Now is a good time to read the book of Ecclesiastes again, if you’ve read it in the first place. Let me give you an amuse-bouche, a little something to lead you into reading the book and how it relates to today’s Holy Gospel.
The preacher says, Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.
If everything depended on the opinion and judgment of most people, then you would have to believe that you are the creator of your own happiness. Success in work depends solely on you. If things go well, good for you. What about God? It’s as if God has nothing to do with directing life and work.
What if it were true that God has nothing to do with happiness in life? Where would you receive the talents needed to do what is done each day? There must be a higher hand that guides the way. The higher hand is the hand of almighty God. He alone is the One Who gives happiness and blessings.
You have no authority to determine how great life is or how long life lasts or how hard you work. Some work all their lives and see little or no success. Consider Peter and his companions in Luke chapter five. Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! They are fishermen, evidently good fishermen who had a bad night. Jesus now uses their boats as a way to preach to a great number of people without a crowd thronging around him. After the sermon ends, Jesus says, put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.
Peter sounds annoyed at Jesus’ request. They worked all night for nothing. But at your word I will let down the nets. Peter will humor Jesus. Maybe Jesus will learn something about fishing. Peter has an opportunity to teach Jesus. The shoe is on the other foot, however. It is Peter who learns something about fishing from Jesus.
No one is able to bestow the blessing of many fish or of anything in life and work that God, without Whom every effort is in vain. He gives this blessing when, where, and to whom He pleases. There’s a sign on my wall in the study downstairs that’s taken from a sermon by Martin Luther on Luke chapter five. The quote says, “If you are a pastor engaged in preaching and teaching your people, and the response hasn’t been all that great, don’t be dismayed and diverted. Say to yourself: God has ordered me to proclaim His Word, and that’s what I’ll continue to do. If it doesn’t always prosper, God knows why; if my work does thrive, it pleases both Him and me.”
The results belong to God. He knows why things go well or go poorly. Our problem is that we want to play God and manipulate the results to make ourselves look good. You appreciate your good reputation. You want others to think you are an intelligent person who has something to give society. Countless failures don’t do much to help that good reputation. You end up looking like the poor Chicago Cubs, with 107 years of post-season futility…and counting.
Carry this matter over to the church. We love full pews. It’s a sign that people are starving for the Gospel. Yet the only time we see full pews, or something close to it, is for a funeral or a wedding. Weddings are rare these days in this church building. Funerals are seen more often, yet when older people are buried, many of their friends have also died. If we were to play the numbers game, we’re losing. Bring in the church doctors. Bring in the experts. Let them tell us what to do that usually has nothing to do with preaching the Gospel and living our vocations. As quick as “they” come in, “they” will leave when another church offers something new.
If happiness and blessings from God come without programs or gimmicks, then how are we ever to have joy among us? There is joy when you hear God’s Word, pray, and lead a Christian life in your stations in life. That’s what Jesus means in the Sermon on the Mount when He says, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. God showers even the godless of this world with temporal blessings, but it is rarely a happy thing for them because they don’t recognize it or use it with gratitude. When these temporal things are gone, you have God’s Word, prayer, your baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the masks you wear every day among others. At His Word you let down your nets, waiting for the abundant catch God provides you. It may not break the nets. You may not have to call for help from other companions. But God knows why He gives prosperity to some and not to others.
Peter’s reaction seems appropriate at first. After all, He is in the presence of the living God. But instead of asking Him to depart, Peter should have asked Jesus to come closer and abide with Him every day. Jesus forgives sins. That’s why He takes on flesh. He suffers what we deserve on account of our sins. He suffers for you in order that you shall live. That is more than any earthly inheritance.
Christ’s gift of forgiveness and life changes our view of what we have and how we deal with it. No longer do you see temporal things as a reward of your cunning and skill. You are a steward. God gives you what you have so you can watch over it for a while. It’s not yours forever and ever. One day you’ll have to let go. Then someone else has it for a while. You let it go and don’t get too attached to it because Christ let go everything He had in order to redeem you. Like Peter and his companions you, in spirit, leave everything and follow Christ. You die to sin. You die to the world. Yet you live because Jesus lives for you.
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. Under the sun you won’t have everything you want, but you will have all that you need. You have Jesus. You are caught in His net. You are safe in His boat, the Church. He gives you forgiveness, life, and a vocation in which to serve Him and your neighbor. Time and chance happen there. In the end, all time and chance fade away, leaving Jesus alone as your Savior and provider of joy. It doesn’t get any better than that under the sun.