When Life Feels Empty

This past Sunday we kicked off a brand new teaching series called Finding Meaning. For the next few weeks we are going to walk through some highlights of the collection of wisdom in the Hebrew Bible we call Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes, the wisest man who ever lived records some personal thoughts on his own efforts to find meaning in life. Through his reflections we can learn a great deal about where to find it in our own. First, though, we need a foundation from which to build this structure of ideas. That’s what we did yesterday. If we are going to find real meaning in our lives, where do we start building? Keep reading to find out.

When Life Feels Empty

So…the Patriots won the Super Bowl.  Again.  I’ll just say: They’re really good.  More specifically, Tom Brady is really good.  Bill Belichik is really good.  They managed to bring just what they needed to beat every opponent they faced in the playoffs.  Every time.  Now, the result was the most boring Super Bowl game ever, but I’ll bet you didn’t hear any complaints to that effect in the locker room after the game.  A Super Bowl win is a Super Bowl win even if it’s boring.  The thing that drives so many folks crazy about the Patriots isn’t just that they are really good.  The Los Angeles Rams and even my Kansas City Chiefs were really good this season and they didn’t drive anybody crazy.  The same goes with the New Orleans Saints.  No, the thing that gets under the skin of so many folks is that they’ve been good for so long.  This was the sixth win for Patriots and their ninth Super Bowl appearance just in the last 19 years.  In other words, they’ve been to the Super Bowl basically every other season for the whole of this millennium. 

Now, when it comes to Brady himself, no one in the world expected him to become arguably the greatest NFL quarterback ever when the Patriots drafted him in the sixth round out of the University of Michigan in 2000.  He was the backup to the superb Drew Bledsoe who had only three years before led the team to the Super Bowl himself.  But then Bledsoe got hurt.  And Brady was better.  A lot better.  In November of 2005 after leading the team to back-to-back Super Bowl wins the previous two seasons (including over the Panthers earlier that same year…sorry for that), Brady sat down with Peter Kroft of 60 Minutes for an interview.  He was still early in his career and looked a bit star struck by the level of cultural fame he had achieved so young.  The interview was pretty wide ranging and included a lot of laughter between the two men.  You can find the full transcript and the video of the interview online. 

There were two question from Kroft, though, that ventured briefly into some serious issues.  The first was this: “This whole experience—this whole upward trajectory—what have you learned about yourself?  What kind of an effect does it have on you?”  Brady’s answer was unintentionally deeply revealing of something that everyone experiences in ways attuned to their particular life context.  He said this: “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me?  I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what is.’  I reached my goal, my dream, my life.  Me, I think: God, it’s gotta be more than this.  I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be.  I mean I’ve done it.  I’m 27.  And what else is there for me?” 

Kroft quickly followed this up with another question: “What’s the answer?”  Brady kept going: “I wish I knew.  I wish I knew.  I mean I think that’s part of me trying to go out and experience other things.  I love playing football, and I love being a quarterback for this team, but, at the same time, I think there’s a lot of other parts about me that I’m trying to find.  I know what ultimately makes me happy are family and friends, and positive relationships with great people.  I think I get more out of that than anything.” 

Now, what’s Brady talking about here?  What is it he taps into that really beats in the heart of all of us?  It’s meaning, isn’t it?  Brady is talking about finding meaning in his life.  And think again about what he said.  While his career has just continued going up from where he was then, he was standing on some of the highest heights our culture has to offer when he sat down for this interview, and what did he say?  He said, “There’s got to be more than this to life.”  He had fame.  He had fortune.  He’s incredibly talented.  He was heralded as America’s most eligible bachelor.  He’s since married a supermodel and has three kids.  There really aren’t many other boxes our culture has remaining to check off.  And the first thing that came to mind when asked what he’d learned thus far in his short life was that there had to be more to it than this.  If he’s asking that question, what chance do the rest of us have to find it?  And yet search for it we do…search for it we must…because we need meaning in our lives. 

This morning we are beginning a brand-new series called Finding Meaning.  For the next few weeks we are going to walk through a little collection of wisdom in the Hebrew Bible—that is, the Old Testament—that ponders one of the biggest questions a person can ask in this life: What is the meaning of life and where can we find it?  This collection is called Ecclesiastes and it rests on a simple, though profound idea: We are purpose-driven creatures.  We were created for meaning and our lives aren’t going to be complete unless we have it.  The problem we face in this is that so many different things in our world today promise to deliver the meaning and purpose we need for our lives.  If one doesn’t seem to do the trick, surely another will.  So we try.  We try one, then another, then another, then another, then another.  The painful deceit here is that the longer we search for this particular treasure, finding one empty chest after another, the emptier we get, spiraling down, down, down, until we are desperately scraping at the bottom of the barrel still hoping against hope to find some shred of meaning for our lives there. 

This is where a collection of wisdom like Ecclesiastes can enter the picture and have such an impact.  Ecclesiastes was most likely written by David’s son, Solomon, who was the wisest guy who ever lived.  Now, his name doesn’t ever appear in the document, but the author, who calls himself the Qoheleth, or the Teacher, identifies himself as the son of David and king in Jerusalem.  Given what we know of the descendants of David who sat on the throne in Jerusalem, the number who are known to have been incredibly wise and wealthy and active writers includes exactly one person: Solomon. 

Now, Solomon’s story is an interesting one.  He found himself appointed king in spite of being one of the youngest of David’s children.  It was his mother’s political skills that got him the job.  And at the beginning of his reign, he really started out strong, following closely after the righteous footsteps of his father, David.  He is the guy who oversaw the building of the original Temple in Jerusalem, a wonder of human engineering and architecture.  He had the distinction of God coming to him and telling him to ask for a gift.  He could have incredible wealth, long life, or wisdom.  He wisely asked God for wisdom and as a reward God gave him the other two as a bonus.  But, over time, Solomon’s wisdom began to…leak.  He pursued multiple political marriages and wound up having 700 wives and 300 concubines in his massive harem.  All of these wives with their various gods and goddesses eventually pulled his focus away from the one true God and rather than finishing with a bang, he went out with a whimper.  Upon his death his son Rehoboam, who did not pick up any of his father’s wisdom, took over as king.  He managed to fairly quickly make a huge mess of the nation, eventually sparking a civil war that would rend the nation in two—a breach that would never be repaired. 

In spite of leaving behind the faithfulness of his youth in his quest for more and better, Solomon was still a pretty bright guy.  And sometime later in his life, he took a season to reflect on everything he had achieved, all the things he had done.  These reflections eventually became this very collection of wisdom.  What Solomon offers us in this personal reflection on a life spent pursuing meaning in all kinds of places is a time saver.  He tried all the different things we look to in order to find meaning in the various areas we might normally think to go.  We can simply read what Solomon says here, avoid all the empty options, and go straight for where it can be found.  Over the next few weeks, we are going to look at various sources people turn to in search of meaning and see how they may not deliver what we expect from them at the end of the day.

If we are going to talk about all of these various areas where we search for meaning, though, we need some kind of a foundation on which to stand.  That’s what I’d like to do with you this morning as we look at the very beginning of Solomon’s reflections.  When it comes to the search for meaning, what is the right ground for us to start building on?  Let’s take a look at this together. 

If you have your Bible—and let me say this: While I’m going to keep putting the verses up on the walls so we can all see them in the same translation, it’s always good to bring and use your own Bible too for this time because that allows you to make notes you can refer to later, as well as to see the verses we’re talking about in a translation with which you might be more familiar than the one I’m using—open it up to Ecclesiastes 1.  The easiest way to get there is to open it right to the middle, which will probably land you in Psalms, and then carefully turn to the right until you get there.  If you hit Isaiah as you’re flipping, you’ve gone too far.  Go back past Song of Solomon, but before you land in Proverbs. 

Right out of the gate, Solomon starts with a pretty pessimistic-sounding tone.  Listen to this starting in v. 2: “‘Absolute futility,’ says the Teacher.  ‘Absolute futility.  Everything is futile.’  What does a person gain for all his efforts that he labors at under the sun?  A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.  The sun rises and the sun sets; panting, it returns to the place where it rises.  Gusting to the south, turning to the north, turning, turning, goes the wind, and the wind returns in its cycles.  All the streams flow to the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.  All things are wearisome, more than anyone can say.  The eye is not satisfied by seeing or the ear filled with hearing.”  Now, let’s stop there for a minute.  There are a couple of things we’ve got to keep in mind as we’re reading here.  First, this is poetry.  Poetry is not the same as prose.  We can’t read poetry the same way we do prose.  We’re just setting ourselves up for a headache if we try.  Poetry uses lots of wild imagery and figurative language.  We cannot read this with any kind of a wooden literalism and expect to understand it properly.  Second, while Solomon ultimately lands somewhere really good, he gets pretty dark on the way there.  Don’t get lost in the darkness.  Stay with me as we go until we get to the good stuff at the end, because there’s some pretty good stuff to find along the way. 

That all being said, can you sometimes feel what Solomon bemoans here?  Sometimes life feels like a gigantic hamster wheel.  The harder we run, the more we try and do, the less we accomplish.  Things go around and around in an endless cycle.  Ideas which were new become old only to be given new life by a future generation and made to seem new again.  But they aren’t.  They’re just the same old things we’ve seen before, wrapped in a new and appealing package.  Or how about this: How many times have you gone to a clothing store and walked past something that was nearly an exact replica of something you wore years ago.  As Solomon writes here, each generation comes as the previous generation goes.  Nowadays, everyone talks about the Millennials.  Frankly, most of it is negative.  But, each generation is only a mirror into the generation that came before.  Meanwhile, the playing field on which we live our lives remains the same.  It feels sometimes a bit like life is a gigantic board game.  When one game finishes, the board is cleared for the next, but the board always remains the same.

The sun runs its long lap across the sky every single day.  The wind blows and blows but never seems to go anywhere.  Water runs in a great cycle that doesn’t end.  It’s exhausting.  British author and journalist, G.K. Chesterton talks about God having an eternal appetite of infancy in his great book Orthodoxy.  He says that perhaps the reason all daises look the same is because God made the first one, and, like a young child who is happy for you to do the same thing over and over and over again until you are completely sick of it and will then still ask for more of the same, He hasn’t yet grown tired of making them that way.  But while that’s nice for God, even with as much of a routine-comfortable personality as I have, there are some days the rat race feels like a drag.  Have you been there?  Are you with me? 

Solomon finally just spelled out the trouble with so many of our searches for meaning in v. 9: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”  You feel that, right?  Everything is just a recycling of what was before.  Now, sure, on occasion we’ll get some kind of a disruptive technological innovation like the iPhone, but all that did was combine computers which already existed with phones which already existed.  We make tweaks and improvements, but nothing truly new is ever created.  At least, that’s what Solomon said: “Can one say about anything, ‘Look, this is new’?  It has already existed in the ages before us.”  The only reason we can keep pulling out old things, shaking off the dust, and presenting them as new is that we forget the past so quickly.  Verse 11: “There is no remembrance of those who came before; and of those who will come after there will also be no remembrance by those who follow them.”  Life is one, giant hamster wheel.  And there’s no point to a hamster wheel.  It doesn’t go anywhere.  It’s just there. 

Now, we knew one thing before we even got to the text this morning: We are desperate for meaning as a people.  We need it.  We crave it.  We have to have it.  Later in that interview Tom Brady did with Peter Kroft, Kroft asked him another question: “[Is there] anything that really scares you?  Anything that intimidates you?”  Now, Brady was a big, bad, three-time-Super-Bowl-champion quarterback.  Listen closely to what he said: “The end of my playing career.  Big time.”  Now, why would that be?  Of all the things he could have said in response to Kroft’s question, why that?  Listen: “Because I guess I’ve done this for so long [and this was almost fifteen years ago!].  And I know what I feel like in the off-season.  That I’m always trying to figure out ways to have a day that’s filled with things I like to do.  And when I’m playing football during those seven months out of the year, it’s easy.  I mean I get up and come in here.  Not that it’s easy to work hard, not that it’s easy to show up every day and do the job, but you’re focused.  You know?  You got a goal.  You got something you’re trying to accomplish.  And when that’s done, you don’t have 80,000 people screaming your name.  You know, what’s it gonna be?  I’ve heard a lot about astronauts who go to the moon and come back and they’re so depressed, because there’s nothing they can do in their lives that ever can fill ‘em the way that does.” 

Think about that.  Brady was honest in a way that is truly commendable here.  I wonder if his answers have changed since then.  But think about what he was saying.  He didn’t really know how to put precise words to it, but the thing that scared Tom Brady, the then 3-time Super Bowl champion quarterback for the juggernaut New England Patriots, more than anything else was the loss of meaning.  His whole identity then was wrapped up in being a football player.  If he lost that, he wouldn’t know who he was anymore.  But here’s something that I would be willing to bet lurked deeper in his soul as a fear he just couldn’t shake.  Playing football was simply a cycle.  It was the same every year.  Sometimes you won.  Sometimes you lost.  But the cycle was the same.  Off-season training.  Training camp.  Pre-season games.  Regular season.  Playoffs.  Time off.  Repeat.  One season bled into the next season and if you find your identity there, I’ll be it would be terrifying to think about when that cycle wasn’t going to be in place any longer.  In the end, football, just like anything else in which we might seek to find meaning in this life, cannot deliver on what it has promised.  This is the observation with which Solomon opens this book on meaning.  On its own, life is meaningless.  It’s all just one big cycle that spins pointlessly, futilely, worthlessly, fleetingly, emptily forward, never going anywhere.  

After all of this, then, there is a second thing we know now having read this.  And this second thing just makes the first thing harder.  It’s this: This world doesn’t have any meaning on its own.  Taken by itself, nothing in this world has meaning.  It’s all just…stuff.  So then, we need meaning, but we live in a world that can’t produce any on its own.  What do we do?  How do we grant meaning to a world that doesn’t have any on its own?  We put it in the context of a story bigger than it is. 

By a show of hands, how many of you have seen any of The Lord of the Rings movies or read the books?  The deacons were all texting back and forth the other day and I learned some of them haven’t.  I’m nerdy enough I just figured it was required reading or viewing for being healthy, well-rounded citizens.  I made Lisa sit through the entirety of the extended edition of Return of the King the first time I went to visit her in college.  That’s when I really knew she loved me.  The main character and hero of that epic story is Frodo Baggins.  Frodo was a regular hobbit, living a quiet life in Hobbiton just like all the hobbits who came before him had.  It was a happy life, but it was a meaningless one.  It was a world exactly as Solomon described here.  The sun rose and set each day.  The wind blew.  The streams wandered through the land.  And none of it meant anything.  The only way you could escape the vanity of it all was to not think about it.  We can only do that kind of thing so long in our own lives, though, before the question drops itself on our laps in some inescapable way.  Frodo wasn’t the hero of any story until he became part of a story that was much, much larger than his own.  When the good wizard, Gandalf the Grey, showed up on his doorstep and gave him the One Ring, he became a part of something that would give permanent meaning to his life. 

In the same way, we can break out of the endless cycle of futility we live in every day when we put our lives in the context of a story that’s bigger than ourselves.  But here’s the thing: People put themselves in larger stories all the time.  That’s fundamental to our general search for meaning.  Tom Brady’s larger story is being a football player.  Mine is being a husband and a father and the pastor of a church.  Yours is probably different from those, but perfectly unique to your situation in life.  And yet, as Solomon said, there’s no ultimate meaning there.  The story may be bigger than just our own, but it’s not big enough to give us meaning that lasts.  If we’re going to find that bigger prize, there’s only one story big enough to grant it: God’s.  God’s story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration is the only story big enough to grant us the meaning and purpose we desire.  It is an epic story that has been slowly unfolding since time immemorial and will continue unfolding right up to the end of the world and beyond.  It is a story that has encompassed every single human life that has ever been.

But here’s the thing: Just because you are in the story, doesn’t mean you’re a part of it.  There are thousands and thousands of characters in the story of The Lord of the Rings.  Only a very few are actually a part of it.  When it comes to the story of God that’s big enough to grant real and lasting meaning to our lives, there’s only one way to be a part of it: Jesus.  Jesus is the way to be a part of God’s story.  This is the foundation we need for building real meaning into the rest of our lives.  Through what He did on the cross on our behalf—dying for the sins of the world and raising to new life on the third day—He paved the way for us to be not simply in, but a fully functioning part of the story God is writing in His world.  When we accept His as our Savior and Lord, He covers us with His work, and we’re in.  And when we’re in, when we’re a part of what God is doing that goes way, way beyond simply our lives and things in them, meaning floods into the foreground. 

Suddenly, everything we do is filled to the brim with significance.  We’re a part of God’s efforts to reclaim by redeeming and restoring all that was lost in the Fall.  We may only impact a small section of that larger effort, but unless we do our part, it will remain untouched.  That means we matter.  You matter.  Your choices make a difference.  Your actions influence the direction of more than just you.  Your very thoughts contribute to the overcoming of evil in this world.  But only in Christ.  That’s the catch here.  It is only in Christ that we gain access to this incredible store of significance.  Only in Christ we are truly a part of a story that is sufficiently larger than ours to sustain real meaning for longer than a fleeting season.  Only in Christ do we turn the tables on Solomon’s pessimistic evaluation of the world around us.  In other words: Life without Christ is meaningless. 

Life without Christ is meaningless.  If you want meaning in your life that is going to last beyond the next horizon, Jesus is the only place you are going to find it.  Now, there are lots of ways to pursue that meaning—as many as there are unique creatures created in the image of God—and we’re going to talk about some of those in the coming weeks.  But there is only one way to gain access to it in the first place: Jesus.  Life without Christ is meaningless. 

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