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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:Facing the Realities in Life with Joy
Text:Ecclesiastes 9:1-10 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

TH 32 - Great Is Thy Faithfulness
TH 518 - Christ, of All my Hopes the Ground
Psalter 136 - The Issues of Life
Psalter 286 - A Faithful Creator 

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

There is a caricature of Christians - that we are dour, boring, and opposed to fun and fashion. And this caricature gives an excuse to those opposed to Christianity - the church is all about rules. Yes, it’s true that certain Christians are opposed to things - like the Amish. No electricity! Only oil lamps. No phone! Letters. No cars! Horse and buggy. No buttons! Hook and eye. Why? Because they believed these were worldly. But despite their convictions, the Amish are among the world’s happiest people. Time Magazine published a piece in 2015 claiming that they were the happiest people in America. They enjoy what they have, work hard, have community, and lots of fun by getting together, eating, and playing. Psychologist Dr Robert Biswas-Diener reported this - “When I worked with Amish farmers in the American Midwest, a lot of their happiness had to do with their sense of duty, the good of the community, and God.” We’re all looking for joy. But how do we find it in such a messy life? Even government can be unjust. How do we face these realities with joy?

Solomon shows us how by firstly describing the harsh realities of life and secondly, describing joyful activities we should engage in. He has touched on these before but now in greater detail.

Firstly, the realities of life are very harsh. Verses 1-6 describe how harsh things are in life. And they paint a very difficult picture. We learn that we are not guaranteed a good life. God is in control of our lives and we’re not. Verse 1 - “For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: no man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them.” God is in control - whatever you do, whether you’re good or bad, the results are in God’s hands. And no one knows how God will reward - love or hatred. But this is contrary to expectation; be good and wise, and you’ll be rewarded. But remember, there’s no such thing as karma. Job was a wise and just man - but he lost everything. Christ was the wisest and godliest man - but he was crucified. 2 Timothy 3:12 says the godly will suffer persecution. So it’s not true that the good and wise will be rewarded. There’s no guarantee. God’s blesses whom he blesses. That’s a reality. And some people can’t take this perceived unfairness. 

Another reality we learn is in verse 2 - “All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.” One destiny awaits everyone - no matter how righteous, good, or religious. What is it? Obviously, it’s death. That’s reality. The good and bad die. But implicit is suffering. Verse 1 speaks of hatred. This word was used by the Israelites in the wilderness. Moses recorded their words in Deuteronomy 1:27, “And ye murmured in your tents, and said, Because the LORD hated us, he hath brought us forth out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us.” They thought God hated them because they suffered. So what’s that one destiny? Death and suffering. There’s nothing certain in life but death and taxes. So even the rich suffer because of taxes. But how do people respond to this reality that there’s no guarantee of good things except death and suffering?  Well, most people just endure it - they try their best to get on in life despite the realities. 

But verse 3 records two shocking ways that people deal with harsh realities. Because of this tragic evil of death and suffering that everyone will face, people choose to do the evil in their hearts; or else, they resort to their folly - some even go mad. Then they die. Folks, people who can’t face these harsh realities, contemplate these reactions. Some people resort to doing evil. And when their evil plots don’t work out, they choose their own mad course. More than 10 years ago, the world was rocked by the Madoff Ponzi scheme. People lost money to Bernie Madoff. He was a rich financier, and along with his family, cheated investors of billions. When he was sent to 150 years, his son committed suicide. He chose this mad course over life. 

Dearly beloved, as Christians, we know this is common. The Bible has examples. Saul who was at the end of his rope, he chose assisted suicide. Judas, whose betrayal of Christ gave him a bad conscience, he killed himself. Elijah couldn’t take his so-called failure. After bringing rain, calling the Baal prophets to be judged - he was absolutely discouraged when Jezebel didn’t convert. When she called for his death, he abandoned his post and ran all the way to Hebron. Cain couldn’t take disapproval - he gave into his sin and killed Abel. This is our experience too. Many do think of taking their life - they’re desperate. Some have thought of running away. Some have thought of drastic action. If you have, and only you know your thoughts - you can understand this madness Solomon talks about. You’re afraid you won’t pass your exams? Can’t take your husband anymore? Family problems? Lost money? People think of crazy things to do. Foolish things.

Here’s the strange case of Adolf Merckle. He was in the top 100 richest men. His personal fortune was £8.5 billion. But at 74, he said goodbye to his wife, and lay down on the train tracks, and was killed. Why? Did he cheat someone? Was he in trouble? Did he lose his fortune? Not really. You see, his company had just lost £400 million to bad investments in Volkswagen - but it still had billions in reserve. So why did he kill himself? His closest friends blamed his pride, guilt over failing, and loss of control. One friend said - “His companies were his life and when he was going to lose control of them he obviously felt he would lose control of his life.” He killed himself over 5% loss. And the really sad thing - if he had waited 6 more months, Volkswagen stocks jumped. He would’ve made double of what he lost. This was a mad reaction. But it’s not uncommon. Student go to pieces because they scored a B instead of A . Can’t get into their course of choice. You have life-long resentment because you believe you missed a golden opportunity at work. People become stalkers because they’re rejected by a girl or guy. We react with madness, bitterness, resentment. 

But why? That person has his whole life ahead. There are work and love opportunities. Where there’s life, there’s hope. And that’s another reality. Verse 4 - “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope.” He’s a gentle counselor. But also a rude friend. End of verse 4 - “for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” Yes, life is difficult, death will come, but life is better than death now. The living have hope. It’s better to be a living dog than a dead lion. At least you’re alive, verse 5 - you have a future. You’re not dead yet. There’s still hope. But the dead? They have no future. These are the realities of life. Life is hard, there’s suffering and one day death. You’re not in control. But don’t react with madness; don’t be crazy. Choose life. Are you troubled? Have work problems? Personal crisis? Bad results? Choose life. While there’s life, there’s hope. You can have joy. 

But how to have joy? In Solomon’s sharp language, the answer is - stop moaning and enjoy life. That’s the second point. Choose life - not death, distress, bitterness, or madness. Choose to enjoy life. Yes, it may not be easy - but if you do it more, the easier it becomes. Solomon gives 4 commands on how to enjoy life. While verses 1-6 are descriptions of reality, verses 7-10 are commands how to face reality. Enjoy life. How?

Firstly, enjoy food. Verse 7 - “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.” Enjoy food - eat it with joy. Enjoy drink - be glad in heart. God approves of that. 1 Corinthians 10:31 - “whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” Dearly beloved, we’re supposed to live our lives for God. Every waking moment to do his will. Eating, drinking, and making merry are also part of his will. In the world, there are 2 extremes. One extreme is asceticism - people say - don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch. I’m not eating meat, because I’m holier and more compassionate than God. I’m not going to drink, alcohol is the devil’s beverage. I’m not telling jokes, because humor is sinful. Dearly beloved - often, these are things that young Christians grapple with. We want to applaud them for a tender conscience - and their desire to be holy. But we want to be clear that asceticism wrong. Why? Psalm 19 tells us the heavens declare the glory of God. God has created all things and they’re good. Yes, we must decide according to Word and conscience what to do - but asceticism is wrong - how can you fill your lives with the creator, but not with the gifts he has created?

But hedonism is also wrong. Hedonism is where people say - since God has created all things, I’m going to eat, drink, and play as much as I can. We forget Romans 8 - that creation is broken. And because we’re sinners, we take these good things and corrupt them by our gluttony, drunkenness, and riotous living. And let us remember that while hedonism is wrong, we can enjoy God. And in doing so, we remember that we enjoy God through prayer, worship, and the Word. Many Christians have forgotten these things to their detriment. They fill their lives with the things that God has created rather than with the creator himself. 

Folks, both are idolatry. Asceticism says I don’t need God’s creation - I’m better than what God has freely permitted and blessed. Hedonism turns these things that God has created into gods - we worship food and drink. But many Christians seesaw between the two. Some are absolute Pharisees - they despise others who don’t do as conservatively as they do; but then suddenly, they flipflop and do the opposite. It’s like Sandra Dee Olsen in Grease - at first, she’s all prudish coming from Australia; then she meets Danny Zuko and has a complete makeover. Flip flop. You see, hedonism is not a cure for asceticism. And asceticism is not a cure for hedonism. A cure for both of these things is to enjoy food, drink, and all other things to the glory of God. These things are gifts from God. They’re not gains. You’re not holier if you deny them, nor richer if you have more. You’re attitude shouldn’t be - I only eat when I need to. Neither should it be - I eat whenever I want to. How do you make life more bearable? Go have a buffet once in a while. If you can’t afford Fullerton Hotel, then have Furama Hotel; if you can’t afford Mortons of Chicago, then Mos Burger is good. 

Secondly, enjoy celebrations. Verse 8 says, “Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.” Now, white clothing can refer to spiritual purity, but that’s not the meaning here. When you go to a funeral, you wear black, but at a wedding, you wear white. So let thy garments be white means wear fine clothes. And let your head lack no ointment means splash on some perfume. Celebrate! Don’t be dowdy. It’s okay to be trendy. Body odor is not more spiritual. The Puritans are often caricatured as being austere and strict. Yes, on things religious. But they knew how to enjoy life. In fact, they were often criticized for wearing trendy clothing. In worship, their custom was to wear black - it was formal; like black tie to some posh events. But outside of worship, they would wear all kinds of clothes. They wore clothes that reflected their theology - in worship reverent; in life celebratory. John Owen was well-known for his purple brocade outfits and tall powdered wigs. And yes, while they would remove paintings and statues from the churches and ban musical instruments from worship; these same puritans would place these works of art and musical instruments in their homes to enjoy. So in that one sense, we should be puritanical in our lives. You’re not more spiritual if the walls are bare in your home. Decorate them and do it with joy. How do you make life less dreary and more enjoyable? If you can, go shopping. Retail therapy, while having a worldly connotation, is not wrong. If there’s something nice you want to buy, and you can, it’s a good thing. It’s also a good thing to have celebrations.

Thirdly, enjoy family and family life. Verse 9 says, “Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.” It says live joyfully with the wife - this is an exhortation for husbands and wives to be romantic. Romance is good and brings joy. Unfortunately, Christians have always been caricatured as prudes. This was true of the medieval church. They outlawed marriage and sex from the clergy, and also during holy days. But the Roman Catholics had so  many holy days. Christmas, The Feast of Mary, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday, Ascension Sunday, Pentecost, The Assumption of Mary, All Saints’ Day, The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Epiphany, St Joseph’s Day, Corpus Christi, Trinity Sunday, The Solemnity of St Peter and St Paul. And every Friday. But it’s against Scripture to outlaw romance. 

While life is difficult, these are good things God has given to husbands and wives. Christians are not anti-romance or family. With romance, comes companionship and children. But romance and family are hard. Solomon says - “Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity…” In other words, life is messy - marriage, romance, and family are also messy and difficult. That’s why we don’t idolize it. Too many people have an idealistic view of marriage - no one’s good enough. They’ve made an idol of marriage. But how do you make life less dreary? Enjoy your family, as messy as they and you are. If you’re married, enjoy romance. We know how broken life is. And many of us have much to do to repair them to fix romance.

Fourthly, enjoy work. Verse 10 - “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” As believers, we find satisfaction in our work. But true satisfaction in work only exists with Christ in mind. People are stressed out at work, because their bosses are their gods - scary gods. Or KPIs, clients, deadlines are their gods. Maybe they and their work are their gods. It’s no wonder we don’t enjoy work. Thomas Sydenham was an English doctor and Puritan. His medical textbook was the academic standard for 2 centuries. Now, listen to what he wrote to student doctors.

“It becomes every man who purposes to give himself to the care of others, seriously to consider the four following things: First, that he must one day give an account to the Supreme Judge of all the lives entrusted to his care. Secondly, that all his skill, and knowledge, and energy as they have been given him by God, so they should be exercised for His glory, and the good of mankind, and not for mere gain or ambition. Thirdly let him reflect that he has undertaken the care of no mean creature, for in order that he may estimate the value, the greatness of the human race, the only begotten Son of God became himself a man, and thus ennobled it with His divine dignity, and far more than this, died to redeem it. And fourthly, that the doctor being himself a mortal man, should be diligent and tender in relieving his suffering patients, inasmuch as he himself must one day be a like sufferer.”

What’s he saying? Our skills should be used for good and for God’s glory. It’s our responsibility to put our skills to good use. Our work should be done with vigor, passion, and empathy, because God will evaluate our work. Why were the Amish so happy? Because they worked for God. In our culture, we work for ourselves. But the Christian works for God’s glory. 

But why does God call us to do these things? I mean, it sounds almost unspiritual! And that’s where we’re wrong. These things are spiritual. The reason why we find joy in them is because they’re the very things that give us joy in the age to come. While life on earth is vain, these things give us a glimpse of heaven.

In the new creation, we will feast and dine at the marriage supper of the lamb. And so when we eat and drink today, we’re reminded we need the bread of life. In the new creation, we’ll be clothed in white robes, casting our crowns at his feet in celebration. And so when we celebrate today, how can we ever do it sinfully? In the new creation, we’ll be married to Christ - with all other believers! And while we love our family here, we’re one with our spiritual family in heaven. And in the new creation, we will work - but while work here is hard and cursed - in the life to come, there will be no pain. We will toil with joy. Today, we eat, celebrate, do family, and work with pain under the sun. In the life to come, there will be better food, better celebrations, better relationships, and better work, in the better land where there is no sun. One writer has said, “Yes, we eat and drink as we vanish from the earth like a vapor. But one day we will eat and drink in the city of the King, where death will have vanished from the earth forever.” (David Gibson, “Ecclesiastes: Living Life Backwards”)

Sermon Outline:

  1. The Realities of Life Are Very Harsh
    1. We are not guaranteed a good life
    2. Death and suffering come upon all
    3. Many respond to vanity with folly
    4. Life is better than death
  2. The Joys of Life We Engage In
    1. Enjoy food
    2. Enjoy celebrations
    3. Enjoy family
    4. Enjoy work


* 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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