I am going to read most of the first chapter of Ecclesiastes (This time I will read from the NIV): “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”  What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?  Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.  The sun rises and sets...  The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course...  What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun...  I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!  I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind...  Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.  For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”    Thus far our happy text.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

“Living the good life means…?”

The writer of this piece of Wisdom Literature called “Ecclesiastes”—which comes from the Hebrew word “Koheleth”, which means “Gatherer” or “Teacher/Preacher”—sought to figure out what makes for a good, or at least meaningful, life.  His conclusion, at least in the first chapter, is less than optimistic. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”  In other words, “Life sucks, and then you die!”

We might be inclined to think that he ought to stop thinking too much and have some fun.  But in the very next chapter he talks about how he explored that, too.  I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.”  But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?”  I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly...” but that all proved to be meaningless as well.  

Now I would tend to step in at this point and tell the guy to quit whining like Eeyore and find some worthwhile work to do.  Stop overthinking and stop playing around and do something meaningful.  Ah, but he tried that, too. Here’s more from chapter 2: 4I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; 5I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. … Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind.  In other words, life sucks and then you die.

I should point out that Ecclesiastes is not 100% negative… only about 95%.  Once in a while the writer says things like this: From chapter 5: This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God.  For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.  And, from the final chapter, this more positive conclusion: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.

In spite of these few bright spots, Ecclesiastes is a predominantly negative piece of wisdom literature.  The writer seems to come close to figuring out what makes for a good, meaningful life, but never seems to quite nail it.  I would judge that as being true for most people. 

A lot of people seem to conclude that if you are lucky enough to be healthy and wealthy and wiser than most others, you can have an enjoyable life.  But if you catch some bad breaks or make too many bad decisions, life pretty much sucks for you and then you die.

So, back to our original question: What makes for a truly good life?  I would say: look to Jesus.  If we look to- or listen to- anyone else, we will be misled.  God is our Creator and therefore knows what makes for the best possible lives for His most beloved of all creatures: humans.  The best way to live is the way that He created: love and serve God and love and serve others.

You see, I’d judge the writer as someone who is so inwardly thinking and inwardly focused that he was missing the most important ingredients for a good life: relationships.  Our relationship with God through Christ, and our relationships with those around us, are the keys to a good life.

During this summer I have witnessed families at their best.  I gathered with a family as their dear wife and mother breathed her last breaths.  Profound love on display.  I have officiated at five weddings.  Celebrations of family and love.  One of those weddings involved the very same family who just days earlier lost their wife and mother.  Last night I officiated at a wedding where a wonderful celebration took place in spite of the presence of a beloved family member very recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. This all puts life in perspective, doesn’t it?

You see, the powerful forces that Martin Luther labeled as “the terrible trio”—the devil, the world and our sinful flesh, seek to mislead God’s children.  And they are very successful at doing so.  They would deceive us into thinking that the secret to happiness is getting what we want.  Our sinful self-centeredness, fed by the devil and the broken world around us, convinces us that it’s all about me, myself and I.  If I get what I want, I’ll be happy.

That is a big, fat, dangerous—even deadly—lie!  When philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau concluded that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, he was right.  Thoreau was right because the mass of men have allowed sin, death, and the devil to deceive and mislead them.  You live life your way, then life sucks and you die.

Look at the parable Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel reading.  This is the biggest lie in all of history: make and hoard as much money and stuff as you possibly can and you will be happy.  Wrong.  After all of his accumulating the foolish man says to his soul: ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’ (sound familiar?) But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.

So, there you have it.  The way to live the best possible life is to be rich toward God… which means that the best possible life is spent focusing on relationships:  loving and serving God and loving and serving others.  It truly is better to give than to receive.  We find this life as we experience the grace of God upon our confused, corrupted, and sin-broken lives, and then respond by seeking to live more and more fully in the way of Jesus.  The best lives are those inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit of God and marked by the gifts of that Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

When we live this way, life’s a joy, and we will never die!  Amen.

   November 2018   
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