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A Cloudy Day - The Book of Ecclesiastes

The Book of Ecclesiastes

I like to drop Chicago remarks every now and again just because it makes me sentimental for my childhood outside the city. When you talk about Chicago in the time I lived there, you have to talk about the Bears, the Cubs, the Sox, and the cold winters, of course. But you also have to consider the man I quote in the outline in your bulletin this morning. His name was Mike Royko. He is now dead, but anyone who read the Chicago Sun-Times and his column in the 60’s-80’s knew Royko, because he was as Chicago as they come: grouchy, opinionated, coarse, and cynical. He was so cynical. In fact, his quote starts the morning: Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what is really going. That’s Royko. He has seen too much to believe that good is lurking under the mud.

And maybe that’s you and me, too. But for all our gripes, you should be reminded this morning that you are in the minor leagues when it comes to cynics. There was one who came before you, and he has penned an entire book of the Bible with his frustrations. The man is King Solomon and the book is Ecclesiastes. The book opens this way:

“The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless.’ What does a man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?” Ecc. 1:1-3

As your Emerson quote in the outline illustrates, a cynic can chill & dishearten with a single word. And the king moves quickly to chill and dishearten. If we could, let’s look at two very big ideas in Ecclesiastes that still bring us come concern.

A Cynic’s First Complaint: Impermanence of life.

“I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.” Ecc. 2:18-19

“I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of the owner, or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when he has a son there is nothing left for him. Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand.” Ecc. 5:13-15

The complaint is an obvious one: that which I put my hands to is not going to last. I cannot hold it forever, and when I let it go I cannot guarantee who gets it and what they do with it. It is also the case that what I hope to be a point of security can become a poison, or I can lose it all together. Life is an empty glass in the end, he says. And yet there is one more.

A Cynic’s Encounter with meaning: To Be or Not to Be?

“When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man’s labor on earth—his eyes not seeing sleep day or night—then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” Ecc. 8:16-7

The cynic’s fear is that what cannot be seen cannot be true. If we cannot live above our lives and see the meaning, then maybe we cannot understand the meaning. And if we cannot understand it here, it might not exist. I have a quote on your outline that explains his fears as well as ours: Only the broken-hearted idealist can become a cynic. We are all broken-hearted cynics, and our hearts have been broken by parents, by siblings, by children, by neighbors, by co-workers, by our investments, by our bodies, by our leaders, and by ourselves. We have ideals, but life seems to get in the way.

And so on this Sunday before thanksgiving we turn to God for a breath of hope. Let’s begin here:

Life is impermanent. But Jesus offers this as a promise .

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world but forfeit his soul? Of what can a man give in exchange for his soul? And if anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Mark 8:34-38

What comes across as a warning is actually a promise. There is a warning that one can gain the whole world yet lose his soul, face life away from God after death. And there is warning against valuing the favor of neighbors over the favor of Jesus. But there is also in this a promise that you and I are not bound by this world and its times and impermanence. Yes, the work of our hands may not show longevity, but more than being down about what does not last, Jesus wants us to pay attention to how much will last. We last. The glass may be empty in terms of what we gain in this world, but the glass is always full in terms of who we are before God. Those who gained the world but lost their souls to get it have lost everything; not only was their work impermanent on earth but it now stands against them at judgment. Those who turn their lives to Christ, however, find the permanence we miss here.

Life does have meaning, but it requires a different measure.

These are the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:

“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping from the flames.” (3:10-15)

A few reasons for gratitude. First, you and I need only be faithful to Christ and His work in this world to know that we are already building what will last. Your faith and love and serving is all that is required. We are not called to build foundations. That is God’s work in Christ. Second, the quality of our work is obvious in God’s eyes. How people respond to you is not the measure of your love or faith or faithfulness as far as God is concerned. He knows what you have offered: gold or straw is obvious to Him. Third, the good stuff survives, and reward is yours. These are promises as well as warnings. But they are reasons for gratitude.

A final question: Are you most concerned with your own work, even to the point of maybe only building a hut for the sake of the spire? Or could you turn your hand to something greater? (Notre Dame Cathedral, b. 1163 A.D., completed 1345 A.D., 182 years)

What else will do except faith in such a cynical, corrupt time? When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word. Garrison Keillor

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