I had lunch with a friend this week who’s planning a trip to Europe – Portugal and Italy. He said he’s planning it himself. If you’ve ever planned a trip on your own, you know how difficult this can be. You really have no idea what the hotel is going to be like until you get there. I can remember a couple of surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. It’s scary to commit to going somewhere if you don’t know what it’s going to be like when you get there.
So I asked my friend if he’s using TripAdvisor, and he said yes. Have you heard of TripAdvisor? It’s “World’s Most Trusted Travel Advice™.” You go to the website and search for any destination, and you can read hundreds of reviews. As an example, here are two very different reviews for the last place we went on vacation:
“Amazing…..Beautiful……Romantic……Sunny & Warm!!!”
“Please don’t waste your money”
You can read all kinds of reviews and see the percentage of people who were happy and unhappy. You can see pictures of your destination – not just the professional images that have been through Photoshop, but real images from people who’ve been there. In essence, you get to know what it’s like before you get there. That way you can choose your destination knowing what you’ll find when you get there.
This morning’s passage is kind of like TripAdvisor for the soul. The passage we just read in Ecclesiastes gives us three pictures of what life could look like. He’s helping us a lot, because it really helps to know what you’re signing up for before you get there.
So let’s look at the three pictures. Let’s take a few moments to consider where we’re going with our lives, and what the Teacher has to say about our destination.
Here’s the first picture, found in verses 7 and 8:
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.
You already get the sense that this isn’t going to be a positive picture. It’s a common one, though. Picture someone who rises early every morning and takes transit to work. The days are long, and it’s rare to get home much before bedtime. There have been some difficult choices along the way. There’s already been one failed marriage, but you really have to choose, and the marriage just seemed like it was getting in the way. But business has been good. The mortgage is paid off. The retirement fund is looking good. There’s really nothing that couldn’t be bought. Life is working really well, as long as one keeps moving and never stops too long.
You meet people like this every week. In fact, we praise this type of person. They know what they want. They make tough choices to get there. If you’re hiring, you’d gladly have this person working for you. Although this passage was written thousands of years ago, you see this person on the GO Train and in the subway every day.
Yet there are problems with this picture. The Teacher examines this picture and finds two problems. The first is that success comes at a pretty steep price. Verse 8 speaks of a viscous circle: there’s no end to the toil. Why? Because they’re never satisfied. No matter how much they earn, it’s never quite enough. Last year’s bonus was nice, but unless you beat last year’s performance you’re not going to get a bonus this year, so you have to work even harder this year. So you’re caught in this treadmill of never having done quite enough. The carrot on the stick is always just slightly out of reach no matter how fast you run, so you keep running faster, but you never quite catch up.
There’s another problem. This person is successful but solitary. Verse eight says that they have “no other, either son nor brother.” It doesn’t really bother them most of the time, but it’s only because they try to avoid thinking about it. Verse 8 says that they never ask, “Why am I doing this? Who is it all for?” The Teacher concludes with these words: “This also is vanity and an unhappy business.”
This is a big help. The Teacher is warning us not to do this with our lives. Don’t become a successful, solitary person, he’s saying. It’s just not worth it. You’ll end up enslaved to your work, never really satisfied, and you’ll have no-one to share it with.
Let’s pause here and take a minute to reflect. We live in a world in which we have to make choices. You can’t have it all. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Perpetual devotion to what man calls his business is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” I know that some of you are facing pressures at work and you’re making difficult choices. If you don’t keep up, there are others who will gladly take your place.
The Teacher is holding up a picture and asking, “Is this what you want?” Are you sacrificing your relationships for the sake of a career that will leave you successful but solitary? I like how Tim Keller puts it:
Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry…
If you center your life and identity on your work and career, you will be a driven workaholic and a boring, shallow person. At worst you will lose family and friends and, if your career goes poorly, develop deep depression.
If you center your life and identity on money and possessions, you’ll be eaten up by worry or jealousy about money. You’ll be willing to do unethical things to maintain your lifestyle, which will eventually blow up your life.
So don’t aspire to the first picture that the Teacher shows us. Don’t aim to be a successful but solitary person.
I want to look now at the last picture that the Teacher gives us, before we return and look at the middle picture. The first picture is of a successful, solitary person. The last picture is of a politically successful but solitary individual. It’s a little hard to untangle, but let’s see if we can understand the picture that he gives us in verses 13 to 16:
Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.
There’s some debate about the details of this picture. Here is, as best as I can see, what it means. There’s an old and foolish king who’s lost touch and who won’t take advice. Perhaps he’s fired his advisors. I can think of a number of politicians who have done this. Once they reach the top they stop listening, and eventually they drift towards irrelevance. Everyone’s glad when they’re gone.
But then someone new and better comes along. He comes from nowhere. He was born poor. He captures the imagination of the people and inspires them to hope again. He’s immensely popular. “There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led.” Again, I can think of many examples of new leaders who have come to power and have inspired hope. Their popularity levels have been off the charts.
But the Teacher shows us where this leads. “Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him.” People are fickle. This new and better king will become yesterday’s news before very long. The Teacher is showing us that the life guided by wisdom, who rises from obscurity to the pinnacles of achievement, and who receives the adulation of millions – that life is also futile and useless in the end. The Teacher says it’s “also is vanity and a striving after wind.”
It’s like what the actor Jim Carrey said: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” The Teacher would agree with that. You can attain the respect and admiration of the crowds, but in the end be left alone because your friends are not true friends. They’re just fans who will eventually move on to the next new thing.
Do you realize that the Teacher has just put the spotlight on two of the things that we value most: career success, and fame and popularity? George Harrison – one of the Beatles – said:
At first we all thought we wanted the fame. After a bit we realized that fame wasn’t really what we were after at all, just the fruits of it. After the initial excitement and thrill had worn off, I, for one, became depressed. Is this all we have to look forward to in life? Being chased around by a crowd of hooting lunatics from one crappy hotel room to the next?
Maybe on a more personal level, the Teacher would caution us about building surface relationships that aren’t really true friendships. You can have a lot of Facebook friends without really having intimate connections. Don’t live to become a successful, solitary person, the Teacher tells us. And don’t live to become someone who lives for the acclaim of the people, because you’ll die as alone as the solitary person in the first picture. Neither one is really the destination you want to choose for your life.
The Middle Picture
How, then, should we live? In the middle of these two negative pictures, the Teacher gives us a positive one. Read verses 9 to 12:
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 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! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
In contrast to the successful and solitary person, or the person who achieves temporary fame and acclaim, the Teacher offers us a picture of someone who is in genuine community. It’s the only one of the three pictures that doesn’t end with a pronouncement of vanity. This, the Teacher says, is what we should aim for. Genuine community is better than solitary success or popularity. It’s what we need in our lives.
The Teacher tells us four benefits of genuine community.
First, we’ll have a larger profit. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.” Two people working together often produce more than twice what they’d produce alone. Not only that, but it’s a lot more fulfilling to share the rewards of hard work with another.
Second, we’ll find help in times of need. “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!” When you used to go swimming as a kid, you were probably told to use the buddy system. When they blow the whistle, you need to make sure that your buddy is okay. You can’t be responsible for everyone in the pool, but you can be responsible for your buddy. We need the same thing in life. We need others who have our back.
Third, we’ll have more comfort. “Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?” This one sounds strange to us. It’s not talking about a married couple. It’s probably speaking of the travel that took place on dangerous roads in the ancient Middle East. They would sleep outdoors at night. On cold nights, a single cloak would not be enough. You may not be comfortable with the thought of huddling under a pair of cloaks on the side of the road, and that’s okay. But you too have found comfort in community. You’ve experienced the warmth of friendship. You know what he’s talking about.
Finally, you have greater protection. “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” When you’re alone, you’re vulnerable. When you’re in community, you have greater protection. Spurgeon said, “Communion is strength; solitude is weakness. Alone, the free old beech yields to the blast and lies prone on the meadow. In the forest, supporting each other, the trees laugh at the hurricane. The sheep of Jesus flock together. The social element is the genius of Christianity.”
Genuine community is better than solitary success or popularity. It’s what we need in our lives.
This morning’s passage obviously has huge implications for us. It may mean that you rethink what you’re aiming for in life. Some of you may have to rethink some of the career decisions you’ve been making so you don’t end up a successful, solitary person. Some of you may need to take a step back from your focus on winning the acclaim of the crowds.
One of the biggest implications is for how we’re going to function as a church. I want to ask you honestly to answer four questions this morning from this text:
- Do you have someone in your life who is helping you be more productive spiritually?
- Do you have a buddy who knows you’re down, who will notice when you’re in trouble, and who will pick you up when you fall?
- Do you know what it’s like to find comfort in the friendships you have with other believers?
- Do you have the protection that comes from being in this together rather than going at it alone?
There’s a limit to what you can do in life alone. It’s futile! Jesus invites us into community characterized by love. I never get tired of reading what Jesus said right before he offered his life for us:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:15-17)
I don’t want us to think that church is just this – sitting in pews and then leaving. Church is community. It’s loving. It’s costly love. We can get started by taking relational risks and just beginning to build strong connections with others in this room. It’s time to break through.
Here’s an example of someone who did this:
One of the most important moments of my spiritual life was when I sat down with a longtime friend and said, “I don’t want to have any secrets anymore.”
I told him everything I was most ashamed of. I told him about my jealousies, my cowardice, how I hurt my wife with my anger. I told him about my history with money and my history with sex. I told him about deceit and regrets that keep me up at night. I felt vulnerable because I was afraid that I was going to lose connection with him. Much to my surprise, he did not even look away.
I will never forget his next words. “John,” he said. “I have never loved you more than I love you right now.” The very truth about me that I thought would drive him away became a bond that drew us closer together. He then went on to speak with me about secrets he had been carrying.
If I keep part of my life secret from you, you may tell me you love me. But inside I think that you would not love me if you knew the whole truth about me. I can only receive love from you to the extent that I am known by you. (John Ortberg)
Here’s what you can do. You can become someone who pushes toward genuine community. If enough of us do this, it won’t take long before we infect this whole church with a taste of what it’s like.
Choose your destination carefully. Don’t become a solitary, successful person. Don’t become someone who lives for popular acclaim. Develop genuine community. Let’s begin by seeing Jesus who called us friends, and who called us to become friends who love one another.