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  • Writer's pictureRev. Christopher Tweel

The Face of Woe

Read Ecclesiastes. What does it tell us? Read chapter 3?

Everything is worthless and empty

Ecclesiastes is sometimes a hard book of the bible to read. It’s a little esoteric. It tends to seem a little jaded and ends with the bleak conclusions that no one can find the best ways of acting and no one can know the future. It ends the way it begins, with the famous lines: Vanities of Vanities, all is vanity. Which is the Hebrew translates to be something more like emptiness, or absurdity. A vacuum of meaninglessness.

It’s a strange book.

It’s author, for whom the book is named, in Hebrew has the title Qoheleth. Ecclesiastes is the Greek attempt at the Hebrew, but the Hebrew itself is a little ambiguous, sharing possible roots with the word for assemble and speak. Our best answer right now is that it was some kind of title given to the assembler of the wisdom, or to a speaker, or preacher, or just simply The Gatherer.

Chapter 3 is where the idea of "eat drink and be merry begins." Something that scripture itself echos in Luke 12:19, and in Isaiah 23:13. Though, it’s not proposing a hedonistic lifestyle. It’s not putting forward the Biblical backing for a life of selfishness. It is accepting the loss of control that humans have in comparison to the authority of God. The last part of verse 13 in chapter 3 says clearly, that life is God’s gift, and that our merriment comes in our toil, that is, our work. The things we do, our called actions, our very lives.

Calvin teaches us that ultimately, the work of the universe is God’s work, and as we have a just God, we can trust that the work will be done justly. In that same vein, Qoheleth, the Gatherer, speaks. God is in control.

It is only our human selfishness or human jadedness reads into this wisdom book and places things here that aren’t intended.

All the talk of dust and dying, and questions about where the human spirit goes afterwards can be a little disheartening, but the main purpose of the entire book is that human understanding cannot compare to God, and that our lives are tied to the other creatures that God has made. We all live, eat, breath, and die, on the same planet. Our control is an illusion that we have created. Qoheleth’s words do not shy away from the very hard idea that you can’t take it with you. And that the mystery of life should be enjoyed as we are gifted the time we have to enjoy it.

And really, the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus saying the same thing.

Or, perhaps, if we read Matthew 11:20 ad following, what we might call a litany of woe, it doesn’t sound like an invitation to enjoy life?

We are met in this verse from Matthew with a warning. Jesus is saying woe to this city and woe to that one. It is in this warning in which Jesus is following a model created by the prophets of old. Prophets that everyone listening in that era would have been familiar with, and this style would have piqued their interest, it would have tipped them off to re-remember those prior verses: Jeremiah 2-11; Ezekiel 24; Amos 2:4-3:8; Micah 1:9-15. But more interesting, Jesus is almost quoting from Isaiah 22. The warning of the destruction of Jerusalem. In this chapter of Isaiah the prophet warns:

"Your rulers have all fled together;

they were captured without the use of a bow.[a]

All of you who were found were captured,

though they had fled far away.[b]

4 Therefore I said:

Look away from me,

let me weep bitter tears;

do not try to comfort me

for the destruction of my beloved people."

Standard destruction of the city kind of stuff. Bitter tears, a lot of weeping, but where it really gets interesting is a little bit further down:

"In that day the Lord God of hosts

called to weeping and mourning,

to baldness and putting on sackcloth;

13 but instead there was joy and festivity,

killing oxen and slaughtering sheep,

eating meat and drinking wine.

“Let us eat and drink,

for tomorrow we die.”

First of all, we have a call to repentance, specifically to sackcloth, which Jesus has mentioned. But also, there is an understanding that the people were not repenting and were instead doing what? Eating and drinking.... For tomorrow we die.

In a very "Inception" kind of moment, Jesus is referring to a passage from Isaiah that itself is referring to passages from Ecclesiastes. And there is a reason for that. Jesus does this on purpose. He wants people thinking along those lines. The destruction of Jerusalem. The message of Qoheleth that God is sovereign.

Further in this passage from Isaiah 22, the prophet gets to the meat of what he is talking about: the denunciation of self -seeking officials. And the language is serious:

"The Lord is about to hurl you away violently, my fellow. He will seize firm hold on you,

whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die,

and there your splendid chariots shall lie, O you disgrace to your master’s house!

I will thrust you from your office, and you will be pulled down from your post."

This is actually the first recorded baseball reference of history.

This is where Jesus is coming from. This is the deeper message behind his words and it is absolutely intentional, and the people who heard it in the first century absolutely heard it that way.

This wasn’t a random call to the cities. This was a specific, targeted, message. To the officials. To the rich. To the ones who thought they were the chosen people of God. Jesus is calling them out. Later in verse 29 in Matthew, Jesus says that he has a gentle and humble heart. That is to be taken in contrast to the people he is talking about in the earlier verses. Those who refuse to repent. That who are falsely humble and not gentle of heart.

We are met with the same warning. "Be careful or there is an eternity of woe just around the corner."

It’s not a soft message.

Sodom will have had it better than us.

A city and a people who were destroyed by fire and sulfur being rained down on them from the sky. So that every creature and every plant, died in agony. The land is described as the smoke that goes up from a furnace.

That’s the woe of the unrepentant.

The self serving.

Those who cannot be gentle. Or humble.

We are like the prosperous cities of Judea. Of Capernaum and all the rest. Our privilege cripples us. It starts us at a moral loss. We are already in the negative. It is so much easier for us to mis-interpret the words of Qoheleth. To think that we have had something to do with our incredible station in life. It is to the point now that doing nothing is not enough.

Because that is where the cities around Galilee were.

There weren’t actively harming anyone. They were persecuting anyone. They were leading good simple lives. Good lives. Lives that may be followed most of the commandments and Jewish law, sure.

But it’s not enough.

Being stationary isn’t enough, simply believing the right thing, accepting the Grace of Christ isn’t enough.

Just witnessing the miracles isn’t enough.

So what in the world does Jesus want with us?

Those among us who think we have it all figured out. Who think we can tell each other, that that Godly life should look like this, or repentance should look like that; Jesus says that the truth has been hidden from the wise, and given to infants. “You don’t know what you think you know,” says Jesus.

This is a joke by the way, a interjection that Jesus uses, a little humor to make what he is going to say stick. If you watch Jesus is often very funny before he hits people with something really profound.

Because then he says this: I have God’s full authority. You want to know God? Then look at what I have been doing. Know me, and know the father.

He’s been talking about all the miracles.

He’s saying at this point -- you should know who I am, and who I am , is who God is. This is the 11th chapter. In Matthew, we know who Jesus is too:

The son of God who came with a message so life changing that families would be torn apart by it. A power that nothing else on heaven or earth can withstand. A forgiver of sins. A lover of the unloved. A healer of the faithful, who made no distinction between God’s children. A hater of hypocrites, and of those people who fool themselves and others into thinking they are faithful. A teacher who expected and demand real action from his students. A prayerful rabbi who sought humility, faithful giving, and a lack of worry in this life above other earthly treasures. A savior who cried out in the world for a LOVE of enemies, and preacher of social and political justice. The Christ. The beloved.

We know who Jesus is, and so we know what God is like.

What does Jesus want from us? That we know him. That we know God.

And that we realize our active participation is needed and demanded and encouraged and written into the code of DNA and the fabric of our spirits.

And when we do, when we are active, we should enjoy it.

We should revel in it.

We should be merry just like Qoheleth implores us because everything is God’s and Jesus responds to us as well. Because we tell ourselves and each other that the work of God is tiring.

If we say to ourselves and each other that we are tired of fighting for what we think is right and that is the crux of our problem.

Because if the burden is supposed to be easy and the yoke light...and we are worn out and spiritually tired and unsatisfied then something is amiss.

It’s not about what we think is right.

It’s not about our little feeling of uneasiness.

Or comfort.

It's not about making us happy.

Qoheleth echoes in our brains. Vanity. Vanity.

And Jesus responds how dare you.

How dare you witness the miracles I have set before you and not repent.

Woe to you. Woe to you.

We should celebrate the light yoke.

We should celebrate and recognize the miracles of our churches: people teaching Sunday school from week to week. Those helping out a refugee family in desperate need in a new country. Folks that have been devoting years of their life to the service of the church. Visiting with those who are sick and lonely. Those who pray every week for one another. On and on and on our lists of miracles could go every week. And seeing it in each other, witnessing to the miracles isn’t hubris. It’s a testimony.

That’s the joy in the work we do. That’s the lightness of the yoke and the ease of the burden.

Physically these things are draining.

But spiritually, we should walk out of this building every week nourished and fed and bright eyed and amazed at what God has done in our midst. What God has done in the midst of our community and our city and our world.

As Augustine says this in one of his sermons:

"Lo, how sweet a yoke of Christ did he bear, and how light a burden; so that he could say that all those hard and grievous sufferings at the recital of which as just above every hearer shudders, were a “light tribulation;” as he beheld with the inward eyes, the eyes of faith," a beautiful description of the spiritually easy burden.

We know how to work under a light yoke. We do it, and Augustine, again has an example:

"To what storms and tempests, to what a fearful and tremendous raging of sky and sea, do the busy merchantmen expose themselves, that they may acquire riches inconstant as the wind, and full of perils and tempests, greater even than those by which they were acquired!"

We do crazy things for work that we love.

We have an alternative to a life of misery, to a life of woe, and in fact those who cannot claim the yoke of Christ are doomed to woe as well. Do we know people who have a beautiful home, a loving family, all the food they could want, a decent job, etc., but are still miserable? These folks who are endlessly searching or malcontent with the amazing blessing of life that sits with them every day. Are we those people? Do we dare to tempt the prophecy Christ makes by living in the midst of the miracle and never ever realizing it? Are we in the grip of blessing, but refuse to take our proper joy in it?

Qoheleth and Augustine are saying much the same thing: Life, as God has made it, is for our Joy. And if we

do not actively work into that we are doomed to a world of woe.

And God has little patience for entitled people.

Tyre and Sidon were in Syria. These were not the "chosen people" of God. We know that Jesus is constantly telling the people of Israel -- "This message is going out world wide. You don’t have the corner market on being God’s people anymore." And it’s the same message to use right here in this church.

We have never had the corner market. And if we do not see the miracle of life that is around us, the opportunity for justice, or the deep need for a loving evangelism in our city... then woe to us.

This life in Christ, this faith, this being a Christian thing is an active thing. It is not a passive work. It is a daily practice, and an hourly discipline.

It is a ministry filled minute to minute with active words.

It is not enough to just be the city in which the miracles happen, like Capernaum.

We cannot just be Christ adjacent.

We are to be as Christ. To repent, and take on the mantle.

We are to be the embodied challenge to a world filled with disgusting hatred for one another.

To fly in the face of every part of anyone who would deny a brother or sister their rightful place in a world that we did not create. In a world that we are merely supposed to oversee. And as Qoheleth reminds us, we are made of the same stuff as the animal kingdom. We are all in this together. We are all going to suffer and succeed in the same air, and drinking the same water.

So then if there are brothers and sisters who are being killed unfairly in the streets? And we say nothing? Woe to us.

If there are God’s human creations who are imprisoned at a glaringly unfair ratio? Then woe to our sense of justice.

If there are people who starve for nutrition as they desperately eat cheap food that creates obesity in children and diabetic blindness? And we do nothing about it? Then woe to us.

If there are people who weep as they flee conflict, poverty, and plague, and we do nothing? Then woe to us.

If there is hatred in the hearts of our city, no matter how well disguised, and we refuse to see it, or speak out against it? Then woe to us.

We are called to stop trying to explain away our narrow position on who gets to have love, and justice, and joy.

This is the message of Jesus Christ as he stands and looks at the cities that have witnessed countless miracles! He rails at them, and says the people of the pagan gods would repent and witness to who God is faster that you bunch of unbelievers. SODOM!! Destroyed in fire and pain will have it better.

This is serious.

The idea that we should lament our losses and wring our hands in fear of the future is not scriptural. It’s not Christ like, and if we are to take what Christ is saying seriously, it’s not the way of a faithful person. It is that way of Woe. The idea that we think we can keep separate our church life and our secular life is lie. That our understanding of love in Christ shouldn’t inform our political opinion is not faithful. It’s not the way of Christ expecting action from his disciples.

These are Jesus” words. And Jesus even re-enforces it by saying," hey people, this is who I am. This is who GOD is. This is the deal." You see deeds of power without getting on board the Jesus train? It’s not going to go well for you.

So give up on the way of woe. Come to me Jesus says. Qoheleth tells us, those things aren’t ours anyway. They are bigger than us.

We are meant for Joy, in realizing that God is the center of all. We don’t need to be trapped in anger and fear and distrust and worry and hate and disgust. We don’t have to live in a condemned city, destroyed in fire and pain.

We are invited.

Take rest.

Find the humble and gentle heart of Christ.

Take an easy yoke. And light burden.

To find joy in our work together.

Because the way of woe is death. And the way of Christ is our only real life.

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