The story of mankind’s fall into sin is something we overlook at our own peril. It possesses the ability to cut through all the various layers of nuance and subtlety to get to the heart of the problem that plagues us all. We are told the serpent said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” Well, the woman goes on to inform him that God gave them all the various fruit of the garden to eat except for the one tree in the midst of the garden, the one which received His Word of command, of that one they may not eat. And if they eat of it, they will die. To which the serpent says, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The fruit possessed the ability to make one wise, to make one like God Himself, and it is here where the seed of sin is sown. Long before she eats the fruit, she doubts the Word of God, and she desires to be like Him.
It is that desire, to be like God, to know good and evil, which continues to plague mankind. It continues to drive our actions, beliefs, cares, and concerns. Having eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we now think we can sit at a vantage point that rivals the Creator Himself. We think we know what is right and what is wrong. We know how things ought to look, how they ought to function, how the outcomes ought to play out. Modern science has delved into the subatomic level of matter on the one hand and searches out into the far reaches of outer space on the other in an attempt to find clues to the working of our universe. We marvel at what we have been able to do, understand, and explore and we hope that, through it all, in some way, we might be able to right some wrongs, to promote health, justice, and equity in our lives. We search for permanence, for impact that will go far beyond our own immediate situation. From solving the issues of climate change to untangling the mental health crisis in our country we offer our insight, our wisdom, our counsel, to make the world a better place.
This desire to rise up, to go beyond our immediate needs and callings in life is a desire to solve what King Solomon called the problem of vanity. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” This addresses the feeling you all have when you fight and struggle to understand the things of God, when you try to uncover a meaning to the movement of the times and the seasons of life. When you think you are like God, knowing good and evil, and so you work hard to find meaning and permanence in life, and to shape it all to meet your expectations. Over and again, you are frustrated. You come up short. Your explanations do not last, and it all comes tumbling down. It is vanity and a striving after wind. Of course, Solomon is not just a winsome philosopher espousing his thoughts from the sideline of life. No, this was a man of great power and riches. If anyone could find the answer to vanity it was him, and he poured himself into it. He tried to play God, but in the end, it is all vanity.
This striving after wind is expressed beautifully in our Lord’s parable of the rich fool. It is about a man who thinks the meaning of his life, or his worth, is found in the abundance of the things he owns. He has a massive bumper crop, so much in fact that he cannot fit it all in his current storehouse. What does he do? What is his solution to his abundant blessing? Does he give it away? Does he sell it cheaply? Does he spread the wealth? No, he tears down his barn and builds a bigger one. This is the perfect parable for our nation, is it not? But the point is, it is all for nothing. For no sooner does he fill his bigger barns with abundance than he dies. And as we all know, you cannot take it with you. His great wealth rots away in vanity. So, what was the point of it all?
This is what Solomon was talking about when he said, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet, he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” You work, you toil under the sun, you strive day-in and day-out and you desperately want it to have meaning beyond yourselves. You are not content with the simple days you have. You want there to be something more to you, something permanent, something profound. You are like God, knowing good and evil. You have contributions to make. Your voice matters. It must be more than eating, drinking, paying taxes, and then dying. You want it all to mean something. You demand it to mean something. What is the point of all the stiving if there is no memory of it, no change which comes from it?
Life is marked by strife, it simply is. And the strife that some of our brothers and sisters have endured is brutal. The pain and toil which marks the lives of the people of God is not for the faint of heart. If we had it our way, it would not be like that. The faithful would prosper. The children of God would know prosperity, be happy, wealthy, and wise. But all our attempts to change it, to put things right, are a vanity and a striving after wind. One of the wonderful things that comes with my vocation is how I get time to speak with the elderly, and I do not just mean people who are getting up there in age. I mean people who know full-well that they most likely will not see another year of life. In fact, I see many who would rather not see another year of life. They are those who have had a life full of stiving, of work, who have amassed wealth, stuff, and at times had pretty nice barns. Their conversations always remind me of King Solomon. For at the end of their life, when health, strength, and mobility are being stripped away from them, they turn toward better things. They turn toward the joy of company, a word of forgiveness, and the love of a family member. There at the end they seem to know what the rest of us are searching for. They know the things which are not vain, that have meaning.
Solomon offers us something that may seem too simple, too remedial for our godlike aspirations. He says, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” The gift from the hand of God is to eat, drink, and enjoy your toil. It is the joy found in your vocation, the joy of working, not for heavenly change but for simple care of one another. This is the blessing God has given us. Solomon, in all his searching and examining of life, does not have us aspire to grand global change or the building of legacy. Rather, he directs us toward the daily grind, the striving we all encounter in our lives, and says right here is the meaning of life. Right here is where we find joy. After all, it is here where we encounter one another. It is here where we can love, forgive, and speak words of compassion.
There is something grand about your vocation, whether you are a teacher, mother, engineer, accountant, lawyer, or nurse. Whatever your toil is, whatever you have been called to do, you do so as a child of God. You do not need to rise above the strife or fix it but abide in the midst of it. For it is there where you operate as the hands, the feet, the mouth, and the arms of God. You are the way service is rendered to those in need. You are providing what is lacking in others lives. And this is anything but vain. This is the good work you are called to do. Eternity is in the hands of God. Justice and righteousness are His purview. To you He has given one another, He has given this moment at this time. And He has bathed it in His Word of hope, of forgiveness for all your sins, of love and welcome in His presence. And it is here where we find joy, strength, and comfort to abide in our strife.