Daily Living by Daily Dying (Matthew 16:21-27)

Many of the monuments at the Antietam National Battlefield have symbols upon them. They are not immediately obvious in most cases. The prime exception is in the West Woods area, where you drive into a beautiful tree-lined park setting. Entering between two cement pillars along the Hagerstown Turnpike, many guests will notice and comment upon seeing cloverleaf symbols upon them, as well as on the large obelisk monument in the middle of this park area.

The first guess is that these symbols represent the Irish Brigade – a famous Civil War unit in the Federal Army that indeed fight at Antietam, but not in this location. They entered the battle in the area of the 1897-constructed observation tower.

Rather, the pillars originally supported an iron gate with the inscription “Philadelphia Brigade Park.”  This Union outfit featured four regiments from the Philadelphia area who were a part of the Second Corps of the Federal Army. The cloverleaf symbol (called a trefoil, used also at times in history to depict the Trinity), was the chosen emblem of the Second Corps of the army. A circle was the First Corps, for example, and an iron cross depicted the Sixth Corps. Varied colors then also depicted the divisions within a corps – a red symbol always being the first division of said corps, white for the second, blue for the third.

These symbols were called “corps badges” and were devised by General Hooker in the spring of 1863. But, but … Antietam was in 1862!  Correct!  These badges were on uniforms, hats, flags, etc., and became symbols of great pride. And even though not yet invented at the time of the September, 1862 Battle of Antietam, they adorn many of the monuments put there by veterans who returned decades later to recall the sacrifices of their fallen brothers and comrades.

Many of us take pride in varied symbols, be they of a favorite sports team, business association or line of clothing. It is all about identity. Being associated with the symbol and what it represents says something about our values without even a word being spoken.

We all like to be a part of a winning outfit. And surely there was a lot of personal excitement in being called to be one of Jesus’ disciples … to drop the fishing enterprise and follow the Messiah around the country and be a part of the preaching, the miracles, the crowds, etc.  Cool!

But likely the disciples did not anticipate the opposition that was profoundly present at so many places. It was disconcerting for sure that the “deep state” religious leaders in Israel were so routinely opposed to Jesus and the message of the Kingdom. Much of this looked rather dangerous even. Violence was narrowly averted on several occasions (like when the hometown folks in Galilee in Luke 4 took Jesus up to a cliff to toss him over the edge!).

As the time for Christ’s final work was approaching, Jesus began to rather explicitly tell the 12 exactly what was going to be his upcoming experience …

Matthew 16:21 – From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

How could this be? This is not at all what the disciples signed up for when agreeing to drop their nets and go fishing for men. Jesus – the Messiah (as in the previous paragraph Peter was applauded for hitting the nail on the head with this declaration) – was surely not going to be killed!!  And Peter says so to Christ …

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

For sure, Peter had the wrong picture, not that he was the only one. He was simply the one most willing to verbalize what the others were likely also thinking. The mission of the Kingdom, the work of the Messiah – all of this was to be a grand success of righteousness prevailing.

And truth does prevail; God does reign victorious. The Kingdom will be perfectly established. But, as in war, there is a price to be paid and battles to be won. There is an evil system to be defeated. To expect nothing but victories is to not understand the nature of the conflict.

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

This is counterintuitive thinking for sure. To be a part of the winning outfit eternally, we must give up the natural expectation as to what constitutes victory and security. The natural self says to fight for gain in this world and prioritize self. But the true disciple does not view success in life in this manner. Rather, the guiding principle is to follow Christ whatever the cost, even knowing that the cost could be the loss of everything material. Though it may seem that Jesus is turning the world upside-down, in fact he is turning it right-side up. But the world will not receive that.

Again, not recognizing the work of Christ for what it is, the masses of people will hate the symbol of this work of Christ – the cross. Nothing was more despised and dreadful in the Roman world. Emblematic of the worst death possible for the worst people possible, it was the last of things to find one’s personal identity by open identity with it.

Yet the calling of the gospel is to be willing take up the cross, as Christ did – to bear the shame and reproach of it all. Be counterintuitive. Embrace the conflict, because the appearance of loss is turned ultimately to greatest of victories. In what is perhaps the ultimate summary statement about faith in Christ, Paul writes …

Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

This may seem like daily dying, but it is daily living.

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Loving Your Enemies (Matthew 5:43-48)

Yesterday was one of those sermons that I did not feel good about, once it was done. I feared it maybe had too much of a “just love, love, love people no matter what and let them walk all over you” kind of feel to it. Yes, there are times when you have to make a stand for something that is right, but even then, there is a right way to stand for what is right, right?

Talking about stuff that is counterintuitive is sort of counterintuitive as well. But let me share some of the main thoughts again, perhaps with some additional twists.

As I said, the past week was a bit strange with my wife being gone with our business family on a trade show trip to Wisconsin. She’ll soon be home, which is really a good thing since I can’t figure out why all the appliances other than the refrigerator have stopped working at the same time. The dishwasher isn’t loading and washing the dishes, the stove isn’t cooking anything, and I’m sure I’ve not heard the washing machine running at all this past week!

Speaking of home appliances, is my understanding that the most efficient way to heat your home in the winter is not how you might think … to turn off the heat completely overnight, and then fully heat the house again in the morning. It is actually (as I understand it) better to turn down the heat, but not exceptionally far, rather than allow the house to entirely cool for 6-8 hours. As objects in the home cool, they become a “sink of coldness” that causes more energy demand to heat up everything than if not allowed to get so cold.

This type of thinking is what we call “counterintuitive” … counter to what intuition would lead one to expect, something not easily understood in an instinctive, unconscious way. As we grow in faith and in the knowledge of the Scriptures, we learn that God’s way often is not the way of our instincts. Love your enemies? That is indeed opposite of our instincts and thereby fits as an appropriate topic for this series.

We think it best to defeat enemies by doubling down in like manner as to what they’ve done to us. Perhaps a best strategy would seem to be that “the best defense is a good offense”… to bury them before they bury you. Or there is the “shot across the bow” strategy – to make a pre-emptive strike or action of warning that they should not be so foolish as to mess with you.

So yes, to resist such intuitive action and actually love an enemy is, in a word, counterintuitive.

And loving an enemy was beyond what was the conventional wisdom and teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

When Jesus is quoted in the gospels as saying something like “you have heard it said, but I say to you …” he is speaking of the commonly-heard teaching of the leadership of that era – Jesus often correcting their misinterpretation or misrepresentation of a text. And that is what we have as we turn to Matthew 5 …

Matthew 5:43 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

  1. To Be Better

Yes, be better than just loving those who love you or leave you alone; rather, extend kindness beyond that to even those who hate you and treat you poorly.

This text is specifically a response to a misinterpretation of the Old Testament commandment to love your neighbor as your love yourself (Leviticus 19:18 – Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.).

The Pharisees taught that you should love your neighbor, your fellow Jew, but hate those outside of that – implying that this was God’s way of judging them.

But the passage, both then and now, begs the question, “Who is my enemy?”

a. Someone more than just a nice friend or brother.

So Jesus is not just saying here: “I have two commands: one that you love your neighbor and one that you love your enemy.” Rather, his teaching is, “I have one command: love your neighbor, and by that I mean even if your neighbor is an enemy.”

b. Those who persecute you – those who intentionally seek to harm you.

Jesus says to pray for those who persecute you.  In many parts of the world today, Christians are being persecuted for their faith by those who seek to harm them. Today, some will be martyred for their faith. And in many of those settings, those Christians seek to be a blessing to those around them who mean to harm God’s people and eliminate the message of the gospel.

In our context it likely means something much less deleterious, but can feel rather harmful all the same …

… perhaps it is a person at work who seeks to thwart your success to enhance their own position in some fashion.

… perhaps it is a person in the community who resents the places of blessing, success and leadership where God has placed you. Maybe they’d like to see you taken down a peg, even though you’ve done nothing to harm them.

… perhaps it is a neighbor who finds something about your home or lifestyle to be odious to their own convictions or lack of convictions.

Jesus says, “Yes, love them. Love them. If they even seek to kill you, love them. If they take away your job, love them. If they seek to ruin your reputation, love them. If they destroy your home, love them. Love your enemies. Be that kind of person because of the life change that has happened within you.”

Specifically, the exhortation is to pray for them. I have always found it is difficult to sustain hostility toward anyone whom I pray for regularly. Praying takes the steam out of the situation. It humanizes the enemy, and you simply find yourself more and more seeing them through God’s eyes and heart.

c. Those of an opposing belief system and lifestyle – He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

These are people who simply have little in common with your worldview and way of living. You may not think of them as an enemy, nor them of you in such terms; but there is little in common relative to the big questions of life. Likely, they don’t “get” your lifestyle, and perhaps they even find it to be a bit sanctimonious… all that going to church that you do and serving in faith endeavors.

And probably you don’t “get” their lifestyle either – how it is so limited in scope to material things and the stuff merely of this world.

But quietly looking down upon them helps nothing. Feeling superior because you have the confident truth about the issues of life that comes from knowing God does not change anything or project anything that is unique.

But actively praying for them and loving them in varied ways of communication and interest in their lives is the stuff that goes beyond just being nice to people who are nice to you.

So, be better than simply loving those who love you or who are not a problem.

BUT there is a step beyond this …

  1. Be Beyond Better – 5:46-47

Matthew 5:46 – If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Rightly dealing with enemies in a Godly fashion means more than just letting them alone or being nice to them if they are nice to you someday. It means taking the initiative to specifically love them and connect with them – perhaps by expressing care for them and for needs that they have.

I have imperfectly attempted to do this over the years with people whom I know have opposed my ministry. Extending invitations, praying with them in times of need, sending a note or greeting – it does not always work, nor is it always received warmly. But it almost invariably diffuses the situation.

The passage uses a couple of great illustrations…

Tax collectors – the most odious characters in the Jewish/Roman dominated culture. Even these cheats are nice to people who are nice to them … so only doing that (as the teachers taught) was to be no higher on the ladder of good character.

Pagans – those with no faith whatsoever.  They care for their own people and interact freely with them. “Come on,” Jesus says. “Be better, better beyond that.”

The great American civil rights leader Martin Luther King wrote one of his most moving sermons on the title “Loving your enemies”. He was in jail at the time, imprisoned for daring to suggest that African-Americans should have the same civil rights as other Americans. During his lifetime he had received multiple death threats, he’d been maliciously accused of being a Communist, his house had been bombed, and he was jailed over 20 times. Yet in this sermon he said, “hate multiplies hate…in a descending spiral of violence” and is “just as injurious to the person who hates” as to his victim. But “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend” for it has “creative” and “redemptive” power.  And time has only reinforced his primary teaching.

Going above and beyond in love, even to one who has not earned it or deserves it, can have lifechanging effects.

Again, this sort of love is not easy to do … to be better … to be beyond better.  But we can ratchet that up even another notch from Christ’s teaching … verse 48 …

Matthew 5:48 – Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

  1. Be Best!

What?  Perfect!  Isn’t pretty good, good enough?  Now I’ve got to be perfect?!

Well, the word perfect here could also be translated and carry the sense of the word “complete.”  It does not mean sinlessly perfect, rather it means to be completely mature in being fully like the Father.

This means to have a view of the world and its peoples that is a macro view of creation and life. It is to understand the sinful nature of mankind due to the curse that goes back to Adam and Eve. It is to understand that the natural man has a bent toward selfishness. It is to understand there is no hope apart from God, and what he accomplished through the work of Christ. It is to understand that this fallen world is moving toward completion and toward a new heaven and new earth.

When you understand these things, you have a view such as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5 … So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view… Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors…

Indeed, everything about this world is entirely changed when you look at it through eternal eyes – when you have a spiritual, macro view of life related to eternity and God’s master plans.

OK… so maybe you’re a little more convinced than you were when you began reading that you need to lighten up on those people who don’t have you on their Christmas card list. Maybe you’re even thinking of being neutral at least, or perhaps nice if the opportunity presents. But perhaps you’re not sure about this “better, beyond better, best” approach. You’re maybe asking the question still, “WHY should I do this?”

Here is an answer for you … Because it was done for you!

Romans 5:9 – Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

You see, we were all enemies of God in our sinful condition. We were lost and spiritually dead and upon a path toward death and separation from God in a literal hell that God prepared originally for Satan and his cohort, fallen angelic hosts. Because, in Adam and Eve, we joined that doomed team in rebellion against God, with a curse that comes down to each of us at the moment of conception, not just at birth.

It was while we were spiritually in the condition of enemies of God that God, in grace, sent Jesus to die for us. He did not do it because we did anything to earn it or because we were sweet, good and lovely. Quite the opposite, as the previous paragraph in Romans 5 says … You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

So having been the recipient of grace and love of the highest caliber, can we justly hold on to hatred of those who are even categorically our enemies?  That really does shoot to the heart of it all, doesn’t it?

I suspect we all have some introspective wrestling to do. Do you have someone like that in your life that you need to connect with this week?

Strength through Weakness (2 Corinthians 12:1-10)

Our opening devotional for the summer “Counterintuitive” series will look at the theme of being strong by being weak. That seems so wrong, doesn’t it?  We would think (being intuitive) that our strength comes from working hard to be strong and aggressive and in charge! And though we are not discrediting responsibility and disciplines in the Christian life, we are highlighting that over and over the Scriptures (and Christ himself) teach us that our strength is not in ourselves. In John 15, what did Jesus say we could do without him?  NOTHING.

There are more than merely a couple passages we could highlight for this theme, but let’s choose Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, Greece … chapter 12 …

2 Corinthians12:1 – I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.

What we are doing here is beginning in the middle of the story. We need to recall some of the background of this 2nd Corinthian letter to understand what Paul is saying here.

In spite of the proclivity of the Corinthians toward worldly and licentious living, Paul had a great love for this church and its people. He had poured out his heart for them in serving them with his teaching and leadership. But some outside teachers had come into the church, claiming super-apostle authority for themselves and belittling the Apostle Paul’s authority and message.

Exactly who these opponents were is not precisely known, though they claimed themselves to be in the authoritative line of Moses – able to interpret his writings accurately.

Among criticisms of Paul were…

–           He lacked their authority and credentials connected to the church in Jerusalem. They produced some sort of documentation of their greater authority – and though Paul knew this to be very suspect, it was impressive to many of the Corinthians.

–           They said that Paul was very suspect because of his many travels and unusual adventures.

–           They implied that Paul was in this ministry business for personal gains, especially related to offerings being collected for the poor in Judea.

–           Their view of Paul was that he was not personally very impressive – perhaps not in appearance or public posture, especially being critical of his lack of speaking abilities. For an example of this criticism, Paul says in 2 Cor. 11: 5-6 – I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.”  I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.

So Paul has been put into an unenviable position of having to defend himself and his teaching – not because he needed assurances personally, but because he knew that the truth of the real gospel message was at stake. Therefore, he had to lay out his credentials for the Corinthians to be reminded of – credentials that came from an equal background as his critics, along with an impressive list of incredible experiences that God had sustained him through. Much of the 11th chapter is given to this. So Paul was saying … hey, I’ve got credentials, not just on paper, but from the real life of ministry – presenting the gospel in a world that largely rejects it, just like they rejected Christ.

So in chapter 12, Paul says he must go on “boasting.”  Having given his background credentials, he goes to a second line of authentication – about “visions and revelations,”

Paul really did not believe that his arguing and boasting about credentials was stuff that would build up the church, but he continues by telling them a story from his own experience. Being a bit uncomfortable about boasting about himself, he writes about himself from a third-person sort of view …

12:2 – I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

This was an experience that Paul had that was very early in his Christian life. He was “caught up” to heaven – the same word in Greek (harpazo) that is used to speak of the rapture of the church.  He calls it both “the third heaven” and “paradise” – words that would speak to that generation of the heavenly realm.

Paul could not honestly say if this was in the material body, or merely a spiritual experience – only God knows. But there he heard and received communications that were for he alone – not something he could share. So this was quite an extraordinary experience.

Paul continues to talk about himself in the third person …

12:5 – I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations.

Paul says he is willing to “boast” about such a thing, not because it is he himself, but because of what Christ had done with such a weak person as Paul had been – knowing of his previous career of hostility to the gospel message.

But Paul continues to show his discomfort with this external game of talking about who had the most spectacular experiences, but he says that if he has to play this game, he’s not a fool, because what he is saying is fully the truth (implying that the claims of his critics were likely to be very suspect).

Yet Paul continues to refrain from going on and on with more details about these “surpassingly great revelations” … as drawing attention to it would draw attention too much to himself, and too much away from the preaching and accomplishments of the gospel.

These revelations were indeed apparently totally amazing and unique. And we can sorta understand that in light of the ministry that God had given Paul. He was really THE main man to make the spread of the gospel happen; it was a huge calling and ministry, along with all of his writings that inform us and all of God’s people over the past 2,000 years! So to keep Paul from ever falling into any measure of self-aggrandizement, God in grace gave something else to the Apostle …

12:7-9 – Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

So what was this thorn in the flesh?  What we can say for sure, beyond the purposes of producing humility and dependence upon God, it was something sourced ultimately in Satan. And though Paul apparently on three occasions went very specifically to the Lord to have this thing removed, we can see that God allowed it to stay in his life so as to produce ultimately greater good and results than would be otherwise achieved.

So again, what was this malady?  Many suggestions have been made about certain physical ailments. We don’t know. But perhaps the two best suggestions might be …

  1. An eye problem – poor vision … also maybe something a bit grotesque?
  2. A speech malady – that would take away from the personal impression – forcing the listener to be impressed more by the content than the presenter.

The answer he got from the Lord is that God’s sustaining grace would be sufficient for him to endure in the midst of the problem, and that God’s power was more evident in the midst of the obvious weakness. Really?  That seems a bit counterintuitive also, but, we have all known people who have great impact in life and communication because of their victory over very obvious limitations.

So Paul’s conclusion was …

12:9-10 … Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul says that here is where real boasting can take place. This thing that appears to be a great loss is actually a great winner!  He had learned that when he was weak, Christ’s power was strongest in and through him. So this was something to be happy about and to be content about having. All the bad things (seemingly) that happened to him were in fact the prime contributors to the good things that happened through him.

So what do we learn from this passage today? Can we list some takeaway points?

  1. Earthly/Worldly Credentials are of Minimal Value. We are drawn to honor strength and beauty. But being impressed with worldly credentials and skills alone is to be merely intuitive, merely instinctual… senses that are of this world alone and not cognizant of the larger picture.
  2. Deficiencies Position Us to Receive Christ’s Sufficiencies. It is true that natural skills and the work of the flesh can take some people rather far, but not far enough. And it is commendable to be responsible and seek to work hard. But at some point, the true work of serving God is a spiritual work that needs spiritual empowerment.
  3. Our Weaknesses are Windows for God’s Power to be Seen. Think of some of the most powerfully-used people we have known. Is it because of his exceptional giftedness and extraordinary abilities that God uses them? More likely it is because they live moment by moment as a window through which God’s power can be seen.

Why does all of this work?  It is because when we recognize our weakness and even embrace our sufferings, we are most like Jesus himself. The Scriptures say that he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. When we serve others, when we are ridiculed, when we suffer persecution, when we submit to the frailties of life in a fallen world … THEN, we are most like Christ who did all of those things, depending daily upon the Father in prayer in submission and obedience.

In a sentence, here is the big idea of this theme: God allows things to happen to us, so that change can happen in us, so that ministry can happen through us!

And that is counterintuitive, not merely intuitive, not merely instinctual.

The Duty of Mankind (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)

Solomon wraps up his writing by summarizing his process, the value of his words of wisdom, concluding with an all-encompassing summary statement. If you are going to live wisely, Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

Process – Having been given the great gift of wisdom, it was the Teacher’s goal to ponder life and speak of its ups and downs in proverbial sayings. Again, these are statements of observation that are generally true, not objective truths in a “Thus saith the Lord” sort of way. These teachings contain truth, and they were written in a method of excellence to find the best words for communication.

Ecclesiastes 12:9 – Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. 10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.

Wisdom Words – Solomon asserts that these words will hold life together successfully in the same way that firmly embedded nails hold objects together. He also pictures them as goads –pointed rods used to urge on farm animals – having the value of giving direction and stimulus for wise living. The words are of great value as from one shepherd, meaning from God. Others may wear themselves out by the making and study of endless other books, but there is one final truth from one Divine source.

Ecclesiastes 12:11 – The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. 12 Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

Summary – Putting it all together, though life will have ups and downs, futility, and injustices, the duty of man is to keep God and His truth as the central focus for duty and obedience. Doing so will bring about a general life of success and reward, for judgment falls upon those who do otherwise.

Ecclesiastes 12:13 – Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

Even the wisest man did not see, know and understand everything. There were, as we’ve seen over and over in the past several weeks, many life observations that Solomon could not explain. It is an amazing truth that we are able to have greater understanding than did he, having in our possession and generation within God’s unfolding revelation a more complete understanding of time and eternity.

So if Solomon could rest in God with the unknowns of his experience, surely we can trust our faithful Lord and Savior to work all things together for good and for ultimate justice and righteousness.

We simply need to do what is right as God has instructed, leaving the rest to Him. In that posture is success in life under the sun, even in a crumbling world. Just do it.

<< So this ends the series on Ecclesiastes. Our next sermon series over the summer is called “Counterintuitive: Instinct Busters of Faith” … looking at various biblical themes that are not only surprising but also the opposite of what we would naturally expect or do. Our devotionals will not be daily for this series. Rather there will be one summary devotional on Mondays of each week. >>

Fear God Early in Life (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)

Life is busy; it has always been this way. In the days before mechanization, people had to walk distances to work if they lived in the city. Or if they lived and worked in farming, the days were long between the demands of morning and evening milking, while also tending to the fields. I recall grandparent stories of both of those scenarios, and while fascinated by many details, I recall being grateful in the extreme that I lived in the modern era (of the early 60s when hearing these accounts).

So we can be thankful that we have so many new devices of the computer/technological era, all of which work together to give us more leisure time, right?  Nope, don’t think so. I’ve never seen people so driven by so many things as in our day. My early ministry years were very simple by comparison, as simply having any sort of meeting or gathering was much easier to schedule. People travelled much less and were very regular in church attendance week to week.

All of the conveniences of the modern era have not made our lives less complex … no, just the opposite. Elucidating all the reasons for this would be an interesting study.

So, with the increased busyness of life, it is a fact that it is easier than ever to put off the things of eternal values.

I know for a fact that many people have great desires to soon make their faith and the fostering of an intimate relationship with God to be a discipline that is just over the next horizon. Once education is completed and the fun of young adult independence has been indulged, then God will become a priority. Next, when marriage is entered, then it will be time to connect with the Lord more specifically. Surely as children come and are growing, that will be the time to bring God also into the family. After the kids are grown and gone and life settles down, church and faith disciplines can be given attention at last. Soon the grave is closer than ever, but never was God a priority, and the following generations evidence that absence particularly.

One is left at last with “ought-to-have” or “Shoulda, coulda, woulda.”  I actually saw a blog by that name that aptly quoted American playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) who said, “Maybe all we can hope to do is end up with the right regrets.”  Wow!  That’s almost Solomonic!

Indeed, as Solomon turns toward the finish line in this final 12th chapter of Ecclesiastes, the exhortation is clear from the first line, Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come …

The remainder of this thought goes on to give colorful pictures of aging. Remember God before these things happen …

  • the days of diminished joy and darker gloom from accumulated years and decreased vitality.
  • when the arms and legs tremble, the back is stooped, legs are bent and feeble, the teeth are fewer in number, and the eyes fail as light dims.
  • when one cannot sleep well and the sound of birds is no longer heard.
  • when fears develop about heights and venturing out of the house.
  • the hair turns grey and white, movement is torturously slow, and appetites fail.
  • death comes, and the body returns to the dust of the ground.

So when is the time to make God a priority in life if you have not done so? Right now! If you’re more younger than older, that is a bonus for sure – beyond being the way it should be done. If you’re more older than younger, yes, there has been time lost; but there is no sense in losing more time. And yes again, better late than never.

All of this is because life is ________ … you guessed it – “meaningless” or “vain.”  Again, this is the word used throughout that speaks of brevity, literally of a “breath,” of life as a “poof.”

Know God. Walk and talk with him daily. Life, albeit short, does not work without him.

Wise Investment, and Wise Reverence (Ecclesiastes 11:1-10)

One of the key interpretive points of the nearby American Civil War Antietam Battlefield is the contrast in personalities between the two generals: Robert E. Lee for the Confederacy and George B. McClellan for the Union. Though McClellan’s shortcomings are often over-emphasized and lacking in nuance, it is true that his proclivity was to only offer battle and attack when everything was just right. Lee, on the other hand, was one who looked for opportunity to exploit at every moment. More often than not, his aggressiveness worked out well for him (though an unwise attack at Gettysburg was his major undoing).

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Paralysis by analysis. Solomon would say that you can’t live that way, always fearful to act in the face of some fraction of unknowns. There will always be things that are unknown. If you waited until you were perfectly, financially secure before getting married, you’ll die single. If you wait until the perfect time to begin a family, you’ll never have kids. If you wait for the perfect moment to invest, you’ll never move your cash out of your checking account or from under your pillow. Or, if you’re like me and never can find the perfect time to take a vacation, you’ll never leave Downsville!

Here’s the problem: nothing is perfect in an imperfect world. The only guarantee is that there are no guarantees. Solomon says that trees fall down – maybe this way, maybe that way – but once it falls, there it lays. Employing a farming illustration, he says that the farmer who is always looking at the sky and fretting over the weather in hopes of the perfect day for planting … well, he’ll never get his seed into the ground. And even a gardening dope like me knows that you can’t have a harvest without having a planting.

Essentially, the advice in today’s chapter 11 of Ecclesiastes is to “go for it” in life. Live! Invest! Be active, yet also be wise and trusting God; and in this fashion one may find some success of reward and happiness in this life that is but a breath – a poof!

A way of being wise is to diversify one’s energies and resources. Investing in multiple ventures brings the best prospect of a reward, while mitigating the real possibilities of loss. This timeless principle underlies investing to this day.

But again, things can go wrong. Disasters can happen. Though we can grow to know more about God and His ways, we can never fully know all that God is involved in doing, or when those events will happen.

But there is no future or life worth living in sitting back and cowering in uncertainties. We should move out boldly in life, doing so early in life and enjoying the vigor of earlier years … all the while being mindful that there is a judgment to come. So grasp life, live boldly, be wise, honor God and His truth, and serve in such a way as to be a blessing to others.

Ecclesiastes 11:1 – Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return.

2 Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

3 If clouds are full of water, they pour rain on the earth. Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie.

4 Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.

5 As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.

6 Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.

7 Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.

8 However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many. Everything to come is meaningless.

9 You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

10 So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless.

The Abundance of Fools (Ecclesiastes 10:1-20)

Foolishness is not rare; therefore fools are also not uncommon. This is the sad state of affairs in a world filled with the results of sin. Desires of the flesh for wealth, pleasure, power and prominence have fueled a plethora of fools from well before the time of Solomon and extending to our own era.

I often am amazed when watching the news or something on television that includes famous people or folks who have achieved high level prominence, noting how common it is to see incredibly obvious flaws of character, speech, appearance and belief. They look like a fool, they think like a fool, they quake like a fool … so, they’re a fool. I’ll sometimes see a prominent political figure from the national scene who represents literally millions of people in congress. How they achieved the position is surely incredulous, for their entire demeanor is outrageous. If I were to deliver even a short devotional in the style of these fools, you would rise up to fire me from pastoral ministry, and rightly so. Yet fools prosper and abound.

Many of you may recall my multiple years of service in local political leadership and organization. Truly, God put me there for a season of time, I’m still not sure why. It was interesting for sure. I was able to meet some very fine people, even on the national level. At the same time, I encountered more than a few of the most troubled souls I’ve ever known – the type that Solomon would call a fool here in Ecclesiastes 10.

And foolishness has a great chance to multiply when the person who possesses copious quantities of it becomes a king/ruler. This chapter has that idea as a backdrop throughout. Such sinful leaders can be unpredictable and contentious, bombastic, directionless, incompetent, self-serving with party living, believing money is the answer to every situation. There’s a chubby shrub in North Korea who is an “exhibit A” of this chapter.

So how does one deal with living in a world where dishonorable, full-time fools can have great power and authority? Well, wisdom is still a virtue to exhibit, wherever we may find ourselves on the social ladder.

More specifically, the New Testament provides better answers that go along with Solomon’s advice. We’re to honor them by good citizenship, rendering to them what is appropriate. And better yet, we’re advised to pray for those in authority (as surely they need it!), especially toward the end that we may live peaceable lives for the advance of the gospel. This puts our focus on things eternal, not merely the foolish stuff of this world, and the fools who so frequently govern.

Ecclesiastes 10:1 – As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.

2 The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.

3 Even as fools walk along the road, they lack sense and show everyone how stupid they are.

4 If a ruler’s anger rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great offenses to rest.

5 There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler: 6 Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones.

7 I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves.

8 Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.

9 Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them.

10 If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success.

11 If a snake bites before it is charmed, the charmer receives no fee.

12 Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips.

13 At the beginning their words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness—14 and fools multiply words.

No one knows what is coming—who can tell someone else what will happen after them?

15 The toil of fools wearies them; they do not know the way to town.

16 Woe to the land whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning.

17 Blessed is the land whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time—for strength and not for drunkenness.

18 Through laziness, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks.

19 A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything.

20 Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.

Wisdom is Better than Strength (Ecclesiastes 9:13-18)

I finished the devotionals last week by encouraging you to be sure to not miss the final two Sundays of the current series, and then I go and get sick and miss Sunday myself!  Well, this is a grievous fact about life under the sun. Even the toughest of us get sick once in a while. It is actually only the fourth time in 24 years in Maryland that I’ve had to get a replacement, so I’m thankful for that. But wow, it is so exceedingly weird to be home on a Sunday morning. I just didn’t know what to do with myself.

The following example is going to be vague as it must intentionally be only generally referenced.

There is an organization that I have been a part of for a number of years. It has grown and is highly regarded at this time by many people. When I was first joining it at the beginning of this venture, the entire program was in jeopardy of discontinuance. I did not know this until later, being told after a time that something I had done had saved the fledgling organization from extinction. I was much flattered, though had only done what I thought to be the appropriate deed at that point in time. But does anybody associated with this organization still remember it? Not really. There is one person remaining who could testify that the story is true, but it has not especially benefited me personally in any way … and that’s honestly OK.

The old saying is that “no good deed goes unpunished.”  According to Wictionary.com, this means “Beneficial actions often go unappreciated or are met with outright hostility.”  This is essentially what Solomon writes about with a story illustration today …

Ecclesiastes 9:13 – I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: 14 There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. 15 Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.

17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.

18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Another saying is “money talks”  … meaning that those who have it and the associated positions of power that accrue from wealth will be more often heard than a wiser person who is poor. Conventional thinking is probably that if a person is truly wise, they would have found a way to not be classified as poor.

There is plenty to discourage participation of life energy in truly good things. The time given to such may take away from the time available to accrue personal gains. Being involved in serving others wisely and well may also require funding from one’s own pockets. There is the temptation to just give up such endeavors, retreat to your own job and home, work hard, save much, be wealthy, and just forget about the needs of others or using your skills or resources beyond your own walls.

But isolation is not the answer. Wise words and good deeds are better than the foolishness of the masses. Yet there is the reality that sinners will somewhat commonly make a mess of good deeds in a crumbling world. Your work might be forgotten … on this side.

But a great comfort is found in Hebrews 6:10, that though others in this world might forget what we do in serving God, the Lord will not forget. You gotta like this!  “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”

The Common Destiny of the Grave (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12)

So … you want to end the week on a cheerful note, right?  Sorry. Solomon continues in chapter 9 with his observations about the futility (the mere passing breath) of life. Recall again that his perspective is what can be naturally seen and known without special revelation. And though there is much instructive about his writings, we are blessed to be here 3,000 years later – with a completed revelation from God in the Scriptures, and the historic event of the death and resurrection of Christ!  So, there’s that!  And that’s a lot!  It makes all the difference.

But … but … but … don’t get too cheerful just yet. We again have a passage that brings the inevitability of death to the front and center of our minds. Death, though not to be feared by the believer in Christ, remains still as the great enemy and the outworking of the curse of sin. It cannot be escaped … not by speed (so all that running I’ve done in my life won’t help … drat!), power, wisdom, wealth or brilliance (another drat!).

Yes, the reality of this comes home to us more and more as the years go by. We do begin to feel it from the inside-out. And if not that, we accumulate the sadness of more and more people whom we know who have gone ahead of us. My mother, who lived to age 96, only had one person at her graveside service who was not a family member or my personal friend. She outlived everyone in her immediate sphere of relationships.

The sadness of the passing of people came home to me again this week. I’ve lost a number of friends recently, some even from my own age group. And I was much saddened to get a note this week from the wife (also a distant cousin) of my best childhood friend through all of my school years. He has had a difficult-to-receive diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, being complicated by sepsis. Chemo begins Monday. She was putting me on notice that my services may soon be needed.

I often joke about getting older, “I thought this only happened to other people!”  The same with bad health news about peer group friends. But, we know better – Solomon reminding us or not.

But there are some words of cheer in the midst of this larger picture of stark and dark inevitabilities. We can choose to live in an intentional way – by choosing to devote ourselves fully to the work we have been given. And this is of course enhanced by what we additionally know as to how we may invest our lives in the Kingdom work of being God’s ambassadors of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5)

We’re going to finish the series over the next two Sundays with some good cheer also, even in the context of sobriety about material life realities. So … don’t miss it!

Ecclesiastes 9:1 – So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. 2 All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.

As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.

3 This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. 4 Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.

6 Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.

7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 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.

11 I have seen something else under the sun: 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.

12 Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.

The Folly of Full Justice in Human Government (Ecclesiastes 8:1-17)

We have to agree with Solomon that a remarkable number of life events and observations do not have explanation or the look of justice. The wicked can prosper and prevail, even at the expense of the righteous. We would expect God to intervene more actively and quickly. But God does not always do that. Our sinful world is indeed a mess. We see it around us, though honestly it is far worse in most corners of the earth.

Throughout Ecclesiastes, we see the writer’s disenchantment with these circumstances, saying that God’s ways are not understandable for us. Yet he also commends a wise life throughout the book, saying that this remains the best plan for happiness and success in a crumbling world. God will make all things right at another time, beyond this world.

Rather than repeat so many themes of these past couple weeks, I thought I would share with you today some excerpts from a blog post I read from a missionary associated with our Evangelical Free Church missions arm of ministry, serving in Tanzania. Though she is not reflecting upon Ecclesiastes nor even referring to it, some of the themes of her writing fit with the thoughts we have been considering. In her article, which you can read in its entirety HERE, she writes …

Sometimes I think it’s easy for American Christians to see everything tragic that is happening “out there” and make the assumption that God could never let that happen to us. Disasters and tragedies happen to other people, to other nations. Not to Americans. Not to American Christians. As if we are somehow set apart, special, blessed.

Just a few countries north of Tanzania is South Sudan, which the Economist recently deemed the most miserable country of 2018. The unfortunate residents of South Sudan, 60 percent of whom are Christian, know little else other than war, rape and starvation.

Or how about Venezuela, which is also known as a Christian country? Inflation exceeds 1,000 percent, and the nation is experiencing extreme shortages of food and medicine.

And then there’s Syria. And Iraq. And North Korea. And countless others. I know with much certainly that Christians exist in all these countries. They are chosen and loved and saved by God, and they desperately seek after Him—our brothers and sisters. Yet He allows the Syrian Christian family to be forced to leave their home, their business, their country and become refugees at the complete mercy of others. He allows the North Korean Christian to be turned over to the torture camps by the betrayal of his own son.

And I think: Why do I assume this won’t happen to me, to my country of origin? Sure, I know I am not immune from cancer, from accidents, from tragedy. But do I really think that God holds America in a special category; that He won’t allow its destruction, that He won’t allow my financial ruin, that He will always ensure my country’s safety? …

… God does not owe American Christians anything. He does not owe me a savings account or health insurance. He does not guarantee that my children will have the opportunity to go to college and become prosperous citizens. He does not promise religious freedom, or pleasant vacations, or safety on American streets. He doesn’t even promise that America will continue to exist as we know it.

If God has allowed you a beautiful house on a tree-lined street, 2.5 children and religious freedom, fantastic. Use it all to His glory. Maybe that will be my life someday too. But it’s no longer my expectation. I’m not going to assume that America or the government or God will make my dreams come true. Everything I have already been given (which is a lot), I want to hold with an open hand. My hope is in Christ, my destination is heaven and nothing in this life is guaranteed (Romans 5:1-5). Today I have it; tomorrow I might not. He gives and takes away.

Does that scare you? It scares me. But it shouldn’t. If Christians all over the world have put their trust in God when running for their lives or suffering under an oppressive government or enduring a disease ravaging their community, then we can too. Maybe we need to pay better attention to how they do it.

Pretty good stuff, isn’t it?  Here is our passage for today …

Ecclesiastes 8:1 – Who is like the wise? Who knows the explanation of things? A person’s wisdom brightens their face and changes its hard appearance.

2 Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. 3 Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. 4 Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, “What are you doing?”

5 Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure.

6 For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter, though a person may be weighed down by misery.

7 Since no one knows the future, who can tell someone else what is to come?

8 As no one has power over the wind to contain it, so no one has power over the time of their death.

As no one is discharged in time of war, so wickedness will not release those who practice it.

9 All this I saw, as I applied my mind to everything done under the sun. There is a time when a man lords it over others to his own hurt. 10 Then too, I saw the wicked buried—those who used to come and go from the holy place and receive praise in the city where they did this. This too is meaningless.

11 When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong. 12 Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him. 13 Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow.

14 There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.

16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night— 17 then I saw all that God has done. 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.