I wonder what the Christian life would look like if we thought the Bible told us to really enjoy the life God’s given us? What would the Christian like look like if God said something like, “Life is short, have a great time!”? I reckon that would make evangelism much easier!
I don’t know what sort of Christianity you’ve grown up with or have been used to, but I didn’t grow up thinking that was what being a Christian is all about. Most of us have come to MBM from pretty diverse backgrounds—different denominations, religions, or no religion at all—but I grew up in a couple of pretty conservative Baptist churches up in the Blue Mountains. I had great pastors growing up. They were faithful and godly men who loved Jesus and preached well. Maybe it was the way I understood it, or maybe it was the culture in which I grew up, but the version of Christianity I grew up with wasn’t all that joyful. So while I believed in Jesus and was saved, as I look back at it, being a Christian wasn’t relaxed or fun. I didn’t think of God like my loving heavenly Father. He was more like a stern school headmaster who was ready to punish me whenever I did something wrong. Being a Christian was like a white-knuckle ride at Luna Park: I somehow knew I’d make it to the end, but I had to hang on for dear life in the meantime, and instead of having a smile on my face, there was some fear.
Being a Christian wasn’t really about what you did, it was about what you didn’t do or didn’t say or didn’t think. We were Baptists, right, so no one we knew drank alcohol. I remember being told that Jesus turned water into grape juice at the wedding at Cana in John 2 (that’s not true, by the way—it was wine, and lots of it, around 700 litres, and it would have been good stuff, something like a Penfold’s Grange!) but every Sunday on our way home from church for lunch we’d buy apple cider from the fruit shop (not alcoholic cider but fizzy apple drink) and we did this so often that the bloke who owned the fruit shop called it ‘Baptist Water’.
No one we knew smoked, yet every preacher I knew quoted Spurgeon who loved smoking his pipe! Someone once asked Spurgeon when he would stop smoking, and Spurgeon replied, “When I am smoking too much.” The bloke then said, “Oh, and when will that be, Mr Spurgeon?” The great man said, “When I have a lit pipe in each hand my dear brother!” Baptists don’t tell that Spurgeon story!
We were discouraged from listening to modern music, and no one ever talked about sex, because it might lead to dancing! We were Baptists, remember and you know the old joke? “Why don’t Baptists believe in sex before marriage? Because it might lead to dancing.”
I grew up thinking that what made you a Christian was all the stuff you didn’t do or didn’t say. That wasn’t what was preached—at least I’m pretty sure that wasn’t preached—it’s just the way I heard it. It was just the way the culture around me lived and I was part of that culture.
I don’t remember hearing a sermon on Ecclesiastes until I was about 30. I’ve often thought that was such a shame, because Ecclesiastes is a pretty cool part of the Bible. It’s real and honest, and I reckon it puts the joy back into being a Christian. It helps us make sense of what can be a pretty confusing life at times. We’ve been going through it in the holidays this year and we’re up to Ecclesiastes chapter 9 this week.
The big idea of Ecclesiastes chapter 9 is this: everyone dies, but not everyone truly lives. That was what I really needed to hear growing up. Instead, I got a long list of dos and don’ts, which just made me think God was always a bit angry with me. Everyone dies, not everyone truly lives. We’ll look at the depressing part first, that everyone dies, and then we’ll get cheered up as we figure out what a life truly lived looks like.
The guy who wrote Ecclesiastes wants us to face reality. He isn’t pretending everything’s ok, because it’s not.
So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. (Ecclesiastes 9:1-3 NIV)
It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what sort of person you are or how much money you have or don’t have. It doesn’t matter what sort of car you drive or how you drive it. It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do, what you believe, or don’t believe, what you love or hate, whether you are a decent person or a terrible person—you and I are going to die. Unless Jesus comes back within the next 100 years or so, not a single one of us will still be alive. We’ll all be six foot under in a box or a small pile of ash on a mantelpiece somewhere. He’s a heaps cheerful fella, the bloke who wrote this. But it’s reality, isn’t it?
And worse, in chapter 9 verse 12, he tells us we have no idea when this is going to happen:
Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.
I reckon we all grasp the fact that we have a limited time here on God’s green earth. But I reckon most of us believe we’ll live for longer than we will. I have sat with dozens of people as they’ve died—and I’ve known hundreds more—and I can think of about six who thought they were ready. But nearly everyone else wanted more time with their family and friends. That’s totally normal, even for solid Christians who know exactly where they are going and who are really looking forward to meeting Jesus in person. Death breaks relationships, and we all hate that.
We worked at Menai for about 8 years. Within the first 18 months we buried five people who died way before their time. One was a young epileptic bloke who had a fit in his sleep and swallowed his tongue. One bloke was in his 60s who got crook with something vague. He went to hospital and never made it home. One was a fit bloke in his early 40s who just dropped dead out of the blue. There were also two people in their 30s, both were married with little kids, and both were lost to cancer in a very short space of time. All of them were Christians, all were loved, all important to a great many people. None of it made any sense at all, and it still doesn’t 11 years later. I have no doubt that many of you will be thinking of people you knew and loved who were called home way before you were ready to say goodbye. Death is nearly always an unwelcome guest.
And yet, the guy who wrote this book isn’t finished with the depressing stuff just yet. There are two more miserable things, and the first is in verse 3b:
The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. (Ecclesiastes 9:3b NIV)
So it’s not just that we all die, but that while we’re alive our hearts are plagued by evil and madness. Sometimes we do terrible things, but sometimes, terrible things are done to us. All of us have experienced both. No one gets through life without some scars.
Oh, and one more thing—while we’re reaching for the Zoloft or Lexapro—just in case we aren’t depressed enough already, we read in verse 5:
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten. (Ecclesiastes 9:5 NIV)
Here’s what he means: Do you guys remember Alfred Alberts? He’s the famous American chemist and researcher who discovered the drug that lowers cholesterol. He saved countless lives over the years. No? Oh, OK, what about Henry Butler. He is the blind jazz pianist from New Orleans whose music changed a generation of jazz players. You know about him, don’t you? He was so good people said he sounded like he had 3 or 4 hands instead of 2! No? Oh, far out? What about Constance Adams. Surely you know her? She’s famous, working for NASA, and she designed all the living quarters for astronauts aboard the International Space Station. No, you don’t know her?
Those three people were all in the paper this week. They were in the New York Times—in the obituary section. They all died over the past week. Very famous people in their own fields: high caliber, high capacity, hugely talented. But we’ve never heard of them, and apart from their immediate family, neither has anyone else. Within 60 years, only their children will remember them.
So not only is death certain; we also don’t know when it will happen; our lives in the meantime are also marked by misery and misfortune; and on top of that, no one will remember us when we’re gone. And right about now, if this is your first week in church, or maybe you’ve been here for about a month, you’re probably thinking, “I’m in the wrong place, this sucks!”
And that’s the point the writer is making. One of the things this guy is doing is that he’s making us think about what life looks like without any reference to God. He’s trying to figure out the meaning of life without asking the God who made everything and everyone what he says is the meaning of life. And this is the answer he comes up with: there is no point to life if you’re going to do it without God. It just won’t make any sense. And he’s right, isn’t he? Plenty of us have tried it without God, and at some point we have all come to the same conclusion: life without God in it is pointless; it’s not fulfilling; there isn’t any meaningful purpose. You live, make a bit of money, maybe have a family, get old, die, and that’s the end.
Why do you think shows like ‘The Biggest Loser’, ‘Better Homes and Gardens’, ‘Masterchef’, and ‘My Kitchen Rules’ are so popular? Sure, they can be interesting to watch, but really, they’re about people trying desperately to find meaning in better food, a better house, or a better body. But is that really what life is all about?
Remember the big idea of this chapter: Everyone dies, not everyone truly lives.
But some people do truly live. So what does that look like? If I want to get the most out of this life, what should my life look like? It should look like verses 7-10:
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (NIV)
I remember trying to read Ecclesiastes a few times when I was a teenager. I’d get about half way through the first chapter and hear the writer telling me that life was totally meaningless, and there’s no point to anything. At the time I was listening to Joy Division and The Cure and The Smiths—all of whom were pretty depressing—and I figured that Ecclesiastes wasn’t going to cheer me up any, so I gave it a miss.
I reckon the problem was that I didn’t really understand what the word ‘meaningless’ meant. I just took it to mean what I mean when I say something is meaningless. For example, there’s no point watching the Bulldogs play this season because we’re not going to win. Even the week when we have the bye, I’m not sure we’re going to get the two points. It’s meaningless.
But here’s the thing: you don’t have to know much about the Bible to know that God’s at pains to make sure we know that life has a huge purpose and that life is important, indeed, that you and I are eternally valuable to Him. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. He knows every hair on our heads. He knows when we sit and rise. He knows every word before it is on our lips. God says life is full of meaning.
Now, I’m convinced that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself, so when I read something that seems to be contradictory, I need to do some work and figure out what’s going on.
The word that’s translated ‘meaningless’ turns up in a few other places in the Old Testament and the Greek version of it turns up in the NT as well. These all help us get what he’s on about. It’s in Psalm 39 three times: "You have made my days a mere handbreadth. The span of my years is nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath. Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro. He bustles about, but only in vain.” And again it’s in verse 11, “Each man is but a breath.”
It’s in Psalm 144, “Man is like a breath, His days are like a fleeting shadow.” It’s in Proverbs 31, “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting. But a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” It’s also in James 4, when he says, “Now 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. Why, 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.’“
So maybe a better way to understand ‘meaningless’ in Ecclesiastes is that life is like a fleeting mist. You can’t really grasp it. It’s here one moment and gone the next. It’s like walking outside on cold mornings this week and there’s that lovely winter fog all around. You can see it but you can’t hold onto it. It slips through your fingers. All of a sudden the whole feel of Ecclesiastes changes. It has a different tone. Life isn’t dead-set meaningless in the way we normally use the word. Life isn’t pointless, but it’s hard to understand. It’s so fleeting, and it passes by so quickly. It’s the merest of breaths, like your warm breath turning to vapour on a cold morning: as quickly as it appears, it slips through your fingers and vanishes. That’s when the message of Ecclesiastes clicks into place. Look at verses 7 to 9 again:
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this fleeting life that God has given you under the sun—all your fleeting days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. (NIV)
When I was growing up, God was always the fun police. I’d never heard anything remotely like this from the front of church. The world is full of fantastic and fun things to do and see: art, music, golf, scuba diving, opera, UFC, race tracks and fast cars, fishing, camping, 4WDing, cooking lessons, travel to far away places, skiing, single malt whisky. For most of us, we’ve lived our lives with this idea that God made all this cool stuff for us, but then he looks down at us waving an angry finger saying, “Now, don’t you lot enjoy yourselves down there!”
I think that’s the opposite of what God is like. Ecclesiastes tells us what God is saying here: “Life is short. Eternity is really long, but life is short. So eat great food. Drink great wine. Enjoy sex with your wife or your husband. I made all three of those things. They’re my ideas and they’re excellent! Have a Coke and a smile!”
Now this is really important. It’s easy to hear this and then just think that we can do what we want. But that’s not what the rest of the Bible says. So we still need to understand a bit more. The guy who wrote this is assuming we are living within the boundaries God has set. See where he says that God already approves of what you do? That’s a key idea here. God has given us very clear boundaries. Enjoy alcohol, but don’t get drunk; don’t drink too much. Enjoy food, but eat healthy stuff, do some exercise, and if you’re piling on a few too many kilos you’re probably eating too much. Enjoy sex. It’s fantastic when you experience it within the boundaries God set for it, within a lifelong mutually respectful loving commitment called marriage between a man and a woman. Anything outside of that, and sex ends up being really destructive.
In verse 8 the writer says that we should be always clothed in white and have oil on our heads. That doesn’t make heaps of sense in our culture. White clothes are seriously hard to keep clean and oil on our heads all the time would be socially really awkward and lead to a great many bad hair days. But if you’re an Old Testament Israelite, that stuff means something totally different.
Clothed in white and oil on your head meant that you’re in party mode: you’re celebrating, and more than that, you’re doing it God’s way. Who in the Bible is usually wearing white? Righteous people, people who are living life God’s way. So this part of the Bible isn’t telling us to just cut loose and do what we want to do as far as food, alcohol, and sex are concerned. It’s telling us that God created so much good stuff for us to enjoy, but we need to enjoy this stuff within the boundaries God has set, so that we’re doing life God’s way.
We’ve all failed at that from time to time. We’ve all abused food, alcohol, or sex at some point. We’ve all crossed the boundaries God set. And when we do, life feels pretty pointless, like we’re out of step with reality. It just doesn’t work like we sense it’s meant to. If you’re not a Christian just yet, I reckon you resonate with that feeling. You might resist it for a while and you might try to pretend it’s all ok, but deep down, you sense there must be more to life.
The guy who wrote this didn’t know Jesus. He was around a long time before Jesus was born in that shed in Bethlehem. He didn’t know what Jesus would do. He didn’t know anything about the cross or the empty tomb. But he made the most of what he knew about God. You and I live after Jesus . We know something about his death and resurrection. We know something about the things Jesus said and did.
And yet, even if we just had Ecclesiastes to go on, I reckon we’d know life without reference to God makes no sense at all. I reckon we’d be able to figure out that life lived within the boundaries God sets is brilliant. That would mean we would enjoying the stuff God gave us to enjoy without abusing any of it or stepping outside God’s clear boundaries.
If you’re a Christian, you understand this. You might realise that you’ve overstepped those boundaries and you need to put a few things right with God. You can pray about those things.
You might not be a Christian just yet, but you know you’ve been doing life without God., You know you’ve overstepped the boundaries often enough, and not just with food or wine or sex, but with a whole heap of other things: greed, jealousy, pride, selfishness, the way you talk about people behind their backs, the way you lash out at people on social media or in person, whatever it might be. We’ve all been there. But more than that, you know something’s missing and you’re here because you suspect that maybe Jesus might have the answer you’re looking for. Every Christian you know was not a Christian at some point, and we’ve been where you are. How you start your life is nowhere near as important as how you finish it. You can pray about these things now, to come home to God through Jesus.