PURPOSE. Businesses pay thousands to consultants to help them DEFINE their purpose. Purpose STATEMENTS and vision and mottos are generated. Aims, objectives and goals are clarified. Business plans have to be focussed and precise. If you’re AIMING for NOTHING, that’s exactly what you’ll HIT.
And it’s even MORE important in our personal lives. People spend their lives SEARCHING for PURPOSE. Without it, we FLOUNDER. Life is hardly worth living. We’re aimless, pointless, directionless.
People look for it in all sorts of different places. They might look for it in INSTITUTIONS: in religion, or work, or sport, or family. They might look for it in OTHERS: volunteering their time and money and energy, to improving the lot of the less fortunate, or coaching or training.
And people look for purpose INSIDE THEMSELVES. They look for it in pleasure, or adventure, or possessions, or power. They look for it in approval from others.
Everyone lives for a purpose. What about YOU? What gets YOU up in the morning? What puts the fuel in YOUR tank? Where does YOUR identity come from? Your self-worth? What makes life worth living FOR YOU?
The Monty Python crew considered the question in the movie, “The Meaning of Life” The title track asks:
Why are we here? What’s life all about? Is God really real, or is there some doubt? Well, tonight, we’re going to sort it all out, For tonight it’s ‘The Meaning of Life’.
What’s the point of all this hoax? Is it the chicken and the egg time? Are we just yolks? Or perhaps we’re just one of God’s little jokes.
Well, such is the ‘Meaning of Life’.
Is life just a game where we make up the rules, While we’re searching for something to say, Or are we just simply spiralling coils Of self-replicating DNA.
And as much as I like Monty Python, we’re going to look at ANOTHER song for a few minutes this morning. The guy who wrote the song we call Psalm 127 considers a few of the possibilities for purpose. The BIG things people look to / to give them meaning. He weighs them up. Holds them up to the measuring stick of eternity. He TASTES them, rolls them around in his mouth, but then ultimately SPITS THEM OUT.
Every option is a thin twig, a house of cards. When you lean on them, they won’t hold your weight. They might LOOK solid enough, but there’s no foundations. Nothing that LASTS.
And the phrase he returns to again and again is this one “IN VAIN”. It’s POINTLESS, FUTILE, MEANINGLESS.
Have a look at it with me. V1.
Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders LABOR in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen STAND GUARD in vain. 2 In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat– for he grants sleep to those he loves.
Three times in half a dozen lines. In vain. Pointless. Futile.
1. Building in vain (1)
First up, BUILDING. Specifically building a house. But of course it could apply to building ANYTHING. Building a business, a website, a wall, a network, a garden, a skill, a reputation, a career, a qualification. All sorts of things people commit their lives to developing and growing. All sorts of things people look to for PURPOSE and MEANING.
And the writer’s saying that unless GOD is behind it. Then it’s all in VAIN. WHATEVER you’re building. Ultimately, it’s all POINTLESS AND FUTILE.
1. It’s futile, firstly, because you might never FINISH it. All that work, and for one reason or another, outside your control, you can’t see it through to the end.
Franz Peter Schubert was a composer whose most famous work was his symphony No. 8. Famous, not because of its quality, or how often it’s been used on TV ads, but because it’s UNFINISHED. It was MEANT to be in four movements, but he only ever finished TWO. No one’s really sure WHY he never finished it. He certainly wrote more music after it.
But all that labour, all that creative energy, and he didn’t even FINISH it. Pointless.
2. Another reason it’s pointless to build without God is that you might FINISH something, but then it doesn’t LAST.
Caron and I aren’t really gardeners, but on the odd occasion we DO feel inspired, we spend a few hours weeding and trimming plants. Pulling grass out of THE GARDEN BEDS, and trying to PLANT some on the lawn. We might even plant some new plants. Normally takes us a whole Saturday. And by the end, it looks pretty good! Even if I do say so myself.
But give it a few weeks. The weeds sprout, the grass grows, the plants die. And all that good work’s undone. It doesn’t LAST.
Even Peter Wilson, who LOVES his garden. It’s the work of a quarter of a century. If he stopped working on it, give it a few months, and it would end up looking not much different to OUR garden. Pointless! Futile!
3. Or perhaps you build something. And you FINISH it. And it LASTS. But YOU don’t. You die before you get to enjoy it.
The marriage that doesn’t survive the renovation.
The heart that gives out before the runner finishes the marathon he’s been training for / for a year.
Kerry Packer spends his life building his company, but dies, and now James is undoing all his work in a few years.
Pointless and futile.
4. Or then there’s a FOURTH possibility. You may finish what you build. And it may LAST, and you might LIVE to SEE it, but it’s not what you THOUGHT.
Husband and wife working two jobs to afford the huge mortgage in the best suburb. The beautiful house, with 5 bathrooms, and four living areas. But you’ve just got to clean them, and each member of the family has their own TV and they never see each other. And you’re always working so you can’t enjoy it anyway. And when you’re not working you’re so tired, you all just yell at each other anyway.
It’s not what you signed up for. It’s pointless and futile.
All of it. Unless God’s behind it. It’s not worth LEANING ON. Not worth depending on for purpose and identity and meaning.
Whether it’s BUILDING the house in v1. Or DEFENDING what you’ve built. Second half of v1. Same thing. You might build the best thing in the whole world, but your hold on it is pretty slippery.
You can’t defend what you’ve built against a hailstorm, or a rogue cancer cell, or aeroplane turbulence, or global financial crisis, or floods, or the wandering eye of your husband, or rebellious children, or a frivolous lawsuit.
Anything you THINK you can defend is really only tinkering around the edges. Insurance policies, hard work, health checks, exercise, marriage counselling, assertive discipline, alternative financial strategies, good business practices or top legal advice. None of it protects much at all. And your control over what you’ve got is pretty slight.
When it comes to DEFENDING what you’ve built, if God’s not watching over it, it’s ALL POINTLESS!
Have a look at v2. Because it highlights the contrast.
2 IN VAIN you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—
One option is to work WITHOUT God. Building your kingdom. Or protecting it. Seventy, eighty, ninety hour weeks. Doing all that’s HUMANLY possible to control your world.
But it’s all in VAIN of you do in without God included.
It’s pointless to go through life ignoring the One who designed you to INCLUDE him. The one who’s interested and involved in his world. The God of the Bible who works through us and in us to achieve his plans.
It’s pointless to build our kingdoms unless we’ve done it with an eye on HIM. Our purpose IS Him. And trying to find our purpose in ANYTHING ELSE will never WORK. It’s like playing with one of those kids puzzles. The ones with different shaped holes, and the different shaped blocks. And when you try to force the block into the wrong hole, it won’t FIT. It’s pointless to just keep working HARDER.
2. Those God loves
The trick is to find the right block for the right hole. And here it is. Second half of v2.
for he grants sleep to those he loves.
That’s why all that work. All that building. All that protecting. That’s why it’s all in vain. All pointless without God. Because it’s God who grants sleep to those he loves. Who gives them the peaceful sleep of the load being on ANOTHER’S shoulders. The design and the implementation ultimately depending on GOD, instead of YOU.
Another way of translating it possibly fits the context better. “For God GIVES to those he loves IN SLEEP (or while they sleep)”
In other words, it’s not HARD WORK on its OWN that will guarantee success. But WORK THAT RELIES ON GOD to bring the increase. Growth that God brings while you sleep. OR, in spite of all your striving. While you’re trying LEAST HARD.
For ONE sort of worker. For those God LOVES. Those who are connected to the Creator of the universe. Who are living by HIS priorities, HIS agenda, HIS direction. There’s the potential for genuine PURPOSE. For COMPLETION. Because he brings it EVEN WHEN WE’RE SLEEPING.
It CERTAINLY doesn’t mean the Christian is to be lazy, and just expect God to give him what he needs in this life. The very next Psalm talks about the blessing of enjoying THE FRUITS OF YOUR LABOURS.
God’s call is to work as hard as we can. But then he FORBIDS us from fixing our trust on what we’ve done. We might till the ground, plant the seed, water and fertilise it. But only GOD can bring the growth.
Oliver Cromwell had a famous saying, “Trust God, and keep your powder dry”. There’s a balance there that reflects what this Psalm is saying.
A famous old preacher, Charles Spurgeon put it this way, “Happy is the man who hits the golden mean by so working as to believe in God, and so believing in God as to work without fear.”
That’s the way to move beyond working IN VAIN. To working IN TRUST, in CONFIDENCE, in REST, in CONTENTMENT. To put work, and building and protecting, in perspective.
What’s that sort of attitude mean IN PRACTICE? When I first started teaching my Science coordinator would pray something like this every morning in our staff prayer meetings. “God, today’s a new day. Just like yesterday, I can’t achieve anything without you. Guide my hands and my mind and my tongue. Every step Lord, in your strength, by your Spirit.”
That’s what it looks like to build God’s way. Recommit yourself to it every day. It’s not something you only do once. Because it’s so easy to forget, and to build YOUR WAY.
The heritage of children
(pause) The second half of the Ps gives us an example of ANOTHER type of building we can do. And it’s here, if you stop and think about it, that it’s pretty obvious you can’t build without God.
It’s talking about BUILDING A FAMILY. Which is ANOTHER type of HOUSE.
And it’s this sort of building that just can’t grow simply by your own efforts.
A couple may have the best intentions in the world. A great marriage, the perfect nursery, financially sound. But none of that guarantees CHILDREN.
Even THE BEST MEDICAL PROCEDURES MONEY CAN BUY can’t guarantee children. I know that’s the experience of some here.
Unless it’s GOD who brings the children, then all our best plans and hard work are in vain. Pointless. Futile.
And, while with SOME of the things we build, it’s tempting to think OUR EFFORT has brought success. With CHILDREN, there’s no doubting the MIRACLE of the whole process.
They say in the trenches (in wartime), there’s no such thing as an atheist. But I reckon it’s just as true to say that in the delivery room, there’s no such thing as atheist.
When your child is born, that first look into your son or daughter’s eyes is enough to recognise something in them, something in YOU, something in THE WHOLE PROCESS, that’s GREATER than evolution, and science, and survival of the fittest, and hormones. Something of DESIGN, of the soul. Something of LOVE and BEAUTY. Something of ETERNITY. Something of the DIVINE.
Things of GOD. Things you CAN’T see. You can’t measure them, or explain them, without him.
We get that inkling of God in the delivery room, because it’s GOD who’s behind children. See it there in v3?
3 Sons are a heritage from the LORD,
children a reward from him.
They’re FROM God. And they’re a HERITAGE. In other words, when you build a family, you’re building a lasting legacy. A force for influence and good that will continue beyond yourself. Something that WILL last.
And God also gives children as a REWARD. They’re a BLESSING. Something GOOD.
Which is easy to recognise when they’re ASLEEP. All children are ANGELS when they’re sleeping. But perhaps something we need to remind ourselves of when they’re at their worst. When you’re driving along, and the kids are killing each other in the back seat of the car. “God says children ARE a blessing! They ARE!”
But you can see the sort of thing God’s thinking about when he says kids are a blessing. There in the next verse. The sort of HOUSE God LOVES to be involved in building. The sort of family all parents PRAY they’ll be able to build.
4 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. 5 Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.
The image is of a father with a handful of sons. He had them while he was younger. But now they’ve grown up. And, just like arrows, they’re powerful and sharp. Swift and useful.
But the image isn’t of sons who are always picking fights, or are mighty warriors. It’s more that they’ve grown up with integrity, and morals. They’re upright and just. When there’s any legal issue brought against them, they won’t be put to shame. Their testimony will be truthful and honourable.
The sort of children who bear their responsibilities as adults. Who’ll look after their parents, and those who depend on them.
Isn’t that the sort of children we ALL want to raise?
That’s the sort of legacy GOD wants to be building in people who love him. Who live by HIS priorities and his agenda. Families who are godly, and upright, and dependent on him in all their dealings.
That’s the sort of family we pray that God will be building for Dean and Diane and Lara and Max.
Building for eternity
And that’s not a BAD sort of legacy. One that last for GENERATIONS. But what about a heritage that last for ETERNITY?
There’s ANOTHER sort of construction that the Bible talks about. And it’s the sort of building Dean and Di are passionate about TOO. One that matters more than Lara and Max growing to be JUST upright, responsible, caring adults.
It’s why they drop Max and Lara off every Sunday night at the Bransons, so they can come to Youth Group and put their energy into building a group of teenagers who love and follow Jesus. That’s the building that counts. That’s the legacy that lasts.
Of course, Lara and Max are TOP of their list of people they’re building as followers of Jesus too. That’s what we’re celebrating here this morning in Max’s baptism.
But listen to the BUILDING language in Eph 4 as the writer talks about THE CHURCH. And Dean and Di, and others HERE are part of that construction crew. Eph 4:11
11 (Jesus gave) some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be BUILT UP 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become MATURE, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
That’s building that’s got a PURPOSE. Building THAT LASTS. Building that’s worth giving YOUR LIFE TO.
Let me finish with one final verse. Listen to how Paul wraps up ANOTHER letter. This time his first letter to the Corinthian church. He’s just finished talking about what eternity will be like. The victory when death is destroyed. 1 Cor 15:58
58 Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always GIVE YOURSELVES FULLY to the work of the Lord, because you know that YOUR LABOR IN THE LORD IS NOT IN VAIN.
That’s living with PURPOSE. That’s building GOD’S way. Building FOR ETERNITY.