There are influences that can dramatically change our lives instantaneously. Without warning we can lose everything that we hold dear. In times like these, we must keep our focus on what is truly important.
The headlines of the San Bernardino Press Enterprise on Thursday; maybe you can see it out there, "There's nothing we can do to stop it." They're talking about the fires. Of course, when you have a home in the path of the fire, that's not very encouraging to hear those words.
Paul said in I Corinthians 10:12 by way of warning to all of us.
I Corinthians 10:12 - "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." I have been reminded this week that all that we do in life, all that we collect in life, all that we accumulate in life can disappear in a hurry. I think other families have experienced that this week, some thirty-three hundred who may have lost all with a fire that's between two and three thousand degrees generated by a fire storm that has flames licking up to two to three hundred feet in the air and moving along at fifteen or twenty miles an hour. It literally incinerates everything in its path.
I've heard reports of people who've gone back to their homes that have been burned, and they talk about not even being able to find anything recognizable in the waste of that fire storm. Nothing. You think about it, the hardened metals, things we think will last forever, memories that we have are literally vaporized in that kind of temperature; it's gone forever.
I've thought about this all week long. I have probably one of the most precious things to me other than my family, the ones who are alive and here with me today are those things that I've collected over the last thirty-five, forty years. I don't know about you; I don't know if you've had a chance to reflect on that, maybe some of you have vicariously this week and thought about, as I mentioned earlier, what would I do? What would I preserve and save of the things that I've collected? And I was thinking this week, you know, I have thirty-one years of sermon and Bible study notes in three filing cabinets up there. A lot of time invested, and most of that is not on computer in any way. And my lap top, I think I have the last couple of years of sermons that I've put on a thumb drive and loaded on to my computer, but beyond that, it would all be lost if that house were destroyed. I've thought about that. I've thought about photographs that my parents have given me of some of my grandparents. I've thought about items that were near and dear to my mother and father that they've given me as they were down-sizing and retiring and saying, "Well here, you keep it now. I'll pass it on to you."
I have a twenty-two rifle that my dad collected when he was with Patton's third army marching through Belgium. And in a village which they liberated, they had all of the citizens come and pile their weapons in a big pile, and my father collected half a dozen of those weapons including a German Luger and some other weapons including this single shot twenty-two Krupps target rifle. And he took it apart piece by piece and sent it back to his mother in the states over several weeks time. I think, technically it was probably illegal, what he did, but he did that during World War II. And when he got home, he picked up all those boxes that she'd stuck in his bedroom, and he put all these guns back together, and the only one that remains to this day is that rifle. And my dad gave it to me a few years ago, and I took it down to a gunsmith who admired it and its workmanship. And it turned out that when we cleaned it up, that it was silver. It had a silver breech, and it breaks like a shotgun, and it's just a very beautiful gun. And I had the barrel re-blued, and the silver redone, and I had it restocked, and it's been restored to its original turn of the century condition. Those kind of things cannot be replaced, like my notes, like I said, which are near and dear to me.
I know that Linda has things that are near and dear to her; paintings and pictures and drawings that her father did; other things that she's collected over the years with Chiyoko, family heirlooms. We all have those things collected in our homes, don't we. And we realize all that could be lost, and then we think about what is really important in life, and I think, "Well, is that really all that important?" And we have been faced with the reality this week, and I know many of you have gone through this too; I'm not alone, and certainly not alone in this world. We see many other families having gone through this this week. It's only "stuff." Thankfully, our lives have been spared. Our minds, and our hearts, and our souls are intact, and the most important thing that we possess is intact.
I am in fact reminded of the eastern monarch who drew his sages together one day in his kingdom and all of his soothsayers and the wise men of the kingdom were drawn together, and he said, "You know, men, I would like you to summarize for me the wisdom of the world. I'd like you to bring it to me; I'd like you to work on it, and I'd like you to collect the wisdom of the world. I want to see it; I want to read it." And they worked for many months, and they brought back to him several volumes of what they called the Wisdom of the World, the pithy sayings of the world.
And they said, "This is it; this is the wisdom of the world."
And he looked at it, and he said, "You know, that is really good. Thank you. It's wonderful," he said, "but it's too much." He says, "Can you reduce this, like a fine French sauce. Can you reduce it to maybe a single volume."
And so they went back, and they worked, and they worked, and they worked for several months, and they brought back a single volume of the best of the wisdom of the world. And they said, "This is it."
And he took the book, and he held it gingerly in his hands, and he thumbed through it, and he read it for a little while, and after a couple of weeks he brought his wise men back together, and he said, "You know," he says, "this is really good. But what I really would like for you to do is to reduce the wisdom of the world to a sentence. Can you put it in a sentence?"
And they said, "We don't know. We don't know if we can do this."
And so finally after many more months of work, all the sages came back to him, and they had come to a unanimous conclusion that the wisdom of the world could be put into a four-word sentence. They told the king that this sentence expresses much. It is chastening in the hour of pride and consoling in the depths of afflictions. And I've reflected on this sentence this week. The sentence of their wisdom was: "This too shall pass."
I thought, "How appropriate." My thoughts this week, faced with this kind of a trial, have gone between the book of Job and the book of Ecclesiastes, and I've read several of these scriptures. I would like to share with you some of the wisdom of Ecclesiastes filtered through my own thoughts this past week as I have faced this particular trial. Like I said, not unique by any means, but certainly thought-provoking to me.
I had another sermon that I had planned to give you this week. It was going to be a power-point presentation; it had charts and graphs, and I thought it was going to challenge all of our thinking today. But you know something? I just couldn't think about that sermon all week. I had other things on my mind, and so as I was praying to God throughout the week about what I should speak about, it was kind of interesting, the Carliles and my wife kept saying, "Well, are you going to speak this Sabbath?"
And I said, "Well of course; I'm a pastor. There's a congregation."
And they said, "Well, what are you going to speak on?"
I kept saying, "I don't know."
They asked me Wednesday, "What are you going to speak on?"
"I don't know yet."
Thursday, "What are you going to speak on?"
"I'm not sure yet." Friday, yesterday, "Well, something is jelling in there. I've been reading these scriptures, and something is jelling," And I'd like to share some of those thoughts with you today. Let's go to the book of Ecclesiastes because it's at times like this when you face the possibility of calamity, and for those of us who like to think we're in control of our lives, we find out in reality there is nothing we can do to stop it.
I don't know about you, but I like to think of myself as an "A-type" personality, and someone who generally lives his life by a plan, and someone who generally controls his life. But you learn at times like this that we aren't really in charge; we aren't really in control as planners we might be or as others who might like to think we're in charge of our lives. There are influences that can dramatically change our lives instantaneously. I think academically we all know that. But in reality, sometimes when we're faced with it, we're forced to think about it. In Ecclesiastes 1:1 -
Ecclesiastes 1:1 - "The words of the Preacher, the son of David," and of course, the word preacher is the kohehleth, in the Hebrew, which literally means - the one who assembles for instruction in wisdom. He says in Verse 2:
Verse 2 - " 'Vanity of vanities,' says the Preacher; 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.' " This word - vanity - in the Hebrew literally means frustration, futility, nonsense. It's a little like trying to grab the wind. You know, you try to grab something tangible, and it escapes you. That's what this word - vanity - really means; it is poorly translated, I think, at least in our terms. We think of vanity as the pride associated with beauty, and that's not what this is talking about at all. It's talking about the futility of life in many ways. "He who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." How many of us have thought, "I finally figured it out. I finally got a plan that works. I read a book; you know, I read Stephen Covey's book, very good book; we heard about that a couple weeks ago; I've got a plan now in life. All I have to do is apply these seven principles, and (popping sound) out of the end of that process comes success. Right? And then you find once you achieve a certain level of success, whether it's personal relationships, or whether it's the collection of stuff, you find out it can be taken away just like that. (Snapping sound.) It can be lost in a split second. The Preacher came to this conclusion, Solomon.
Verse 3 - "What profit has a man from all (of) his labor in which he toils under the sun?
Verse 4 - "One generation passes away, (and) another generation comes; but the earth abides forever." These are cyclical patterns we live in, aren't they? Forestry officials are telling us every hundred years or so, a massive forest fire wipes out the forest; it's the nature of things that's been going on for several thousands of years. It destroys the forest, and in fact some trees cannot germinate unless they're burned to bring on a new generation of trees. And of course those of us who like to live in the forest are stupid enough to build houses in the forest not remembering that these cycles repeat themselves about every hundred years or so. The forests need to be cleared and cleaned and thinned. So it's really kind of the process of nature. It's just that now the population has grown so large that we don't remember the fires of the 1930's that swept through the mountains and virtually took out the San Bernardino forest. We don't remember those cycles that come through every once in a while.
We think, "Oh, the horrible devastation." And yet if you lived in the mountains you would have noticed this year that about every third or fourth tree was brown and dead and had been killed by the drought and then the pine bark beetles that strangled those trees, and they had died. And we all knew; it was talked about for the last several weeks and months about the potential of a massive fire. And if fire ignites one of those trees, it's like a can of gas, it just (swooshing sound) goes right up. Some of those trees, two or three hundred years old. It's part of the process. I keep reminding myself of that even though I know I'm maybe nestled in the middle of those, or perhaps the house is burned; I still don't know. The jury's still out, as they would say.
Solomon discusses in the poetry of this book the frustration that he found in life in all the things that he thought he could achieve. I'd like to just touch on a few of these things that Solomon tried. Let's go to Ecclesiastes 1:17. Solomon tried learning. He thought that education was where he could take a stand. He thought education might deliver wisdom to him. He thought that education and learning in some way might be it. He said:
Ecclesiastes 1:17 - ". . .I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. (And) I perceived that this also (was) (is) (a) grasping for (the) wind." Vanity. I think some of us, you know, we try to discover the key to living in terms of self-help books or education; we think maybe the answers are in education. Solomon deduced that they were not.
If we go to Ecclesiastes 2:1 we see that Solomon tried socializing. He thought maybe that was the key. He thought well, relationships and having fun with other people; that's the answer.
Ecclesiastes 2:1 - "I said in my heart, 'Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure;' " He had probably some of the biggest parties in history, because he had endless supply of financial resources. He invited the best entertainers to his palace, I am sure. He had galas, dances, concerts, the very best. He said, ". . . but surely, (I concluded) this also was (vanity)" Grasping after wind. When the party was over, and he was sick lying in bed, or recovering from a hangover, it was gone. It really wasn't lasting; that didn't answer his quest either.
Verse 2 - "I said of laughter - (it's just) 'Madness!' " You know, after the show was over, after the jester left the stage, it was emptiness again. ". . .and of mirth, 'What does it accomplish?
Verse 3 - " 'I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives.' " He tried just about everything in his lifetime.
Hold your finger here; we'll come back, but let's check in Ecclesiastes 8:15. It's a real interesting study, this whole book, which expresses the frustration of life. You know, it reminds me of the bumper sticker, you know, we go through life, and we collect all this stuff, the bumper sticker, if I can remember it right says, "He who collects the most stuff by the time he dies wins." Something to that effect. Do you really?
Ecclesiastes 8:15 - "So I commended enjoyment, because a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry;" He says, "Yeah, while you're in the middle of it, it feels like it's good; it's the thing to do; it's a temporary answer, just like the searching of wisdom and knowledge."
I know last evening just before sunset, we were gassing up our vehicle, and of course, it was Halloween night, and there were some people who pulled up in the truck next to us who were dressed in uniforms, not uniforms, costumes, and another truck pulled up beside them and they started talking very loudly about going to the next party. They'd already been to a couple, and they were strategizing, "Okay, where're we going next. Whose house are we going to next? Let's go to this party, that party." They were going to fill the evening with parties because they thought, well, this will bring happiness to us. I think we all know deep down inside that it's only temporary happiness that is brought by such things. "So I commended enjoyment, because a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will remain with him in his labor all the days of his life which God gives him under the sun." Sometimes it's good to laugh.
This past week I got some calls from some of my old friends, good friends. Some of you called, thank you. And they made me laugh. They talked about some good times, some memories, and it was good therapy to laugh. In fact, we even developed some galas humor in the Carlile house this week. You know, we talked about, "Well one good thing that will come out of this is there's sure going to be a lot less pine bark beetles after this fire." You find things like that to laugh about to relieve the stress and the pressure, and sometimes that's good, but again, it is not lasting.
Let's go back to Ecclesiastes 2.
Ecclesiastes 2:4 - He says, "I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards.
Verse 5 - "I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.
Verse 6 - "I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove.
Verse 7 - "I acquired male and female servants (and had) (I) servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me." Solomon was a collector. I don't know about you; are you a collector? You know, I like to collect things to some degree.
Since Linda and I have been married, we decided to get rid of those things that we have collected and never used, and in fact, just before the fire came through, just a few weeks ago, just before the Feast, we ordered a big dumpster put in front of our house, and Linda insisted that I clean out the storage unit where I had collected, I mean, I probably someday would have referred to the article in that magazine that I've been keeping for twenty years.
She said, "Why don't we just clean out the storage bin?" And so we spent the better part of a week cleaning out the junk that we've collected. It felt good. It was very therapeutic to go up those stairs (zooomph) dump another box of stuff that we had collected, that I hadn't referred to in several years, you know, just saving it so that some day I might be able to use it. Someday I will probably refer to this, or who knows. Someday I may actually look at this again. We realize it's only stuff.
Solomon was a collector; he collected all these things. He said:
Verse 8 - "I also gathered for myself silver and gold and (the) special treasures of kings and (of) the provinces. . ." Not far from us here this afternoon, just a couple of miles to my right and to your left is a bridge that I used to ride my bicycle across. You can see it from the 134 freeway. It's called the "suicide bridge." It's very picturesque. They've preserved it because of that here in the city of Pasadena near us. It was named the "suicide bridge" because during the great depression all the rich men who lived along Orange Grove Boulevard in those days had bought a lot of stock on margin, and when the stock market crash occurred in 1929, they lost all of the things that they had collected, all of the silver and gold, many of them. And several of them went out on "suicide bridge" and jumped 350 feet to the bottom to kill themselves. And now it bears the name "suicide bridge." When I think of these kinds of scriptures, these people who collect all these things, how will they react when those things are taken away?
I was of course saddened by the loss of life in this fire storm. I was not surprised, but once again, amazed that at least four people died in the San Bernardino fire who didn't need to. In the four cases of those losses of life, it was four older men, a couple of whom had tried to save their homes and all that they had collected over their lifetime. It was men in their seventies and eighties.
One man who was out hosing down his house in front of the fire, which of course we find out now is ridiculous. It's like spitting into the fire. He died of a heart attack trying to save all those things he had collected over the years. Another man standing across the street looked at his house burning down and saw all of his collection, all the worldly goods that he had put together, very sad, but he collapsed, died of a heart attack. It was too much to watch a lifetime of collectibles burn up. In a way, it's sad isn't it?
Verse 9 - Solomon says: "So I became great and excelled more then all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.
Verse 10 - "Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart rejoiced in all my labor." It's trials like this that we can learn a lesson from, and that is what is really important in this life. Is it the stuff we collect? What's really important? What I have concluded is really important is first of all, our relationship with God. Let's go to Ecclesiastes 5. The wisest man who ever lived said:
Ecclesiastes 5:1 - "Walk prudently when you go(to) (into) the house of God;" Something lasting about that relationship, he says, "Walk (wisely) prudently. . .draw near to hear rather than to give. . ." advice to idiots, for. . . ". . . they do not know that they do evil.
Verse 2 - "Do not be rash with your mouth, (and) let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you (are) on earth." God's in charge ultimately, and the important thing that we have in life that lasts is our relationship with God. "Therefore let your words be few.
Verse 3 - "For a dream comes through much activity, and a fool's voice is known by his many words." Let's go back to Ecclesiastes 11. The last couple of chapters has some gems of wisdom.
Ecclesiastes 11:9 - Some advice to young people: "Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth;" That's the time we like to go to parties and enjoy things. We like dream about those things we're going to collect later in life like houses and automobiles and treasures. ". . .let your heart cheer you. . .walk in the ways of your heart, (and) in the sight of your eyes; but know (this) that for all these God will bring you into judgment." There's an accounting for those things that we do.
Verse 10 - "Therefore remove sorrow from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh, for childhood and youth are (vanity) (soon fleeting.)" They will go all too quickly, and we all know that, don't we. I find myself sometimes having the mind of an eighteen-year-old but locked in a fifty-six year old body. Any of you have that experience? I think so. You know what I'm talking about.
Ecclesiastes 12:1 - "Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come," And it seems as we grow older, and we go through more experiences like this we learn that these are difficult days; they're not easy, but they will pass, won't they? This too shall pass.
I went along in life for about twenty-five years; I had a few speed bumps on the way, the normal difficulties in life, but I had a plan, you know. I had a plan to stay married; I had a plan to own a house outright by a certain age; I had a plan to have a savings account of a certain amount by a certain age. I had all those plans, but along the way, in fact it's been the last six or seven years that twists and turns have occurred in my personal life, and I know many of you have similar stories here in your own lives, where those plans took sharp right turns, and sharp left turns. You suddenly find yourself faced with an obstacle you never anticipated, or with a disappointment you never dreamed would happen in your life. Those kinds of experiences, as I mentioned last Sabbath, maturate us, don't they? They mature us spiritually.
I was reminded by my wife as I talked about patience last week that I should take my own advice this week. You know, in the frustration of not knowing, you know, what's happened to the house. She said, "Well you preached about it last week."
Ecclesiastes 12:1 - "Before the difficult days come, And the years draw near when you say, 'I have no pleasure in them':
Verse 2 - "While the sun and the light, the moon and the stars, are not darkened, and the clouds do not return after the rain;"
Verse 6 - "Remember your Creator. . ." This is the important thing that we have in life. Those of us who sit in the truth of God know what's really important, don't we. I hope we do, and I hope we're reminded of it in the face of this kind of calamity, disaster that occurs to others that we can learn a lesson. Stuff is not important. Parties and fun are not that important. Even physical relationships, as Solomon learned as he pursued love relationships as the answer to life; he found they're not really all that lasting or important. He concluded that what is really important is your relationship with God in the future in the spiritual. "Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken (at) (by) the well." Poetic language for death, which is only a split second from any of us.
Verse 7 - "Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.
Verse 8 - " ' Vanity of vanities,' says the Preacher, 'All is vanity.' " It's just striving after wind because it can all end (smacking sound, hands coming together quickly) in a split second.
So what is really important in this life?
Verse 13 - "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God (and) keep His commandments, for this is man's all." It's the only relationship that will last; it's the only relationship that's really important, is that lasting relationship that we have with God and with Jesus Christ and with those that share the spirit of God. For God will bring every work into judgment including every secret thing whether good or evil.
Let's conclude by going to Hebrews 11. It's a little ironic in some ways, but the book of Ecclesiastes is traditionally read during the Feast of Tabernacles among Jewish tradition. We have just come from the Feast which symbolizes the temporary nature of our existence on earth in our seeking of, if you will, a home, a reward, a blessing, a gift that goes beyond this life.
Hebrews 11:6 - ". . . without faith it is impossible to please Him. . ." Faith in what? Well faith in those things, that thing that is most important, our relationship with God. ". . .for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him." Not just a rewarder in this life and the things that God gives us in this life that we tend to collect and hold so near and dear.
Verse 13 - He talked about all of the faithful. He says: "These all died in faith, not having received the promises. . ." They didn't collect the things that were really important, just as Solomon didn't. ". . . but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
Verse 14 - "For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland."
Verse 16 - "But now they desire a better,(that is,) (place). . ." I don't know about you, but I've had a chance to think about it real hard this week. What's really important to me is not the home I have in the mountains, or the things I've collected, but my relationship with God and the home and the gifts we will receive in the next life. "But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them." A critical lesson I think we can learn vicariously from this difficult trial is that we live for the future. We don't live for the day. We live for the future. Whatever state you may find yourself in be assured of this one thing: The wisdom of the world, and this too shall pass.