"Play the Sunset"#89-44
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on July 3, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Ecclesiastes 2:25
Gertrude Lang wears her bright red hair in pigtails that pop against her green flannel dress, and she practices. She practices the clarinet till her lips swell up. Gertrude Lang is a minor character in the 1995 film, Mr. Holland's Opus. Gertrude is an aspiring clarinetist in Mr. Holland's school band at Kennedy High School. She's been practicing the clarinet for three years, negotiating with it to try to get the right notes.
But the thing still squeaks and squeals like a dying animal. So Mr. Holland, the band director, her long-suffering music teacher, works with her each day before school. And it's in these tutoring sessions that we see what's driving her. She wants to be recognized as good at something. Her sister's on a ballet scholarship at Juilliard. Her brother's going to Notre Dame on a football scholarship. Her mother's won the blue ribbon for watercolor at the state fair so many times that they've had to retire the category. And her father, her father has the most beautiful voice. So Gertrude is trying to negotiate a place for herself. She's got her self-worth wrapped up in how well she performs and because she's not performing well, she's beginning to believe that she's worthless.
Mr. Holland sits down with her, in her despair, and changes the metaphor. He asks her, "Gertrude, when you see yourself, what do you like best about what you see?" She says, "My hair." "Why?" he asks. She tells him, "My father says it reminds him of the sunset." And Mr. Holland says, "Play the sunset." In other words, play from the place where you know you're loved. Play, not like you're there negotiating for all your worth. Play from the place where you know you're loved independent of how well you play. "Play the sunset," he says. Mr. Holland changed the metaphor, and that's what made the difference.
Now Gertrude Lang did not become a virtuoso clarinetist overnight. No. Gertrude still had to negotiate to get the right notes. But because Mr. Holland had changed the metaphor, she stopped using music to negotiate her value. She started to receive it, like the gift that it is. It was a gift she had received and cherished through long hours of practice. A gift she wanted to share with others. A gift that was ultimately an expression of her father's voice speaking love over her.
I'm speaking with you today because Jesus of Nazareth promises to do the same thing for you, and for me. For everyone who will trust in Him and be taught by Him, He promises to change the metaphor: to show us life as a gift, given in love, not a deal to be won by negotiation. You and I need a change in metaphor because if you try to negotiate with this life, you'll never win.
Now, I'm not saying negotiation is bad. It's a part of life. It's a mutually beneficial way to get what you want and what you need from other people. And it's much better than the alternative: going to war, to get what you want. Unlike war, negotiation is mutually beneficial because you bring something of value to the table and offer it to the other party in exchange for what you want. And together you create a win-win situation. You scratch my back. I'll scratch yours.
So I'm not saying negotiation is bad. I'm only saying that if you try to negotiate with this life to get what you want, you'll never win. Why? Because what you want is infinite, and this life is finite. What you want is infinite. You don't believe me? Ask any major marketing agency. They have jobs because what you and everyone else wants is infinite. Our desires for something new, something more, something better are bottomless. And that's why you can't negotiate with this life. Because when you sit down to bargain with it, you'll never be sitting across from someone or something that can give you what you want. Because finite people and finite things cannot give you what is infinite.
Life as negotiation will fail you. It will fail you not once, but twice. Because not only will you not get what you want, you'll also start to doubt your value—your value as a human being, just like poor Gertrude Lang. Because if what you bring to the bargaining table isn't valuable enough to get you what you want, then maybe you're not as valuable as you thought. Maybe you're not infinitely valuable.
In this life people fluctuate between these extremes. Either they believe that they are infinitely valuable and therefore can negotiate for what is infinite, or they tell themselves that they are worthless dust. You can go to bed feeling important and wake up feeling worthless. Over here, you can hold onto your dignity. Over there, you give in to despair. One moment you're valued, and then the next you are vapor. These fluctuating feelings are not new to the human experience.
There was a man who lived a million sunsets before us. His name was Solomon. He was a king. He was the wisest man in the land. Nearing the sunset of his mortal life, Solomon reflected on the variety of ways that he had tried to negotiate with this life. For years, he had practiced his part, negotiating to get the right notes, the right pleasures and possessions, the right works and wisdom. In his ancient wisdom, recorded in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, we can hear Solomon fluctuate, just like us, just like Gertrude Lang, wavering between feelings of favor and vapor.
So Solomon says in chapter two, "I hated life." He says, "I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun." Then he says, "So I gave my heart up to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun, because a man may do his work with wisdom and knowledge and skill and then he must leave all that he owns to the one who has not worked for it. It is vapor and a great evil," he tells us. "Because what does a person gain from all his toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun. Because his days are full of pain and grief. Even at night, his mind does not rest. This too is vapor."
And then he concludes, "There is nothing better for a person than to eat and drink and to see good in his toil. I saw that this also was from the hand of God, a gift of God. Because who is able to eat and to have joy without God? Because to the one who pleases God, God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy. But to the sinner, to the one who misses the mark, God gives the task of gathering and heaping up only to hand it over to the one who pleases God."
And so Solomon turns our thoughts to God. God is infinite. God is all powerful, the Creator of the universe. But is He a negotiator? Some people approach Him as such. This is illustrated dramatically in the 1984 film, Amadeus, based on an urban legend about the downfall of the brilliant composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Mozart's rival in the film, the character Antonio Salieri, tries to negotiate with God. Salieri prayed, "Lord, make me a great, great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous throughout the world, dear God. Make me immortal." And in return he prays, "I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life."
Salieri offers God a deal. Now to his credit, it's at least a step in the right direction. At least he's going to the Source. At least there's some possibility with God because only God has the capacity to give what is infinite. But Salieri fails to consider one thing. As Miroslav Volf wrote, "If God were basically a negotiator, human beings would always end up with a raw deal because God doesn't need anything we have to offer."
When Salieri offers God his devotion in exchange for musical genius, God can say to him, "I've got something you want, but you've got nothing I need." And then he can go ahead and give musical genius to anyone He pleases, even to Salieri's nemesis, to a spoiled child named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
See, there are two half-truths that the devil tells us in this life. On the one side, the devil tells us that because God regards us as infinitely valuable. True. That means we can negotiate with life to get what we want. Not true. And on the other side, the devil tells us because we cannot negotiate to get what we want. True. That means we are worthless. Untrue. And with these two half-truths, the devil leads us into all kinds of sin, to miss the mark, to become less than human.
And to save us from this lie, God lets us experience its dead end first hand. "To us sinners," Solomon says, "God gives the task of gathering and heaping up, only to give it to the one who pleases God." And who is the one who pleases God? It's no secret. It's Jesus. And how to please God is no secret either. Jesus teaches us: it's not by bargaining with God; it's by receiving life as a gift, given in love.
Isn't that how Jesus says it in the Gospel according to Luke 12. He shows His students how to play the sunset. He says, "Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life—what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. Because life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens. They neither sow nor reap. They have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than birds. And which one of you by being anxious is able to add, to barter, for an additional hour to add to his span of life. If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon and all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you? Oh you of little faith. And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried, for all the nations of the world seek after these things. And your Father knows you need them. Instead seek His kingdom and these things will be added to you," says Jesus.
But to the one who misses the mark, says Solomon. To the one who tries to bargain with God, God gives the miserable task of gathering and heaping up, only to hand it over to the one who pleases God. That is, to hand it all over to Jesus. That's what God did when He raised Jesus from the dead and then throned Him as king over the universe. He gave Him everything. And where does that leave us? With nothing. Nothing to barter with. Nothing of value, except Jesus. And Jesus, like His Father, is not a negotiator. He is an infinitely generous giver. God made us for Himself. That's why each of us suffers from this infinite longing, this God-sized void in our hearts.
We try to fill it with finite people and things. We put demands on ourselves and demands on the world. Demands that finite creatures cannot bear. And now, the whole world suffers under this unbearable weight, and Jesus comes to bear it for us. That's what He was doing when He was dying on the cross. He was suffering the miserable end of our misguided negotiation. When Jesus died and rose again, He took the devil's half-truths and put them together in the right order. It's true. We can't negotiate with God. It's also true that God regards us as infinitely valuable and He thinks we're worth dying for.
And we see something like him in Mr. Holland, Gertrude Lang's long-suffering music teacher. Mr. Holland once spoke of becoming a great composer, to give the gift of music for coming generations. But he just kept on teaching. He taught for 30 years at Kennedy High School, helping the Gertrude Langs of the world live by a different metaphor.
Five years before his planned retirement, the school board negotiating a reduced budget, terminated the music program and Mr. Holland's out of a job. As the story wraps up, you feel cheated, like Mr. Holland got a bad deal. Thirty years of meaningless fame, confined within the halls of a single school, followed by a forced retirement. You see him there, walking in the darkened hall, undervalued, alone, Christlike.
But then a trumpet sounds in the distance. A joyful noise coming from the school auditorium. Inside, Mr. Holland meets a grateful student body and a band of alumni from 30 graduating classes. An official-looking woman enters the auditorium with an entourage in business suits. A voice comes over the loud speaker: "Ladies and gentlemen, please rise as I present to you, our Governor and Kennedy High School Alumnus, Class of 1965, the most honorable Gertrude Lang."
Governor Lang addresses the crowd, speaking to this man who helped them live from the place where they know they are loved, who taught her to play the sunset. She says to him, "Mr. Holland, there is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each one of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony. We are the melodies and the notes of your Opus. And we are the music of your life."
Would you pray with me?
Dear Father, one day the trumpet will sound and Your Son Jesus will return in glory. The sun will set on this mortal life. Death will be swallowed up in victory, and we will share the music of His kingdom that will not end. And You will satisfy our deepest longing. As we learn to play our part now, let it be that what we like best about ourselves is that You think we are worth dying for. Through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord. Amen.
Reflections for July 3, 2022
Title: Play the Sunset
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Once again, here's our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I'm visiting today with Dr. Tim Saleska, a professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, who teaches future pastors, deaconesses, teachers, about life with God, especially as He's revealed Himself in the Bible's Old Testament. Thanks for being with us again, Tim.
Tim Saleska: I'm really happy to be here, Michael. Thanks for asking.
Mike Zeigler: So, Tim, I mentioned you're a professor, and you were my professor back in seminary. Years ago, I had a class with you. You taught us about the book of Ecclesiastes and in the class, I don't know if you remember this, you gave us this assignment and we were supposed to write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. You wanted us to encourage the readers of the paper to read the book of Ecclesiastes. And the thought behind that assignment was that even if the reader isn't a Christian, they're going to be able to find something that they can relate to in the book of Ecclesiastes and through their life experience. Why do you think that is?
Tim Saleska: So, one of the things that I think a lot about is how do we begin to address modern unbelievers, people who may not even believe there's a God, who know virtually nothing about the Christian faith, much less the Scriptures. Or what they do know they get from the media, which puts obviously Christianity in a very negative place. And we're often seen as law-oriented, law-centered people, hard edged, unloving. And I do think in the church overall, we've lost our understanding that we're grace-centered people. And that our whole reason for being is to proclaim grace and love to people in Jesus. So I'm always looking for contact points with people outside of the faith, in which you might begin to have a conversation.
Again, I'm a big believer that we need to use Scripture, not to shut down conversations, but to enable them. That's where Ecclesiastes might be helpful for people because when people start reading the way that Ecclesiastes looks at his life and the problems that he's struggling with, really, at a gut level, they will see themselves reflected in it. And you can begin to discuss important questions about a person's life and about meaning in life and about where people are in life and about the value of work and toil.
Notice, one of the things you can't do with those is make that a human project. In other words, now it's your goal to go find enjoyment in your work, because he says, even that's a gift of God. Notice that he tries wisdom. He tries riches. He tries pleasure. And none of it seems satisfying.
Mike Zeigler: Doesn't accomplish anything.
Tim Saleska: And then the third one is the purpose. So that's the motivational aspect of meaning. So, when your life starts to lack purpose, you can sense it as meaninglessness. Some of us sense that to a little degree, if you're in the older generation, you look what's going around and you say, "Things don't make sense anymore." That's what I'm talking about. Meaningless in the sense of significance, what's the value? One values as good as another. That's what we might call "normal nihilism," our greatest values are undervalued. You just kind of go from one thing to another, you see that in life.
Mike Zeigler: I liked how you said that we should use the Bible not to shut down conversation, but to open them up. And if we recognize how Ecclesiastes speaks to modern readers, non-Christian readers especially, it helps us as Christians remember what it was like or what it would be like not to know the promises of God in Jesus. So how can a book like Ecclesiastes, bringing a Christian and a non-Christian together, standing on similar ground, to have a conversation?
Tim Saleska: Sure. Let me read you one thing that a student wrote in one of those reaction papers, not your class, in another class, that I actually have written in my Bible, because it reminds me of why Christians struggle with this book, and we can kind of go from there. This particular student did not grow up a Christian. He was an atheist, and then he was converted to Christianity. He also was a philosophy major and actually worked his way through the seminary teaching online for, I think Liberty University, first-year philosophy classes. So he was always down at Kaldi's coffee shop on his class.
But anyway, this is what he wrote. And remember, he had this perspective of from moving from being not a Christian to a Christian. And he said this, "It may be difficult for a Christian to appreciate the force of Ecclesiastes because we are eschatologically oriented, namely oriented towards Jesus coming back at the end. This fills our life with purpose and meaning. From the perspective of Ecclesiastes, that orientation—that Jesus is coming, that all will be right in the end—that orientation is invisible. Yet the book needs to be seen as a vision of life without the resurrection, a vivid description of the bleak view from the heights of human potential."
Notice that Ecclesiastes' message is he's always undercutting human pretensions to greatness, again and again. Even when he says wisdom is better than being a fool, which it is, nevertheless there's a shadow that even hangs over that because the wise and the fool still end up in the same place. It's better to be righteous than unrighteous, to live a wicked life. But again, in the end, everybody sins. So where do you stand with God? There's always this undercutting, and it speaks to an age which we think human potential is unlimited.
Mike Zeigler: Unbound. Yeah.
Tim Saleska: Ecclesiastes speaks, tells us the limits are on and you are oblivious to it. So, he takes the blinders off. I love that. From the bleak view, from the heights of human potential, climb all the way to the top of our potential, and you say, "Oh, all I see is death." It's a bleak view. You won't live forever. And once you die, you're going to be forgotten more than likely. If you're a footnote in an encyclopedia, you got to be really great in life just to get that. It's just a fact of life, and that's sobering.
Mike Zeigler: So, as Christians, we read a book of Ecclesiastes with a non-Christian; we can take off the blinders to the fact that in this mortal life, this present life that we're all living, is in fact, a sinking ship, and it's going down. And we are in this together. And we as Christians have no hope in this life, on this ship, so to speak, except that Jesus is coming one day and He's going to bail us out.
Tim Saleska: As Christians our hope is that God will bring us through judgment to salvation. Not that, okay in this life, faith is going to make everything all right again. I think so if you look at it from that perspective, Ecclesiastes helps our conversations to be more authentic and genuine. Because I think a lot of Christians hide that or we have this inside of us, but "I must not have enough faith," we say. Or I have to hide what's really going on inside of me. Or my friend sitting in the pew above me is going to judge me or think badly of me, or something like that. And so we tend to speak in platitudes to people who are actually suffering, both within the Christian community and outside of it. So, I think Ecclesiastes always deflates the balloon for all of us if we take what he says seriously.
Mike Zeigler: But it helps us as Christians have these conversations with a little more empathy and humility.
Tim Saleska: Right. Correct.
Mike Zeigler: Thanks for being with us.
Tim Saleska: Sure enough.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Jesus Has Come and Brings Pleasure Eternal" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)