First Reading Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Second Reading Colossians 3:1-11
Gospel Reading Luke 12:13-21
Sermon: “What’s it all about?”
In Douglas Adams’ science fiction farce titled “The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy” an advanced galaxy spanning civilization designs a vast computer named “Deep Thought” to answer a pressing question that they have never been able to figure out: “what is the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything.” after cogitating for hundreds of years ….. it came up with the answer: 42! Now don’t you feel better knowing that? Well, the characters in the story certainly didn’t either. So they constructed a vastly more complicated system to better define the ultimate question that would lead to such an answer. In due course of the story, we eventually find that the vast complicated system turns out to be the earth! Our whole world, constructed as a search for meaning… now Douglas Adams was no theologian, but that little gem tucked slyly away in a pile of ridiculousness definitely speaks to the human condition.
Indeed, aside from farcical fiction stories, we do seem to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what it all means and what our place might be in this vast cosmos. The author of Ecclesiastes is just such a person. We are not really sure who wrote it, since they refer to themselves only as “The Teacher”, but the text seems to imply in places that it was Solomon, Son of David or perhaps someone close to him. It fits well with what we know of him. In his great wealth and power, Solomon fell away from God and lived a partially pagan life as recorded in 1 Kings 11. This appears to have been written late in his life, by a sadder, but more humble Solomon and this broad exploration of the wide variety of pursuits in life will teach us much if we are willing to listen.
Ecclesiastes is a powerful antidote to our modern times where we are told that we must be wealthy, powerful, smell great, look great, keep a house that would make Martha Stewart proud, have all the latest electronic gadgets… you get the idea. Solomon is here to tell us – been there, done that… and found it empty and worthless – chasing after the wind! The teacher says that they have tried life from about every angle. After reading it for a while, a Christian will want to shout back at the text “you tried them all but one! We will circle back to that one, under explored alternative in a bit, but I would like to offer you a tour of the routes he did explore thoroughly first. You will find the list familiar because they are still the ways that people insist on trying out and still find ultimately just as vain and pointless as did the teacher so long ago.
So what did he try? Well first…The teacher tries seeking meaning in earthly wisdom and science. After all Solomon did ask God for wisdom to rule well as he began his reign. He tells us that he pursued wisdom of all sorts (scripture recalls him having demonstrated a pretty good working knowledge of the natural world, he added to that knowledge philosophy, Politics, and all nature of other topics. Still, he found that “under the sun”, that is from a worldly viewpoint, apart from God, knowledge for its own sake is tiresome, empty and depressing. Note that he does not condemn knowledge, he just found that it was insufficient to complete him, it left him feeling empty. So he kept on Looking.
Next he tries seeking meaning in pleasures of all sorts, sensual, sexual, hedonism to the nth extravagant degree.
Here is something that a lot of folks have tried (if they can afford it) and are still trying today – the pursuit of pleasure as a way to happiness. Solomon did it up better than any of us can hope to achieve. The best of Wives, Concubines, Wine, Food, Gardens, Parks, Farms, Orchards, Servants, Jewelry, Music. Although it brought him temporary satisfaction, in the end, he found it empty as well.
Our Teacher, having failed to find meaning in the pursuit of pleasure returns to the comparison of wisdom vs folly. There is indeed a momentary, if shallow, joy in being just plain silly! But, he quickly concludes that wisdom is better, but again insufficient by itself – The fool and the wise man both end alike: dead, buried and forgotten.
Next comes the swing to our treasured work ethic. Surely, if we just apply ourselves and work very very hard, all will be well. These verses are for all the workaholics out there who confuse their jobs with their lives. I’ve got to confess to you folks that this is a road I can personally testify about, it cost me dearly in terms of health and consequences to my marriage. But no, this too fails the teacher’s test. Work is good, but in and of itself, it generates nothing eternal.
Here we come to the heart of the message of the Book in chapter 2 verses 24-26. Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 NLT  So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God.  For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him?  God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him. But if a sinner becomes wealthy, God takes the wealth away and gives it to those who please him. This, too, is meaningless-like chasing the wind. Blessing and joy can come only when we acknowledge and revere God. Otherwise, all that we have and all that we have experience is ultimately worthless to us, given to others at our death – chasing after the wind.
Still I find that the Teacher has missed the critical element. our author who seems to have a lukewarm and distant relationship with God. He starts our giving advice, sounding very much like Proverbs at first then falls back to notice all the things that go frequently wrong in public affairs. Life is often unfair, the things we treasure seldom endure. Justice is rare and unpredictable. Success and popularity are often fleeting. He is driven back to his default position stated in verse 15: “…there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.” There is nothing inherently wrong with this statement of it is said in humble gratitude to God, however as a philosophy of life, it is empty indeed, and down right dangerous when said arrogantly as in today’s parable in Luke12:19-20.
We are driven to the basics to answer the unresolved yearnings of this wealthy, powerful and thoroughly miserable man. You no doubt recall Jesus’ answer to the most important of the commandments, right. You shall love the the Lord your God with all your Heart and Soul and mind and strength and its vital counterpoint: You shall Love your Neighbor as yourself. That is what I claim he was missing: Love. Both Love for God and Love for others. He knew about God, he even seems to owe God grudging respect, but Love? No evidence that I can see. Ultimately, he viewed life as all about himself, and that dear friends is the ultimate vanity of vanities. Life that is all about what we want, what we think we need, what we can get out of it is ultimately worthless.
Paul speaks truly when he write to the Colossians that we are to concentrate on the things of Heaven not of this earth. He doesn’t mean that things here are unimportant, rather he urges us to attempt to look at things from God’s point of view. Paul goes ahead and gets very pointed when he says that greed is a form of Idolatry. Life is NOT all about us an individuals, rather its is about the family of God.
That is what makes the attitude of the farmer in our parable today so foolish in GOd’s eyes. He looks forward to years of idle self-indulgence banking on his enormous reserves of grain to take care of him. Yet he ignores the needs of those around him and does not recognize that his wealth is a gift from God. So Jesus closes by saying: “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God. THAT is the teacher’s problem as well – he is a pauper in his relationship with God. Strangely he knows enough to give us some very good advice: Ecclesiastes 5:10-15 NLT  “Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness!  The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what good is wealth-except perhaps to watch it slip through your fingers!  People who work hard sleep well, whether they eat little or much. But the rich seldom get a good night’s sleep.  There is another serious problem I have seen under the sun. Hoarding riches harms the saver.  Money is put into risky investments that turn sour, and everything is lost. In the end, there is nothing left to pass on to one’s children.  We all come to the end of our lives as naked and empty-handed as on the day we were born. We can’t take our riches with us.” These things he knows and yet the basic purpose of Love has eluded him and he is miserable because he is missing that fundamental purpose. With Love for God and Love for Neighbor, wealth becomes opportunity. Opportunity to bless and to heal, to seek justice and to support the weak. These are the things that truly give meaning and purpose and enable us to treasure those things that are eternal and not subject to the changing circumstance of this life. The Old catechisms have it right from the very first question:
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
Know this and live well!