Thursday, 16 January 2020

The Prodigal Wife (Hosea 1:1-2:1)

‘Honey, I’m home!’  You walk into the house, but she’s not downstairs.  You walk up the stairs and into the bedroom.  There she is in bed with a man you never met before.  He grabs his trousers and scuffles past you out of the room.  How do you feel as you look at her, angry or heart-broken?  Do you want to shout or cry? 

After much counselling and many tears, you manage to put the marriage back together.  Then she tells you that she is pregnant.  That’s great.  But she doesn’t seem to be happy.  She seems uncomfortable, and she won’t look you in the eye.  Finally she confronts you with the awful truth: the child isn’t yours!  Can you take any more? 

Most men would walk away.  They would have every right to do so.  But God tells you not to give up on this woman.  ‘Oh, and by the way, this won’t be the last time she cheats on you!’  Can he be serious?

You are an adulterer (1:1)

The Old Testament is the history of God loving people who are constantly unfaithful.  He gave Adam and Eve a beautiful home, but they were not content with his love.  They betrayed him, but he did not give up on them.  He chose Abraham and said that his descendants would be as numerous as the sand of the seashore, they were to be a blessing to all the nations of the world, but they behaved just like the rest of the nations of the world.  He gave these people a new home, a promised land, but they complained against God and ran after idols.  He divided their nation in two, but they refused to return to him.  Now it is the eighth century before Christ comes to Bethlehem.  Hosea in ministering in the northern kingdom, called Israel (or Ephraim), but his message was written down for the southern kingdom, Judah.  This was written down for us too. 

You see, we all have been guilty of an adulterous heart.  If you are a Christian, knowing Jesus as your Saviour and Lord, then think of those days when you resisted his love.  You thought it would be embarrassing to be one of those ‘born again’ types.  You didn’t want anyone, not even God, telling you how you should live.  You knew he loved you, but you didn’t want his love.  You rejected him.  You grieved him.  Tragically, even though we now know that his love is the source of our greatest joy, we still act like a cheating wife at times.

If you are not a Christian, that is not simply your own business.  Who do you think gave you life and breath and so many good pleasures?  He loves you and calls you to embrace the joy of his love.  It is wicked to think he does not deserve your thanks.  It is wretched to simply disregard his good rule.  It is evil to say that he is not worth your passion.  God offers you love, and you seek your pleasure everywhere else but with him!

We act like Gomer (1:2-9)

In the Hebrew original the same word is used three times in verse two, which might better be translated ‘whoredom’.  God says to Hosea, ‘Go, take yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking me’ (2, ESV).  Hosea is to marry a woman who will act like a prostitute.  His marriage is a living illustration of the relationship between God and the unbelieving people of Israel.

Gomer bears Hosea a son.  God tells Hosea to call this child Jezreel.  In Israel’s history Jezreel was associated with bloodshed.  ‘Go call your son Auschwitz’.  ‘Name him Bloody Sunday’.  At Jezreel a king called Jehu had slaughtered the prophets of the false god, Baal.  God is now saying, ‘I am going to do the same to you because you are acting with such evil.’

Gomer conceived again and bore a daughter.  We are not told that this was Hosea’s daughter.  Someone else had fathered a child with his wife.  Hosea is to name this daughter Lo-Ruhamah, which means ‘unloved’ or ‘no mercy’.  God hates spiritual adultery so much that he promises that he will have no mercy on these cheating people.

After Gomer has weaned Lo-Ruhamah she has a third child.  Again, Hosea is not the father.  ‘Call his name Lo-Ammi (which means “not my people”), for you are not my people, and I am not your God’ (9).  God had said to Israel, ‘You will be my people and I will be your God.’  Now it seems like God is divorcing them.

These people of Israel had many spiritual advantages.  God had spoken to their nation.  But they did not know him personally.  He did not have their hearts.  If they don’t come back to him, they will be in serious danger.  They will be punished for all their evil, experience a day of judgement when God no longer shows them mercy, and hear him say ‘you don’t belong to me.’

We are all spiritually privileged people.  We sit hear listening to God’s Word.  Maybe you grew up going to church.  You may have been baptised and take communion.  But these things can’t put you right with God.  If you haven’t let your life be transformed by God’s love, he is speaking to you.  He is warning you, because he loves you.  You do not want to hear those dreadful words of Jesus, ‘I never knew you!’

If you are sitting her as someone who has experienced God’s life transforming love, then you know that you can never be happy when you are being unfaithful to him.  Don’t be too quick to judge the adulterer, because we have often cheated on our heavenly lover.  We have known intimacy with him, but we have betrayed that intimacy by fantasising over a naked woman on a screen.  We claim that he is our joy, but we have sought our joy through retail therapy.  He has shown his love through the cross of Christ, and we have claimed that he does not care for us.  If you love him this breaks our hearts as well as his.  This godly sorrow leads us to repentance.  As we seek his strength and rejoice in his forgiveness we can be freed from regret.

God keeps his wedding ring on for you (1:10-2:1)

Peter and Jean were long-standing members of their church.  They seemed to have the perfect marriage.  Then Jean had an affair with a work colleague and worked out.  Peter was left to raise the kids.  Everyone admired Peter for the brave way he held things together.  But he was broken.  He could be seen at times crying in church.  Peter did something unusual: he kept wearing his ring.  He didn’t give up on Jean.  He never lost hope that she would return.  He was always ready to welcome her home.  Sadly, she never did come back.

God warns the people of Israel of dreadful judgement if they refuse to come home to him.  But he is not ready to give up on them.  The book of Hosea thrills us by showing God’s passionate love for this adulterous nation.  Despite all Gomer’s cheating, Hosea kept his ring on for her. 

Israel had forsaken him, but God will not give up on his promise to Abraham.  ‘The number of children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea’.  ‘In the place where you are called, “Not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.’  He will show mercy to those who deserve ‘no mercy’ (10).   

There will be people who heed his warnings and turn to the ‘one new head’ (11).  Ultimately that new head is Jesus.  Hosea speaks of another day of Jezreel, a day of bloodshed.  There was a day when Jesus spilled his blood to cleanse us from our wickedness, cheating and betrayal.  His blood makes us into a pure and spotless bride.  His blood goes on cleansing us from all our sin.  He heals our wandering heart.

This offer isn’t just for the nation of Israel that Hosea was addressing.  This offer is open to all.  To people from all sorts of backgrounds who turn to the one new head,  God says, ‘once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God, once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy’ (1 Peter 1:10).


Sometimes people come to me and tell me that they fear that they have fear that they have let God down too many times for God to accept them back.  Others tells me that they fear that they have done something so awful that God would never forgive someone like them (this is something that I have feared too).  I hope that, as we study Hosea, you will see that God is more gracious than you have realised.  He wants to forgive you.  He delights to restore you.  He tells you to take him at the word of Jesus, who promised that I will never drive away anyone who comes to me (John 6:37). 

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Trusting God as we grow old (Ecc. 12:1-8)

‘Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
    and the years approach when you will say,
    “I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
    and the moon and the stars grow dark,
    and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
    and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
    and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
    and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
    but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
    and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
    and the grasshopper drags itself along
    and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
    and mourners go about the streets.

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
    “Everything is meaningless!” (NIV).

My dad was a doctor, and at one stage he was supervising a group of young medics.  He brought them to the bedside of an elderly lady and asked one of the students to give a diagnosis.  The insensitive young man assumed the woman could not hear him, so he didn’t hold back in describing how decrepit this patient was.  After his assessment there was a moment of silence, and then a weak voice came from the bed, ‘Your no spring chicken yourself.’

The last chapter of Ecclesiastes describes the painful reality of aging.  It is in the form of a beautiful poem.  The old person is pictured as a crumbling house. 

‘The keepers of the house tremble’—these are the arms which have become weak and shaky.  ‘The strong men stoop’—their once athletic figure is now bent over.  ‘The grinders cease for they are few’—teeth have fallen out and it can be hard to eat.  The windows are the eyes, which have grown dim.  The doors are the ears, which are shut and can no longer hear what is going on outside on the street.  Sleep can become a problem, and so the elderly may be awake when the morning birds sound.  ‘But all their songs grow faint’—for the vocal cords are no longer elastic and the voice is not what it once was.  This poem tells us that elderly people are vulnerable and that this can bring fear.  The almond blossoms, turning white, like our greying hair.  Then there is the sad figure of an old grasshopper, who no longer springs from place to place, but is now dragging itself along the ground.  Desires fade.  ‘Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about on the street.’

Aging can be one of the most difficult experiences in life.  We can try to hide the signs of aging, but our days are numbered.  So, what should we do?  Solomon tells us to remember God when we are young, trust God as you age and look to God as you die.

Remember God while you are young

‘Remember your creator in the days of your youth.’  One puritan wrote, ‘many have remembered too late—none too soon.’  Remembering here isn’t simply just a passing thought about God.  Solomon is telling young people that they need to place the whole of their goals and ambitions in the hands of the one who made them and loves them.

Many people have regrets when they look back on their reckless youth.  Many husband or wife feels comfortable about memories of people they slept with before they married.  God can heal those memories.  I am embarrassed to think about how immature I was with alcohol, and how my behaviour would have broken my parents’ hearts.  Some young people are so focused on sport or study that their lives become spiritually barren.  They develop the habit of putting other things ahead of God.  Remembering God when you are young can save you many shameful memories and having to live with the consequences of many foolish choices.

Some people are so foolish that they plan to put off God until their deathbeds.  But when people reach the end of their lives, they are often so jaded they no longer care about spiritual things.  They just want to die.  Besides, how do you know that death will not take you suddenly?  And why do you think you will suddenly want to love a God you have been spending a lifetime trying to ignore?  Putting off God is foolish because he wants you to experience enlightenment, peace, purpose and joy now.

Trust God as you age

Why does God give us this beautiful poem about aging?  One commentator suggests that the beauty of this poem is a reminder that God treats aging with dignity.  Old age can be painful, but it also can be fruitful.  Psalm 92 talks of those who still bear fruit in their old age.

Our lives are going in a direction.  You are either going to be old and bitter or old and gentle.  Whether you are old and bitter or old and gentle largely depends on how you think and act as you approach old age.  You are on a trajectory.  Though our bodies are wasting away, we are being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16).  Our old age should be the time of our most mature godliness.  Is that what we are aiming for?

What about the fears that can come with old age?  Peter tells us to cast your anxieties on the Lord because you know he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).  A man in his nineties became confused and it distressed him.  ‘I can’t remember who I am,’ he exclaimed to his wife.  ‘I know who you are, and I can take care of everything you need,’ comforted his wife.  God tells those who have trusted him, ‘I know who you are, and I can take care of everything you need.’

Look to God as you die

Solomon pictures our death as the breaking of something precious.  It is the severing of a silver cord, or the breaking of a gold bowl’ (6).  The psalmist says, ‘precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his holy ones’ (Psalms 116:15).

Having spoken of the dust returning to the ground and the spirit returning to God (8), Solomon cries out ‘meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless’ (8).  Remember that Solomon has been talking about life ‘under the sun’—that is, life without reference to the God of the heavens.  Take God out of the picture and nothing shows life to be a passing vapour more than death.  Death comes quickly and ensures that we will soon be forgotten.  Death renders everyone’s achievements worthless.  We cannot take all the stuff we have lived for beyond the grave.

But for those who remember God, death does not have the last say.  The apostle Paul can cry out in triumph, ‘where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55).  We have chosen to forget God.  We have chosen to rebel against his loving rule.  We have lived for that which is created than he who is the creator.  If you want to see how hostile we are to God, just look at the crowd crying out ‘crucify him?’  But Jesus was crucified for our guilt.  He died so that we can experience eternal life.  ‘The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life’ (Romans 6:23).  Those who remember God can trust him with their death.  ‘For we know that if the tent if our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made by hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Corinthians 5:1).

Let’s wrap up our thoughts.

That great theologian, Bono, explained, ‘Ecclesiastes is one of my favourite books.  It is about a character who wants to find out why he is alive, why he was created.  He tried knowledge.  He tries wealth.  He tries experience.  He tries everything.  You hurry to the end of the book to find out why, and it says, “Remember your creator”.  In a way it is such a let-down!  Yet it isn’t.’

Solomon looked at life ‘under the sun’—life without reference to the God of the heavens.  Without God life is simply short and meaningless.  But we search for meaning because God has placed eternity in our heart.  Life with God is to be enjoyed to the full.  That is what we see in the recurring ‘enjoyment passages’ that litter Ecclesiastes.  Death no longer renders our life meaningless for we will be remembered by God for ever.  We can look forward to our spirit returning to God, for we will enjoying being with Jesus for ever. 

Saturday, 4 January 2020

The Joy of Generosity (Eccles. 11)

Do you get more pleasure from getting or giving?  Do you get more joy from playing it safe or taking risks?  Can you say that you are living life in all its fullness?  Do you fear that your best days as a Christian are behind you?  Do you want more from life than simply gathering stuff?  Do we want to live with a sense of purpose?  In this morning’s reading Solomon speaks to us about the joy of generosity.

Give generously (1-2 and 6)

What does it mean to ‘cast your bread upon the water’?  There is debate about exactly what this means.  The reformer, Martin Luther, suggests that Solomon is telling us to ‘be generous to everyone while you can, use your riches wherever you can possibly do any good.’

Remember the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).  A talent was a momentary unit worth twenty years wages.  The master went away and left his servants in charge of his finances.  When he returned, who was the servant that he was angry with?  The master was angry with the servant who had played it safe.  We don’t want to have a big bank account when Jesus returns.  We want to be able to show him how we used our money generously.

I am not saying that we should be reckless.  We should be making provisions rainy days.  But we should not be overly cautious.  We are called to step out in faith.  We should be sacrificially generous.  We should even be willing to take prayerful financial risks in our giving.

Not only are we called to give away our money; we are called to give away our faith.  It takes courage to take about Jesus.  It may cost us in terms of popularity and reputation.  We may be laughed at and called superstitious.  We may be misunderstood as do-gooders.  We will always be able to find reasons not to speak about Jesus.  In one of the first churches I worked with, the people resisted the idea of doing mission because they said that they were not ready.  They said that they needed to work on strengthening the fellowship within the church.  You actually strengthen the community in a church by doing mission together.  Nothing binds people together like having a sense of shared purpose.  I wonder if they ever felt ready.

‘Give a portion to seven, or even eight …’ (2a).  Seven was the number of completeness.  Solomon is telling us to give to the nth degree.  Stretch your sense of generosity.  When it comes to giving your faith away, remember that talked of scattering the seed of the gospel on all sorts of ground (Mark 4:1-20).  The end of verse one implies that you may have to wait many days (or even years) before you see any return. 

‘In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good’ (6).  The Bible has a theology of rest, but not a theology of retirement.  What we call ‘retirement’ should be seen as an opportunity to enjoy new ways of giving for God.  If you have planned well, you will have more time on your hands.  You are no longer burdened by having to earn your crust.  You are available to explore new ministries.  Even at the very end of your days, you have the opportunity to show faith in the face of death and time to pray with the deep insight.

With regards to holidays.  The summer break may be a time recharge the batteries, but it is also a time when you will meet new people who may know no other Christians but you.  People who have been on mission trips will tell you how much they were stretched and grown.  Think of your holidays as rest and mission.

Don’t hesitate to give (3-5)

Some things are inevitable.  When the clouds are full of moisture, it will rain (3a).  The tree will lie where it falls, for it has no power to move (3b).  It is inevitable that when we speak about Jesus, some will take offense, but don’t let that keep your mouth shut!  It inevitably tests us to give generously, but don’t let that make you tight-fisted.

While some things are inevitable, others are uncertain.  Often, we don’t have a clue how things will turn out.  But don’t let uncertainty cause you to procrastinate.  The picture, in verse four, is of a farmer observing the wind because he hopes for a more suitable day to sow or looking at the clouds wondering if there would be a better day to reap his harvest.  There won’t necessarily be a more opportune time to give or share than now.

I have waited too long to talk to my friends about Jesus.  I hope that they will bring up the topic.  But they don’t.  So, I wait!  However, we need to take more initiative.  We need to asking leading questions about what they believe in order to open up the conversation.  Don’t keep putting off giving away your faith.  You might forever miss the opportunity.  Who knows, they might die this very night.  I am not telling you to be overly pushy.  We are told to share our hope with ‘gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15).  If you can see that they want to change the topic away from religion, don’t steel-roll them.  But don’t be afraid to take the initiative.

We used to live in a house with a study at the front.  That was where I prepared my sermons.  One evening a neighbour called because they were leaving to live in Australia the next day or two.  That neighbour said to me, ‘I often saw you in your study and thought about coming to talk to you about God.  But I never got around to it.’  I had missed a great opportunity because I waited on him to make the move.  Some of your family and friends are wanting to talk to you about Christ, but they are scared to bring it up.  What might happen if you were to take the first move?

‘As you do not know the way that the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything’ (5).  Who knows how God is going to work as you give and speak?  We speak, but the Spirit blows where he wills (John 3:8).  We can’t convict people of sin and their need for God’s forgiveness, but the Holy Spirit can (John 16:8).  We can warn people that without holiness you cannot see God (Hebrews 12:14), but it is only the Holy Spirit how can motivate them to strive for purity.  ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the labourers strive in vein’ (Psalm 127:1).  ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord almighty (Zechariah 4:6).  There is a wonderful freedom in realising that the success of mission or the fruitfulness of our giving does not depend on us.  Our job is to sow, his is to grow.  We cast our bread upon the waters, his responsibility is for its return.  We may see no other fruit other than the great delight the Lord takes that we were willing to take a risk and step out in faith.

Giving is the source of joy (7-10)

Our passage ends with Solomon telling us to enjoy life.  No matter how many years you live, enjoy them (8).  Be happy while you are young (9).  ‘Banish anxiety from your heart’ (10).  It is not that there will be no dark days.  Nor do we live recklessly, for our lives are the evidence of God’s grace within us on the day of judgement.  God wants us to be happy.  I am telling you to share money and faith to rob you of joy, but to fill you with joy.  Jesus said that ‘it is more blessed (or joyful) to give than receive’ (Acts 20:35).  

A woman was leading a ladies’ Bible study where she shared what she had learned about the happiness of Jesus.  One woman, who had grown up in church circles, was startled.  This woman thought that it was wrong to think of Jesus with a smile.  Do you believe that Jesus was the happiest person who ever lived?  The book of Hebrews tells us that God has anointed Jesus with the oil of joy beyond his companions (Hebrews 1:9).  He is gladder than the angels of heaven!  We read of Jesus rejoicing in the Holy Spirit (Luke 10:21).  He tells his disciples that he wants his joy to be in them (John 15:11).  We know that he was a happy person because children are not drawn to grumpy adults (Matthew 19:13-15).  Yes, he was a man of sorrows who was familiar with grief (Isaiah 53:3), but sorrow and joy can live together.

Jesus is our model in what we are learning through this passage.  No one gave more generously than he did.  He gave his life for us.  He died that we might be forgiven.  That giving was costly.  He cried out from the cross, ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 26:46).  He was abandoned that we would never be forsaken.  He was rejected so that we could be accepted.  Greater love has no man than this (John 15:13).  But that costly giving was soaked in the joy he took in winning our salvation.  That costly giving led to joy.  ‘For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross’ (Hebrews 12:2).

Giving can be costly.  Sharing can hurt.  But it leads to joy.  So, do you get more pleasure from getting or giving?  Do you get more joy from playing it safe or taking risks?  Can you say that you are living life in all its fullness?  Do you fear that your best days as a Christian are behind you?  Do you want more from life than simply gathering stuff?  If you want to be happy cast your bread upon the water—be generous with your money and give away your faith. 

Sunday, 8 December 2019

How can you trust God in an uncertain world? (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12)

My mother worked as a midwife in Nigeria in the 1960s.  She was single at the beginning of her time there.  On Sundays she used to go to the home of her brother and sister-in-law.  Uncle Paul was a Methodist minister.

At their house she used to sit on one particular seat.  But one Sunday, for no particular reason, she decided to sit on another seat.  It was just as well.  As she sat down, the cushion moved off the seat that she normally used and out slithered a very poisonous snake.  Who knows what would have happened if she had sat on that snake?

Her father was a long-term missionary with the Ogoni people in Nigeria.  At one stage, during World War Two, he was due to sail home with a friend.  His plans were changed, and he remained in Nigeria.  Which was as well for him, as the ship he should have been on was bombed from the air and sank.

Solomon looks at the world from the perspective of life ‘under the sun’.  ‘Under the sun’ means life that we can see around us without taking God into account.  Take God out of the picture and we have no idea why one person dies in an accident and another is sparred by some unexplained circumstance.  It simply appears that ‘time and chance happen to all.’  But life is not simply lived under the sun, there is a God in the heavens who directs all that happens to us.

This morning we are thinking about how we can trust God in an uncertain world.

Your life is in the hands of God (1-6)

Solomon opens this chapter by telling us that our lives are actually in God’s hands (1a).  That does not mean that life is easy for those who love the Lord.  ‘No one knows whether love or hate awaits them’ (1b).  Next year will have many difficult days.  The Christian learns obedience through suffering.  You may pass through the valley of the shadow of death, as a loved one dies or even as you face your own death.  But remember whose hands hold you!  Jesus promises that no one can snatch you out of his hands (John 10:28)—you are spiritually secure.  You may fall, but he will pick you up.  He who began a good work in you will see it through to completion (Philippians 1:6).  God’s people are engraved on the palms of his hands (Isaiah 49:16).  We are the sheep of his hand (Psalm 95:7).  Don’t measure the faithfulness of God simply by examining your circumstances.  Measure God’s faithfulness by looking at the hands that were pierced for your salvation (John 20:27).

When we realise that we are in the hands of God, we see that we have nothing to fear.  Solomon moves on to talk of the inevitability of death.  ‘We live at a time when people are busily trying to forget about death’ (Stedman).  Middle-aged men spend hours cycling the roads in packs, hoping to keep their bodies young.  Nothing wrong with that!  But no matter how hard you peddle you are going to reach the end of the journey.  The same destiny overtakes us all (3).  Death is a terrible reminder that life is short, and it is meaningless if it is lived without God.  As Woody Allen points out, death renders everyone’s achievements void.  A young medical student approached a preacher, after they had dissected their first body.  The student was shaken as they had cut through the muscles and tissues and looked at the inner organs.  If this is all we become at death, then what is the point of anything?

Enjoy God’s good gifts (7-10)

Although Solomon keeps telling us that life ‘under the sun’ is short, wearisome and meaningless, he scatters this book with ‘enjoyment passages’.  ‘A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God’ (2:24).  I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live.  That each of them may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God (3:12-13).  ‘Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.  They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart’ (5:19-20).  God gives people good gifts.  He gives good gifts to both those who love him and those who ignore him.  He is wonderfully kind!  

While we need to avoid ‘fleeting pleasures of sin’ (Hebrews 11:25) which end up making us miserable and leave us with regret (Psalm 32:10), we are commanded to enjoy the good pleasures of God’s many gifts.  ‘Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do’ (7).  God wants us to appreciate life’s good gifts.  ‘Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil’ (8).  These white robes and perfume seem to be the outfit of celebration.  Holiness is not humbug.  ‘Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love …’ (9).  We are to cultivate friendship and intimacy with our spouse. ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might’ (10).  Life is short, so live it well.  The early church leader, Irenaeus, is supposed to have said, ‘the glory of God is a people fully alive!’ 

How tragic it is that people refuse to acknowledge God’s kindness and thank him for his blessings.  The letter to the Romans tells us that at the heart of the sinful human condition is a refusal to give thanks to God (Romans 1:20-21).  How sad it is that so many see no attraction in his greatest gift of all—the giving of his own Son.  God so love this wicked world that he gave his one and only Son, and yet so many people treat Jesus as an irrelevance.  Jesus perfectly displayed God’s love, and most people don’t care.  God wants to transform our lives, and we so often just want to be left alone.  Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever’ (1 Chronicles 16:34).  Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  Make thanksgiving a key part of your Christian life. 

Accept that you are not the master of your fate (11-12)

The film Invictus tells the story of the first time South Africa won the Rugby World Cup.  In this movie Morgan Freeman plays President Nelson Mandela.  Mandela quotes his favourite poem.  Invictus reads, ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’  But Solomon tells us that this is simply not the case.  ‘I have seen something else under the sun: the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all’ (11).  

Usually that fastest person wins the race, but not always.  Usually the stronger person wins the fight, but sometimes the weaker triumphs.  When the markets crash, the brilliant investor looses as much as the careless.  Many a genius ends up living in poverty.  Disaster can overtake any one of us.  ‘Time and chance happen to us all.’  There are so many variables in life that we cannot control.  How insecure life must feel if you don’t know that the God of the heavens is holding you in his hands!


A French actor and playwright was starring in his own drama, ‘The Hypochondriac’, when he was seized by a violent coughing fit.  He died a few hours later.  He showed that we have reason to fear illness.

An American, Bob Cartwright, was frustrated that circumstances meant that had to miss a flight to New York to watch a big baseball game.  That was until he saw the news that their light plane had crashed into an apartment block, killing them.  ‘That could have been me,’ he exclaimed.  Yet, a month later Cartwright died in another plane crash, near his mountain home in California.

In 2008, Donald Peters bought two Connecticut lottery tickets, just as he had done for the previous twenty years. He got the numbers right, and the tickets were worth ten million dollars. However, he was not as lucky as you might imagine.  He died of a massive heart attack the very evening he bought the tickets.

None of this would have surprised Solomon.  ‘Time and chance happen to them all.’  ‘Man knows not his time.’  We are definitely not the master of our fate or the captains of our soul.  We cannot know what tomorrow will bring.

So how do we not fall apart with worry about the future?  We trust that we are safe in the hands that were pierced for our salvation and we are to enjoy the many good things that God gives us in this short life.  The apostle Paul counsels us, ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’ (Philippians 4:6).  The apostle Peter tells us to cast our anxiety on the Lord because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).

Monday, 2 December 2019

Don't be stupid (Ecc. 7:19-29)

The week before last I was helping a group called Agape do questionnaires with the students at University of Limerick.  One of the questions we asked people was, ‘what is humankind’s greatest problem?’  Suggested answers included ‘greed’ and ‘ego’.  It struck me that no one claimed that humankind didn’t have a problem.  We can see that society doesn’t behave as it ought.

However, if the question had been, ‘what is your greatest problem?’ with suggestions such as ‘greed’ and ‘ego’, I could imagine that people would get defensive.  If we had asked, ‘are you a good person?  I imagine most people would have answered ‘yes!’

But isn’t that inconsistent?  We are happy to admit there is a problem with humanity, but we are not willing to accept that this problem includes us.

This morning’s passage tells us what humanity’s problem is: ‘God created humankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes’ (29).  We read of the fall of humankind in the opening chapters of Genesis.  We are now by nature rebels.  And humanity’s problem is our problem: ‘there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one does what is right and never sins’ (20).

Solomon tells us of ‘the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly’ (25).  We are stupid.  The issue is not about how clever we are, but that we don’t know how to please and enjoy God.  We put ourselves at the centre of our considerations, and so make terrible choices.  We act in ways that lead to present and eternal regret.

But God has rescued his people from this stupidity.  When he lovingly takes hold of a person, he changes our affections.  He renews our thinking.  He shows us the wisdom of centring our lives on him.  He gives us a desire to live for his pleasure.  He enables us to act in ways that are for our present and eternal good. 

God’s wisdom us power (19-22)

‘Wisdom makes one wise person more powerful than ten rulers in a city’ (19).

The foolish person only thinks in terms of ‘what would I like to do?’  ‘What is the easiest thing course of action?’  ‘What would benefit me right now?’  The wise person thinks more carefully.  Wisdom involves seeing things from God’s perspective, and asks, ‘what would God have me do?’  ‘Where does God’s Word lead me?’  ‘What would Jesus do if he was in this situation?’ 

But what makes a wise person more powerful than ten rulers in a city?  One thing that makes a wise person powerful is that the wise person looks to God to help them control their tongue.  Our words often get us into trouble.  Foolish words damage our witness and our good name.  The Proverbs tells us that ‘a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger’ (Proverbs 15:1). 

Be carefully of speaking impulsively.  Think before you open your mouth.  Take a deep breath before you respond.  You don’t need to have the last word.  Some things are better left unsaid.  Often it is better to lose an argument than lose a friend.  Be quick to say sorry.  Don’t talk too much.  Solomon has already told us that ‘many words mark the speech of a fool’ (5:3).

Sadly, even those that God has given his wisdom to are aware that we often say foolish things.  ‘Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—but you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others’ (21-22).  Before we are too hard on those whose words are foolish, remember that we have said many foolish things ourselves.

By the way, do you really want to know what everyone thinks of you?  It might not be pleasant to find out who we irritate!  We may even feel that their assessment of you is a little harsh.  But have we never made a harsh assessment of others?  Have we never criticised someone in a way that we later regret?  Maybe you were frustrated at the time, and you actually do like them.  You would be embarrassed if they were to find out what you said.  Others may feel the same about their criticisms of us!

Solomon teaching highlights our tendency to see ourselves as victims and not villains.  We are quick to remember what someone said against us, but not so keen to recall the evil that we have said about others.  We have been let down, and we have let down.  We are called to forgive, as we have been forgiven.  The wise person let’s love cover over a multitude of sins.

God’s wisdom gives us pleasure (23-29)

Isn’t it amazing that we can please God?  God takes pleasure in the obedience of his children.  While everything we do is stained by our self-centredness and ego, God makes our good works perfect.  He breathes his grace over our acts of service and turns those weeds of deeds into the most fragrant of roses.  At night climb into bed and review the day.  There will be plenty to say sorry for, so confess and receive his forgiveness.  But also think of the positive.  There will have been times where he gave you the desire and power to resist temptation, and he is pleased with you.  There will have been occasions when he showed you and enabled you to do the right thing, and he rejoiced.

Solomon mentions the issue of sexual temptation.  We are fools when we allow lust to lead us.  We feel embarrassment and regret when we check out that jogger as we drive along the road.  We are messing with fire when we flirt with our co-worker.  We experience disgust when we look at pornography.  We damage our soul as we watch an inappropriate movie.  The Christian cannot be happy when we act in a way that grieves our loving God.

God’s teaching on sex is such an example of his wisdom.  God doesn’t restrict sex to marriage to be a killjoy, but because sex outside of marriage leaves emotional scars.  Sex is too intimate to share with someone who will not commit to a lifelong covenant relationship with you.  It is too precious to be treated as a cheap thrill.

Solomon says that the man who pleases God will escape seduction (26).  How do we escape the enticement of lust?  One way is to fight pleasure with pleasure.  Fight the cheap pleasure of a cheap thrill, with the lasting pleasure of knowing God’s delight.  Confess your failings and celebrate your victories.  When you avert your eyes from a tempting image, rejoice.  When you change the channel or close your lap-top, rejoice.  Rejoice that God is delighting in your actions!


Before we finish, notice that Solomon claims that he only found one upright man among a thousand and not one upright woman among them all (28).  Doesn’t that sound a little sexist?  The Old Testament has too many female heroes for this to be a sexist book.  It may actually be a reflection on Solomon himself.  Solomon knew godly men like the prophet Nathan, but he always chased after ungodly women who actually turned his heart to idolatry.  Indeed, he is an example of the danger marrying people who do not share your love for God.

Solomon concludes that, ‘God created humankind upright, but they have gone is search of many schemes’ (29).  This human problem is our problem: ‘there is no-one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins’ (20).  There is stupidity is wickedness and madness in folly (25).  But Jesus died to make us wise.  He has taking the punishment for our madness.  He has given us a new heart, and desires to please our Heavenly Father.  So let us not play the fool.  Let us ask him to give us wisdom every day.  That we would know and do and delight in his will.