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Taking in the long view

We taped this message from the water’s edge at Otter Cove in Acadia National Park. You can see for miles from this place, as the Atlantic Ocean facing East stretches more than three thousand miles before you reach the shore of Bordeaux in the South of France.

With this kind of long-view vista before you, I want to go after the biggest question possible as we near the end of our series through the book of Ecclesiastes—and that is: Who is God? And what does it matter? What does this unusual Bible book reveal about who God is, and the difference that is intended to make? At a time when Christians are deeply divided, and those who don’t share our faith are shaking their heads at that, there are timeless truths in this 3,000 year-old book that cut through the noise to what matters most, and what should unite us. Let’s get right to it.

Ecclesiastes opens us up to three revelations. I strongly recommend you jot these down. When you find yourself chewed up inside—and who hasn’t recently—the Holy Spirit who led Solomon in writing gives us three timeless truths that can talk you off the ledge and bring hope. Here’s the first:

Timeless truths that bring hope

  • Believing that God is sovereign allows us to be okay with mystery.

This cannot be overstated. Almost 300 times from the Bible’s beginning to end, you find believers calling on God by this title: “Sovereign LORD.”

From Abraham in Genesis chapter 15 calling on God as Sovereign Lord in the midst of his uncertainties about family and future, to the souls of those who lost their lives due to faithfulness to Jesus crying out to the Sovereign Lord for justice from beneath God’s altar in Revelation chapter 6, the believer’s hope has always been anchored to God being sovereign. He is Ruler over all. Nothing escapes his notice. No one ultimately escapes his justice.

That doesn’t mean we get to understand everything. The Bible’s storyline unfolds in the form of what theologians call progressive revelation. Starting in Genesis and then proceeding toward the book of Revelation, it is a slow pulling back of the curtain on who God is, how he feels about us, what he has done for us, and what he beckons us to. It’s a long and complex revelation. And it is filled with mysteries, things that only God knows.

Every faith hero walked by faith, not sight

Contemporary American evangelical Christianity prides itself in imagining we know better than all who have come before us, and we have answers and opinions on everything. That’s not what God has given us in the Scriptures. And it’s not how a single hero of the faith ever lived. They walked by faith and not by sight.

Abraham, the greatest patriarch in Judaism, walked by faith for decades, not  seeing what God had promised him. He lived with mystery. And for that God commended him.

Moses led God’s people one day at a time that stretched into forty years, not knowing but trusting when and where the journey would reach its aim. He learned to live with mystery—and was called God’s friend.

The Old Testament prophets, 1 Peter chapter one says, “searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.” Even those Spirit-led prophets wanted names and dates and places and answers just like us today. But they learned to live with mystery, to walk by faith.

Peter adds in 1 Peter 1:12, “Even angels long to look into these things.” Ever think about that? Angels live with mystery, not everything answered. They’re okay with mystery, because they trust that God is sovereign.

Even Jesus is okay with mystery. When his followers wanted to know when the end will come, here was Jesus’ bottom-line, summary statement:

“About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Mark 13:32

Jesus had questions that remain unanswered. And he’s okay with that. Because he trusts God the Father as sovereign.

This is what Ecclesiastes reveals as well. A thousand years before Jesus, Solomon writes…

“God has made everything beautiful in its time. God has also set eternity in the hearts of men. Yet they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning to the end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11

God has planted eternity in the human heart, but we cannot figure out everything we want an answer for.  Wise old Solomon believed that God is sovereign and therefore was able to live with mystery. God wants the same for you and me.

The more liturgical traditions like Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are much more comfortable with mystery than American evangelical Christians tend to be. We tend to be the answer-for-everything people. We do well to take a note from Solomon, from Abraham, from Moses, from the prophets, from Peter, from angels, and certainly from Jesus, that because God is sovereign, we can trust him with the things that remain mystery to us.

So there’s the first great revelation from Ecclesiastes about who God is: he is sovereign—and that frees us up to embrace mystery, to be okay with things that are above our pay grade.

Here’s the second great revelation from Ecclesiastes about who God is and why it matters:

  • Trusting that God is good allows us to live enjoyably.

If God was sovereign but not good, we would all be in a heap of trouble. But praise God, the One who has authority over all, uses that authority only for good. So enjoy what today brings! Jesus said he came so that we might have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10). I don’t know any other way to understand that except God who gave us life wants us to enjoy life.

There’s happiness to be tasted today

We talked about this a couple of weeks back, from what’s called the enjoyment passages of Ecclesiastes, that even in the midst of pressures and frustrations, it’s good to look for the things to enjoy along the way: a delicious breakfast, a hot cup of coffee, the satisfaction of a good day’s work. These are gifts from God who is good. Theologians call them “common graces.” Singer-songwriter Bob Bennett calls them “small graces,” the little bright spots along the way that for those who are looking, allow us to enjoy each day.

The New Testament reinforces what Solomon urges. Writing to his young protégé Timothy, Paul speaks of…

“God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment…”

1 Timothy 6:17

Do you think of God that way—that he richly provides everything for our enjoyment? Sure, there are prosperity preachers who erroneously overemphasize money. They’re out to lunch and they cause people to lose their faith when God doesn’t come through to their misled expectations. But Solomon and Paul and so many other Scriptures push us to trust that God is good and enjoy today. Milk the happiness to be found in each day!

Thank God for your job. Enjoy the comforts that your income makes possible! Haddon Robinson urges, “Don’t let those clouds of questions so fill your sky that they blot out the good things that God is giving you day by day to make your life enjoyable. Enter into them; enjoy them. God gives you food for your table. As he does, don’t gulp it down; enjoy it…Enjoy the gifts of God. Enjoy sex with the spouse that God has given you. Enter into it. Live it to the hilt…If it comes to you from the hand of a good God, enter into it with thanksgiving and enjoy it. Seize the day.”

God is sovereign: that enables us to be okay with mystery.

God is good: that allows us to live enjoyably, milking each day for its joys, whether great or small.

And finally from Ecclesiastes, the third revelation of who God is and why it matters is that…

  • Knowing that God is just allows us to live purposefully.

Here’s how Solomon crosses the finish line in his personal diary:

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

“Here’s the whole thing summed up,” Solomon says, the bottom-line revelation about who God is and why it matters: revere God and obey his commandments. This is what he expects of all human beings. God will judge everything people do. He’ll bring everything we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether good or evil.

That revelation is meant to motivate us to live purposefully. Even while we wrestle with the evil that others get away with—that’s a recurring theme in Ecclesiastes—our calling is to do right, to speak and act with reverence for God and his commands, understanding that in the end justice will have the final word—because there is a Judge overall. We know that from the revelation of Scripture. And this is something Jesus was unmistakably clear on.

Parables about living with purpose

In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus tells three parables back to back: the parable about ten members of a bridal party staying ready for a wedding that will begin immanently; then a parable about making the most of all that’s entrusted to you; and finally a parable about treating people as Jesus did—with mercy and kindness.

All three parables are about living responsibly in light of God being just—that a day of judgment is coming. Jesus takes what the Holy Spirit put in Solomon’s heart a thousand years earlier, and expands on it as only he can, because of who he is: He is the Judge.

And thank God that our Judge…is our Savior. To follow Jesus in our day means we live in light of judgment day, alert and ready, not adrift or complacent. It means we make the most of what comes to us each day. And it means we become a people marked by supernatural kindness and mercy in a world that oh so often is callous and critical.

If you drifted off, here’s the place to come back: humanity’s Judge also being our Savior must reset the tone of how we treat one another—including enemies. Don’t miss this powerful story that bridges 134 years.

Putting our God-given purpose into practice

I went to grad school in Columbia, South Carolina. The Confederate battle flag was still flying over the state capitol building. Bronze stars still proudly mark the locations where Union cannonballs struck the stone exterior of that state-building. I couldn’t make sense of it.

But something happened a few years later that showed a shift beginning to take place, one that is still evolving. You see, just two years after the Civil War, in February of 1865, with much of Columbia still in ruins, a devastating fire broke out and devoured another 36 blocks, a third of the city. Columbia had lost most of its firefighting equipment during the war, and so all they had to fight that blaze was bucket brigades, handing one small bucket at a time from volunteer to volunteer in a desperate attempt to stop the damage.

When news of that tragedy reached New York City firemen, many of them former Union soldiers, they raised $5,000 in a month—mostly in pennies—and put a hose-reel wagon on a steamship bound for Columbia.

The ship sank before it could reach South Carolina. So NYC’s firefighters raised the funds again and sent a second hose-reel wagon by June.

The former Confederate Colonel Samuel Melton was so overwhelmed by that kindness that he made a promise on behalf of South Carolina’s capital city to return the kindness “should misfortune ever befall the Empire City.”

We all know the next great tragedy that befell NYC: the terrorist attacks of 9/11. After that national heartbreak, White Knoll Elementary School principal Nancy Turner and her teachers, in Columbia, South Carolina, were trying to find a purposeful way their students could respond to the attacks. No one liked the idea of simply sending money to an impersonal national fund. So they decided to collect money to buy the people of NYC a fire truck.

Then while researching the cost and what type of truck to buy, principal Turner stumbled across the story of New York City’s long-ago gift to their former enemies. Columbia’s city leaders and the state’s governor, Jim Hodges, joined in and named their effort to bless New Yorkers “South Carolina Remembers.” After 134 years, the opportunity presented itself to remember and move with purpose. The children and families of Columbia in the heart of America’s south took it on themselves to honor that pledge. They collected pennies at football games, held bake sales, and sold T-shirts in a drive to raise the $350,000 needed to replace one of the dozens of New York City firetrucks destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.

And donations poured in. One donor wrote: “When I was growing up in Columbia, Mama always said you need to return a kindness. I know she’d be as glad as I am to be part of this wonderful thank-you gesture.”

In notes to the students, donors told personal stories connecting them with loved ones who died on 9/11, to firefighters, and in one case, to Confederate soldiers. One of the most unforgettable donations came from Russell Siller of Rockville Centre on Long Island just outside New York City. Siller’s brother Stephen was part of the elite firefighter force Squad 1 who died that terrible day.

Siller wrote: “At a time like this, when the whole nation is still mourning its loss, what a powerful and poetic message your efforts send to all of us. I am proud that New York’s bravest sent you a fire truck in your city’s time of need. … To think that you would honor a pledge made so many years ago! The new fire truck will become a symbol for your love for your country, and for New York’s bravest.”

“A Kindness Returned-134 Years Later,” Building Adult Ministries (3-31-08); taken from an Associated Press story by Page Ivey

Friends, let’s take a page from the most painful time in our nation’s history so far—and that purposeful blessing that former enemy Northerners gave to Southerners…and how 134 years later, former enemy Southerners brought purposeful blessing to Northerners.

This is what your family needs. This is what your coworkers and neighbors need. This is what people around the world need—to see Christ-followers who act Abnormally, purposefully doing what Jesus has done for us—forgiving radically; demonstrating radical patience and forbearance. And doing so with full awareness that judgment is coming—but praise God, humanity’s Judge…is also our Savior. And He is Who we want to faithfully represent in our dealings with one another, in all we do.

This is who Ecclesiastes reveals God to be. And this is why it matters:

  • God is sovereign—so we can be okay with mystery. In a long season marked by more uncertainty than we’re used to, we can still entrust ourselves to the Sovereign Lord.
  • God is good—so we’re free to live enjoyably, milking each day for its joys even in a time that has strong challenges.
  • And God is just—prompting us to live purposefully. We will live these days in light of eternity, not just the moment.

That is the revelation, friends, given to us in Ecclesiastes, and then greatly expanded in Jesus and the New Testament—the revelation that in the midst of anything, we can trust God who is sovereign, good, and just. Let’s talk to him right now.

Our Father in heaven, thank you for taking Solomon on such a journey, over so many decades. Thank you for blessing him with wisdom sufficient to plumb deep questions. Thank you for revealing progressively who you are and why it matters. We thank you for the fullness of your revelation in Jesus. We ask you to fix our gaze on him. Make us truly Christ-followers—like him in how we see and treat others. Make us alert, we pray, to milk each day of its happiness, as we seek to live purposefully with you. Hear our prayer, we ask, as we come to you through the mighty name of Jesus. Amen!