Scripture Reading: Ecclesiastes 1–2, 11:7–10 (NRSV)
One of Jesus’s most powerful and memorable teaching moments was at a time when he was surrounded by children. Parents were bringing their young ones to see Jesus from near and far, seeking his blessing. The disciples were trying to keep the children from Jesus—they wanted to reserve the teacher for adults who could understand and wouldn’t cause a fuss. But Jesus was angry. He said, “let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
If we take a moment to reflect on this teaching, the meaning becomes apparent. Children are not only dependent on their parents, just as we are to dependent on God. The lives of children are also filled with wonder, curiosity, and a perpetual sense of newness. Everything in the life of a child is fascinating to them. They learn seemingly by osmosis, picking up on their surroundings. To a child, everything is new under the sun. Once they learn about something, they’re eager to share their new knowledge with someone else.
If only we could retain such youthful exuberance in our spiritual life!
To children such as these, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes says, “rejoice, young ones, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.”
Taken out of its context, that sounds well and good. Those with the wisdom that comes with age often say such things to children and youth. We tell them to enjoy their time of youth because we fondly recall some of the same experiences.
The dark side of that, though, is what the Teacher says about such youthful joy: eventually, it fades. The things that once brought us joy become old hat. The causes we were once passionate about begin to look more helpless. We hear someone say, “look, something new,” and we quickly see through the illusion. It’s just the same thing in new packaging.
Like the Teacher, who identifies himself as David’s son Solomon, we seek out earthly pleasures: retail therapy, a good book, or our favorite TV show. We labor to improve our lives and work on projects around the house. We pour ourselves into anything that can give us a momentary sense of meaning. We work long hours, hoping that they will pay off with some reward.
Yet, the Teacher says, even those things are trivial and ultimately meaningless. They’re no more permanent than dust in the wind.
It’s no wonder that many adults either want to return to the days of their youth or are disparaging toward those who are young. They either want to regain their youthful exuberance or hasten the disillusionment of those who see the world with new eyes.
“Vanity, meaningless, absurd is the world,” we say. “Best you learn it willingly instead of being wiped out on your butt by the harsh reality of life.”
Is there anything that isn’t a vain illusion? Is there anything in this world that will last?
I’m not sure I was ever a youth, as Jesus and the wisdom Teacher describe it. Sure, I was a youth in the sense of making bad decisions and generally being an idiot, but I don’t know if I ever had that spark of youthful joy in my eyes.
This may be news to you all, but I’ve never been a sunshine and rainbows optimist. I thrive indoors on a rainy day drinking tea and contemplating the wisdom that leads to vexation and increases sorrow, as Ecclesiastes says.
I may have deceived you all with the occasional unequivocally positive message that restores your hope and joy. We do have to remember Easter every once in a while.
You don’t often hear out of my mouth the sickly sweet words that “everything is going to be okay” and “God has a plan” without some qualification and presentation of the facts. I’m the first to admit that sometimes life goes wrong, bad things happen, the world loses its luster before our eyes. Meaning is elusive.
But I bet I say something from the pulpit every once in a while that seems to drip with youthful idealism. I see you out there shaking your heads every once in a while. “Oh, that’s Joel. He says stuff like that. One day he’ll learn.”
One way or another, we all wrestle with the same predicament at times: our talk about God does not always describe the world as we see it. Revelation speaks of God making “all things new” and wiping tears from our eyes—but those days are far off. Jesus speaks of having the hopeful joy of little children—but we’ve all grown up. We have our degrees from the “school of hard knocks.”
Let’s admit it—Sometimes the words we share in church are like the sound of a tree falling in the forest. It’s far off from where we are. They pass through our ears, never to be heard again.
Church can feel like a show in which we act as if we have all the answers. We sing the hymns that uplift our spirits, if for a moment. We whisper the amen at the end of the sermon and our prayers, sure that it’s what we’re supposed to do.
And then a question pops up in our minds that we’re too afraid to ask. An experience launches us into a dark night of the soul. A friend or coworker asks us about our faith, but we’re not sure how to answer it.
Still, we pop into church on Sunday morning and pop out an hour later like a breakfast pastry in the toaster. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t—but, it feels right to us.
The Teacher gives us permission to close the curtain on the illusion, on the show.
Ecclesiastes allows us to skip the confident “Amen” once and awhile to sub in the cry, “vanity, vanity,” “meaningless, meaningless,” “these words are absurd!”
We have permission to peel back the illusions of our lives.
What do we have to gain from the daily toil of our lives? Nothing.
Will we be remembered in a hundred years? Probably not.
Will this congregation be remembered after all that time? In the history books that no one reads.
Look! The sun rises and sets day after day, again and again. Streams flow into the sea but they never complete their work, filling the ocean. Last week I wrote a sermon, in two weeks I’ll have to write another one. But the words are just dust in the wind. You won’t remember them on Monday (be honest!). Just like in the summer months—we mow the grass one day only to have to do it again the next week. It’s never ending! Soon that’ll be the case with the snow…
If you think that all this talk of vanity is Old Testament nonsense incongruent with the ministry of Jesus—I hate to disappoint you.
Sure, Jesus doesn’t go around spreading doom and gloom all the time, but he doesn’t pull any punches either.
To the rich young ruler who says, “I’ve followed all the commandments…” Jesus says: meaningless! Give up your idolatry and vanity. Sell what you have and give it to the poor. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!
Upon entering the temple, Jesus goes up to the salespeople at their tables and flips them over. “All the stuff going on in your church? Meaningless! My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.”
As he left the temple, one of the disciples looked admiringly at the grand structure, but Jesus said, “See this? None of these stones will be left. All will be thrown down.” Stop admiring what will not last.
There are so many things of true importance in the world. Why would we focus on what is meaningless, vain, and idolatrous?
The disillusionment of Ecclesiastes and the ministry of Jesus aren’t any fun.
We much prefer singing amens than we do unmasking the vanity of things we hold dear. But within the word disillusionment is the key to the good news. Disillusionment is, for sure, a disappointing feeling. But dis-illusionment is also the undoing of our illusions!
None of us, when probed, would consciously say, “yes, I would like to see things incorrectly. I would like to spend my days chasing after things that don’t last.” It would be ludicrous to do so.
Sometimes the exact thing we need is for Jesus, the Teacher, to come in and turn our tables over, wipe the slate clean, start from scratch and build things up from the foundation.
This discontentment and disillusionment with how things are might just be exactly what we need to regain the youthful exuberance of discipleship as children of God.
To be clear, we cannot give into the forms of disillusionment that lead us into the depths of cynicism. We might end up there every once in a while, but we can’t stay there.
But the disillusionment with the status quo that leads us to self-emptying is exactly the kind we need this Thanksgiving.
Yeah, I said it. We need to be disillusioned with some things to truly give thanks to God.
Too often, we give thanks like the rich young ruler might: “Lord, thank you for not making me like those other people who don’t know you, who don’t have what I have.” Maybe we give thanks like Joel Osteen, “thank you God for helping me live my best life now, thank you for showing me with blessings.”
Such thanksgivings are vanity. They are like a house build on sand, like the bricks of a great temple.
But the promise of God is that not all is vanity. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes couldn’t see it, but he was looking in the wrong places. He’s right—we’ll never find meaning in routine work, in toil and trouble, in pleasures of food or drink. These are vanity.
But what is there that isn’t a vain illusion?
What in this world truly abides?
Paul gives us the answer in 1 Corinthians 13—
“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”
When we’re busy clinging onto the dust, we can’t grasp any of those things. We can’t have faith in God’s provision for an uncertain future if our future is sure. We can’t have hope if we’re clinging to the status quo of how things are. We can’t have true love when we’re only interested in our own self-importance and self-preservation.
But when everything else is stripped away from our minds, all of those so-called blessings of life, when we become disillusioned like the Teacher—only then can we become filled with the faith, hope, and love of Christ.
To paraphrase the words of St. Paul, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels but do not have love, I am but dust in the wind—vanity! Even if I give away all my possessions and do not have love, I gain nothing.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
“Most of all, though everything else is an illusion that will come to an end, Love will never end. Faith, hope, and love will abide. And the greatest of these is love.”
For that we can give thanks to God. Amen.