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. 

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

The Limits of Justice (Eccles. 8)

Sometimes life doesn’t seem fair.  People do, and get away with, all sorts of evil.  It seems that often crime pays.  We despair when courts pass sentences that are pitifully weak, and there are times when it is the innocent who get charged.  Those who cheat on their tax returns, lie on their welfare forms and make dishonest insurance claims seem to be rewarded for their dishonesty.   Solomon looked at the injustice that he observed ‘under the sun’ and wrote, ‘there is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve.  This too, I say, is meaningless’ (14).

In fact, Solomon thinks of the funerals of godless bullies (10).  There they are put into the ground, and it seems like they got away with everything.  No-one criticises them when they are dead.  We don’t like to speak ill of the deceased.  The English, Daily Telegraph, reported the story of a vicar whose honesty got him in trouble.  He held a service for someone he did not admire.  So he stated that he could think of nothing nice to say about the man and that no-one would miss him.  The family were up in arms and he was made apologise.  We don’t go to a funeral to tell the deceased person’s family how awful he was.  On that day at least, there is a conspiracy of silence!

So, what do we do about the fact that we live in a world of injustice?

We obey the authorities

Imagine a society where there is no government to make laws and no government to enforce them.  Imagine a society where everyone decides how much they can drink before they get behind the wheel of a car, where people choose how much tax they should pay, where there are no driving licences or speed limits, where there are no environmental regulations or planning restrictions and where theft and violence are not punished.  Do you think that such a society would tend towards order or chaos?  Do you think that such a society would be characterised by good or evil?

I think the answer is obvious.  A society in which everyone does what they want would be an awful place to live.  The book of Judges, in the Old Testament, narrates a time when ‘there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes’.  The result of such anarchy was a society awash with evil and bloodshed.  The Bible teaches us that government is actually a gift from God (Romans 13:1-7); that it is designed to restrain and punish evil.  Solomon tells us that whoever obeys the king’s (or government’s) command will not come to harm (2-3).

Of course, there are occasions where people are called to take a stand against evil laws.  Daniel and his friends disobeyed when they were told to worship King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.  Christians should smuggle Bibles into nations where they are banned.  But the Christian is to seek the best for the society where God has placed them (Jeremiah 29:7).  Our attitude to governmental authorities will actually reflect our attitude to our God who put them in place.  Paying our taxes honestly, obeying the speed limit, not breaking the lights, not being drunk and disorderly and not littering are actually acts of worship to our God as well as acts of obedience to the state.     

We strive for justice 

While governments are given to restrain evil, Solomon still sees evil all around him.  Laws can’t change the human heart.  The Christian is not someone who simply sits back passively in the face of injustice.  The Old Testament encouraged people to act justly.  In particular, there were four groups that were repeatedly highlighted as needing special attention: the poor, the fatherless, the widow and the migrant.

When the people were challenged about how they looked after the foreigner in their land, they were reminded that they were once foreigners in another land.  They were to treat others as they would have liked to be treated themselves.  This is really relevant in Ireland at this time.  There is a growing intolerance of the foreigners in our midst.  But we Irish must remember that we have been an emigrating nation.  We have heard the stories of times when signs went up, ‘no Irish need apply’.  This is not an attitude we liked, nor one that we should display. 

We mustn’t become bitter

On issues of serious injustice, it is right to ask the state to act.  We should applaud those who have the courage to blow the whistle on abuse.  We should encourage people to take their abuser to court.  We should seek for justice to be done.  Even when the abuser has sought forgiveness it is right for them to serve the sentence that the law demands.

Then there may be less serious issues that aren’t for the courts.  This year people may have done and said things that have really hurt you.  Your neighbour might dislike you for no obvious reason.  You might work with someone who gives you are hard time.  Your parents might show favouritism away from you.  Your children may be ungrateful.  We are tempted to become bitter.  However, Solomon tells us not to get swallowed up in bitterness.  

Solomon wondered why there is such injustice in the world and exclaimed, ‘This too, I say, is meaningless.   So, I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.  Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun’ (15).

Don’t let the wrong things that have been done to you stop you from enjoying the good things that have been given to you.  Don’t get consumed by your hurts.  Don’t get disillusioned about the fact that life is unfair.  What did we expect, we are flawed people living in an evil generation?  Don’t let the hurt that you experienced at the hand of your mother spoil the joy you have in your daughter.  Don’t let the harsh words you heard from your father cause you to speak impatiently with your son.  Don’t let the disappointment of being let down by one friend stop you from enjoying other friends.  Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face!

Remember the cross

Solomon is examining everything from the perspective of life ‘under the sun’.  ‘Under the sun’ refers to life lived without God being in the picture.  ‘Under the sun’ is limiting life to what we can see in the here and now.  But the Christian knows that when it comes to injustice, life is not just lived under the sun.  The God of the heavens calls us to think of the cross.

There was a day of justice almost two thousand years ago.  There Jesus, the Son of God, took the punishment for his people’s acts of injustice.  You see, I have done and said things that have wounded people.  I have said insensitive things to some of you.  We are not just victims, we are villains.  Where possible, we apologise.  But often we cannot undo the hurt and harm that we have caused.  Jesus has died for our evil words and deeds.  People may refuse to forgive us, but God declares that we are no longer condemned.  One day those we have hurt will see that our God took our sins against them seriously, so seriously that his Son died to pay for them.

Remember there will be a day of judgement

There will be another day of justice at some undisclosed time in the future.  Jesus will return to judge both those who have died and those who are still living.  The books will be opened.  Cruel dictators will find that they didn’t get away with murder.  People’s deeds will be exposed.  There will be no need for an appeal court.  There will be no complaints about sentencing.   Justice will be done.  Justice will be seen to have been done.

Why is there injustice in the world?  There is injustice in the world because people like you and me ignore God’s rule of love.  What does perfect justice demand?  Perfect justice demands that our guilt should be punished.  How serious is our evil?  Our evil is so serious that we deserve to be separated from God for ever.  So, is there any hope for us?  Yes!  Through the cross, Jesus took the punishment for our evil, so that God can forgive us without compromising his holiness.  We can accept him and hear the verdict ‘not condemned’ or we can ignore his mercy and take our condemnation on our shoulders.

As forgiven people we cannot be smug or self-righteous.  As forgiven people we do not need to defend ourselves when people point to the wrong that we have done.  As forgiven people we are to be thankful and grateful for the cross of Christ!

Saturday, 16 November 2019

'Don't waste your suffering' (Ecc. 7:1-14)

Many years ago, there was a tribe in Africa who would ask the following when they were told about a Christian: ‘Is he a broken Christian?’  They didn’t ask, ‘are they a knowledgeable Christian?’ or ‘are they a gifted Christian?’  They wanted to know that the person was a broken Christian.  For there is a maturity that comes only through the experience of brokenness.

In some ways, given the inevitable pain that we experience in life, it is not so much whether we have experienced brokenness that matters, but how we have reacted to it.  Some, as we see in these verses, simply laugh pain off.  They pretend it doesn’t exist.  They pretend that the day of death is never going to come to them.  You will find that such people are hard to relate to.  There is no depth to them.  

This morning we are going to be urged not to waste our suffering.  Don’t waste your suffering, because right throughout the Bible we are told that suffering is something that can produce maturity.  It is a part of God’s plan for us.  So maybe in the New Year I will send you a text that reads: ‘this year, may God send you all the suffering you need to grow.

Life is short

The first lesson that we see in our reading is that life is short.  You are not engaging with reality if you are not prepared for the fact that life is short.  We are going to die, and it will be some time relatively soon.  

Solomon writes, ‘the day of death is better than the day of birth.’  It is not entirely clear whether this is a reference to our own day of birth or death, or the birth and death of someone else.  But both are true.  You learn things at funerals that you would not learn if you only ever go to christenings.  You will learn that you need to be ready for death.

We have a neighbour who avoids funerals.  I remember watching him drop his wife to a funeral home and speed away in his car.  Death makes him feel so uncomfortable.  But he needs to come to terms with the fact that he is aging.  Not thinking about something won’t stop it from happening.  He needs to come to see that Jesus came to take away the fear of death.  The psalmist prays, ‘teach us, O Lord, to number our days that we might have a heart of wisdom.’  Death is the destiny of everyone, and we need to take it to heart.

What if Solomon is talking about our own death?  ‘The day of our own death is better than the day of our birth.’  That is true for those who have turned to God.  Jesus has removed the sting from death.  I have had to preach at many funerals, and there is a world of difference when the person who died has trusted Christ.  You can speak with confidence and expectation.  There is hope and joy in the midst of the grief and sorrow.  The Bible offers no such hope for those who have resisted God’s love in their life!

If you are a Christian, if you have entrusted your life to him, accepted his forgiveness and let him lead you, then your best day in this life falls infinitely short of every day in the life to come.  Heaven awaits!  But if you neglect Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and want to take the price of your own sin on your shoulders, if you refuse to let him be centre to your affections and simply live for self, then your worst day in life is only a taste of what is to come.  Hell awaits! 

The wise person thinks seriously about life and death.

Learn through your suffering

‘Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us’ (NLT).  There is a time for rejoicing and a time for laughter.  When times are happy, enjoy them.  But there is something to be learned as we experience sorrow.  God uses sorrow as a way of changing us from within.

Sometimes God uses sorrow to break our attachment to this life and to cause us to long for eternity. When we are happy, we don’t tend to consider the life to come.  When we are sad, we want life to come to an end.  Sorrow also has a way of teaching us.  It helps us depend on God.
But there is a rick that we respond in the wrong way to sorrow. 

In verse eight, we are taught that patience is better than pride.  Why are patience and pride opposites?  Patience allows God be God and relies on him.  Pride says, ‘I don’t deserve this.  I deserve a good life.’

I was down at the Christian Union in UCC.  They asked me to speak of suffering.  I spoke on Job.  As I was preparing for this, someone made a good point to me: we often ask how a loving God can allow bad things to happen to us, but we should ask how a holy God allows us to be blessed.  There is a mystery is blessing.  We have rebelled against God’s loving rule.  I have done nothing to deserve God’s kindness, and neither have you.  Yet every day he gives us life and breath and joy in our hearts.  He blesses those who trust him, but he also blesses those who resist him.  Even those who hate the very sound of his name have so many things they should thank him for.

Another amazing thing is that as a Christian, he even blesses us with suffering.  For he uses suffering in our life to make us more like Jesus.  I am not saying that this is easy! 

The person who is patient may cry out, ‘how long, O Lord, will you forget me for ever?’  But deep within there remains a confidence that God can be trusted.  Sometimes in the midst of pain, all we can do is look at the person of Jesus, and look at how he treated people, see his compassion and know that God is good.

In verse nine we are told not to become angry and bitter.

I remember the first time I really struggled with anxiety.  I was in college in Dublin.  I couldn’t settle myself and went for a walk.  I saw a man sleeping on the street, and my heart went out to him in a way that I hadn’t cared before.  While I didn’t know what his pain must felt like, my pain was making me more compassionate.  The apostle Paul tells us that God comforts us in our sorrows so that we can comfort others with the comfort we have experienced in God.  There is something about suffering that bonds us to other people who suffer.

But sorrow can also make us hard-hearted.  We may be jealous of the fact that other people seem to have life better than us.  In our pain we can close the world out, and close ourselves in.  That we be to waste our suffering!

Another way that we waste our suffering is through nostalgia.  Verse ten: ‘do not say, “why were the old days better than these?” for that is not wise.’  One of the reasons that this is not wise is that the good old days weren’t always good.  But, also, we can’t live in the past.  Even if yesterday was wonderful, we simply can’t get back there.

Learn to trust God

‘Accept the way God does things, who can straighten what he has made crooked?’ (13, NLT). 

There are certain things in your life that you can do nothing about.  You have to learn to depend on God at these times.  Don’t complain saying, ‘if only I was married to someone else’ or ‘if only I had her/his life’.  Those are stupid things to say.

There was a lady who got up at a conference and said, ‘I like to think of God as being weak God.  He is not responsible for our suffering.  He would change it if he could.’  Belief in such a weak ‘god’ may get us around some of the questions that suffering presents, but it is hardly a comfort.  Do you want your life to be out of control? 

During a time when I was suffering from depression, Caroline and I were comforted by the words of hymn-writer, John Newton.  He said, ‘everything is necessary that God sends our way, and nothing can be necessary that he withholds.’  That was comfort.  It didn’t take away the pain but did promise us that God had a purpose in it.  That is what we needed.

In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul has a ‘throne in the flesh’.  He prayers three times for it to be removed.  It is right to ask God to change things.  But God said ‘no’.  God had made the path crooked.  Then God told Paul, ‘my grace is sufficient for you, my strength is made perfect in weakness.’  No longer did Paul try to change his circumstances, he lived with the crookedness knowing that God knows what is best.

I remember when I started working in a church in Northern Ireland.  It was shortly after the troubles. People would tell me not to harp in about forgiveness too much.  ‘You haven’t experienced what these people have gone through, so don’t demand too much of them.’  I wanted to reply, ‘but it is not me who asks them to forgive.  It is Jesus.  And he has had to forgive more than anyone else.’  It is the same with suffering.  Maybe you look at me this morning and want to say ‘it is easy for you to tell me to trust God in my suffering, but your life is better than mine.’  I hope this is not trite to say, but it is not me who tells you to trust God.  It is Jesus who says that.  He has suffered more than any of us can imagine.  He was a man of suffering, familiar with grief, and he tells us not to waste our suffering.

Last verse.  When times are good be happy.  Enjoy the blessings of life.  Enjoy the good things in life.  Enjoy God’s people.  Enjoy good food and drink.  Have fun.  Get satisfaction from your work.  However, then Solomon says, ‘but when times are bad consider this; God made one as well as the other.’  There times of illness and sorrow times when life hurts, and Solomon does not say when times are bad, we need to be happy.  He is not saying don’t be sad and he is not forbidding mourning.  He is saying that we need to remember that God remains in control, and he is good.    

Saturday, 2 November 2019

How can I get some satisfaction? (Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:12)

John D. Rockefeller was one of the richest people of his time.  He was once asked how much money he thought was enough.  He answered, ‘just a little more!’  The opening verses of this morning’s reading are depressing.  ‘Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.  This too is meaningless’ (5:10).

Don’t believe the adverts.  Getting more stuff doesn’t satisfy.  The pleasures of a new purchase soon wear off.  So, how then can we find satisfaction?  The end of the fifth chapter of Ecclesiastes show us. 

If you want to be satisfied, ask God how you can serve him today (5:18)

‘Then I realised that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot’ (5:18).  Life is short and work is hard, but we can have satisfaction in the ordinary.

We can find satisfaction in toilsome labour.  Don’t just plan for the holidays.  |Don’t live for weekends.  Enjoy your work, whether that work is in or out of the home.

It would be tempting to take this advice and tell you that if your job doesn’t satisfy you then find another one.  Sometimes that is the right advice to give.  But remember that in Solomon’s day there was no such thing as career guidance.  If a lad’s dad was a carpenter, then he became a carpenter.  If his dad was a fisherman, then he learned how to fish.  Daughters had even less choice about what to do.  The key is not finding the right job but finding the right attitude towards your job.

When Rick Warren wrote his book, ‘The Purpose Driven Life’, it sold millions of copies.  It became a New York Times bestseller.  It pointed to the unique satisfaction that Christians can have in all that they do.  We live as people who know that even if our earthly employer does not appreciate what we do, our heavenly Father sees.  He delights in our honest labour.  We can also serve him in how we rest and work, in our workplace and our homes, and amongst our family and neighbours.

One of my favourite verses in the Bible tells us that, ‘we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (Ephesians 2:10).  If you want to be satisfied, ask God how you can serve him today! 

Nothing robs us of satisfaction quicker than comparing our lot with others’ (5:19)

‘Moreover, when God gives any person wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God’ (5:19).

Money and stuff might not be the key to satisfaction, but that does not mean we cannot enjoy money and stuff.  God kindly enables us to enjoy many of the good things in life.  Rather than always striving for promotion, he enables us to be satisfied with our lot in life.  To enjoy our work is a gift from heaven.

Nothing robs us of satisfaction quicker than comparing our lot with others’.  It is called ‘the comparison trap’.  If you are not satisfied with what you have, don’t assume that you would be satisfied with what someone else has.  There will always be people to envy.  There will always be people who seem to have it better than you.  Ask God to help you trust that he knows what you need. 

A woman passed through the most tragic year of her life.  She was in her early sixties.  She had been with her husband on holiday in Spain, when he simply dropped dead.  She soon found out that the man whom her husband had trusted to look after their investments was a fraudster.  She lost all her wealth.  She had to sell her house in order to exist.  She moved into a much smaller place and sought to pick up the pieces of her life.  Yet this woman struck those who met her as the happiest person they knew.  Her serenity was not superficial.  She felt her loss.  She hurt.  But she knew that God was in control.  God was what mattered to her and he could be trusted.  She knew that in sickness or in health, in poverty or in wealth, God was her satisfaction.  

Being a Christian gives us a special reason to be satisfied with our lot.  For we know that God is working all things for our good—which is not that life would be easy, but that we are being made more like Jesus (Romans 8:29).  Few people have had life a more difficult than Job, yet he was able to look back and see that God was at work in his suffering.  He knew God better as a result of all that he went through.  He declared, ‘my ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you’ (Job 42:5).  James tells us to consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of various kinds, because God is using these to make us complete (James 1:2).

Satisfied people don’t live in the past or the future, they enjoy today (5:20)

The French philosopher, Pascal, wrote: ‘Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future.  We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future.  The present is never our end.  The past and the present are our means, the future alone is our end.  Thus, we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.’

Solomon tells us that the satisfied person seldom reflects on the days of his life, ‘because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart’ (5:20).  ‘When people discover the richness of life that God has provided, they do not think much of the past, or even talk about it.  They do not talk about the future either, because they are so richly involved with savouring life right now’ (Stedman).  As the rather corny saying goes, ‘yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift.  That’s why it is called the present.’  Besides, the good old days weren’t always good, and the future might not be brighter.

Look at the words ‘gladness of heart’.  They are a pointer to how kind our God is.  In the book of Acts, Paul and Barnabas are is an area of Lystra and Derbe.  They heal a man who is lame and so the people want to worship them as gods.  Paul and Barnabas object.  Paul explains to them, yet God has not left himself without testimony, ‘He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy’ (Acts 14:17).  These words were spoken to a wicked people who would subsequently stone Paul, drag him out of their city and leave him for dead.  God even blesses his enemies with gladness of heart!  ‘He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good; and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:45).  Our God is immeasurably kind.

Conclusion—Satisfaction and dissatisfaction should lead us to God

Why does God allow people to enjoy life?  He blesses the undeserving to bring us to repentance.  The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome asking, ‘or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realising that God’s kindness leads you towards repentance?’ (Romans 2:4).  We are supposed to see the gifts and turn our hearts to the giver.  We have been selfish and ungrateful, but Christ has died for our ingratitude.

But then in chapter six we have the most difficult verse of our reading.  ‘God gives a person wealth, possessions and honour, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable them to enjoy them and a stranger enjoys them instead.  This is meaningless, a grievous evil’ (6:2).  How could God be so cruel as to give a person all that this world offers and yet prevent them from enjoying them?  ‘Simply so that we do not depend on false crutches and worship false idols’ (Tidball).  Our dissatisfaction in life points us to the only one who can satisfy the emptiness in our lives.

So, if you want to be satisfied, be determined to enjoy your work, don’t compare your life with others and live in the present (rather than the past of the future).  But most importantly, grow in your knowledge of the giver of satisfaction, for God ‘you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find their rest in you’ (Augustine).

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Don’t try to worship God with bitterness in your heart (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7)

So, how has Sunday morning been for you?  Any chance that the children were bickering, and you lost your cool?  Did your husband nag you for being late, and you snapped back?  Did you huff with your wife when she was sharp?  Maybe you drove to church in a silent car because no-one was speaking to each other.  Then you watch your spouse as they walk into the building and they are all smiles with everyone.  You think, ‘what a hypocrite!’  The truth is that they are just relieved to be talking to anyone other than you!

This morning we are thinking about how we come to worship.

We are to worship with a forgiving heart

Solomon was talking about the temple in Jerusalem, where people made their sacrifices.  There is no direct modern-day equivalent.  The building in which we sit is not ‘the house of God’, it is simply a rain-shelter designed to facilitate our gatherings.  But the apostle Paul tells us that together as people in Christ we are God’s holy temple in the Lord (Ephesians 2:21).  We can apply these verses to our weekly gatherings. 

In the days before the temple was destroyed, Jesus taught that ‘if you are offering your gift at the altar and you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come offer your gift’ (Matthew 5:23-24).  We are to come to worship with a forgiving heart!

We are to come to worship to listen   

We are to ‘draw near to listen …’ (1b).  We come to be taught from God’s word.  But are we open to what might be said?  In one church where I worked someone told me not to talk too much about forgiveness because I did not understand the pain that community had endured.  We cannot censure God’s challenging word like that!

When the apostle Paul talks about God’s people being the house of God, he mentions the breaking down of cultural hostility (Ephesians 2:11-22).  This house of God is made up of people from over twenty-five nationalities.  There can be no place for racism or sectarianism amongst us. 

How would you feel if your daughter married a person with a different colour skin?  I hope it wouldn’t bother you in the slightest.  How do you use terms like Protestant or Catholic?  What is your attitude to people from the travelling community?   

When I was a young adult working with Protestants in Northern Ireland, I could not stand their attitude to my country.  My pig-headedness got me in arguments with other stubborn young men.  It took years to accept the challenge of acknowledging what God had done through northern Protestants.  I began to see that he was at work in their culture.  In particular, I began to appreciate the many Christian missionaries who had been sent from that part of this island all over the world.  Those of us who went to school in this country learned plenty about the evil that the English did on this island, but would you be willing to listen to an Englishman tell you how God has shown his favour to that land by sending some of the most amazing revivals and raising up some of the most significant preachers in the history of the church?

It is not just towards our brothers and sisters in Christ that we are to show cross-cultural love.  Paul says, ‘I have become all things to all people, that he might save some’ (1 Corinthians 9:22).  How should you identify with a Muslim in order to show love and speak about Jesus?  How do you feel when you see a woman in a burka?  How do you become a Nigerian to the Nigerians so that you might win some to Christ?  Or, if you are Nigerian, how do you identify with the Irish to win some of them to Christ?

We are to come to worship with sincerity

One of the things that causes conflict in my life is that I am too opinionated, and I talk to much.  The Bible tells us to guard our tongue.  James tells us that we are to be ‘quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to become angry’ (James 1:19).  In the Proverbs Solomon explains that ‘when words are many, sin is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent’ (Proverbs 10:19). 

We are not to spout off to people and we are not to spout off to God.  ‘Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth.  Therefore, let your words be few’ (2).

I am told that this verse emphasises the sincerity of our words before God.  One person wrote that, ‘we don’t pray into a spiritual microphone with God listening on a set of heavenly earphones.  He listens to us pray with a spiritual stethoscope’ (LeRoy Eims).  God cares about what is on our hearts as we speak to him.

But how do we grow in sincerity?  I think we grow in sincerity by both working from the inside out and the outside in.  The inside out as we ask God to change our hearts.  ‘Create a clean heart within me’, we pray.  The outside in as we realise that sincerity is not just about feeling but acting.  We are to speak to people and God with honesty.  We are to be willing to be vulnerable with them and him.  We are not to put on a show to impress them or him.  Be real!

We are to come to worship ready to act 

The scene of the remaining verses is that of the person who gets emotionally moved during the worship and then vows that he is going to respond with action.  He has vowed and must act on those vows immediately and not go back on his word.  Vow taking isn’t encouraged in the New Testament, but we have all made commitments to respond during worship.

Maybe you have heard a sermon on missions, and you have resolved to pray for a missionary.  Then go do it.  Maybe you heard a sermon on giving and you decided that you will give to a church or charity.  Then don’t delay.  Maybe you have felt challenged to love someone who has wronged you.  Then love your neighbour in a way that they can see.  Maybe you arrived here this morning not speaking to your family.  Make sure you go home at peace with them.

‘Guard your steps when you go to the house of God …’  The death and resurrection of Jesus has broken down the walls of hostility between us and God.  He has made us God’s household.  Now we are to break down the barriers between each of us and live at people.  We are also to reach out to those around us with this gospel of grace.

Chuck Colson was President Nixon’s hatchet man and went to jail for his dirty tricks.  But before he went to jail, he became a Christian.  As a Christian he found himself in an unusual brotherhood.  He met together with a group of Christian politicians, who were both Republicans and Democrats.  They had widely divergent opinions and some were his former enemies.

When one political opponent heard that Colson had become a Christian, he resisted meeting him.  ‘There isn’t anyone I dislike more than Chuck Colson.  I’m against everything he stands for …’  But a friend pointed out that this was hardly a Christlike answer.  So they met.  Colson told this man of his conversion, the man responded, ‘That’s all I need to know.  Chuck, you have accepted Jesus and He has forgiven you.  I do the same.  I love you as my brother in Christ.  I will stand with you …’

‘Guard your steps when you go to the house of God’ (1a).  ‘If you are offering your gift at the altar and you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come offer your gift’ (Matthew 5:23-24).