Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Vanity or Not? (Hebrews 6:10-12; I Corinthians 15:58; Ecclesiastes 1:1-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I recall a story about a college student who walked with the aid of crutches.  He was graduating from a small liberal arts college.  He was ordinary in appearance, but extraordinary in intelligence, friendliness and optimism.  His friends had never asked him why he ended up walking with crutches.  It was the elephant in the room.   On graduation day, a close friend got up the nerve and asked what had caused his disability.

The young man explained that it was infantile paralysis, a disease of the motor nerves of the spinal cord and brain stem, caused by a polio virus, resulting in severe muscular and skeletal problems.  His friend asked: “With misfortune like that, why are you usually happy and optimistic?”  The young man said: “You know, I used to think that I was the only person with a disability.  That everyone else was perfect.  Why me.  I’ learned after I became a Christian, that God didn’t make anyone perfect, everyone has a disability or a deficiency of some kind, you just don’t always see them, like you do with me.  My disability only crippled by legs, it never touched my mind or heart.” 

What an inspiring young man.   Why, because there are times in life when we allow our limits to limit us, when negative thinking and attitudes rather than positive hold us in their grip, when pessimism subverts optimism, when hope in possibilities and opportunities evaporates.    We feel like there is nothing we can do to change things, to make a real difference, no matter how much we want it or how hard we work.   All of our energy and efforts seem fruitless. This pessimistic attitude about life is by no means new.  

For some, if we are honest, its how we feel on a bad day.  For others, it is a philosophy of life, like the author of the book of Ecclesiastes.  The word Ecclesiastes is translated as The Preacher, one who preaches to an assembly.  Listen once again:  “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.  What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?  A generation goes and a generation comes but the earth remains forever.  I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun and see all is vanity and a chasing after wind.  What is crooked cannot be made straight and what is lacking cannot be counted.”

When people study Ecclesiastes I usually encounter two reactions -  “How depressing, or how egotistical or prideful.”  The other reaction is: “Yes, when I consider the tragic realities of life, I think he has a point.”  Where do you stand?

Do you ever feel like Ecclesiastes?  I do on occasion.  Especially when I see time and again instances of evil and injustice, oppression and discrimination, human cruelty and suffering, war and disease.  When I see examples of political corruption or self-serving leaders at all levels of government, when I see how polarized we are politically in this country, I think will things ever change?  Perhaps you have had such thoughts.

Has human morality attained a higher level today?  Are human beings progressing morally and spiritually?  Obviously civilization has made enormous strides in terms of technology.  The Smart Phone alone shows us that.  But the real question is – is the human spirit, is man's character, is human morality making progress?   These questions have been debated for  generations.

The preacher declares that all is vanity – that our work, our efforts, our thinking, our toil bring no lasting positive change or reward or benefit.  But to be fair, later on in this book, he says all is vanity  - without wisdom, which comes from the fear of the Lord, that is, having an attitude of holy awe, of holy respect for God, of believing that God is the creator and that you are the creature.  Yes, if you are feeling down, if you are having a bad day, I recommend Ecclesiastes to lift your spirit and put a spring in your step.

It calls to mind the mythical Greek figure Sisyphus, who was sent to Hades, and sentenced to push a boulder up a steep hill where it would almost reach the top and then it would come plunging down.  He was condemned to repeat that useless gesture day after day, for eternity.  

But now let's hear another word, a word from I Corinthians. “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”  Hear a similar word from the letter of Hebrews: “For God is not unjust, he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.” 

What a contrast.  What a dichotomy.  This second word is the complete antithesis to the first.   It's a totally different sentiment.  But it's more than a feeling, it is true.  God's truth.   It’s a foundational word we need to remember and to stand upon. 

The ironic thing is that the apostle Paul who wrote these words, personally knew not only success and joy in his life and ministry, but failure, discouragement, disappointment, frustration and suffering.  And yet, at the same time, he knew in his heart, that God would honor his call to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.    He writes:  “I have been shipwrecked on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, in cold and exposure.  And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.”  

In spite of these hardships Paul writes: “In the Lord your labor is not in vain.”   We see behind these words a wise faith, a mature faith, a faith revealing wisdom.   It is a faith which sees not only with finite eyes, but with the eyes of faith, made possible by the grace of God.   We too have the power to endure, to not allow ourselves to be defeated.  We too have the power to persevere.   We too have the power to devise new plans, new approaches, new strategies.  We too have the power to cast off bad habits and practice good habits.   And that power is the power of our Lord, and the power of his victory over death which comes to us through faith.  

Spiritual wisdom is the conviction deep in your soul, that whether your efforts and energies bring results or not, whether they produce results or not, they mean something, they weren't wasted.  Your life counts, your life as one created in God's image matters in God's Kingdom.  We must never forget that we are in a spiritual battle, a spiritual warfare with powers and principalities.  The book of James says – “Resist the devil and the negative thoughts which can poison our life.”  Why - because Satan loves a defeatist attitude.  The devil knows that a discouraged Christian is ineffective, your power and influence to be a vital witness to Jesus Christ is compromised.   You can’t share Christ’s joy with others when there is no joy in your heart to share.  

What is your source of deepest frustration?   When do you feel like you’re just spinning your wheels?  God’s word is clear.  First, God wants us to be steadfast, immovable; to persevere and be strong.  Don't allow others to push you in a direction you don't want to go or to entice you off track.  Stand firm and steady.  Don't give up, or give in or give out.  Second, always abounding in the work of the Lord, giving yourself daily and fully to God, praying for how God wants to use you in His service.   Sometimes we are completely surprised with how God decides to us us.   Eighty-seven year old Actor Dick Van Dyke, a recovering alcoholic, said: “My retirement is just not working out. I keep working.” Galatians 6:9 says:  “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up.”  

And third, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain. When through prayer you commit your efforts to God, when you ask for God's inspiration and power and blessing, your work will be useful in the plans and purposes of God.   God will honor it.

I like the way the book of Hebrews puts it.  “God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints.”    God never forgets work done in His name.  God remembers your labor.   God knows your efforts to love and serve and glorify Him.  God sees what you have done and are doing and what these things mean for His kingdom.     

When you seek to serve God and others rather than to only advance your own interests, when your earnestly pray to God for blessing, when you humbly and sincerely try to do your best for God, even though at times you fail or don’t reach your goal,  your time and efforts are useful in God’s purposes and plans.  They will bear fruit.  I love Jesus parables about the mustard seed and the yeast.  You don't see them growing, you don't see them at work, but in time they produce for all to see.  

I recall a family intervention I was involved in.  One of the family members had been an alcoholic for over 20 years.  They had tried everything but to no avail.  This time it worked.  This time it was successful.  After all that time, this family had the joy of seeing the results of their prayers and work over the years come to fruition.  It was not in vain.  Praise God.

I remember a mother I knew whose daughter was estranged from the family.  She had refused to have any communication at all for many years.  The mother continued to pray and reach out through the mail and occasional phone calls.  After 10 years, one day, the daughter phoned her and invited her mother to lunch.  It was a glorious day and they have long since reconciled.  Praise God.

Over the weekend here in San Diego, there were three 5K Walks – for Homeless Youth, Suicide Prevention, and Alzheimer's Disease.  The purpose was to raised awareness, funds and to support those involved in these issues.  Our scripture is clear – God will honor these noble efforts.  They are not in vain.

I believe God's word encourages us to keep a Christian perspective on our goals and work and efforts.  God may bless you and you get to see results immediately.  Hallelujah.  God may bless you and you see results later on in your life.  Things were percolating, things were happening out of eyesight and suddenly they surface.   Hallelujah.  God may bless you and you see results, not in this life, but in the life to come.  Hallelujah.  

One amazing tree is the Chinese bamboo tree.    Plant a bamboo sprout in the ground and for four or five years, sometimes longer, nothing happens.  You care for the sprout but see no results.   In about the fifth year things take a dramatic turn.  In a six-week period, the Chinese bamboo tree grows to be a staggering ninety feet tall.  World Book Encyclopedia records that one bamboo plant can grow three feet in a 24 hr period. 

May we be patient and trust in the Lord with all our hearts, reassured that one day, either in this life or the life to come, we will witness the results of our labors.  May God's name be praised.  Amen!

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