Sermons That Work

There Is a Popular Saying…, Proper 13 (C) – 2010

August 01, 2010

There is a popular saying for church signs, “Too Blessed to Be Depressed.” It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? Think about being so blessed by God and knowing it, that you can’t possibly be depressed. That is a wonderful thought. Unfortunately, it’s not scriptural. Very seldom does theology do well condensed to bumper-sticker length. And also unfortunately, the notion that when blessed by God, we are beyond the reach of depression is just wrong.

In this morning’s reading from Ecclesiastes, we encounter a writer better described as blessed and depressed. Sitting right in the middle of our Bibles is a cynic who is blessed and depressed, and he’s not afraid to say so. The Teacher writes that he was King of Israel in Jerusalem and later goes on to tell of his accomplishments, saying, “I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.”

What did this wealthy man think of all he had done? He wrote, “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, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

The word translated there and throughout the Book of Ecclesiastes as “vanity” is the Hebrew word hevel. The plain sense meaning of the word is “a puff of wind,” “vapor,” “a breath.” The Teacher uses hevel to describe how everything is quickly passing away. The Teacher looks at all his accomplishments and says that they are but a puff of wind, a vapor, something that passes before it ever fully existed.

Our reading for today leaves us with the cheeriest thought of all. The Teacher says, “What do mortals get from all their toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”

This week we find in the words of Holy Scripture that everything we do is so ephemeral that it is gone before it is fully formed. The Bible gives us the definitive word from a man who has really made it to the top and found all he had seen and done and become is worthless. The Teacher describes himself saying, “I had everything a man could desire!” and yet he says, “There was nothing worthwhile anywhere.”

If you read the entire Book of Ecclesiastes, the picture gets even bleaker. Here is a sampling. The second verse of the book says, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” A closer translation of the Hebrew word hevel would be something like, “A puff of wind of a puff of wind, everything is fleeting.” The New Living Translation does a great job of capturing the sense of the words in writing, “Everything is meaningless, utterly meaningless.” There’s a Bible verse not likely to be emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers.

We can read further, after our reading for this Sunday, and it only gets worse. In Chapter Three he writes, “I saw under the sun in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well.”

In the fourth chapter he writes, “I concluded that the dead are better off than the living. And most fortunate of all are those who were never born. For they have never seen all the evil that is done in our world.”

Ecclesiastes goes on for 12 chapters of brutal honesty. Do you think you can get ahead with wealth? He writes, “Those who love money will never have enough. How absurd to think that wealth brings true happiness! The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what is the advantage of wealth – except perhaps to watch it run through your fingers!”

Do you think that your work will bring you deep satisfaction? He writes, “All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied.”

One last example shows what an optimist the Teacher is. He writes, “I have observed something else in this world of ours. The fastest runner does not always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise are often poor, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being at the right place at the right time.”

The Teacher seems content to pose the questions without giving any lengthy discourse that can be considered an answer. If you think you’ll find the answer in a book, even this book, the Teacher clears that up, writing, “Of making many books, there is no end, and much study is weariness of flesh.”

What in the world is this depressing little book doing tucked in after the great poetry of the Psalms and the pithy statements of Proverbs? First and foremost, this book goes against our every attempt at bumper-sticker theology. The Teacher would scoff at “Too Blessed to Be Depressed,” saying that the person who wrote it probably had observed too little of all the evil done in this world to both the good and the bad. Ecclesiastes also tells us that it’s Biblical to question all that we have seen and experienced. The Teacher is not afraid to present life in all its frustratingly contradictory absurdity.

Before leaping to any conclusions, it’s important to pause just long enough to take in a breath of fresh air. In a world that will pressure you, as a Christian, to have all the answers and present a public face that says you have your act together, the Teacher says all of that is meaningless. It’s fine to have more questions than answers. It’s even all right to find yourself blessed and depressed at times. That doesn’t make you any less Christian. It just makes you all the more human. And being human is a key to understanding Ecclesiastes. For through his questioning, the Teacher learns his place in the universe. Understanding what a fleeting puff of wind human life is teaches the humility. Being humble is no small trick for a great king who possesses land, property, and other wealth exceeding all who have come before him. Seeing how fleeting and meaningless all his possessions are humbles the writer.

Then through this book of questions, the Teacher hints at the answers. Woven in the very fabric of this book is the idea that all that we have is a gift from God to be enjoyed. The Teacher says that God gives wisdom, knowledge and joy. He tells us that God has made everything beautiful for its own time.

The way to find more fulfillment is to take joy in the gifts God has given you rather than to join in the all too human pursuit of the things you don’t have. The Teacher writes, “I have noticed one thing at least that is good. It is good for people to eat well, drink a glass of good wine, and enjoy their work – whatever they do under the sun – for however long God lets them live. And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life – that is indeed a gift from God. People who do this rarely look with sorrow on the past, for God has given them reasons for joy.”

The Teacher tells us that life is fleeting, but rather than being upset by that he concludes that we should get the enjoyment out of life that we can. Live life to the fullest by enjoying what you have or can achieve rather than by an endless pursuit of things that will not in themselves bring happiness. If you are not happy with what you have now, you will not become happier by getting more of it, or even something else. For happiness does not come from stuff. Know and appreciate what you have, the good and bad, as a gift from God.

The great church reformer Martin Luther wrote of Ecclesiastes, saying, “If someone compares the good things he has with the bad things he does not have, he will finally recognize what a treasure of good things he has.”

Take joy in the many good things God has given you. You have been blessed. Perhaps not always too blessed to be depressed, but blessed nonetheless. If you take joy in what you have already been given – the good and the bad – and enjoy your work as a gift from God, then you will have little to look back on with sorrow, for God has given you reasons for joy.

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Christopher Sikkema


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