Calgary First Mennonite Church Calgary

Just How Meaningless is Your Life, Anyway?

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Written by Malcolm Kern


Malcolm Kern message.mp3


Just How Meaningless is Your Life, Anyway?
July 31, 2016[1]

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Preacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. All things are wearisome, more than one can say; all of them are meaningless, a mere chasing after the wind.”[2]

So says the Preacher of Ecclesiastes: so he begins, and so he continues, from start to finish.  It’s a great hook upon which to hang a speech, or a sermon, and the Preacher uses it with a repeated cadence that keeps his audience’s attention focused, the way a black preacher might repeat “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s a-coming!”, or a politician “Yes we can!”, or a civil rights leader “I have a dream today!”  That hook certainly caught and held my attention as I looked at the lectionary texts for this Sunday after Pastor Ed asked me if I could come and preach here this morning.

If you remember the overall structure of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher takes up one subject after another and expounds how he tried to find meaning and purpose that way, and always ended up with the same conclusion: meaningless!  In the portion we read this morning, the Preacher declares that the accumulation of wealth is ultimately a futile exercise.  In addition to wealth, he considers work, pleasure, wisdom, power, fame, justice, even life itself.  Like the title character in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Evita, he seems to have been “running around, trying everything new; but nothing impressed him at all.”  But that’s not an entirely accurate comparison.  For one thing, from the Preacher’s perspective, he wasn’t trying everything new because there really is nothing new under the sun.

And for a second difference, there does seem to be one thing that does impress the Preacher – something he comes back to time and again.  “This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in his/her toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him/her—for this is his/her lot.”  That was chapter 5, verse 18.  The Preacher says similar things in 2:24; 3:12-13; and 8:15. And he even seems to turn that observation into advice in chapter 9:

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. [3]

Now for us, when we hear that bit, we are almost guaranteed to hear echoes of any number of popular slogans, like:  “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die;” “You only live once, so go for the gusto; grab what you can, while you can.”  And combined with the repeated drumbeat of “this too is meaningless” we might also just hear Peggy Lee singing: “Is that all there is?  If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing.  Let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is.”

But for all that we can’t avoid hearing these modern echoes, I’m not at all convinced that the Preacher was really advocating the kind of unrestrained hedonism that we associate with the phrase “sex, drugs and rock and roll.”  After all, it’s the Preacher himself who, after fully indulging in “wine, women and song”, tells us that that whole endeavour was itself “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”[4]  And throughout the ages, lack of restraint has always been seen as problematic. Even the Greek philosopher Epicurus, widely considered as the founder of Hedonism, advocated the principle of “moderation in all things” as a necessary component of the maximization of pleasure and happiness that his philosophy sought after.  There is, after all, no particular happiness to be found in a hangover, nor any delight in detox; there is nothing wonderful in withdrawal, nor is there any music in a dead rockstar.

Nor am I convinced that for all his repeatedly crying “meaningless!” in the face of the inevitability of death, the Preacher intends to be an advocate of the kind of existential despair found in the popular expression “Life sucks, and then you die.”  Rather, it seems to me that the Preacher really does believe that what is truly good and beautiful about human life is to be able to take joy and delight in all that one does – both in terms of physical pleasure and in the satisfaction of having meaning and purpose to one’s life.  We ought to be able to arrange our lives so as to take joy and meaning from what we do.  There ought to be a way of life that reliably accomplishes this good.

And therein lies the problem.  The problem for the Preacher is that it just isn’t so –nothing we can can ensure that our life will indeed be all that it should be.  There is no particular method or practice we can follow that will guarantee that outcome.  You can’t be rich enough, or wise enough, or good enough to ensure a full and happy life.  Instead, he says, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”[5]  In other words, the great American dream that if you work hard and do right you will get ahead in the end should be the way things work, but it’s not.  Too often, the difference between success and failure, between wealth and poverty, seems to be just a matter of dumb luck.  And that makes the whole project problematic.  Whatever it is that God has planned, however it is that God intends for things to work out in the end, the Preacher hasn’t been able to discover its details. Indeed, he says, “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.”[6]  To the Preacher, God’s purpose for an individual remains hidden.

On that note, then, let us turn our attention to another preacher – the apostle Paul – who has a different perspective on things, because for Paul there really is something new that has happened under the sun – something that changes everything: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Among other things, the resurrection of Jesus makes certain the hope of a general resurrection in which all the inequities of life that so bothered the Preacher of Ecclesiastes will be set right.  The resurrection of Jesus begins to reveal the hidden purposes of God that the Preacher could not discover.  Indeed, without the resurrection, Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15, the popular take on the Preacher is right: “if the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”[7]  But with the resurrection, “when the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that has been written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’”[8]  Here is part of God’s answer to the Preacher.  In the resurrection, the things that in this life are not right, are unfair, are meaningless, can and will be put right.  And death, which gives such finality to those inequities, will itself die.  The resurrection of Jesus makes that future sure.  Jesus gives us hope!

But for Paul, the resurrection of Jesus does even more.  For Paul, it is not merely that Jesus’ resurrection ensures that we too will be raised in the future.  Rather, in writing to the Colossians Paul says even more.  Paul is convinced that for us who have been incorporated into Christ, we can actually say that what happened to Jesus has also happened to us, already.  That’s exactly how our Colossian text began this morning: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ” act and think this way.  The immediately preceding paragraph begins similarly:  “Since you died with Christ” why do you act as if the things that pertain to those who will die still pertain to you?  “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die” is completely meaningless for someone who has already died.  And in Christ, you have already died and you have already been raised.  You need to change your perspective.  You need to focus your mind on where you really are – in Christ.  You need to set your hearts on things where Christ is.  Because that is where your life is, hidden with Christ in God.

Paul is so convinced of this changed reality that his personal trouble, his current status as a prisoner on trial for his life, hardly merits a mention in this letter to the Colossians.  In writing to Philippi at more or less the same time, however, he asserts that his personal circumstances are really not that important.  He has, he says, learned the secret of being content in whatever state he is.  Even the prospect of imminent execution doesn’t trouble him, because, he says, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  What else would you expect from someone who understands that he has already died and has already been raised?

There is one more difference in perspective between Paul and the Preacher that I want to point out before we wind things up this morning.  Throughout Ecclesiastes, the grammar is predominantly singular.  The Preacher’s examples are all singular, and when he speaks to his audience, the pronoun “you” is also singular.  In other words, the focus is almost entirely on the individual; on how one individual fares in comparison to another.  In our Colossians text, however, the reverse is true – the pronoun “you” is always plural, and all the imperatives are plural.  And yet for Paul, this plural “you” is also one, a unity.  In English, we only see this in verse 15 “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts (pl), since as members of one body (sing) you are called to peace.”  But in Greek, this unity in plurality is present, and maybe even stronger, in verses 3 and 4: “For you (pl) died, and your (pl) life (sing) is now hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is your (pl) life (sing) appears, then you also (pl) will appear with him in glory.”  Paul is not saying that we each have our own individual lives, each of which is hidden with Christ in God.  Rather, this resurrection life that we have is one life: Christ’s life; God’s life.  We, being many, are one body sharing one life.

In Christ, we have been drawn into the internal life of God, the life in which the Son is in the Father and the Father is in the Son.  And when the glory which Christ had with the Father before the world began is again revealed, then we will be part of that glory as well.

So now, just how meaningless is your life, anyway?  Or, isn’t that description of our life hidden with Christ in God about as far removed from meaningless as one could possibly get?

In our last few minutes, I want to point out in summary fashion some of Paul’s practical applications of this radically new way of seeing life.

First, with respect to all those self-destructive practices to which a perspective of existential despair over the futility of life leaves us vulnerable – those practices really and truly are meaningless and futile, at best.  So let them die.  Better yet, kill them off.  Don’t let them hang around you as dead men walking.

Second, since your life now is already intimately connected to the resurrection life of Christ, and will ultimately reflect the glory of Christ’s life in the Triune God, focus your attention on the character of that life.  Stop obsessing on where you have or haven’t been, and focus on where you are going.  Whatever you see in the life of Christ, imitate that.

Thirdly, and perhaps most difficultly for us who live in perhaps the most highly individualistic culture the world has yet known, understand that our resurrection life is not individualistic, but communal – it is a common life, it is one life, Christ’s life, which we all share.  Whatever attitudes and practices tend to lead us into greater individualism, into factions and divisions, into the maintenance of artificial boundaries, those attitudes and practices need to go – no matter how important or foundational they seem to be to the surrounding world of the day.  For in Christ, there is no east or west, no north or south, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free.  We need to set aside pursuing only our individual distinctiveness, our individual advantage, and instead adopt the attitudes and practices that bind us together into our common resurrection life – practices that train us to see that your life is my life, and my life, your life.

12 [Thus], as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. [9]

The Preacher’s individualistic search to uncover the hidden purposes of God left him at the conclusion of meaninglessness and futility.  But in Christ, the purposes of God are hidden no longer.  All that remains hidden about our life in Christ is just how great the glory – and the meaning – of that life will ultimately prove to be.

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!


[1] This sermon assumes Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14, 2:18–23 and Colossians 3:1–11 have already been read.

[2] Eccl. 1:2, 8a, 14b (NIV)

[3] Eccl. 9:7-10 (NIV)

[4] Eccl. 2:11

[5] Eccl. 9:11

[6] Eccl. 8:17

[7] 1 Cor. 15:32

[8] 1 Cor. 15:54

[9] Col. 3:12-14


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