Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 24, 2010

Sermon on Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:18-26

A WORD TO THE WISE ABOUT WORLDLY WEALTH 

  1. Pursuing worldly wealth leads to earthly emptiness
  2. Pursuing our vocation leads to heaven-sent happiness

 Text: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:18-26

Introduction

Are any of you concerned about money?  I suppose that question is like asking if the sun rises in the East!  Of course people are concerned about money!  That’s doubly the case given current economic circumstances.  Rising unemployment, frozen wages, and sinking investments have left many people concerned—perhaps overly concerned—about money and wealth.  Even though the current recession hasn’t affected San Mateo County to the same degree as it has affected other California counties, there’s no doubt that finances are on people’s minds.  The stock market statistics always make the evening news and the radio regularly broadcasts advertisements from those who want to help you get the right investments to secure your financial future.  There’s no doubt about it—money is on people’s minds!

But this is hardly new.  Money was obviously on people’s minds during Jesus’ lifetime.  The parable of the rich fool in today’s Gospel confirms that.  The fact that sixteen of Jesus’ thirty-eight parables touched on the matter of money also confirms that.  If we step back even further in history, we see the same concerns.  In the First Lesson for today’s service, King Solomon has some wise words for his readers about money, wealth, and possessions.  This morning we will take a rare trip into the book of Ecclesiastes, written by Solomon, the son of great King David of Israel.  Even though his words are ancient, Solomon has a timely word to the wise about worldly wealth.  Merely pursuing worldly wealth leads to earthly emptiness.  But pursuing our God-given vocation leads to heaven-sent happiness. 

I.

Wealth is not bad in and of itself.  The apostle Paul said that “the love of money” – not just money itself – “is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).  Our wealth is how we take care of our families, pay our bills, and support the work of church and noble charities.  A cursory reading of Solomon’s words in the First Lesson might lead you to think differently.  Solomon seems to have a pessimistic view of worldly wealth and the work that it takes to achieve wealth.

Before our reading jumps into chapter two of Ecclesiastes, it quotes the “theme verse” near the start of chapter one.  “Meaningless!  Meaningless!” says the Teacher.  “Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless.”  The Hebrew word translated “meaningless” is pronounced hevel.  Like any important term, hevel means different things in different contexts.  It can mean “vain,” “emptiness,” “worthless,” or even “a breath.”  Those definitions should give you a clue to this word’s flavor.  Solomon says that so much of earthly life is vain, empty, and worthless.  Life is like a breath exhaled in cold temperatures: You can see it for a moment and then it vanishes.  Solomon applies his frustrated observation to work and wealth in chapter two of Ecclesiastes.  That’s where the main part of today’s First Lesson is taken from.

Solomon’s first major complaint about worldly wealth is that a person earns it in his lifetime only to turn it completely over someone else after his life.  “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.  And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?  Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun.  This too is meaningless.  So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.  For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it.  This too is meaningless and a great misfortune.”

Earlier this year, my wife and I went to the King Tut exhibit at the De Young museum in San Francisco.  As we perused the exhibit, we saw how the ancient Egyptians buried their Pharaohs with all sorts of things that were supposed to help them in the next life.  But Solomon knew better.  He knew that when it comes to worldly wealth, “you can’t take it with you.”  He knew his material possessions would be left to someone who didn’t earn it and who might not handle it very well.  Solomon understandably found that pursuing worldly wealth leads to earthly emptiness, meaninglessness, and worthlessness.

To that frustration, Solomon adds a second: He notes how frustrating the work that earns wealth can be.  “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?  All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is meaningless.”  Let’s face it: Work is hard.  Maybe it’s physically hard.  Maybe it’s mentally hard.  Maybe it’s emotionally hard.  But in a sinful world, working for your wealth is—well—hard work!  And the difficulties don’t go away when the work day is done.  How many of us don’t lie awake at night with concerns and worries spinning through our heads about work, wealth, and whatever else needs our attention?  This is another reason why pursuing worldly wealth leads to earthly emptiness.

When you go to the doctor for a check-up, the doctor might poke, prod, and press various places, always asking, “Does this hurt?  How about this?”  If you scream with pain, one of two things just happened.  Either the doctor poked too hard, or—more likely—he found that there’s something wrong.  “We’ll do some more tests; it’s not supposed to hurt there.”

When the subjects of work and wealth are preached from the pulpit, it seems that inevitably we cry out in pain, criticizing the message or the messenger.  Our sinful flesh argues that the pastor has poked and pressed too hard.  But maybe something is wrong.  Maybe the message hurts because our sinful flesh squeals out in writhing pain every time its love of money and wealth is exposed by the prodding of God’s Word.

It’s not hard at all to drop $200.00 for a fancy night out on the town, but we balk at the idea of dropping an extra $20.00 in the offering plate on a regular basis.  We have no problem paying the price tag to fill our homes with the latest technologies and to fill our closets with the latest fashions, while the church struggles to pay its bills and meet its obligations.

I know that one needs to be careful when painting with a broad brush, but you and I also know by our own experience how easily and how often our sinful nature wins the battle when it comes to wealth.  But the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake is a pursuit that leads to earthly emptiness.  It is there, and then it is gone.  No amount of wealth can undo the wages of sin, which is death (Romans 6:23).  No dying man brags about his 401(k) on his deathbed.  And no money can secure God’s forgiveness for lives that gladly chose earthly pursuits over God’s Word and work.

II.

On the back inside cover of today’s service folder there is a schedule of the Sunday Bible classes that we will offer over the next twelve months.  The last subject, scheduled for the end of next summer, will be a study of vocation.  Vocation was a subject Luther frequently addressed during the Reformation.  The church of Luther’s day suggested that the greatest way to serve God was to leave your family behind and serve within the church day and night.  But Luther pointed out what Scripture points out: The greatest service and worship we offer is when we simply live our lives and carry out our work in the place God has called us to live and work.  The people who put in an honest day’s work or the parents who change diapers and care for their children are serving God just by living out their place in life.  That’s the idea behind vocation.

The word vocation doesn’t appear in our First Lesson, but the idea is certainly there.  Solomon said, “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.  This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”  God has placed you in a particular situation in life.  So work faithfully in whatever place he has called you to be!  The sense of satisfaction from faithful work is a gift from God.  Pursuing our vocation leads to heaven-sent happiness.

To emphasize his point, Solomon closes the chapter with a comparison.  “To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness.”  Lest we forget, “the man who pleases [God]” is the same as the person who believes in Jesus Christ.  The book of Hebrews reminds us: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).  To the believer, God gives the wisdom and knowledge gained from honest work and the happiness and satisfaction of a job well done.  But Solomon goes on to observe, “To the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.  This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”  Maybe it seems like the opposite is true—the unbeliever who chases after wealth seems to “have it all.”  But remember what Jesus said in the Gospel for today (Luke 12:13-21).  The rich fool thought he had it all and then lost it all when God called his life to an end.  Those who do not look to God in faith will see their wealth lost on the Last Day when every last blessing is given over to God’s people eternally.

When it comes to wisdom about work and worldly wealth, faith in Jesus Christ makes all the difference.  Faith in Jesus changes our perspective about work so that we see it as our vocation, our calling to serve the people God has placed in our lives.  And the only way we can receive that perspective is when we understand the work that Christ first did for us.

The apostle Paul wrote, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).  The greatest wealth and treasure you and I have is the spiritual wealth and riches that Jesus Christ brought us when he descended into our world to be our Savior from sin.  Look at the heaven-sent gifts he has given you!  The Son of God set aside his heavenly riches and journeyed to the cross for your salvation.  His holy, precious blood has won forgiveness for all your sins and his holy, precious Word and sacraments delivers those rich blessings personally to your soul.

There is no gift greater than the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.  But with that gift comes further blessings.  Christ’s heaven-sent forgiveness comes with a heaven-sent joyfulness that wants to serve others in life as a way to express our thanks and praise to God.  Christ’s heaven-sent forgiveness comes with a heaven-sent willingness to generously use our wealth to support the mission and ministry of our congregation, our school, and our synod.

Conclusion

Martin Luther is supposed to have said that the Holy Spirit first converts a man’s head, then his heart, and finally his wallet—and that the wallet is the hardest part of a person to convert!  I think it is safe to say that this observation is right on the money!  This observation echoes the wisdom about worldly wealth that Solomon gave us in Ecclesiastes.  In a nation where our poor are still richer than most of the rest of the world, and where the middle class lives like kings compared to the rest of the world, we need to hear again and again about true wealth and real riches.  We need the heaven-sent perspective that our greatest riches come through faith in the blood of Jesus, in his sacrifice for sin and resurrection from the dead, and in the peace and pardon God personally gives us in his Word and sacraments.  And with that saving knowledge first and foremost in our hearts, we will also attain the perspective that joyfully sings:

Set not your heart on food or drink, Nor be weighed down by worldly care;

About such things the godless think, Yet never thank the Lord in prayer.

Seek first God’s reign, his boundless grace, His holy name in all you do:

Christ first and last in ev’ry place; All else will then be given you.

(Christian Worship: Supplement #762, st. 3 & 6)

Amen.

 

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