It is our custom to have this first sermon of the new year be a “State of the Church” address. To riff off of the Apostle Paul’s word to Timothy, “This is a good idea and worthy of all acceptation.”
A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity. Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart. Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools. Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.
Summary of the Text
The Preacher gives us a diamond-mine of wisdom here. The main thrust of this passage is that we must live out our days with eternity in view. A good name isn’t established overnight, which is why you should live so that your eulogy will be full of faithfulness not just polite clichés (v1). This is why going to a funeral is better than going to the carnival; for wise men will be instructed to keep their own mortality in view (vv2-4). Godly sorrow is good for the heart (v3). Stern rebukes from the wise will do more good for you than a Disney Musical, or a trending TikTok dance (v5). The modern evangelical church has opted to create a culture of entertainment, instead of the lasting good produced by proclaiming the hard words of Scripture.
Solomon offers a striking metaphor for the cackling laughter of fools: it is like burning up weeds; gone in a flash with no lasting warmth (v6). But in the heat of the moment, the wise might be tempted to forsake wisdom and “go mad” by playing by the rules of the fools; which is seen particularly in the practice of “bribery” (v7). Get rich quick schemes and avoiding wise diligence as the means of accumulating wealth is how wise men go mad. The look at the oppression of the fools, and rather than sticking to their assignment, they forget the long game, and resort to ungodly shortcuts.
Thus, we are cautioned to keep the end in mind, not just the beginning, and this demands patience and long-suffering humility (v8). If follies prevail around us, we must not give way to a shrill anger or resentment, otherwise you’re setting out on a fool’s errand (v9). Pining nostalgia is not the course of the wise (v10). Instead, we must see that “God draws straight with crooked lines” (v13), and we must live like dying men (v14). Or as Sproul used to say, “Right now counts forever.”
In many respects we are a group marked by new beginnings. There are many new marriages, with (by the sound of things) a lot of new babies. Many of you are students just beginning your studies and preparing to establish careers and homes in the near future. This service is a new work of our church. And more broadly, our church community has a lot of new folks. There are new businesses and ventures all around us. New friendships. And new temptations in all these arenas.
The instruction from Solomon is that we should begin well by considering what it means to end well. You raise your children not to hold onto them well into adulthood, but to shoot them out like arrows to cut down the ranks of darkness. The parent who tries to grasp at their adult children will likely find the adult children less and less fond of coming around. The image of an aged miser comes to mind, counting his coins as a death-fit of coughing takes hold of him. He departs but all his accumulated wealth remains for his embittered inheritors to squabble over.
Too often, time turns people bitter and miserly, resentful over an accumulated horde of slights. The warning of Solomon here is to refrain from being hasty to anger. A parent can grow quick to blow up at a child when they aren’t obeying the command to clean up the legos, even after being told seventeen times. A new husband or wife can grow prickly because their spouse forgot to take out the garbage, or neglected some other chore.
A church can grow full of spitefulness. He was asked to pray more times than me. She got thanked by the pastor for baking the treats, and I didn’t. Others got invited over to dinner, but we didn’t. Making a scrapbook of spite and grievance is not how to live for eternity. Instead, forgive as Christ forgave you. As far as it depends upon you live at peace with all men. Don’t be squabblers, or sow discord among brethren. This how we end well. In other words, as the Psalmist put it: “Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace (Psalm 37:37).”
Not a Nostalgia Project
The other aspect is that God’s people, who are to walk in the Wisdom of the Word, can fall into the trap of laboring to recover some nostalgic version of their culture. But our task is not a backward looking project of simply being more “based” than our degenerate culture. Our task is that of Gospel dominion across nations, tribes, and tongues. Our task is bigger than recovering an American Golden Age. It is bringing America out its fever dream, and up into greater glories than the 1950s could have ever envisioned.
We live in a culture which is tangled up with all manner of godless doctrines. If we would establish a lasting work, we must begin by renewing our minds according to Scripture. Carl Trueman helpfully paints a picture of the maddened thinking we are confronting in our culture:
“Nietzsche’s thinking is reflected in current social attitudes: living for the present. When teleology is dead and self-creation is the name of the game, then the present moment and the pleasure it can contain become the keys to eternal life.”
“By Marx’s account, the family and the church exist to cultivate, reinforce, and perpetuate bourgeois values. In today’s world, this thinking helps explain why everything–from the Boy Scouts to Hollywood movies to cake baking–has become politicized. And one does not need to be an ideological Marxist to be pulled into this tussle, for once one side gives a particular issue or Organization political significance, then all sides, left, right, and center, have to do the same.”
To put it simply, the work is cut out for us. In the culture wars of the last half century one of the missteps of evangelicals is that of perpetually letting the battlefield be selected by our opponents. And then, dutifully playing according to their ever changing rule book. We’ve let our opponents appoint the referees, make the rules, and have home field advantage. But Evangelicals spend much of their time trying to make sure the Refs like them.
A Dose of Chesterton
We can easily recognize the cultural tug-of-war we are in. But GK Chesterton can help us out on this point in particular as to what we are to do about it. He points out that “progressivism” (even in his day) was really just a project in futility. This is because there was no fixed point which society was progressing towards. To quote the man himself: “Here comes in the whole collapse and huge blunder of our age. We have mixed up two different things, two opposite things. Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision.”
The commission of the Church is this, in Chesterton’s words: “We see a certain thing out of shape, and we mean to put it into shape. And we know what shape.” That shape is that the things of Old, the truths of eternity, the mystery hid for ages and generations has been made manifest. Standing firmly on the shore will seem insane to those who’ve only known the riptide of the prevailing godless secularism.
Our end goal is to tell the world the Old, Old Story about how all things will be made New in Christ. The duty of the Church is that Christ is King, and we must summon the World to get with the program. Not with the simmering resentment and anger of partisan fools, but, as the hymn puts it, “with deeds of love and mercy.” Keep the end of all things in view, and then live accordingly. Christ is and ever shall be King, so wash the dishes. It is by living mundane lives of joyful faith in Christ, which shall outlast the fire of the fools. The fools might very well burn the world down, but the saints shall be there to rebuild the ruins.
Now for Us
We have had a wonderful beginning here at CCD. God has blessed us with a great facility. There is a zeal for good works in this group of saints. The saints here could be given high marks for hospitality and joyful fellowship.
These sort of virtues are the mortar which should bind together the living stones built on the Chief Cornerstone. But remember, our goal is to establish a work that will outlast any of us here, and remain faithful for generations by God’s grace.
To do that, we must heed Solomon’s wisdom. Do not let small gripes become big ones. Do not grow discouraged at the folly all around us in our culture. Don’t get flustered or shrill or exasperated if the progress towards Christ’s total dominion on earth seems slow in coming. Do not measure success from a quick start, but from deep roots. It takes time for the leaven to cause the dough to rise. It takes time for a forest to regrow after a wildfire.
And of course, central to all of this, is being rooted and grounded in Christ, which is another way of saying to fear/reverence the Lord (Cf. Ecc. 7:18). All of Christ for All of Life. That is the shape we are bending things to. It starts in you. Is Christ all to you? What about your home? How about here in the congregation of saints? The end of the matter is better than it’s beginning. And the end of it all will be Christ all in all.