Striving after the Wind? Or Led by the Spirit?
Click here to listen to this sermon.
In the opening words of his book, Lutheran Theology, Steven D. Paulson
makes this thought provoking statement: “Lutheran theology begins perversely by
advocating the destruction of all that is good, right, and beautiful in human
life. It attacks the lowest and highest
goals of life, especially morality, no matter how sincere are its practitioners.”
He goes on to say “Luther said the ‘sum
and substance of,’ Paul’s letter to the Romans ‘is to pull down, to pluck up,
and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh’” (p.1).
The text for today is Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, & 2:24-26.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
|Vanitas, Vanitatum by Salvador Dali|
As I prepared for today, the thought occurred to me that the Preacher of our text must have been Lutheran. No, he didn’t hold potlucks in the church basement with egg coffee, casseroles, and lime jello. But led by the Holy Spirit, he did seem to understand that “the first task of theology is to witness to sin and make it great, so great that it kills.” As St. Paul would three thousand years later, the Preacher magnifies sin until it is revealed in the very hearts of the righteous, those who “proving themselves to be wise, became fools” (Romans 1:22).
This is done, not as a means to an end itself, but to make way for the declaration of a completely foreign, a new righteousness, a new wisdom, that has no Law in it at all. We must be taught a righteousness and wisdom that comes completely from the outside of us. And therefore our own righteousness, our own wisdom that is born in us, must first be plucked up, so that the wisdom and righteousness of Christ may be planted and built in us. No righteousness, no wisdom that comes from us, from our doings, or our heart will endure before God. Only Christ’s righteousness and wisdom lives for eternity.
We’ll talk more about that in a little bit. But let’s first check in on one of Jesus’ forefathers who had to learn this lesson the hard way, by bearing his own cross of fame and fortune, success and excess, vanity and emptiness.
With our imaginations we travel back in time to ancient Jerusalem. Before us looms the magnificent temple, which took thousands of the king’s best workmen seven years to build. Suddenly the king and his entourage arrive. Known throughout the world for his unmatched wisdom and fabulous wealth, Solomon wears a crown of gold and scarlet robe. But as our attention moves from the trappings to the man himself, we see the face of an old man. His eyes betray a weary sorrow. His is a story of grandeur, but also of great tragedy.
The sacred historian puts it this way: “For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done… Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, ‘Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant’” (1 Kings 11:4-11).
This man who stands before us is, in many ways, a shell of his former self. He stands condemned before God. And his speech is anything but encouraging: “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The Hebrew word translated “vanity” is hebel, literally “mere breath.” This idea becomes very vivid on a cold day, when we see our breath, only to see it quickly vanish. St. James captured this thought when he wrote, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
How accurately this describes life on earth! Beneath all the hustle and bustle, the tinsel and glitter, lurks that terrible sense of emptiness. It was not that way in Eden before man fell into sin, but it is part of God’s judgment upon sin. Then the king becomes very personal. “I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14).
The Scriptures record the extent of his wisdom and fame. “And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt… He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees… of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish (1 Kings 4:29-34).
With this vast intellectual treasury, wise King Solomon set out to discover the meaning of life on earth. The first thing he observed was the most obvious. “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man.” The expression Solomon uses is literally “sons of Adam,” drawing our thoughts back to the fall of the first man. Conceived and born in sin, mankind struggles under the curse of sin. Solomon continues: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold it is vanity and a striving after wind.” The King James Version translates this expression as “vexation of spirit.” Since the Hebrew word for “wind” and “spirit” is the same, either might fit the tone of Ecclesiastes. Yet the idiom “striving after the wind” seems to give us a better picture. In and of themselves, all human endeavors are but futile attempts to grab hold of the wind. You clench it in your fist and what do you have? A handful of nothing! No matter how much you see and learn, that’s what you end up with.
Solomon continues: “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?… So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.”
This passage is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable about the rich fool, who “stored up things for himself” but was not “rich toward God” (Luke 12:13-21). Verse 18 has the same ring to it as God’s words to the rich fool: “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” But Solomon’s concern about the person who will come after him is not simply a generalized statement of truth. Perhaps, when he wrote this, he was having serious doubts about his son Rehoboam, who did bring many of Solomon’s spectacular achievements to ruin (1 Kings 12).
Solomon’s conclusion? “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases Him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 2:24-26).
Having examined wisdom, foolishness, pleasure, achievements, and everything else under the sun, Solomon has found it all wanting. No matter how hard you try, none of these things last. Death comes to us all, and not even the rich man with bins full of grain can buy off the Grim Reaper. Desperation or futility—these are the end products of striving after the wind.
Desperation reasons that you only have so much time to look out for yourself because life is short and it just isn’t fair. Futility reasons that, since time does run out, what’s the use of even trying? It just isn’t fair, so why bother?
But there is a more excellent way than finding your identity in your labor or possessions, or of bemoaning the unfairness of life. The good news is this: God isn’t fair, either. And that’s a good thing. Fair means according to the rules. If God were fair, the plan for salvation would stop with this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and your neighbor as yourself.” Do this and heaven is yours. Don’t do this and you’re condemned. Do you see? If God were fair, we would already be in hell.
But God is more than fair. He is gracious and merciful. Consider verse 21 once again: “Sometimes a person has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it.” There is such a Man, and His name is Jesus. As far as wisdom, He is no less than the wisdom of God, who makes us wise unto salvation. As far as knowledge, He alone knows the Father, and makes Him known to us so that we might have eternal life. As far as skill, see Him heal and perform miracles; hear Him proclaim eternal life and confound the enemies of God. Truly, He does all things well.
So this is the Man of wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and He applies it to His labor. Although He is the One who has created the heavens and the earth, He puts no claim upon them, even though all is His. No, He walks the earth in simplicity, and has only garments to be divided among the soldiers when He is put to death. He keeps God’s Law—not just outwardly, but with all of His heart, soul, and mind. He does not do this for Himself, but for you. Having fulfilled all of God’s commands, He gives you the credit. Although He deserves all worship and glory, He devotes Himself in service to others and remains faithful to His Father in heaven. He dies scorned by the world; but He dies there for you.
This is the Man whose labor is with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and He leaves His heritage to a man who has not labored for it… that would be you, and that would be me. But while the suffering is His, the salvation is yours. He serves others and dies, that you might be forgiven for trampling others in your pursuit of personal gain. He practices perfect contentment and dies, so that you might be delivered from greed and covetousness. He credits you with His virtue, and dies in punishment for your vice. It’s not fair, is it? No, but that’s how you are saved!
Consider v. 26 again, in the shadow of the cross: “To the one who pleases Him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner He has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God.”
Jesus is the Man again—the Man of wisdom who pleases God, and the sinner who gathers and collects. God gives to Him wisdom and knowledge and joy, for Jesus is good in His sight. The Father announces that this is His beloved Son, with Him He is well pleased, and gives Him all knowledge and tells us to hear Him. He also gives Him joy, but a peculiar joy to the world: For the joy set before Him, He endures the cross and scorns its shame (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus goes to the cross, gathering and carrying all sin with Him. There, God makes Him who knows no sin to be the sinner, and judges Him for the sin of the world. Because Christ is punished in your place, you are forgiven and pleasing in God’s sight. Therefore, the Lord gives to you the wisdom of salvation, knowledge of Him, and the joy of the certain hope of eternal life—all for the sake of Jesus.
Ironically, it’s Jesus who looks like vanity to the world, for sinful man pictures Him as a good teacher who unfortunately dies for no purpose on the way. His cross, it is said, is futility that accomplishes nothing. But you know better. What Christ has accomplished is no vanity; it’s your life and salvation. And that, dear friends, is your identity and worth. Ultimately, your identity is not based upon who you are and what you do, but whose you are and what He has done. You are the Lord’s, and He has died to redeem you. By His blood you are saved from your sin and delivered to eternal life. By His doing your life is transformed from a futile striving after wind to a grateful response and service as you are led by the Spirit. By His grace, the things that you have are no longer gods that must be attained and kept, but gifts placed under your stewardship to be used in service to God and others.
While this may not be the legacy you hoped for, it does keep matters straight and true. Those things which you possess will not last forever; therefore it is only sensible not to trust in them for help, and to see them only for what they are—lifeless things that cannot save you. On the other hand, you now will live forever—not because of the name you make for yourself, but the Name that has been placed upon you. You are the Lord’s, for He has made you His own.
Oh, at times you will be tempted with covetousness and the desire for more, as your Old Adam seeks to convince you that eternal life and God’s gracious favor aren’t enough. When your sinful nature leads your mind astray, repent. Confess to the Lord your preoccupation with things, trusting that Christ has died for this sin, too. Give thanks to the Lord for those things that He has entrusted to you, and make use of them in service to others. Go about your daily tasks with joy, knowing you do so as one redeemed. Annoy your Old Adam further by demonstrating your freedom from covetousness, allotting a generous portion of the material blessings you have been given, and giving it regularly to the Church in service to the Lord. Do so out of joy, for Christ has set you free to do such things.
At times you will be tempted to vanity and futility. Hard work will show little progress, fervent sowing will reveal little to harvest, and you will wish to throw up your hands and say, “What’s the use? I’m getting nowhere, so I quit.” At such times, confess your frustration to the Lord, confident that He has died for such sins. Remember that servanthood often appears futile, as did the Lord’s death on the cross. But even as the victory over sin was won there, the Lord is often behind the scenes accomplishing His will. Never believe for a moment that you’re getting nowhere. You’ve already been gotten into the kingdom of heaven because the Lord has died to make it so. Therefore, go about your work with joy, knowing that your destination is already achieved for Jesus’ sake. And should you look back upon past years and regret that much was done in selfishness, be assured that the Lord still made use of much that you have done to care for those around you.
The way of the world is a striving after wind, where you are to gain all you can for yourself. But as we’ve seen before, there is no happy ending for the Old Adam. The one who pursues possessions will either die like the rich man of the Gospel lesson, without hope; or else he will end up like the Preacher, collapsed in futility when he discovers that possessions cannot save. With the Old Adam running the show, it’s absolutely true: All is vanity, and you can’t win.
But you, my friends, have been delivered from all this. Jesus Christ—the God-man—has saved you by His perfect life and atoning death. Rather than striving after the wind, you are led by the Spirit through His means of grace. In Baptism, you are a beloved child of the heavenly Father, an heir of all the riches of heaven—eternal life, salvation and forgiveness. Indeed, for the sake of the triune God’s work and His Name you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.