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August 20: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? 

In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. 

In my vaporous life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them. – Ecclesiastes 7:13-18 

In my years as a pastor, I have watched and wondered about how to make a church grow without violating scriptural and theological ideals. Put another way, I know some things you can do to get more people at a church, but these things don’t often fit into “the faith once delivered.” Probably one of the strategies for growth that happens most is adopting a kind of sales and marketing posture: “We’ve got what you need! Come here to get it!” There are “relevant” and “practical” “messages” about how to do this and how to do that. If you just follow these principles—leadership principles usually—you find success. There aren’t many mysteries about family finances or training children. “We’ll show you how to raise kids God’s way.”

Solomon’s wisdom copied in above is terrible marketing. He could never have made it in the American church business. He suggests that God brings both prosperity and adversity into our lives. Righteous people die young, and wicked people live long. Not only that, but his wisdom warns against being “overly righteous” or “too wise,” which may cause you to “die before your time.” I mean, c’mon, who’s going to join that church!

Solomon suggests that most anyone can attribute one’s good times to God, but the true test of faith is found in the one who understands the times of trouble and disaster. Job, of course, is the wisdom book fully devoted to this same subject. As with Job, our future is hidden in God’s secret will: “that man may not find out anything that will be after him.” God answers to no one, shares His power with no one, and certainly has not relinquished His control to the randomness of chance, the whimsical natures of the human will, or the forces of nature. Considering everything Solomon has said in the first 6 chapters of Ecclesiastes, it would not be going too far to say that God frustrates our attempts to discover what He does or to try to predict what He will do. This is vaporous.

Solomon certainly has a meaningful life, but he says, “In my vaporous life I have seen everything.” In light of that, he offers two imperatives: “Be not overly righteous, and…be not overly wicked.” To try to be either are potential human responses to the righteous man dying young or the wicked man dying old. To “be not overly righteous” is to pursue piety in order to earn a reward, as though God would be in one’s debt. To “be not overly wicked” is not symmetrically aligned, as though he’s suggesting some wickedness is okay—just not too much. On the contrary, he’s saying, “neither be a fool.” 

There is an answer on what to do: fear God, “for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.” Both of what? Both trying to build up a false righteousness or pursuing foolishness, even in despair. God cannot be manipulated by our behaviors. He is to be feared. God is as safe as He is manageable. He does not follow our ways or our thoughts or our rationalizations. Accordingly, because we trust God’s word, we know that He is a God to be feared.

Jesus is the full revelation of God. What did He evoke in His closest followers? Fear. But, how about when they were in distress and He displayed His absolute dominion over creation? Fear. When Jesus stood up and uttered a mere word, the storm calmed, but the disciples didn’t. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” He is God, He can be trusted though He cannot be figured out. He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. And that’s the gospel.

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

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