Sunday, June 26, 2011

Finding Meaning Under the Sun

Texts:  Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; Romans 8:18-27

   DO YOU EVER FEEL YOU'RE drowning in a sea of futility?  That no matter how hard you try, nothing you do in life really matters?  That it's not just you and your life than's meaningless, but all of creation besides?

    If you've never felt that way, give God praise.  But if you're like most of us ordinary mortals, you know there's times when there seemed to be no point to anything in the world. Back in the 1940s, a whole philosophy was formulated around this idea.  It was called Absurdism, and it taught that if you wanted to be happy in this life, you'd better stop looking for meaning in it.  Just enjoy yourself the best you can, because you and  everything else living is headed for death anyway. 

    Intellectuals in the mid-20th century trumpeted Absurdism as if it were something new.  But it's not.  It goes back to the days of King Solomon and the book of Ecclesiastes.  There we read how a man could reach the summit of earthly wealth, pleasure, and accomplishment, and still cry out that everything was meaningless, utterly meaningless under the sun.

    The book of Ecclesiastes is Holy Scripture and we must take it seriously and apply it correctly.  Thank God, so is St. Paul's letter to the Romans.  Like Solomon, Paul has something to say about futility in the world, but his conclusion is very different from Solomon's.  Why?  What does Paul know that Solomon for all his wisdom overlooks?

    Some Biblical scholars dispute that King Solomon actually wrote Ecclesiastes.  But even if it turns out that he didn't, the whole book is written from Solomon's point of view and matches Solomon's life experience.  So we'll assume he is the author.  In verse 1 of Ecclesiastes 1 the he introduces himself as "the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem."

    There's an absurdity right there, in light of he says in the rest of the book.  Over the centuries, the title "son of David" became an expression of hope for Israel.  It's shorthand for the promise that God gave King David that a son in his line would always be king over God's people, and even if the Lord should have to punish him for his sins, ultimately the throne of David would be established before the Lord forever.  The Jews came to understand that some sort of immortal Son of David would sit forever on that throne, and His coming would mark the fulfilment of all God's purposes in heaven and on earth.  But here we have Solomon, a man actually begotten by King David, and he has no such hope. He looks forward to no promise, and he takes no joy in the present life God has given him under the sun.  "Meaningless! Meaningless!" he cries out.  "Everything is utterly meaningless!"

    From verse 3 he critiques human activity.  What good do we humans get out of all the work we do?  Sure, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor for awhile, you might even enjoy the work itself sometimes.  But then you die.  So what was the point?  In verses 9 and 10 he takes a shot at those who try to find purpose in invention and innovation.  Are you hoping to invent something new to astonish the world?  There's nothing new under the sun, the Teacher says, it's all been done before.  Are you striving for fame and glory after you're gone?  Well, good luck, he says in verse 11.  Not too many years from now and no one will remember you've even lived. What's the point in life?  Where's the fulfilment in it all?  There isn't any!  "‘Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher, ‘Everything is meaningless!'"

    We can dispute Solomon's take on these matters.  But the point isn't whether he's strictly accurate or not.  What we need to understand is that he's observing how things are "under the sun."  That is, how things are in this natural world where we humans are born and toil and finally die.  In the cosmos of "under the sun," God is present, but in a distant way.  He is not immanent in Ecclesiastes: that is, He's not God-with-us.  He's more like a landlord who collects the rent when it's due and watches to make sure you're not trashing the place.  But you'd never have Him in for a cup of coffee-- God is in heaven and you and all your meaningless fellow-creatures are on this earth, separated from Him in your mindless futility.
    And nature doesn't help.  In chapter 2 Solomon writes of planting vineyards and groves, gardens and parks.  But he found it was all a chasing after the wind.  He found no meaning in the order he'd imposed on nature.  With that being the case, spending time out in wild nature with all its danger and chaos wasn't going to bring him peace and fulfilment.  Solomon was not the kind of man who'd insist that one could worship God out in the woods better than in the temple in Jerusalem.   No, even without storms and floods and natural disasters, creation only served to mock human futility. "Generations come and generations go," writes the Teacher in verse 4, "but the earth remains forever."  That's no comfort to him.  It's like saying, "We mortal men and women all die-- grandparents, parents, and children-- but it doesn't affect the earth.  Creation doesn't care."  Regardless of what we humans do, the sun goes on rising and setting, the wind keeps on blowing, the rivers keep flowing down to the sea, and the sea is never full.  What's the point of it?  Everything is futile and absurd under the sun.

    St. Paul, like Solomon, admits that just now creation is the very image of futility.  In fact, you might say he begins with a situation that is even worse.  Solomon is physically comfortable, well-fed, and in control.  He's "king in Jerusalem."  But Paul and the Christians he writes to are too often poor, they're suffering for their faith, they're the oppressed in Rome.  Nevertheless, Paul begins verse 18 of chapter 8 with the words, "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us."  What glory?  We'd best go back to verses 16 and 17 to answer that. 

    There it says,

        The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.

We are children of God, by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ!  We do have a purpose and a goal in this life!  And not just us, the whole creation is included in this promise of glory and hope.

    We see from the text that by "creation" Paul means "nature" not including humanity or the angels.  For humanity is the sons of God who will be revealed, or those who remain sons of the devil, as we read in Ephesians chapter 2.  The creation is mentioned in contrast to the sons of God who will be revealed, and those people who aren't among the sons of God aren't anxiously waiting for this revelation, they don't care or they actively hate the idea that someday we will be glorified in Christ and Christ will be glorified in us.  And creation does not include the angels, for the fallen ones have no such longing, and the blessed hosts of heaven were never subjected to futility, as it says in verse 20 that creation was.

    But when was creation subjected to futility?  If we go back to Genesis chapter 3, we read how after our first parents sinned, God put a curse not only on them, but on all creation.  He decreed that it should be subverted from its original state, so that the ground brings forth thistles and weeds far more easily than edible crops and only with wearisome toil can we bring good out of it.

    I purposely read the Romans reading out of the New Revised Standard Version, because of this word "futility" in verse 20.  It translates the Greek word mataiotes, which means emptiness, futility, purposelessness, transitoriness, and frustration.  The NIV uses this last term, frustration, which is good.  But it leaves the impression that if nature tried a little harder, it could reach meaning and fulfilment as it now is.  But in the curse God blocked the creation from reaching its appointed goal.  No matter what happens in nature or how beautiful and well-designed it is, without our redemption it still is ineffective, it cannot fulfil the purpose God originally planned for it.

    And in God's inscrutable providence,  that curse will ultimately turn out to be a blessing for us, whom God is redeeming by the blood of Jesus Christ.  Remember, in the beginning God gave the man and the woman dominion and rule over all of nature.  We became the head of creation, its vice-regents and representative. Then we rebelled against God and fell.  God could have kept nature perfect and removed it from under us.  But instead He chose to maintain the spiritual and physical ecology we have with this earth and all its creatures.  Despite what Solomon believed, nature is not some alien entity disconnected from us.  No, it's very futility proves that it is still connected to us.

    In His mercy to us, God willed that like us, creation might look forward in hope to the day when all things find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.  Right now nature, like us, is in bondage to decay.  On the last day, nature, like us, will be liberated and will enjoy the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

    Meanwhile, Paul says, the whole creation is groaning together in pains like that of a woman birthing a child.  Yes, nature struggles.  Yes, there are fires, floods, earthquakes, tornados, droughts, and other natural disasters.  Nature is not what it should be.  It's not what it was created to be.  But its travail does not prove its meaninglessness; rather, those very struggles point to the renewal and rebirth God promises when we are revealed as His adopted sons and heirs.  Even when nature seems most hostile against us, the Scripture teaches us to see it as our fellow-sufferer.  And like it in its brokenness we, too, groan with longing for day of the redemption of our bodies.

    Yes, our bodies.  We will be fully redeemed only when our physical bodies are made new and we share in the life-giving resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Not till then will our full adoption be in effect.  Nature is material and for it to share in our glorification, our new bodies must be material.  This bodily resurrection is the hope in which we were saved.  This is the promise the Holy Spirit testifies to even in the worst of our struggles with the seeming futility of this present age.

    This is why Christians in a tornado-ravaged city like Joplin, Missouri, could gather to praise and worship God a week after their lives seemed utterly ruined in last month's tornado.  That's why churches in Japan can joyfully share the gospel along with food and clothing in the wake of March's earthquake and tsunami.  Unbelievers don't understand how this can be.  They mock the people of God for being delusional, for not seeing how pointless and absurd life under the sun really is.  But they don't see that God is at work even in the midst of creation's futility. The groaning of nature is great, but our God is greater.  Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of David has come into the world.  On the cross He suffered what seemed to be the most senseless, meaningless death that a human being has ever known.

    But death, decay, and futility could not hold Him and He rose triumphant from the grave.  Death, decay, and futility cannot hold us, who are called by God to be revealed as His sons.  And death, decay, and futility will not hold God's creation, which will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  The labor of creation will not be in vain.  God will see that nature finds its fulfilment in us, as we find our fulfilment in Him.

    Solomon failed to see this, because he was focussed only on life "under the sun."  True, in this world we are subject to frustration.  We do go through periods when everything seems so pointless we don't even know how to pray.  But with St. Paul we affirm that is not all there is.  God has brought heaven to us in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He lived as one of us, He died our death, and He rose again that we might share the life of the only-begotten Son of God.  Even now God the Holy Spirit is here with us and in us, bringing meaning where we find no meaning and hope where we see no hope.  He intercedes for us, He prays in us and with us, He groans with us even when creation itself seems to be falling into chaos.  According to the will of God He intercedes for us, His saints.  And the will of God is this: That we, His children, and all creation shall be brought to glorious fulfilment, according to His gracious promises in Jesus Christ our Lord, to the honor and praise of His name, now and forever.  Amen.

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