By Brandon Levering
Brandon is from Aurora, Nebraska. He and his wife Carissa have three children—Joshua, Moriah, and Eva. Brandon is the Lead Pastor at Westgate Church (Weston, MA). He blogs at www.in-the-meantime.com. Brandon enjoys spending time with his family, barbecuing, playing disc golf, or watching a good action film.
One of the reasons I recently began preaching through Ecclesiastes is how it exposes some of New England’s most cherished idols for the looming disappointment they are. We look for life and identity in our work. We trust in money to answer our problems. We live for weekends at the Cape. We boast of some of the finest institutes in higher education. We have all this stuff, all these achievements, so much to do and to see, and yet . . . we’re not satisfied. In those moments when we’re honest enough to let our guard down, we know in our hearts that none of this is secure. The only things that stand between us and losing our dreams are time and chance, and eventually everything succumbs to them.
Ecclesiastes resonates with the deep longing and unspoken sadness of our hearts as we wrestle with life’s inconsistencies and come to terms with the fleeting and fruitless realities of life under the sun—what the Preacher calls “vapor of vapors” or “vanity of vanities” (1:2; 12:8). Like trying to grab hold of a puff of smoke or your breath on a cold morning, so nothing we hold onto in this world lasts or amounts to much in the end. Sound like New England to you?
But what I didn’t anticipate when I began Ecclesiastes is how much this book would resonate with my own experience of gospel ministry in New England.
Many of us came to New England specifically to see the gospel take root in what has become one of the least-reached regions in North America. We believe that Christ is sufficient and God’s Word is powerful to change lives. We’re committed to making much of Christ and his gospel in every sermon and throughout every ministry. We spend ourselves shepherding the flock, offering counsel and care, building relationships with our neighbors, and trying to help our congregants see their calling as missionaries in New England. And we juggle all this with meetings, emails, and administration; not to mention trying to keep family a priority over ministry.
Yet, in our more vulnerable moments, we sometimes wonder whether our ministry efforts will make any lasting difference, or whether we, like the rest of the region, are merely “striving after wind.” We may even ask ourselves, along with the apostle Paul, whether we have in fact labored in vain (Gal. 4:11).
That’s not to say my congregation is like the situation in Galatia! Having been there for just over a year, my family and I have been overwhelmed by their kindness and encouragement, and are thankful for their commitment to the gospel and the glory of God. But as everyone recognizes, New England is hard soil. And as a pastor, you notice when none of the growth in your first 15 months is conversion growth. No matter how good a job someone tells you you’re doing, “fleeting and fruitless” sounds rather accurate for the evidence.
So what do we do? One might pursue this matter in any number of directions, offering all sorts of practical or theological insights. But one of Ecclesiastes’ many surprises is how it not only raises searching questions but offers tangible guidance for living out our days as God’s people in a fallen world—whether our toil takes the shape of selling cars, scrubbing toilets, or shepherding souls. Two helpful reminders come to mind.
First, take joy in your labor, not just the fruit of your labor. One of the consistent refrains in Ecclesiastes is to find enjoyment in our toil (e.g. 2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15). This is surprising in a book that reminds us over and over how fleeting and fruitless our toil is. The point is not to find a way to beat the system and come out on top, but to recognize that taking pleasure in our toil (regardless of the results) is “God’s gift to man” (Eccl. 3:13). God gives us the grace to enjoy not only preaching Sunday morning, but waking up Monday morning to start the preparation process all over again. His grace is sufficient for both the life-giving conversations you look forward to and the phone calls you’ve been dreading. Our work is never quite done and rarely amounts to all we hoped it would be. But because Jesus’ work for us is finished, our hope is secure, his Spirit is present, and whatever work we do can be offered in joyful worship to God, trusting him to take care of the results.
Second, rest in God’s sovereignty. Another consistent theme in Ecclesiastes is that behind the inscrutable vanity we call life, there is a sovereign and wise God calling the shots. As 3:11 puts it, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (cf. 3:14-15; 6:10; 7:13-14; 8:16-17). Though from our vantage point we can’t make out all that God is doing and why, we can be confident that he is at work, and that his purposes will triumph in the end. This is not an excuse for laziness or sloppiness in ministry. Rather, it is a call to humility and prayer—to put our hope for spiritual awakening in this region not in our own effort and creativity, but in the God who raises the dead, and to plead earnestly with him to do it. Therefore, it is a call to cling all the more tightly to the gospel of Jesus, whose life, death, and resurrection is the centerpiece of our sovereign God’s redemptive purposes; and we know that God will be faithful to bring those purposes to completion in the end, and our service and labor for him in the meantime is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).