Monday, September 27, 2010

Wisdom in Adversity



Part 9 of a series on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes

Text: 7:1-14


THE CROOKEDNESS OF LIFE


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 (vv. 13-14).
  • Life is full of twists and turns. "What is crooked cannot be made straight" (1:15). Life is like a winding road through the forest. We don’t know what might be around the next turn. There could be a moose standing in the middle of the road. Or the road might be clear. But we don't know. Only God knows.
  • There will be days of prosperity and days of adversity.
  • We need wisdom to navigate through the crookedness of life. Wisdom, like money, is helpful during times of difficulty (vv. 11-12).

GOOD BAD DAYS

In the DC comics universe there’s a cube-shaped planet called Bizarro World (also known as Htrae, "earth" spelled backwards). In Bizarro World, society is ruled by the Bizarro Code, which states, "Us do opposite of all earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!" As you read Ecclesiastes 7, you might think you've entered Bizarro World ("the day of death [is better] than the day of birth"; "it is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting"; "sorrow is better than laughter").

A wise person can turn bad days into good days.

1. A wise person knows that bad days can build character.

A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth (v. 1).

A good reputation can be gained or lost during days of adversity. Job is an example of someone who, even today, has a good name because of how he handled adversity.

Satan thought that adversity would cause Job to turn his back on God. "Then Satan answered the LORD and said, 'Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face'" (Job 1:9-11).

But Satan was wrong. "And Job said, 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD'" (Job 1:21). Job's wife, on the other hand, reacted as Satan thought Job would. "Then his wife said to him, 'Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die'" (Job 2:9). Many people are only willing to follow God as long as it's easy. Job rebuked his wife for her foolishness. "But he said to her, 'You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?'" (Job 2:10).

Perhaps the greatest way to be a witness for Christ is to remain faithful to Him in the midst of intense suffering. "Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast [persevered]. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job…" (James 5:11).

2. A wise person knows that bad days can change faulty priorities.

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart (v. 2).

Is it better to go to a funeral than a wedding? In some ways, yes. Every funeral we attend reminds us that one day there will be a funeral for us. We are confronted with the reality that life is "vanity" (a vapor). A funeral encourages us to live as though we are dying. "Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:12).

"By the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better" (v. 3 KJV). "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). "Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep" (Luke 6:25). Laughter is often a diversion from reality. "Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret" (2 Corinthians 7:10). "Repentance" is sorrow for sin. It is better to mourn now than later.

3. A wise person knows that bad days can provide valuable lessons.

It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools (v. 5).

"Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid" (Proverbs 12:1). Being rebuked is a form of adversity. But the "rebuke of the wise" (constructive criticism) is more profitable than the flattery of fools.

Adversity can make us bitter or better (Job and his wife).

Some lessons cannot be learned during days of prosperity. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect [mature] and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).

4. A wise person knows that bad days can produce good surprises.

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit (v. 8).

In the book of Genesis, Joseph’s worst day turned into his best day. "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (50:20). Patience is required. Joseph remained faithful to God even though he faced one form of adversity after another. But it's easy to complain (long for the "former days," v. 10).

"We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Right Way to Worship



Part 8 of a series on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes

Text: 5:1-7


WHAT IS WORSHIP?

"Worship" = to ascribe worth to someone or something.

The First Commandment says, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Our God is a jealous God. He desires our worship (but He doesn’t need it). Sadly, we often ascribe more worth to other people and others things than to God. God alone is worthy of our worship. Because of Him, life is not "vanity" (meaningless).

Martin Luther once said, "The most acceptable service we can do and show unto God, and which alone He desires of us, is, that He be praised of us."

There are three kinds of worship:
  • Worship by speaking. Many people equate music with worship. We can worship through music, but music is just one form of worship.
  • Worship by listening. We can worship by listening to a sermon. (Of course, we need to be careful that we don’t daydream!)
  • Worship by doing. "Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). Every aspect of our lives has the potential to honor God.
Worship involves the heart, the mind, and the body. "I appeal to you therefore by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1).


REVERENT WORSHIP

For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity, but God is the one you must fear (v. 7).

"Fear" (yare) = to revere, stand in awe of.

How can we make sure that we worship God with reverence?

Three instructions for worshiping God with reverence:

1. Watch your step.

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil (v. 1).

"The [Samaritan] woman said to [Jesus], 'Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.' Jesus said to her, 'Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth'" (John 4:19-24).

Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman reveals two truths about worship. First, we can worship God anywhere. "God is Spirit." He is everywhere, not just in the temple ("house of God"). "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom y0u have from God?" (1 Corinthians 6:19). Does this mean that gathering together as Christians for worship is unnecessary? No. "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another" (Hebrews 10:24-25). (The most common word for "church" in the NT is ekklesia, which means a "gathering.") We are to worship corporately and individually. Both gathering for action ("not neglecting to meet together") and scattering for action ("love and good works") are expressions of worship.

Second, we must worship God sincerely, not hypocritically. We must worship "in spirit and truth." This means that worship is not simply external (ritual), but also internal. Many times in the OT God said through the prophets that He hated Israel’s worship. Why? They worshiped with sinful hearts. "This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me" (Isaiah 29:13). This is probably the reason why God was not pleased with Cain's offering (Genesis 4:3-5; cf. 1 John 3:12). The worship of hypocrites is "the sacrifice of fools." You can’t fool God. Nothing is hidden from Him. He hears every word. He knows every thought. He sees every action. We, as Christians, believe this, but we often live as if we don’t. Why are we more afraid of what humans think than what God thinks?

When we worship God, we are entering His presence. The presence of God is a holy place. God said to Moses, "Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5). We must "guard [our] steps"—not only when we worship, but also before we worship. What is your life like outside this building? "Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen that the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22; cf. Micah 6:6-8).

2. Close your mouth.

Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words (vv. 2-3).

There is a time to speak, and there is a time to listen. Sometimes we need to simply "be still, and know that [God is] God" (Psalm 46:10). When we stop and listen to what the Bible says about God we should be speechless, amazed, humbled.

"Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God" (Psalm 90:2).

"I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, and I will accomplish my purpose" (Isaiah 46:9-10).

"Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD" (Jeremiah 23:24).

"All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, 'What have you done?'" (Daniel 4:35).

"God is in heaven and you are on earth." God is not our "buddy," yet He is our "Father." We are nothing compared to God, yet He loves us.

3. Keep your word.

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow that that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? (vv. 4-6).

Hannah’s vow: "And she vowed a vow and said, 'O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life'" (1 Samuel 1:11).

Ananias and Sapphira’s vow: "But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the disciples' feet" (Acts 5:1-2).

Vows are not sinful, but we should be careful not to make a vow that we won't keep. Remember, it’s easier to make a promise than to keep it.

Is there a vow you made to God that you haven’t kept?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Two Are Better Than One



Part 7 of a series on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes

Text: 4:7-12


NOT CREATED TO BE LONERS

Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, "For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?" This also is vanity and an unhappy business (vv. 7-8).

Here is a man who so busy working that he has time for nobody else. He doesn’t have time for a wife or a family or friends. He is not satisfied because he’s only working for himself. He has no one with whom to share his wealth. And he never stops to ask himself, "For whom am I toiling?"

Albert Einstein once said, "It is strange to be known so universally, and yet to be so lonely."

So often we hear people say, "I’m so busy!" People are so busy (like the man in vv. 7-8 and Einstein) that they don’t have time for their spouse, or their children, or their church, or their neighbor.

Instead of competing with our neighbor (v. 4), we should be caring for our neighbor.

We have a built-in desire for friendship:
  • We were made in the image of a relational God. God is three in one (triune): Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He did not create us because He was lonely. In eternity past, He enjoyed fellowship within the Godhead. "In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). The Greek word for "with" (pros) can be translated "face to face with." It indicates a personal relationship. In Genesis 1:26, we read, "God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'" (Genesis 1:26). ("Us" could be the first hint of the Trinity in the Bible). Because we have been made in God’s image, we share with God the desire for fellowship. This is one reason why Facebook is so popular right now. People long for interaction with others. We are social beings.
  • God said that living alone is "not good." Genesis 1:31 says, "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good." But there was one thing about creation that was not good. "Then the Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him'" (Genesis 2:18). God was above Adam, and creation was below him. But there was no one on his level to be his companion. So God created Eve. (This was a marriage relationship. Of course, many people remain single and have meaningful relationships.)

TWO ARE BETTER THAN ONE

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil (v. 9).

We are taught to be individuals. People say, "The only person I can really believe in is myself." But we need others. They need us. Christians enjoy a personal relationship with God, but we also have been brought into a community of fellow believers—the church. And the church is a family.

In verses 10-12, the Preacher gives three illustrations to show why "two are better than one." Each of these illustrations is taken from a danger of travel: (1) the danger of pits used as animal traps (v. 11), (2) the danger of cold nights (v. 12), and (3) the danger of thieves (v. 12).

Three benefits to Christian friendship:
  1. Christian friends can provide help. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! (v. 10). Do you remember the LifeCall commercial that popularized the phrase, "I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!"? When people, especially members of our church family, fall into trouble and need help, we should be willing to lend a hand. This is what the early church did. "And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongs and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:44-45).
  2. Christian friends can provide warmth. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? (v. 11). We should be friends who offer warmth—not physical warmth, but the warmth of affection.
  3. Christian friends can provide protection. And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken (v. 12). There is safety in numbers. When walking at night down a street with a bad reputation, it’s best to have at least one other person with you. As believers, we benefit from having people in our lives who can provide protection against discouragement, temptation, and doctrinal error.

BE A FRIEND

In the 2005 film Batman Begins, Police Commissioner Gordon wonders how he can stand against all the crime and corruption in Gotham City? He’s just one man. But then Batman appears out of the darkness and says, "Now we are two!"

You might be thinking, "I wish I had friends like that. I wish there were people in my life who could offer me help, warmth, and protection." But instead of asking, "Who can be my friend?", ask, "To whom can I be a friend?"

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Gift of Work (A Labour Day Sermon)



Part 6 of a series on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes

Text: 4:4-6

THE GIFT OF WORK

Would you like to have more money? Most people would like to have more money. If you want to make more money, usually that means working more or finding a job that pays more. Or you could be lucky enough to receive a letter like I did this week (advance-fee fraud).

This weekend is Labour Day Weekend, so it’s a good time to examine what Ecclesiastes says about work. "What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?" (1:3). What we buy with the money we earn doesn’t last. Still, work is a gift from God (2:24). But like all of God’s blessings, work can be distorted.

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind (v. 4).

Advertising is all about envy and covetousness. Companies market their products to the wealthy, so that ordinary people will want what the wealthy have (status symbols).

"You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's" (Exodus 20:17). We are not to covet our neighbor's possessions; we are to love our neighbor. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). And when we love our neighbor, we are happy, not envious, when they get something that is nice (new car, television, etc.). "Love does not envy or boast" (1 Corinthians 13:4).

Why do you work?
  • We shouldn't work to impress. How would your life be different if there was no one to impress?
  • We should work to provide.
SATISFIED OR GRASPING FOR MORE?

The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh. Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind (vv. 5-6).

Three approaches to work:
  • Laziness. Someone has said, "Laziness is the habit of resting before you get tired." "Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man” (Proverbs 6:6-11). Laziness is a serious sin. "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5:8).
  • Covetousness. God created us and knows that we need rest (Sabbath). He did not design us to be workaholics. We don’t live to work; we work to live. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." If we work and work so that we can have more and more, we will never be satisfied. "He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep" (Ecclesiastes 5:10-12). "As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand" (Ecclesiastes 5:15). "And [Jesus] said to them, 'Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consists in the abundance of his possessions'" (Luke 12:15). More stuff does not equal more happiness. We can see this in today's children in North America. They have hundreds of toys, but they often complain, "I'm bored." Many people think their lives will be complete if they acquire more and more things. They have made covetousness their idol (Colossians 3:15). But eventually, much of that stuff they wanted so badly will end up in the garbage or a thrift store.
  • Contentment. Someone has said, "Contentment is when your earning power is equal to your yearning power." Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs" (1 Timothy 6:6-10). How many Christians would be content with just food and clothing? How about food and clothing plus the promise of Christ's presence? "Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, 'I will never leave your nor forsake you'" (Hebrews 13:5). Benjamin Franklin said, "Contentment makes poor men rich. Discontentment makes rich men poor."
KEYS TO CONTENTMENT

The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content" (Philippians 4:11). Here are five keys to contentment from Philippians 4:10-19 (adapted from a sermon series by John MacArthur, "The Secret of Contentment"):
  1. Be confident in God’s providence (v. 10).
  2. Be satisfied with little (v. 11).
  3. Be detached from circumstances (v. 12).
  4. Be sustained by God’s power (v. 13).
  5. Be focused on others (vv. 18-19).
We often compare ourselves to those who are wealthier than us, and we become discontent. Perhaps we should do a different comparison. In Canada, even the poor are rich in comparison to the majority of people living on earth. And followers of Christ have been made rich with the blessings of salvation.

We really are rich—materially and spiritually. So be content.