Ecclesiastes (2): Working in the Fog - 19th January 2014 - Dave Walker

Bible readings: Ecclesiastes 2:18-26Genesis 2:17-19 & 3:17-19

Click here to listen to the talk

Life is not a bed of roses, as the saying goes. Except that perhaps it is. Can you imagine lying on a bed of roses? It’d be beautiful and horrible. Both at once.

That’s the thing about roses that captures people’s imagination. Roses are beautiful, but they also hurt. They are bittersweet. Life is bittersweet. It’s not just bitter, you know, unrelenting misery. There is great happiness and enjoyment too - the sweetness. But you never quite have one without the other. Life is made of both. And it’s the fact that it is both bitter and sweet that gives it extra poignancy. Television programme makers know that, don’t they? They take the bitter and the sweet and they put them right next to each other, so that you feel it more. If you’re watching an episode of Casualty and you see a friendly, happy guy enjoying a day out with his family, you just know he’s about to get squashed by a bus. At the end of the cup final as the winning team celebrate, the director always cuts away to some poor lad in tears, whose team has just lost. Bittersweet. Happy sad. All at once.

This insight runs all through the book of Ecclesiastes, that we’re studying this month on Sundays. If you were here last week, you’ll remember that we said that Ecclesiastes is all about the fact that life is foggy. That’s the big theme of the book. At either end of the book we hear this statement from the Teacher, the main speaker of Ecclesiastes: “meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” But we said that literally that word ‘meaningless’ means ‘foggy’. Life is foggy. It’s not truly meaningless, because you can say meaningful things about it. The book of Ecclesiastes does that. Nor is life pointless, because it is going somewhere. There are some things which are clear and fixed – God is there, and he has set a day when he will judge the world. He’s told us now that we need to follow Jesus. Those things are clear. But lots of life is not clear. You can’t keep life, you can’t predict it, you can’t see beyond it, you can’t see through it. Life is foggy. If you weren’t here last week – go and listen to the sermon, it’s on the Christ Church website.

And one big thing to know about this fogginess of life is that it is bittersweet. Both happy and sad. Both enjoyable and hard. Both. This foggy life is bittersweet. Today we’re going to see this especially about our work. Because Ecclesiastes has a lot to say about work – and the main thing it keeps saying is that it is both bitter and sweet.

Work is bittersweet

Did you notice that in the reading? Have a look at that verse 22 again: “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labours under the sun?  23 All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is foggy.  24 A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God,  25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” Do you see that? Bitterness – toil. That word toil is all over this book. Anxious striving. And then sweetness – “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.” Real enjoyment, which is a gift from God. It’s both. Toil and enjoyment.

This is a deep and thoroughly biblical analysis of work and of the world. You see some people read Ecclesiastes and they think that the Teacher is an old cynic; a nihilist or an existentialist; the sort of person who thinks that nothing really matters, and because nothing matters you might as well just have as much fun as you can, try and enjoy it, try and find your own meaning. That’s how many people live now, isn’t it? There’s no real meaning, so you make up your own. See as much of the world as you can, try and do something that people will remember you for, go and swim the channel, I dunno – nothing really matters so you might as well have as much fun as you can now. That looks a bit like what the Teacher is saying. But actually this biblical stuff goes much deeper. The Teacher might freely admit that life is foggy and he can’t really understand it, but nonetheless what he says gets to the heart of what this world is really like.

Because he’s describing two foundational truths about the creation as it is. Two truths that explain why this world is bittersweet. Two things that came out of those little readings from Genesis that Christine read before. This world is

1. Created good by a good God and…

2. Cursed by God in response to our sin.

Did you notice that from the Genesis readings? In the first one God set the man off to do things with the world, to till it and keep it, and it’s all in this wonderful atmosphere of freedom. He’s free to eat and drink and enjoy the creation that God has made as he works. God blessed him. That’s foundational – work is a gift, one of many gifts, from our loving creator God. It’s part of his blessing. Work is a good thing, for our good. Work is created good by a good God.

But that’s not all there is to say. Flick over to Genesis 3:17 and you see a very different picture. The difference here is that man has now disobeyed God. Humanity has rejected God’s blessing and despised God’s gift of freedom. Now the language is very different. Instead of talking about blessing God talks about curse – “cursed is the ground because of you”. Work is transformed “through painful toil you will eat… (v19) by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” God responds to our sin by twisting the creation. He frustrates it. He fogs it. Humanity in rebellion against God is no longer free to take what it likes from his creation. There’s no question where the fault lies – human sin has broken the relationship. But it’s God who acts in judgment; God who introduces the fog. In Ecclesiastes in chapter 7:13, it says “Who can straighten what God has made crooked?” Work, and the rest of life, is cursed by God in response to our sin. That’s in an inescapable part of existence.

And so the world is bittersweet. Work is bittersweet. Created good by a loving God but also cursed in response to our sin. That’s the reality. We know that, don’t we? We know it because of the tragedies that happen in the world and in our lives. But we also know it at a day to day level. If you work in an office, on a building site, at home with children or as a carer or if you’re retired, you know that it is both good and grim. There are days when you want to cheer. There are others when you want to cry. Sometimes both happen on the same day. That tends to be the way in my job.

That’s the worldview that runs all through this book of Ecclesiastes. And the thing that Ecclesiastes does so well is it describes that from the inside. It helps us to feel it. To feel what it’s like to live and work in this two sided, bittersweet, foggy world.

Have a listen to these passages from Ecclesiastes now.

Ecclesiastes 5:15-19   Naked a man comes from his mother's womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labour that he can carry in his hand.  16 This too is a grievous evil: As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind?  17 All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger.  18 Then I realised that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him-- for this is his lot.  19 Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work--this is a gift of God.

Ecclesiastes 8:14-15  There is something else foggy that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is foggy.  15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 9:7-10  Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favours 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 foggy life that God has given you under the sun-- all your foggy days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labour under the sun.  10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

Can you feel the two-sidedness? The bittersweetness? The gift of a good God, but also cursed and frustrated. It’s so important that we get this. If we forget the fogginess of work we’ll always be tempted to make a god of it. Work by definition is the thing that takes up most of our time. It will always want more of us. Ecclesiastes is a great corrective here. Don’t let your work take the place in your life that God should have. It’s only fog, at the end of the day.

But also, there is real joy in these verses, isn’t there? As foggy as this world is, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had in it.

People sometimes have a very grey, insipid view of godliness. Like a truly Christian way of life is all about misery and bleakness. All silence and sombre faces. The Bible is refreshing, isn’t it? Enjoy yourself! There is real enjoyment to be had. Do you have that attitude to your work? Not just the holidays – everybody enjoys those. No, the thing itself. Whatever it is that makes up your daily grind, so to speak. Do you look to enjoy that too? Or have you got so used to the idea that it’s a grind that you no longer look for the joy? Enjoy your work; enjoy your family & friends; enjoy your possessions; enjoy your food – those are all very biblical things to do. That’s refreshing, isn’t it?

And enjoying those things as a Christian is something that goes deep. Because we get to enjoy what is a gift to us from a God who loves us.

There are different ways to enjoy a box of chocolates. Some are more enjoyable than others. So imagine one day you go into the kitchen and there is a lovely box of chocolates out on the side. You know that they’re not really yours, they were a Christmas present to your husband or wife or mum or housemate or someone else important to you. So you tuck in and eat them all. But then imagine a different scene where that person you were thinking of gives you a box of chocolates as a Christmas present. So you tuck in and eat them all. On one level, there’s no difference. You get to eat the chocolates. They probably taste good wherever they came from. On another level there is every difference. One is just snatched for yourself; you snaffle it down and hope you don’t get caught. The other comes as a gift complete with the love and smile of the giver. In one situation you get to say thank you, and show your pleasure to that other person. In the other situation you’re not thinking about anyone else but yourself.

Do you see the difference? Ecclesiastes says that we should enjoy our work, and the good things it brings us, as a gift. It’s a gift from a Father who loves us. The other situation, the stolen chocolates – that’s your regular secular hedonism – steal back from life what you can. That’s so much more shallow and joyless, isn’t it? Enjoy your work as a gift. Thank God for it.

But the other side of those bits from Ecclesiastes is also true. The other side of reality. Work is a gift, but it is also cursed and twisted due to sin. And you need to feel that too. You will feel it. You can’t avoid it.

Work is foggy. So it will be toilsome and exhausting. There will be days when you can’t keep up; when the email inbox is too depressing to look at; when your colleagues or your bosses are driving you up the wall; when ofsted announce they are coming; when the job looks like it’ll never end; when the kids have been sick on the carpet and drawn all over the walls. There will be those days when everything goes wrong. There will be unemployment and accidents at work and stress. Work is foggy.

We have to accept the bothness. The bittersweetness. And, just as the goodness and the gift of work should point us beyond itself, so that we give thanks to God the giver; well in the same way the frustration and the fogginess of work should point us beyond itself too.

Remember that the fog and the frustration is because of sin. Do you ever find it hard to muster the enthusiasm to fight against sin in your life? Well as you feel the frustration of this foggy world, remember that this was caused by sin. When you feel the pain and the confusion, let that drive you to hate sin. So that you make no allowance for it in yourself.

And let it drive you to yearn for more. The frustration and apparent futility of foggy work, and of the rest of this foggy life, should cause us to ache for more. To look forward to the day when the fog will clear.

As we’ve already said, Ecclesiastes has a future day in view when the fog will clear. That will be the day when this cursed creation is finally freed from the frustration and the fog. Have a quick flick on in your Bibles to Romans 8 – it’s on page 1135. Look at verse 19, I think this is really helpful. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.  20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope  21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

That word in verse 20 “frustration” – that’s the New Testament equivalent of that same word “foggy” that we get in Ecclesiastes. It’s talking again about how the world was cursed by God due to sin – “the creation was subjected to frustration” – the world was plunged into fog. But that’s not the end of the story. The creation now is waiting for the day when it will be liberated. When the fog will clear. So how do we wait now?

Verse 22: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

The fogginess of the world makes the whole creation ache for that day when it will be freed. Jesus has already born the curse for us, when he died on the cross. When he returns the curse itself will be no more. We who believe in Jesus have the promise that that day will mean liberation for us too. Body and all. So now, in the meantime, we ache as well. We ache for that future day.

So this week, as you face the daily reality of the bittersweetness of your foggy work, see if you can let it do two things.

When it’s good, be glad and give thanks. Remember that your work and every good thing you have is a gift from our loving God. Enjoy that box of chocolates, but enjoy them with him. Thank him.

When it’s frustrating and foggy, let it make you long for the future with God. Yearn for heaven; for God’s new restored creation. This foggy world is not all there is. Thank God for that. God has promised so much more in Jesus. Let your foggy work make you ache for that.

Live in the moment, yes. But long for the future.