Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.Colossians 3:2-3
Once every three years, in our church lectionary, our Sunday readings include a selection from one of my favorite books in the Old Testament, the Book of Ecclesiastes. But it only shows up once every three years. And today is the day. So, I bet you guess what I am going to preach on! Yes, indeed – the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:1 – 2:23).
This unique book of the Bible is written by a man who has spent his entire life searching for wisdom, searching for the meaning, the purpose of this life, of our existence. Why are we here? What is the point of it all? And if you have ever pondered these questions, as I have, then this book is for you.
But what this book is really good at, I think, is teaching us about the shortcuts that we try to take, to happiness, or meaning, or fulfillment. I guess they could be called “life hacks” these days.
And Ecclesiastes shows us, in a powerful way, how all of these short cuts are simply dead-end roads. They don’t really lead to meaning, purpose, or fulfillment. They may seem like they might, but they really don’t. The author of Ecclesiastes has a very famous way of describing these dead-end roads to meaning: They are vanity, a chasing after the wind. And “Vanity of vanities,” he famously begins this book. “All is vanity.”
So let’s take a look at a few of these dead-end roads, before we turn to the one road that will lead to happiness, meaning, and fulfillment.
The first dead-end road is a bit of a surprise. It is not money, pleasure, or power. Instead, it is wisdom. From today’s reading, we hear him explain this:
“I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.”
Wisdom is a good thing, right? He says so in Chapter 2: “Wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.” It’s better to be wise, to be sure.
But what does wisdom get us in the end? Not eternal life, but the very same fate that befalls us all. “What happens to the fool will happen to me also,” he writes. “Why then have I been so very wise?” “So,” he concludes, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after the wind.”
And if there is one thing that is true about chasing after wind, it is that you will never catch it. The author of Ecclesiastes has spent a lifetime searching out wisdom, and trying to figure out what this life means, only to discover in the end that he was chasing after the wind. He concludes, in a rather discouraging way, by saying that all our days are full of pain, and our work is a vexation, and even at night our minds do not rest. This also, he concludes, is vanity, a chasing after the wind. Wisdom is a dead-end road. By itself, it won’t give our lives true meaning.
If that’s the case, then maybe we should just eat, drink and be merry, as this author famously puts it. But he learns that this won’t get us there, either. In Chapter 2, he writes:
“I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ … I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines … Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure …”
Now, remember, this is the King of Israel. Very rich, very powerful, and more than able to travel the road of pleasure all the way to its end. Most of us can’t do that. We can’t have whatever our eyes desire. He could, and he kept his heart from no pleasure. And what did it get him, in the end? Emptiness. It, too, amounted to no more than dust in the wind.
So, in other words, this life isn’t about pleasure, either. It’s not just about pursuing happiness. Chasing happiness through pleasure is like chasing the wind. It doesn’t work. It can be a pleasurable distraction, but it doesn’t give our lives meaning; and in the end it, too, is vanity. It, too, amounts to nothing more than dust in the wind.
But, still the Teacher is not finished. He is going to pursue every possible road that might lead to happiness, or meaning or purpose. So, we discover by reading on in Chapter 2, he tries another approach:
“I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees …
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
So, he tried building things; he tried to become a worldly success. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? There really is nothing new under the sun, as this author famously puts it. This path toward worldly success continues to be a road that many eagerly take. It is very tempting to think that a little more success in this life, whether it be a bigger house or a better job, will bring us happiness or fulfillment.
But, again, this is a dead-end road. In fact, sometimes success in this life makes it even harder to face our mortality. As this author puts it, who was very successful in this life:
“I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? … This also is vanity.”
Today’s Gospel Reading (Luke 12:13-21)
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us a parable about a rich man who thinks he can find life’s meaning through an abundance of possessions. He works hard, builds bigger barns, and gets ready to enjoy all the fruit of his labor. Only to be told by God that this is his last night on earth. What did all that work and all that wealth get him? A reprimand from our Lord. And so it is, Jesus concludes, for those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.
Meaning in life is not found from an abundance of possessions; and he who dies with the most toys doesn’t win, after all. Most of us might like a few more toys, to be honest, but it is good to remember that they won’t meet the deep hunger in our souls.
Summary of the Dead-End Roads
Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, or in doing great things, or in having great power, or in worldly pleasures. All of these things turn out to be just a chasing after the wind, the Teacher tells us in Ecclesiastes.
This all may sound rather discouraging, so far. But to me it has always sounded refreshingly honest. To me, the great gift of this book is that it provides us with the very honest conclusion, of a very wise man, who has tried to find meaning in life in every way conceivable, and has struck out. And is now sharing this hard-earned wisdom with us, so that we don’t follow the same false path. The author of Ecclesiastes is like a man standing at the beginning of these enticing paths toward wisdom, and pleasure, and worldly success, saying: “Don’t take this path. Trust me. I went all the way to the end, and it got me nowhere.”
Where Christ Is
But, this does raise the obvious question: What does life consist of? What will meet the deep hunger in our souls? What will give our life a meaning and a purpose and a fulfillment that will not blow away in the wind?
We know the answer, of course. It is why we follow Jesus. But it is good to remind ourselves anyway. And today we have a good reminder in our second reading, from Colossians (3:1-4). Here it is:
“If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
If we are looking for meaning and purpose and happiness and fulfillment, then we should set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. We should seek the things that are above, where Christ is. Barns and buildings won’t do it. Pleasure and power won’t either. It is only Christ.
The truth that brings us together today is that the meaning of life is wrapped up in Christ. Our life is hidden with Christ in God, Paul tells us in this passage. And when Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then we also will be revealed with him in glory. Our glory, in other words, is not found in our money, success, pleasure, or power, but only in Christ.
And only by turning to Christ can our deepest hunger be filled. Everything else is vanity, a chasing after wind. But Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Christ came so that we would have life, and have it abundantly. In Christ, and in Christ alone, we find the road that leads to life, to meaning, to purpose, to fulfillment, and to joy.
There are many false roads that tempt us. They seem shorter, and easier, and more in our control. But they are dead ends. The author of Ecclesiastes knows. He has tried them all. And now he is looking back, and warning us not to follow him. We don’t have to end our lives in the same way that he does. We don’t have to look back and say, as he does:
“What do mortals get from all their toil and strain? … For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”
No. When our life is hidden with Christ in God – when we set our minds on things that are above – we can find meaning in our work, we can find purpose in our life, we can find joy in serving and loving others, and we can find rest for our weary souls. Thanks be to God. Amen.