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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:A Sober Dark Cloud to Every Light
Text:Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

Psalter 255 - Adoration and Submission
TH 244 - He Was Wounded for Our Transgressions
Psalter 163 - Satisfaction in God
TH 128 - God Moves in a Mysterious Way

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

A few weeks ago, we considered the topic - a light to every sober dark cloud. We learned in bad times, we can still give thanks for things. And some of us are eternal optimists. We’ve learned the art of reframing. When the little child scuffs his knee, we say, “it’s okay, you’ll have a battle scar.” When the prata is burned, we say, “it’s okay, prata is nice crunchy.” When someone fails, we say, “it’s okay, you can only improve from here.”

But sometimes we’re unrealistic. We create false hope and light. “God will heal you from your total organ failure!” “If I keep on playing, I’ll win the lottery and repay my debts.” “If I wait for her, she’ll leave her boyfriend.” A lot has been said about Millennials. In the midst of a bad economy, rising costs, expensive education, fewer opportunities, yet many reject job offers because we want jobs with better hours, better bosses, better money. Yet we still drink bubble tea, take Grab rides, eat out. We dream that our Youtube or TikTok videos can be monetized.

This is why we need to consider the dark clouds in our lives; to grow in sobriety. To admit they’re there and to deal with them. And that’t tough. While we all like to see a silver linings, we also need to be realistic. Where it’s day for others in the world, we have our hours of darkness. Failure to understand how dark life can be under the sun, fails to prepare us for disappointment. 

In chapters 1-6, Solomon has given his thesis. Life is frustrating. You can’t change it. Then you die. Don’t hope in family, work, health, and wealth. And the constant advice he gave was this - although life is messy and dark, enjoy the silver linings - the small joyful things.

Chapter 7 onwards repeats these things but offers more practical situational advice. Starting here, he gives 3 pieces of advice on how to go through times of suffering and difficulty. He switches to a Proverbs-like tone. And these sayings seem to be thrown together randomly, like the book of Proverbs. So the way to interpret is not linearly - verse by verse - but by cluster of ideas.

And we see the 3 pieces of advice - firstly, we need to be honest about our suffering. Secondly, we need to behave in our times of suffering. Thirdly, we need to know how to suffer well.

Firstly, we need to be honest about our suffering. Many deny their problems - like the ostrich with its head in the ground. If I don’t see it, it’s not there. It’ll go away. But we need to be honest. Problems won’t go away if we ignore them. Only when we come to terms with them, can we uplifted. Verse 3 says, “for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.” Be honest when we encounter sadness and trials, then our hearts are made better, or another way to translate it - sadness amends the heart How do you penetrate a thick skull or a hard heart? By acknowledging the dark clouds. “I don’t have family problems. Things are fine. I have no issues.” Then disaster. But if you acknowledge - “yes, things are not fine; there are issues with work, family, friends, my spiritual life” - then you can amend things for the better.

But we aren’t always honest with suffering. We forget the past. Verse 10 says, “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.” In other words, don’t long for “the good old days.” It’s unwise. Some older folks long for the past “In my day, things were different. Things were better! Why we could leave our doors unlocked. There were better morals.” But things weren’t better. There were bad times - race riots, gangs, the Asian Financial Crisis, Gulf War, HIV and AIDS. Things weren’t better. This is why getting trapped in the glory of former days is foolish. Your present problems may be a result of past problems unsolved, or past patterns of life unchanged. 

But we also downplay present problems. How? There are unpleasant things like death. It happens. Verse 2 speaks about the house of mourning - the funeral home. Verse 3 says that there’s sorrow. And verse 4 says that there’s wisdom in mourning. And these are given as contrasts. It’s better to go to a funeral than to a party. Sorrow is better than laughter. Mourning is better than the foolishness of partying. Why does Solomon say this? It’s because by nature we think otherwise. We prefer parties not funerals. We’d rather avoid mourning, bad feelings. When there are problems in our lives, we don’t face them head on. There are many forms of escapism - some sleep it off, others run it off, some drink and eat it off, and others escape their problems through entertainment and partying.

And one way we deny terrible things today is by changing the nature of funerals! Instead of a funeral, people want celebrations of life - like it’s wrong to grieve a loved one. It’s an epidemic! You may have even envisioned your own funerals - bright clothes, balloons, no crying. According to a funeral director I know, 20-30% of his funerals are like that now. Some people envision their weddings; some envision their funerals. But sadness at funerals is not a bad thing. It’s an acceptable and natural thing.

Yes, when believers die, we celebrate because they’re in heaven. But let’s not deny the present loss and grief. When we remember that death is still an enemy, we look forward to Christ’s coming. But until he comes again, death has not been finally defeated. That’s why we’re sad when our loved ones die. We miss them. And while we shouldn’t be trapped by sadness, we don’t run from it. It’s good for children to attend funerals. The house of mourning is better than the house of feasting. It’s reality. It’s honesty. Better to be a funeral director than a wedding planner. Better to confront problems honestly instead of masking them.

We’re not honest with problems in the past, the present, but we’re also not sober when it comes to future problems. We’re optimistic to a fault about what will happen. We’re living in the midst of a terrible pandemic. But what happened when restrictions eased and vaccinated travel was allowed? Yes, I too, went to look at the SQ website. We make plans, we have goals, but we forget that we can’t fix what is broken. Verse 13 - “Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?” What God has made crooked - that’s in the perfect tense - it happened in the past; we will not be able to make straight - future tense. Things are already crooked. But we think we can fix them in time. Dearly beloved, the fall has happened. Until Christ returns, the world will continue in this fallen state. And while we seek improvement and justice, it doesn’t mean it will happen. 

To be clear - we shouldn’t sit back and do nothing. We’re not Doris Day singing Que Sera, Sera. No, we work for change. But there’s no guarantee. And for many broken things, there’s no fix. We battle a life-threatening disease, but one day we will still die. We labor to see peace and purity in church, but until Christ comes, there will be imperfection. Can we come to terms with this brokenness? Fathers, have we helped our children to come to terms with brokenness? Children, can you handle disappointment? You break your toys, you feel sad - but children, toys will be broken one day anyway. Dearly beloved, we adults are still like children - many can’t handle disappointments. Are we honest about the past, the present, and the future? That there are difficult things in our lives? Things that cause suffering? 

And if we’re honest about suffering, then perhaps we’ll have the grace to live through it. That’s the second point - we need to behave in our times of suffering. Now, as we look at these 14 verses, there are many different sayings. They seem to be unrelated - all except that they are connected by the theme of suffering. But from the verses, we’re taught how to deal with sufferings in life. Now, I’ve used the word “behave” on purpose. We tell children to behave. But here, God is telling us how to behave when we face life’s challenges.

In times of suffering, remember to be godly. There will be many things in life that will test you. As verse 7 says, “Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad.” The word “oppression” here means a bribe - something that tests you to do something wrong. Even a wise man can be overwhelmed when he experiences the temptation to do wrong in times of great difficult. But in those times, we must handle ourselves with dignity. Verse 1 says “A good name is better than precious ointment.” A good reputation is better than perfume. Dearly beloved, it’s easy in times of suffering to misbehave. But let us be resolved to obey and be godly. Even when we suffer, because our problems are ordained by God, we deal with them in uprightness. Anger, grief, envy, injustice, sadness - we’ll misbehave and sin if we’re not careful to maintain godliness. Children, your toys break, you feel sad, remember that God is in control of all things. Cry yes - you’re sad. But don’t give into the devil and despair. Ask Christ to help you.

Also, go through our times of suffering with humility. Verse 5 says, “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools.” Perhaps some of us think that we are too good to suffer. During those times, we go to our foolish friends - who tell us what we want to hear and affirm us. We find temporary assurance and comfort in the things they say. But as verse 6 says, they are like the crackling of thorns under a pot. To light a fire for cooking, some people use thistles - they light up quickly, and burn quickly. But they’re noisy. One writer says that they provide quick flames, little heat, and lots of unpleasant noise. Foolish friends are like that - they give lots of praise but little honesty. Fun but not sobriety. But rebukes are necessary. Sobriety is necessary. When we go through trouble, it’s good to have true friends that speak the truth to humble us. Bad times are not so bad when those who care, care enough to say the tough things. We need their help in those times.

Children, your parents give you a realistic picture of life. They sometimes give rebukes. Accept them. Life on earth is not easy. School can be tough, you may have fall outs with friends, there are bullies. Now there’s COVID. Your parents give you sober advice. They don’t always sayang you. They may say - life is like that. And you need to hear that to get through your struggles. Parents who may be struggling with your children - life is also like that. You can’t control your children to be what you want them to be; or force them with harshness. They will change only by the grace of God. Take these words, in humility and admit you have problems that must be addressed.

We also behave ourselves in dark times by being patient and gentle. Life is not smooth sailing. Verse 8 - “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” It tells us that finishing is better than starting, and patience is better than pride. Some of us are married. We know how tough it is. The beginning of marriage is great - wedding, honeymoon, love; then it becomes tough. Parenthood is wonderful - you have a baby, change the diapers, and then there are difficult teenage years. Work is great - you start a new job, colleagues are wonderful, and then trouble. Joining a new church is always exciting, but the difficulties will come. And sometimes our resolve crumbles. When we don’t know how difficult things will be, it’ll be even tougher when we go through it. That’s why Jesus told his disciples to count the cost. In Luke 14, he asked them what person intending to build a tower, does not sit down and count the cost before building? Or what king wanting to attack another, does not sit down and strategize before sending his army? We must know that life has many dark clouds. We must be patient. As verse 8 says, “the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.”

The word patient is an interesting word. It means to be long winged. A small bird like the hummingbird is frantically beating its wings. But an albatross with large and long wings, simply spreads them out. When we understand how difficult marriage is, when we’re prepared, we can suffer long. We won’t be proud or high in spirit. So Solomon is using these two words as if to show us, we must go the distance and not fall from a height.

But when think we are too good to suffer - I can’t deal with it, I need to escape. I can’t deal with it, I need to divorce. I can’t deal with it, I need to take my life. All of these responses - where do they come from? Verse 9 - they come from an angry spirit. How do we behave ourselves in times of suffering? With godliness, humility, patience, and gentleness. To do this, we need wisdom. 

That’s the last point. We need wisdom to suffer well. We see the value of wisdom in verses 11-12- “Wisdom is good with an inheritance: and by it there is profit to them that see the sun. For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it.” What can get you through dark days? Solomon says wisdom and wealth. Both are good. And if you have both, that’s great! But if you want to compare the two, only wisdom can save your life. What do you need in difficult times? Wisdom more than money.

This is why if you have wisdom, you’re honest about suffering in this life. If you are wise, you can go through suffering with godliness, humility, patience and gentleness. Children, A’s are good, yes; but so what if you have straight A’s? If you’re the kind that can't handle disappointment - you fall to pieces when trouble comes - your academics can’t save you. Beloved, a nice renovated home is good - but it can’t save your family from conflict. This is why suffering is good - failure is good - opposition is good - they teach us wisdom. Rather than ignore them and go party - let’s face them. Accept they happen, behave ourselves as we go through them, obtain wisdom to live despite them - we are better for it. That’s why verse 3 is true - “by the sadness of the countenance, the heart is made better.”

So what are the practical applications we can draw from this passage? Firstly, let’s cultivate sobriety. Vaccinated travel lane is good - if it lasts. But let’s talk about the shortness of life. Let’s go to the funeral home. They’re better than parties. Think of the many deaths. The next could be you - maybe me. Are you making sure your calling and election sure? Are you prepared to meet God as Father or as Judge? Children, have you called upon Christ as your savior? As we talk about, accept, and identify the troubles we go through, we learn. Verse 14 tells us to enjoy times of prosperity when we can; but when hard times come, consider that they too, come from God.

Secondly, since suffering and opposition come from God - they’re opportunities to learn obedience. Like the Lord Jesus Christ - he suffered, greatly, but as Hebrews 5 tells us, he learned obedience through the things he suffered. When he was struck, he did not strike back. When he was crucified, he asked God to forgive. When he was to be betrayed, he offered bread. When he was denied, he restored. This is why he is able to comfort us who go through troubles - because he knows. David also experienced much suffering - but he said, he would behave himself in a perfect way. Psalm 119:71 says, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes.” In this time of uncertainty, are there things you need to get right with God? Vaccinated people are dying too. 

Thirdly, we thank God for the dark clouds because they draw us closer to Christ. It took Christ’s death to shake the disciples from their slumber. When they went around with Jesus - they had such great hope - Jesus is the Messiah, he will kick out the Romans - deliver us from oppression. When the guards came, they fled. When confronted, Peter denied Christ. When he was crucified, they watched from a distance. From the 6th to the 9th hour, there was only darkness. Why the darkness? 

Because this was the wisest way. Christ had to die to bring them to God. And we are still looking for silver linings here under the sun. Christ faced the dark judgment of God to bring us to a place where there is no darkness. In our suffering, we draw close to Christ, and hope for that better land. People here want to escape suffering. They look frantically for silver linings. But we who know Christ, see the wisdom in these dark clouds. Why? The Father who had brought Christ through those clouds of darkness, is the same one who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. And our savior, our shepherd, who has gone through it, comforts us with his rod and staff - his Word and his admonition. Just as Christ was exalted after his suffering, we will also be exalted one day. We will have victory here, but perfect victory there where there are no clouds and no sun to cast a shadow, only the brightness of God’s son. There is no uncertainty in life here - we will go through suffering. God has seen to that. But when we go through our suffering with wisdom, wisdom gives life.

Sermon Outline:

  1. The Honesty Needed About Our Suffering
    1. Things in the past were bad
    2. Things in the present are bad
    3. Things in the future will be bad
  2. Your Behavior During Times of Suffering
    1. Be godly
    2. Be humble
    3. Be patient and gentle
  3. The Wisdom Needed to Suffer Well
    1. The value of wisdom
    2. The wisdom to consider and learn

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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