Sunday 9 February 2014

First world problems (Ecclesiastes 3)

“I wanted to go out, but my phone isn’t charged.”
“I have to blow dry my hair now I can’t hear my music.”
“Someone on the Internet disagrees with me.”

They are called ‘First world problems’. A photo depicts a woman breaking down in tears, overlayed with a caption that says something like, “I accidentally clicked on Internet Explorer.” These are problems that are funny, that make fun of people who don’t have problems. These are problems that are familiar because many of us (reading this) live in the first world.

In today’s passage from the bible, we read these words, “That each may eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil - this is the gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 3:13) It’s a complaint that there is nothing more to life than to eat and to drink - he sounds Chinese - and to write a really good essay. Sounds like a Cambridge student.

Are you surprised to hear the bible saying this? Eat, drink and be satisfied with your toil. You don’t need to be a Christian to know that; it’s common sense. But why is this is a gift from God? Because it’s possible to have the best opportunities and to waste it, the best of life and to throw it down the drain.

I want us to see three things from today’s passage - (1) What life is like; (2) What life is for; and (3) How life will end.

1. What life is like

I’ll begin with verse 1:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-3

He goes on - “A time for this, and a time for that…” - fourteen times, to tell us that life has its ups and downs. Some days you win; some days you lose.

You don’t need to be at Cambridge to know that. I remember an uncle who used to say, “I didn’t go to university, but I went to the school of ‘hard-knocks’.” He was not a Christian and every day for two weeks my uncle tried to convince me not to be a Christian. I learned a lot for those conversations because my uncle was speaking from experience; he had “eaten more salt than I had eaten rice.”

“Been there, done that.” Or for those of you who remember Tan Ah Teck, played by Moses Lim on the Singapore TV Series “Under One Roof,” - “Long before your time, in the southern province of China...”

We roll our eyes when we hear words like that - that speak to us as if we little kids. But what they are saying to us is, “I been through this before.” Been there, done that. You learn about life by living life - not by studying - but by going through it. And that’s why they tell us stories about their childhood, their experiences.

The bible is saying the same thing. Life is not static. God has put into motion times and seasons when you will experience both pain and laughter, joy and sadness. The big question is this: Are you prepared for those times?

This week, Facebook launched a gimmick to celebrate its 10 year anniversary. Each user got a personalised movie of their life. “A look back,” is what they call it. In a way, that’s what this poem does - it looks back at your life - the happiest of days and the saddest of days - saying: This is your life. The question is: How should you handle the good and the bad moments in your life?

And he offers a suggestion: this Uncle (I’ll call him that), he says - Enjoy it while you can. That’s the surprising answer we see in our second point - What life is for. It is for enjoyment.

2. What life is for

Verse 12:

I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.
Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

That’s surprising because Uncle is saying something very unChristian. He sounds atheist: Live each day for today. No higher purpose; no grand scheme. Get what you can get today: get pleasure, get happiness, get success. Don’t wait for tomorrow. He sounds atheist. Or he sounds Buddhist. “A time for to be born; a time to die” Very Lion King; very circle of life.

And yet, you can’t get away from the fact that Uncle keeps referring to God. Verse 10:

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He (meaning, God) has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
Ecclesiastes 3:10-11

Why does this Uncle tell us: Make the most of today! Seize the Day! Because God has put eternity in our hearts. Inside all of us is an internal itch put there by an external God. You can’t reach inside to scratch it yourself. You are not supposed to. God has put that restlessness in our hearts to make us think of something bigger than ourselves.

You might say, “I don’t care about that. The second advice about enjoying life - that makes sense; that I’ll follow.” But you see, the two parts are connected because all of us worry about tomorrow. What job am I going to get? Who am I going to marry? All of us worry about tomorrow and that keeps us from enjoying today.

The secret is knowing God. You see, if God is God, then today is just today. Jesus taught us to pray by saying, “Give us this day our daily bread.” If you trust God for today - for today’s bread, you can enjoy today’s bread. But some of us, even as we were enjoying something better than bread - hot pot dinner - we were worrying about tomorrow’s lunch. Why? Because we want the moment to last. We a want guarantee it’s going to be just as tasty, just as enjoyable, but in doing so, we stop ourselves from enjoying the meal right in front of us.

Know anyone like that? Who has the wealth, the looks, the smarts yet the more he has, the more it crushes him. The problem isn’t that he has too much money. The problem is he is trying to fill that void, that vortex inside of him with money and it just doesn’t work. Someone named Augustine once said, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

You see, if God is God, then food is just food. Work is just work. You can enjoy your food; you can enjoy your work, you might even begin enjoying God. But some of us turn food and our work into God - we worship it, sacrifice to it - and it’s never enough. God has made us for himself, and our hearts are going to be restless until they find their rest in him.

3. The end of life

Finally, the end of life. Something prompts Uncle to think about the end of life and it’s not death. I want you to see that. Rather, it’s wickedness. Look at verse 16.

And I saw something else under the sun:
In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.
Ecclesiastes 3:16

Earlier on, we said that life is a mix of good and bad but that’s not the full story, is it? Wickedness tips the balance towards the bad. People get away with evil things all the time.

And you guys - because of all the doors that will open to you when you flash that degree from Cambridge University - you guys will have a front row seat to wickedness. Because it’s in the very places of power, privilege and influence where you will find wicked people doing wicked things.

When that happens, you need to remember what Harvey Dent said in the Batman movie (the second one with Heath Ledger as the Joker). Harvey Dent said, “You either die the hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” That’s just a movie, of course, but consider what he is saying: You either try to be the hero - and die trying. Or, God forbid, you end up becoming wicked yourself.

If ever there was a first world problem, it is this: Wickedness. “In the place of justice, wickedness was there.” People who have the resources to do help others but exploit others to help themselves.

It is at this point, the bible says: Don’t lose sight of God. Verse 17: “I said to myself, ‘God will bring into judgement both the righteous and the wicked.’” Adding these lines, “For there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.” Remember that song we began with: “A time for everything… A time to be born, a time to die…”? Well, here’s the last line of that song - A time to judge every deed. Life ends with God’s appointed time of judgement.

If only for this life

A quick recap: (1) What is life like? Ups and downs, good and bad. (2) What is life for? Enjoyment: Enjoy each day is a gift from God. (3) How will life end? With judgement. God will call us to account for all we’ve done in life. The conclusion to all this is to eat, to drink and enjoy every second of your time here in Cambridge.

Except there is a place where the bible also says this: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” The same passage reads, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:32 & 15:19)

What’s it saying? If being a Christian is only for this life, then don’t be a Christian. Why? Because Christians get cancer, because Christians still die. In fact, if being a Christian is just for this life, then like my uncle in Malaysia, I should be discouraging you from being a Christian, not encouraging you.

So why should you become a Christian? For one simple reason: Jesus Christ rose from the dead. And if Jesus really rose from the dead, it means, firstly, that God can raise the dead. Secondly, it means God can use our death, the way he used Jesus’ death and Jesus’ suffering to bring life, to show his love. God is not just God of good things, he is God over everything. Most importantly, if Jesus rose from the dead, it means God has taken your death. Jesus Christ died so that you would not die, he took your sin so you could receive his righteousness. If you are a Christian, judgement is not something far ahead, into the future, judgement happened on the cross. And the resurrection of Jesus Christ is there to show you there is no more judgement for sin. You are free.

Valentine’s Day is happening this week. Imagine on Valentine’s Day getting a card that said, “Today is going to be a fantastic day. We are going to enjoy ourselves, have a nice meal, have a good time… because tomorrow, we might break up. Tomorrow, I might find someone better-looking than you.” Friends, you can’t build any meaningful relationship if you’re only in it for the good times. “For better for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health” - that’s a promise that Christians make in marriage, that’s a promise that Christians receive from God. He is God over everything.

God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless and they will continue to be restless until they find their rest in him. And Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”