Seeking Justice in a World of Injustice (Ecclesiastes)

            This morning, we continue in our study through the Old Testament and we come now to the book of Ecclesiastes.  If you were here with us two weeks ago when we looked at the book of Proverbs, you may recall that in our video from the Bible Project, we learned that the proverbs in the book of Proverbs were never intended to be guarantees.  They offer statements that are generally true, but not always true.

            For example, in Proverbs 10:27, we read that “The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short.”  Which is generally true.  Living a good, moral life and making wise decisions will usually result in a person living a good, long life.  But you and I both know that there are no guarantees.  There are lots of things that can go wrong and do go wrong in our world.  And, as a result, sometimes wicked people live to a ripe old age and as Billy Joel pointed out, sometimes “the good die young.”

            And as that video pointed out two weeks ago, the book of Proverbs focuses on the general rules, but not the exceptions, which are many.  But the books of Job and Ecclesiastes focus on the exceptions to the rules.  While it is generally true that good people are blessed and live happy lives and wicked people are miserable, the book of Job shows us that sometimes good people suffer for no apparent reason.

            And in Ecclesiastes, we find that life is not always fair, like we might expect for it to be.  In the real world, those who do what is right don’t always come out on top.  In the real world, helpless people and people on the margins sometimes get pushed around, abused and mistreated.  Ecclesiastes reminds us that we live in a world that is filled with injustice.

            This morning, I want to take a closer look at the topic of injustice. because Solomon has a lot to say about it.  But first, let’s watch this video which will give us an overview of the book of Ecclesiastes, and then I’ll be back to talk about it some more.

            VIDEO – Ecclesiastes (Bible Project)

            Before I say anything else this morning, I want to give you a warning.  This morning, I have some good news and some bad news to share with you.  I’m going to begin with the bad news.  But, if all you hear this morning is the bad news, you will leave here feeling depressed and maybe even angry.  And so, I ask that you continue to listen until I get to the good news.

            We have all grown up in this country reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which closes with those beautiful words, “with liberty and justice for all.”  But the sad reality is, we do not live in a country where there is justice for all.  And we never have.

            In a broken world full of broken people, it isn’t long before you can find examples of injustice.  If we lived in a world where there is justice for all, we wouldn’t find women doing the same job as a man with the same qualifications for a lower pay.  But that happens all the time because we live in a world of injustice where things are often not fair.

            If we lived in a world where there is justice for all, then the person who works the hardest and contributes the most to the company would always be the one who gets the raise in salary and the promotions.  But you and I both know that’s not always the way it works because we don’t live in a world where there is justice for all, a place where things are always fair.

            If we lived in a world where there was justice for all, then rich guilty people wouldn’t get away with their crimes just because they can afford a good lawyer, and poor innocent people wouldn’t be thrown into jail because they can’t get a lawyer who cares anything about them.  Unfortunately, we live in a world where things aren’t always fair.

            If we lived in a world where there is justice for all, then African-American parents wouldn’t need to have “the talk” with their children, the one where they have to constantly remind their children that when they leave the safety of their homes, they have to keep their guard up, mouths shut, and hands on the wheel in even the most casual encounters with law enforcement.   I never received that talk from my parents, and I never gave that talk to any of my children.  It wasn’t necessary to keep them alive and safe.  But there are many parents who do need to have that talk with their children because we don’t live in a world where things are always fair.

            We live in a world of injustice.  Some of those injustices take place on a personal level and some of those injustices are systemic and have been around for generations.  But deep down, we all recognize that injustice is wrong.  That’s not how it’s supposed to be. 

            And when a person lives with injustices long enough, especially if he or she lacks divine perspective, that person will eventual­ly become cynical.  And if we don’t have the faith to get us through such injus­tices, we live our lives shaking our fists at God, saying, “It isn’t fair.”

            When our kids were growing up, there were many times that they said, “That’s not fair.”  “She got to stay up longer than I did.   That’s not fair.”  “He got to go somewhere that I didn’t get to go.  That’s not fair.”  “She got a bigger piece of cake for dessert than I got.  That’s not fair.”  And whenever my children said to me, “That’s not fair”, I often responded by saying, “Life’s not fair.  Get used to it.”

            And that seems to be the theme of the book of Ecclesiastes.  Listen to a few verses.

            In Ecclesiastes 3:16, “Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness.”   The New Century Version translates this verse:  “Where there should have been justice, there was evil; where there should have been right, there was wrong.”

            There’s something very relevant about Solomon’s statement.  It sounds like something we’d see on the news today.  You would think that people in positions of authority would be the kind of people that you can respect and trust.  But we’ve seen so much in the way of corruption and lying and immorality in our government officials that we’ve come to expect it. 

            And you don’t like to think that the police department might harbor corruption.  You despise the very thought, because if there’s any place where there ought to be justice, it’s there. 

            And we can’t stand to see a courtroom marked by a lack of integrity.  I read about an attorney who no longer does court cases simply because of the corruption he’s forced to wade through in the courtroom….the legal games attorneys are expected to play.  It’s no longer a question of whether a person has a good case.  It’s more often a question of whether one has enough money to buy the right attorney, to pull the right strings, to play the right game.   It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.

            In Ecclesiastes 4:1, “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.”

            Can you feel the pain in these words?  There is something within us that longs for justice.  If someone is being oppressed, there ought to be someone there to comfort them, someone there to relieve the oppression, someone there to make things right.  But Solomon says sometimes the oppressors are the ones who have all the power.  It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.

            Later, Solomon complains about something that all of us have wrestled with.  In Eccle­siastes 5:8 (NCV), “In some places you will see poor people mistreated. Don’t be surprised when they are not treated fairly or given their rights.”

            In Ecclesiastes 8:9, “I saw all of this as I considered all that is done here on earth. Sometimes people harm those they control.”

            And there it is again.  Abuse of power. One person exercising authority at another person’s expense.  And it’s as though Solomon’s hands are tied.  As much as he’d like to do something about it, he knows there’s nothing he can do.  Even though he knows it’s neither right nor fair.

            You feel it when your children are being mistreated in your neighborhood or when some bully pushes them around at school and you’re not there to make things right.  You feel it when you watch the video of George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by two men in a pickup truck in Georgia.  You feel it when you read the statistics of how many women in this country are abused by their husbands.

            And it’s as if Solomon looks around and he says, “Life’s not fair.  Get used it.”  Because this is the way it’s always been, and this is the way it’s always going to be.  Things will never change.  There never will come a time when there is truly justice for all.’

            I warned you.  I told you that the first half of my sermon would make you depressed, maybe even make you angry.  But now, it’s time for the second half of my sermon.

            There’s one phrase that will help us to turn the corner in a more positive direction.  It’s true that most of the book of Ecclesiastes is depressing and cynical, but there’s a reason for that.  It’s wrapped up in one phrase that appears over and over throughout the book.  27 times, Solomon talks about how things are “under the sun”. 

            And that’s a phrase that means, “Here’s what life is like from an earthly perspective when you take God totally out of the picture.”  And Solomon was absolutely right, “When you take God out of the picture, life is very depressing.  And people don’t do what’s right, and there is no justice.”

            But when you put God back into the picture, suddenly the clouds part and the sun begins to shine through and things begin to look different.  Because a world where God is in control is a world where there is justice, and there’s righteousness, and there’s love.  And someday, we are going to have the joy of experiencing a world like that for all eternity.

            But, as Christians, we have been called to help make this world in which we live more of a world where God is in control, which means that we do everything we can to fill this world with love, and righteousness, and justice.

            So, it makes me think that maybe I was wrong to tell my children what I did.  In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have said, “Life’s not fair.  Get used to it.”  Maybe what I should have said instead was, “Life’s not fair.  Do what you can to help change that.”

            So, in the time that I have left, I want to answer the question, “How do we change that?  How do we respond to a world of injustice?”  Our ultimate goal is to change our community, to make the place in which we live a place where there truly is justice for all, a place where there is no racial discrimination, no abuse of power.  But I believe there are three steps that we have to take before we can reach that ultimate goal.

1.         The first level is the individual — we have to change ourselves.

            It has long been said, “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.”  Or, as Leo Tolstoy put it, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

            Scripture makes it clear that we begin by looking within ourselves to see what changes might need to be made here.  Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 13:5 (NLT), “Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves.” 

            I chuckle a bit every time I read the conversation between Jesus and Simon Peter in John chapter 21.  Jesus tells Peter, “I want you to follow me.  You will eventually die because of your faith in me, but you need to follow me.”  And then Peter turns and he points to John and he says, “But what about him, Lord?!”  And Jesus’ response was basically, “Peter, don’t worry about him.  You just worry about yourself.  Follow me.”  I’ve always found that to be good advice.

            It’s so tempting to look around see everything wrong that everyone else is doing and point fingers and make accusations.  And let’s be honest, you don’t have to look very far to find it.  But the first step for us must always be to look into our own lives, to look into our own hearts, and to make any changes that need to be made here.  Tony Evans has said that it’s foolish for us to “try to change the nation if God can’t even change your heart.”

            I truly believe that change will never take place without understanding.  And understanding will never take place without conversation.  What that means for us is that we need more conversations.

            Eight years ago, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed, I visited with an African-American family and I asked them the question, “What is it like to grow up as a black person in America?”  That one conversation has done more than anything else to help me to understand and to sympathize with people who are different from me.  That’s not to say that I agree with that family about everything related to race.  But often, it’s not so much about agreement as it is about understanding.  And I would encourage you if you’ve never had that kind of a conversation with another family, you need to do so.

            It’s very difficult for us to follow the command of Paul to “mourn with those who mourn” if we can’t even understand why the mourning is taking place to begin with.  It is essential that we develop a heart that has a true compassion for our fellow man, regardless of our differences.

            We begin by changing ourselves.

2.         The second level is the family

            We need to take our godly Christian values and pass them on to our children.   I was extremely blessed to grow up in a home without blatant racism, but many children are not so fortunate.  Much of the racism that exists is this country exists because it has been passed down from generation to generation.  And we may not be able to change what has been passed down to us, but we can absolutely change what gets passed down to our children and our grandchildren.

            In Deuteronomy 6, Moses told the Israelites, “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

            We can’t expect our children to think differently or to act differently from the world if they aren’t hearing anything different from their parents, if they’re not getting a righteous value system at home.  

            And it’s not just what you say.  It’s what you do.  Actions speak louder than words.  Show your children how to connect with people different than yourself by connecting with families different than you.  Or better yet, find another family different from your own and join with that family to help another family that’s worse off than you both.  Tony Evans has said “reconciliation doesn’t happen in seminars — that’s information. Reconciliation happens in service.”

            We need to change our families.

3.         The third level is the church

            Tony Evans has said, “We wouldn’t have a racial crisis in America if the church had not failed to deal with this sin. Because we have passed it off, ignored it, and even promoted it, we still have this division in our culture. Don’t expect God to fix the White House if he can’t even change the church house.”

            We all need to constantly be reminded of what Paul said in Galatians 3, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)

            And even if Christians may agree with what Paul said, the reality is that most churches don’t put what he said into practice.

            It was Martin Luther King who once said, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing…we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”

            That was in 1963.  And the sad reality is that almost 60 years later, things haven’t changed a whole lot.  Most churches in this country are still not ethnically diverse.  And even sadder is the fact that in a recent poll of Christians, only 40% said they would like to see their church become more diverse.  And 33% strongly disagreed that their church needed to be more diverse.

            I’m so thankful for the progress that we’ve made here at Cruciform, but we still need to do more.  We need to change the church.

            And then, once we’ve changed ourselves, and we’ve changed our families, and we’ve changed the church, then we’re finally in a position to be able to change the community.

            I want to close by sharing with you a message from Rick Atchley, a video that was put out several weeks ago.

            VIDEO (Rick Atchley)

            I love the statement that Rick made, “It is not enough for us to say that we don’t do anything wrong.  We must begin to say, ‘What can we do to make things right?’”  Or, to use the words of Isaiah, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression.” (Isaiah 1:17). 

            Or the words of Micah, “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

            The truth is, we live a world of injustice.  And we can either say along with Solomon, “Life’s not fair.  Get used to it.”  Or we can say along with Isaiah and Micah, “Life’s not fair.  Let’s do everything we can to change that.”

            The morning, I want to close by extending an invitation to the one thing that can erase the many barriers that exist between us – the blood of Jesus Christ.  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28).

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