The Pursuit of Pleasure
by Jack Wald | November 8th, 2004

Ecclesiastes 2:1-11

How many people associate Christianity with pleasure? What would you think of a movie of Jesus in which he was playing with the disciples. It would be another 800 years before England had the world’s first football game, but can you imagine Jesus and his disciples playing soccer? Running and jumping, teasing each other, Jesus knocking over Thomas as he moves in to kick a goal.

Is it difficult for you to think of Jesus sitting around a fire, laughing at a joke one of the disciples made, laughing so hard tears flow down his cheeks. Can you picture Jesus walking down a road and talking about his favorite recipes? Perhaps asking one of the women to cook up some lamb stew that night because he was craving the taste of his favorite recipe ?

One of the reasons some might have a difficult time imagining Jesus seeking and enjoying pleasure is that many Christians are suspicious of pleasure. Talk of pleasure and the mind runs to all manners of sinful behavior and somehow spirituality and pleasure don’t seem to fit together very well.

What is a Christian party? You sip glasses of soda or juice and have some good snacks, making sure the food is not too spicy or exotic. You sing some spiritual songs and pray together. You chat with one another and then leave telling everyone how you were blessed by the time together.

Many Christians are afraid of pleasure and they are not totally unreasonable because pleasure can be dangerous. Many have been destroyed by their pursuit of pleasure.

And so we owe a debt of gratitude that Qohelet, the author of most of the book of Ecclesiastes, performed an experiment, a dangerous experiment. Let me add the warning, Children, don’t try this at home.

Ecclesiastes 2:1
I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.”

Qohelet explored the pleasures of laughter, wine, beauty, wealth, sex and power. And he concluded after his experiment that all he experienced was chasing after smoke and spitting into the wind, all was meaningless.

Before we consider Qohelet’s experiment, let’s consider three points about pleasure found in the Bible, what I am calling this morning, pleasure points.

Pleasure point #1
God created pleasure by creating a sensual world and us as sensual beings.

Why did God create a world of beauty? Why did God create a world of color? Why did God create a world with many tastes? Why not just one taste for something safe to eat and a second taste for something dangerous to eat and be done with it? Why did God create a world with such variety and beauty in insects, flowers, birds, and fish?

God did not create a world that was a barren landscape with nothing but rocks and dust. God did not create a world that was a frozen wasteland. God created lush meadows. God created beautiful forests. God created a beautiful world and then, when he created us, he created us as ones who can enjoy what he created.

Do fish enjoy what God created? Or insects? Dogs cannot see color. The animal world is limited in its appreciation of God’s creation. We alone, on planet Earth, are able to enjoy and appreciate the beauty and wonder of God’s creation. And it is the combination of God’s sensual world and ourselves as sensual beings who can appreciate the sensual world that creates pleasure.

Pleasure point #2
Our lives are filled with pleasure.

If I ask you to describe some of the most pleasurable experiences of your life, what comes to mind. Let me describe to you some of mine.

Our skin is most amazing. We can feel something as delicate as a feather lightly touching our back and yet the same fragile cells that detect that delicate sensation are not overwhelmed when a hand is hammered on the same spot on the back.

Annie and I went to Moulay Jacob to the mineral spa this past year. I soaked in a sulphur bath and then went to a steam room, then was hosed down with a pressurized hose. This was followed by relaxing in a hot sulphur swimming pool until it was time for my massage.

I lay on the cot and then two of the most wonderful hands in the world, covered by oil, began to massage my back and it was delightful. My cells thanked me for bringing them there.

I love rubbing my hand on moss that is growing on a rock in a New England forest. I love walking barefoot in wet grass. I love squishing my toes in mud.

I love waking in the morning and hearing and smelling bacon sizzling in the frying pan. I love being in a forest and hearing the wind blowing through the trees. I love the smells of a forest.

I just toured the medina in Fes with my brother-in-law last week and I realized how much of my appreciation of that medina is related to the smells of the medina.

I love the colors of green and blue in a white birch forest. I love walking around the corner in the medina and coming to an explosion of color of fabrics and thread.

It was Father Mantica, the Catholic priest in Ohio where I was a pastor, who taught me to sip a glass of dry white wine to cleanse the palate before taking the next bite of a delicious meal.

The taste of a good Camembert cheese on a slice of apple followed by a sip of a good red wine. That is extraordinarily wonderful.

Chocolate connoisseurs may mock me, but I like a slice of orange with a bit of milk chocolate. When I was in college, night after night, I watched the nightly news eating an orange and Hershey chocolate bar that way.

I love a root beer float, vanilla ice cream floating in a tall glass of a peculiarly American soda.

When I was 18 years old, I lived for a year in Germany and I remember in the fall, buying a piece of pflaumenküchen mit sahne (plum cake with whipped cream) on the way to school and delighting in the wonderful flavors. To this day, German pastries are my favorite.

And I have such vivid memories of sitting in a German chicken restaurant, taking a bite of wonderfully spiced and salty chicken, then french fries with a hot spicy sauce and finally with my throat feeling the saltiness and spiciness of what I have just eaten, taking a drink of a cold German beer. The 1/4 German in me must be mostly in my taste buds because as I was writing this part of the sermon, I began to think of bratwurst and sauerkraut and did I mention German pastries like apple strudel?

I love the feel of diving into a cool pool of water on a hot summer day. In New Hampshire in the northeast of the US, there is a place in the forest where the river has cut a body-sized trench in the rock. You can sit there and the rushing stream pushes you along for about seven meters and then you drop seven meters into a pool. After a hot day of hiking, being sweaty and tired, that is incredibly refreshing.

I love in the winter, sitting in a comfortable chair with a hot mug of tea, the heater on, reading a good book and listening to wonderful music. Paul Simon, Leonard Bernstein, Mozart, Andreas Vollenweider who plays an electric harp in a cavern to the accompaniment of the drops of water coming down from the ceiling into little pools of water.

Take time to think about it. Your memories may be different and it is not to say that the world will sometimes lack the pleasure we enjoy, but our world abounds with pleasure.

It is ironic that this past week while I worked on this sermon about the pursuit of pleasure, I suffered from the flu and spent a couple days in bed, not eating, feverish and becoming more and more acquainted with a white bowl in the bathroom. This has not been a week of abounding pleasure for me.

The world is not just one big pleasure package but we all experience pleasure in it.

Pleasure point #3
God delights in the pleasure we receive.

This is implicit in God creating us to be sensual beings in a sensual world. Why would God not delight in our enjoying what he created?

And consider this. When God spoke through Isaiah about the end of time when we will be gathered into heaven, how did he describe the experience?

Isaiah 25
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.

How did Jesus describe our coming into his kingdom? He talked about a wedding banquet with all the tastes, sights, and smells that make a banquet delightful.

We live in a world created by God to be pleasurable and we look forward to an eternal life where the pleasure we experience will not be marred by the suffering and sorrow we experience here on earth.

Pleasure is good and God is pleased when we experience pleasure.

But now we move to the experiment Qohelet announced in 2:1
I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless.

If pleasure is so good, what about it led Qohelet to conclude that it was all meaningless?

Remember that Qohelet performed this experiment to discover meaning in life. He did not test his heart to find what was pleasurable. If that had been the case, he would have had an enormous list of pleasurable things because the world abounds in pleasure.

Qohelet was looking for meaning in life and when he looked in the realm of pleasure to find meaning for his life, he came up empty. And this is why.

When you look to pleasure for meaning in life, you inevitably take pleasure to excess and in the process it becomes less and less pleasurable.

Pay attention to this sentence because I think it is key in understanding Qohelet’s experiment with pleasure.

When you look to pleasure for meaning in life, you inevitably take pleasure to excess and in the process it becomes less and less pleasurable.

Let me explain. The problem with pleasure is that it is temporary. You eat a delicious meal but then it is finished and in a few hours you are again hungry. You walk into a movie theater and laugh so much that your cheeks hurt but then you walk out of the movie theater into the world. You celebrate the victory of your favorite sports team in the championship game and the next day life goes on as if nothing had happened.

Pleasure is momentary. It does not linger, which is fine if you are not seeking meaning from pleasure. If you are not seeking meaning in pleasure, then you have had a wonderful experience and years later you may look back fondly at that moment. But the moment you begin to rely on pleasure for meaning, there is a demand that I experience more and more of that pleasure.

It is not enough to have a good meal. I must have more of that good meal and more often. My enjoyment of pleasure, the good of being a sensual person in a sensual world, becomes transformed into lust. I no longer enjoy. I now lust for pleasure.

Look at the testimony of Qohelet. He tried cheering himself with wine. The meaning here is not that he set out to become a wine connoisseur who could tell the difference between a Lebanese and Syrian Cabernet. He set out to drink wine, too much wine. He drank to find meaning in life and he became inebriated, drunk. And if Qohelet is indeed Solomon then perhaps it was his experiment that he wrote about when he talked about the effect of drinking too much wine in Proverbs 23.
In the end it bites like a snake
and poisons like a viper.
33 Your eyes will see strange sights
and your mind imagine confusing things.
34 You will be like one sleeping on the high seas,
lying on top of the rigging.
35 “They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt!
They beat me, but I don’t feel it!

What about that description brings the word pleasure to your mind?

Qohelet began a building program.
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.  5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.  6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees.

This was not a public works project. He did not do this so the people of Israel could have parks to enjoy. He admired the beauty of the world and set out to create more of it for his own enjoyment. Notice the repeated phrase, for myself, in his description. He lusted for more and when one park did not satisfy him, he built another and then another and another.

He was already wealthy and set out to become more wealthy.
I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces.
But as he pointed out in 5:10
Whoever loves money never has money enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.

Qohelet was not satisfied with his marital bed so he acquired a harem as well.

He had no restrictions to his power. He did not lack money, legal authority or opportunity and he took advantage of that:
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work,
and this was the reward for all my labor.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.

When you look to pleasure for meaning in life, you inevitably take pleasure to excess and in the process it becomes less and less pleasurable.

The sensuality of a good meal turns into gluttony. A glass of good wine leads to drunkenness. The delight of marital sex becomes promiscuity. The enjoyment of beauty is transformed into possessiveness.

Picture King Herod, before whom Jesus appeared during his trial, at one of his orgies. If you want to see a picture of this, watch the Fellini movie, Satyricon. This is a film made in1969 that portrays life at the time of Jesus and it is not a pretty film. All the delights of life are taken to excess and what is left is degrading, unappetizing, unappealing, depressing and pathetic.

There are some who will listen to me and not believe what I am saying. There are some who think the reason they do not have more meaning in life is that they do not have enough pleasure. There are some who think that if they had an apartment rather than a room, a house rather than an apartment, an estate rather than a house or two homes rather than just one, then they would be satisfied.

There are some who think if they had a bit more wealth or a bit more sex or a bit more of something, then they would be satisfied, content, find the meaning they are searching for.

Learn from Qohelet who had unrestricted ability to satisfy his desires and see that none of this will give you what you seek.

When you look to pleasure for meaning in life, you inevitably take pleasure to excess and in the process it becomes less and less pleasurable.

This is the ultimate irony, that when you pursue pleasure to satisfy your need for meaning, pleasure becomes less satisfying.

Cocaine is the perfect example. Cocaine is taken because of the sense of power it gives. Users feel more alert and energetic, confident and physically strong. But the effect does not last long and the temptation is to take another hit and as the body develops resistance to the drug, it takes more and more to get what seems less and less until the body is destroyed by this pursuit of pleasure.

Christians differ about whether it is ok to drink alcohol or not but what is clear is that when wine is no longer consumed for the pleasure it brings to a meal and it begins to be a buzz that is the goal, it is no longer just a sip of wine to cleanse the pallet but the whole bottle is chugged down to get to the buzz that is being sought. Any delight in the taste has been minimized and it is only the escape from reality that is sought.

Have you ever noticed that the first bites of a meal are the most delicious? The meal continues to be good but when you are full and continue eating, the sensuality of what you are eating diminishes.

I know it is sacrilege to talk about Pringles when talking of good food. But I like Pringles and the first few are good but then the pleasure of the taste begins to diminish and I end up eating the rest of the container without really enjoying what I am eating. When I am disciplined and eat just a few at a time and the container lasts for several days, I maximize my enjoyment of the can.

One of my favorite Frederick Buechner quotes is his definition of lust: Lust is the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst.

When we move from enjoying the pleasure that is ours in this world and begin to rely on it for meaning, we begin a sad decline into the loss of pleasure and increasing hunger for meaning.

When I was in business, there were years when I traveled around the US for two or three weeks of the month. I was in a lot of cities and ate out in restaurants for most of my meals.

There were times when I would get to a city, rent a car, check into my hotel and then begin to think about where to eat that night. Would it be Chinese or Mexican, Thai or Italian, a steakhouse or sushi, maybe just pizza. I would go through the options over and over again and nothing would seem to satisfy me and I learned to discern that in such moments what I was searching for was not physical food but spiritual food and no restaurant I went to would give me what I wanted.

It is my prayer that God will give you the gift this morning of helping you to discover that the need behind all it is that you want is to be found in your relationship with Jesus.

When you seek pleasure and rely on pleasure to satisfy you, to give you meaning in life, pleasure will begin to be less and less satisfying and your hunger for meaning will become greater and greater.

When you find meaning in life by living and walking with Jesus, it is then that you will find greater pleasure from what it is this life has to offer.

We celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus this morning with the meal Jesus instituted when he ate his last meal with his disciples. We call it the last supper with Jesus, not the final supper, because of what he said at that meal.
“I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.  16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

In saying this Jesus pointed to the wedding banquet that will be the celebration at the end of time. Listen to this description from Isaiah 55, part of which I quoted earlier:
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
7 On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
8 he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove the disgrace of his people
from all the earth.

The pleasures of earth are not able to compare to the pleasures of heaven and in communion we anticipate that heavenly pleasure.

As you come forward for communion this morning, come to that meal that anticipates the banquet celebration we will have when we come finally to our home.
Isaiah 25
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.