July 21, 2013

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


Ecclesiastes 2:1-11


Rivers are often used to define borders.  In fact, of the 50 states in the United States, 43 of them have a border that is a river.  Including Idaho.  You know you aren’t in Idaho any more and it’s time to slow down when you cross the Snake River.  Oregon would go broke without the revenue its state police bring in from westbound drivers who are still going 80.

Rivers work pretty well as borders except for the fact that the course of a river sometimes will change.  On March 7, 1876, the Mississippi River suddenly changed its course.  It took about 30 hours for this process to unfold.  Now part of Tennessee was on the Arkansas side of the river.  The two states fought over whether the town of Reverie, Tennessee should now be Reverie, Arkansas.  The dispute made its way all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that since the river had changed its course suddenly, the original river channel was still the border.  However, the Court also ruled that when rivers change their course gradually, the border moves with the river.

When a river suddenly changes its course, its called an avulsion.  When a river gradually changes its course, it’s due to a process called erosion.  Here’s how Webster defines erosion:  “To eat into or to eat away by slow destruction of substance.  The process whereby something is diminished or destroyed by degrees.”

As you’ve probably guessed, we aren’t here today to talk about rivers.  We aren’t here to talk about the erosion of river banks.  We are here to talk about the erosion of people.  It’s been said that people like rivers go crooked when they follow the path of least resistance.  Sometimes people experience an avulsion.  Something sudden, loud, and obvious happens.  More often people experience erosion.  It’s a process.  It takes time.  It is slow, silent, and subtle.  You might not even notice it’s happening until you’ve already become very crooked indeed.

Our case study today is King Solomon.  Before he was king, he was a royal baby.  (I understand the royal baby watch is still under way across the pond.)  Baby Solomon’s dad was the greatest of all the kings of Israel, King David.  His mother was Bathsheba.  If you remember the story of David and Bathsheba you will be reminded that the great King David experienced some erosion in his life as well.

The story of Solomon is told in the first eleven chapters of I Kings.  He was a man of extraordinary gifts.  The wisdom of Solomon is legendary.  He was also a genius as an architect.  The first Temple was built under his direction.  It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  He was a strong leader and a skilled diplomat.   Israel was at peace for his entire 40 year reign.  It was a time of prosperity.  Jerusalem was like a paradise on earth with trees and gardens and parks.  He built lakes and an elaborate system to deliver water to where it was needed.

We read that Solomon’s “fame was known in all the surrounding nations . . . So Solomon became greater than all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom.  All the earth was seeking the presence of Solomon” (I Kings 4:31, 10:23-24).

One who sought his presence was the queen of Sheba.  She was skeptical of the reports she had heard.  It had to be an exaggeration.  She had to see for herself.  So she traveled to Jerusalem and after her visit, as she left, she told King Solomon, “The report was true which I heard in my own land of your affairs and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it; and behold, the half was not told me; your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report which I heard” (10:6-7).

And more important than all these worldly accomplishments and popular fame was the inner character of the king.  We’re told that he “loved the LORD” (I Kings 3:3).  Pleasing God was his highest priority.

But the story of Solomon does not end well.  We can’t be sure how it all started to unravel.  We can be pretty sure it was erosion, not an avulsion.  It was a gradual decline, not a sudden fall.

One clue we have is one of the stranger books of the Bible, the book of Ecclesiastes.  The word means “the preacher”.  It is thought to be Solomon as an old man preaching about what he had learned from his life.  It does have that passage everyone loves that says “for everything there is a season” (3:1-8).  Other than that, this is a gloomy, cynical, depressing book.

The passage we read begins by describing an experiment he conducted.  He calls it “a test of pleasure” (2:1).  He says, “whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them” (2:10).  Remember, we said he loved God and wanted more than anything to please God?  That obviously was no longer the case.  He had turned into a hedonist.  He loved himself and wanted more than anything to please himself.

And he concludes at the end of our passage:  “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (2:11).  In other words, my experiment has taught me that pleasure is not a worthy purpose for one’s life.  I learned this lesson, but I learned it too late.

When King Solomon died, he left a nation confused, in conflict, and soon to be fractured by civil war.

It was too late for him to learn, but it’s not too late for us.  The lesson is this:  Watch out for erosion.  We can handle sudden misfortune.  A sudden death.  A divorce.  An accident.  A natural disaster.  A financial reversal.  There are a lot of bad things that can and do happen, and it’s amazing how resilient people can be.  It’s almost like that old saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

We can bounce back from a lot.  But when it’s erosion and not an avulsion, we often don’t bounce back.  Because it’s so gradual.  It sneaks up on us.  No warning bells go off.  It’s kind of like that frog who was boiled in a kettle of water.  He didn’t jump out when he easily could have because the temperature went up just a little at a time!

Erosion is never sudden.  It’s never loud.  It’s never obvious.  Erosion is always slow.  Always silent.  Always subtle.  And that’s what makes it so dangerous!  It happens without our even noticing it is happening.  And even once we notice, we don’t feel any urgency to jump out of the hot water because it’s happening so slowly we tell ourselves we have plenty of time.

That bridge over the SkagitRiver in Washington was due to be replaced.  It was built in 1955.  That makes it as old as me.  A bridge like that carrying the non-stop traffic of Interstate 5 is under a lot of continual stress.  Subtle changes happen over time.  Bridges are built to last a long time, but not forever.  This particular bridge was inspected last November.  It was given a C rating.  Not great, but passable.  It was holding up fine.  It was good for a few more years.  There was time.  Except there wasn’t.  On May 23 a tractor-trailer clipped the top of that bridge.  And down it came.  Two cars ended up in the water.  It’s a wonder no one was killed.

Watch out for erosion!  Even a sudden collapse is often not as sudden as it appears to be.  Slowly, silently, subtly there have been changes underway.  There has been an eating away of critical support structures.  Even the experts miss it.  They see it, but they don’t see it.  They don’t see how serious it is.  Looking back they see what they missed.  Hindsight is 20-20.  But it’s too late.

Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace appeared to be sudden.  It wasn’t.  He didn’t make one huge decision that was clearly unethical.  He made many small decisions over a span of many years, each one justifiable.  At least to him.  Lies were necessary to cover up previous lies to cover up earlier deceptions, all of which was to further his noble cause of fighting cancer.  And one of our biggest heroes is now one of our biggest villains.

I never miss baseball’s All-Star game.  It was last Tuesday.  Two players, both New York Yankees, were in the spotlight.  One was in the spotlight even though he wasn’t there.  Alex Rodriguez.  He’s recovering from injuries and surgeries.  He will recover from that.  But he may never recover from a damaged reputation.  Performance enhancing drugs are just the tip of the iceberg.  I saw his first home major league baseball game.  I was there at the Kingdome in Seattle in 1994.  He had so much going for him.  Little by little he let it all slip away.

Until Frank DeFord, giving his weekly commentary the other day, lamenting the inevitable decline of great athletes as they age,   named several, and then closed with this:  “On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice if never again did we ever see or hear from Alex Rodriguez?” (July 3, 2013, “NPR Morning Edition”)

The other Yankee was Mariano Rivera.  He also had a serious injury and surgery that many thought would end his career.  But he vowed to come back for one final season.  He was the big story as he pitched in his final All Star game.  He’s faced the same temptations that Alex Rodriguez and any other high level professional athlete would face.  But I have heard nobody ever say anything negative about Mariano Rivera.  By all accounts, he is not only one of the best but also one of the classiest athletes of modern times.

What makes the difference?  What makes the difference between a King David and a King Solomon?   David’s life was going in the wrong direction, but he recovered, with God’s help.  We remember him as a great man of God.  Everything was going right in Solomon’s life.  Then little by little it fell apart.  We remember him not so much for the greatness of his glory days but for the way it all ended.  We remember him for the pessimism of Ecclesiastes, including that verse that comes shortly after we stopped reading:

“I hated life” (2:17).

What makes the difference?  Planning on erosion.  Taking into account erosion.  Actively taking steps to control it and combat it.  Refusing to follow the path of least resistance.  Refusing to follow the path that makes rivers and people crooked.

What we are today will be worse tomorrow if we forget about erosion.   So don’t forget about erosion.  Don’t let yourself just drift through life.  Don’t be passive.  Don’t let life happen to you.  Don’t wonder after it happened what just happened.  Do take care how you live.  “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”

That last sentence, by the way, isn’t mine.  It’s a Bible verse.  It’s our memory verse for the week.  I Corinthians 16:13.  It’s a good one to repeat several times each day as you’re tempted to walk down that path of least resistance.  “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”

Erosion control is a constant concern for farmers and for those who care for the land God has given us.  It’s a constant battle.  You give up the battle and erosion wins.  Every time.  So too in our spiritual lives.  It’s a constant battle.  So “be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”

Here are some questions I want to leave with you.  These are questions I want you to take home with you.  We printed them in the bulletin to make that more convenient.  I want you to spend  some time this week pondering these questions.  They are questions that I believe will lead you to the steps you need to take to battle and to control erosion in your life.

  • What takes most of your time?
  • With whom do you spend your free time?
  • When do you take time to evaluate?
  • Why do you say “yes” so often?

Solomon learned about erosion too late to help himself but not too late to help us.  He wrote that book about all he had done wrong.  About all the dead ends he had pursued.  About how cynical and pessimistic he had become.  About how he hated life.

I encourage you to read Ecclesiastes.  It’s not the most upbeat book in the Bible.  But it really is fascinating to read.  It’s a how-to book about how-not-to-do life.  And when you read it, read it clear to the end.  It’s not a long book.  It’s 7 pages in my Bible.  So read clear to the end, where King Solomon, gives us some parting wisdom.  This wisest man who ever lived, who didn’t always make the wisest choices while he lived, left to us these words of wisdom:  “The end of the matter; all has been heard.  Fear God and keep God’s commandments.  For this is the whole duty of every man and every woman” (12:13).


Dear God, we confess that we have meandered in our

lives.  We have not followed your way, your best way for

our lives, and we have been enticed to take attractive

detours that appeared good at the time but that led us

down some paths that took us further away from you.

We thank you that it’s not too late today to turn around.

To come back to you.  To accept your forgiveness and

your gift of a new beginning.  Help us God to do what the

Bible tells us to do:  to be watchful, to stand firm in our faith,

to be courageous, to be strong.  All to your glory.  All to

make our lives count for you.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.