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!


Conclusion


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).

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