Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Jun 15 2019 - Ecclesiastes 1 – Everything is meaningless

The Book of Ecclesiastes, like the Book of Job, is part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and is concerned with the question of how to live well in God's world. Like Job, it is a book that wrestles with the difficulty of making sense of the things that happen in the world. Unlike the Book of Job, God does not turn up near the end to shed some light on the scene.

I find this a fascinating book, one of my favourites amongst the literature of the Old Testament. But it is not to everyone's taste, so we shall only spend 4 days on its twelve chapters. Nevertheless, you may feel that many of the questions raised in this book have a contemporary ring to them raising questions often asked in our contemporary (post-modern) society.

The book bears the title, "The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem." (1:1). Solomon is not mentioned by name and there are many reasons for thinking that it comes from a time much later than that of Solomon's kingship. It is as if the writer were saying that even if he had all the wisdom and riches possessed by Solomon he would still find life to be full of absurdities. The title "Teacher" suggests that his work is a challenge to those who think themselves wise.

He begins with the disconcerting words, "Meaningless! Meaningless! … Utterly meaningless!     Everything is meaningless" (1:2). "Meaningless" was translated as "Vanity" in older translations. Ecclesiastes' dark picture of the emptiness of life in this world was used by John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress when he describes "Vanity Fair", a term later used in Thackeray's novel of the same name. The suggestion is that we live in a world that lacks any ultimate meaning and significance.

Life, suggests the author, is boring (1:3), transitory (1:4; 11) and repetitive (vv.5-7; 9-10). The world around us and the world of our mind fill us with desires to see and hear something more, something that will at last give a sense of understanding and completeness, but satisfaction never comes (1:8). There is nothing new under the sun and the search for novelty ends in weariness.

Surely wisdom can come to the rescue here; a wise man or woman ought to be able to make sense of it all. But no, says our author, even the wisest man who ever lived, pondering life in all its complexity would have to come to the conclusion that it is futile (1:16), that it is broken beyond repair (1:15) and that it is cursed (1:13).

This gloomy picture is not intended as a balanced view of human life – and the writer also has positive things to say in his book. But, for the present, I want to pick up the point made in the author's exclamation, "What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!" (v. 12).

Let me take you back to the opening chapters of Genesis. God had created a world full of beauty and fruitfulness and given into the care of the human beings he had made. But through their disobedience, everything had changed. The world is no longer a place of unmixed blessing but lies under the judgment of God who said, "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life… By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return" (Genesis 3:17-19). This judgment of painful toil followed by death is "a heavy burden laid on mankind." Everything we value is shown at last to be dust and ashes – it is "vanity", "meaningless."

But judgment shall not have the last word. Christ has entered this crooked and sinful world. In his death he suffered God's judgment on a world that had lost its way. By his resurrection he is the beginnings of a new creation, a world restored to all God created it to be. Meaning and satisfaction are to be found in him and, having been found in him, flood every part of our lives.

Father God, thank you for Jesus in whom is found our ultimate meaning and eternal life. Fill us with his Spirit that we might bring and hope to those living in despair and under the shadow of death.

Jun 15 2013 - Acts 10:1-23 – Bacon sandwich anyone?

I was recently in conversation with someone who told me that they really do not understand the food laws of the Old Testament. They just seem rather odd.

Some have suggested that the food laws were all to do with health and hygiene; it’s best to avoid eating pigs as their meat can easily give rise to food poisoning if not properly cooked. But if it’s all about health, why were the food laws swept away by Jesus (Mark 7:19) rather than with the invention of the refrigerator? This is a classic example of trying to second-guess the reason behind Old Testament Law rather than reading it carefully in context.

The food laws form part of the holiness code of Leviticus. Holiness is all about separation; avoiding mixing things up that don’t belong together: don’t sow a field with two types of crop; don’t wear clothes made of two types of thread. Similarly, animals that seem to be a mixture of two sorts are viewed as unclean. Animals that chew the cud and have a cloven hoof are clean, but if they do one and not the other they are unclean – they are mixed up animals. Animals/fish that swim in the water and have fins and scales are clean but those without fins or scales are unclean – they are hybrids. By these laws, which seem so strange to us, God was teaching his people to be separate. The food laws kept them distinct from the nations around them, and that was important to preserving the revelation God had given them.

But with Jesus, everything changed. God’s people are no longer ethnically and culturally separate. Jesus and Jesus alone is to be our distinctiveness; holiness flows from a heart captivated by him and transformed by his Spirit. God’s purpose is to redeem for himself a people from every nation and culture, and to do so not by removing their distinctiveness but by valuing it and sanctifying it.

This may seem obvious to us, but it was a hard lesson for Peter to learn. He had never eaten anything unclean and he was not in the habit of associating with Gentiles. It required a personal lesson from God himself, complete with visual aids let down from heaven – three times – for Peter to begin to understand the radical nature of the good news about Jesus Christ. But he was beginning to learn. When Gentile visitors came knocking at the door he invited them in and they stayed the night with him – in all probability he shared food with them. A couple of days later, Peter would be entertained in the home of a Roman centurion.

How well do we learn this lesson? We can find it all too easy to live in our own closed sub-culture, the gated estate of our own Christian ghetto. We think to preserve our distinctiveness by physical separation from those who are ‘not like us’. Others may be allowed in to join us only if they give up their own culture and join us in our ghetto; they must become like us. But Jesus came to break down the barriers of mistrust that divide people. Let’s join him in breaking them down rather than rebuilding them. Let’s also celebrate the diversity of human cultures in which Christian discipleship is finding expression.

Lord Jesus, break down the barriers in my mind and understanding through a fresh vision from heaven so that I may be your agent in making you known to people of every background, race and class. Enable our churches to be places where divisions are broken down rather than reinforced. May they reflect the variegated character of your kingdom and celebrate the breadth of your saving purposes.

Peter Misselbrook