Every Friday in November, The Mudroom is featuring author Lindsey Smallwood. Lindsey recently published Ecclesiastes: Life in Full Color, her second Bible study book. The following devotional reflection is based her book and the related materials available for small groups.
A couple years ago, some friends of ours were married in Ojai, California. Ojai is an out-of-the-way town nestled in the hills between the busy interstates going in and out of Los Angeles and the scenic California coast. Like many tourist destinations, there are quirky shops and restaurants, nice hotels and a long list of recreation options. But to me, the best part of being in Ojai was the citrus smell. The roads are lined with orange trees and tangerine groves, miles and miles of sweet-smelling fruit.
I’m not sure The Teacher would have enjoyed the sights and smells of our wedding weekend getaway as much as I did. In fact, after reading his opening thoughts in Ecclesiastes 1:1-12, it seems like he might not find much in all of life to enjoy! Listen in to some of those observations, shared here from the Message version:
There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old
Everything’s boring, utterly boring—
no one can find any meaning in it.
Boring to the eye,
boring to the ear.
What was will be again,
what happened will happen again.
There’s nothing new on this earth.
Year after year it’s the same old thing.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, not in Ojai, California, but in a different grove of fruit trees altogether when the world was new, when everything wasn’t full of weariness. A quick re-read of Genesis 1 reminds us that the word God used over and over for his creation was “good.”
The streams and rivers and oceans were new, conceived in the mind of God and spoken into existence by His powerful Word. Everything worked exactly as God designed it. There was no decay, no futility, no waste. Just beauty and goodness as the first human beings began to explore the world that God made for them.
As things in this fresh new world are getting going, God gives a rule a rule which Adam and Eve break. Their disobedience, their betrayal of the One who created them with such love and care led to a curse over all of creation, a world of toil and struggle and strife.
Sound familiar? This is the world The Teacher is telling us about in Ecclesiastes. A world where we work and sweat until we die and return to the ground. A world that can feel meaningless. After all, if work and death and the forces of nature are all there is, what’s the point?
The Point will come thousands of years after this story in the garden, nearly 1000 years after The Teacher delivers his sermon on the vanity of life. Because this world, cursed and full of human sin? God really loves it. John 3:16-17 tells us:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection bring spiritual wholeness and opportunities to see redemption in the world. Still we wait for the day when all of creation will again be very good as it was in the garden.
There’s another way of describing this, of talking about the world as it should be. Jesus called it The Kingdom of God. It’s a kingdom not marked by castles or crowns, by power or wealth or military might. Instead it’s an invisible Kingdom held together by love. It’s about hearts and minds and actions.
The Kingdom of God isn’t in money or status or possessions. The Kingdom of God is in the Good Samaritan who stops to care for the stranger, it’s the inheritance of those willing to face persecution for the sake of the gospel, it’s in learning to be satisfied by the Bread of Life and His Living Water. The Kingdom of God is all of the things Jesus teaches us that life is really about.
Last week we looked at how Ecclesiastes helps us see that what usually feels most important to us, the cares of this life, the objects we accumulate and maintain, the positions and status we seek to achieve, all of these things are, in a real sense, meaningless. Smoke. Hebel.
What matters instead is what we can’t see, what we can’t buy, what we can never earn: Kingdom life. The stuff that seems can be hard to see now is what will matter forever – and that’s Jesus incredible love for us and our life-long chance to respond to that love by living a kingdom life.
The Teacher is not wrong; creation was and is in desperate need of redemption. We know more of the story than he did, but we live with many of the same realities. Still, even as we acknowledge the ways life can seem pointless, we point our hearts toward Jesus, learning to hope in God’s ongoing plan.