Work as Vapor, Sermon, Sermon, Russ Ramsey, 02-18-18

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Before I say a word, I want to put before you a ministry founded by Christ Pres, which has everything to do with what we’re talking about today, and if I may be so bold, it has everything to do with you too. Keep these words from the Nashville Institute for Faith and Work’s vision statement in mind as I preach today:

The Nashville Institute for Faith and Work is dedicated to helping individuals and groups integrate their Christian faith into their day-to-day work in a way that brings about human and organizational flourishing in Nashville and beyond. Considering that the average American will spend over 80,000 hours at work over his or her lifetime, it is important to view the workplace as an opportunity to renew individual hearts, communities, and the world. Some are energized by work while others deplore it; some see it as only a source of income while others see it as a source of self-definition and glorification. Understanding and embracing that all good work—not just ministerial, missionary, medical, or non-profit work—matters to God and is fundamental to joining Him in His redemptive plan for this world.

 

ECCLESIASTES 2:18-26 (ESV)

18I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23For all his days are full of sorrow and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

24There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

 

THE STINGING STAIRS

Several years ago, when our kids were little, hornets built a nest under the railing of our deck stairs. Those stairs were how the kids got into the back yard from the kitchen. One day, one of our kids got stung. One time. After that, the kids wouldn’t take those steps anymore. Not for the rest of the summer. Why? Because that way, danger lies.

  • The book of Ecclesiastes is a stairway to truths that can sting.
  • Today’s passage is one which, if you’re anything like me, you might want to avoid because of the possible sting.
  • Today’s passage is about the meaning of our work, or legacies.

Today’s message comes in two parts.

  • Part 1: We’ll take the stairs up what the text says about work under the sun. This text speaks into our attempts at legacy building as entrepreneurs, artists, parents, spouses, politicians, ministers, builders, doctors, lawyers, scholars, indispensable contributors to the conversations of our age and expertise.
  • Part 2: We’ll come to the landing and look at what Scripture concludes about the value of our work under heaven, reminding us of the legacy that is already ours.
  • But to get to part two, we have to climb the stairs of part 1. We have to be willing to be stung by the truth of these words. We must loosen our grip on our pride and need for recognition. Let’s look at what he says about our work under the sun.

 

PART 1: OUR WORK UNDER THE SUN (ECCLESIASTES 2:18-23)

The writer has been working through all the things we look to for meaning—wealth, wisdom, (1:12-18) pleasure, (2:1-11) and now work. None of these things deliver significance on their own. So out of the gate in today’s text, the writer turns his heart over to despair (20). Why?

  • Because we can work our whole lives at something, be the most conscientious, honest, disciplined, skilled workers, but eventually we have to hand the whole thing over to another.
  • And when we do, we hand it over to someone who did not work for it as we did. And here’s the nightmare scenario for many—the reason we don’t want to take these stairs: What if the person who benefits from our labors never even comes close to assigning it all the significance we gave it.
    A quick word of caution: When my kids avoided the stairs, it was to avoid the sting. They preferred to take the long way around. We’re all tempted to favor indirect, easier solutions over hard, true ones.
  • In researching this passage, I saw on more than one occasion writers taking an indirect, moralistic approach to what this text is actually saying—favoring a line of reasoning which, in a way, lets us off the hook from truly facing it. Let me explain.
  • Some might read this passage as a warning against being a workaholic. I say that is an easy way out of facing the text—an indirect path to avoid the pain. See, we can fix workaholism. We can work less. We can put up pictures at our desks which say things like, “No one writes on their gravestone ‘I wish I had worked more,’” or “You’ll never see a hearse pulling a U-haul.”
  • If we say this passage is about working too much, we will miss the point. This text is not about the clock. It is about the heart. It is about thinking our work justifies our existence.
  • This passage is not about how much we work. This passage is about all work, which means this passage is for all of us. I’m asking you to take those stairs with me.

Let’s break down the text—verses 18-23. The “toil” in v. 18 refers to daily responsibilities. Our work. The writer observes that we will all reach a point where that work will either cease, or we will have to leave it to someone else.

  • Not just leave it, but hand it over. Then what happens? It might continue to thrive. It might hold steady. Or it might collapse. Regardless, you will have no control over what happens.
  • Sometimes the one who takes your place lacks knowledge and skill. They lack vision. They’re not the craftsman you were. (21)
  • Sometimes that person lacks wisdom. Consider King Solomon. He may be the author of this book, but even if he isn’t, his story reflects the futility these verses speak to. Solomon was a builder. His kingdom was envied by all. Then he died. How long did his kingdom stand? Less than one generation. His son Rehoboam forsook the path of wisdom and ended up splitting the Kingdom David and Solomon ruled, losing ten of the twelve tribes. See 1 Kings 12 for the full story. It will make you cringe.

We will hand everything over. But what do we get from worrying about all this, the writer asks? Sorrow-filled days, vexation, frustration, hearts that can’t rest, and bodies that can’t sleep. (23)

Let me paint the picture. What will come of your toil, Ecclesiastes says, will be like what you see on a home improvement show:

  • You love carpentry. Since you were a kid, you saved to buy tools and wood. You learned the craft of cabinetry using dovetail joints and dowels—not a nail to be found. Pure carpentry. You made your own kitchen cabinets out of that white oak you used to climb in your grandparent’s back forty.
  • You look at those cabinets with a pride only you can tap into. Nobody knows the trouble you’ve seen making those things.
  • AND THEN, you have to move and a young couple and their realtor walk around your house and say things like, “Good bones, but pretty outdated. Let’s blow out these walls, give it more of an open concept. Those cabinets need to go.” (There’s no discussion. They all agree. It didn’t even need to be said.)
  • The sale goes through and one morning a guy with a sledgehammer takes out your cabinets—the entire wall of them. And why? Because those who took your place said, “Do you know what would be an improvement over those cabinets you worked so hard to craft? Having nothing there at all.”
  • This is the futility we’re talking about. Someone else will take possession of the work that kept you up at night (23), and it is very likely that the things that kept you up at night will never even cross the minds of those who come after you. Vapor!

But wait, there’s more! Now let me add another sting from this beehive. What if expecting someone to care as deeply as you did about your life’s work is vanity? What if it’s not an injustice? What if that’s just the way things work. After lamenting the sorrow, the sense of futility, and lost sleep, the author concludes, “This also is vanity.” (23)

  • What is vanity? Expecting others to revere the work we’ve done. Let’s be honest. We all want others to appreciate our work—to see the cabinets and exclaim, “Those are beautiful! They must have taken a lot of hard work. We should preserve them as art!” But we know the odds of this happening are rare.
  • How do we know this is rare? Ask yourself, do you revere the work of others to the degree you wish they would revere your work? If you do, you’re an exception. In fact, most of us see right past the cabinets to the open floor plan they obstruct. “Once you get out of my way, I can do my thing.”
  • It never crosses our minds to give anyone else’s work that much thought. So, to want that from others is, well, vanity.

 

PART 2: OUR WORK UNDER HEAVEN (ECCLESIASTES 2:24-26)

Why take the stinging stairs? Do you think the writer is writing this just to break our spirits? To wear us down? No, he is calling us up to the landing where we can see things from a perspective beyond what this world values. If we only see our work as a means to establishing a legacy, and thus justifying our time on earth, we will be left wanting.

  • So, what is up on the landing? The writer concludes: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (24-25)
  • Some of us do work we enjoy. Some do work we don’t enjoy because we need to work to live. Most have seasons of both.
  • Eat, drink, find enjoyment in your toil. Be where you are. Do the thing that’s in front of you. Enjoy what’s in front of you, and if that’s hard to do, enjoy what the thing in front of you affords.

You can’t justify your existence through what you do, but the ability to enjoy the fruit of our labor is a gift from the hand of God. How so? First, if our work will not create our lasting legacies, we are freed from having to go to work every day trying to build one. I do not need to look at my vocation as the most valuable part of me.

  • Let’s unwrap that gift a bit more. If we can’t look to our work to justify our existence (or pleasure, or wisdom, or wealth, or power), then we have to look someplace else, because the one thing we can’t shake is the fact that this life does have meaning.
  • Our text is not saying, “Life is meaningless.” Quite the opposite. It acknowledges life is filled with meaning. What Ecclesiastes is saying is the meaning is not in the work. Keep looking. In your search for meaning, look past the things we do under the sun.
  • If the peace, contentment, and significance we seek lies beyond this world, that brings a deeper significance to the things we do in this world. How? If the thing that gives my life meaning and justifies my existence lies beyond the work of my own hands (my successes and failures)—if it lies with God, who then gives me work to do—I can do my work as unto him, who already knows me and loves me. I never have to spend a single day working to create a version of myself for others to know and love. I can trust that I am already known and loved, and work for the sake of others.
    This is a gift because it means we can apply the two greatest commands to our work life—love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
  • This is the landing beyond the stinging stairs. There is meaning in our work—just not the meaning of justifying our existence.

So what is the value of our work under heaven? What is the view from the landing? This is the question we need to ask, because as our text concludes, “For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting… (26)

  • If we work without God in view, our work can take on the menial quality of putting things in piles. Gathering and collecting.
  • But to the one who pleases God, He gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy. We can look at our work as an extension of His.
  • As NIFW’s Vision statement says, understand and embrace “that all good work—not just ministerial, missionary, medical, or non-profit—matters to God and is fundamental to joining Him in His redemptive plan for this world.”

I’m sure you are as shaken and upset by what happened at the school in Florida this past week as I am. Utterly heartbreaking.

  • As a parent, when things like this happen, I’m reminded of something Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) once said about tragedies:
  • I was spared from any great disasters when I was little, but there was plenty of news of them in newspapers and on radio, and there were graphic images of them in newsreels. For me, as for all children, the world could have come to seem a scary place to live. There was something my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.

Our work under heaven has value because when we work with God’s redemptive plan for this world in view, we begin to see that:

  • The person who pushes a broom isn’t just pushing a broom. They are pushing back the darkness and decay of the fall. They are bringing order to where there is persistent disorder.
  • The teacher in the classroom isn’t just working through curriculum, they are forming and shepherding young hearts.
  • The artist isn’t just making work to sell. They are working to contribute truth, goodness, and beauty to a world that needs it.
  • The person in the food service industry is helping people enjoy to very good gift of food and drink.
  • This list goes on and on. In every good vocation, we have the opportunity to help push back the darkness for the people we live among. To help. Right here. Right now. And that matters.

This should all sound very familiar to the believer in Christ. The heart of this passage is simply this:

  • Receive the legacy you’ve already been given as the beloved co-heir of God with Christ. Don’t try to achieve a legacy for yourself. It will not last, and you already have one that is way better than anything you could come up with.
  • Work as unto the Lord—not to try to earn his favor, but because you believe that as his child, you are part of his redemptive plan for the world.
  • This is not only the message of this text. It is the message of the Gospel.
Russ Ramsey
Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.

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