There’s lots of hatred, harm, and violence in the world and in the news these days; and numerous attacks against the holy estate of marriage, in particular, escalating over these past few years. It’s far too easy, and far too common, for any of us to become discouraged and dismayed, cynical and bitter, anxious and afraid. But the Lord has offered us a powerful and positive example in Don’s Christian faith and life, in his attitude of faith and love, and in his faithfulness and care for his dear wife, Phoebe, even until his death. Despite the difficulties that he faced, both in his own health and in Phoebe’s, he persevered in the hope and confidence of Christ Jesus and His Gospel.
By way of contrast, King Solomon has written in Ecclesiastes of life “under the sun,” having considered what it means if “what you see is what you get.” He concludes that all the days and years and seasons of this life, whether in poverty or wealth, in foolishness or wisdom, are a pursuit of vanity — apart from the promise of the Resurrection and the Life everlasting in Christ Jesus. Apart from Him, the Word-made-Flesh, crucified and risen from the dead, everything is vanity.
Solomon would have you fear the Lord and in the Wisdom of His Word and Spirit give up on the search for any meaning of your own devising in this life under the sun. Not to despair or give up hope, but to find your real meaning in Christ and in the life that He has won for you in heaven.
This attitude and point of view make all the difference in the world in the way that you approach your job and the work that you are given to do. Which, again, stands in contrast to the way that Solomon writes of hard labor and emphasizes the drudgery of work. For in this he points to the emptiness of any job done purely for the paycheck, without any sense of purpose or enjoyment.
Driven by the false notion that you work for the purpose of making and preserving your own life, you’re always so conscious and concerned about what you have earned and deserved for yourself, that you lose sight of the Lord and forget that He alone is the gracious Giver of all good things.
Instead of receiving what you have from God in thanksgiving — and instead of sanctifying all that He has given you by putting it to use according to His Word and with prayer in His Name — you horde what you have as though it were yours by right and by merit, and you covet what you have not, as though you were being treated unfairly and short changed. You make idols of the world and all its stuff, and you set your heart and mind on sin and death instead of the Living God.
Instead of recognizing that He feeds and clothes and provides for you, granting all that you need to support this body and life by grace — as He does indeed for even the birds and the flowers — you worry and fret and anxiously attempt to provide for yourself by all manner of strategies.
Yet, the fact remains that you can neither add to nor subtract from that which God has determined and accomplished in His divine Wisdom. You cannot lengthen your days, nor prolong your life; nor can you invest your life with any lasting meaning or significance. It is foolish and futile to try.
As Solomon describes, all your grasping efforts in this life are nothing more than “striving after wind,” which is to say that you are grabbing for something without any real substance, and trying to hang on to something that will only ever slip through your fingers. Hence, the consequence of all your toil and striving is simply that your work becomes “painful” and “grievous” all your days.
It surely would have been very easy for Don to give himself over to such temptations and to fall into that trap. And I fully expect there were those days and nights when he did for a time. But by the grace of God, by His mercy and forgiveness in Christ Jesus, by the sustenance of His Word and Sacrament, Don was strengthened in his faith to live and to labor in peace and with contentment.
We can admire and appreciate that good example; and you should also learn from it to rely upon the Lord and His means of grace, instead of striving to make it on your own.
Otherwise, “even at night,” as Solomon writes, your heart and mind do not lie down and rest. You know what he’s talking about. Nights when you lie there in bed, desperately trying to sleep, while your mind, so to speak, is up pacing the floor and wringing its hands in worry.
Few things in life are worse than not being able to sleep, unable to rest from your work and your worries for even a little while. And somehow, lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling and fighting back the tears, Solomon’s point is painfully clear: “Everything is Vanity!”
St. Paul understood that point, as well. He writes in his Epistle to the Romans that all of “creation was subjected to futility.” It was all declared “Vanity” by the Lord Himself, after the Fall, when He cursed the ground and life on earth because of sin. The woman would have pain in childbirth, and the man would toil to harvest food by the sweat of his brow and the hard labor of his hands.
Of course, the ultimate curse was death itself — the great equalizer, which brings a halt to all of your attempts to do anything for yourself. Here today and gone tomorrow. Like a breath, you disappear into nothing. You turn back to dust and blow away in the wind. There’s no denying it.
But St. Paul also writes that creation was subjected to futility “in hope.” In hope for a day when all would not be Vanity. In the hope given by God Himself, even as He was cursing the ground and everything else “under the sun.” The hope that He gave when He promised a Savior, the Seed of the Woman, who would crush the devil’s head and open up eternal life to all who trust in Him.
That hope was accomplished in Christ Jesus. As St. Peter writes, “you were bought back from the ways of Vanity inherited from your father Adam — not with the gold and silver that you spend your life striving to get — but with the precious blood of Christ Himself.”
Apart from Christ, everything really is Vanity. But in Christ, there is real meaning and a purpose to it all, a future and a hope for the blessings of eternity in the Resurrection. In Him you have the promise of a life that will never end in dust and ashes. In Him you find the confidence to live your life — even your life right here and now on earth — in peace and joy and happiness.
Thus, Solomon goes on to write about life under the sun, that there is nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in your work. For God’s good creation has been restored by the coming of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son. In the face of sin and death, the Lord recaptured the meaning of life as the true Man who lived as one of us — eating and drinking, and working as a Carpenter. His life in the flesh shows beyond all doubt that your life, too, is meaningful and important to Him.
Not only that, but, by the Cross of Christ, that which you bear, and that which you suffer, is likewise not without purpose and significance. Which is why Don’s labors and his sorrows were not tragic but sanctified by the life, death, and Resurrection of his Savior, Jesus Christ, no matter how it might have felt, and no matter how it might have looked or seemed to the world.
Our dear Lord Jesus Christ, by His life and by His death “under the sun,” has earned eternal life in body and soul for Don and for you in the Kingdom of His God and Father. So now your work on earth is no longer an attempt to grab something for yourself. For what could you possibly ever gain beyond the Kingdom of God? No, you work simply to enjoy and use what God has given you to glorify His Holy Name and to serve your neighbor in love, as Don has served his neighbors.
What Don was taught and confessed in his confirmation verse is true. As Christ has died for us and risen to new life in His Body, we live no longer for ourselves, but for Him who loves us. You do what He has given you to do in this body and life on earth, even unto death, in the confidence that He provides all that is needed, and in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.
That is the real difference between “the man who is good in God’s sight” and “the sinner.” The man who is good in His sight has wisdom, knowledge, and happiness. But the sinner just works away to gather and store up wealth for himself, which he must eventually give up to someone else. He dies in disappointment and disappears with nothing to show for all his striving.
The man who is good in God’s sight is not good or pleasing in himself, but he is reckoned good before the face of God. That is the one who has, in faith, received credit for the goodness and righteousness of Christ Jesus. And by that same faith, the one who pleases God also understands that everything in life is a gift of God, which he receives and uses in thanksgiving and in love.
God granted Don such faith by His Gospel–Word and Sacraments, so that he was able to look at his life as a privilege, and as an opportunity to enjoy the gifts that God had given him “under the sun,” awaiting in patience and in peace the day that arrived according to God’s will this past week.
The same Lord God who did not spare His own dear Son, but gave Him up for Don and for us all, has also freely given all good things to Don and to all His Christians. Not only food and clothing for this perishing body and life on earth, but the Food and Clothing of Christ, His Body and His Blood, His Spirit and His Righteousness, His Resurrection, and His indestructible Life.
Which is why Don was able to approach every day as a good day in Christ, in the confidence of the Cross, and in the hope of the Resurrection. “There are no bad days, Pastor,” he said to me on one of my visits earlier this year, just a few months ago. Some days are better than others, but each and every one of them is a gift, an opportunity to love and to serve. That is how Don received them, and sanctified them to himself by God’s Word and prayer, and used them, in the course of his lifetime, to serve his country, his employers, his wife and family, and his congregation.
That is the attitude of faith, with which you also are called to approach whatever God has set before you in this life, whether it be as a husband or housewife, a teacher or student, an accountant or a grandparent, or whatever you might be. When you look at your life and all it brings your way as a gift from God, then you will have joy and satisfaction in everything that you do.
And when you trust that God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is taking care of you, and that He alone is your Maker and Preserver and the Giver of all things, then you are able to sleep peacefully at night, knowing that your life is safely and securely in His hands. Which is really only practice for someday dying peacefully, knowing that your death is but a doorway into everlasting life, and, if you die before you wake, then the Lord your soul will take to Himself.
So it was that Don fell asleep in Jesus this past weekend, and even now, while his body lies in dust and ashes, it rests in peace and quietly awaits the Resurrection unto everlasting life.
So are you also given to wait upon the Lord for that day and that hour when He shall call you from this vale of tears to Himself in heaven. Each and every day is thus a good gift and a gracious opportunity to live by faith in His Word and promises. And everything is beautiful in its season. Not for its own sake, nor in itself, but for Christ Jesus’ sake and in His Body of flesh and blood, in His Word and Holy Spirit. For He has entered into time and space, into His good Creation, in order to redeem and sanctify all things and make them new by His Cross and in His Resurrection.
It was into that redemption, that righteousness and new creation of Christ, that Don was baptized all those years ago. And that has made all the difference. As he was thus glorified in Christ, and Christ in him, by his faith and life in the Gospel, so shall he also be raised in glory at the last to live forever in body and soul. God grant you also that same Peace and Sabbath Rest in the promise of your Baptism, which is the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection and of the Life everlasting.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.