Ground Zero Revival: When Joy Comes Home
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.
Ecclesiastes 9:7, NRSV
If you were speaking to a new Christian, what Bible book would you have them study first? Many people believe the answer to this question should include a focus on Proverbs because it talks about wise conduct, and who among us couldn't be accused of acting a bit foolishly at times? Or in my case, a lot foolishly at times. Wisdom is important. It's so important the Bible has three books of it, and while they seem to be really discordant at first glance, they lock up brilliantly together. When you truly grasp how they function in the life of a Christian, and in the ministry of church outreach, you find it all centers around joy. And that's when it all comes home.
I don't think anyone would dispute that among the first books of the Bible that should be studied, there are some obvious choices. I've always been told an understanding of the Gospels is in order, and I definitely agree with that. Especially for new Christians discovering a whole new way to relate to God in their salvation. Most discipleship planners will follow that up with the old testament books of history. These serve as a really fantastic authority amplifier to the gospels, as they explain how prophecy and history led to Jesus, and subsequently to us. Even Jesus started here almost 2,000 years ago as we walked on a dusty road with two very bereaved disciples. From there, we journey to the epistles for practical application of the ways the Holy Spirit can flow into our lives.
The methods vary, but the general grounding in history and prophecy is the foundation for most new-believer instruction paths.
What book did you first get exposed to in the Bible? Did you start with Matthew? Did you go old school and go with Genesis? Or maybe you're the kind that skips to the back of the book to see how it turns out and headed directly to Revelation? Perhaps you're one of those rebel youngsters who headed straight for the rich poetry and intense passion on full display in Song of Songs? That's an amazingly impactful book to study from a variety of different approaches, by the way. If you've never investigated the depths of what's in this book, I highly recommend it.
All of that being said, I honestly believe we need to start in Ecclesiastes. It's my belief that if we commence our faith journey in Ecclesiastes, we'll have more realistic expectations than we usually find in the average Christian. The Bible contains three books of wisdom, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Each appears remarkably different from one another in approach, content, and the overall context of the message they're trying to convey. Without serious study, they seem to contradict one another. Proverbs says that if we seek after wisdom, we'll get it, and we'll avoid all the bad things in life. Ecclesiastes takes a much different route and Job is just really out there.
If you humanize them, think of Proverbs as the Sunday school teacher you had as a child. The one who told you the absolutes of life, be good, don't be bad. Be kind to other people, don't fight with them, and God will always go before you, making your path straight and level. On the other hand, think of Ecclesiastes as the cynical pastor about 3 years out from retirement after 40 years in rigorous ministry. He's the guy who tells you, "Yeah, God's idea of level and YOUR idea of level? They are worlds apart."
As for Job? Job basically reminds us that the most useful piece of wisdom we can hold onto is the fact that the Lord is God, and we are most definitely not Him.
Where We Go From Here
I keep circling back to this idea of "real realness." Reality is important. We eventually want to end up before God, praising Him eternally in His presence in the most potent relationship none of us could ever dream of having. That being said, we all still have to wake up tomorrow morning. Or at least I hope we get to.
Realistic expectations keep us from going too far afield, and Ecclesiastes is the "how" book of the three books of wisdom in our Bible. Proverbs is what, and Job is why. Without knowing the "how" we find in Ecclesiastes, new believers and seekers can easily be overwhelmed. Even current believers could use a focus on this book. The biggest reason is that knowing how means we have a much better chance of obtaining real joy. But to find pure joy, we have to learn to live inside the tension of its not looking the way we think it should look.
All of Hebrew literature and teaching is about tension. It's about the 1+1 and not so much the 2. In our church, when I preach a sermon, you expect a concrete takeaway. In Judaism, they hope for something to consider deeply.
The thing I love most about the feedback I receive is that what I have said is often going to take some serious reflection. That's the tension that drives most of Hebrew thought and so much of scripture. It's the very Eastern nature of Judaism that allows for this kind of tension in its spirituality. It's the balance between concrete instruction and seemingly incongruent complaints of vagueness, which is why it can be so hard to reconcile the absolutes of Proverbs with the empty smoke offered in Ecclesiastes. Nowadays, we experience it in the differences between prosperity gospel teachers and the real world. We see someone saying, "Send in $50 and receive a prayer packet that I have prayed over, and a miracle will happen in your life." That preys (with an E, not an A) on the Western focus of process over fluidity in reflection.
We want to know that if we do A, B, or C right, we get the result we desire. To someone who is materially impoverished, that's money. To someone whose health is compromised, that's healing. If I just pray the right prayer, hold my head at the correct angle when the offering plate comes around, I'll get what I want. Put the right amount into the plate, wait long enough after service to appear sufficiently pious to God. Give that televangelist the amount of money he wants. Whatever we think the process is, whatever we are told it might be, if we just do it, we will receive whatever it is we want. So maybe it's something we want out of desperation. Perhaps in some instances, it's driven by greed. When that happens, as a pastor, I often see verses like James 4:2 taken out of context. They are working from a process-driven blueprint. They read, "You do not have because you do not ask." But they don't move on to James 4:3. That's where it gets into the reasons why the ask is refused, particularly wrong and self-centered motives.
Ecclesiastes centers on a singular, pivotal premise split between two characters, the first being the author. The teachings of Ecclesiastes come from the teacher, preacher, philosopher, quester, the son of the King, the son of David, Koholeth, or whatever your translation calls him are brought out in six separate sections and expanded in them. We'll refer to him by the name given in the original Hebrew, Koholeth. He talks about everything being useless, vanity, meaningless, pointless, etc., again depending on your translation. All these different words really don't even scratch the surface of the word they are translating. It's most often translated as words like "breath," and "vapor" like you see on a cold morning. It's also translated as "smoke," because it's often used to describe something you can see, but cannot grasp. When you go back to the Hebrew pictographs for it, there's a shepherd's crook in front of an open tent door. If you stop there, that's the word for "new spirit" we discussed previously. As a reminder, it's the "new authority inside you," we talked about in conjunction with Psalm 51, where David said, "Create in me a new heart." But the word Koholeth uses doesn't stop the pictograph there.
Next to those two little bits of chicken scratching is a pictograph of a man with his hands thrown up in the air in surprise. Surprise! Behold! There's nothing in the authority inside that you can lay hold of! The word translates best according to the pictograph as "empty" as in, there's something there, but it's seeping out and long gone before you can lay hold of it.
You see, this is why it's essential to dig deeper when you study the Bible. You don't get this kind of puzzle presented to you from the words "meaningless," "vanity," or "useless." It's challenging to translate an Eastern-based language founded solidly in the physical experience of this world into an orderly, logical, intellectual, and thoroughly western language.
Couple that with the fact the Hebrew lacks paragraph breaks, capitalization, punctuation, etc. Then you plug that into the perspective of the different points in time from which all our Bible translations originate. Factor in the societal influences at those points in time, and you can see where we got words like meaningless, vanity, and useless.
It's almost like chasing after the translation itself leaves you coming up empty, just like Koholeth said it would.
Coming Up Empty
Personally, I like it when exegesis becomes a sermon illustration. Still, I also get how frustrating it can be for the person struggling to live their lives as useful, Godly people seeking after His will. This notion of coming up empty when you go looking for reasons behind what is going on in life is the principal idea in Ecclesiastes. It creates tension between the three wisdom books of the Bible. It additionally sets the table for what can be an utterly depressing read if we don't really wrestle the ideas it holds to submission. This is probably why a lot of people prefer not to study Ecclesiastes. It's a tough nut to crack if you're just trying to find processes that lead you to rewards. Jesus pointed out to us that there are a lot of things we don't know. Knowledge isn’t always our reward, and that’s a big pill to swallow.
He said that we will receive "a hundredfold now in this age houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields. But he also said they come with persecutions. Read 2 Timothy 3:12, John 15:20, Revelation 2:10. You'll see they all quite clearly declare that life isn't going to be fair to believers, contrary to what the Proverbs tell us. You get that contradiction when you take Proverbs out of its greater context.
The history of the early church is absolutely slathered over with persecution. Twelve out of 13 of the foremost disciples died fairly horrific deaths starting at Judas. If prosperity is any judge of how much God loves a person, then God absolutely hated the disciples with a vengeance. But success isn't always a mark of God's favor or love, sometimes it's the opposite. God's favor is occasionally accompanied by challenges that break us apart. God's favor is often shown powerfully in the persecution, especially when He is glorified by those persecuted.
I'll tell you a little story. On April 23, 1945, American soldiers liberated a Nazi concentration camp at Flossenburg, Germany. Among those prisoners who died at the camp when the Nazis began the purge of prisoners and retreat of soldiers was a relatively young, Lutheranist pastor and founder of the Confessing Church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was run through a drumhead trial with no defense, no jury, and no record of the proceedings. On the chilly spring morning of April 9, 1945, he was stripped of his clothing, led naked into the courtyard, and hanged along with other Abwehr conspirators for the July 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Flossenburg Concentration Camp, where he was being held, was being liberated two weeks later by American forces. At the same time it was liberated, Russian troops were fighting in the streets of Berlin. As that was going on, Bonhoeffer's brother Klaus and brother-in-law Rudiger Schleiger, both of whom were resistance fighters, were executed in Berlin. Two weeks after that, the whole war would come to an end. Hardly seems fair at all to us.
The untimely death of one of the 20th century's preeminent theologians didn't happen in some blaze of glory. There was no fanfare and pomp, excellent camera work, or sweeping musical score that could make even grown men cry. It happened to the sound of naked, bare feet walking to a rope slung over a beam. They were surrounded by the sharp report of boots that belonged to the men assigned to oversee these deaths.
As that rope was placed around his neck, it was a symbol of the guilt conferred upon him by his actions in resistance to Nazi oppression. Guilt is a funny word. We seem to think of it in terms of God's perfect justice uncovered by man. In this case, it wasn't. This pastor was guilty of playing a part in an attempt to free the world of an oppressive regime. Bonhoeffer and those involved knew what would be required of them if they failed. He said, "Before other men, he is justified by dire necessity; before himself, he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God, he hopes only for grace."
Bonhoeffer completed his final worship service less than 24 hours before his execution. As he was lead out of the service to his trial, he said to captive British spy Payne Best, "This is the end - for me, the beginning of life." Bonhoeffer's motivations were informed and directed by the wisdom he found in Proverbs. His actions and sense of realism were tied closely to Ecclesiastes. In his last words to Best, he tipped his hat to Job and the utter submission he had to the absolute sovereignty of God. Through Christ, he'd never lost his overarching hope.
Was Bonhoeffer joyful as that cold air hit his skin, and he walked to the gallows for his execution with the other prisoners? Was he hopeful? At peace? Was he feeling the love of God? I think he was, after a sense. I believe he felt all those things because the in-birthed persuasion of God had convinced him he would soon be on the other side of this world, facing God and everything that entails.
Was he afraid? I don't think he would be human if he wasn't. But Christians who live that deeply into their faith don't fear death. They fear pain, sure, but not death.
In all this really somber talk, Koholeth helps us find balance in Ecclesiastes. Don't be too good, but don't be wicked. Don't be too wise, but don't be dumb either. That’s the mark we’re expected to hit if we want to find real joy. If we can find balance in the life of, and especially the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we can find it in our own lives and help others to see it in theirs.
Is your life off-kilter right now? Maybe you've got too much month at the end of your money, or too much dust at the end of your can of Pledge. If you're like me, you sometimes get too many irons in the fire. You're worried that your college-age kids are going to wind up involved in things that are bad for them. Your investment portfolio isn't looking good, and the person in the next cubicle at work has it in for you. Maybe it's all holiday-related. Schedules, family, work, gifts, church services, all these things and more can get really out of control. For instance, maybe this is the first holiday you'll be experiencing without either of your parents, as I am.
Even then, in the stress of any holiday, we need to refocus and allow God to reveal His joy in all the things He has given us. Even the bad things He has allowed to happen. It may feel like the end, but it's genuinely only the beginning of real life.
Life isn't fair as we see fairness laid out in Proverbs, and this is because of our human perspective. We're told to do this and do that, and we'll get this result, only to find that the result isn't accurately matched to how we define it. The gall we have in thinking we can define anything whatsoever without God is astounding.
The point is, everyone is unique. God treats you and me individually. The things God shows me aren't always things He shows you. Sometimes, and more often than we believe, God shows us something that He shows no one else, and He uses a singular source to do it. We call that a miracle. We see one every morning that we wake up and look to the eastern horizon. None of us see the same sunrise through the same eyes. All of us were born, enjoyed our fleeting youth, and will someday have our mortal bodies pass away. Our physical presence here on this earth is only smoke, emptying out of God's authority. So focusing on what it all means, all the questions we have, isn't the point of life. Reconciling the ledger of this world and what is going on within it isn't our job. Focusing there is why it's so difficult to find happiness sometimes. Our task, as pointed out here, is to focus on the work that God has placed before us and find the joy He put there.
Rich people sometimes die miserably. Some poor people die, having loved more powerfully than the majority of people around them. Good people who work hard lost everything in the housing collapse of the last decade. Predatory lenders and their greed made off like bandits. Hard-working, God-fearing people ended up homeless. Here we have a Lutheranist pastor with a sincere heart for God and a theological intellect that will still be rippling through time for generations to come. He died while hanging naked, cold, and considered humiliated by the authorities that placed him there. I'm sure that's not how he wanted it all to end. None of us would, either.
But, I Don't Wanna!
We can absolutely argue with God over the things we are called to do. We can try to convince Him to let us have our way. The funny thing is, Abraham found out that he was actually living into God’s will by trying to convince the Almighty to spare Sodom. It did require Abraham to live into God’s will, though, which is an important distinction to note.
We can tell Jesus we don't want to experience evil things. I've done that myself. Do you know what Jesus told me? He said to me that He knows precisely how I feel. After all, he felt that way in Gethsemane, shortly before he was hung on a cross naked, cold and considered humiliated by the authorities that put him there.
If you look for God's authority encased in constructs and concepts built by humans, you're going to be surprised when your search comes up empty. It never existed there because God didn't put it there.
God doesn't live in a box. He lives in communion, which is where He put the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love we find in our expectant waiting during Advent.
You have something to do every day and moment of our lives. Don't focus on finding a formulaic meaning for it. Don't chase after the "right answer" all the time. Enjoy the experience of it by being in the moment fully. When we take communion, we strive to be fully present with God. When you're eating with your family, having a drink with your buddy or whatever you're doing, be fully present there in that tension at that moment.
This isn't easy, because we in the west don't live like that. We let the desire to find the world's riches strip us of the joy God intended for us to have. It doesn't matter if those riches jingle and fold into your wallet, or are printed in books or filmed in movies. As difficult as it is to hear, it's not in a doctor's chart either. The joy we celebrate today isn't in answers to questions, it's in the quest for those answers and how we can come together with both God and our fellow humans to find them.
Give up looking for a higher reason and see God in what's directly in front of you. There's a reason theologians refer to the eastern mysticism of the Bible. Judaism is an Eastern religion. God gives, and God takes, and we often can't figure out why because we're not God. That's an eastern-based, tension-laden truth we must live within, but one we're not called to reconcile. We have to refocus on the relationship, which has been God's focus all along. When we balance our lives in finding the joy in even the most mundane, simple things, people take notice of the happiness we find. That's how our faith moves into action.
To find the joyful heart we seek, pay attention to God in the process, and stop chasing an explanation which we were never meant to understand in the first place. That's when joy will finally come home for you, and for others through you.
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.