This sermon was preached on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, July 1 2018. Please forgive any typos in this manuscript.
Our Old Testament lesson for today is from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 2, where I invite you to turn. Ecclesiastes is a wisdom book, that is intended to give practical advice about the things in life that matter most. The book was written by Solomon, and it gives a rather stark view of the world. There are times when things that are stark can be good for us. There are times when we need strong medicine to help us with a powerful disease; Ecclesiastes is strong Spiritual medicine, to help to shake us from Spiritual slumber, and heal us from Spiritual disease. It is for this reason that Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books of the Bible. At this point, you may be thinking: you are a gloomy fellow! Chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes, which we read this morning, can appear at first reading to be exceptionally gloomy—but it makes a point to us that it is vital that we do not miss—that building our lives on the solid rock of Jesus Christ is the only true source of peace in this world.
We need to note first the context in which Ecclesiastes 2 appears—it follows a statement at the end of chapter 1 in which Solomon, who calls himself the preacher or teacher, says that he has applied his heart to seek and search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. The preacher’s “project,” then, involves taking things in this world and testing them, to see what there is under heaven that is truly wise or good on its own. Everyone in the world has a sense that there is something wrong in the world—that there must be something more, that there must be meaning found somewhere. But the question is: where? He, in fact, is asking a philosophical question: what in the world is really good? The phrase “under heaven” is an important one: it is as if the Preacher is going to try to decide, to test, what really matters in life apart from God—under heaven, not including heaven. What in the world can stand on its own as a good thing that can be pointed to as an ultimate good, an ultimate source of joy and pleasure, apart from anything else?
To try to find out the answer to this question, the preacher examined many of the things that human beings try to find satisfaction in. Most of the things that he looked to are the sorts of things that most human beings would recognize as goods—and many would even see as the most important things as their lives.
The text tells us first that he tested pleasure. Then he tested wine, to see if that could give him satisfaction, even acknowledging that these things were beginning to trend toward folly. Yet he continued on his project: testing whether making great things, great buildings and houses and planting great vineyards, creating gardens and parks, making pools of water and growing trees could be the answer. He grew very wealthy. He had influence and power over other people, even having many slaves, which in his time period would have been a mark of wealth. He had more silver and gold than anyone before him. He had musicians and artists working for him. He had many wives, so that he could seek pleasure in sex. In short, he was like a modern wealthy celebrity. He says he had everything a person could want. And whether in the 10th century B.C., or the 21st century A.D., he tested everything that human beings look to find lasting satisfaction and pleasure. Yet he found disappointment: the text tells us that he considered all his hands had done, the toil he had expended it in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
All of us, including Solomon, would agree that many of the things he had done were great. He had excelled in his building prowess, in his wisdom. Pleasure is indeed a good thing, a gift from God. But the Preacher recognizes that pleasure itself has no lasting value, because of that very thing—it does not last. He uses a unique word to describe this—the word is hevel, which is translated in the King James Vanity, as it is in other versions. The word can also mean “breath,” something that is ephemeral, something that evaporates. All of these things may be good on their own to a certain level, but they will ultimately not satisfy, because they are temporary. They will not last forever.
In verses 18-23 the Preacher reflects on why this is. He recognizes that even everything that he has worked for will only be kept temporarily. Because of sin, this world does not last forever, and human beings die, leaving their achievements for others—or not having their achievements last at all. This brings to mind a poem by Percy Shelley, called Ozymandias. The poem tells of a traveler who was in a distant desert land and came upon a disintegrated statue, that had on it an inscription: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! The poem continues: Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Ozymandias’ works, which may have been massive and influential and important a long time ago, mean nothing now. They have rotted and decayed to nothing, so that all is left is a presumptuous statue. The Preacher seems to say that this awful reality is itself hevel. It is itself vanity. It means that all of the toil that is done under the sun, even with its good, leads to this.
But this is not where the Preacher ends his ruminations. At the end of chapter 2 we get a further result of his considerations of wisdom. He says: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” You see, the Preacher has realized that there is something that gives meaning to life, and in fact therefore gives meaning to all of the various pleasures and goods of this world that God has made. And that is to recognize that there is more to the world than what is under the sun. In other words, that there is a reality that permeates the world that gives to the world meaning. That God Himself has made this world, and that acknowledging and giving thanks to Him for the good gifts that He gives in this world allows us to not seek our ultimate satisfaction in the things themselves, but rather, to seek satisfaction in God, and receive the things that He gives as good gifts.
This is message we need to hear because we, like all people, struggle with this. Many of us have great luxuries and pleasures, the likes of which human beings even 100 years ago could not have fathomed. And a danger of having so many of these things is that we make them an end unto themselves. Take food for example. Instead of receiving good food as a gift from God’s hand, we instead look to food for our satisfaction—in other words, our God becomes our belly, which the Apostle Paul warns us could be our destruction. Note well that the Apostle and the Preacher are not calling for us to abandon physical things, or that physical things are bad in and of themselves. This is not a call to rank asceticism. But it is a call to be circumspect with the things that we have. At the end of our lives, what is the most important thing? What will people know us by? Will it be the pleasures that we experienced, the food that we ate, the things that we built, our successful careers? These are all good things. But they cannot be ultimate things. The ultimate thing must be a life of godliness and love, which receives these good things and appreciates them as good gifts of a gracious God. This is, by the way, why it is important and good to thank God before we eat food—for in doing so, if we do so from our heart, we recognize the thing we are to receive as a gift from God who gives good things. But do you also thank God for the other good things He has given you—your computer, your house, your car, your golf clubs, your clothes?
To ensure that we do not make our belly our God, Scripture and the Church give us good disciplines to help us. Prayer is certainly one thing that is a means of grace to us to help us receive God’s gifts with gratitude, instead of grasping them. Reading Holy Scripture itself is a means to help us. Fasting is a Biblically prescribed way to wean our hearts and minds from the pleasures of food and drink that we might receive them with thankfulness instead of seeking pleasure in them alone. Giving money sacrificially, tithing and otherwise, helps us to not value our things too much.
Sometimes we need strong medicine. In our Gospel lesson today, St. Peter needed strong medicine. When he saw the miraculous draught of fish, that Jesus provided—thereby transforming his disappointing work day into a day of great material abundance—he did not merely receive the gift God gave him and go on his way. He rightly realized the gift God had given him, and amazed at the miraculous draft of fish, fell before Jesus, saying: depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. Peter recognized that the right response to this new abundance he had been given was repentance before Jesus. And Jesus gave to him forgiveness, told him not to fear, and gave him a new vocation: that now he would catch men.
Let us, like Peter, recognize the good gifts that God has given to us. Let us repent of our sin this day, and pray earnestly for God’s help to turn away. Let us endeavor to not put our trust for satisfaction in the gifts that God gives, but in God Himself, but in Jesus Christ our Lord, who loves us and died for us—and as we do so, let us remember that we do so based on grace. All that we have is a gift from God, a gift of His grace—it is not about whether we can earn our salvation, or this table, from Him. So let us come now to His table by faith, to receive from Him the good Spiritual gift of His body and blood. Amen.