Living the Good, Uncertain Life

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I wanted to give you a quick heads up on what I’ll be preaching for the next several months. You may recall that before my sabbatical, I had been preaching through the book of Ecclesiastes, which I had not quite finished. During my sabbatical, I studied and prayed a lot about what churches are meant to be and what we’re called to do. So for the last couple weeks since returning, I preached briefly on that, talking about how we are God’s church, and we ought to be devoting ourselves to the things of God, like prayer and His word.

But now, for the next four weeks, I’m going to go back to preaching through the end of Ecclesiastes, finishing that sermon series, and then after that, we’re going to talk more about the church by looking at the book of Ephesians. Because, just like in the early church, there are huge obstacles to overcome as a church today, but I’m also learning that there are also huge opportunities to glorify God if we seek Him and strive to glorify Him in the way that we do life together as a church. And I’m genuinely excited about that, more than I have been for a long time, that if we take a step of faith, even when it’s hard, and maybe at times even when it seems impossible, we truly can rest and rejoice in what God is doing through our church.

And the same is true for our lives as individual believers, which is actually what the end of Ecclesiastes is all about.

One of the biggest problems facing Christians today isn’t just what’s going on out there, but what’s going on in here, inside ourselves. Are we going to be the kind of Christians that are Christians by name only, or are we going to live out our faith because we have a genuine faith in Jesus, even when it’s difficult to do so in our culture today?

We could look throughout history and find examples of both.

Many professing Christians owned and mistreated black slaves because it appeared to be in their best interest to do so at the time. Many professing Christians also participated in the Salem Witch Trials rather than owning up to their own complicity in adulterous sexual acts. Even Adolf Hitler and the vast majority of the Nazi Party claimed to be Christians, although their actions and many of their writings said otherwise.

On the other hand, there have also been many Christians throughout history who have stood up against culture to do what was right, even when in the face of extreme persecution.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister who faced constant threats, and eventually death, for leading the American civil rights movement with nonviolent civil disobedience. And Corrie ten Boom and her family were Dutch Christians who helped Jews hide and escape Nazi persecution during World War II. They were arrested and sent to concentration camps for loving their neighbors.

So what’s the difference between a hypocrite who at the very least has huge blind spots regarding how they live out their faith, and a genuine believer who humbly seeks to obey God even when it hurts?

Paul David Tripp is a pastor in Philadelphia, and a while back, he wrote this on his blog:

The next time you’re standing in your kitchen, bedroom, or at your desk, I want you to look at drawers. Yes, drawers…Sadly, many people who call themselves Christians live functionally compartmentalized lives. Whether they realize it or not, they have divided their lives neatly into two drawers: real life and spiritual life. – Paul David Tripp

The sad reality for many of us is that it’s far too convenient for us to relegate our Christianity to one or two days of the week, when we come to church. If we were to do that, we might feel as if we’ve done our Christian duty, sacrificing a couple hours on Sunday morning, so that then the rest of the week, we then do what we feel like is advantageous to us.

But Scripture is going to encourage us all today to do what’s right every day of the week, even if it doesn’t necessarily lead to what we consider to be good things. Because the truth is, life is uncertain, but even then, God calls us to live for Him, and rest in Him, because true life is found in Jesus alone.

Read with me from Ecclesiastes 9, starting in verse 11.

Again I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, or the battle to the strong, or bread to the wise, or riches to the discerning, or favor to the skillful; rather, time and chance happen to all of them. For certainly no one knows his time: like fish caught in a cruel net or like birds caught in a trap, so people are trapped in an evil time as it suddenly falls on them. (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)

Father, help us to look to You at all times, whether things are going well, and even when things are not going at all as planned, seeking to honor You with all of our lives, because You truly deserve and honor and praise. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

A great, well-known theologian once said:

“Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.” And it’s a true statement. Even if we were to look at the chocolate guide in the box, we can never really know what’s going to happen in our lives.

And if we didn’t know better, Forrest Gump could have written our passage in Ecclesiastes today, because this same idea is illustrated over and over again, in many different ways.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes, probably Solomon, says in verse 11 that the race is not to the swift. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race because sometimes they trip, or just have a bad day, or the other person cheats. And the battle is not to the strong. The strongest army or strongest warrior doesn’t always win, because the other army or warrior could have better weapons, or a better position. And bread doesn’t always go to the wise, because fools could steal it. Riches don’t always go to the discerning, because there are so many other factors that could get in the way. Favor doesn’t always go to the skillful, because even if a person does his job well, someone else might get the promotion because their family owns the business. For all of these circumstances and so many more, like it says at the end of verse 11, time and chance happen to them all.

I was listening to the Bible Project podcast as they were talking about the Wisdom literature in the Bible, and at one point it was comparing the book of Ecclesiastes with the book of Proverbs. They talked about how the book of Proverbs gives very straightforward advice about how to live, and what to expect in life. Proverbs seems to give a very black and white view of things. If you do this, you can expect that. Wise people flourish, and foolish people perish. That’s the wisdom of the book of Proverbs.

But the book of Ecclesiastes is much more nuanced. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes says, “It’s good to be wise, but even if you’re wise, it won’t necessarily lead to good things in this life.” Sometimes wisdom leads to good things, but sometimes wisdom leads to being despised. And we don’t know which we’re going to get. Life is like a box of chocolates. Like a fish caught in a net or a bird caught in a trap, we don’t know when or if we might suddenly fall into an evil time, according to verse 12.

That phrase “an evil time” comes from the Hebrew “le’et ra’ah” and is sometimes translated as “perilous time” or “disastrous moment.” The idea is simply that at any moment, we could find ourselves in hard times, such that we are exceedingly distressed, and we are miserable. So it’s not wise to live according to what we think we can achieve, because even if we do all the right steps, we can’t possibly know if we might suddenly fall into an extremely difficult time. Our objective should always be to do what’s right, rather than what seems to be favorable to us.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote:

So it is sin to know the good and yet not do it. (James 4:17)

And I don’t know about you, but that verse convicts me of sin probably more than any other command in the Bible. We were all made in God’s image, and therefore we’re all capable of doing amazingly good things, and yet we all fall short. I think we all know the good we ought to do, but we shrink back from doing it whether out of fear or insecurity, and we don’t do it, and so prove that we’ve all sinners before God.

Jesus, on the other hand, showed us exactly how to do what’s good and right, even in the face of death. When Jesus was about to be arrested and crucified, He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, not My will, but Yours be done.” And what’s really crazy about that is that the wages of sin is death, but Jesus never sinned, so Jesus didn’t deserve to die! Jesus could have lived forever! But He subjected Himself to die for our sin, because the way that we strive to live life shouldn’t be about doing what we think is best for us in the short term, but rather about doing what’s good and right.

So it’s clear that doing what’s right doesn’t always lead to immediate rewards in this life. Even still, it’s better to live a moral life than an immoral one. Verse 13.

I have observed that this also is wisdom under the sun, and it is significant to me: There was a small city with few men in it. A great king came against it, surrounded it, and built large siege works against it. Now a poor wise man was found in the city, and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man. (Ecclesiastes 9:13-15)

Apparently the Teacher in Ecclesiastes observed this real life situation: he saw a poor man who saved a city from being destroyed by a foreign king. And that’s just about all the details we’re given. We’re not told what the name of the city was, or who the king was, or even the name of the poor man. But apparently, this situation made an impact on the Teacher so that he wrote in verse 13, “I observed this, and it was significant to me.” And the significant thing was that after he saved the city from being destroyed, the poor man didn’t get any credit for what he had done. Maybe someone else took credit for it, or the people in charge of the city just didn’t like the poor man, so they didn’t want to give him credit, or whatever it was. The poor man did a great thing, and got no reward for it.

This is exactly the kind of thing that we observe over and over again in life, isn’t it? Maybe you’ve felt this same kind of injustice, in which you worked really really hard, you gave your life for your job, or for your family, or even for the church, but then after you felt like you accomplished something great, no one even acknowledged your dedication and sacrifice.

And if you’ve ever felt that way, just imagine for a moment how God feels. God made everything in all the universe so that we would enjoy it and give Him praise for it, but then so often, even those who believe in Him, go about our days as if life is all about us. Listen, life is a miracle from God! And we owe God all of our lives!

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says:

Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought at a price. So glorify God with your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

Psalm 100:3:

Acknowledge that the Lord is God. He made us, and we are his—his people, the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100:3)

And Colossians 1:16:

For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:16)

God is the Creator and Sustainer of every good thing, yet most of humanity throughout most of time has cursed His name, or at the very least, ignored Him most of their lives.

So God understands when we experience this injustice of not getting what we deserve, even when we do what’s right.

And yet, in response to that, the writer of Ecclesiastes would say, “Don’t worry about it. It’s an injustice, but that’s life.” It’s an uncertain life! We don’t know what’s going to happen, and we certainly can’t control the outcome of anything. However, we can control what we ourselves do. And it’s always worth doing the good, right, and wise thing.

Verse 16.

And I said, “Wisdom is better than strength, but the wisdom of the poor man is despised, and his words are not heeded.” The calm words of the wise are heeded more than the shouts of a ruler over fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner can destroy much good. Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil ferment and stink; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor. A wise person’s heart goes to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left. Even when the fool walks along the road, his heart lacks sense, and he shows everyone he is a fool. If the ruler’s anger rises against you, don’t leave your post, for calmness puts great offenses to rest. (Ecclesiastes 9:17-10:4)

I read a story about a grumpy old man who had the reputation of never helping others. One day, the man was walking down the street when he saw a young boy struggling to carry a heavy load of firewood. The grumpy old man suddenly had compassion on the boy, so he stopped and offered to help carry it. The little boy was grateful for the man’s help, but he was also a bit intimidated because of the man’s reputation.

As they walked along, the boy asked the man, “Why are you helping me? You don’t even know me.”

Carlyle replied, “I’m helping you because it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter if I know you or not.”

When they reached the boy’s house, he thanked the old man again for his help, “A lot of people think you’re just a grumpy man who isn’t interested in helping others, but I’m going to tell everyone what you did to help me!” The old man just smiled and said, “Ah, don’t worry about that, it’s always important to do good, even if no one notices. Besides, no one would believe you anyway.”

So even when no one seems to notice, it’s still worth it to do good. It’s still worth it to be wise. Wisdom is better than strength! Throughout most of history, strength has determined the winners. Countries with the biggest armies and the greatest firepower win. It’s the survival of the fittest! Whoever can overpower the other will be the one who gets to write history and make the rules.

But wisdom is better than that. It’s better than weapons of war. Wisdom wins in the end not by might, but by being truly right.

And yet, in the short term, wisdom is not often heeded. We see this in politics a lot, don’t we? Each party wants to have power, so they try to exert their power through legislation, dirty tricks, or even illegal plans. And all the while, there are often some common sense things, simple wisdom, that everyone could agree on, but that legislation isn’t heeded because both are trying to win through power. Rather than talking through things calmly, politics usually devolves into shouting matches, and foolishness wins out over wisdom and honor.

And yet, even then, when it doesn’t look like wisdom is making a difference, it’s important to be wise. Verse 4 says, “If the ruler’s anger rises against you, don’t leave your post, for calmness puts great offenses to rest.”

Even when it doesn’t look like there’s any advantage to being wise and doing the right thing, stay calm, and keep on doing what God’s called you to do. Don’t leave your post. Because even if no one in this life notices, God sees you, and God will make all things right in His justice.

Even when it seemed like God had lost, as Jesus was dying on the cross, God was up to something. What the world might call the foolishness of the cross is truly the wisdom of God. It was through Jesus dying on the cross that God saves sinners. It was through the cross that God is restoring justice to the world. And it’s through the cross that God is making all things new.

So always do good, because it’s good, but know this: God may or may not reward you for it in this life. We might not see any of the rewards that we’d like, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good to do good. Good is worth doing because it’s good. Good is its own reward. We are not to look for rewards in this life, but we look forward to our eternal home.

Paul wrote in Romans 8:

For all those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. Instead, you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:14-17)

You see, becoming a Christian doesn’t lead to an easier life, but it does start you on the right life, the good life, because it’s the life that we were created to live that begins here, and extends into eternity. Through faith in Jesus, we have a relationship with God! We’re His children! And although life will continue to be uncertain even with Jesus, with Jesus, all of our sins are forgiven, we have the Holy Spirit in us wherever we go to strengthen us, and we can be sure that God’s justice will prevail in the end, reconciling the whole world to Himself.

So be reconciled to God.

As we go into our time of invitation this morning, pray for the people in your pew, that they would be faithful to make the decisions they need to this morning to follow Jesus.

Maybe you’ve struggled to live the good life, a life that not only pleases God, but that gives you peace. The reality is, no matter how hard you try, you can’t live a perfect life. We’ve all sinned and fallen short of that. But because Jesus died for your sin, you can be forgiven, made right with God, and begin to live the good life that God has planned for you. But you have to place your faith not in yourself, and not in your ability to get things right, but in Jesus. So I invite you this morning to place your faith in Jesus. If you’ve never received Him as your Savior and followed Him in baptism, I invite you this morning to trust in Him.

Or maybe you’ve done that, but you don’t feel like you’ve been following Him very well. Maybe you want to live the good life as you follow Jesus, but you’re scared how you might be perceived by others. Listen, God calls you not just to rest in Jesus, but to rejoice in Him! He calls you to take a step of faith and serve Him in ways that might be different and scary at first, but will absolutely lead you into a deeper faith and assurance of God’s purpose for your life. Whether that means taking on a leadership role in the church, or inviting your friends and family to come and worship with you, or even just being more consistent to incorporate your faith throughout the week, I invite you this morning to take a step of faith, and say to God, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, and can’t promise I’m always going to be faithful, but I need your strength to do the good I know I ought to be doing. Give me boldness and strength as I follow You.” If that’s the commitment you need to make this morning, I invite you to come and pray as well. I’ll pray with you if you’d like, or you could just pray at the altar, just between you and God, and allow us to pray for you as you make that commitment.

So whether you need to receive Jesus as your Savior this morning, or pray for boldness in living out your faith, either way, I invite you to come now and follow Jesus as we begin to sing.