Good morning, church. Welcome to the first fully online gathering of Vieux Carré Baptist Church. Please go with me to Ecclesiastes, chapter 5. That’s Ecclesiastes, chapter 5. If you don’t have a Bible, normally I would give you one, but today, I can’t help you. Anyone who’s spoken with me over the past few weeks knows I’m taking the current crisis very seriously, but that doesn’t mean we have to be serious all the time about it, so I wanted to start with just a few observations from this past week to help us breath in, breathe out.
I saw a meme on Facebook this week of a T-Rex, and the caption was “could not wash hands; is now extinct.” Dirty Coast remade their “If you can read this” shirt, which now says, “If you can read this you’re probably not practicing proper social distancing.” I’ve had people calling me, asking me constantly how the church is doing, and in one of my more cynical moments I answered that I’ve been pastor for two months and already all church services are cancelled indefinitely, so, you know…crushing it. On the other hand, I’m an introvert who relaxes by cooking, so when they closed restaurants and issued the stay-at-home order yesterday, I thought, at last.
On Tuesday, there was a guy standing in a major intersection with a bullhorn and a Bible saying the world was ending, and I just thought—helpful. I joked a lot last week about toilet paper, and how strange it is that people were buying it out—if you didn’t know, there’s a few new hot items. Now stores are out of potato chips, which reminds me of the phrase, out of the frying pan into the fire, you know, you’re going to stay at home for six weeks to avoid the virus, but you’re just going to lean right on into those heart conditions by housing chips for the next two months and not going outside. Also, water bottles are selling out—and my wife just looks at me: “I guess some people only drink bottled water. That’s really what’s wrong with the world.”
Breath in, breathe out.
To be a bit more serious, most of the people in our church have lost their jobs or at least have had hours cut. I’m sorry. That’s so hard. We are here if you need anything. I know Kaleo, and the Vieux and everyone have lost revenue with cancellations. We have at least one family joining us this morning from the hospital, and I know I said this already, but you guys are the refrain of my prayer life in this time. In all of this, church, God is faithful to us. The sun rises and sets at his word. He is constant, he is close, he is not tired, and he is not panicked. He wasn’t surprised by any of this, and he’s able to bring us through.
We’ve been in a series through the book of Ecclesiastes throughout this season in the church known as Lent. It’s a time in the church where we consider the brevity of our own lives, and reorient ourselves to what’s most meaningful in life. We talked about time, how we don’t own it, and how lent reminds us to build our time, our days, around the things God is doing in the world if we want to find some meaning in life. We talked about how nothing we do lasts unless we take part in God’s work in the world; about how in indulgence of our desires, we’re contenting ourselves with things that can’t satisfy us, when God is able to fulfill the deepest desires of our souls. And last week, we talked about how strange it is that everyone is buying enormous amounts of toilet paper, and we tried to remember that the Lord is still in control of our world, even though our world is turned upside down sometimes. That he created the days of adversity just as carefully as he created the days of our prosperity.
This week, in chapter 5, we’re going to talk about meaning and meaninglessness in our worship of God, read with me in Ecclesiastes 5, verses 1-7.
[Ecclesiastes 5:1-7] Pray with me, briefly. Father God, I pray that our worship before you today, as strange as it is, would be filled with meaning, that our time spent today would be worthwhile. And I pray that you would show us your truth, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
Meaning and meaninglessness in our worship of God. How do we worship God in meaningful ways, and what do we do when we’re afraid that everything we’ve done, or everything we might try to do, to worship God is meaningless? The first thing I want you to see from our text is this: Acting religious is meaningless, even evil. Acting religious is meaningless, even evil.
Our passage is dealing with a specific circumstance, but also with some broader truths in mind. Specifically, he’s dealing with people who would come into the temple, have some sort of religious experience, and make all kinds of promises about things he was going to do, the sacrifices he would make. But then they would go home from temple, away from the religious community, and their religion disappears. They begin to make excuses for why they said the things they said and made those vows, and why they didn’t keep their word.
Now, I don’t think I’ll need to do too much to convince people that this kind of thing is still happening today. This is part of the regular church experience in our day and place. We don’t do a whole lot of animal sacrificing in today’s world, but then again our economy isn’t based on agriculture anymore. We don’t measure wealth or status by the size of our herds, we measure it by time and money. Someone in that day coming to temple and promising to make a free will offering, an animal sacrifice from their herds and give it to the temple, is just like the person who comes into the church talking left and right about the time and money they are going to offer the community. They talk about how they’re wanting to know more about Jesus, seeking a place to serve, to give their time, to give their money to aid the church, and then eventually, after a week or a year, you begin to realize that they talk a lot, but they don’t show up when you need them. They don’t give, they don’t serve. They don’t tell others about Jesus. It’s all talk. It’s an act, and the word for actors in the language of Jesus’ day is a word you’ve probably heard before even if you didn’t know that it means actor: it’s the word hypocrite.
Hypocrisy, this acting religious, is a kind of grasping, and it’s born of insecurity. You see the church celebrating people like Kallee, who lost her job this week because she works at a preschool, and her first reaction—rather than panic—is to say, well, I have some extra time, let me start making grocery runs for people in our church and community who are high risk for the virus. We celebrate that, and we should, and someone starts to think, well, I could do that. So they bring one meal to one person who needs it. And they put it on Facebook using words like grateful and blessed, and they talk about it with their friends, and say how more people should really do things like that, and what you will never see on Facebook, what you will never hear from their mouths is their sin or their struggle, why? Because we as a church don’t celebrate those things. Their religion is an act, it’s a means to the end of approval from the religious community.
Some people get so good at the act, that they lose themselves in it, like method actors, they become their role of the good, religious person, but it’s always a role, always an act. When the lights are off and the audience isn’t there, and they’re at home, though, what happens? Every child, every spouse, every sister and brother sees clearly the sins of their loved one. Will you repent then, or will you make excuses about why you never brought the sacrifice you vowed? Will you let your close relationships fracture so long as the audience keeps applauding?
Solomon warns that this kind of religion is meaningless. You may convince the church to love you, but God sees everything you’ve done, not just your online presence, and do you think he’s impressed with you, and your act? No, he’s patiently waiting for the performance to finish so he can pull you aside in the wings and say, “Now, can we talk?”
But our passage doesn’t just say that acting religious is meaningless, it goes so far as to say that acting religion is evil. Evil is something that is actively against the kingdom of God, that does damage to the people and communities around you, that puts up barriers between us and God, and I agree. I think acting religious is evil.
Here’s why: because when the people in our text today vow additional sacrifices, they’re vowing a free will offering, something above and beyond the normal course of worship. They’re not content to be thought of as worshippers, they want to be thought of as good worshippers, examples for the others, leaders, key members of the community. And in today’s church, we have plenty of people wanting to come in, and not just be worshippers of God, part of the church, brothers and sisters in the family—they want to have some sort of special calling, not just Christians, but good Christians, hardcore, radical, leaders, teachers, examples.
And then here comes people who have admitted their own sin, who know they aren’t perfect, and rather than being met with the grace of God for the salvation of sinful people, they’re met by actors who are boasting of all the sacrifices they’ve made. They think the church is filled with perfect people living perfect lives, and they think, if I walk in with my sin I will be the scandal of this community. I’ll be forced onstage into the spotlight with these perfectly costumed and made-up actors, and then there I’ll be next to them with my laundry day pants on and a scarlet letter on my sweatshirt.
So of course, what do they do? They leave the church. They believe Christ doesn’t want them because they’re not good enough. They see our acting, all of our boasting, and think they will never measure up. Our religious acting is meaningless, it’s evil, and it’s keeping people from the gospel. The gospel which begins with a recognition that we’re all sinners in need of the grace of God—we can never move beyond that. If we stop seeing ourselves as sinners, the gospel becomes irrelevant for us, and so it has for many people and churches throughout our city and nation.
So acting religious is meaningless, even evil. The second point from our text today is this: Humility and quietness give meaning to your life and worship. Humility and quietness give meaning to your life and worship.
In our text, the religious actors are contrasted with the worshippers who guard their steps, meaning, they approach the temple almost in secret, privately, like they don’t want anyone to know, like they’re trying not to be followed. And when they reach the temple, they draw near to listen. They would have to move through the courtyards of the temple, where they would have seen the sacrifices and free will offerings of the others going up—imagine the smells of animals and blood in the open air, meat roasting, the noises of the animals and the vendors; they go past all of that, through the courtyards into the inner courts to sit and listen to the reading of the law, the singing of the psalms and spiritual songs, the teaching of the rabbis. Solomon describes the wisdom of humility and quietness beautifully in verse 2: “God is in heaven, and you are on earth; therefore, let your words be few.”
Quietness. Quietness and humility will add more meaning and wisdom to your life than any great number of words spouted acting on a stage. When you’re an actor, you’re so busy pretending to be something that you never actually become that thing. You can play a surgeon on TV for years, and the world may love you for it, but you’ll never get to a point where you can actually help anyone who’s sick. In quietness you’re able to learn, able to gain the things actors pretend to have, so let your words be few.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who dominates the conversation—and I mean to the point where your presence is almost unnecessary in the room—they’re talking to themselves? I know some people like this, and I’ve noticed that they always think I and everyone else in the world agree with them in all of their opinions. It’s because they’re always talking, so they only ever hear themselves. Other people are merely empty rooms to them, echoing back everything they say. In those conversations I sometimes wonder when they last stopped to listen to someone, when they last approached a person expecting to learn, to receive more than they would be able to offer.
We do this in our lives, and with God. We never stop talking, stop moving, long enough to actually listen and perhaps learn something. God is in heaven, and we are on earth, but we think we have something to teach him. We go to church, and rather than coming in with expectation of hearing from God, we approach him with thoughts and questions and objections.
And as a pastor, I know I’m not God and my teachings are imperfect, but I’ve written this sermon in the same way I cook meals for my friends, to feed the people in my congregation something that will nourish them in a difficult time, and instead of sitting down at the table with us to eat, to join in our fellowship, some people will stand off to the side and criticize this cooking method or that dish, as being unhealthy or disgusting or not as good as what you can get over here—just stop. Be quiet. Sit down, and eat with us so you can understand why, in our lives, we’re so satisfied. It’s because we’ve tasted and seen that God is good. And it’s not that God can’t handle your thoughts and questions and objections, but you have to listen if you ever want to hear an answer that’s more than an empty room echoing back your own words to you.
I’ve known many people even in my brief ministry who ask questions and voice objections in the same way alcoholics drink. Their questions and objections have no end, and literally no answer will satisfy them, because for many of these question addicts, as with most addicts, the questions that fill their lives and minds are more of a running away from something they already know than any kind of search for new knowledge. I had a friend, for example, obsessed with the problem of evil, why bad things still happen if God is in control, and we talked about it for months before she finally told me that her mother had recently passed away. She didn’t have questions, she had pain, and pain isn’t healed with answers, only quietness, quietness and faith in resurrection and restoration.
You have to stop and listen, because “God is in heaven, and you are on earth; therefore, let your words be few.…A fool’s voice comes with many words.” Quietness, quietness and humility.
Humility is just seeing and representing yourself rightly, for who you really are, so you can see how humility stands in direct contrast to hypocrisy and acting. In acting we become someone else; in humility we become more like ourselves. And when we’re honest to ourselves and others, about who we are, we have to talk about sin, brokenness, messiness, and all the things we would rather hide. Oftentimes, humility is unpleasant, because on stage we had an audience, and a role to play. When we step off the stage, we’re just like everyone else, but that’s the point of humility—sin makes us less human because it bends and breaks our humanity, but in humility we strive to be more human, to be more like the one man whose humility made him fully, perfectly, shamefully human.
Humility allows us to fit into the story of the gospel, because in the story of Christianity, there’s only one hero, only one righteous man, and its not you. If you’re honest, if you’re humble, if you’re quiet, you can hear our savior say—God is in heaven, and we are on earth, so let your words be few.
These two virtues of humility and quietness, as opposed to acting and many words, will be wellsprings of meaning in your life and in your worship if you learn to practice them. I would deeply encourage you to find people you can trust—those who know Christ, who know his forgiveness—and confess to them. Bear your soul, so that you can experience the grace of God in being completely known in all of your sin and brokenness, and yet completely loved. Conviction is the Spirit’s work in you to bring you humility, to see yourself rightly, and to give you humanity in Christ.
And if your life lacks quietness, I hope you’ll begin to find time to sit, without screens or distractions, to think and to pray, to read the scriptures; to draw near and listen. To quote chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes, “one fist full of quietness is better than two fists full of toil.” Don’t tweet about your quietness or brag about it. Guard your steps. Recognize that you have much left to learn, as Plato even argues, the wisest man alive knows that he knows nothing. Let your words be few.
There is something leveling about strange and difficult times like this. No one is immune to this virus. The news is filled with reports of celebrities who have contracted the virus, and we read them in disbelief. I don’t delight in anyone’s sickness, but I do take it as a reminder that we are all fragile, that regardless of our place in this life, dust we are, and to dust we shall return. Look at yourself and see someone who is broken and human on a level with everyone around you. Stay home and avoid gatherings. You’re not immune; you’re human. Perhaps this week you could call someone you know is feeling scared and lonely during this quarantine, to admit to them that you are feeling scared and lonely, too, and to just talk for a while. Let them know there is hope in Christ even now, and that God is in control, so nothing that is eternal has changed, even though everything earthly has.
My prayer for you all is that through humility and quietness, you would find reason to step off the stage, to stop pretending long enough to listen. I pray you would find opportunities for quietness, and that in that quietness you would find humility. That you would begin to see yourself rightly, in all of your sin and mess, and know that you are loved deeply in spite of it all because of the work of Christ on the cross, and the forgiveness he offers us all no matter what we’ve done. Pray with me now.