What’s the point? (Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14 2:18-23)

Ecclesiastes 07

For about six or seven years when I was younger I collected comics. Every fortnight I would go into the comic shop, buy a few regular titles, read each of them a couple of times, put them in plastic bags and place them in specially-bought comic book boxes. Then, after a couple of weeks, I’d go back into the comic store, buy some more comics and do it all again.

After a few years, I began asking myself ‘Why?’ I had a growing number of comics, but the publishers kept producing more and more which meant that I would never have a complete collection. I began wondering why I was investing so much money in something that didn’t really benefit anyone and was potentially endless.

I started asking myself, what’s the point?

We can get so caught up in the things we do that it can be hard for us to step back and ask ourselves whether they actually have any real purpose. Asking if what we do has any real point can lead us to question the purpose and value of our lives because often we look for meaning in what we do. When we question the meaning of our actions or behaviours, it can lead us to ask if there’s any meaning to our existence. That can be a very hard question for us to ask.

When Solomon, also known as ‘the Teacher’ in the Book of Ecclesiastes, wrote that everything is meaningless, he knew what he was talking about. When he became Israel’s third king after his father David, God had offered to give him anything. Solomon asked for wisdom so he could rule the nation of Israel well (1 Kings 3:3-15). God was so pleased with Solomon’s request that he also promised to give him what he didn’t ask for – ‘riches and fame’ (v13 NLT). Over the course of his life, Solomon accumulated massive amounts of riches, power and wisdom, including 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). As Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 2:8, he had everything a man could desire!

When he looked at everything he possessed or accomplished, Solomon came to the conclusion that it was meaningless. He had searched for meaning to his life in wisdom and learning, in pursuing pleasures of every kind, in huge building projects, and in hard work. In all of this, though, he failed to find any meaning because he knew that when his life in this world ended that he would leave everything behind. Solomon had no way of knowing if the people who would inherit everything he’d worked so hard for would be foolish or wise, if they would use it well or squander it. So what was the point of it all?

We can look for meaning in life in exactly the same ways he did – through learning and wisdom, through pleasure and relationships, through our work, the things that we build and the things that we own – but the end result is still the same. If we look for meaning in the things we do or have, then our lives will ultimately be meaningless. Secular philosophers have come to the same conclusion and call it nihilism – that in the end nothing really matters. Maybe that’s why so many people in our society live for the present and to have fun. As long as we look for meaning in the things of this world, everything is meaningless because nothing in this world lasts for ever.

Two other Bible readings from last Sunday point us towards looking for meaning in life in a different direction. The Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) ends with Jesus teaching us to ‘have a rich relationship with God’ (v21 NLT). In the same way, Paul tells us to ‘set our sights on the realities of heaven’ where ‘your real life is hidden with God’ (Colossians 3:1-3 NLT). When we look for meaning to life in our relationship with God through Jesus instead of the things of this world, we can find meaning which is stronger than death, which goes beyond the grave and which will last for all of eternity. It is a sense of meaning which doesn’t rely on what we have or what we do but remains standing through all our flaws, failures and storms of life when everything else is falling apart.

Jesus knew the meaninglessness of human existence. In particular, his crucifixion seems like a meaningless death. For three years Jesus had taught the crowds that followed him, healed the sick, set people free from guilt and fear, and even raised the dead. After all the good he had done, for Jesus to die a criminal’s death on a cross makes his life look meaningless. However, the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection shows that God can bring meaning out of something that looks meaningless. When Jesus was raised to new life, he showed that meaning in life is not found in the things of this world, but in a rich and solid relationship with God through him.

When we look for and find meaning in our lives through Jesus, then we have a new perspective though which we can see everything we have as a gift from God (Ecclesiastes 5:19) and enjoy them without relying on them to provide meaning for us. When we don’t rely on wisdom or learning, fun and pleasure, work or building things, or money and possessions for our sense of meaning, but find it in Jesus, then we can enjoy all the good things God gives us because he loves us and wants the best for us.

One of the reasons I stopped collecting comics was because it was ultimately meaningless. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong or bad. The problem comes when we look for meaning in life in them or other things like them. That’s when life can appear meaningless. In Jesus, though, we can find meaning that goes beyond everything else in this world.

More to think about:

  • What is the most pointless thing you do in your life? Why do you keep doing it?
  • What do you think about what Solomon’s opinion that everything is meaningless (Ecclesiastes 1:2 etc)? Would you agree or disagree with him? Can you explain why you think that way…?
  • What do you look to for meaning in your life – learning and knowledge? fun and pleasure? work or making things? money and possessions? something else?
  • What would happen if you lost them or if they were taken away? How would that change your sense of meaning in life?
  • I know people who tell me that following Jesus is just as meaningless as everything else in life. Would you agree with them? Can you explain why?
  • How might the meaning Jesus gives to our lives be different from the meaning we look for in other things? How can Jesus’ death and resurrection give us a deeper, more lasting sense of meaning?
  • As people who find our meaning in Jesus, how can that shape the way we see the other things in our lives? If we find our meaning in Jesus instead of the things of this world, how might that help us view them differently?

Babel Undone (Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21)

Babel to Pentecost 01

Do you know what it’s like when you try to say something to someone but they completely misunderstand what you’ve said?

For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have thanked me for a message I’ve given in worship, and then told me something they heard which I didn’t think I’d said. I don’t read from a manuscript when I preach so it is possible that I said something I didn’t intend to. However, it is also possible that they heard something I didn’t actually say.

There is a branch of philosophy which looks at human language and why messages we try to give aren’t always the same messages which are received. There are a lot of factors which shape meaning which is why messages can be misinterpreted and communication is often confused. I think all of us would have experienced it in one way or another. Either we intend to communicate an idea which is understood in a different way, or we hear people say things they didn’t mean.

When this happens, I go back to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. This story gives us the ancient Hebrew understanding of why different languages exist and how people were dispersed to different parts of the world after the Great Flood. It also tells us why it can be hard to communicate clearly and why we often misunderstand each other. Not only was human language confused, but people of the same language group can also find it hard to understand and cooperate with each other.

This story is often connected with the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 in which God gave his Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus. We read that when they received the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ disciples were given the ability to speak in other languages so that people from different parts of the Roman Empire could understand what they were saying. The disciples were able to tell people about the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for them, calling them to repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins, in languages they could understand. The result was that about 3,000 people were baptised (Acts 2:41).

One way in which we can understand the story of Pentecost is that the confusion of Babel was overcome as people heard the gospel in their own language and were brought together into a new community of one people in Christ. The divisions and confusion between language groups of Babel are undone as the Holy Spirit did two main things. Firstly, the Spirit miraculously gave Jesus’ followers the ability to speak the gospel in languages that people from other nations could understand. Secondly, the Spirit also gave the hearers of their message the ability to understand what they were saying and to believe the good news. All of this – the message of the gospel itself, as well as the ability to speak, hear, understand and trust the message – all come from the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of the people of Jerusalem at Pentecost.

I pray that God would pour out his Spirit on the church today just like he did at Pentecost. In so many ways, God’s church is confused and divided because of our inability to hear and understand each other. in our own congregation, we have been working towards having a much more intentional discipling focus through connecting, growing, equipping and sending God’s people to participate in his mission in the world. We have also been looking at how we faithfully and effectively pass the faith on to our young people. Both of these emphases involve cultural change in our congregation. However, every now and then someone will ask me how my outreach or youth program is going. So I sigh, say a little prayer, and then begin trying to explain again that we’re looking at growing a church culture in which everyone is involved, not running a program for a just few people.

It’s obvious sometimes that the messages I’m trying to communicate are not the messages people are receiving. Maybe I’m not communicating them effectively. Maybe people aren’t ready or able to hear what I’m saying. Maybe it’s a combination of both. Whatever the case may be, the Tower of Babel still casts its shadow over our church as there is confusion of language and divided opinions.

At the heart of both our discipling plan and our ministry with young people is the gospel of Jesus. They both grow out of and are oriented towards communicating the good news of Jesus. Our discipling plan is about connecting people with the gospel, growing together in faith, being equipped for ministry and sending out to live as the presence of the living Christ in the world. Our work with young people is about embracing them in the grace of Jesus through our church community so they can find their identity, belonging and purpose in him and grow to maturity as children of the living God. All of this is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us new life in Jesus, words of grace and truth to speak to each other, the ability to hear and understand the gospel, and trust in the good news of Jesus through a living and active faith. We can put all the plans, strategies, programs and processes in our church that we like, but in the end we rely on the Holy Spirit to give us the gospel to speak in ways that others can hear and understand, and create the faith we need to receive and trust in the good news of Jesus.

When I gave this message on Sunday I wondered what messages people would take from what I said. That’s the problem with language which began at Babel – the messages we intend to give are not always the messages people receive. I’m so thankful for the Holy Spirit who gives us the ability to speak the gospel of Jesus in ways that people can understand, and gives us the ability to hear it, understand it and receive it in faith.

More to think about:

  • Has there been a time when someone has misunderstood something you’ve said? Explain what happened…
  • Has there been a time when you have misunderstood something someone else has been saying? Describe what happened…
  • How can the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 help us understand why we can find it hard to understand each other?
  • How do you see God undoing the confusion of Babel when he gave the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers at Pentecost (Acts 2)?
  • Have you ever asked the Holy Spirit to help you hear the good news of Jesus in a way that you can understand and believe? What might happen if you did?
  • When was the last time you asked the Holy Spirit to help you speak the good news of Jesus to someone? Who do you know who needs to hear the gospel in their life?
  • What do you think might happen if we asked the Holy Spirit to help us understand other people better, especially our sisters and brothers in the church?