A World Without Hope?

Ecclesiastes 1:1-14

12 October 2008

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


In a poll of 800 playwrights, actors, directors and journalists, the play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett was voted the most significant English language play of the 20th Century.

The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, have pinned all their hopes on the arrival of the mysterious Godot. But Godot never comes. They are initially full of hope, but in the end all we are left with is a feeling of hopelessness. Godot isn't coming.

Vladimir and Estragon cannot quite let go of their delusional hope. At the end of each act is the dialogue, Well? Shall we go?, Yes, let's go. But the stage instructions say: they do not move. Curtain. Long after hope is gone, they cannot quite face up to it.

One of the lines in the play is a vivid image of the pointlessness of life. A character describes humanity like this: "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."

In the grand scheme of things our lives are just flashes of light. From birth to death in an instant. Pointless, useless, hopeless.

Well, now I've cheered you up...

As you know, our theme for this sermon series is "Living in Hope". Last week David introduced us to Christian hope: a certain hope for a glorious future. But this week we're painting the background picture by looking at "A world without hope". So it's not going to be very jolly — sorry about that — but it is terribly important.

Waiting for Godot may have captured the mood of the post-war twentieth century, but what has the Bible to say about it?

There is no hope in a God-less world

Well, perhaps it will surprise you, but the Bible more-or-less agrees with Samuel Beckett. Our reading earlier sums up the message of the book of Ecclesiastes like this: chapter 1 verse 2, Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.ref

In other translations: Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. [ESV], or "Futile! Futile!" laments the Teacher, "Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!" [NET]

You get the picture? The word translated "meaningless" or "vanity" or "futile" literally means "a breath" or "a vapour". It has no substance. It is fleeting and transitory: gone in an instant. And that's what the Teacher of Ecclesiastes says our lives are like.

But there is one crucial point that we must not miss. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes is describing a God-less world: a world in which God has been edited out.

We can see that most clearly in the first part of verse 13, where the Teacher states his viewpoint: I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven.ref And twenty-six times in the book he says that he is looking at things "under the sun". In our reading we can that phrase in verses 3, 9 and 14.

What he means is that in his analysis he is considering only the physical world. He is describing what the world looks like with God taken out of the picture. The Teacher is doing what John Lennon commended: Imagine there's no Heaven, It's easy if you try, No hell below us, Above us only sky, although his conclusions are very different from Lennon's.

In short, he is describing the world around us, full of people who have no time for God, who give him no recognition in their lives. What does the world look like from their viewpoint?

In a word: hopeless. In a God-less world, everything is hopeless.

To have hope, you have to have a goal. There needs to be something to look forward to; a brighter future; a promise to hold on to. But as the Teacher looks at the world all he sees is repetition and pointlessness. There's lots of activity, but ultimately nothing changes:

Verse 4, Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains for ever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.ref

More than two-thousand years later, we have yet to come up with a world-view that offers hope when God is excluded. Despite immense changes in society and technology, we can't manufacture hope, and we never will be able to.

Yet the human heart longs for hope! Deep down, we really believe that life must mean something, that it's going somewhere. So we try to find all sorts of ways to make life meaningful. And that's what the Teacher of Ecclesiastes turns his attention to next.

Attempts to find hope apart from God are futile

In verse 14, the Teacher again sets out his conclusion before he starts, I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.ref He's checked out all the different ways people try to find meaning in life, but in the end they are all futile. None of them give grounds for hope.

I've picked out five of the things he discusses in the rest of the book to give a whistle-stop tour. But for your homework, perhaps it would be good to read Ecclesiastes yourself. It's not a long book, but very surprising.

The futility of Pleasure

First, he looks at the futility of pleasure. Chapter 2 verse 1, I thought in my heart, Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is goodref; chapter 2 verse 10, I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.ref

He enjoyed laughter and wine. He built palaces and gardens. He had immense possessions and massive wealth. He enjoyed the arts. He had a harem and presumably denied himself no sexual pleasure. When the Teacher investigated a subject, he certainly did it thoroughly.

A lot of people I know are in denial about the futility of their lives. They anaesthetise themselves with constant pleasure-seeking, always looking for the next bit of fun so that they never have to face up to the deeper things of life. This is the spirit of the early years of the twenty-first century.

But in the end it brings no meaning, and it brings no hope: verse 11, 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.ref

Pleasure-seeking is just a thin and fragile veneer over the realities of life. What happens when the pleasure stops? When cancer comes? When a close friend dies? When the money runs out? What are you going to do then: laugh it off?

The futility of Work

So much for finding meaning and hope in pleasure. Other people try to find purpose in their work.

In chapter 2 verses 17 onwards the Teacher considers the futility of work.

Verse 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.ref

Nothing we do will be permanent. Work might satisfy for a while, but in the end it can't bring hope. We don't know what will become of all we achieve. It only takes a few idiots and our life's work is wrecked. In a God-less world, work can never be a source of hope.

The futility of Money

But at least work brings in an income, which brings us on to the futility of money and wealth.

In the current economic climate, I don't need to spell out the pointlessness of putting our hope in money, do I?

The last week, I've taken the opportunity to challenge my colleagues as they watch their investments crash with Proverbs 11 verse 4, Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.ref God cannot be bribed: what good would their money have been when they have to stand before him?

But the Teacher's point is that even in good times, trusting in money is futile. John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in history, was asked, "How much money is enough?" . He replied, "Just a little bit more" .

Chapter 5 verse 10: Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.ref

The futility of Religion

So, if pleasure and work and money fail to give us a reason to hope, then what about religion. Surely people find meaning and hope in religion! And, sure enough, our Teacher turns his attention to it.

But, hang on a minute: aren't we supposed to be considering the world apart from God? Everything under heaven?

Well, that's his point. The vast majority of religion worldwide is God-less. All non-Christian religion, and a great deal of what passes for Christianity, is God-less. Religion is about self-improvement, making myself a better person, trying to keep the rules, trying to be righteous - or at least self-righteous. And why do you need God for that?

All this being good and obeying the rules never gets anyone anywhere. The Teacher's comment is in chapter 8 verse 14, There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.ref

Relying on religious activity will never bring hope. We will never be be righteous enough for God.

The futility of Relationships

Although the Teacher looks at a load more stuff, the last area I want to look at for now is relationships.

Many people try to find meaning and hope in the relationships they have. But the Teacher doesn't have much time for that. Listen to his sarcasm. This is chapter 9 verse 9: Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun — all your meaningless days.ref

Relationships are good, but in the end they don't bring any more hope than all the rest of this stuff. You might as well enjoy what you have, but you won't find meaning there.

So, this is the world we live in: the world outside these walls. Outwardly it may look very successful, attractive in many ways. But ultimately, a world without God is a hopeless world. They may be hiding behind hedonism, work, money, religion or relationships, but in the end, all they have to look forward to is death. Samuel Beckett was right: "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more" .

Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Everything is meaningless!ref

How should we respond to a hopeless world?

I'm sorry that this sermon has been so gloomy, but I want us to feel the despair of the world; I want it to sink into our hearts and affect us.

I'm going to finish with a few minutes on how we should respond to this world without hope.

We have to share our message of hope!

If we are Christian, then we have a message of hope for this hope-less world. Actually, we have the only hope for this hopeless world. We know that the world is going somewhere. It is not all futile, meaningless and vain.

If we are Christian, then: 1 Peter 1:3, In God's great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the deadref; Titus 2:13, we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christref.

The book of Ecclesiastes ends by putting God back into the picture: the last two verses say, Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evilref.

The world is going somewhere after all. It is heading towards judgement. Judgement, and the prospect of life beyond, gives our lives meaning and hope. But judgement only brings hope if we are confident of passing.

If we are Christian then we have a hope that is not based on futile religion, but based on a person. If we are Christian, we know this Judge, and for us he is not a judge who condemns, but a judge who rescues. Knowing Jesus the Judge is the only hope there is.

The world around us is starving for hope, and you and I have hope and hope to spare. As we look at the world through the eyes of Ecclesiastes, let's allow it to move our hearts and motivate our wills to share our hope with those we know. Who will you share your hope with this week?

Do not invest your hope in the world

The second response to this hopeless world I want to give you, is be careful where you invest your hope.

Times of economic turmoil like the last week help to reveal where we have really put our hope.

If your job is at risk, how do you feel about it? If your investments have plunged, how do you feel about it? If your bank has gone bust, how do you feel about it? If your house might be re-possessed, how do you feel about it?

It is answers to questions like these — not in good times, but when we are really up against it — that reveal where we have invested our hope.

Jesus says, Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys,ref where no bank goes bust, where no investments plunge in value, where no pension fund fails. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The same goes for all our other activities, our pleasures, our work, our relationships, our religion. Do not invest your hopes in what the God-less world invests in. We've seen how completely bankrupt all that is. We need to learn to see the world with the eyes of the Teacher.

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.ref

If you are without hope...

Finally, there may be some here this morning who are living at this moment without hope. You have nothing to look forward to: only death, and whatever you try, you cannot escape that fact.

If that is you, then I want you to know that there is hope available: certain hope for the future, built on a solid foundation. Hope that will fill your heart and lift your eyes.

God says to his people, I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a futureref.

If you want to be part of God's plan and have a confident hope and a future, then the only way is to get to know Jesus Christ. Without him your life will always be meaningless, futile, vain and hopeless. With Jesus Christ as your Lord your heart will burst with hope.

Please come and talk to me or Pete or one of the prayer team if you want to know God's plan to give you hope and a future. Please don't leave here hope-less.