Sacred Work, Part 3 – The Restoration of Work, Isaiah 65:17-25, 6/30/13

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Jun 302013
 

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

The sermon today is the last of our three-part series on work.  Before we go forward, however, let’s briefly review where we’ve been.

Two weeks ago I talked about how all of us were made to work.  God himself is a worker and we, created in the very image of God, are therefore made to work.  God created us, and then commanded us, to join him in harnessing the raw materials of creation in the building of beautiful cultures and civilizations which benefit people and glorify God.  In this sense, all work is sacred work, the work of plumbers and math teachers just as much as the work of pastors and missionaries.

 

Then last week Jim then did a fantastic job helping us to see how this beautiful gift of work, along with the rest of creation, has been corrupted by human sin.  Work has been cursed.  It’s broken.  It has problems.  Specifically, too often our work is pointless, fruitless, and selfish.  It has, in many ways, become an idol.  What was made to be enjoyed is too often endured.  As one writer put it, sin has so skewed our work that now doing our work is often like “trying to build something with the wrong tool: sawing wood with a hammer, turning screws with a tape measure, pulling nails with a crescent wrench.”[1]  You might eventually get the job done but it sure seems like it was meant to be a whole lot easier than it is!

 

So what do we do about it?  What do we do when our work feels more like a curse than the blessing it was made to be?  Here’s a suggestion I came across recently:

 

When you have had one of those take-this-job-and-shove-it-days, try this.  On your way home, stop at your pharmacy and go to the section where they have thermometers.  You will need to purchase a rectal thermometer made by the Q-tip Company.  Be sure that you get this brand.  When you get home, lock your doors, draw the drapes, and disconnect the phone so you will not be disturbed during your therapy.  Change into something comfortable, such as a sweat suit, and lie down on your bed.  Open the package containing the thermometer, remove it, and carefully place it on the bedside table so that it will not become chipped or broken.  Take the written material that accompanies the thermometer.  As you read, notice in small print this statement: “Every rectal thermometer made by Q-tip is personally tested.”

 

Close your eyes.  Say aloud five times, “Thank you, oh thank you, that I do not work in quality control at the Q-tip Company.”[2]

 

While this solution just might help you appreciate your current job a bit more than you now do, I’m not sure it’s a long term solution.  For that, as in all things, we need to look to God’s Word.  This morning I want us to read from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.  It is here where I believe we can begin to see that God has great hope for the ultimate restoration of our work.

 

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17For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:17-25, NRSV)

 

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Sometimes you hear people say that the Bible is an account of salvation history which is played out in three acts.  Act 1 is creation.  God made the world and everything in it was good and exactly as God intended it.  Act 2 is the fall. Human sin has affected, or infected, every aspect of creation, tainting all that God made to be good.  Act 3 is restoration.  Through his Son Jesus Christ, God is redeeming all of creation and forever restoring it to its original goodness.   That is the story of salvation history:  creation, fall, restoration. In Christ, everything is moving towards restoration.

 

Even though it was written long before Christ ever came to earth, the passage we just read from Isaiah was written to people stuck in the despair of Act 2 that they might have hope in the fact that the story would continue in Act 3.  Even thousands of years later, these words are still meant to bring us hope.

 

Look again at the details of the stunning vision Isaiah lays before us of how God will restore creation.

 

Verse 17 – At that time all heaven and all earth will be made new.  Death and decay are not only banished but completely forgotten!

 

Verse 18 – The theme of life will once again be perpetual joy and gladness.  People, all people, will be a delight!  Can you imagine?  Are you always a delight?  Is the person sitting next to you right now always a delight?  God’s intention is that one day we will all be a delight, not just to one another, but to Him as well.

 

Verse 19 – There will be no more sadness in that day.  No more crying.  No more grief ever again.

 

Verse 20 – Death is overpowered.  When a person reaches 100 years of age that person will be considered a mere child.

 

Verse 21 – Justice will reign.  Every person will have a home in which to live[3].  Every family will always have plenty of food on the table.

 

Verse 22 – No longer will anybody take what does not belong to them.

 

Skip down to Verse 24 – People will finally experience constant friendship and fellowship with God.

 

Verse 25 – All of creation will live together in perpetual harmony.  All violence will be forever ended and peace will eternally hold sway.  Lions – and I take this literally – lions will lay down with lambs.

 

This is the sort of world God originally intended and so this is the world God will one day restore.

 

Now, you may have noticed I skipped over one important section, one crucial aspect of God’s restoration.  At the end of verse 22, Isaiah foretells that in that day “…God’s people shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  They shall not labor in vain…”  Don’t miss this.  The Kingdom of Heaven which God is establishing on this earth through Christ includes work.  There is work to do in the new creation, but it is a work that is altogether different than any of us have ever fully experienced before.  It is work that we will long enjoy, labor that is never in vain.

 

Isaiah compares these coming days of work in God’s Kingdom to the days of a tree.  I love that image.  This summer my wife is helping take care of a friend’s backyard garden while this friend is out of town.   In the garden are several fruit trees.  The other night I went with her to help pick the ripe fruit off an apricot tree.  The branches of this tree were weighed down with dozens and dozens of sweet apricots.  As I picked them, and sampled as I picked, I was struck by how effortlessly a tree does its work.  Season after season, in the most natural and trouble-free way, a tree works to produce abundant fruit.

 

Can you imagine if our work were to become like the work of a tree?  Imagine if your work, though it still required energy, and effort, and concentration, also just flowed from you naturally and effortlessly, always producing sweet fruit season after season after season.  That is exactly how God intends to restore work in our world.  I believe, in fact, that God wants to begin restoring work in this way even now, even in your life.

 

You see – and this is the heart of the Christian Gospel – in Christ God has already done work which has not only redeemed all of creation but has also set creation back on the path towards complete restoration.  When Jesus gave his life on the cross, the power and curse of sin and death was forever defeated.  Then when Christ was raised from the dead, the fuse was lit on an explosion that will lead, and is leading, to the restoration of all dead and sick things back to life and health.

 

And yes, this includes work.  This is why the New Testament, unlike much of the Old Testament, speaks of work in such positive terms.  Over and over again the early church proclaimed that in Christ, we have been given good work to do, work that is blessed and not cursed.

 

Specifically, the New Testament teaches us that we are invited to share in Christ’s work.  I Corinthians 3:9 declares, “We are co-workers in God’s service.”[4]  That’s amazing when you think about it.  Not only is God, through Christ, working to restore this world to its originally intended state, but God is actually employing us as his co-laborers in the task.  All work, when done with integrity and for the purpose of serving others, is work done in cooperation with God and work that ultimately brings glory to God.  God is at work in marvelous ways restoring our work, bringing blessing and healing to that which was cursed and broken.

 

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Now, in the time we have left I want to point out four ways I believe Christ is bringing restoration to the work that you and I are called to do in this life.

 

To begin with, as co-workers with Christ our work now has purpose.

 

As a kid I had a mother who worked tirelessly to keep our house clean, often enlisting us to help in the effort.  Once it was clean, however, it never stayed clean for long.  All these years later I still have a vivid picture of her in my mind, standing there in the middle of the cluttered family room, hands on her hips, hopeless in her desperation, probably after one of us boys had tracked in mud across her clean floor, crying out, “I work and work and work to get this place in shape and in one day it’s all back to being a total disaster!”  Which one of us has not felt that sort of hopelessness about some aspect of our work?  All this effort and what, really, is the point?

 

As co-workers with Christ, however, our work is no longer fruitless or pointless because in our work we join God in the new and enduring restoration of this world which he loves.  You may not be able to see it now, but when you come to understand that your work is done in partnership with God, you come to trust that your work will, in time, show itself to have made a real and eternal difference.

 

The story is told of a tourist in Amsterdam who visited the Church of St. Nicholas one day.  He’d heard so much about the beautiful chimes of this cathedral and wanted to go into the tower where they were rung to see how it was done.  He was shocked, however, at what he saw and heard there.  Here was a man standing before a huge keyboard, wearing wooden gloves, sweating and out of breath, pounding and thumping the keys.  The noise was deafening, nothing but the rattle of the keys as they were pounded.  The sound was anything but beautiful music.

 

The next day this same tourist was sightseeing in another part of the city at the same hour.  From across the city he suddenly heard the most beautiful sound coming from the Church of St. Nicholas.  It was a gentle music of the clear, full-toned bells.  All at once he remembered the man in the tower and hoped that somehow he knew how beautiful his hard work was from a distance.[5]

 

Your work may seem fruitless in the moment.  Do not underestimate, however, how it will appear one day when looked back on from the perspective of eternity.  As co-workers with Christ, our work has tremendous purpose.

 

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Second, as co-workers with Christ we now work for a new boss.

 

How many of you have ever worked for a terrible boss?  (I’m glancing around to see if any of our church staff are raising their hands?)  You all know how frustratingly discouraging it is to work for a boss that is demanding, unappreciative, hypocritical or stingy.  A lousy boss can ruin even the best work.

 

How many of you, on the other hand, have worked for a great boss?  It makes all the difference, doesn’t it?  Even mundane work can be a joy when done under the supervision of somebody who is supportive, appreciative, full of integrity, and generous.

 

Listen to something that the Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 3:23-24: “Whatever your work, put yourself into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.”[6]  Paul is writing these words to slaves, many of whom must not have had wonderful masters.  Yet he is still able to encourage them by reminding them that as Christians they only have one real master, only one real boss.

 

Your boss is Christ, the very one who sacrificed himself completely for you that you could become a favored son, a favored daughter, of your Father in Heaven and an heir to the inheritance that was once reserved for Christ himself.  Your boss gave his life for you, and did so at a point when you were, to say the least, severely underperforming.  No matter what work you do, Christ is the one for whom you work.  In light of what He has already done, you do not work to earn His favor but because of and in response to His favor.

 

So ask yourself, what would change about your work if you started doing it simply as an act of grateful worship toward the One who has already given you so much?  How would your attitude be different?  How would the quality of your work change?  How might your motivations improve?  Whatever work you have to do this week, whether you are paid for it or not, what would happen if you did that work as an offering of praise to Christ?[7]  That’s a question worth thinking about.

 

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Third, as co-workers with Christ our work is no longer done from selfish motives.

 

When we become co-workers with Christ, our work takes the shape of Christ’s work which is, of course, always rooted in love.  Christ is always setting aside his own self-interests and working for the interests of others, the cross, of course, being the ultimate example of this.

 

Our work takes on the flavor of joy when it ceases to be done solely for selfish reasons, to make me more money so that I can become more comfortable or to boost up my own image or status among others.  Our work is restored when it is done for the sake of others.

 

Milton Hershey founded the Hershey Chocolate Company in 1903 with the innovation of putting milk into the chocolate bar.  Many of us owe a debt of gratitude to Milton Hershey!  Immediately the Hershey Company prospered, as did all the dairy farmers in the surrounding Pennsylvania countryside.  When the depression hit and business fell apart, Hershey demonstrated the true motivation behind his work when he committed not to lay off any of his employees.  Instead, he created his own public works projects in the neighboring towns and put his employees to work building houses, an amusement park, and a hotel.  Towards the end of his life, he and his wife (who were childless) founded a boarding school for orphans to give them practical skills within a supportive community.  The trust that runs the school owns a large portion of the company stock, so today the school is funded by dividends and stock appreciation.[8]

 

It is one sort of satisfaction, I suppose, to work hard and make for yourself a boatload of money selling chocolate and live a life of luxury and comfort.  It is an altogether different and deeper sort of satisfaction, however, to work hard for the ultimate benefit for others.  Do you have a sense of the joy that comes to those whose motivation to work is the service of others?  Nothing wrong with working for a paycheck, or for finding work that you enjoy in and of itself.  But that paycheck and that work become even sweeter when you stay focused on how you can work in ways that benefit others – your employer, your co-workers, your employees, your customers and your clients, and the world in general.  Work for selfish means shrinks the human soul.  Work for selfless means, grows that same soul.  As co-workers with Christ, we are now free to work from unselfish motives.

 

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Finally, as co-workers with Christ our work is no longer our security.

 

For too many of us, particularly in American culture, our work defines us.  A person in a higher paying job is generally more respected than a person in a lower paying job.  Certain vocations garner more admiration than other vocations.  When we work hard, or when we succeed at our work, we feel better about ourselves.  When we are no longer able to work, or when can’t find work, we tend to feel worthless and dejected.

 

In these ways, work becomes for us an idol.  It becomes the source of our security and the foundation of our identity, and that is not what work is meant to do.  You see, only God can provide security.  No work, no matter how much status it gives us or how much money it makes us, will ever provide real and lasting security.  We only discover true freedom in life when we come to believe that our identity is based solely on the fact that through Christ we have been permanently adopted as favored children into the family of our Heavenly Father.

 

In describing the freedom we have as co-workers with Christ, Tim Keller writes, “You are adopted into God’s family, so you already have your affirmation.  You are justified in God’s sight, so you have nothing to prove.  You have been saved through a dying sacrifice, so you are free to be a living one.  You are loved ceaselessly, so you can work tirelessly in response to a quiet inner fullness.”[9]  As co-workers with Christ, no longer is our work our security or our identity.  God alone is our security and our identity is alone rooted in the realty that we are eternally his beloved children.

 

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Before I finish I want you to take a moment right now and consider your work.  Whether it is the work of student or a parent, an employee or a volunteer, think about the work that you have to do this week.

 

With God’s help, can you begin to see yourself as a co-worker with Christ in that work?  Can you see how your work fits into the grander scheme of God’s emerging kingdom on this earth?  Do you recognize that Christ alone is your boss, Christ alone is the one who watches over you and the one you seek to honor with your efforts?  Can you taste the joy that comes when your work is done in the service of others?  Do you know the freedom that comes when you no longer, in any way, rely on your work for your security or identity?

 

Can you see that your work is meant to be sacred?  What if your work became, for you, an act of worship?  What if the work of your hands – repairing engines, scouring pots, teaching students, lobbying for legislation, balancing ledgers, mending bones, changing diapers – what if the work of your hands, whatever it is, became a sacrament of God’s presence that you gave and received?[10]  How would your work be different if you recognized that God means it to be sacred?

 

In his wonderful book, Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller writes about saxophonist and composer John Coltrane who was one of the greatest jazz musicians to ever live.  Though he only lived to be 40 years old, Coltrane’s influence on jazz music was nonetheless incalculable.  Now, as work goes, Coltrane’s work wasn’t bad.  Personally, I think I could get used to being a world famous, supremely talented jazz musician.  That’s not a bad gig.  And yet John Coltrane, like all of us, struggled at times with his work.  Along the way, apparently, he wrestled with the same things we all wrestle with, asking himself, “If I do my job well, if I’m successful, if people applaud and appreciate me, will I then know that I’m significant?  Will I then know that my life is worth something?”

 

Something happened along the way that changed things for Coltrane.  Keller records Coltrane’s own words.

 

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.  At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music…to inspire them to realize more and more of their capacity for living meaningful lives.  Because there certainly is meaning to life.  I feel this has been granted through His grace.  All praise to God!

 

You see, something happened which shifted things for John Coltrane.  By the grace of God, work for him became sacred and the shift made all the difference.

 

Keller writes that one night after an exceptionally brilliant performance of the suite, A Love Supreme – a thirty-two-minute outpouring of praise to God – John Coltrane stepped down from the stage and was heard by those nearby to say, “Nunc dimitis.”  Those words are the Latin translation of Simeon’s words in Luke 2 when he had, after years and years of waiting, finally seen the promised Messiah.  They mean, essentially, “Now I can die happy.”[11]

 

I don’t know if John Coltrane was a Christian or not.  Either way, he got at least this much right.  Our work, no matter what that work is, when done in cooperation with God and for the benefit of others, is sacred work and is used by God for the building of his kingdom on this earth and to His glory.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

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The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

 

 

Read Isaiah 65:17-25.  What do you notice here in this ancient vision of God’s coming kingdom?

 

Verses 22-23 make this promise about our work: “[One day] my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  They shall not labor in vain.”  What do you make of this?

 

I Corinthians 3:9 declares, “We are co-workers in God’s service.”  How exactly are we God’s co-workers?  Do you personally feel you are a co-worker of God?

 

In the work that you do, do you work with the understanding that Christ is your boss, that you are ultimately working for him?  How does this (or could this) realization change how you work?

 

Is your workplace a better place because you are there?  Why or why not?

 

Can you see how the work that you do is ultimately in service of other people?  What might need to change so that this would be true?

 

Martin Luther once wrote, “God even milks the cows through you.”  What do you think he meant by this?  Do you agree?

 

What is one change you could make in the way you work, or in the attitude you have towards your work, which would help you to see your work as sacred?

 

 

Suggested Scriptures for the Week: Taken from the Seeking God’s Face resource our church is using daily.

Monday:                               Psalm 6:1-5 ~ 1 Peter 2:4-10

Tuesday:                               Psalm 7:1-5, 14-17 ~ 1 Peter 3:8-12

Wednesday:         Psalm 8 ~ 1 Peter 4:12-17

Thursday:                             Psalm 9:1-6, 9-10 ~ 1 Peter 5:5b-10

Friday:                   Psalm 10:1-6, 14 ~ 2 Peter 1:3-11

Saturday:                              Psalm 11 ~ 2 Peter 3:3-9

Sunday:                                 Psalm 12:1-4, 7-8 ~ Revelation 1:9-18

 

 

 



[1] Mark Buchannan, The Rest of God, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), p. 15.

[2] Source unknown.  Cited by Mark Buchannan, The Rest of God, p. 15-16.

[3] This reminds me of the wonderful vision statement of Habitat for Humanity: “A world where everyone has a decent place to live.”

[4] NIV.

[5] As told by Ben Patterson, The Grand Essentials, (Waco: Word, 1987), p. 67.

[6] NRSV.

[7] A biblical teacher named William Barclay once wrote, “The conviction of the Christian worker is that every single piece of work he or she produces must be good enough to show God.”  William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, Daily Bible Study Series, I(Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), p. 215.

[8] Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor, (New York: Dutton, 2012), p. 166.

[9] Keller, Every Good Endeavor, p. 233.

[10] Stealing some wording here from Mark Buchannan, The Rest of God, p. 27.

[11] As told by Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor, p. 239-240.