Summary: Passing the baton. Establishing proper motives

Sermon Preached at Grace Community Church (EPC)

Sun City Grand, Surprise, AZ

Sunday, August 19, 2001

by the Reverend Cooper McWhirter

An Age of Nonsense: “The Futility of Labor”

Ecclesiastes 2:18-26

Many competitive sports are designed for the individual athlete [e.g., snow skiing, golf, tennis, and track and field]. But there’s one track and field event that requires both an individual and a team effort and that is running the relays. Each runner is focused on beating the other runners in his leg of the race, but usually the most crucial part of any relay is handing off the baton to the next runner. Precious seconds can be lost if the transfer is not done smoothly. And so while an individual’s speed is crucial; teamwork is absolutely essential if you are going to win the race. But, in today’s passage, we are not talking about an athletic event. Solomon is talking about the race of life; a race that we are all compelled to run.

In this third of a five-part sermon series from the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon is speaking about “passing the baton.” These past two weeks we have talked about the futility of man’s wisdom and the futility of hoarding wealth. Well, today, we catch a glimpse of Solomon’s frustration and his bitter disappointment in himself for in assessing a lifetime of work and achievement, he concludes that his labors were meaningless.

Passing the baton can be one of life’s bitter disappointments. To give up something that one loves to do is difficult enough. But then to see some incompetent person botch a program, a project, or an assignment that you had poured your life into can lead to resentment and serious depression. Your instinct is to shake your fist and yell out loud, “Hey, fella, that’s a part of me you’re tampering with!” Towards the end of his life, Solomon became disgusted in his works and he concluded that all of man’s labor “under the sun” is futile.

When we read Ecclesiastes, we meet up with Qoheleth, “the Preacher,” who is desperately searching for answers. He is searching for the meaning to life and death, to work and wealth, to wisdom and folly, to pleasure and pain. Here was a man who had it all! And yet it seemed that the more he owned, the emptier he felt. And so, he began “grasping for the wind” [1:17].

Solomon admits, “I denied myself nothing ... I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet, when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” [2:10-12].

It’s not as if all of his labors were done for personal gain or even personal recognition. He had built vineyards, gardens, parks and palaces. He constructed reservoirs and planted forests. Many of these projects were built for the benefit of the people of Israel for generations to come. That was well and good. The crux of the problem for Solomon was that he did not want to relinquish oversight of these projects that he himself had conceived. Part of Solomon’s frustration was in having to give up control of or perhaps a better way of saying it was giving over control to someone else.

Now, I am not a “control freak,” but to put matters in perspective one of the most difficult things for me to relinquish is the remote control device to our television set. I have very definite ideas as to what channels are worthy of viewing. Apparently, so does my wife. I prefer the History Channel. History is important to me. I believe we have a window to the future through the eyes of the past. Sammie, for some unknown reason, prefers listening to shows, like Larry King Live, where guests are up front and personal. Yes, remote controls are a wonderful gadget, but in the hands of the wrong person, there can be dire consequences!

Giving up control. No longer having “a say” in how things are done brought Solomon to a point of utter despair. But it goes much deeper than that. It’s coming to grips with the inevitability of one’s own death. Man’s mortality is a key theme in this passage. And so, it’s important to understand the differences between our laboring in vain and meaningful labor.

After a lifetime of pursuing excellence, Solomon concludes: WE LABOR IN VAIN IF OUR MOTIVES ARE WRONG.

In verses 18-20, Solomon uses the first person singular pronoun “I,” “my” or “me” ten times. The casual reader would very likely view Solomon as being prideful and arrogant. But, after numerous readings, I am convinced that this is a deliberate form of self-denunciation. But, even if he was being boastful, we must remember that kings, queens and heads of state from other nations, had heralded Solomon’s achievements. In point of fact, many of these ingenious projects would never have been envisioned let alone initiated and built without Solomon’s keen intellect. He possessed wisdom, knowledge and skill far above those who would be the overseers of these work projects.

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