Ecclesiastes, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21
The fruit in the store right now is excellent, isn’t it? All the raspberries and blueberries and cherries? My dad really likes Black Forest Cherry Cake, and so I try to make him one for his birthday every February, but it’s really hard to find cherries in February. So I was thinking that this year I would get some and freeze them, and I imagine my family, come February, sitting down and really enjoying this beautiful cake with these wonderful cherries, the wonderful taste of summer when the winter is surrounding us. And of course, as I am thinking about this, I hear the gospel in my head, and Jesus saying, “You fool, says God, This very night your life is being demanded of you!” Ouch! And if that isn’t enough, we then have our first reading for today, from Ecclesiastes, saying, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher. All is vanity.” Isn’t that a thing to say? That it’s foolish and vanity for me to think about freezing the cherries to be enjoyed later, just as the rich man in Jesus’ parable saved up his grain for a later date? That no matter how you spend your life, no matter what you do so that at the end of your life you can look back with happiness, “All the deeds that are done under the sun ... is vanity and a chasing after wind.” I’m thinking about only a few months from now, but the writer of Ecclesiastes, and Jesus, are thinking about our entire lives. Whether our deeds done under the sun include a lifetime of working for career success, or the intense sacrifice made to raising a good family, or the daily work of being a good Christian, all is vanity. None of it will make us happy when the time comes. All is vanity. It’s quite a kick, isn’t it?
It gets us, though, because it’s true. As the writer of Ecclesiastes notes, whom many have thought was King Solomon, no matter how hard we work at life, no matter what wisdom we might acquire in our lifetime, no matter what good we might do, our achievements don’t grant us enduring happiness. King Solomon knew that his great monuments and achievements would be taken over by someone else. His legacy would be passed on to the next generation, who might cherish it, but then again, might just as equally not. And we know this to be true. The values that we hold so dear in our lives, that we worked so hard and sacrificed to uphold, aren’t always as dear to the next generation. Indeed, the values that we ourselves hold weren’t necessarily the values that our grandparents held. Anyone who has ever had to go through boxes of papers after a parent or grandparent has died can tell you––what one generation treasured is often meaningless to the next. Vanity. And knowing this, it is true that looking back on a lifetime spent building up something in the hopes that it would bring us happiness at the end of our life, and then seeing that it is valued only by ourselves and no one else, well, our happiness disappears. Vanity. Even Jesus’ portrayal of God in the Gospel reading for today tells us that God thinks it is vanity as well. The rich man builds a barn to hold the extra grain for the future––akin to putting money away in a pension or RRSP, or putting energy into creating a legacy for future generations––and God calls him a fool. There is nothing we can do today that will guarantee our happiness in the future.
The reason it doesn’t guarantee happiness in the future is because there is nothing we can do to guarantee happiness at all. The writer of Ecclesiastes says, in the parts that we didn’t read this morning, that there is no difference between being righteous and wicked. He sees that “righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous,” and this, too, he calls vanity––meaninglessness. And we might rightly say that the writer of Ecclesiastes sounds very cynical. But, at the same time, we might also say that he is right. We do all die in the end, regardless of whether we have worked hard or been lazy, tried to be wise or made bad decisions our whole life, regardless of whether we have gone to church every Sunday or stayed at home, we all die. And before we die, whether we are righteous or wicked makes no difference to the events that occur in our lives. Solomon saw, and we see too: the wicked are successful, they are loved, they are well-fed and rested. And the righteous encounter hardship and suffering in life. Working hard, being wise, going to church - these things don’t stop tragedy from entering our lives. They don’t stop cancer or chronic pain, they don’t stop heartbreak or broken relationships, they don’t stop mental illness or even addiction, they don’t stop devastating car crashes or fires. The truth of the world seems to be that many things in our life are, from our perspective, completely random. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to them. We can try our best to live right, but we have very limited control over the circumstances in our lives, and so we have no way to arrange things to make us happy either today or when we die.
So how do we live, then? How do we live each day with meaning, when the events of our lives are random and we don’t know if they will get better or worse? How do we carry on knowing that everything is vanity and yet refusing to give in to despair or live lives of complete hedonism and self-centredeness? And how do we worship and thank God in the midst of it?
It’s interesting that our assigned reading from Ecclesiastes stops where it does. I have no idea why it ends at verse 23 and doesn’t continue to verse 24. Because verse 24 is important. It is so important that the writer of Ecclesiastes repeats it four times in the whole book. After listing all the things that are vanity, by saying that there is nothing on earth that we can do to bring ourselves happiness, he says, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from God who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” In the next chapter, he says, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live, moreover it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” And again, later, “This is what I have seen to be good; it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot.”
When it comes to the question of what gives us happiness in life, a deep contentment that comforts us when we are dying, Ecclesiastes gives us the answer. God gives us happiness. First, God gives us the basic elements of survival. God gives, to all of God’s creatures, what we need for eating and drinking. God gives us our daily bread. Which, as Luther points out in the Small Catechism, really means that God gives us everything. God gives us food, and good weather to grow the food, and an orderly government to ensure the food gets to us, and peace so that the roads aren’t disrupted with war, and neighbours to make the bread. We don’t make good weather, we don’t cause the sun to shine or the rain to fall. When it comes down to it, we can’t even provide the basic necessities of our own life. Only God does that. God gives us what we need for eating and drinking as a pure gift. To be enjoyed. To be happy over.
And then God gives us the day to enjoy it. Luther himself commented that the point of the book of Ecclesiastes is to give us peace about today, without worrying about tomorrow. God opens our eyes in the morning not so that we will be faced with yet another dreary day, but so that we can revel in the joy of Creation. The Rocky Mountains, the vast prairie, the life-sustaining Bow river. Have you noticed the smell of clover everywhere this summer? God wakes us up and gives us the day simply so that we can enjoy it and go to sleep at night having had these moments of pure happiness. We didn’t put these things in the world––we couldn’t recreate them if we tried. They are God’s gift, and God gives us every today so that we might drink them in.
Now, God has a particular trick in play. One that ensures that we will find happiness in life, even though we are incapable of creating it ourselves. What is hard about the book of Ecclesiastes, and about life in general, is that we know that our happiness does not come from ourselves. Not from what we do, or how we think, or how we live. The richest person in the world experiences misery, and the poorest is somehow happy. But what is wonderful about the book of Ecclesiastes, and about life in general, is that our happiness is a gift from God. God gives us this: happiness, enjoyment, pleasure. And God gives it to us to be experienced now. We often have this idea that true happiness is only something to be enjoyed in the afterlife; that somehow if we are happy today we need to temper it, keep it down because this world is a vale of tears. But that is not the case. God gives us happiness today. Luther is very clear in his commentary on this book, “In this way, [the Christian] has joy in his toil here, and here in the midst of evils he enters into paradise.” We can’t work our way into happiness, we can’t worry our way into happiness, we can’t “righteous” our way into happiness. Happiness, that deep sense of contentment and joy, is a gift from God.
Which means two things. First, we are to stop worrying. Worrying is about the future. When we worry, or fret, or get anxious about something, we are replacing the goodness of today––God’s gift to us––with our own doubts about the future. Our worrying becomes our idol. When we are worried, end up living in all those ways Paul condemns in his letter to the Colossians for today. When we are worried we give in to fear, and we end up angry, full of wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. But there is no need to behave in these ways because there is no need to worry. Luther said, in his explanation of the First Commandment, that “we are to fear, love, and trust only God.” When we worry, we are fearing that which is not God, and we are trusting only ourselves to fix it. So, do not worry. Let it go. God has already given you what you need for today.
The second thing is that instead of worrying, we can pray. Not that God will make things better for us, so that we can finally be happy. That is a prayer that tries to tell God what to do, a prayer that tries to take control of our lives. No. We pray that God will help us to be happy with the things we have already been given. (Now I understand that this can be a problem when we are living in situations of deep injustice, but that’s a problem for a different sermon.) We pray that God will give us a spirit of thankfulness, so that our eyes and our hearts might be open to the goodness that God gives us today. To the daily bread that God gives us––food, a house, clothes, good weather, good government, peace, friends, neighbours, good clergy, trustworthy police officers. We pray that God will make us aware in every moment of every day of the wonderful gifts we have been given, and that God will give us the happiness to enjoy it in that moment. And we thank God for doing so even before we have asked.
Now, it may very well be true that tonight my life is going to be demanded of me, and I might respond that Jesus never had a Black Forest Cherry Cake in the middle of February, but he is right. The writer of Ecclesiastes is right. We never know what tomorrow will bring. We never know whether we will be around to enjoy happiness in the future. So God gives us today to be happy. I will still freeze those cherries, but I will do so being happy that I have them today. Being grateful that God gives us such things as cherries and fruit, taking joy in them today. And when I lie on my deathbed, it is the memory of being happy over what God has given me this day, not over possible future happiness, that will make my life worthwhile.
When we are lying on our deathbeds, as we all will, pondering over our lives, it will be the deep gratefulness for the ordinary moments that comfort us the most, moments that God has given us in order to gift us with great happiness. The moment the sun shines through the clouds. The moment a baby lifts up his voice. The moment we catch a sweet smell on the air. The moment a friend’s hand rests in ours. This moment. These are moments of life. Of God’s life. These moments are God’s gifts to us, to be enjoyed and cherished and treasured until the end. Thanks be to God. Amen.