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"Power to Enjoy"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on July 10, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Ecclesiastes 5:19

Sometimes when you ask someone, "How's your day going?" or "How are you doing?" or "How are you feeling about such and such or so and so?" and they'll answer you, not with a story, not with a sentence, not even with a word, but just with a sound. They'll say, "Meh." Meh, spelled M-E-H, it's a sound that has become a word. It doesn't mean sad. It doesn't mean grief-stricken or depressed. It just means that there's no spark. There's no pizzazz. There's no joy. It's just meh.

You probably have an emoji for it on your smartphone in your faces category of emojis. It's not the smiley face. It's not the frowny face. It's not the cool guy wearing sunglasses face. It's the one where everything is flat. Two flat lines for the eyes and one for the mouth, and that's what it is. It's just flat.

Another word for it is languishing. Adam Grant, a journalist with The New York Times, thought that languishing may have been last year's dominant emotion. And Grant cited a study that suggested that this emotional flatness is not something to be blasé about, because "the people most likely to experience major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade aren't the ones with those symptoms today. Instead, they're the people who are languishing right now."

Search the internet and you'll find loads of advice about what to do with your languishing feelings. I'm sure there's some good short-term solutions out there. But that's not what I want to talk about with you today. I do want to talk about languishing though, because I think it's a problem. And rather than giving you advice on how to temporarily solve it, I want to give you a story about this problem and its ultimate solution. And I want to invite you into this story so that within this story you can better understand the problem and evaluate any temporary solution to it. In other words, once again, like we do every week, I want to offer you the story of Jesus. But maybe it's a version of the story you're less familiar with.

The Jesus story most familiar, so familiar that it's become cliché in our culture, goes something like this: we all know that we're going to die someday. And when we die, there's another life that follows, an afterlife, but there are two options for the afterlife, heaven and hell, a good place and a bad one. Now, to get into the good place you have to be good, but since no one is actually good, none of us will be getting there to the good place on our own. However, God is loving and He doesn't want any of us to go to the bad place. So, He sent Jesus, His Son, to die on the cross, to suffer for the bad things that we've done, and to purchase our ticket to the good place. So, believe in Jesus, and He becomes your free pass to heaven.

That's the way the story of Jesus is sometimes told, and there is some truth to it. But there's also a problem with it, especially when we think about it in relation not just to the future problem of death, but to the very present problem of "meh." Because even if Jesus does get you into that good place after you die, what's to stop you from languishing there? Eternity is a long time, so maybe we've been there 10,000 years and you ask me, "Hey, Mike, how's it going?" And I'm like, "Meh." And maybe that's the sign that in another decade I will be in the throes of full-scale depression. Can you get depressed in heaven? Doesn't that make it hell, then? So, you see the problem with this story of Jesus simply being the free pass to the good place in the afterlife, because there's a deeper question there, a deeper problem. Because even if you get to that good place, will you be able to enjoy it?

The Bible tells a deeper story, one that goes deeper into our problem, into our human condition. And the Bible offers a better story, a solution to our problem. There's a long speech in the middle of the Bible. It's called the book of Ecclesiastes. If you've never read it, you should. Now, it's not going to give you the solution, but it will take you to the depths of our problem. And there, languishing in the depths, it will point you to the solution.

Jewish and Christian tradition accepts that the speaker, the guy who gave the speech, was Solomon, the king in Jerusalem, 3,000 years ago. Now, sometimes I wonder how Solomon decided to give this speech. Maybe it happened like this. After a long day of lounging on the couch, binge-watching TV in his royal palace, someone asked him, "Hey Solomon, how's it going?" And he's like, "Meh," except his word for it would've been "hevel." Hevel is the Hebrew word for "vapor." "How's life?" someone asks Solomon, and he says, "Vapor, vapor of vapors, everything is vapor," And then he goes on like that for 50 more minutes.

Listen to it, this excerpt of it, from the middle of the speech, Ecclesiastes 5 and 6.

I have seen a grievous evil under the sun, wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner, and wealth lost in a bad venture so that when he has a son, there is nothing left for him. Naked a person comes from his mother's womb. As he comes, so he departs. There is nothing from his labor that he can carry with him in his hand. This is a grievous evil. As a man comes, so he departs. And what does he gain, since he toils for the wind? All his days, he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction, and anger. What I have seen to be good and fitting for a person is to eat and to drink and to find joy in all the toil with which he toils under the sun during the few days of life God has given him, because this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives a person wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, to accept his lot and to find joy in his toil, this is a gift of God. That person seldom dwells on the days of his life, because God occupies him with joy in his heart.

But I have seen another grievous evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on humanity. God gives a man wealth and possessions and honor so that he lacks nothing that he desires, but he does not give him the power to enjoy it. But a stranger enjoys it instead. This is vapor, a grievous evil. A man may father a hundred children and live many years, yet no matter how long he lives, if he does not enjoy life's good things and has no burial, then I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. The stillborn comes with vapor and departs in darkness. In darkness his name is shrouded. Though he never saw the sun or knew anything, he has more rest than that man, that man, even if he lives a thousand years twice over, yet enjoys no good thing. Don't they all go to the same place?"

This is as deep and as dark as Solomon gets, but his speech helps us, helps us to better define our problem, and also to tell another version of the Jesus story, one that offers a better solution. Our problem is not just the question, to which place will I go when I die? The problem is, as Solomon puts it, in whatever place I'm in, will I have the power to enjoy it? Because if you can't enjoy it, it doesn't matter how good the place is. That's the problem. It's not the place. It's the power to enjoy any place. Solomon says that life isn't worth living unless you've been blessed with the power to enjoy it, so where do you get this power? Solomon showed us the way. He said that God gives the power to enjoy. Only God can occupy us with joy. God Himself is the power to enjoy.

The story of Jesus that we hear in the Bible is not about Him being a free pass to a better place. Instead, it's about Jesus, God's Word, God's Son become human to bring God's presence to this place, your place, my place right here, right now, always. He's not a ticket to a better place. He's the source of joy in each place, and He intends to occupy every place with joy because He Himself is the power to enjoy. That's the story you need when you're languishing. Jesus is the power to enjoy.

But what do we mean by power? Is it like a charge for your smartphone, the charge you need when your spiritual battery is languishing? No, because that makes Jesus into a means to an end, into the thing that you use to get something else you think you need. But Jesus is the Creator of all the things. He's the creative genius behind everything. He's the one you need. So, when we say, "Jesus is the power to enjoy," it's less like an electrical charge, and it's more like the charge that comes with being in love.

I met my future wife, Amy, when we were both 19 years old. We had known each other back in grade school, but when we met again when we were 19, there was this charge between us, and not just physical, but emotional and spiritual. I remember vividly a walk we took one summer evening. We were still just friends at the time. We weren't even holding hands. We were walking side-by-side a few feet apart, but there was this charge between us. Being in her presence, I lost track of time. The whole world around me simultaneously faded into a blur and popped into brilliant color.

You know this feeling, right? The pure joy of simply being with someone you love, joy that charges the place and occupies all the things. So, what am I trying to say? No, I'm not saying that Jesus wants to be your boyfriend. What I am saying is that the vapor of joy that momentarily occupies you in the presence of your favorite people, your friends, your family, people you love, people you admire, not as a means to an end, but as ends in themselves. That fleeting joy is a sign of the abiding joy we were made for. Joy that comes only when we are occupied by the Word of God, the Son of God, the personal presence of God.

And the story of Jesus helps us understand why the world still feels like it's languishing. This life, this mortal life that we are living, is like living after you've lost the person whose presence brought you the most joy. It's like grieving a death. Author C.S. Lewis wrote about such an experience in his book, A Grief Observed. He and his wife, Joy, had only been married three years when she died of cancer. Grieving, Lewis wrote, "Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything. Over everything, there is this vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss. What's wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? And then I remember, Joy is dead." Her death, for a time, stripped him of the power to enjoy. That's the tone we hear throughout the book of Ecclesiastes.

Solomon is painting a vivid picture of life without hope in the Lord of life. The book of 1 Kings 11 says that Solomon loved the Lord, but later that his heart was turned away after other gods, not real gods, false gods, good things created by God that we turned bad when we cling to them as though they were God. False gods are like wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner. They promise us joy, but those promises turn to vapor. Solomon came to see that life without the Lord of life is no life at all. It's like grieving a lost loved one. But it's different, because Jesus didn't stay dead. But if we remain lost from Him, separated from Him, there is no getting over that. There is no going on without Him. Even if you lived a thousand years twice over and got everything else you thought you wanted, you would still have nothing. And that's why Jesus died. He made Himself into nothing to be with you even there in your nothingness.

The book of Hebrews 12 says that Jesus did this for the joy that was set before Him. The joy of the Son of God is His Father, and the Father's joy is His Son, and with the Holy Spirit, He offers this joy to you. This story of Jesus in which we find ourselves is not about loving our loved ones less or enjoying the world less, and it's not just about us being told that we need to love God more. It's the story of God coming to occupy us with His joy. And Jesus is here for you, in His people, the church, the body of believers that gathers around God's Word, and the bread and wine of Communion, and the new birth of Baptism.

In John 16, Jesus says it's like this. "When a woman is giving birth, she has pain because her hour has come. But when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers her anguish because of the joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have pain now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you." The story that we are in is not of a world languishing itself into despair, binge-watching TV on the couch. The story we are in is of a world in the throes of birth pains, anguish, travail, but then the cry of new life, God born among us, God with us, and joy.

Please pray with me. Dear Father, we acknowledge Your presence here among us now, and we look forward to seeing You in Jesus face-to-face one day. As we wait, Your Son told us to ask You, to ask You for anything in His name, that our joy may be full. And we have many things to ask You. But now, we ask that you give us grateful hearts to receive your gifts. Give us the power to enjoy them. Give us Yourself. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Reflections for July 10, 2022

Title: Power to Enjoy

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to And now, back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: I'm visiting once more with Dr. Tim Saleska, professor at Concordia Seminary here in St. Louis. He teaches about God as He's revealed Himself in Jesus and through the Old Testament. Welcome back, Tim.

Tim Saleska: Thanks. I'm very happy to be here.

Mike Zeigler: Tim, we've been listening to the book of Ecclesiastes for a few weeks now, and let's be honest, it can be a depressing book. And someone might be thinking, why is this in the Bible at all? What would you say to them?

Tim Saleska: I do think it has a good place in the Bible. I think it's a sobering message that we need to hear because again. Within the biblical scope of things, we are great manufacturers of other gods, and the biggest god we manufacture is ourselves. Everything in culture tells us that's what we need to do.

Mike Zeigler: A lot of people relate to the book as you've mentioned. When you hear someone say that Ecclesiastes is their favorite book in the Bible, what are you thinking internally?

Tim Saleska: Well, part of me wants to know why because I want to start that conversation. What makes it your favorite? When someone says it's their favorite, it doesn't mean necessarily that it makes them feel good. I think that it may be because it changes their perspective or gives them a perspective that they can't get anywhere else. That's why I like the book. Not because its message is cheerful in the end because I don't think it is, but because it is a book that can alter your perspective, give you another view.

In general, if you think your view is the only right one right away, and someone else doesn't have anything to offer you, then you're not going to be able to be influenced by ideas, thoughts, truths, experiences that are really, really important, especially if we want to witness to people in a culture that is so much more diverse and challenging in so many ways.

Mike Zeigler: So both Job and Ecclesiastes are bringing us face-to-face with the problem of God. God behind the universe that we experience, the life that we experience, so that even though there are moments of orderliness and predictability, there's also chaos and things that are out of our control. And we know God is behind both of those. And basically just, I think you said, renders as passive. What do we do with a God like this?

Tim Saleska: What do you do? Yeah. So remember they all both believe that God's omnipotent, which means there's nothing outside of him, nothing outside of His control. And so Ecclesiastes shows that over and over again. When you read chapter 3, for example, the famous passage, "there is a time for everything." A lot of people read that and think, "Okay, it is our job as humans to find the right time for all these things." But when you read it in the context that it's put, it says just the opposite. God is the One who has made everything appropriate in its time. The times and the seasons are in his hands, not ours. So the passage is not a proponent of free will, but it actually takes that away and reminds us that everything is in God's hands, including all of these times. And so that's a very challenging, very challenging view for modern human beings. I mean, I admit that. It's not like, oh yeah, that's obvious. It's incredibly not obvious.

Mike Zeigler: Right. And you've mentioned this in the earlier conversations we've had, that the only way for us out of this predicament, this problem, this quandary is for God to reach through it to us and He's done that. We know that as Christians through Jesus, He's given us the last word. Ecclesiastes isn't the last word. Jesus is the last Word. So we know God is a loving Father. Ultimately, that's who Jesus reveals. So as Christians, knowing that about Jesus and knowing the truth about God, how does a book like Ecclesiastes help us then live wisely now?

Tim Saleska: I think one of the things it does is to make us humble. It tells us that the proper stance to take in this world is one of humility, not arrogance, and that's a big problem for us. We have a lot of arrogance. We have a lot of trust in modern technology and human ways of doing things. Ecclesiastes counsels humility. It also reminds us always of our end, where you're going to end up. Think about your end. What's going to happen in the end? And I think once you think about that, it puts a certain perspective on your present.

I mean, one of my favorite verses in the book is that chapter 7 verse 2, where he says, "It is better to go to the house of mourning." And I think by house of mourning, he's talking about once when someone dies, there is a gathering of people. So it's better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting. Then he says, "For this is the end of all mankind and the living will lay it to heart." Why does he want you to lay it to heart? So that you're mindful of your place. So you're always confronted with that in the way you live your life. How then is that going to affect your day-to-day behavior amongst your family, with your friends, in your vocation, all those kinds of things?

And then the wise man does remind us that God has given us ways to live that mitigate some of the problems and despair that he sees, but it's not the final answer to everything and it only goes so far so to speak. So even biblical wisdom only goes so far. It's not going to save you, for example.

Mike Zeigler: I think the most helpful framework that Ecclesiastes has given to me is the simple distinction between this life being mortal life, but the life to come is true life. I think we get that flip flopped sometimes. We think that this is true life and that the afterlife, if there is one for non-Christians, is somehow less. It's misty. It's kind of dreamy, but the biblical view would be, no, this is the misty, vaporous life. True life is what we are living for.

Tim Saleska: Yeah. I think that's a really good way to put it. Because of our sin, original sin, of course, we have forgotten what it means to be human. And remember, as God created humans, we were to be totally dependent on God. And in that dependence is where you find true freedom. But because of our sinful hearts, we want to be dependent on ourselves or on human beings. And so rather than serve Him, we serve ourselves and we forget what it means to be human. Perhaps Ecclesiastes helps us with that question as well. Oh, here's what it means to be human and to be in this position of dependence upon God.

Mike Zeigler: Thanks for joining us.

Tim Saleska: Of course.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Where Charity and Love Prevail" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

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