Meaning – What is life all about?
Good evening. We are starting our new sermon series tonight. And I am really looking forward to it, because over the next 7 sermons we will be looking at 7 of life’s biggest questions. Questions like: How can I live a happy life? Why do bad things happen to good people? How can I be successful? Questions that everyone of us will ask at some point in our life.
And for answers we will go to a book in the Bible called Ecclesiastes. It was written by king Solomon of Israel. A king, that the Bible describes as the smartest and richest king of his time. He had kings from all over the world come to ask him for his advice. At some point, Solomon had so much gold that silver became literally worthless in his kingdom. For his time this guy was the Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates in one. And in his older days he does what every old famous man does: He writes a book. But unlike the other rich and famous men he doesn’t write it about himself but about the lessons he learned in his life. He wants to pass on his knowledge to the next generations. So, what we have in Ecclesiastes and what we will discover over the next 7 services, is basically a how to guide to life by the wisest man that ever lived, excluding Jesus.
And if you are here tonight and the whole concept of God and faith is still new to you than I think this book can be a perfect starting point for you. Because Ecclesiastes does not only talk about the Christian faith. Salomon approaches life with an open mind. Going down all the different paths there are to find out the best way to live life. He wants to give us a head start by saying: I already tried out every avenue. You don’t need to waste your time on trying all of them out too. Let me just tell you from the start which one works best.
And he starts out with one of the most fundamental question we as humans have: What are we here for? What is our life all about? What’s the point of getting out of bed every morning, going to work, spending time with friends and then repeating the same thing the next day? Or more to the heart: If you had to pick out your tombstone today already: What would you like it to say about your life? What is the one thing in your life that, if everything else failed, you must have reached, so that you could look back when you are old and say: I did something with my life. My life had meaning.
Before we start looking at what advice Solomon gives us on how to live a meaningful life, I want to pray with us.
— Prayer —
Let’s read the first 11 verses of the first chapter of Ecclesiastes:
1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: 2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” 3 What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
1. Finding meaning under the sun (1-18)
What Salomon is addressing here are the two most popular answers that people give today, when they are asked: what is your meaning in life?
If you are an optimist or in philosophical terms a humanist, you would probably say something like: I want to make the world a better place. Make a difference in the world. I work in an NGO to preserve the environment so that our kids and grandkids could still enjoy it. I am a doctor to save lives. I’m a lawyer and I want to fight for the rights of the people and against injustice. As an IT-Specialist I come up with new technology that brings people together or protects them from harm.
Whatever it might be: We draw our meaning from what we can accomplish. In the difference that we can make. We want to believe, that the world wouldn’t be the same without us. That we did our part in making the world, as that famous Michael Jackson song goes, a better place for you and for me.
And to that the teacher Solomon says: I tried that but let me tell you; it won’t work. In the end it’s meaningless. Not to misunderstand him here: He doesn’t mean, that doing good for the environment or enriching people’s lives itself is wrong in any way. But if we base our meaning around making the world a better place, on making a lasting impact, then we will never find peace in our search for meaning. And in verse 4 he tells us why:
4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
And later he adds in verse 15: What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.
Solomon says, no matter how much we achieve in our lives, we won’t really change the world nor the people on it. Because let’s think about this. Even if we stopped pollution all together, cleaned up every ocean, cured every decease, solved world hunger and prevented every war, would we ever solve what is truly wrong with the world? People would still die of old age. No matter how enlightened we become, people are still affected by greed, selfishness and envy. The world will continue working the way it always has and probably like every other star slowly decay until it ceases to exist. All we do is delay the inevitable. Put out fires. But we can’t really put out the source. Can’t cure what is fundamentally wrong with the world and our society.
Because even if we do take a step into the right direction in our time, the next generation might have already forgotten it. Might not learn from us but make the same mistakes all over again. As Solomon writes: 11 No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them. We had the best proof for that last week in Chemnitz. One might think that we Germans out of all people should have learned from our history. But now some people are starting to behave the same way many did almost 80 years ago.
So Solomon warns us, if you build your meaning in life around making the world a better place, you will end up chasing the wind. Chasing something you will never be able to catch. And in the end you will look back and see that in the grand scheme of things, nothing has really changed. You will end up disappointed, asking yourself: What was it all for?
And at this point we might turn to the more pessimistic approach of finding meaning. The hedonist approach or in the younger generations known YOLO where we say: If it doesn’t really matter what I do anyway, at least I can get the best out of it for me. Enjoy myself as much as possible. Like Kurt Cobain once said: It’s better to burn out, then to fade away. Make every day a memory, because that’s all we have. And so, we live our life chasing after the next promotion. The next big adventure on our holidays in a faraway country. The next fulfilling relationship. Always thinking, if I can only get this, then I could die in peace. Then my life was worth it. Then I found meaning.
But here Solomon says: Let me tell you as someone who had more money, more power and more fun than anyone of you will ever have: 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
No matter how much we earn or how much we experience. None of it can really give us peace in our search for meaning. Because we will always want more. After this promotion there will be the next one to get. You just bought your first house? Well your boss has paid off his second one already and has a nicer car than yours. Two weeks after our holiday we start planning the next big adventure. If our current relationship doesn’t fulfill us, we look for a better one. Nothing will satisfy our thirst, and just like our accomplishments, it will leave us chasing the wind. We will never find real peace, but only more chasing to do.
So why do we keep doing it? Why are these still the most popular answers? Because it’s the only way we know how to distract us from the emptiness we would feel when life slows down. When the adventures from our holidays are over, and you come back into your day to day life. Once the fame is gone, or your work doesn’t lead to the results you wanted. Once a friend or a close relative of you suddenly passes away. In those moments we feel that everything we do or have here on earth is, as Solomon writes, in the end meaningless. That none of it really matters. But because we can’t find any way to escape this dilemma, we just keep distracting ourselves. Do everything we can to avoid this emptiness we feel. A pain that if we embrace it for too long drives people sometimes to even quit on life altogether.
When one of the worlds most famous DJ’s, Avicii, died earlier this year his family wrote this statement: Our beloved Tim was a seeker, a fragile artistic soul searching for answers to existential questions. An over-achieving perfectionist who travelled and worked hard at a pace that led to extreme stress. When he stopped touring, he wanted to find a balance in life to be happy and be able to do what he loved most — music. He really struggled with thoughts about Meaning, Life, Happiness. He could not go on any longer. He wanted to find peace.
We are still on the same journey Solomon was on more than 3000 years ago. Going down both avenues to find meaning, only to realize that both don’t get us where we hoped to end up.
And here Solomon interferes and says: I know your disappointment! I was there myself. But let me tell you about the way out. A way to break out of the circle and live life with a purpose that lasts.
2. Our meaning lies beyond the sun (12,13)
And for that we need to skip a little ahead to the end of Ecclesiastes. Read with me in Chapter 12 verse 13:
13 Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.
Solomon says: It’s totally understandable that we get frustrated when we look for true meaning in this world. Because we were never meant to find it here. That’s not how we were designed. Looking for meaning under the sun is like putting gasoline into your diesel car. We are using our life in a way it was not designed to work in. But since we can’t seem to find the right answer ourselves, we need someone to help us.
And here it’s a little like a book discussion in high school. They were one of my least favorite things to do. Because everyone reads the same book and then the teacher asks: So what was the meaning of this book? And students come up with dozens of ideas of what the author meant with it. And all of them are possible, but no one can really say with certainty, which one is right. And I always thought: why go through all of this? Why not just look up what the author said himself? I mean, isn’t he really the only one who knows the true meaning behind what he wrote?
And Solomon says it’s the same with our meaning. We can try to come up with our version of meaning for our life. In what he could find on this earth. But in the end the only way to find our true meaning is to ask the one who created us. That we need to ask God. The only one who knows everything about us and especially what he made us for. How we are designed to work.
And Solomon summarizes God’s meaning for our lives in Verse 13 with two words: Fear God. Might sound a little strange to us today, but in the time of the Old Testament ‘fearing’ reminded the original audience of the way they felt when they met a king in all his power and majesty. The awe and respect they had when they stood before him.
So what Solomon is proposing here is, that we will find our true meaning not in things or activities on this earth, but only in a person beyond it. In getting to know God, our creator in all his glory.
C. S. Lewis once said: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world. The fact that our heart yearns for something Earth can’t supply is proof that Heaven must be our home.”
God designed us to live in relationship to him. And the restlessness we feel when we try to fill this need with our goals or pleasure is our reminder that we were meant to live for more. That only God is great enough to fill the emptiness that we feel inside of us. That only a relationship with him can bring us peace in our pursuit for meaning. Because like Lewis wrote, we were not made for this world, but to live with the one beyond it.
And when we find our real home and meaning with God, he redeems the things we looked to for meaning before. Because making the world a better place and enjoying your life are both good goals in God’s eyes. The Bible is full of God telling us to do good in the world and enjoy his creation. But with God these are not our ultimate goals anymore. Rather a result of knowing God. Living out the meaning we already found in him. This is what Solomon means when he says in verse 13: and keep his commandments. The commandments that we find in the Bible are not some rules that God invented to make life more difficult for us. Through these commandments God wants to show us who he is and how we can follow him in our day-to-day lives.
So whatever good you want to do, with God you are free to do it even if it won’t change the world. Even if it falls short of your expectations. Because your worth and meaning don’t come from the success you have but from the God you live for. And even the small things like going out of your way to help a coworker now become meaningful, because you honor God and show your coworker an aspect of God’s love. Of his patience.
And if you made your pleasure your ultimate goal in life before, with God you can be free to fully enjoy life and all the good things he has given you. Be satisfied without needing to grasp at the next big vacation, the new car, every new popular restaurant. Because the hole we used to have after the pleasure ends is now filled. We can rest even after the fun is over, because we have the biggest pleasure in God already. And the pleasures on this earth are just the cherries on top.
And even if at the end of it all we look back and the world is still a mess, or we experienced a lot of hardships in our lives instead of the fun we were hoping for. If we lived with God we can still whole heartedly say, that we lead a life full of meaning. A life lived for our true purpose.
3. Jesus connects us with our true meaning
The Bible tells us, that there is only one problem. Solomon already hints at it in verse 14 when he says: 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. The Bible says that our choice to look for our meaning away from God. Our attempt to write our own manuals on how to live life. Our belief that we could make it without God broke the relationship to him. Destroyed the only bridge to our true meaning. A bridge that we can not build back up ourselves.
And this is where God did something, that not even Solomon in all his wisdom could foresee. Where he proved once and for all how much he loves us. Because God sent his son, Jesus, to earth. God himself came from beyond the sun down to this meaningless life, to reconnect us to our true meaning. He bore the judgement each one of us deserves for turning against our creator when he died on the cross. Only to give you and me today the chance to get back into a relationship with God. Find our true meaning again and experience the peace of knowing you finally found what you have always been chasing after.
The only question for us is: Do we keep chasing the wind? Do we keep looking on this earth for our meaning? Or do we look away from ourselves and find our meaning in a life with this great God?
Maybe tonight for the first time. Maybe you have felt this meaninglessness at some point in your life and you are in this struggle to deal with it. Then I want to invite you to start your relationship with God. Not to keep chasing the wind, but to take this offer that Jesus makes you and experience what it means to find real peace in your pursuit for meaning in him.
If you have more questions or want to pray with someone to start this relationship, please come to Dietrich or me later. I will stay in the front row a little longer after the service and I would love to talk to you more about your next steps with God. Don’t let this amazing opportunity pass tonight.
And if you are already a believer here tonight, I want to invite us all again to reflect where we might have fallen back into old patterns. Where we started to believe the lie that our pleasure, our success, our relationships, or even our money can bring us ultimate satisfaction. We all know that these things can’t bring us ultimate meaning, but yet we so easily forget how wonderful and satisfying our God is. So maybe take a quiet moment in the next week to reflect: Do I work, do I live out my relationships, do I spend my free time for my true meaning, for God? And if so, ask God for forgiveness and ask him to show you a way on which you can follow him again. On which you can experience the rest we can only find in our creator.