There are many theories on what the goal or purpose of a sermon is supposed to be. Not that a preacher will always meet his specified goal, but there is usually something he is trying to do as he proclaims the Word of God to a particular people at a particular place and time. One of my favorite expressions about preaching was said to me by a professor many years ago as he looked out at a whole class of future pastors and said to us, “Gentlemen, you are to be the hitmen and midwives of God.” That is, we were supposed to take the Word of God and use it to both kill and bring forth new life. Kill the prideful and self-righteous sinner and deliver life to the condemned and distraught. I believe this is a good way to think about preaching, but it is not the only one. In fact, one which seems to flow more easily from the pages of scripture is a preacher is a promise maker. That is, he is responsible to take the great promises of God and proclaim them again here and now. When a pastor stands before a congregation to preach the Good News he is, in fact, making promises about life and salvation, about forgiveness and eternal life. Certainly, we would say our faith is built upon the promises of our God, promises for you, here and now, and promises which carry beyond this age into the age to come.
Yet sometimes the promises of God can seem quite distant and elusive. They are out there, out there somewhere, but they do not seem to sink in here and now. That is why they need to be made over and over again. We are notoriously plagued by short memories. We hear the promises, perhaps even grow up learning the promises, but as times goes on, we forget what they said or even doubt they are still valid promises. As you go about your life, as you inadvertently drift towards corruption and are so easily entangled in sin, you begin to think the promises do not apply any more. Perhaps they were good when you were eight years old but, man, the amount of sin you have accumulated since then, the amount of disobedience to the Word of God, the times you have turned your back on your Lord, the times you lived as if God did not matter at all, surely those old promises are just not good anymore.
So, when we believe the promises of God have drifted away from us, what is it we are left with? Well, we turn to the things we can control. We turn to the things in our life we can affect in some way to try and shore up what is lacking in our lives. If you are unhappy or lonely or confused about your place in this world, if you are afraid or angry, you turn to the things you can do or make or influence in some way to try and solve the problem. The promises of God are difficult for us to control so we control what we can. We begin to find our security and our identity in our possessions and our positions in this world. Some focus on physical health others on wisdom and knowledge. Some want to be independently wealthy while others want to experience all the pleasures this world has to offer. Some seek after fame and others want to leave a legacy. We busy ourselves with all these things in life to try and fill what we long for in the promises of our God.
But these endeavors of our life, even the noble and honorable ones, have a way falling short of what we hoped they would provide. This is, in fact, the overall picture painted by Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes. He famously begins by saying, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). As he takes this grand survey of the life of man, of all we do and all we seek after, he surmises it is all vanity. Now, this does not mean it is meaningless. It does not mean it lacks a purpose. His point is that, on an eternal scale before the throne room of God, our efforts will not obtain what we hoped they would. They will become frustrated and fall short. They cannot supplant the promises of God. So, he says in chapter 5, “As [man] came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil.” This he says is a grievous evil. To know in the end, we take nothing with us, that all our effort, all our work, all our accomplishments will not amount to anything in the age to come can be quite a shock to the system.
This is the same shock Jesus gives to his disciples when He says to them, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). To enter the Kingdom of God required obedience to the commands. It required pilgrimages and sacrifices. Certainly, a rich person would have an easier time navigating all of that. They would not have to worry about working on the Sabbath or how they were going to care for their neighbor in need. They were accustomed, no doubt, to seeing the wealthy as those who would most easily enter the Kingdom of God. But it seems as if their perceived accomplishment is part of the problem. They begin to trust in what they have. Their security is derived from their wealth and not from the promises of God.
But man will take nothing for all his toil. Salvation is not our work but our Lord’s. Therefore, when the disciples ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” He looks at them and says, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:26-27). Salvation rests in the hands of your God. The whole work of your Lord from His birth in the little town of Bethlehem to His miracles and teaching, to His betrayal and bloody death on the cross, to His resurrection on the third day and His ascension to the right hand of the Father, all of it is for your salvation. The great working of God was to secure and deliver eternal life for you. And He promises that all who believe in Him, all who cling not to their own works but to His alone will be saved. He promises He will raise the dead and bring all His children into the blessings of eternal life.
And what does Solomon say when he takes note of all this? What is his conclusion as he sees the frustration of human works? As he reminds us how naked we came and naked we will go? Well, he says, “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-19). What wonderful words for us today. Our time here, our toil under the sun is not meaningless. It is full and rich and ought to be enjoyed. Your lot in life is to eat and drink and enjoy your toil. He frees you from trying to earn your way into Heaven. He saves you from an agonizing life where assurance is just around the next bend but never in your grasp. Instead of working your way into the Kingdom, you are reminded God has already provided for you in His Son. He promises you He is in control. He will deliver you.
This is God’s gift to you. His gift is that your life can be enjoyed and celebrated. His gift is that what you do matters, but not for your eternal salvation. As a result, you are free to live as a blessing to those around you. Free to eat a great meal and enjoy the company of good friends. Free to make money and spend it, to enjoy the best entertainment and travel the world. You are free also to fail, to struggle, to feel you are lost and unsure of what the next step is. Free to grieve loss and feel at times that you are a complete failure. Free to know that even in those dark times, even when there is no money, no influence, no security in the things of man, you are still held fast in the promises of God.
He promises you are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. He promises He loves you and forgives you and will bring you into His eternal Kingdom. He promises His Word will not wear out, His love does not grow weary, and His peace is not bound by our hesitation. This is His promise to you. This is the gift of God.