All Things NewSeries: The Gospel and the Kingdom
Because it was so ironic, I don’t think I’ll ever forget two years ago at the beginning of 2020 when John asked who among us was hoping 2020 would be better than 2019. A lot of people raised their hands. That hope didn’t turn out so great. And, I remember how once we neared the end of 2020 we longed to put a very difficult year behind us. Leaving behind 2021 for 2022, I don’t think a lot has changed — we still hope things will change: personally, nationally, globally.
As we enter a new year commonly filled with excitement about change and new possibilities, i imagine that if you are thinking very critically, you are a bit disillusioned with the whole idea of a new year and all the resolutions that come with it. I know I felt that way at the end of last year. And this reading from Ecclesiastes shows that those of us who are disillusioned are in good company with wise people. Ecclesiastes has always been one of my favorite books because of its honesty and realism. Christians can sometimes sound trite: “everything happens for a reason,” “I can do all things,” “God has plans,” “Things are getting better” — but there’s little of that optimism in Ecclesiastes.
All Is Vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:1-15, etc.)
“All is vanity.” The preacher uses the word “hebel” 37 times and it is translated in the ESV as “vain,” “vanity,” and by others as “futility.” The NIV and NLT translate it as “meaningless,” which is actually not helpful. As is noted in ESV Bibles, the word “hebel” — vanity, futility — refers to “mist,” “vapor,” or “breath,” but it is used metaphorically to refer to something that is fleeting, elusive, quickly passing, impossible to grasp just like wind. All things, the preacher tells us, are vain, fleeting, full of futility and emptiness — like wind, smoke, vapor, and breath they are here one moment and gone the next: they don’t amount to much.
Consider a few of ways the preacher demonstrates the futility of everything under the sun.
- The world, history, and mankind never advance, gain, or fill anything (1:2-8). Generations come and go. The sun never gets anywhere — it rises, sets, and returns panting to the place where it will rise again. Winds blow around and around. Water keeps flowing into the seas, but the seas are never filled up. We ourselves hear and see all manner of things, but our eyes and ears are never full, satisfied. It appears as though world history is one big cycle that is headed towards nothing but yet another vain, futile cycle that goes nowhere.
- Nothing is really new (1:9-10). Someone might come along — as politicians, revolutionists, and builders or technology often do today — and say, “No, something new is happening, something new has been built, this will take history into a new and better day,” but actually, the Preacher says, they are short-sighted — there’s nothing new under the sun. It won’t amount to anything truly different. What you buy today will be replaced. The children you bring into the world will die and be forgotten under the dust. It looks new, but it’s not.
- We make this mistake because, he says, we fail to see that Everything that happens is forgettable (1:11). Ninety-nine point nine percent of everyone and everything has been forgotten and will be forgotten. You and what you do, what your grandparents did, what your children will do — it’s all forgettable.
- All this leads to the sad conclusion in verse 15 that What is crooked cannot be made straight. What is broken appears to never be fixed. And this is the approach the preacher takes at various points throughout the book. He’s trying to find something that will help him find meaning and happiness in this broken world.
- Is there hope in wisdom? No, wisdom is good, but more knowledge means more sadness — and you die like the fool anyway.
- Is there hope in riches? No — the pleasures that riches afford are fleeting, temporary — and you may very well leave your hard-earned riches to a fool when you die anyway.
- Is there hope in the justice system? No; there’s all sorts of red tape and processes and justice is often perverted by the powerful. Even when justice is dispensed it’s always delayed and those who are hurt are never really comforted in the end.
- Maybe there’s hope if we will set our minds to do good, hard work? There can be pleasure in work for some, but what is ultimately gained from our work? All the work you do will one day crumble and be forgotten.
- But at least there is hope in our deaths, right? Well, not really. In this world, the preacher says, the wicked who still went to the temple were honored in their deaths (8:10) while those who are poor and wise are forgotten (9:15). You might say, but at least the spirit of a righteous man ascends to God, but the preacher even shrugs about that — who knows if that is really the case? Maybe we are all like beasts who just return to dust (3:18-22). Though, he does eventually assure us: there really will be a final judgment.
So the preacher urges us to see that all things are vain and futile and full of weariness. Your labor will all be in vain. It’s a new year, but is it really? Is anything really new? Does we ever change? Does anything ever change? Many of you have made resolutions — but is there really any point in trying? It appears as though our bodies, marriages, families, churches, neighborhoods, and history are really going nowhere and they will amount to nothing — we will all waste away in sin, decay, and death forever. Let’s stand and sing.
All Things New
But, we must remember that Ecclesiastes is written from a particular perspective before the first advent of Jesus. It is a valuable perspective, and in fact, if we have ears to hear it, it is this wise perceptiveness that makes the Gospel of Jesus Christ such good news. The NT demonstrates that in Jesus a new thing has happened in our own world, right here, under the sun. The Divine God took on corruptible flesh, carried our sorrows, sicknesses, sins, and he let Satan smite him. He headed straight for death — that black hole that sucks all meaning and hope from anything that could be good, the thing which we can all hardly imagine experiencing without Jesus because it is so chilling and horrible and hopeless. But with tears and sweat-drops like blood he headed right to the cross, was carried to a tomb, and he came out of it into a garden and symbolically into a world that had suddenly begun to be a new place by his being raised in it. And in that body that was killed he was somehow raised incorruptible so that when he comes again he says he will still come as the now glorified divine human — as the Son of Man in the clouds. After 2,000 years this Son of man once dead is strong and he will come with his glory as God restored, but in the form of the divine human. Everything appears hopelessly old and beyond regeneration and restoration, but Christ the Son of man is the first fruits of the resurrection — and the firstfruits of what Paul calls the “new creation.” He is the first of the resurrection, the restoration, the regeneration.
And so, the writer of Ecclesiastes asks, “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new?’” And today with the advent and resurrection of the Christ we say, “Yes.”
How Newness Comes About
In light of the new year with new resolutions and the new thing Christ has done, I want to reflect with you in our remaining time on three aspects of how newness happens from the Bible’s perspective. Credit goes to my brother-in-law, Travis Wise — I was struggling with this lesson, but we found out yesterday we were preparing to preach on similar themes, and I found his simple explanation very helpful. Turn to 2 Corinthians 5. There’s a lot in this chapter, but we’ll just draw a couple simple points from verses 14-21.
1. New comes out of the old. (Vs. 14-15) Christ’s death leads to our death and living again for the one who died. (Vs. 17) Those in Christ are a new creation, the old has passed away, the new has come. But what is wild is that this newness, this transformation has all come out of someone who was once part of the old age and old way. We die, pass away, and the new comes. But it is not that Christ has literally killed one person and replaced them with another — they new has come out of the old. That is what happened with Christ — he went into the tomb perishable, he came out imperishable. That’s the way Paul speaks of our resurrection — our body now is not our future body, but our future body will come out of our bodies now just as a plant comes from a seed. That’s the way Paul speaks of what will happen with the Creation in Romans 8 — this creation itself groans and hopes to be freed from corruption to obtain freedom: as I see it, it does not appear that what is old, enslaved, and corrupt will be replaced altogether by something new, free, and glorious, but rather, as the text says, the old will be made new, free, and glorious. As God says in Revelation, he is not making all new things, but all things new.
This really is a rather astonishing and unbelievable thing for people who see us. Think about a Christian you really respect and admire for their maturity, love, wisdom, and works. It is so hard to imagine, but they were not always like this. I look at mature people and I think they must have been born this way. It’s like they were spontaneously generated out of nothingness. That’s what butterflies appear like to us. When they were young they must have just been little butterflies. But they weren’t. But, actually, new creation is so wondrous because comes out of what was old.
Our challenge in believing in new creation — whether for us or this world — could in part be our own lack of imagination. We’ve may have lost childlike hope and faith in the magic of God’s Spirit to make new. That’s why, when God showed Isaiah and Ezekiel what it would look like when his Spirit would come to fully abide, he showed them water flowing from God’s temple and making the desert and the lifeless Dead Sea like a fruitful garden oasis of life. Are you pessimistic about making new resolutions for your good and the good of your family and this church and this world? Consider the Dead Sea and even Christ’s dead body and have imaginative eyes of childlike faith and hope: God’s Spirit makes new out of what is old.
2. New comes in the midst of the old. It’s strange: Paul exclaims, “New creation! The old has passed away; … the new has come,” but all throughout 2 Corinthians he goes on suffering terribly and metaphorically dying like Christ so that others might be reconciled to God and raised from death to life. Furthermore, though Paul says new creation has come, Peter tells us we still have to wait before the heavens and earth pass away and the new heavens and earth come. The new has come, but for now, it has come in the midst of a world that, while it is being made new, is still quite old. This is one thing most Jews were simply not expecting. They expected that God would doing his great work to resurrect Israel and restore all things in one big coming. But instead of simply raising everyone and everything to life at the end of time, Jesus came in the midst of time and — through his death and resurrection and the giving of his Spirit — he started new creation in the midst of the old creation.
And, in many senses, we do live in a creation that is not only filled with people who have been made new, but who have even made the world a little new. Hear me right, the world has gone bonkers and it is upside down and it will take Jesus coming in glory for all to be set right. But it is challenging to appreciate is how different the world really is 2,000 years later. I hope at some point to read a recent book by Tom Holland called Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. In it he tries to help modern people realize how Jesus’ has transformed ethics and justice and morality in our world — even for people who do not acknowledge or believe in him. Before Jesus, might unashamedly made right. Though non-Christians are very inconsistent, hardly anyone would confidently say might makes right today. Before Jesus, slaves bought and sold like like cattle and viewed as objectively less than human. And, though it took some time, it was Christians who eventually rose up and insisted that slavery end. In the words of one author, we might think that Jesus’ coming has simply changed some little bits of spiritual reality — forgiving our sins but that’s all — but it has started bringing newness to all of reality.
So, the new creation has come right here in the midst of the old. And that is wondrous, but it is also discouraging at times, isn’t it? It’s hard to be new around old, free around slaves, pure in corruption. But, take heart and have faith: this new year has come, but when you in prayer and faith make resolutions, you are not saying that this will be the year when all things will be made new — though we hope it will be and we say, “Maranatha — Lord come quickly!” You are newness in old, light in darkness. And “darkness is nothing at all — just the absence light.” (Travis) It simply cannot extinguish light. New has come and is coming and will not be stopped.
3. Futility isn’t futile (Romans 8:18-23). All that futility we talked about earlier really appears to us now to have absolutely no purpose. We may feel that we are here suffering with the creation and waiting for God to just pull the plug so we can escape this hell we are living in. But, actually, Paul says that God subjected the creation to futility in the hope that it would be set free from corruption. And in fact, he says that both the creation itself and we ourselves are all groaning through this vanity, this futility — but if you listen carefully, it’s not the groaning of hell that must simply be escaped, but it is the groaning of childbirth that leads to sons of God. It’s like when Peter says that our suffering is like a fire that refines our faith — futility isn’t futile, it’s the pains we and the creation must groan through until we as the sons of God are finally born, adopted, glorified, and the creation shares in our glory and freedom from bondage.
In the Lord Your Labor Is Not In Vain (1 Cor. 15:58)
The preacher says, “All is vanity, what does man gain from his toil? There is nothing new.” But God has done a new thing in Jesus. In Adam all have died, but in Christ all are made alive. And because of his resurrection, this new thing means that all is does not have to be vanity. 1 Cor. 15:58 ESV, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Outside of the Lord, outside of the walls of his kingdom, probably, everything under the sun is vanity. But that doesn’t have to be. The kingdom of heaven has invaded this world under the sun. It is a new year, and soon God will bring the new day to end all night. For now, if we are in the Lord and we do our labor in the Lord with the teachings of the Lord — as for the Lord and for the glory and dominion of the Lord — our labor is not at all in vain