The Pursuit of Achievement
by Jack Wald | November 21st, 2004

Ecclesiastes 9:1-12, 4:17-23

There was someone from the Roman Empire who came to the Maghreb, the westernmost part of the known world, and was given an assignment. I don’t have his exact itinerary, but perhaps he came by ship across the Mediterranean Sea, sailed through the straits of Gibralter and made his way down the coast to what is today Kenitra. He was not the first Roman to come to this part of the world. Many had preceded him but he was coming with a specific task. Midway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean was a small city named Volubilis and he was to oversee renovations suitable for a city of the Roman Empire.

This was a man with vision and talent and he decided to make this a beautiful spot. If he was so far from Rome, he would still bring some of the wonder of Rome to this westernmost extension of the Roman Empire.

And so he set out to create an order to the city. He created a broad, main street where the most beautiful houses were situated. He brought with him artists gifted in the making of mosaics. He constructed arches to commemorate Roman victories and celebrate the gods who blessed Rome. He built a temple and a forum.

For many years he worked and when his labor was completed, he looked out at this city he built and was filled with pride. A beautiful city with a beautiful view.

It came time for him to leave, to return to Rome, and he became uneasy. Who would follow him? Who would maintain the city he had built? Although his construction was complete, there were always repairs that needed to be made. He had learned over the years of construction that in just three years, walls would show the wear and tear of erosion from water and wind and need to be repaired. In addition to building, he had organized and exercised discipline over the workers who maintained the walls and aqueduct and streets.

But now he was leaving and he was not impressed with the man who would take his place. His replacement was the spoiled nephew of a Roman senator who was overly fond of wine, more concerned with his pleasures than with the responsibility he had. Had he worked so hard for so many years only to have this man ruin what he had made?

Volubilis did decline and in just a few hundred years drifted into ruins. How do you think he would feel if he were somehow able to come back and see today the city he built 1900 years ago? All that is left is an outline of the city and much of what was once so beautiful must now be guessed at.

Perhaps he would feel like Qohelet, the author of most of the book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes 4
17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.  19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.  20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.  21 For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune.  22 What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?  23 All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.

This is our fourth and last Sunday looking at Ecclesiastes and if you have been here for all four sermons, you are beginning to be familiar with Qohelet’s world. In his world under the sun with his wisdom limited by this world, nothing makes any difference because no matter what we do, good or bad, we die and there is nothing more. So everything is meaningless.

But we have the privilege of seeing above the sun and so we find meaning where Qohelet found none.

Qohelet said that under the sun, achievement had no meaning. Is that still true above the sun? Is it ok for a Christian to work to achieve in this life? Is it ok for a Christian to excel? Is it ok for a Christian to try to be the best at something? Is it ok for a Christian to try to become the wealthiest man in the world?

Is it ok for a preacher to want to be a better preacher than the others in his or her community? Is it ok for a preacher to work to be the best preacher in the world?

Is it ok for Christians to compete? We accept athletic competition. After all, boxing and running races are mentioned in the Bible in a positive light so they must be ok. And we accept that it is ok for a Christian businessman to compete for business. But what about a church competing with other churches to have more members? Is that ok?

In Genesis we read that God worked six days and then rested so this morning we will look at six aspects of work and then we too will rest.

Day one.
We work because God set the example of work.

In Genesis 2:2 at the end of the account of God creating the world, we read:
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.

Jesus affirmed this notion that God is at work when he said in John 5:17
“My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.”

God is constantly at work to bring his creation to peace with himself. Because we have free will, God can not simply make it happen. He works to bring us to the point where we choose to follow him and serve him.

We work because God set the example of work.

Day two.
God set a standard of excellence and so when we work, we work to be excellent.

This is an observation from God’s creative act. The world we observe is marred by the effects of sin but even so, we can see the excellence in God’s creation. The closer we examine his world and the more we observe, the more we are impressed with the magnificence of his creation. I’ll give one example.

If you take a substance in its liquid form, it will weigh less as a liquid than when it is in its solid form because in its solid form it is more dense. Put solid metal in liquid metal and the solid metal will sink to the bottom. This is true for all materials except one. The one exception to this is water. When water freezes and becomes a solid, it becomes less dense, not more dense. Water as a solid is lighter than water as a liquid with the consequence that when you put ice cubes in a glass of soda, they float at the top of the glass.

But God did not create ice to be lighter than water just so we could have ice cubes that float. If ice was heavier than water, as with all other materials,  then in a lake or pond or sea when the water froze, it would sink to the bottom and life in the pond or lake would be destroyed.

It is because ice floats on water that fish and other life survive during the icy months of the year. That is truly amazing!

When God created, he did so with such excellence that he thought through every contingency and made exceptions where they needed to be made so that life could exist and flourish.

God did not settle for mediocrity when he created, he created with excellence in mind.

When we take on a task, we are obligated by the example of God to excel in what it is we do. We have different capacities. Some of us have more talent than others. But when we excel, we use what God gave us and do the best we are able to do with what God gave us. To settle for less than our best is to be mediocre and it is a sin to settle for mediocrity.

Day three.
Competition is good because it motivates us to excel.

There are many ways in which people compete. We are most familiar with athletic competition but competition is all around us in everything we do. We compete for the best grades in school. We compete to be a better teacher so we are not replaced by someone better who comes along. We compete to see who can memorize the most Bible verses.

One reason we are a bit uncomfortable with the idea of competition is because the world shows us a negative model for competition.

We love the world of athletic competition but in recent years we have become accustomed to hearing how one more athlete we admired was discovered to be taking some stimulant that gave him or her an unfair advantage.

An athlete will sabotage the equipment of another athlete to gain an advantage. Game plans are stolen before the big game to discover the competitor’s strategy. Lies are told to ruin the image and morale of a competitor.

Competition is not modeled well in the world but that does not mean it is not a healthy part of work.

My company in the US made inks for printing labels such as you might find on a bottle of Sidi Ali or a tube of toothpaste. We put a lot of effort into improving out products. We had a good product and we wanted to make it better. Why? Because we knew that our competitors would discover how to make a better ink and if we did not work hard, we would begin to lose customers to our competition. Competition made us a better company with better products.

There is a new couple coming to work at the Children’s Haven in Azrou and I have talked with them about the relationship between their orphanage and the Village of Hope with whom I am affiliated. They are motivated to make some changes and grow because of the example VOH has set. We in turn will be watching them to see what they do and see how we can make improvements. We would like to be more involved in each other’s boards so we can learn from each other. This is cooperation but there is an element of competition as well that will make the two orphanages have a synergistic effect and we will both become better than either one of us would be alone.

Competition is good because it motivates us to be better at what we do.

Day four.
How we achieve is more important than what we achieve.

Getting to the top, becoming the best, excelling, achieving is not bad. It is not bad to want to do that. But it can be bad and dangerous how we achieve, how we rise to the top.

When I was in business, I visited a customer in Massachusetts who printed labels for Ocean Spray, a juice company. It was a big account and he liked our ink but he asked me if I would pay for him to have a two week vacation in New Hampshire as part of the deal. I told him I wouldn’t do that. He told me, “This is a big contract. You’ll make a lot of money.” And I said, “There are things I am not willing to do to be successful and this is one of them.”

As a result, I got a little bit of business from him, but not much. I could have made more money if I had paid for his vacation, but at what cost?

Make sure, when you work, that you are being paid in the proper currency.

Let’s say you take a job that pays a lot of money. You work hard, do a great job and then when you are paid, they pay you in French francs or German marks. What good will that do you? French francs and German marks have been replaced by the euro and as far as I know, a suitcase full of francs or marks will not help you buy a cup of coffee. All the work you do will be meaningless because you will be paid for your work with money you will not be able to use.

In the same way, people work hard to make a lot of money and accumulate a lot of prestige and power but when they die, they come to the throne of judgement and discover that their money, power and prestige buys them nothing.

That’s why how we achieve is more important than what we achieve.

Chuck Colson was one of the five closet advisors to President Nixon. He was in the center of power in power-hungry Washington, D.C. He had made it. He had risen to the top and he was known as someone who would walk over his own grandmother to get where he wanted to go.

Today Chuck Colson is head of Prison Fellowship, an organization that ministers to prisoners around the world. This is a huge organization with active ministries in 110 countries around the world, 50,000 volunteers in the US part of its operation and a budget of $48,000,000.

Chuck Colson has been successful in two arenas in his life and the difference is that in the second of these arenas, he did not walk over his grandmother to get there. When Chuck Colson comes to heaven, he will not be welcomed for what he achieved in Prison Fellowship, he will be welcomed for the way in which he achieved success in this ministry.

Day five.
What we achieve is not as important as how we relate to the people involved with our work.

Let’s go back to our Roman friend who came to make Volubilis a beautiful Roman city. His achievement would certainly seem to us to have been meaningless. All his hard work has disappeared. You have to look hard to see the beauty that remains and only with a vivid imagination can you see a hint of the beauty that used to be there.

But how did he treat the workers who carried out his plans? Was he a cruel master? Was he indifferent to their personal lives? Or was he someone who cared for the people who worked for him?

There is a man in our church who works for a middle-eastern employer. This man had a family crisis and wanted time to go to his home country to help his wife and son. But when he asked for permission, he was denied opportunity to help his family. His employer was completely indifferent to any problems he had. He has value only in what he does for them. His personal situation is insignificant. And so this man in our church had to sit by helplessly and we prayed with him for God to intervene and resolve the crisis with his family.

His employer may have a lot of money and many palaces throughout the world but all his achievements will pass away and he will carry with him from this world an empty sack with nothing of value in it.

I was reading through my journal and read about the time when I was selling my company. One of my employees, Carl, came up to me in the parking lot to thank me. Carl’s ex-wife was a drug addict and Carl’s daughter and son were living with her. His daughter started also to take drugs and dropped out of school. But Carl’s son was unhappy living in that environment. He was doing poorly in school. He wanted out but the court had said his mother had custody of him. So we paid for a lawyer and helped Carl rent a larger apartment so the judge would grant him custody of his son. His son came to live with him and this day in the parking lot, Carl thanked me and showed me his son’s report card, his grades from school. He got all As except one B, top marks. Carl’s son had been failing in school and now he was excelling.

When I think back to my thirteen years in business, this means more to me than any success we had.

When I get to heaven, as I believe by faith that I will, God will not be at all impressed with any success I had in business. But I believe God will be pleased about how I served him by helping Carl and others in the company.

It doesn’t matter what you do. Plumber, pastor, teacher or tailor. What you do, what you achieve will be insignificant. With time all you achieve will fade away. But the way you participate with God in serving others, encouraging others, blessing others, caring for others, that will endure and you will carry the blessing from that work to heaven.

Day six.
Your worth is not established by how successful you are in the world’s eyes.

How does the world measure success? The world measures success by how much money you make; how many possessions you have; how much influence you have; how much power you exercise. That is how success is measured under the sun.

Our magazines are full of successful people. Television promotes the successful people in the world. Even the church seems to measure success this way. When you look at the boards of Christians organizations, who is on the boards? Wealthy people are on the boards. Successful businessmen are on boards. Those who inherited a lot of money are on boards. How many poor people or middle-class people are on these boards? Pretty hard to find. Pastors of large churches are on boards. How many pastors of small churches are on boards? Very rare.

So even when we look at the church we see that worth is established by how the world measures success.

So Qohelet does us a favor when he points out some wisdom under the sun.
I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

There are people who work hard, who work intelligently, who make good decisions and because of circumstances beyond their control never become successful as the world measures success. And there are those who are lazy and accidentally stumble onto something and become very successful as the world measures success.

There are also people who choose to work hard at careers that will never pay a lot of money or generate a lot of power.

Because someone is wealthy and worldly successful does not in of itself tell you a lot about the character or work ethic or anything else of that person.

If you are successful, as the world measures success, you need to be humble. As hard as you worked, you were in the right place at the right time and you were able to benefit from that fortunate coincidence. For example, it is easier to be successful, as the world measures success, if you are born in the US than if you are born in sub-Saharan Africa.

I have met some extraordinary men and women from sub-Saharan Africa who are struggling to get an education and find a job. If they had been born in the US, they would have gone to the top schools in the US and received high-paying jobs when they graduated. A lot of success, as Qohelet pointed out, is being in the right place at the right time.

If you are successful, as the world measures success, be humble. You were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.

On the other hand, if you are not successful as the world measures success, don’t feel that you are a failure. Lack of worldly success is not an indicator of your worth.

David Huggett is an Anglican priest from England who will be speaking next Sunday at our service. I had the privilege of spending a day with him this past week as he taught about how to listen to God. One of the things he said is that who we are is not a function of what we do. We are not what we achieve. He said who we are is a function of who we love and who loves us. Relationships define who we are much better than achievements.

And in that light, your worth comes from God who loves you and not from what you achieve. You have worth because you are loved by God and you have responded to his love.

And now it is day seven and we will rest.

Qohelet wrote about wisdom under the sun and from that perspective life is pretty disappointing, meaningless. But above the sun, that is where we find meaning.

Next week we enter into the period of advent and I trust these sermons on Ecclesiastes with their focus on wisdom under the sun have made you hungry for the meaning we find above the sun.

As you prepare this week for the beginning of Advent, take time to reflect on Jesus who has made the difference between the meaninglessness of Qohelet’s world and the hope we find in our world. The world has not changed but Jesus has made the difference.