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Ecclesiastes 3:16-22

Riptide Rescue

I was swimming in the Atlantic one hot summer day as a teenager, when I suddenly realized I was farther from shore than I ever had been. Only one other swimmer was near me. Everyone else was a considerable distance in toward the beach.

No worries. I started stroking toward shore but felt myself being pulled straight out. Couldn’t make headway. Realized I needed help, so I asked the swimmer nearby to help me get to shore. He took my hand and proceeded to pull me under: he didn’t know what he was doing.

As soon as I popped back up to the surface, I heard the distinct sound of lifeguard whistles. One was on the way with a rescue buoy attached to a rope anchored by other lifeguards onshore. We both held on to the rescue buoy while the team onshore worked to pull us in.

I felt embarrassed until they explained what had happened. A riptide had formed, pulling me and the other swimmer out to sea. The only way to fight a riptide, they explained, is to swim not against it, but across it, parallel to the shore. I never would have known that intuitively. All I knew was that I wanted to reach the shore but was getting pulled farther out.

Getting caught in the rip tide of cynicism

This week brings us to a portion in the book of Ecclesiastes that describes what it’s like to get caught in the riptide of cynicism; to become so irritated by problems that you find yourself becoming more skeptical and less hopeful. You no doubt can name a family member or friend or coworker who has become a cynic. For them, the glass is half-full or less. The future looks bleak. Enemies and opposition abound.

Their circle eventually becomes the fellowship of the equally miserable. And together, they miss the abundant life that Jesus came to bring. So straight up, here’s where this week is going: the very things that can drag you away into cynicism have the potential to launch you into a deep sense of purpose. We can face life’s painful challenges without yielding to cynicism.

Ecclesiastes shows Solomon getting pulled pretty far out to sea with regard to cynicism, interspersed with moments when he regains a God-orientation, a God’s eye view of the situation that’s enough to pull him back.

So if you have a Bible app or a Bible of your own, please open it to the third chapter of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. While you’re getting there, a quick review of the unique perspective put before us in this strange Bible book. The interpretive key to understanding Ecclesiastes is the odd phrase “Under the sun” and its corollary “under the heavens.” You find them thirty times in this little diary written by Solomon, king of Israel around 3,000 years ago. Unlike any other book in the Bible, this book takes a cold, hard look at life apart from God. The vantage point or perspective is almost always strictly horizontal, down here, looking around, but not looking up. It is only from time to time that Solomon comes up for air, lifts his gaze again to God, and shows the hope and purpose intended to come from connecting our daily experiences with God who loves us.

And so I need to warn you that most of this week’s passage sounds very cynical, before it turns a corner. We’re used to the good stuff up front, but this book is intended to rescue our inner cynic from getting dragged out to sea. So let’s read, Ecclesiastes chapter three and verses 16-22. Solomon laments…

“And I saw something else under the sun:

In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
    in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

I said to myself,

‘God will bring into judgment
    both the righteous and the wicked,
for there will be a time for every activity,
    a time to judge every deed.’

I also said to myself, ‘As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?’

So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?”

Ecclesiastes 3:16-22

With that, let’s all smile and sing the doxology! What a thing to include in the Bible! But you know what? He’s being honest. Solomon is wrestling deeply with the frustrations of injustice, of our mortality, of the unanswered questions we have. And the mere fact that the compilers of the Hebrew Scriptures agreed that this odd book is Spirit-inspired should move us to make room for hard questions.

We all love a good story. So why is this one here?

Let’s start where Solomon does. We all love a good story. The Avengers. Black Panther’s Wakanda. Edge of Tomorrow. What are some of your favorites?

From the first stories read to us, we love how they end. Cinderella doesn’t deserve how she is so deeply mistreated. But we’re okay with it because of how it ends: the one with the pure heart finds love and happiness.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas sounds like it’s going to be a terrible story. The Grinch hates Christmas, hates the Whos, and becomes determined to ruin their holiday. Like this week’s passage, 95% of the story is dreadful. But then…at a fateful moment of decision, the Grinch hears the Whos singing, grateful for one another despite their gifts all being stolen. Their contentment prompts the Grinch’s shriveled heart to grow three sizes. He returns to the village, returns the stolen gifts, is embraced by the villagers, and the story ends at dinner as the Grinch carves their Roast Beast. All is well!

But imagine if those stories ended the way they seemed to be headed:

Cinderella isn’t discovered. The glass slipper doesn’t fit. One of the rotten stepsisters gets the prince. And Cinderella is left behind to suffer.

Or what if the Grinch didn’t change, the Whos hated him, and the whole thing ends with everyone hating everyone else?

Here’s what Solomon exposes, here it is:

Seeing suffering makes us sad; seeing injustice makes us mad.

And rightly so.

We are hardwired to expect a just ending

We can deal with sad endings, but not unjust endings. We’re hardwired to expect right to win the day. Bit it doesn’t always end happily ever after, does it? Only in fiction does it all turn around in 60 minutes. And when that happens, the risk is getting dragged out into cynicism.

Someone has described Solomon’s perspective in this section as unwilling to look up in dependence on God and too stubborn to bow his head in prayer. He’s unwilling to look up; he’s looking strictly around. And what he sees leaves him stuck in cynicism. He’s not sad; he’s mad. He can’t make sense of injustice in the legal system, our mortality matching that of animals, and from where he stands a thousand years before Jesus, he wonders with despair whether death is the end, or is there life after this life? He just doesn’t know, because in this honest moment, he’s looking around, not up.

Here’s the big clue on how to make sense of this portion of Ecclesiastes, two phrases as Solomon begins this cynical lament:

“I saw something else under the sun…I said to myself…”

Ecclesiastes 3:16, 18

This passage’s unique perspective

“I saw,” and “I said to myself” reveal Solomon’s posture and Solomon’s perspective in this passage. He’s angry on his feet, but not anguished on his knees. He sees and says to himself. And the result is bitter cynicism. The only outlet he’s got is to complain to whoever reads this diary entry. And the only solution he holds out is unfulfilling. It never addresses the injustice he sees or the questions he raises. It’s an unusual and uncomfortable passage.

The theme of justice, and frustration with injustice, runs strong not only in our veins since we were toddlers fighting over what’s fair. It’s also a strong biblical theme. And that’s why this is here. We want and expect the Cinderella ending. But it doesn’t always come.

So let’s take a few minutes to let the rip tide of injustice pull at us as it should, but then figure out what God would have us do to get past cynicism. Justice and the lack of it is a recurring theme in Ecclesiastes, but also in the Law that God gave Israel in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Justice and its corruption are repeated themes in the Old Testament prophetic books. Jesus had a thing or two to say about those who misuse and abuse power and position and warned that the common weapons of the world are not to be wielded among us. Look with me at another example from Ecclesiastes. There are several, but for now here’s just one more observation that can leave you cynical. Chapter 8, this ancient king admits…

“I have thought deeply about all that goes on here under the sun, where people have the power to hurt each other…In this life, good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. This is so meaningless!”

Ecclesiastes 8:9, 14

We’re back to Solomon’s recurring theme from chapter 1 and verse 2, that life apart from connection with God is meaningless, frustrating, like wind that blows all over the place but doesn’t accomplish anything. Life ‘under the sun,’ going through life without insight and perspective and purpose from God.

Bullies at school, work, court & beyond

You have felt what Solomon did if you ever got bullied, or if you’re a parent who had your child experience getting bullied. In the workplace, it’s likely you’ve witnessed or experienced injustice. Someone described to me how a previous boss would privately ask how they would handle a certain situation, and then parrot that to his supervisors as though it was his insight and wisdom. He made that work environment intolerable.

There’s another person who works as an attorney, but is no longer willing to do court cases because of the corruption they had to wade through in the process. I’ve seen it. In our family’s role as foster parents, I’ve been in county court many times. The bottom line is that the one with the most money, who can afford the best lawyer, is the one who wins. It’s less about justice and more about who better manipulates the system.

We even have a Christmas hymn about this! In the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” the poet remembers that when angels appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, they said they were bringing a message of peace, and good will toward us. But Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrestles as he writes, and we sing, the following:

And in despair I bowed my head:

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong, and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

What was on Longfellow’s heart and mind when he penned this stanza? We actually know: he saw the injustice of slavery, and wanted to see it abolished. Then his son was injured in battle during the Civil War. After the war, Longfellow longed to see reconciliation between southern and northern states, writing, “I have only one desire: and that is for harmony, and a frank and honest understanding between North and South.”

There’s even more to his story. Longfellow lost his first wife to death following a miscarriage. And his second wife died after sustaining burns when her dress caught fire. So he could have become a deeply cynical person. He did not. He saw injustices like Solomon did, but didn’t allow himself to be pulled out in the rip tide of cynicism.

So how can we make it past cynicism? What would God commend to us for seeing injustice and tough questions, without hardening ourselves against God and people? Back in this week’s passage, there are two hints. They’re found in verses 17 and 18 of Ecclesiastes chapter three: two ‘above the sun’ moments of clarity that can pull us back in from cynicism. Here’s the first:

Two insights to get past cynicism

  • Injustice will not get the last word.

Verse 17: “God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked…” Relief is on the way. There is a just Judge. And he will bring justice to those who have not received it in this life. Wrong will not always win.

Given my upbringing, I tend to think of justice in terms of punishing crimes. The biblical emphasis in justice is more about setting things right. For the wrongdoer, God’s justice is meant to bring restraint and repentance, a change of ways. For the person who is being wronged, suffering under injustice, judgment day is meant to bring hope, that injustice will not be the end of their story.

  • Injustice exposes our animal-like dealings with one another.

Verse 18, Solomon adds, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals.” When ‘life under the sun’ is all there is, we become like wild animals in our dealings with each other. Business becomes a grown-up version of the game ‘king of the hill,’ with careers as the casualties. Profit takes priority over sustainability, and water sources get contaminated with carcinogens. Nation takes up arms against nation with utter disregard for innocent civilians caught in the crosshairs if not intentionally targeted in a campaign designed to terrorize.

Taking Solomon’s observation to its logical extreme, it’s not only wondering if we have an eternal advantage compared to animals. It’s also that unchecked injustice makes us animal-like. And so in a moment of deep cynicism, Solomon wonders, verse 21, “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”

I told you this is a tough Bible book! How are we meant to understand his question? Simply as a question, as the musing of a confused cynic who has observed the ways we sometimes treat one another. His question honestly reflects what he was wondering at the time. That’s all.

This is one of many examples where the biblical writers just tell it like they see it, without God correcting them. We have Cain murdering Abel not because that was supposed to happen, but because it did happen. We see great hero of the faith Abraham lying repeatedly not because he should have, but because that’s what happened. With Jesus and the Twelve disciples, we hear their ignorant arguments, we watch as James and John propose sending fire from heaven down on people they don’t like. We hear Peter unwittingly advocate for what would please Satan. All of this and more is included in the Bible to shine a brilliant light on our need for something different and better than ‘life under the sun,’ life played out according to the world’s often cruel ways.

We can get past cynicism. You don’t have to get stuck in it. Solomon hints at it as he concludes. The New Testament expands on what Solomon could barely begin to make out. Verse 22, Solomon concludes…

“So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?”

Ecclesiastes 3:22

Solomon doesn’t conclude, “We can figure all of this out.” He doesn’t conclude, “Life is about getting more stuff than your neighbor.” He doesn’t wrap up with, “Life stinks, so give up and give in. Let the rip tide sweep you out into the sea of cynicism.” Lastly, Solomon doesn’t conclude with, “The best thing you can do is check out, create a safe little spiritual bubble where you don’t have to feel the injustices that take place.”

Where he does hit the stop button is with a hint at the better way: figure out your work, and enjoy that.

Frederick Buechner put it this way:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness

and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Frederick Buechner

The New Testament adds….

“We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, 

which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Ephesians 2:10

Cynical Solomon stops with a question he can’t answer: What effect will my time here have? What will be my legacy? What will my work leave behind?

What kind of person do you want to become?

After our daughter took the SAT exam for the third time recently, when I picked her up I asked if she wanted to grab something for lunch. On the way, I asked her a question: While we’re talking about possible career paths, what kind of person do you want to become? What do you want to be known for?

For me, for example, the work I enjoy, and therefore what I hope is becoming my legacy, includes at least two things: teaching God’s Word clearly and engagingly, and loving people well. If that’s all I get to do, I’m good with that. I’m giving myself to that work.

How about you? If you are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, what are the good works you are uniquely designed to do? What’s a place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger…meets?

I want to give you two questions to help you unlock what your unique work is to do, to enjoy, and to leave a good legacy. Two questions. I suggest you write them down. Here are both of them:

  • What injustice has come my way?
  • How can that injustice be turned to advantage with the Lord?

Paul’s injustice turned to advantage

For Paul who wrote that we are God’s handiwork, the injustice was that he had been a violent persecutor of Christians. He took hold of who he had been, and used that as the very basis for his ministry. He’s the guy who could stand before fellow Jews who distrusted Christians and thought they were betraying the Jewish faith. Paul could stand before them and say, “I get it. I was where you are. I felt the same. But here’s what happened to me. Here’s what the Lord did in me.”

By identifying his injustice, Paul discovered the good works that God had prepared in advance for him to do. His injustice in the past is what enabled Paul to connect his gladness with the world’s deep hunger. He turned that injustice into advantage—and built a good legacy.

Joey & Sandy’s injustice turned to advantage

How about an example much closer to home? My long-time friend Sandy was in her sophomore year of college when she woke up completely blind, with bilateral detached retinas.

There’s someone who could have sunk into irreversible self-pity. She could have become a bitter cynic, concluding that God is distant and unconcerned.

Another friend is Joey. He and I had the same high school gym teacher, a Marine reservist who went on to become a Brigadier General. A fair number of young men from our school ended up in Vietnam, inspired by Mr. Reddin’s example. Joey’s experience didn’t go so well. He was walking point on a squad when he stopped, another soldier took point—and was shot. Six men were killed and another twenty wounded in that ambush.

Joey carries the weight of that horrible attack, with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It would be completely understandable if Joey, like Sandy, got swept out into a sea of endless cynicism.

But separately, Joey and Sandy came to faith in Jesus. They grew in understanding what the rest of the Bible reveals, including this revelation that God has good works planned in advance for each of us to walk out, ways that our injustices can be turned into advantages with the Lord, to bring deep gladness to the world’s deep hungers.

So here’s how that’s playing out in Joey and Sandy’s experience. Together they are husband and wife, They each have a guide dog—Sandy for navigating, Joey for PTSD. And together, they put on an annual motorcycle ride that raises funds to provide guide dogs for those who need them.

It costs $5,000 to sponsor a puppy all the way through to becoming a trained guide dog. It costs another $3,000 for room and board while clients come for in-person training in how to work with your guide dog.

But Guide Dogs of the Desert, who Joey and Sandy raise funds for, charges nothing to their clients. They bring their deep gladness to that deep need, whether it’s a child who was born blind, or a soldier like Joey who would benefit from a therapy dog, or a pastor Sandy got to know who was progressively losing sight.

Over the past several years, Joey and Sandy have raised funds that have provided guide dogs to a growing list of people. And they show no signs of stopping. They are building their legacy, through the good works they do. And those good works in turn come from identifying the injustices done to them, and then turning those injustices into advantage for others.

How about you? What might be the good works God has prepared in advance for you to walk out? What might be a place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger can meet? And for us as a church, what’s your prayerful sense of the good work the Lord has prepared in advance for us to do? What are we uniquely positioned to do, that will bring together our deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger, starting right where God has placed us?

Let’s take a moment right now to do what Solomon didn’t do in today’s unusual passage, and that is seek the Lord in a season of cynicism. Let’s pray.

Our Father in heaven, we believe that you have always seen the injustices taking place on earth. We hear your question to Cain, “Where is your brother?” We see the prophets warning against shutting our eyes and ears to the cries of the oppressed. But we wrestle. As Solomon did, we wrestle at times with cynicism, with denial, with discouragement. We wonder what can be done, and whether things will ever change.

But you haven’t left us to our animal-like ways. We thank and praise you for sending your Son. Lord Jesus, seize our attention, we pray. Open our eyes to see people as you do. Unstop our ears from any even unknowing deafness to people where we are called to good works prepared in advance for us to walk out.

Holy Spirit, grant us discernment, we ask, for what you are calling us as a church to do in this odd season, and give discernment for what you have designed each one of us to do. While we have your ear, we thank you for the privilege of being part of your broader movement in 70 nations alongside the Christian & Missionary Alliance. We join with our brothers and sisters in prayer today, from Mongolia to Bosnia, Suriname to Cambodia, Cote D’Ivoire to Indiana. Together we ask that Your kingdom will come, and Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. We ask you to bless us and keep us; make your face shine upon us and be gracious to us; turn your face toward us and give us peace. Hear our prayer and receive our heartfelt praise, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!

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God bless you this week and make you a blessing!