with you?” Ecclesiastes doesn’t tell us, for that we have to go to the New Testament, and we find that Jesus is the one who reconciles men to God. Because Jesus came to bring people back to God, and he did it by taking the blame for all their years of self-rule and putting other things in the place of God.

And this is important because as v15 says God will call the past to account. There will be a day of judgment when all people will see that God is in charge, and that he will punish all who failed to recognise his authority.

And the fact that we are not in control of our own lives as much as we think we are will be that we are totally unable to escape what God has in store for us, unless we have asked Jesus to take the punishment for us.

Live by trusting God
For the Christian the issue of trust isn’t just about starting the Christian life, it is how we live it. Whatever comes to us, we need to realise that our times are in his hands (Psa 31:15)

The Christian is like a mouse who gets to run on the half finished rug on the loom. We can see why some of the colours are there, sometimes we know why some of the blacks are there, but we can’t see the full design yet. And its only in Heaven we will get to see the full design and to understand fully why there are all the colours and shades that make up our lives.

Yet while we are here we need to remember that there is a weaver, and because of Jesus he cares passionately about us.

And where the illustrations break down there is another great truth – for becoming a Christian is like having a personal relationship with the weaver. You still can’t see the whole picture, but you know the weaver and you know that as he weaves the threads into your life, it is out of love and nothing else. And because you know him and you know he loves you, you can trust him with you life, and whatever colours he introduces you take as being from the hand of God.

And in all circumstances the weaver has said I will always weaver what you need into your life – whether it is strength, comfort, courage, my presence. He promises that the ups and downs of the times of our lives will never be so much to swamp us.

There are things we will never fully understand in this life – but we are never to give up on God’s sovereignty.

And because of that it is possible to

Enjoy life as it comes

v12 and 13 Solomon writes “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his toil, this is the gift of God.”

Once we accept that God is sovereign and we are limited, and put our trust in him through Jesus, then we can know that there is a big picture which will turn out for our best, that we have a personal relationship with the weaver of our lives, and that this plans are not to harm us but to prosper us and to give us a hope and a future.

And this is a gift from God – not something we can earn. And if we let this truth sink down into our lives we will be able to live lives marked by contentment, enjoyment and confidence amid all the tensions of the times that come to us. And this doesn’t mean walking about with inane grins on our faces, but this joy is deep and profound, one that sees the trials instead of ignoring them, but looks to the hand of a gracious father behind them all.

You see, some Christians don’t think this life is to be enjoyed - they look on this life as something to get through – fix your eyes on Heaven, thole life – and you can tell them by the look on their face. Grim determination. Rarely do you see them smile and relish the simple pleasures. Solomon hear only echoes Paul “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do it all to the glory of God”. There is a joyless Christianity that betrays our Saviour.

But delight in God is our duty – and it is a possibility, “delight yourself in the Lord” Ps 34:7 says, Neh 8:10 says the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

And this is what Ecclesiastes is about, delighting in living for God and under God in a fallen world, delighting because we have a saviour who died for us, a father who loves us and a Holy Spirit who transforms us, delighting because your God is sovereign, and nothing can happen to you except what he permits for good reason. Here is the freedom to enjoy life as God gives it – not always harking back to the past, or looking forward to the future for better times, but enjoying whatever time God has put you in now.

That is a gift of God to those who live under the loom of life but trust the weaver who has laid down his life for them.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:25 - Nowhere to run to

At the 2003 MTV awards show, Johnny Cash’s video “Hurt” was nominated for an award. Cash didn’t win. But the showing of the video caused an almost palpable discomfort in the crowd. The video to the song features haunting images of his youthful glory days—complete with pictures of his friends and colleagues at the height of their fame, now dead.

As the camera pans Cash’s wizened, wrinkled face, he sings about the awful reality of death and the vanity of fame: “What have I become? My sweetest friend/ Everyone I know goes away in the end/ You could have it all/ My empire of dirt.”

“It’s all fleeting,” he told MTV News. “As fame is fleeting, so are all the trappings of fame fleeting; the money, the clothes, the furniture.”

The face of Johnny Cash reminded this generation that he has tasted everything the MTV culture has to offer—and found there a way that leads to death. His creviced face and blurring eyes remind them that there is not enough plastic surgery in all of Hollywood to revive a corpse.

Cash found an alternative to the vanity of shifting celebrity. He found freedom from guilt and the authenticity of the truth in a crucified and resurrected Christ.

(from this article)

Johnny Cash was a modern day Solomon – both had lived the life of celebrity, enjoyed all that this life has to offer and seen through it. And both sat down to write their experiences as a warning for the rest of us.

Are Cash and Solomon cynics and pessimists? No, although this book seems really pessimistic, Solomon is doing us all a favour. He is recording the results of his fouled up life which he lived like an experiment to answer the question – What is life for? What makes my life worthwhile?

He isn’t sitting pondering this in his mind, he writes like Johnny Cash – from a well of experience that he doesn’t want others to plumb. And he tells us four things from the depths of that well

Without God your life is a footprint in sand 1:3-11
v1&2 Solomon introduces himself and his theme. In v3 then he asks a key question

“What does a man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?”

Or “What profit does a man get after all his labour?”

The word profit here is an accounting word, used of an accountant sitting totting up the columns in his book, and he comes to the bottom of the list, and all the costs, and payments have been made – what is left? What has been gained that is of real and lasting profit?

That’s the question Solomon is asking.

He has already given us his answer in v2 – profitless, everything we could do is without lasting profit. And now he seeks to show us that whatever we devote ourselves to is as lasting as a footprint in the sand, washed away by the next wave or blown away by the next breeze.

In v4 he reminds us of the tragedy of death. Life is not profitable because, despite all the toil in life, one day you will have changed nothing on the earth and then you will die. And man who is made of the earth disappears while the earth of which he is made remains constant – almost as a mockery.

Solomon tells us three things about our great lives that we think accomplish so much:

Man himself is fleeting – a footprint in sand
v4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.

One generation enters the earth as another is dying off. Each generation thinking that they will make progress, but the only progress they make is to the grave. And as wave after wave of men, women and children return to the earth, the earth itself remains constant. The earth tramps on regardless – not even pausing to note the passing of great men or women.
Man’s work is fleeting
The earth itself illustrates this futile round of things – the sun rises and sets, and there it is in the mrning again. The rivers do the same, always running, never emptying, you cut the grass and it needs cut next week, you wash the dishes and you turn your back and the sink is full again, you get your hair cut only to need it done again in a few weeks time, you weed the garden only to find the weeds back.

One generation after the other enters the earth frantically moving with all the vigour of a guy on an exercise bicycle peddling like mad and going nowhere. And then we die, and our gardens which we so carefully planted return to the wild, our house which we so carefully kept clean fills with dust – someone else moves in and it is as if we were never there. Even the great civilisations of the Babylonians, the Incas and the Greeks are reclaimed by nature and little remains of the mighty empires.

Man’s innovations are fleeting
Ah but what about people who really make their mark? Who like? Like the guy who invented the Tilly lamp, or the fiddle for sowing corn, or the ram for pumping water from a river to houses uphill. Or what about the guy who invented the Betamax video recorder? Or what about the walkman, the record player, the valve radio, or the indicators that used to pop out on the side of cars.

And the people who invented all these are no more remembered than a footprint in the sand.

There is nothing new under the sun –

v10 Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.

But what about nuclear power, or computers, or robotic milking parlours? What are they really but ways to do the same things as before except in bigger and faster ways. The only thing that changes is the scale – more power, faster calculations, bigger herds.

Even the best achievements of man are fleeting.

Man’s remembrance is fleeting
v11 There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.

As a kid my favourite tv programme was record breakers. I loved seeing the attempts to see who could lift the most, eat the most, balance the number of crates on your chin etc. I loved browsing through the Guiness book of World Records. But there is something ultimately depressing about GBWR – old editions sitting in second hand shops. Worthless because they commemorate worthless achievements because the achievements have been surpassed. All that effort and training, all for no avail, the next year someone beats your record. And no one remembers your name.

This is bleak, but ultimately it is right – we are so used to placing ourselves at the centre of the world and thinking that the world rotates around us – but here is a sobering reminder the earth itself pays no attention, and neither ultimately do our fellow man.

Walk along the beach, near the waters edge and watch your footprints dissolve – that’s what you are, a fleeting imprint that is there for a little while and is gone.

Ah, you say, maybe I shouldn’t look to leave a mark then, I should just look to get as much as I can here and now. Solomon tried that, and he found that there is no sufficient replacement for God

There is no sufficient replacement for God 1:12-2:10
In these verses Solomon enters in to a great experiment. He asks himself another question in v3

“I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.”

And so like many people before and since Solomon set out just to enjoy life for all it was worth. And these verses instead of being 3000 years old could be a description of Letterkenny main street on a Saturday. Solomon surrounded himself with comedians v1, he tried alcohol, not getting totally plastered, but enough to have a good time free from inhibition v3, he then went for live bands and music of all descriptions v8, and then sex as much as he wanted as often as he wanted v8 – he had 700 wives and 300 mistresses. v10 There wasn’t anything pleasurable that he skipped out.

And it wasn’t just pleasure that he went for, like so many people before and since he poured himself into his work, amassing property, building great schemes, both business and farming, gathering money, so much that it says in 1 Kings 10 that silver was as common as stone.

Whatever there was to do this guy did it – whether pleasure or work.

You see our problem is that there are very few people in the world who have the time or the money to pursue pleasure or work as far as they want. And so the myth persists that if only I was a little richer, or a little more successful, or a little more attractive, or had some more land, or some more brains, then I would be happy.

So mankind persists in chasing a lost cause. And we don’t stop to listen to the voices of those who have been there, Solomon, Johnny Cash, or even Robbie Williams – who once he got to the height of his fame found that fame and money still left him feeling empty inside.

It is the despair that Solomon voices 2:11

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.

v 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.

As Scottish band Del Amitri said, “The disappointment of success hangs from your shoulders like a hand-me-down dress.”

What Solomon wants us to see is that none of these things, nor anything else is a sufficient replacement for God.

You see this is what sin is – so often we think of sin as being doing wrong things, but at its heart lies this – putting something else in the number one place in our hearts. Sin is basing your life on anything but God. That’s what the first commandment is – you shall have no other gods before me. Sin is taking even a good thing and making it into the ultimate, building your identity around a thing rather than God. So if you make as the main source of your happiness in life your self-esteem, your farm, your success, your looks, your goals, the approval of others, your children, anything – if you say If I had that, or did that, or achieved that I’d be happy – what is it that you want more than anything else – if that isn’t God then you are doing what Solomon did. Except he got what he aimed for because he had enough money and enough time on his hands – and still he said it doesn’t satisfy.

These things, the search for self esteem, riches, approval, success, whatever will drive you into the ground, if you get what you want it will disappoint you, if you fail to get what you desire it will crush you.

These things are not a sufficient replacement for God, because Jesus is the only master who satisfies, and when you fail him, he is the only one that will die for you to make you right again. And you can see that yourselves – ask the question what use are any of these things when the great trials of life arise?

Young people here is a guy who has had it all, standing before you today pleading with you to set your heart o God, because all else fails.

The thing to realise is that your heart is an idol factory – even for the Christian – constantly inventing things for you to put in the place of God. And Solomon says to you – all of them will disappoint you in the end.

So our significance and meaning are not to be found in making a mark on the world, or in living life to the max. As Solomon says in v23 – All this is meaningless – unprofitable, empty. Solomon isn’t being cycnical or pessimistic he is being utterly realistic because he wants us to see that:

Without God, despair is the only honest alternative 2:11-2:23
It is a very clever book – Solomon is setting out to drive people to despair. Not out of cynicism, but out of love. He has lived this life, now in his old age, broken by his sin, having seen the effects it has had on his kingdom, he writes with a repentant heart to warn people of the dangers of following the idol factory of our hearts. He knows that most people don’t get to see the emptiness of life until it is too late, they aren’t rich enough or successful enough to see that the path they are on falls of the edge of a cliff. But Solomon has been to the brink and comes back to tell us.

But he isn’t the only one to see it. An atheistic philosopher once said, “Suicide is the only sensible option, but few have the courage to take it.” And he is right if all there is to life is be born live, die. If there is nothing to live for, and if disease, disappointment, depression, and doubt along with break up of relationships, family and natural disasters can strike anyone in random fashion then he argued what’s the point of going on?

That is precisely the force of this opening section of Ecclesiastes. Without God despair is the only honest alternative. There is a dishonest alternative – to bury your head in the sand and shout, “I don’t believe you.”

And as I have said before those who are on the brink of suicide and depression sometimes see life most clearly. We all think that they are deluded when they ask “What’s the point? What’s the point in getting a job and then working for a lifetime when you’re only going to die? How do you know that someone will love me and be there for me, how do you know that things will get better? This world just rolls on and misses no one, so I’ll not be missed.”. But at a deep level they see things more clearly, they have stood on the brink and seen what Solomon has seen. And the vast majority of life just gets on with life, getting hopelessly lost in the boring repetitiveness of life with all its trivialities – pretending that the big questions don’t exist.

Well they do exist, and Solomon wants us to look at them, so he launches his attack to destroy the false optimism that people cling to.

And what Solomon is saying is that this despair is vital. If you haven’t come to that point of despair – either about your own state before God, or about life in general, where you know that you don’t have the answers and that you can’t help yourself, and that you know that nothing in this life can either – then you aren’t going to see life as it really is. Jesus job is to show you the meaninglessness of life apart from him. Like Paul in Phil 4:8 – I consider all things dung without Christ – because all things are dung without Christ.

And so if you are not a Christian and things are going wrong in your life – God is teaching you. He is forcing you to look at life and see what your priorities are, to see what has claimed the place that belongs to him. What is most important to you? See that unless you have a relationship with God you will fill your life with all sorts of stuff to fill the emptiness, and then you will grow to hate the stuff because it ultimately lets you down.

But where the atheist philosopher had no answer, and where our hearts cry out and override our minds and say, “But there has to be more to it than this” Solomon doesn’t stop – he points us to an answer.

With God there is meaning purpose and joy 2:24-26
That’s where he brings us to in v24-26.

He doesn’t stop with meaninglessness. He tells us that enjoyment itself and making sense of this world, and finding a way to understand life, to have happiness amid the monotony of life, and the hurt of life is a gracious gift of God.

v24 reads more literally “There is nothing good in a man that he should eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.”

In and of ourselves there is nothing, absolutely nothing that we deserve. It’s all a free gift from God. And so even when those who aren’t Christians enjoy things in life – this too is a message from God. He is seeking by his kindness to draw you to him. CS Lewis said “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our consciences, but shouts to us in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” God has given you that in grace.

What Solomon is saying is that when we make wisdom, knowledge or happiness our chief aim, we get meaninglessness, but when we make God our goal it is then that we get wisdom, knowledge and joy given to us, because this pleases God.

This is quite simply the gospel – give God his proper place, and he will freely reward you – not because you earned it, but as a gift of his grace. Free, the ability to enjoy life with God at the centre is a gift that God gives. You can’t earn it.

Push God off the throne, and you may get short term pleasure in this life, but you will find that it has been of no profit to your soul. Restore God to his rightful place, and you will find that no matter what life throws at you, you will see a meaning and a purpose – and that will give you a deep contentment even amidst the trials.

Christian friends, pushing God off his throne isn’t just something non-Christians do. We know Jesus is king, but we still find ourselves putting other things in the place where he should be. And when we do we find ourselves getting discouraged and down – and that’s because things or people can’t sustain hat weight of expectation, they will let us down. And so even when our heads ell us that we know Jesus is first we find ourselves discouraged because we have low self esteem, or because we don’t feel as appreciated as we want, or because we are saying “If only I had this, or if only I was like this, then it would be so much different”. And we have made exactly the same mistake. We have tried to find our meaning, value self worth, in acceptance, success, possessions, love of something, or someone other than Jesus.

And in the low points Jesus is our teacher, even more than Solomon is and he comes and says, You’ve pushed me off my throne, you need to find yourself in a deep love relationship with me, and then you will have meaning and joy and esteem, and love, and in me you will have success, and position far more than this world can measure.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Letters: More on Relationships

XXXX

Good to hear from you again. Hope your studies are going well. I see doubts are still playing on your mind. You mentioned the other girl who you have more in common with:
This worried me as I was scared I would fancy her. I don’t think I do, but its always a fear of mine that could happen.
That is something you can have control of - the devil will always find someone to tempt you with in a relationship, no matter who you marry. So you need to learn to fix your mind and your eyes on one person. The grass always looks greener elsewhere. It wont happen if you don't let it.
also xxxx seems to really really really really love me, and that scares me.
It's understandable that you're scared if you aren't sure about your feelings for her - you don't want to hurt her that much.
I love spending time with her, and love being with her, but when were apart I only rarely miss her
I'm exactly the same. I can go away for a conference and not miss Judith at all, until I phone her, or hear her voice. I think some of us are wired to focus on what we are doing at one moment, and we are so focused on it that other things don't get taken into account. I wouldn't worry too much about that issue. The fact that you love spending time with her is the key aspect.
these are her good points
1 loving
2 Looks out for the best for me
3 patient
4 Puts me first over her - a lot
These qualities above are ones that make her a good partner.
5 Great Christian striving to grow more with God
6 Encourages me to grow
These are the mark of a good Christian partner
7 attractive
8 her family are great
These are nice bonuses!

All-in-all that's more than most relationships have!
not so good points…
No-one is perfect, the issue is can you live with these imperfections? If this is all that's wrong, I would suggest you are on a winner!
find her humour irritating(not so a bad point, but I can’t seem to let it not annoy me at times)
Partners do annoy each other at times, the key is to deal with it Christianly. I can tell you that no matter who you marry you will always find something annoying about them. And the devil will magnify it and make it seem like the most annoying thing in the world. Its all about how you react. Pray about it. (not that she'll become funny, but that you'll be able to live graciously with the things that annoy you.)
don't share alot in common
Not so important as long as you have things you can talk about. If you have everything in common there isnt as much to talk about. Now you have twice as many areas. Learn to be interested in what interests her. Make every effort to understand her life and remember to ask about the things she's doing. Be genuinely interested and remember what she says and ask more the next time.
sometimes doesnt listen well, but she is striving to improve.
You can help her by talking about the problem openly.
she seems to see my bad points and move past them and want to marry me.
That's a mark of maturity. Again another good sign. It might be the case that you need to focus on maturing more as a Christian - ie growing as a man of God. In other words focus on growing closer to God and that will bring you closer to xxxx.

Focus on the Godward relationship and the relationship with xxxx will be helped.

To sum it all up:

- You wont find the perfect partner. And she seems first class.
- Ask yourself, "Is she someone I could come home to every night?"
- Don’t ask yourself, "Is she the right one for me?" but "Am I being the right one for her?" in other words, Do I put her 1st over me, and look out for what's best for her? (What areas are you praying that xxxx will grow in as a Christian? - that will be a good indicator of how to look out for her heart.)
- Dont make any decision yet. Wait a year and concentrate on your relationship with God.

You need to tell her:
- that you are waiting a year with no pressure to decide.
- that she's not on trial, she's nearly perfect!
- that you love her, but you want to make sure that you are right for her.
- that you're giving yourself time to grow as a Christian, not leaving time for her to prove she is perfect after all

Then:
- do all you can to grow as a Christian
- do all you can to show xxxx she's important to you
- talk about things openly - dont leave her guessing
- praise her good points, and dont draw attention to her bad points. (this will help you to keep from focusing on the things that annoy you.)

Hope this helps. From your brother in Christ.

Sorry its so long an email, but relationships are never simple!

Mark

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Quote of the day

Walter Kaiser makes this comment regarding the death penalty:
"Such action is favoured in scripture, not because men are sovereign or because society and the bereaved are somehow benefited, but because man is so vastly important to God - he is made in the image of God. To kill another person is to kill God in effigy."
And we all know the fuss that is made whenever a effigy of some world leader is burnt.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Letters: More on Relationships - We don't have that much in common

XXXX,

Good to hear from you. I'll just go down through your email and make a few comments and then try to tie it all together at the end. Hopefully that will help.
The problem is that I don’t know exactly what I have doubts about. Sometimes I find that she really irritates me! And then that really troubles me - if we are like this now, what might it be like later.
It's 'ok' to find each other irritating 'sometimes', as long as its not too regularly! A relationship is between two sinful people, and a relationship between two Christians is one that the devil will especially seek to get each to rub each other up the wrong way. No relationship is perfect this side of Heaven. That doesn't give you licence to be irritating though!

There are things about me that irritate Judith, and vice versa. I am completely untidy and she is completely organised. She tidies up, and then I cant find the things that I had left lying about.

But the amazing thing is that God's grace has been like an oil that reduces the friction, as he makes us more Christlike.
also I don't have much in common in xxxx.
I have very little in common with Judith. I'm a rock climbing, rugby loving, football watching, fan of every sport imaginable who loves to read, and design stuff on the computer, and discuss theology. Judith doesn't have much time for sport at all, doesn't read books much, and doesn't discuss theology the same way other friends do. I enjoy it when a day takes unexpected turns, she likes to know exactly what's going to happen next.

If you tried to match Judith and I up using conventional dating methods we would never be put together. But God put us together. Thank you, God.

I think we can put too much emphasis on what the world puts its emphasis on. They know that there is something in being like-minded, but they don't realise that being like minded in Christ is the most important one. And if that is right, many other things will be covered by growing in grace.
After we started going out I met another girl with whom I have alot more in common. This worried me as I was scared I would fancy her.
There are plenty of other girls that I know and care a lot about that I have more in common with. Girls who are sporty, girls who love books, girls who discuss theology - but do I want to spend my life with them? No.

Also I have discovered more things about Judith since I married her that have made me see that God has us perfectly matched - but the point to note here is that it was after we married that I discovered them! God's plan for marriage isn't for two identical people to get together - Eve was made as an emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual counterpart to Adam to complement him, not to match him.

(Of course having a few things in common helps a bit!)

All the best for now

Mark

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Letters: On Relationships - Is she the one?

hello there.

how goes it? I have to say congratulations on having another baby! So hows that all going? Sounds cool!

Got plenty of assignments to do, which is loadsa fun. Things with xxxx have been going well. But I still have doubts. Sometimes I think I will get married to her, and then there are times where I’m like I dunno about anything, and I’m just a bit confused and have doubts. The thing is she really loves me, and she knows that I have doubts at times.

I wish that I could be sure of us. I’m worried that in a years time or longer I’ll realise that we shouldn’t go out, and I’ll look back and realise I shouldn’t have held it on for so long, because I don’t want to hurt anymore than possible. Am I being selfish holding it on and hoping that I’ll become certain or what?

Why couldn't life be easier!?

Trying to start a case for Christ - so far so good!

XXXX

Hi XXXX

Good to hear from you again. Having a new baby in the house is great. And Eva really loves her.

About you and xxxx – doubts are part of the process, at least they were for me. I had periodic doubts about marrying Judith until near the wedding! That might sound odd, but it makes sense in a way. If two Christians are right for each other and will be good for each other, the devil will try and get in whatever way he can to disrupt their relationship - it might be through physical temptation, or through giving you doubts. What I kept coming back to in my own mind was that I had prayed for Judith to love me, and now she did, and if God had answered that prayer then I wasn’t going to let the devil get in the road!

The other part of the problem is that we allow feelings to guide us too much. Love isnt so much a feeling as something we do. Yes, feelings are involved, but if we depend on them and we go through a rough patch we'll end up getting divorced! And if the rough patch hadnt happened then the divorce wouldnt have happened!

Don’t focus on your feelings, focus on who she is, and what qualities (godly and others) you like about her.

Another thing I've often thought about is this - and its easy for me to say now that I'm married - I'm not convinced that God means us to give all this anxiety about who we're going to marry.

I think we spend too much time worrying about, "Is she the one?", as if God has promised to reveal specifically the girl we should marry. I think God is more interested in what teh relationship will be like, rather than who it is with (provided we obey his commands to marry only in the Lord, and to be wise).

My reasoning is simple - For the most of the history of mankind you didnt have a choice. Your parents chose a wife for you and you had to settle down to the serious business of being a loving husband, whether you felt like it or not!

Its only in the last 100 years that this has changed and only really in the western world. So that suggests to me that that perhaps we should be less focused on who we are marrying (as long as they are a christian, and a wise choice within biblical guidelines), and more focused on what sort of man we will be in the relationship.

And be thankful that at this point in history we have the added bonus of being able to pick someone we like!

So course there is a balance to be kept, but I think at the minute we get too hung up on "Is she the one?" and focus too little on "Am I who I should be?".

So dont let feelings be your guide - focus on the facts - will she be good for you as a Christian? Will she help you grow? Will you be able to help her grow? Are you and her compatible - I mean, "Do you see eye to eye on important issues? or will they become a source of conflict in a marriage." Do you like her? Can you see yourself being married to her?

And then concentrate your efforts on being a godly Christian man towards her, helping her grow, allowing her to help you grow, and the wonderful thing is that in the process of doing this you will find real deep love for her growing.

Give the relationship all you have at this stage, within the limits we talked about in the last email - ie not spending all your time together etc. Pray that if it isnt right that God would make it plain, and then get on with giving the relationship everything, and if God doesnt want it to happen he'll make it plain.

I hope that makes sense.

God bless

Mark