Your Better Life Now and Forever

 

Ecclesiastes 7:1-12 (text); Hebrews 11:32-40, 12:3-11
© June 16, 2013 • Download this sermon (PDF)

Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ: One of the big effects of sin on us is that of comparing ourselves with others. We always look at others, and say that they are better than us: better-looking, better jobs, better homes, better cars, better gadgets. Since today is Father’s Day, some children who have bad fathers might even say that their friends have better fathers. What’s worse is that there are some men look at other women and say they’re better than their wives.The Tenth Commandment warns us about covetousness because we’re never satisfied with what God has given us. There’s always something better that we covet.

Our text today also has a series of sayings that there are things “better” than others. The word “better” is in the ESV seven times in these twelve verses. But the Preacher’s better things are shocking to us, and without any explaining, hard to accept, except for the first saying, “A good name is better than precious ointment.” Who wouldn’t agree with this?

But is mourning better than feasting? Sorrow better than laughter? Wise rebuke better than foolish song? The end better than the beginning: what if it’s not a happy-ever-after ending? Today and tomorrow better than the old days? The patient better than the proud?

Though these sayings seem to be disconnected, there are three main subjects contained in the 12 verses. In verses 1-4, the Preacher talks about life and death. Then, he thinks about wise rebuke and foolish praise in verses 5-6. Lastly, he compares the past with the present and the future in verses 7-10. Verses 11-12 is a summary of the passage.

So our theme today is, “Your Better Life Now and Forever.” The Preacher has three exhortations: first, Funerals Better Than Feasts; second, ”Unlikes” Better Than “Likes”; third, Now and Future Better Than Former Days.

Funerals Better Than Feasts
The Preacher begins with a non-controversial saying, “A good name is better than precious ointment,” followed by a shocking one, “and the day of death than the day of birth.” Who wouldn’t agree with the first one? King Solomon says the same thing in Proverbs 22:1,“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” I’m sure that all of you would defend your good name to death.

But who will agree with him that “the day of death than the day of birth.” Maybe no one. Is death better because finally our meaningless life is over? Or is death better because it is the end of our life full of sufferings? The Preacher says that there is “a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die …” (Eccl 3:1,2). Now he says that death is better than birth.

Since the first part about a good name is positive, so the second part should be, and also the rest of the passage. Verse 1 might then be read as a simile, “Just as a good name is … so is the day of death …” Both our birth and death are happy occasions if our names are registered in the Book of Life in heaven because we are in Christ. Thomas Boston, a 17th-18th century Scottish pastor-theologian, says of the Christian: “In the day of his birth he was born to die … in the day of his death he dies to live.”

So the Preacher now says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting.” Is he saying that we should always mourn and never have joy? Feasting is a major theme in the Bible. The Preacher says earlier about the pleasure of feasting, “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work for this is a gift from the hand of God; for who can eat or drink apart from him” (Eccl. 2:24).

Jesus himself went to a wedding feast. He also told us a few parables about feasts. In the Parable of the Lost Son, the father threw a big feast for the younger son. Our Lord’s Supper is sometimes referred to as a feast at the Lord’s Table.

Death is “the end of all mankind.” When those of us who are left behind by those who have died go to the house of morning, we “lay it to heart,” that is, we contemplate about death. Jesus himself consoled with Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha when Lazarus died. We all sympathize with grieving family and friends.

Going to the house of mourning is a very somber occasion, compared to a birthday or wedding feast. But even when death is a fact of life, we try to avoid it at all cost. We decorate it with all kinds of beautiful coffins and flowers. But no matter what we do, death is still an ugly occasion. Some of us could not stand going to a funeral home, or even a hospital, because of sad memories.

In most churches, the idea of sorrow and mourning is gone. They try their best to have a happy-clappy atmosphere filled “victorious” songs, laughter and dancing. Nowhere is the seriousness of sin to be found. The subject of death is taboo, even the death of our Savior Jesus Christ for our sin. It’s all fun and games. This is what Martin Luther called the “theology of glory,” which most churches say is better than the “theology of the cross.”

This weekend, Superman will come flying, not only to the movie theaters, but also to the churches! They will make Jesus a mere mortal, another one of those amazing and victorious Marvel heroes, saving everyone who is in trouble, even the whole world. In the 70s, Jesus was a “Superstar.” Today, he is a “Superhero.”

But the Teacher says that death is better because when we go to a funeral or memorial service, we are reminded that someday we will all be there also. It compels us contemplate not only on the life of the one who died, but also on our lives. It makes us think about how we should live, how we should make the most use of our time, because it is too short to waste, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psa 90:12).

Going to the house of mourning makes us better prepared for death. Those of you who are married, when you go to a wedding, doesn’t it remind you of yours? When you hear the wedding vows recited, doesn’t it make you recommit to your own wedding vows? Doesn’t it make you think about being a better husband or wife because you made the same vows on your own wedding? So does going to the house of mourning: it makes you contemplate your life better, and to strive to be better human beings because life may end anytime.

But most of all, when we mourn with others, we comprehend and praise God better for his grace and mercy on us who are sinners saved by the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Without his death, we too will never be able to draw near to God. Without his grace, we have no life eternal; we are all consigned to hell.

Wise hearts always mourn over sin and death. Foolish hearts constantly seek after godless pleasure and fun. This is why the wise will accept wise rebuke, but the fool will only be happy in empty praise.

“Unlikes” Better Than “Likes”
Rebuke, even if wise, is also unacceptable to many people. Who wants to be rebuked? We all want praise, even flattery. We all need to be affirmed, to have many “Likes” in our Facebook posts. We get irritated when no one “Likes” our posts, and we even ask our friends to “Like” them. We think that no “Likes” means “Unlikes.” No one wants rebuke and correction, only praise.

The Preacher compares the laughter of fools to the noise of “the crackling of thorns under a pot.” He may be referring to nonsense from drunks. Or maybe to lyrics of godless and mindless songs that fill the airwaves today. Compare this with the songs of praise to Christ whom our heroes of the faith sang while they were being fed to the lions or burned at the stake because of their faith.

Last night, our next-door neighbor threw a wild, noisy, boisterous party from 9 PM to 6 AM! The kind of noise that only drunks would make. Their noise was like the crackling of thorns that burn very quickly and don’t have much heat. Drunks are happy only when they are drunk, but when the drinking is over, gone is the “gladdened heart” (Psa 104:15) and they go back to their depressed state.

So do fools—their laughter is very short-lived. Fools hide behind laughter when they run out of jokes because they don’t have much to say. The saddest thing is that fools who laugh and say there is no God will mourn forever in the lake of fire, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25). In fact, hell will be filled with weeping and gnashing of teeth, not laughter, because God will have the last laugh.

Laughter is the theme of many churches—all fun and games and no seriousness in worship. Sermons are filled with jokes. Even prayers are sometimes funny. The most sought-out thing in the world today is entertainment and fun: TV sitcoms, comedies. Laugh-ins were popular in the 60s and 70s because they make you laugh for half an hour straight. Everyone wants a good laugh, and Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins even sang, “I love to laugh, loud and long and clear.”

But there is nothing funny about death. It is sorrowful and serious. There’s nothing funny about hell; the most difficult preaching to give is during the funeral of an unbeliever. How do we tell the relatives and friends that their beloved one is not “in a better place”?

This is why rebuke and correction is better than empty praise and flattery. An unbeliever must hear the rebuke of his sinful nature so he will repent. He must be told of his total depravity, his inability to come to God. He must be told he is hopeless and helpless in his sinful state. He must be told that life is short and he is bound for hell if he doesn’t trust in Christ alone as his Savior and Lord.

A Christian must be rebuked when he strays from God’s Word. When he commits violations against God’s Law. When he dishonors the Sabbath Day. When he believes and teaches false doctrines. When he follows false gospels. Therefore we read God’s law every Lord’s Day to remind us of our violations of God’s law and confess and repent of our sins.

All of us must be told to take life and death seriously, not continue in the emptiness of pleasure. We must be told that life, pleasure, and work are all meaningless without the fear of God. We must be told that sufferings, temptations and trials are all part of life, and they must and can not be avoided. They are part of God’s sovereignty over all things, good and evil.

So where do we find wise rebuke and correction? From the church, pastors and elders. From our godly husbands or wives. From godly brethren. From our godly parents. Most importantly, from the Word of God. And where do we find faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word? From the church, every Lord’s Day. And in daily Bible reading and meditation. Do you spend more time with God’s Word than with fun-filled shows and activities in your daily life? Wise rebuke and correction are found only in God’s Word, and life is too short to miss these.

Now and Future Better Than Former Days
Since life is short, it is good to look ahead. As well, we are to look at our present situation. Our perspective has to take into account the past, present and future. The Preacher says in verse 8, “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning.”

This is also negative for many of us. We all live for the present, and not for the past or the future. Is the Preacher saying that the end of life is better because life is so meaningless?

No, the Teacher is actually not talking about the “end” with respect to time, but with respect to the “end result.” So in a business, we’re not so much concerned about its humble beginnings, but more with what it has become now as a huge money-making venture. Apple Corporation began with two visionaries in a garage. Now it’s one of the largest electronic companies in the world.

The rebuilding of the Temple is another example. As the Israelites from Babylon started rebuilding their city and temple, the saw that it was not as big and glorious as Solomon’s temple. Zechariah even referred to this as “the day of small things,” but in the end, they “shall rejoice” (Zech 4:10). So it was remodeled by Herod and it became bigger and more glorious. But even now, the Temple—the church—is bigger and more glorious. It has now encompassed the whole world. It’s glory is heavenly. In the end, God will dwell forever in it with his people, a city in which all sorrow, pain and death will be banished.

A godly home life usually—not always—results in godly children. Faithful attendance to the Lord’s Day worship results in better sanctification. A faithful church usually results in more mature Christians. Our church started with less than 10 people, some Sundays there were only 5 or 6 people. But the Lord has blessed our outcome, because a few people prayed and were faithful.

In redemptive history, everything started also small with individuals and single families—Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses. After the exile, only 50,000 out of 2 million returned to Israel. Jesus was born in a manger. After 3-1/2 years, he only had 120 disciples. His church did not become a “megachurch” until he poured out his Spirit on Pentecost Sunday and 3,000 were saved in one day. Now, the church is universal, and in the end, there will be a multitude of all nations, tribes, and languages in heaven.

So the Preacher warns, “Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”

Old Manila (click to enlarge)

Old Manila (click to enlarge)

Most older folks like us long for “the good ol’ days.” It’s true that in many ways, life was better in the old days. Life seemed easier. We were in better financial health. Maybe even healthier bodies. There seemed to be less crimes and less violence. People were more neighborly. We seem to have more time on our hands in the old days. So we cherish those days more than today. Maybe because we sorely miss our parents and other loved ones who have already died.

Even Superman’s nemesis, General Zod, longs for the good old glory days in his own planet Krypton. Krypton was a mighty, peaceful, progressive world that came to a fiery end. Zod wants to resurrect Krypton’s glory days on planet earth by destroying all mankind and replanting Kroptonites here on earth.

But even when there is no such thing as a “golden age” in church history, there is definitely benefit in keeping most of the teachings of the early church and the Reformation, especially the ancient creeds and the various Reformed confessions. They have stood the test of the Word through the centuries. When it comes to Biblical truths in particular, the Teacher is wise and right in saying, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). Whenever a teacher announces a “new insight,” beware!

But looking back and dwelling on the past is always a big temptation and is fraught with dangers. This is why the Preacher warns us that this is not a wise perspective. Israel was like this when they were rebuilding the temple during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. The older folks were all crying with a loud voice when they saw that it was not as big and glorious as the first temple built by Solomon (Ezra 3:12-13).

If Martin Luther, John Calvin and other Reformers merely said that the traditions of the good ol’ days were good and must not be changed, then there would have been no Reformation of the church. Church traditions are only good insofar as they agree with the Word of God. Traditions such as papal authority, purgatory, the Mass, transubstantiation, prayers to Mary and other “saints,” for examples, all contradict the Scriptures, so they are to be discarded.

As we have learned, much better things are in store for God’s people as he is still building up his Church from all nations. Yes, we can and we have to look back to the past, to our forefathers in the faith, and how they were faithful through all their sufferings. The writer of Hebrews looks back at their faithfulness through all kinds of persecution and tribulation. But even these heroes of the faith looked ahead. Abraham “[looked] forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God,” because he “desire[d] a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:10, 16). These faithful forefathers “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us” (Heb 11:39-40). And what is that “something better”? It is Christ who came to be a ransom for us, for our sins, so that life will not be meaningless for us.

We must learn from the past, but afterwards, we are to gaze upon what lies ahead, what God has in store for us. Our sufferings today do not compare with the glory that awaits us when Christ returns from heaven to make our salvation from sin and death complete and perfect.

But while we wait for our coming glory, we still live in this world. Here, we are to live holy and blameless lives. We are to be “doers of the Word,” not hearers only. We are to be prophets declaring God’s Word to the lost. We are to be priests, offering our lives as living sacrifices to God. We are to be kings, conquering sin while we live in this world.

God has promised you a better life now. But you can’t have “your best life” now. You can “become a better you” today, but “your best life” can only be had in eternity. But you can only be “a better you” not because of your own goodness and righteousness. Not because you have better self-esteem. Not because you can claim God’s blessings now. But only by faith in Christ, and being united to him in his life, death and resurrection for your sins.

When you sin, Christ will rebuke you, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb 12:6). Your life is better now because God disciplines you as a Father disciplines his children, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb 12:11). When you greet your fathers on this Father’s Day, remember that the former pain of fatherly discipline has now bore fruit in your godly behavior.

§

Beloved friends, Christ’s death is better than his birth. We celebrate Christmas once a year, but how often do we celebrate his death and resurrection? Fifty-two times a year, every Lord’s Day! He was born to die, so that we might be born again to eternal life. We mourn our sins, but we can now dance and be glad because Christ has redeemed us from sin and death. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psa 30:5).

Death is better according to Paul, when we are in Christ, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). But even in this sin-filled world right now, we can be filled with joy, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil 4:4).

The Preacher says that wisdom offers the Christian good insurance. Treasures on earth are valuable, but they offer no protection from temptation, sin and sufferings. Wisdom preserves us to eternal life, and to an inheritance that we all look forward to.

Because what Christ has in store for us is unspeakable blessing, joy and glory forever and ever.

 

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