April 29: Worship is on Saturday this week due to the Memorial Marathon!

For the last two years we enjoyed a Saturday evening service before the OKC Memorial Marathon since the marathon completely shuts down the streets several blocks out from the church building. This year we will do the same with worship Saturday evening, April 29, at 5:00. Dinner will follow and will be provided by the YUM Pig Food Truck. We will bring the extras: A-H bring desserts, G-Z bring salads. The church will pay for the meal, but there will be a donation jar. There will be nursery available, but no Sunday school.

I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is [a vapor] and a striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. -Ecclesiastes 1:12-18

Last week, in the first 11 verses of Ecclesiastes, we saw Preacher Solomon’s famous line, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” We should not read “vanity” as a moral failure or as utter meaninglessness, but in the biblical sense of its Hebrew word, hebel. It is a vapor or a wisp. The passage above also has another well-known phrase: “a striving after wind.” This is not a bad or inaccurate translation of the Hebrew, but it has more exact or vivid usage elsewhere. It speaks of shepherding or herding. Not only is everything under the sun ultimately a vapor, but the work of people in trying to leverage creation by ingenuity and “natural” strengths is not only vaporous, but it is like trying the shepherd the wind! Wind and vapor are related.

The Preacher writes more now to help teach why this is the inescapable way life is under the sun. It is because the Lord has made it that way due to the curse resulting from sin. “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.” God has twisted it and straightening it out is impossible. No wonder he says, “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.” To help support the assertion that this extends from the fall and curse, the phrase “the children of man” is quite literally in Hebrew “the sons of Adam.” Put that way, “God has given the sons of Adam an unhappy business to be busy with.”

Not only is trying to gain leverage in life from our ingenuity vaporous and like trying to shepherd the wind, but God has twisted life under the sun to be that way because of sin and curse. It is truly an “unhappy business” that we are busy with. The result is “vexation.” You’d think that wisdom might be the way out of this unhappy condition, but the Preacher says even that is like trying to shepherd the wind, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Again, we see more than a nod back to Genesis. What was the temptation for Adam and Eve? The serpent suggested that they would gain wisdom and knowledge, and the consequent power to go with it, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Such wisdom and knowledge would even make them god-like. But now we see that “under the sun” wisdom brings vexation and knowledge increases sorrow.

John Calvin offers a helpful line here literally on the first page of his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of our own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God. Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and—what is more—depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true life of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone.” (Institutes 1.1.1, quoted in Jeffrey Meyers, A Table in the Mist, 53).

All this vexation from wisdom and sorrow from knowledge should prompt us, even drive us, to look to Christ, who is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). We must not boast in our vaporous wisdom or boast in our strength of knowledge. After all, the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men; therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this SATURDAY.

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after. -Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

In some circles, at least the gist of the passage above is famous. Many know the phrase, “Vanity of vanities!” We tend not to spend much time with the book of Ecclesiastes because it is, admittedly, perplexing and even comes off as pessimistic in these days of mission statements, strategic plans, leadership initiatives, and “the power of positive thinking.” Is it true that “all is vanity”?

This is where the meaning of the word “vanity” becomes critically important. The word “vanity” implies moral judgment ,and I think of Vanity Fair, which is a depraved carnival in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The magazine by the same name is quite consistent. This is why a mirrored desk where you do your hair and makeup is called a “vanity.” When Preacher Solomon says “all is vanity,” he is not saying that everything is conceited, vain, or morally depraved. Thus, we should get that idea out of our heads.

Worse yet, some popular translations (NIV especially) use the English word “meaninglessness.” Man’s work is not meaningless though. That is the last thing Solomon wants to convey. Everything is not meaningless, or he would have had no reason to write the book.

The Hebrew word is hebel. Preacher Solomon uses it 35 times in the book. He even uses it in the superlative, “Hebel of hebels!” This is like saying “holy of holies” or “king of kings.” In other places, hebel is used to refer to a wisp, a vapor, a puff of air that disappears like a mere breath. For example, Proverbs 21:6, “The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting hebel and a snare of death.” This helps us know that a better translation would be “vapor.” Vapor of vapors: the world and life is a wisp, like the dust particle drifting in the sunbeam, escaping your effort to attain it. It eludes your grasp.

Preacher Solomon’s point is that our labor meets the fate of sandcastles when the tide comes in—and it always comes in. “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” This speaks to gaining leverage—some sort of advantage in the world that will overcome the rising tide that washes away our labors in time. Even natural advantages such as youthfulness or physical strength are hebel, vapor.

This is not written to depress you and cause you to give up on working hard with diligence and faithfulness. On the contrary it should energize our work, except with the correction of some of the false stories we tend to tell ourselves about advantages we think we might be leveraging by our ingenuity or “natural” giftedness. It ensures that all we have is to trust God. When everything else is hebel, faith in the covenant-keeping, promise-honoring God is enhanced. Certainly Jesus put no trust in that which is hebel, but He did trust His Father so that our hebel-ish lives would have true meaning for all of eternity in the Age to Come. And that’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” 

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him. -John 11:17-27

When I was a boy, my church had a program called Royal Ambassadors that tried to mirror groups like the Boy Scouts. It had service projects and the like where you earned merit badges, pins, and so on. One of the ways to earn these was to memorize Bible verses. This passage above has the one verse probably every boy used for his repertoire of verses, “Jesus wept.” It was quick, easy, and counted as a full verse!

I remember thinking for a brief time, “Why would Jesus weep?” He could do anything and knows everything, so I couldn’t think of any reason He would cry. Yes, I had in mind a superman Jesus—something like God, except with a body. I asked my parents and teachers why Jesus would cry. I clearly remember the youth pastor’s answer, “He wept because Mary didn’t have enough faith.” He was a well-meaning 22-year-old, I’m sure, but that is the wrong answer! I had the chance to ask the senior pastor in the foyer, and he heartily congratulated me for asking such an interesting question and for all the work I had done in Royal Ambassadors, but he didn’t answer the question.

I didn’t think much about it until, years later as an adult, I heard a sermon from a radio preacher on the passage. This fellow said that Jesus wept because there is death in the world, and it wasn’t supposed to be that way. This is a pretty good answer, although it doesn’t seem to fit with the character of John the Evangelist.

I’ve grown to understand Jesus as a real man (not just Deity playing or posing as man), the kind of man that I should have been (and will be). I’ve learned that nobody in the world of first-century, second-temple Judaism could imagine anything other than a real-flesh-and-blood human as Messiah with emotions like everybody else. This helps me understand that John is telling us when we look at Jesus bursting into tears, we are seeing not just a flesh-and-blood human being, but the Word made flesh. Because Jesus came, we must put away our aloof and emotionally sterile pictures of God and replace them with the picture of the God who bursts into tears with the world’s crying. This is the key to understand the full mystery of John’s gospel.

When we read of Jesus bursting into tears the very moment He sees Mary and all the Judaeans with her, we should chant, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” He did not pretend to do this; He really did it.

In the story, Jesus knows what He’s going to do, yet there is no sense of triumphalism with John Williams’ Superman theme playing in the background. Instead, there is the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with our grief and pain, sharing it to the point of tears.

What grief, then, is stirred in Jesus? Remember that the whole story of the raising of Lazarus is symbolic of Jesus: death, rest, resurrection. It is only through the death of Jesus, His sharing the common fate of people, that the world can be saved. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, even those of death. That’s what was stirred in Him, and that’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.