HEARTLIGHTSpecial Feature

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d she knew she couldn’t have one. “How can this be? I’ve never been intimate with a man.”

   “The Holy Spirit will come upon you; the child will be holy, the Son of God.”

   How would you react to such a message? Would you think this message was good news, or would you think of what others might say, how they would never believe your story of an angel and the Holy Spirit and a child that was the Son of God. We might be inclined to ask the angel, “Are you sure you want me?” or, “Could you please find someone else; I’ve already made plans for my life.”

   But in this story the girl Mary simply says, “Let it be.” She willingly bends her will to that of the Father: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

   Living up to those words would take Mary’s whole life. This son of hers did strange things, things she could not understand. At his birth, wise men and shepherds came to worship. At age twelve, he was lost until they found him in the temple, talking with the scribes and Pharisees. When he became a man, he left home and traveled throughout the land, teaching strange ideas and doing amazing things. At one point Mary came with his brothers to get him because they thought him out of his head. She did not understand, but she obeyed.

   Then came the day that broke her heart, the day she found it hardest to say, “Lord let it be.” But that’s another story.

A Son’s Story

   Jesus knelt in the garden. He knew what lay ahead of him. He’d even tried to tell his disciples, but they didn’t understand. So here he knelt, a stone’s throw away from them, hearing them snore as he struggled for his very soul

   He knew what he must do. He knew the Father’s will. Or did he? After all, God could have changed his mind, since he is the ruler of the universe. Nothing is too great for him. He could have found another way. After all, God was his Father, and Jesus knew God loved him with a love that burned stronger than any human love. Surely if God could, he’d take the cup of suffering away.

   So Jesus prayed fervently. He prayed as if his life depended on it—which it did. He prayed until his sweat became blood. Three times he went to his loving Father in prayer. Three times the answer came.

   But as he prayed, Jesus remembered the lesson he had learned from his Father and his mother. She had said, “So let it be.” Her son said, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

   Such obedience cost Jesus his life. It cost Mary—and God—a beloved son.

An Enemy’s Story

   He was determined to wipe out the followers of this false messiah named Jesus. Their blasphemous teachings were spreading all over Jerusalem. The ignorant crowds listened to these charlatans called “apostles,” believing the tale that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

   But he knew better. This Jesus (he always spat when he said the name) had taught against the temple and the Law. He was always arguing with the righteous Pharisees, always making excuses for working on the Sabbath. And now this silly superstition called “The Way” threatened to spread to other Jewish communities. He’d even heard that the followers of Jesus had made converts as far away as Damascus. So he went to the high priest and got permission to pursue these misguided people. If he found any of them in Damascus, he could bring them back in chains.

   He set out with his companions on the long journey to Damascus. Finally they could see the city in the distance.

   Then it happened; the event that changed his life forever.

   He was suddenly struck blind by a bright light and he heard a voice from heaven saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

   “Who can it be?” thought Saul. “There’s only one group I’ve been persecuting.” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

   Then came the most unbelievable words he would ever hear: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

   Jesus! Alive, and speaking from heaven! Raised from the dead! He was, after all, who he claimed to be: the Messiah of God.

   Paul said, “Let it be.” He said this not with words, but with the rest of his life. The great persecutor became the great apostle. He gave every waking moment to serving the one who had called him. After all, it’s hard to fight the will of God. As Jesus himself said to Saul, “It’s hard for you to kick against the goads.” Fighting God’s will is like running into a cattle-prod.

Our Story

   What do the stories of Mary, Jesus, and Paul have to do with us? Everything, since the chief purpose of life is figuring out our own story: why are we here? What is our purpose? What will make us happy? What makes our lives worthwhile?

   As a teacher, I have sat through numerous commencement speeches. Each speaker tries to give the graduates advice to live by: “Don’t forget your parents...Give an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay...Continue your education...Care for your fellow man...” The most damaging words I ever heard came from a speaker who assured the students, “The whole world is out there for the taking, and your opportunities and choices are unlimited.” While it may sound encouraging to young people poised on the brink of their careers, that statement is a lie. For Christians, there is only one choice and only one bit of advice we need: “Be obedient to the will of God.”

   But that raises the question, “What is the will of God for me?” I don’t know. That’s your story, not mine. I’m not always sure what his will is for me, so how can I tell his will for you? What I do know is that God has a way of surprising us, even of shocking us. Mary surely did not expect to hear she would have a baby. Paul was the least likely person to be an apostle. Peter never planned to preach to Gentiles.

   I once taught a boy named Jeff who was always in trouble. He was talented, but lazy, and he cared for no one but himself. No one was sure he would even graduate from high school, and even if he did, we all would have voted him, “Most Likely to End Up in Jail.”

   But Jeff did graduate and several years later he came back to visit. Instead of jail, he had gone to the mission field. Jeff talked of his faith in the Lord and of his work in spreading his word. We listened in wonder. God fools us every time.

   You may be a Jeff or you may be one who has always been close to the Lord. Either way, your greatest challenge is to listen to his voice and to do his will. To do it when we don’t want to, when it surprises us, and when it is not our will. To do it even when we beg with tears that He will change his will.

   In the hymn, “Lead Kindly Light,” we sing: “I loved to choose and see my path, but now lead Thou me on.” We may still fight the urge to choose and see. We are tempted to try anything we can to make sense of life, to get a grasp on it, to master it. But nothing works, and that is precisely why we need to hear the final words of Ecclesiastes.

The End of the Story

   At the end of his great experiment with life, the writer of Ecclesiastes has only this advice to give: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

   Here is the meaning of life: serve God and obey him. Whatever he asks of you—no matter how surprising or demanding—be prepared to say with Mary, and Paul, and Jesus, “Your will be done.” This is the whole of what it means to be human.

   But are we satisfied with this word? Do we still want to try other avenues of happiness? Do we still love to choose and see our path? If so, let’s review the blind alleys of happiness that the writer of Ecclesiastes pursued.

  1. The Lure of the New—but “new” promises more than it can deliver. “There is nothing new under the sun.” Is it wrong to long for the new? No, but it becomes a fruitless quest if we expect to find anything truly new in this world. God alone brings the novelty that lasts. He will make all things new. It is God whom we long for.

  2. The Pride of Wisdom—but wisdom has its limits. If we become the smartest, wisest person in our church, our city, even in the world, we have to admit that we really don’t understand life or God at all. His ways are not our ways. We don’t always understand His will for us. We can’t quite get a handle on life.

  3. The Importance of Timing—but we never get it right. We never know exactly the right time for anything. Time is in the hands of God alone. We must simply blunder around from moment to moment, trusting He will make things good in His own time.

  4. The Thrill of Pleasure—but pleasures don’t last. We soon must search for new ways to amuse ourselves. Ultimately, however, we run out of thrills and are left in despair. Pleasure isn’t permanent. It is not the meaning of life.

  5. The Accomplishments of Work—but the fame one gains in a career disappears quickly. Even if you reach the top of the corporate ladder, they forget about you when you retire. All work is toil. It has no lasting value.

  6. The Cry for Justice—but no amount of good we do can repair a fallen world. We can’t even do good all the time, since we are sinners and the world is too much with us. It’s not really our world to fix, but even if it were, we still couldn’t fix it. Saving the planet is not the meaning of life.

  7. The Practice of Piety—but on our own we don’t know what to say before the Almighty. Even in worship, we serve him best by saying little. His ways are not our ways; they are beyond finding out. We can’t even get religion right.

The Author of the Story

   Should we despair? Is Ecclesiastes a cynic who sees no meaning in life? No, but he is one who points us away from our quest for meaning. Ecclesiastes tells us how to disbelieve. He is no skeptic regarding God, but he is skeptical of his culture and all the blind alleys we follow to find meaning in life. By the end of his book we should find all our old, familiar props knocked out from beneath us—novelty, know-how, money, pleasure, work—even religion. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. If Ecclesiastes were around today, he’d add all the ways our modern culture searches for meaning. All are idols. All promise salvation, meaning, and happiness, but none delivers.

   Ecclesiastes is a destructive book. It breaks down idols and knocks out props. It does this to turn us away from all that offers false hope and toward the only One who can deliver what He promises—God alone. The Meaning of Life cannot be found by pursuing the Meaning of Life. The surest way to fail at finding happiness is to look for it. Meaning is not found in fulfilling our emotional needs, but in submitting to a higher loyalty. Meaning and happiness are by-products of following God. How do we follow Him? Not by getting the right religious feelings, but through the long road of daily obedience. “Fear God and keep his commandments.”

   The meaning of my life and yours, my story and yours, is not found in the story itself. Nothing in our life can, by itself, bring meaning. Instead, the meaning of our story is found in its Author. We live out the story under his control. We fear and obey and by doing so, we hope and trust that at the end of the story we will see Him as He is. That will be the meaning of life. That will be happiness. On our journey he gives us previews of this happiness in the forms of pleasures, friends, family, and wisdom. But that’s all they are, just previews. We dare not confuse them with the Feature Presentation.

   That story is still to come.

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HEARTLIGHT(R) Magazine is a ministry of loving Christians and the Westover Hills church of Christ.
Edited by Phil Ware and Paul Lee.
Copyright © 1996-97, Heartlight, Inc., 8332 Mesa Drive, Austin, TX 78759.
Article Copyright 1998, Gary Holloway, adapted from The Main Thing: A New Look at Ecclesiastes, by Gary Holloway. Available from ACU Press, ACU Station, Box 29138, Abilene TX. Used by permission.
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