Trinity 7 – Meaningless! Meaningless?

Sunday 4 August 2019

Trinity 7

Ecc. 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23  Luke 12:13-21

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

How many advertisements do we see each day?

Any guesses?

Recent research suggests that the average American, and I suspect it is only slightly fewer for us, sees between 4000 and 10,000 adverts each day.

How can that be possible, you think, surely there are only a few adverts between each program, and I always fast forward through those.

Of course TV advertising is only a small part of it.  Every newspaper and magazine you open is full of adverts, if you venture outside your house you are confronted with billboards and ads on buses and bus shelters and in every shop window.  If you use the internet for anything you cannot help but be bombarded not only with general adverts, but, more worryingly with personalised adverts which know your age, your gender, where you live and which pages you have ever visited or liked.

In my 30s, in the infancy of Facebook, I used to get adverts for fast cars, in my 40s I received adverts for life assurance, now I am in my 50s it is for funeral plans.  The life stages of man for the modern age.

Many of us subconsciously filter out most of the adverts we see but, if you are dubious or shocked by that 4000 to 10,000 number it may be worthwhile trying to turn off that sub-conscious block and consciously look at our interactions with the world and the media and really notice the advertising that is coming your way.

And what is most of that advertising saying to us?  What is it promising us?  Mostly, I suspect, we are being offered the promise of happiness and security. 

We will be truly happy, we are promised, if we have the right sort of car, go on the right sort of holiday, if we are thin enough, if we have the right accessories in our home or on our person, we will have security if we take out the right life assurance or funeral plan, if we invest the right way.  If we purchase what they are offering then our lives will be complete and our future assured.  That is the premise of advertising and that is what we are being bombarded with constantly.

Now, I won’t lie to you.  It is totally possible to get pleasure from material things.  On those rare occasions in my life when I have had a fast car or a new hifi or a fancy holiday they can be great fun.  But cars wear out, hifis become obsolete and holidays are over in the blink of an eye and, where then, do we seek and find our happiness and security?

We could, of course, stay on the treadmill of consumerist pleasure, and many do.  Having enjoyed whatever our last purchase was it is easy to forget how quickly the pleasure wears off and to keep buying the next thing and the next thing in order to keep getting that hit.  That makes it sound like an addiction.  Perhaps it is.

But if we are in any way reflective and able to stand back from our own behaviour then we may begin to realise that the world of adverts which fuel our desire to buy more stuff in order to obtain that elusive promise of real happiness and security is, ultimately, an empty promise which leads to nothing but too much debt, houses in need of decluttering, overuse of the world’s resources and spiritual emptiness.

In our bible readings for this morning we were presented with two complementary reactions to the empty promises of the world.

The first was from the book of Ecclesiastes, which simply means the book of the Teacher.  We don’t look at this book terribly often in our lectionary cycle and there is no doubt that many people find it a difficult and challenging read.  It is a Wisdom book, in the same genre as Proverbs and, like that book the author is said to be King Solomon, who was full of wisdom.  However, unlike Proverbs, Ecclesiastes does not offer us easy sound bites to live our lives by or to cross stitch and frame.  Rather, Ecclesiastes spends much of it’s length exploring what we might describe as existential doubt – why are we here and where is meaning to be found are it’s central questions and, on the face of it, it looks less than encouraging:

Vanity of vanity,

Says the teacher

Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity!

Let me let you into a little secret.  On my car I have a personalised number plate, which are sometimes called vanity plates.  If you look closely at the bottom of my registration you will see exactly this verse,   Ecclesiastes 1:2 – “vanity of vanity”. 

However, in the translation I first read for today it was even more challenging:

“Meaningless, meaningless,

says the teacher,

Utterly meaningless!

Everything is meaningless!”

You don’t often see that framed on the wall of good Christian homes!

The author has stepped back from the world, had a good hard look at what people spend their whole lives doing, working hard at their jobs, seeking after wealth, even seeking after wisdom, and yet he sees that they all die and the fruits of their labour either whither away or pass onto those who have done nothing. 

This gives rise to his existential despair – what is the point of doing anything, if it is all meaningless and vanity?

It’s only the smiling which keeps me so cheerful.

In 2:24 the author says: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil

And, of course, this very much reflects the attitude of the rich man in Jesus’ parable from Luke.

In many ways that rich man had done all the things that the world expected him to do.  He had obviously worked hard as a farmer and his land had produced an abundant crop – success! 

He tore down his small barn, invested in bigger storage facilities put his crops safely away for the future.

Take life easy”, he says to himself, “eat, drink and be merry.”

This man had won the lottery of life – he had his pension sorted.  In this area of West Kent I am sure we all meet people every day who have made their packet and are now eating, drinking and being merry and, if you take the view that everything is meaningless then it is a logical position to take.

But, and here’s the point:.

As Christians we do not believe that everything is meaningless.

But what about the verses in Ecclesiastes, I hear you silently cry.  Well, these demonstrate the danger of dipping into and out of books without reading the whole thing.  Although the author of Ecclesiastes starts his book with existential despair, it is not where he ends it.  The conclusion is to be found in chapter 12 where he says:

Fear God and keep his commandments,

for this is the duty of all mankind.

For God will bring every deed into judgment,

Including every hidden thing,

Whether it is good or evil

So, even for the author of Ecclesiastes there is meaning because there is God and there is judgment.  The seemingly simple thing of knowing that some things are good and some are evil gives our actions and our choices consequences, and if there are consequences then there is meaning to what you do.

And we know that the rich young man that Jesus spoke about only enjoyed his eating, drinking and being merry for one night before his life was demanded from him.

He put all his trust in his barns full of crops but appeared to give no thought to the God who had sent him success or to the poor around him.

Jesus opened the parable by saying:  “Watch out!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist of an abundance of possessions.”

Watch out.  The thousands of adverts we see everyday are intended to induce in us all kinds of greed for the goods and services they offer.  It is possible to spend a lifetime chasing the fleeting satisfaction of those things, and eating and drinking and being merry.  But, ultimately, and if we are honest with ourselves we know, that that is a chasing after the wind, it is meaningless, it is vanity.

Yes, we are material beings in a material world and we need material things to live.  But we should never look to our possessions to give us long term meaning, happiness or security.

To be a Christian, to be a follower of Christ, is to live a life full of meaning.  It is to know that we were known by God before the creation of all things and that we shall continue to be known by him after the end of all things.  It is also to know that we are called to live rich lives, but that does not mean selfish lives, it means lives that are rich towards God and rich to all those around us.