Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, 12-14; 2:18-26 // Colossians 3:1-11 // Luke 12:13-21
Dear Christian friends,
I haven’t been an old man yet, but I’m moving toward it. To everyone who says I look like I’m just out of high school, I say, first, Thank you, and then, I’m working on it, one day at a time. My mom asked me if I would be a grumpy old man or a cheerful old man, and I told her it’d depend on the day. Today, we find that our texts ask and answer the questions of those reaching the end of their life.
Do you ask any of those questions? Erik Erikson would have you believe that those in their twenties struggle with the question “Who am I? What will I do?” They hope to find their identity in their relationships and in their work. Those in their 40’s struggle with the question, “What am I doing? Am I just being busy, or am I doing something good?” Those in their 60’s and beyond are concerned with their legacy, the product of everything they labored so long to do. They ask the questions of our text for today, “What, if any, lasting legacy do I have?” They have a legacy problem.
You look back at the end of your life and you wonder what good you have done, what legacy you’ve built, what lasting impression you’ve made on the world. You might think about the many people you’ve met or the goals you accomplished. Some people long for the good old days, at the end of their life they look at their past with rose-tinted glasses. They only see the good times, only the easy nights, only the sunny days.
Others look at their legacy in the opposite way, whatever the opposite of rose-tinted is. They see their life as a sad series of failures culminating in the slow decline of death. They regret their parenting. They regret their children. They regret their choices. If they could do it all over again, they’d do it differently. But both look back and say that legacy is important.
Perhaps you’re wondering and worrying over the legacy of your years. Perhaps you’re only beginning on the work of a lifetime. Maybe you dream you can change the world. Some of you, no doubt, have left your mark. Others of you, no doubt will leave your mark. Some of us wish to have the very longest of life, only to find our sad fate is the bury everyone we’ve ever loved. Others, no doubt, wish for one more day, one more year to hang on.
But our passage from Luke and from Ecclesiastes would agree; our first truth for today is that the rich have the same (enduring) problem as the poor, that we have a legacy problem. Jesus takes us through a parable about the kind of man who’s living a blessed life. He had a farm that grew good crops, so that he could build barns so that he could grow more crops, so he could build bigger barns so that he could grow even more crops, and then life takes a turn for the even better. He has a bumper crop kind of a year and he needs even bigger barns, when in the prime of life his time is up. When life seemed to be going about as good as it could, it was all taken away. He found that in the end, in the face of death, all that made his life a good life became meaningless.
Ecclesiastes says the same thing. Solomon writes, Meaningless, meaningless, vanity, vanity. The word that he uses there is Hevel; it means the opposite of weighty, flimsy to the point of being just breath. “The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to them all. Then I said in my heart, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?’”
He says, What good is it to build up my kingdom, when I have no control on whether the next guy will run it into the ground? If I have the same end as the fool, what point is there in being wise? If the salad eater has the same end as the bacon-eater, what point is there in eating leafy greens? If in this world, following Christ will get you punishment rather than reward, if it ends in the same struggle of death as the wicked, what is the point of living clean?
Legend has it that Persian kings would write their legacies on the mountainsides so that they could be read by all generations, but these thousand years later, they’ve turned back into weathered stone. Even in Egypt, the greatest of pharaohs who built the most enduring of monuments in their quest for eternal life are reduced to names in history books and bones in museums. They all end up in the grave, a fate they share with however many countless slaves of their household.
We might have a legacy problem, but thanks be to God that we’re given an inheritance that we didn’t (earn). In the parable, God tells the man, “You fool! Do you not know your soul will be required of you this night? Your barns, your crops, your life, your breath, even your very soul is a gift from God, and the first step of wisdom is to remember that again and again.”
Your life is not your own. You’ve been bought with a price. Though the Water and the Word, all who have been baptized are hidden in Christ. That means, you’ve experienced all that he experienced. You have all the benefits that he has won. You’ve been crucified on his cross and you’ve been raised to life from his tomb. You obtain his righteousness. You get to call God your Father. Your legacy, your story, your days, your toils, your successes, your failures, your life goals, and your detours, they all are subsumed into the great Grand Story of how our God made the world, loves a broken world, sent his son, and makes it right again.
My life is hidden with Christ on high. In the mystery of Baptism, we’re hidden in Christ. Or, As Psalm 46 says it, our God is a fortress and when he we stand in him, we will not be shaken. He’s like a rock, a refuge, a help in trouble; his forgiveness becomes a wall around us. Our inheritance has been granted to us through Christ. Our legacy does not end in death because our life has been swallowed up into his.
So, if this is true, and it is, if the promises of our God are strong, and they are, then, what part do we have to play in His Story? Three little thoughts from our text today.
Reaping what others (sowed). One of the greatest privileges I’ve had here at Trinity thus far is to see how the Spirit of God has blown in this town, how faithful church and pastors have done ministry, how the long word of grace has gone out among the people.
Ruth Jacobs sends a 400,000$ check because a ministry of the Word married her here 50 years ago. Recovering drug addicts walk through my door eager to share their stories because this church helped them to pay their rent one more time while they could live in Janesville. College students come back to do ministry for the summer here because of the influence of our youth Director and their teachers. These are not seeds that I’ve sown. These are plants that another had watered. These are stories in a God-sized story of this church being taught, corrected, rebuked, and trained to faithfully live out the Gospel, whether we see the results or not. You see, that is the point of Paul in Colossians --- the point of pulling off the sinful nature and clothing yourself in Christ isn’t so much because it’s nice to wear clean clothes, or how it feels good to love others, or even how it’s the right thing to do.
No, the real reason that Paul commands us to look like Christ, the real reason that gives lasting legacy to our work, the real reason why we can refute the cry of Ecclesiastes, meaningless meaningless, is because we get to look like Christ to someone, whether we know it or not. We get to be the hands and feet of Jesus so that Jesus can work his long story through our little time and small actions.
Better open your arms (wide!) I was in a kiddie pool playing catch with my cousin’s son, Owen and he’s about three years old. He’s right at that edge between actually being able to throw and catch. You know, sometimes he really whips it and other times it hits the ground right in front of him. But what I’m thinking about today is the way that he catches. Before they can follow the ball well, when you tell them to get ready to catch something, do you know what they do? They throw their arms out as wide as they can. They get ready for you to toss the ball by opening themselves up as wide as possible so they can get it wherever it might go. You see, the point is this: their arms are open wide. They’re ready in the best way they know how, and they’ve got their arms open to catch anything you send their way.
Today, I invite you to open your arms wide to catch whatever tour God sends your way. I invite you to keep your eyes open for whichever way the Spirit of God is leading you. I invite you keep your days free to see what good works your Father in haven has set aside for you to do.
It’s not the (What), it’s the (how). Legend has it that in the making of the Discipling Center, there were some that wanted to get it up quick, to see the walls and roof come on, and others that focused on the process, on how the foundation, on making sure the block was set straight, that the pouring was even, that the measurements were right. They focused on the process. That’s the point that Paul makes in Colossians. Put to death the way of doing things that’s angry. Throw away the way of doing things that’s filled with lust, that’s filled with gossip. Because that’s the truth of conflict. You can have conflict in a healthy way. It’s not the fight that’s the problem; it’s the way that you fight to win, to put the other down, to be right, to look good. Take off those dirty clothes. They don’t suit you. Put on instead humility, and kindness. Speak your truth with gentleness and love..
The kingdom of God is like a pastor in the 1950’s, faithfully ministering to a woman to be wedded to her fiancé, spending time, shepherding, leading, and guiding them as they approached marriage, never knowing that his efforts would reward a church flourishing long after he passed away.
The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town that spends less time worrying about the effectiveness of its programs and more time asking God to be faithful to his promises to guide and care for their community. They care less and less for the internal politics, for the … and more and more for the preaching of the word that led to communion and fellowship that led to walking alongside all kinds of unexpected people.
The kingdom of God is like a slender young pastor who can’t believe how blessed he is to reap all kinds of stories that he did not sow. And so, he lifts up in prayer all kinds of people he may never see again, so that at the end of his service, all that he helped might not remember him but remember the Christ who worked through him.
The enduring problem of the rich and the poor is that our legacy disappears far too quickly. But, thanks be to God that we’re given the inheritance of eternal life that we didn’t earn. And in that inheritance, it is our privilege to reap what others sowed, to open our arms wide to whatever God sends our way, and to see the how as much as you see the what. Amen and amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther