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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
 
Title:The Preacher issues a call to action in uncertain times
Text:Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 (View)
Occasion:New Years Eve
Topic:Our Calling
 
Preached:2008
Added:2013-12-23
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

NOTE:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 100

Hymn 1

Psalm 18:1-4

Psalm 62:1-4

Hymn 83

Scripture readings:  Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, 12:9-14

Text:  Ecclesiastes 11:1-6

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

Last year on this day we looked ahead to a new year and no one could say for sure what it would hold.   As always, we approached a new year with some uncertainty and there were many things that we couldn’t predict.  As our calendars are about to turn to another new year, this year gone by is a good reminder that there are so many things up in the air, so many things we don’t know about what will happen in the year ahead, so much uncertainty.  

Uncertainty is at the heart of this passage from Ecclesiastes that I’ve chosen as our text for tonight.  In Ecclesiastes we find this mysterious figure, the Teacher or the Preacher.  And in this passage, the Teacher says “you do not know” or “you do not understand” four times.  He shoves uncertainty in our faces and confronts us with the reality that we stand on shaky ground.  He knew a lot about uncertain times in his day and we continue to face the same reality.  In the face of that reality of uncertain times, he issues a call to action.  On this eve of a New Year, I preach God’s Word with that theme:

The Preacher issues a call to action in uncertain times.

We’ll consider:

  1.  The content this call includes
  2. The circumspection this call involves
  3. The changing of the times for which this call begs

This passage begins with words that don’t right away make sense.  What does it mean to “cast your bread upon the waters”?  Are we supposed to picture a man standing by the shore of the sea and throwing chunks of bread on to the water?  Why would someone do that?  And then what does it mean that “after many days you will find it again”?  Would you want to find bread that’s been out on the water for many days?  The imagery here is not self-evident to us, living over two thousand years later than the Teacher.

When we’re faced with difficult Scripture passages, our first step to understanding has to involve the context.  We need to look at the verse first of all in connection with the other verses that are closest to it.  As it turns out, chapter 10 deals with something completely different.  But not verse 2 of chapter 11.  This verse says, “Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.”  What the Teacher is saying is “Be charitable and generous to as many people as you can..”  Seven or eight simply means an indefinite number.  So, he’s saying “Get out there and help people, help as many as you can.” 

That explains what “Casting your bread upon the waters” means.  The image itself comes from the world of trade.  Grain ships would go out on the waters, sail to distant lands, sell their goods or maybe trade, and then return home with the income.  The income would partly be used to plant and grow more grain and the cycle would continue.  But the point of the image is that this action is not pointless or in vain.  Something results from it. 

That’s also the point of the second half of verse 2 where the Teacher says, “For you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.”  Here you find the first “you do not know,” the first instance of uncertainty in this passage.  You don’t know what’s coming, so be generous with your giving now.  And as you give generously, you can expect that should the need arise, you’ll also be taken care of.  Your bread will return to you. 

But the Teacher doesn’t only have benevolence in mind.  Later in this passage, in verse 6, he casts his net wider when he speaks about sowing seed in the morning and keeping busy with your hands even in the evening.  When he says this, he’s referring to action and labour in general.  He says, “Get out there and be busy with what you’ve been called to do, don’t be lazy, work hard.”  And the reason is that you have uncertainty as to what’s going to work and what isn’t.  So, the law of averages means that you should give everything you do a 110% effort. 

This call to action involves a significant dose of circumspection.  Circumspection means care and caution, carefully considering what’s going on around us.  Circumspection means thoughtfulness and what Jesus calls “counting the cost.”  The circumspection in our text begins with realizing that you don’t know when disaster may strike.  That’s in verse 2 and it forms the motivation for the call to benevolent action.

Circumspection continues in the next couple of verses.  The Teacher speaks about the clouds being full of water and then pouring out their rain on the earth.  He describes a tree falling and laying there.  These two images are connected with the end of verse 2.  Clouds and rain are often used as pictures of God’s judgment in the Bible.  God’s judgment coming upon the land is often portrayed as a storm of clouds, rain and wind.  The storm is what knocks down the trees and when God’s judgment knocks down, it means you’re down for the count.  So, being circumspect here means recognizing that God’s judgment can come at any time and you should be prepared for that.  In this context, being prepared means being busy with your calling and with acts of charity and kindness to your neighbour. 

Then there’s also verse 4 where the Teacher says that the one who watches the wind will not plant and the one who keeps his eye on the clouds will never reap.  You see, according to the Teacher, there is a good kind of circumspection and a bad.  The bad circumspection is one that observes the weather and refuses to take the leap of faith.  The bad circumspection is when you’re chained to the outward circumstances and can never break free, consumed by worry that this might go wrong and that might go wrong.  And so you never accomplish anything.   You could call it paralysis by analysis.   The good circumspection says, “Okay, it’s windy today, but who knows, it might be windier tomorrow.  Okay, it’s cloudy today, but it might be pouring buckets tomorrow or the day after.  Let’s do it today!”

Circumspection means realizing the limitations in your knowledge.  We find that in verse 5.  You don’t know the way of the wind – you can feel it, but its origin is a mystery.  The same holds true for the formation of a baby in its mothers’ womb.  And sure, with both the wind and the growth of a baby, our scientific knowledge has allowed us to say certain things today.  We can say that the wind is the result of air in a high pressure area moving to a lower pressure area.  We can say that a baby forms inside its mother through the process of cellular division.  We know more than what the Teacher did in his day, but do we really know all the details of either wind or babies?  There are mysteries that remain.  So, what the Teacher says here is true, “You cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.”  Because we are creatures and God is the Creator, there will always be things beyond our comprehension.      

Last of all, we see circumspection in verse 6 when the Teacher says, “You do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.”  Here too, there are limitations.  You can’t know for sure the outcome of something before it takes place. 

Now to put this all together for today, we need to consider more carefully who the Teacher was, what he was writing and the times in which he was writing.  As I mentioned, the Teacher was a mysterious figure, we don’t really know who he was.  Some say that he was Solomon, but there is evidence in the book itself to suggest that the author is only evoking the memory of Solomon, his wisdom, and his lifestyle.  In fact, the book of Ecclesiastes doesn’t have just one voice.  There are in fact two voices.  I think there was one author, but the one author used two voices to accomplish his purposes, to communicate his message.  The one voice is the voice of the believer and we hear him at the beginning of the book and especially at the end of the book, in chapter 12, verses 9-14.  The other voice is the voice of the Teacher, and he’s the main speaker in this book, also the one who speaks the words of our text.  The Teacher is like the friends of Job – sometimes he speaks truth and gets it right, and at other moments, he gets things dreadfully wrong.  Still at other times, what he says is truth and error mixed together. 

You might be asking, how do we know which is which?  Well, that’s where we go back to comparing Scripture with Scripture.  And we’ll do that in a moment.  But before we can do that, we also need to remember the times in which Ecclesiastes was written.  Ecclesiastes comes from a time in which prophecy had fallen silent in Israel.  The people had experienced God’s judgment in the exile.  While many had returned to the Promised Land and the temple was rebuilt, there was still the open question of what would happen with God’s promises.  God had been promising salvation for hundreds of years, and hardly anything had ever come of it, and certainly not the Messiah.           

This text therefore takes a cynical stance about the world and the times and uses that cynical stance as a motivation to action.  The cynicism expressed here emerges from the Teacher’s perspective of life in this world, life “under the sun” as he puts  it.  Life under the sun is meaningless, empty, vain, directionless, purposeless.  Life under the sun is life lived apart from God.  Life under the sun is life in unbelief.  The writer of Ecclesiastes wants believers to see the ultimate emptiness of life under the sun and the ultimate meaningfulness of life lived before the face of God, a life lived with faith in God and in his promises.

With that perspective in mind, we need to re-examine the Teacher’s words here in chapter 11.  In the first place, we need to see that there is a cry here for a new era, an era in which God’s promises are being fulfilled, in which there is certainty that God is faithful.  The uncertainty that’s found here is a reality that people in the Old Testament struggled with, and their struggle meant calling out for a new day to dawn.  That cry was heard and answered with the first coming of Jesus Christ into this world.  Christmas was the time which changed everything, which totally negates and answers the cynicism expressed here.  After Christmas, God’s people can say, “God came through.  We can be certain and we can trust his promises, we can trust his character, we can depend on his love for us.”

For us today, there are still uncertainties – we don’t know all the details of what this new year will hold.  But we do have something that the Teacher in Ecclesiastes didn’t have:  we have the absolute certainty that God is our Father through Jesus Christ and he will never leave us, fail us or forsake us.  Whatever happens in this new year, we can be confident of God’s love for us.  He has proven faithful in the past, and he will continue to prove faithful in the future.  And someday, we can be sure that all uncertainties will disappear.  When Jesus Christ returns again, uncertainty will disappear from our vocabularies.  There will be no uncertainty in the new heavens and new earth – everything will be dependable and certain.  And so in a way, this passage also directs us to think not only of the year ahead, but also of the glorious Day of the Lord – the age to come.  We’re lead here to call out for that time, a time in which no disaster will come upon the land, a time in which there will be no more expressions of God’s judgment on his people.  Chastisement, the Lord’s discipline, will have no place in the age to come, because in the age to come sin will be extinct. 

So, where does that leave the call to action in our text?  Since it comes from this cynical perspective, can we ignore it?  Here again is where we have to compare Scripture with Scripture.  Does God’s Word command us to do good?  Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” – and we could mention more such passages.  Does God’s Word command us to be faithful in our labours and to put aside laziness?  2 Thessalonians 3:10-13 is clear, “’If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’  We hear that some among you are idle.  They are not busy; they are busybodies.  Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.  And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.”  And again there many other such passages. 

God’s law is clear for us:  he wants us to do good to our neighbours, to all that cross our path.  He wants us to do that constantly and faithfully.  He also wants us to work hard in our respective callings, whatever those might be.  The demand of the law is clear and it’s also expressed in Ecclesiastes 11:1-6. 

As we consider the demand of the law, we need to also consider its fulfillment.  Here we can’t look at ourselves.  Of ourselves, we’re all law-breakers.  In ourselves, we have failed in doing good constantly and faithfully.  Narcissism, being obsessively self-centered, narcissism is the spirit of the age and it also contaminates our lives.  In and of ourselves, we have failed in working hard in all our respective callings – not just work, but also in family and in our church and school and societal commitments.  I don’t care how good your work ethic is, no one can come to the front of the church here this evening and honestly tell the rest of us that he or she has been perfectly faithful to God’s law on this point.

Loved ones, let that fact lead you again to Jesus Christ.  He is the one who perfectly feared God and kept his commandments.  Jesus is the one who has performed the whole duty of man, including continuous kindness to his neighbour and an endless stream of good works.  The Lord Jesus never failed in doing good, never had a moment when he was not faithful to his calling.   And with him God brought our every deed into judgment, a judgment that was poured out on him in his suffering and death.  Here’s the good news for New Year’s Eve:  we have failed in everything, but Jesus Christ has succeeded in everything and he has done it for us and in our place.  Brothers and sisters, fix your eyes on him again and trust his perfect obedience and suffering for you. 

As we do that, the Teacher’s exhortations here take on a new meaning.  Even though we continue to live with a degree of uncertainty ourselves, we don’t need the Teacher’s uncertainty to motivate us to doing good to our neighbour and to work faithfully in our callings.  Rather, it’s the certainty of the gospel that powers and motivates our Christian lifestyle, including how we show mercy and how we work. 

The gospel tells us that we are united to Christ through faith and through the Holy Spirit.  Our union with Christ means that we live in Christ.  This is a process of growth, it’s not something that happens instantaneously.  As we grow in years, as all of us will do this year, the idea is that we also grow in Christ.  Our lives more and more portray his life.  So, as Christians we read Ecclesiastes 11 from that perspective as well.  Christ was the one who never failed in doing good – through his grace and through the Word and Spirit working in my life, I am going to grow in this new year in doing good for my neighbour.  Christ was one who never had a moment where he was not faithful to his calling – through him, I am going to grow in this new year in being faithful to everything to which God calls me.  In Christ, I will cast my bread upon the waters.  In Christ, I will give portions to seven, even to eight.  In Christ, I will sow my seed in the morning and at evening I will not let my hands my idle.  Not because I am uncertain of the outcome, but because I know who my Redeemer is!  I know that God’s promises are all “yes” and “Amen” in him.  Because we know the gospel and we’re circumspect about that, we can also be circumspect and careful in the way we conduct ourselves in this life. 

And we can also know that God, in his grace, will crown our efforts with his blessing.  Yes, there is a blessing that comes from living out of our union with Christ.  God graciously promises to reward the good works that believers do.  Of course, that has nothing to do with the foundation or the roots of our salvation, but it is a reality nonetheless.  It can only be a reality for those who already clinging to Jesus Christ and his perfect obedience and suffering as the only basis for their salvation and standing before God.

So, loved ones, a new year is almost upon us.  As we look ahead to this new year, resolve to let it be a year in which you will grow in fixing your eyes on Christ.  Resolve to let it be a year in which your faith grows and also grows in bearing fruit, the fruit of doing good for your neighbour, the fruit of working hard as you live life before God’s face and for his glory.  AMEN. 

Prayer:

Eternal Father,

We thank you for your faithfulness and love to us in this year gone by.  Through every day of _____, you have carried us and sustained us.  Not a moment of _____ passed by where you were not there for us as our loving and almighty Father.  Lord God, we pray for your indispensable blessing on this new year that is just about upon us.  Whatever this year may hold, we pray for you to help us to grow in faith in our Lord Jesus, trusting in the gospel of our salvation, trusting in your grace.  We thank you for his perfect obedience and his satisfaction, we thank you that he took our curse on himself and that we are recipients of all his merits.  Help us to live out of our union with Christ.  Please give us more grace so that we do not grow weary in doing good, but always look for and take opportunities to do good to those around us.  Please help us also to be diligent in the callings you have given us, whether in our work, in our families, in the church or in the school community.  We seek your blessing upon us in _____.  Please bless our homes, our families, our church, our community and our nation.  Father, we pray that you would lead us and guide us.  And we also look to you and call out for the age to come.  We pray that our Lord Jesus would come quickly with the clouds of heaven and your holy angels.  Father, thank you for your care for us in _____ and please bless us again in _____. 

Father, we pray for your blessing and protection this evening as we celebrate the arrival of a new year.  We ask that you would surround us with your angels and watch over us. 

We pray this all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  AMEN.              

       




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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