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Author:Pastor Keith Davis
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Congregation:Bethel United Reformed Church
 Calgary, Alberta
Preached At:Lynwood United Reformed Church
 Lynwood, IL
Title:Same Old, Same Old
Text:Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Providence

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

What does man gain from all his labor
    at which he toils under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
    yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
    there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
11 There is no remembrance of men of old,
    and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Same Old, Same Old?

Ecclesiastes 1.1-11

Preached by Rev. Keith Davis at Lynwood URC on 1-15-12 (Songs:  324, 152, 91, 174)


Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, when I was in grade school one of my favorite books to check out of the library was the Guinness book of World Records.  I was fascinated by the pictures of the tallest person in the world, by the heaviest man, by the person with the longest finger nails, by the person who could hold their breath the longest.


Then, years later there was a television show based on human oddities and extremes.  It was called Ripley’s Believe It or Not.  That’s when I came to realize two things about people. First, there were a lot of strange people in the world; but second, some people would go to any length to get their name in the record books or to get their face on television.


Why else would someone tattoo every square inch of their body, or have a car park on their chest, or try to have the most body piercings, or see how many cigarettes they can smoke at the same time?  It’s because people crave notoriety.  People want to be known for being the best at something, for having the most, or for being the first. 


In 1924, British mountain climber George Mallory made it known that he wanted to climb Mt. Everest.  When asked why, he replied with the now famous words: because it’s there.  But that was a lie (or at least not the whole reason).  The real answer was that he craved what every other man craved.  He craved the attention, the notoriety.  He wanted to be first.  


What few people know is that in August of that same year, George Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine died in their attempt to reach the peak of Mt. Everest.  They disappeared somewhere on the way to the summit and were never heard or seen from again.    


In many ways, that story ties in well with the message of the book of Ecclesiastes, because at one and the same time it captures both the vanity of man and the futility of life.  Man is constantly on the search for meaning and purpose and notoriety in this life.  Man is constantly searching for new and better challenges, for fame and fortune.  We so want to be remembered for something. 


Yet, in the end, life gets the last laugh.  That which we crave, winds up killing us or consuming us and leaves us empty.  And even if we do attain our goal, for fame, what difference does it make in the grand scheme of things.  Or, at what cost?  And, in the end, who really cares? 


For time marches on, and that which was once thought to be impossible, is now routine or commonplace.  On May 16, 2002, 54 climbers reached the summit of Mount Everest.  I’d guess that more than half of those 54 were no where near as experienced in climbing as Mallory.   


You see, generations come and go, and today’s generation forgets the past – even the heroes of the past.  Man says: look at me and see what I’ve done. Life laughs and says No one cares anymore.  That’s the message of book of Ecclesiastes.  That is reflected in the title of this series: is Life Meaningless? That’s the question we’ll be considering as we go through this book.


Today, we begin by looking at the first eleven verses in chapter 1.  Here we see The Wise Preacher Exposes the Emptiness of Life.       

1)      Life’s Empty Purpose

2)      Life’s Empty Patterns   


1)  Life’s Empty Purpose

Due to the curious nature of this book, one of the questions often asked is:  who wrote it?  Who’s the author?  Since the days of the early church it has been accepted that Solomon was the author.  Certainly that seems to measure up with what we read in verse 1.  There, the author tells us that he was the son of David, and that he was the king in Jerusalem.  


That points us to Solomon since he was the only immediate son of David who ruled after him in Jerusalem.  But it’s interesting that Solomon doesn’t refer to himself by name.  Instead, he refers to himself by a title.  These are words of the teacher (as the NIV puts it).  Other translations use the word preacher and others just translate the Hebrew word as it sounds Qoheleth.


But there’s good reason that this word should be translated as Preacher in the English.  The root word of Qoheleth is Qahal; that is the Hebrew word which means: the great assembly, the sacred assembly of God’s people.  Qahal was the Old Testament word for church.  


And who is it that speaks to the sacred assembly?  For us, it is the minister, the preacher who preaches to the congregation.  So too, Qoheleth is the one who speaks to the qahal.   So Solomon, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, speaks these wise words to God’s people. 


And it is also widely believed that Solomon wrote this book later in life, as he reflected on all his experiences.   As we shall see, Solomon writes this book from the perspective of someone who has seen it all, who has tried it all, who has experienced it all.  


Most of us are familiar with the expression: “Been there; done that”.  That’s Solomon’s life story.  He’s writing out of the wealth of his experience as someone who was given more wisdom than anyone else in the whole world; as someone to whom Queens of foreign nations would come to visit and inquire after his vast wisdom and riches.


Yet, Solomon was not always so wise.  At one point in his life, at a very low point, he acted and lived very foolishly.  I Kings 11:1 says King Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides Pharaoh’s daughter he took to himself wives from among the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Sidonians and the Hittities. 


As we just heard in a sermon not too long ago in regards to finding a wife for Isaac, the Lord did not want the Israelites to intermarry with the Canaanites.  I Kings 11 says, The Lord himself told the Israelites You must not intermarry with them, because they will turn your hearts after their gods.  But Solomon held fast to them in love.  He had 700 wives and 300 concubines.


As he grew older, his wives led him astray, and he built altars to the foreign gods and burned incense and offered sacrifices to them.  As a result his heart was not as devoted to the Lord his God as his father David’s was.


So we’re to understand that this book was written in the aftermath of all that.  It seems to be written from the perspective of someone who has come back to his senses, someone whose heart has returned to the Lord, and now it is his desire to share with us, to convey to us what he learned from it all – not just his sinful exploits but what he has learned from his whole life.


Here, Solomon is part philosopher, part scientist, part hedonist, part prophet.  He is a man who devoted himself (at various times) to gaining wisdom, to gathering wealth, to indulging in all of life’s pleasures, and then at other times he would deny himself these very things all so that he could see what that brought him.  Like a scientist, he would document/catalogue his findings.


We can describe Solomon’s quest for wisdom this way.  Wisdom was the base camp from which Solomon operated, and each day, like the scientist and explorer and adventurer that he was, he would go out on various expeditions – each time trying something new, going in a new direction, pushing the envelope -- tasting, seeing, listening, observing, take it all in – all to see if there was any meaning or purpose or satisfaction in it.   


And in this book, it is clear that Solomon wants us to sees the world as he sees it, to know it as he knows it.  He wants us to see the world --not through rose colored glasses of poets and romanticists, but as it really is, in all of life’s harshness, and emptiness, and futility. 


Solomon’s findings are actually presented right at the beginning of the book – right there in verse 2.  This is the theme that is echoed throughout the pages of Ecclesiastes.  Meaningless!  Meaningless!  (Vanity! Vanity!)  Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless! 


That word for vanity or meaningless is the same word which means breath or vapor.  Solomon is trying to impress upon us the same thing the Psalmist does in Psalm 39:5.  Man’s life is but a breath, a vapor, a puff of wind. We breathe in, we breathe out, and we’re gone.  That’s life.


James 4:14 speaks to this as well.  In that passage God’s people are rebuked for their tendency to make plans for tomorrow, as if tomorrow is a sure thing -- something owed to us.  But James says: you do not know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.


That’s what Solomon has found to be true.  He has conducted the experiment, he has run the tests.  He has reached his conclusion.  And while many people spend their life living in denial, and try to cover up life’s blemishes, and try to hide the cracks in the foundation, Solomon does the opposite.  He exposes the cracks, the brokenness, the ugliness and emptiness of life. 


I read somewhere that American novelist Herman Melville called Ecclesiastes one of the truest books ever written.  That’s an accurate assessment.  One commentator wrote: More than any other book in the Bible, it captures the futility and frustration of a fallen world.  It is honest about the drudgery of work, the injustice of government, the dissatisfaction of foolish pleasure, and the mind numbing tedium of everyday life.


In other words, this is not just Solomon’s experience, but this is the collective experience of humanity down through the ages.  Sooner or later all people come to this point.  We look around and we see what becomes of everything.  We see how swiftly youth gives way to age; we see how quickly the equity in our home can disappear; how fast our finances can run dry; how things we thought we could rely on falter, how people we thought we could depend let us down.   


In our frustration we say, what difference does it make?  What does it all matter? And even for us Christians, the futility and vanity of life can weigh on us.  At times, we too wonder whether God really cares, or if God takes notice, or if our faith in God really makes a difference. 


But you see, the key in understanding the book of Ecclesiastes is knowing that Solomon has a good reason for showing us the futility of life.  Unlike some Earnest Hemingway novel which ends (as did his life) in darkness and despair and hopelessness, this book has a positive purpose. 


He shows us the futility and vanity of life – not to crush our hopes; not to send us into a pit of despair, but to cause us to set our hope on God.  In that way, the purpose of this book is no different than any other book of the Bible.  It is dedicated to showing us the one way of escape, the one way of salvation, the one way out of all the pain, and misery, and futility, and vanity of this world, and the finality of death. 


That is by having faith and trust in the God of our salvation.  The Wise Preacher calls us to seek our life, our purpose, our goal not by pursuing the things of this world; not by hungering for notoriety – not by trying to be the best, or be the first, but by seeking out Jesus Christ, the One who redeems us from this fallen and empty world.  As Peter says, it is the precious blood of Jesus Christ which has redeemed us from this empty way of life handed down to us from our forefathers.  Jesus Christ is the way out; Jesus Christ is our only way to escape life’s emptiness.


2) Life’s Empty Patterns  

But there’s a second thing we want to take notice of this morning, and it we see this in verses 3-11. This is where we see Life’s Empty Patterns.   I want to call your attention to two main patterns which the wise Preacher talks about here and elsewhere in Ecclesiastes.


The first pattern is presented in verse 3.  He asks:  What does man gain (profit) from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?  We can call this pattern the profit motive.  We’re familiar with that.  In his wisdom, Solomon thinks like a smart business man.  Before he begins an enterprise he investigates it fully.  Will it be worth it?  What’s the pay off?  Will he get a good return for his investment of time, energy and resources?


Now before the fall into sin, such questions were unnecessary.  For the Lord God put Adam to work in the Garden of Eden, and at first, in his state of perfection, man’s return on his work was 100%.  It was 100% satisfying, 100% fulfilling, 100% profitable and 100% glorifying to God.  The earth was receptive to the seed, the labor was effortless, the plant was healthy, and the fruit was sweet, and man found purpose and meaning and fulfillment in his service to the Lord.  


But after man’s fall into sin, the ground was cursed because of man.  And the Lord God said to Adam, Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken.


And, it is very interesting that when the Lord God cursed Cain for killing his brother Abel, He not only sent him away from his family to live in the land of Nod, east of Eden, but the Lord God intensified the curse saying, When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. Cain would experience even more toil in his labor to survive and feed his family. 


As we know, that toil applies to more than just farmers working the soil.  That toil is visited upon all of us, everyday, no matter what occupation we have, no matter what vocation and calling – even domestic duties.  We can clean the house, wash the dishes, do the laundry, make the meals, but the very next day, the house gets dirty, the clothes pile up, the family needs to be fed.


This is a toilsome pattern we know all too well.  And the question asked by Solomon is often mumbled under our breath – whether we work at home, or in the office or factory, or on the construction site – we ask: what do we really gain from all this?  Is it worth it?  What do we gain from all our toil and hard work? 


We work overtime to make some extra cash, thinking that we can “get ahead”; but then what happens?  The car breaks down, the freezer stop working, and things need to be repaired.  There goes that “extra” $350.00.  So, what do we gain from all our toil under the sun?  That’s the profit motive that lies beneath all our labors and tasks.


Notice, Solomon doesn’t have to answer that question. The answer is obvious.  It is nothing.  So far as life in this world is concerned, so far as looking at work as a means of finding our purpose and meaning, and taking us where we want to go in life, it’s useless toil.  A man can work as hard as he can, but where does it get him in the end?  Does all his work and worry and money extend his life even a single moment?  No.  In the end, a man will go down to the grave the same way he was born into this world -- with nothing.  


So man’s needs an answer, a remedy, he needs relief from all this endless, pointless toil – otherwise he has no hopein this world; no hope for the present or future.  To whom can man look for help?  That’s the question Solomon wants us to ask.


There’s a second discernable pattern within these verses, and this can be termed the ‘treadmill’ pattern, or the “same old, same old” pattern.  Solomon speaks of the seemingly endless circling of the years, and the endless, mundane repetition we see at work in the world every day.


Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.  And lest we think that the birth of a new generation, with all of its hope and promise and energy and strength should give us hope, the preacher says, not so fast.  For when one generation is born, another dies; while one household celebrates life, another mourns its passing.


This is life as we know it.  The young generation of today, no matter how promising and exciting and full of potential they may be, no matter what they call themselves – whether they are baby boomers of the 60’s and 70’s, or generation X’ers of the 1990’s and into the new millennium, they are older generation of tomorrow.


We are all born with such potential and promise and hope.  And when we’re young we have such great ambitions and aspirations.  We talk about what we want to be when we grow up, what we want to accomplish, and some people dream about being someone important, a celebrity, a politician, a professional athlete, or the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.


They want to be someone that everyone else will look up to.  Yet, 50 years later, they are no closer to realizing their dreams than when they were in high school or college.  They’re stuck in the same old ‘dead end job’ they’ve had for the past twenty years; they’re stuck in the same old income bracket, they live in the same old house, they drive the same old car, and every day they go through the same old routine.  It’s maddening. 


And as people who once had such great expectations, they look at their life twenty years later and it dawns on them that there’s really nothing special about their lives; they never accomplished anything spectacular; they never did the great things they thought about doing; they realize that they are just like everyone else -- and it drives them mad. It can drive them to drink; to cheat, and even to kill themselves in their despair. 


Solomon also shows us that this “same old pattern” also in creation.  We see it in the rising and setting of the sun; in the blowing of the wind, in the flowing of the streams.  The wheels of the world keep spinning and spinning. And if there is one consolation for the man or woman who see themselves caught, trapped by a life of mediocrity and sameness, it is this:


Even those who are out there living their dreams, accomplishing great things, seeing the world, living the high life as we say – they are really not any more happy or satisfied or fulfilled than the next person.  In fact, Solomon get at this with what he writes in verse. 8: All things are wearisome more than one can say!  The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.           


Even if we could be out there living the dream, even if we managed to be independently wealthy, and could have others make money for us while we travelled the world, we cannot possibly see everything there is to see, we cannot possibly experience all there is to experience; even for the typical adrenaline junkie, even for today’s extreme athlete, even for today billionaire playboy and adventurer life gets boring.  Enough is never enough!  Even for them, it’s the same old, same old.


So they exhaust themselves, and their bank accounts trying to find something new in this world that will thrill them or amuse them or give them a new rush.  But the preacher says, its hopeless.  It’s vanity.  It’s meaningless.  And while 21st century man consoles himself with the thought that his generation is going to change the world, that this age is different from any other, and that there’s something truly new on the horizon, the Preacher says, not so fast.


Verse 9:  What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there anything of which someone can say – Look!  This is something new? It was here already, long ago. Every age has its renaissance moment, its revolutionary technology, its avant-garde thinkers or ideas or philosophies.  What has been, will be again.


There’s nothing new under the sun .  And so what is the answer?  What is our hope?  To what do we look for freedom and escape so we do not fall prey to the madness of the mundane?  What can saves us from the weariness of it all? 


Certainly there is nothing on this earth, of this creation, under the sun that can help us.  It’s all part of the old order of things.  So that’s why God’s Word, the Gospel call us to look beyond this world, outside of this creation, above the sun (you might say) to the One who comes to us from heaven itself, to the One who makes everything new.


And when Jesus came, He made it clear to everyone that he was radically different from anyone they knew, and really anything else on earth.  He said to the Jews, you are from below, but I am from above.  You are of this world, but I am not of this world (John 8:23).  


And Jesus also came bringing the people a new word, a new teaching, a teaching from above!  Jesus said that His truth would set them free, and he spoke of a new birth into the Kingdom of God (John  3:3).  Jesus came to establish a new covenant, to make all things new, and by his own suffering and death and resurrection, Jesus put an end to the old order of things.


Jesus put an end to the same old, same old, and He promised in His Word that when He comes again in glory he will bring His people into the new heavens and the new earth, for the first heaven and earth he will purify with fire, and all that is old, all that is sinful, all that is imperfect will be no more. 


And in that day we will be made new again as well – like Christ’s own glorified body, and in the new heavens and the new earth, there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain.  Our life will be bound up with Christ in glory for eternity, and thus all that is vain, and futile, and empty about this life will vanish, and our new life with God in glory will be satisfying, fulfilling, and complete in a way which words simply cannot describe.  


But brothers and sisters in Christ, the point here is that if you want to experience that moment; if you want to live to see a new day, a new kingdom, and a new creation, you have to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ now.  You have to put your faith, and hope, and trust fully in Him.


But the beauty of believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, is that we don’t have to wait till we die or until He comes again to enjoy that newness.  For the newness of life in Christ breaks into our daily lives already (read II Corinthians 5:17), renewing us each day, and giving us joy, and meaning and purpose even in our mundane labors, so that we work for the Lord and not for man.


Each day we live, no matter how similar it appears to yesterday, we begin by rejoicing, praising God for the gift of life, and seeing that He blesses us each day with newness – newness of mercy, newness of grace, newness of kindness and love.  That is how we escape the madness.  That is how we survive.  We put our hope in God and look to Christ who makes all things new.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
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(c) Copyright 2012, Pastor Keith Davis

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