Havel havelim, says Qoheleth. Vanities piled on top of vanities. Emptiness. Nothing. Vapor. All is vanity. Wealth, fame, celebrity, power…all of it. Vanity. Nothing. Chasing after the wind.
You build a business and a fool takes it over and drives it into the ditch of bankruptcy. You amass a fortune and are buried next to a poor man, and your children and grandchildren squander every one of your hard-earned pennies. Vanitiy of vanities.
The race doesn’t always go to the swift; the winners are often cheaters. Hard work is not always rewarded; often it goes unnoticed. You can’t take it with you, all that you’ve gathered up with your blood, sweat, and tears, your toilsome days and sleepless nights. The moment you take your last breath, it slips through your cold, dead hands. Vanity of vanities.
You can dull your senses with food and drink, which are gifts from God, but if that’s all there is, if daily bread is eaten without a nod to the One who gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater, then life is nothing more than food processing, a fleeting joy at best. Last night’s gourmet dinner is this morning’s indigestion and five extra pounds. Vanity of vanities.
You work out at the gym, but the body still ages. You color your hair, but everyone knows what your true color is. You nip this and tuck that even as you outwardly waste away day by day. Vanity of vanity. All is vanity. Emptiness, nothingness, chasing after the wind.
Depressing, isn’t it? It’s depressing to think that all your hard work is nothing more than chasing after the wind. That’s why some people can’t summon the energy to get out of bed on Monday morning, or drown their anxiety in a sea of booze or pills, or try to drown the drumbeat of despair with the noise of music, nightclubs, activities, busyness, distraction, anything but face the dark, silent emptiness.
A man in the crowd summoned Jesus to be his probate judge. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritence with me.” Two brothers are bickering over the dead father’s inheritance. Their time of grieving was brief. Bury the old man and divvy up his portfolio. All his hard-earned assets and wise investments was now in the hands of two bickering fools. Jesus will have nothing to do with it. “Man, who made me a judge or arbitor over you? I came to save the world by dying and rising. I came to be judged, and I will come to judge the living and the dead by my own life and death. I came to save you, and you’re concerned about your savings account?”
“Take care, be on guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
Covetousness. We don’t use that word much any more, do we? Perhaps it’s because we’ve enshrined it as an American virtue. We want things. We want more things. We want better things. Consumption drives the economy ever upward. Until the crash. I owe, I owe, so off to work I go. Greed is almost a virtue in our culture. And our culture knows how to push the greed button. It used to be enticing magazine and television ads promising wealth, health, and love if you just bought this product. Now it’s a world of artificial intelligence and algorithms, listening in on every comment, every purchase, every search, dangling that next little thing you “have to have,” that thing that will make you happy, with nothing more than a click.
There is an amazing song written by Vienna Teng, a Chinese-American singer and pianist. It’s called The Hymn of Acxiom, the data mining company that collects all online information to tailor specific targeted marketing to our personal tastes and desires. It’s written in an eerily beautiful four-part harmony that has become a staple of college choirs, but the beauty of the melody stands in sharp contrast to the darkness of the worlds:
Somebody hears you. you know that. you know that.
Somebody hears you. you know that inside.
Someone is learning the colors of all your moods, to
(say just the right thing and) show that you’re understood.
Here you’re known.
Leave your life open. you don’t have. you don’t have.
Leave your life open. you don’t have to hide.
Someone is gathering every crumb you drop, these
(mindless decisions and) moments you long forgot.
Keep them all.
Let our formulas find your soul.
We’ll divine your artesian source (in your mind),
Marshal feed and force (our machines will)
To design you a perfect love
Or (better still) a perfect lust.
O how glorious, glorious: a brand new need is born.
Now we possess you. you’ll own that. you’ll own that.
Now we possess you. you’ll own that in time.
Now we will build you an endlessly upward world,
(reach in your pocket) embrace you for all you’re worth.
Is that wrong?
Isn’t this what you want?
Idolatry, when viewed from the inner perspective, is rather frightening, isn’t it? A darkness, an emptiness, a dryness. Idols consume their communicants from the inside, leaving an empty shell of nothingness at the core of your being. This is life without God, life uncentered, life without Christ in the middle. You are created in Christ, redeemed in Christ, made holy in Christ. And without Him at the center of your being, your identity, all you do and all you have will be vanity of vanities, nothing, empty, a chasing after wind.
We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. God is our Maker, Redeemer, Sanctifier, the center of your life, your being, your work, your play, your everything. He is the hub on which all the spokes of your life hang and work together. He is not the first priority of your life; He is your center of your life. He brings meaning and purpose and satisfaction and contentment to all things, whether success or failure, whether in richness or poverty, with much or with little. The apostle Paul could write from prison, “I can do all things through Him (Christ) who gives me strength,” for without Him, without His Spirit, without His Word, you can do nothing that will last. The grass withers, the flowers fade, and so do you. But the Word of the Lord endures forever.
There was a man who had a lot of stuff, a rich man whose portfolio was set for life and more. His land happened to produce a particularly plentiful crop one season, and the harvest presented him with a problem. Where to store the surplus grain. His silos were already overflowing, his barns were at capacity. You know how it is with those closets and garages. We always find a way to fill them, and then we have to buy a bigger house. He sat down at his kitchen table one night and started planning. “What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops. I know. I’m going to tear down my barns and build bigger ones to store my grain and my goods. And then I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have it all. You’ve got it made. Now you can retire. Kick back, eat, drink, be merry.”
Take notice of all the “mys” – my crops, my barns, my soul, my grain, my goods. He never knew once prayed “give us this day our daily bread,” to acknowledge God as the Giver of the gifts. He never once confessed that God had made Him and all creatures, that God in His fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in him, had provided clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, land and crops. He never once gave thanks to the Lord for He is good.
He never enjoyed the gifts because he never recognized the Giver. He could have rested, had sabbath, enjoyed the gift of food and drink with thanksgiving. He could have stored his excess grain in the mouths of the hungry. He could have slept that night in peace rather than burning the midnight oil designing new barns in the presumption that he had tomorrow and the next day and the years to come. But he was a fool.
Fool isn’t name-calling. A fool is one who does not recognize God in the center and who focuses on the gift rather than the Giver. Fool is God’s word for those who do not recognize God at the center. “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” A fool chases after the wind. Vanity of vanities.
Know who you are and who is at the center of your being. You are baptized in Christ. Christ is the center. Your life is hidden with Christ in God. Christ the center of your work, your play, your worship, your wealth, your possessions. He was rich but became poor. He lived our life under the sun. He worked, He rested, He bled and died. His death was not a vanity of vanities but a holy of holies. He redeems and reconciles and raises up your work out of its emptiness and meaninglessness. He lifts it up as a sweet smelling priestly sacrifice. He is a the heart and center of all things.
Your land, your house, your wealth, your barns and silos, your grain, your profits and portfolios, everything is God’s, not yours. They are all on loan from God. You are stewards, caretakers. You are not your own, either. You’ve been purchased with a price, the life of Jesus, His blood, His death. He became poor that you might be rich in eternal riches. You are God’s treasured possession, enabling you to hold your treasured possessions with the dead hand of faith – offering, sharing, giving.
Be rich toward God in faith, hope, and love. Be generous in offering and charity, letting that surplus grain flow generously through dead fingers of faith. Cling to Christ tightly and hold your possessions loosely. Eat, drink, live each day with joy and thanksgiving because centered in Christ, filled with Christ, living in Christ, nothing is vanity.
In the name of Jesus,