Rev. Jeff Chapman, Faith Presbyterian Church
I read somewhere this week that the average American, once he or she is 65 years old, will have spent 100,000 hours of their lifetime at work. Eight hours a day. Five days a week. Fifty or so weeks a year. 40 to 45 years in a row. By the time it’s all said and done, 100,000 hours. And that doesn’t even include all the hours of school work, housework, yard work, parenting, volunteer work, and all the other necessary labor in life for which we receive no paycheck.
When you see that figure up on the screen what is your initial reaction? Do you feel grateful to have something to do all these years? Does it make you resentful as you think about all the ways you would rather spend that time? Maybe it just makes you feel tired. 100,000 hours at work. How does that make you feel?
When it comes to our work there is a prevailing thought in American culture that goes like this. We are stuck with work and there is no way around it, or at least no responsible and respectable way around it. Work is simply something we have to endure in life so that we can get on to what we enjoy in life. From the time we are kids we are taught, “Get your chores done first and then you can play.” This is why so many of us spend time at our jobs working for 5:00, working for the weekend, working for vacation, working for retirement. We’ve been told for so long that real living isn’t work but is instead what comes after our work is done and what we can do with the money we earned from our work.
Now I know that not all of us feel this way, but let’s at least admit that this is the dominant cultural mindset. And that’s a problem, because when the Bible talks about work it paints a whole other picture. In fact, from God’s perspective work is a beautiful gift, an extraordinary blessing given to us for our great benefit. Let me say that again, slowly. Work is a beautiful gift, an extraordinary blessing given to us for our great benefit.
I have come to believe this statement is absolutely true. Over the course of the next three weeks, I hope to show you why. To get at this, these next three sermons on work will be framed around three questions. I’m indebted to pastor and author Tim Keller for these questions and for much of what I’ve learned along these lines.
Why were we made for work? Why is a life without work so unfulfilled?
Why is it so often so hard to work? Why is work too often pointless, fruitless and difficult?
How can we overcome the difficulties of work and find satisfaction in our work through the Gospel?
Today we will focus on the first of those three questions, why we were made for work. Before we do, let’s ask for God’s help.
4In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…
15The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:4-9,15, NRSV)
Here’s a question. What is the very first thing that we see God doing in the Bible? God does a lot of things in the Bible. God teaches, forgives, loves, judges, heals, rules, commands, but what does God do first? On the very first pages of scripture we find God at work. The creation account which opens scripture culminates with these words in Genesis 2:2, “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from the work that he had done.”
The Hebrew word for work here is not a fancy word. In fact, it’s a word used elsewhere in scripture to describe ordinary human labor. That’s demonstrated in the passage we just read when we see God getting his hands dirty, so to speak, as he bends down to shape humanity out of the dust of the earth and then plants a garden where none existed before. Anybody here who has ever worked with clay to sculpt a piece of pottery or worked the ground to grow a vegetable garden knows that these activities require effort. They require work.
When God eventually came to earth in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, how did he spend his life on earth? We think first about how Jesus taught, and healed, and performed miraculous signs but that is not how Jesus spent most of his time. Remember that for the great majority of his life Jesus, God in flesh, worked as a carpenter, as an ordinary day laborer. If Jesus were walking the earth today his hands would look more like those of a construction worker than those of a priest. They would be hardened and calloused and strong. If this is not a strong image that you have in your mind of Jesus, it would do you well to form it there.
Here’s the point. Work, by nature, is sacred because God himself is a worker. Work is holy and blessed. Work is good. It has to be or else God would not participate in it. And this means that when we work, at least when we work in the way that we were designed to work, we do what God does.
In Genesis 1:27 we read that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” Now, as humans we reflect this divine imprint in many ways. We see the image of God, for instance, in us in the way we play, and love, and rest, and think. Added to these, one of the most important ways we are meant to reflect God’s image is in the way we work. As the great reformer Ulrich Zwingli once said, “There is nothing in the universe so like God as the worker.”
What is the first thing that we see humans doing in scripture? We just read it. God creates a man out of the dust of the ground and then God plants a garden in paradise and puts the man in the garden to do what? To relax? To swing in a hammock and sip iced tea all day? To take a leisurely stroll and smell the flowers and pick the blackberries? No. Verse 15 tells us that God puts the man in the garden “to till it and keep it.” Right off the bat, first thing, God puts the man to work.
Notice something crucially important here. Human sin and the fall do not enter into the story until Genesis chapter 3. When God puts humans to work we’re still in chapter 2, in paradise, at a time before sin enters the world and when everything in all of creation is exactly as God intended it. This means that work is not the result of human sin, as it is so often thought to be. Work is not a curse, not a result of the brokenness of this world. No, work is God’s design from the beginning. Work is a blessing. Work is something we were made to do, to always do. Work (and I’ll say more about this later) is even something we will still be doing in heaven someday.
Deep down you know that you were made for work. We have all experienced a time when we were given good and meaningful work to do and we did that work well and, as a result, we were filled with a genuine sense of satisfaction. The opposite is true in people who, for whatever reason, cannot work. Talk to people in nursing homes, for example, who find themselves, because of age or illness, unable to work, and many of them will tell you that what they most long for is something constructive to do, some way that they can be a help to other people.
As humans we need food, water, sleep, beauty, friendship, prayer, community and love. We also need work. Work feeds our souls. We feel loss and emptiness in life without good work to do and when we cannot find good work to do there often results a profound sense of discouragement, even depression.
So what is work? Scripture makes clear that we were made to do it, but what is it. Well, using poetic language, Genesis describes it this way. God creates a garden and then puts us in the garden to “till” it and “keep” it. Work, then, is about tilling and keeping.
How many of you have planted a garden this summer? What happens if you plant a garden and then leave it alone? Good things do not happen, right? In fact, maintaining a garden is at least as important, and at least as difficult, as planting a garden.
The Hebrew word here for “till” is the word `abad. It carries with it the sense of harnessing, even enslaving, something for its potential. It’s the idea of taking raw materials and working them to become something that is beyond themselves. Think of a farmer who takes a patch of ground and some seeds and works, or harnesses, that ground to bring out of it a bountiful crop. A carpenter, you might say, enslaves a raw piece of wood and shapes it into a chair. A musician tills musical notes to bring forth a beautiful piece of music. A writer harnesses words to communicate ideas that move people to action or truth.
When the Bible speaks of humans being set down in God’s garden to till the earth, scripture is teaching us here that God has given us the raw materials of this created world and tasked us with joining him in harnessing them for something beautiful. Tim Keller says that human culture or human civilization is simply what results when humans take the raw materials of God’s creation and work to employ them for greater purposes.
So what are those greater purposes? Well, for one, we are not to use or abuse God’s creation for our own selfish ends. At the same time God tells us to “till” the garden God also tells us to “keep” the garden, or to “guard” the garden. This means that we are to be good stewards of a world that does not ultimately belong to us. We are to work the “garden” not for selfish ends but for God’s ends. Specifically, we are to take the raw materials of God’s creation and, with his help, work hard to harness them in ways that benefit other people and the world around us. This is the sort of work which I believe brings God great pleasure.
If this concept seems a little out there, let me try to bring it down to earth. A writer named Lester DeKoster explains it this way. What he says is so good I’m going to quote him at length.
Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others…in which others make themselves useful to us. We plant [with our work]; God gives the increase to unify the human race…
[Look at] the chair you are lounging in…Could you have made it for yourself? … How [would you] get, say, the wood? Go and fell a tree? But only after first making the tools for that, and putting together some kind of vehicle to haul the wood, and constructing a mill to do the lumber and roads to drive on from place to place? In short, [it would take you] a lifetime or two to make one chair! … If we…worked not forty but one-hundred-forty hours per week we couldn’t make ourselves scratch even a fraction of all the goods and services that we call our own. [Our] paycheck turns out to buy us the use of far more than we could possibly make for ourselves in the time it takes to earn the check… Work…yields far more in return upon our efforts than our particular jobs put in…
Imagine that everyone quits working, right now! What happens? Civilized life quickly melts away. Food vanishes from the shelves, gas dries up at the pumps, streets are no longer patrolled, and fires burn themselves out. Communication and transportation services end, utilities go dead. Those who survive at all are soon huddled around campfires, sleeping in caves, clothed in raw animal hides. The difference between [a wilderness] and culture is simply, work.
Work is a gift and a blessing from God. When we take it this way and use it how God intends, we join God in shaping the world in ways that bring immense benefit to people in particular, and to the world in general. And this can be true in whatever field we work: education, politics, business, law, technology, the arts, social services, construction, law enforcement, manufacturing, and on and on and on. In fact, one of the main stumbling blocks we have around work is we have been deceived into thinking that most work is secular work and only some work is sacred work.
Listen to me. Nowhere in scripture is this idea given any credence. In fact, at the heart of the Christian Gospel is the truth that Christ has come to redeem all heaven and all earth which means that all people can become holy people, all ground can become holy ground, all time can become consecrated time, that all work can become sacred work. The great Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper once famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
Do you believe this when it comes to your work? Do you? Whose work do you believe is more important in God’s sight, the work of a pastor or the work of a plumber? Who is doing God’s work, a missionary or a math teacher? If done honestly and with excellence, the work of the plumber is not only just as important in this world as the work of a pastor but it is also – get this – just as sacred in God’s eyes. All work which is done in service to others and for the building of culture and civilization in ways that help this world flourish is sacred work and is, for that reason, deeply pleasing to God.
Think about it. When Jesus walked this earth he did call a few people to leave their fishing nets to become apostles and do what we might term “religious” work. But that was just a few people. Most people were called by Jesus to stay right where they were, to follow him as disciples but to remain carpenters, fishermen, farmers, and so on. The Apostle Paul was also clear in this respect. In I Corinthians 7:17 he writes, “Each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.”
How well would the world function if we were all pastors and missionaries? What a mess. The work you do, assuming it is done with honesty and integrity and for the service of the greater good, is just as important, just as sacred, as the work that I do. In fact, going to work or school on Monday morning can be just as sacred an act of worship as is going to church on Sunday morning.
Do you believe that? Is that how you feel about Monday mornings? Of course, there are times when we find ourselves in dead-end jobs and we may need to make a change. There are also particular jobs for which we are better suited than others. There are also times when we need to stop working and rest. God even commands that we do so. All this is true and each of these could be the subject of a whole other sermon. Still, do you believe you could get to the place where you begin to see your work, whatever that work, as sacred. Can you begin to see that even when your work is difficult your work can bring you deep satisfaction when you realize that you are partnering with God to harness his creation in ways that bless others and glorify him?
Tim Keller tells about a man named Mike who is a doorman in New York City. (Photo…not Mike) Now if I asked you when you came in here this morning to name for me jobs which involve doing sacred and holy work, work which joins God in forming the architecture of his Kingdom here on earth, I highly doubt any of you would have named the job of doorman. Thankfully, that’s not how Mike sees it.
Mike is one of fifteen doormen serving a large Manhattan co-op; his apartment building is home to about 100 families. Now in his early sixties, Mike emigrated to the U.S. from Croatia as a young man and worked many jobs, from the restaurant business to manual labor. He has been a doorman for the past twenty years, however, and to him it has become far more than just a job. He has come to care about the people who live in the building and takes pride in helping them unload their cars, find parking spaces, or welcome their guests. He sets a high standard when it comes to keeping the lobby and front of the building clean and attractive.
When asked what makes him drop whatever he is doing to get to the curb in time to help unload a resident’s car after a weekend away he responds, “That’s my job” or “They needed help.” Why does he remember the name of every child? “Because they live here,” he says. When once asked why he works so hard at every part of his job he answered this way, “I don’t know…it’s just what I need to be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try my best every day.”
Keller points out that most of the people Mike serves are professionals or businesspeople who are probably glad not to be a doorman, or might even feel the work would be demeaning if they had to do it. Mike’s attitude, however, shows that he has come to recognize the inherent dignity of the work he is doing and in this he brings out the goodness and worth, the sacredness, of that work.
I don’t know whether or not Mike is a Christian. Even if he’s not, he still understands the divinely-intended nature of work better than many Christians I know. He is an example of how character and dignity and love are shaped and formed as we do the good work God has given to us. He is a model of how even one person who approaches even the most menial of tasks with the right heart can be a blessing to so many and help move the world one step closer to the way God intends it.
The great reformer Martin Luther once wrote that all human work was “the work of our Lord God himself under a mask, as it were, beneath which he himself alone effects and accomplishes what we desire.” What a beautiful idea. Our work is a mask for God’s work. If we believed this to be true would it not transform everything about our work?
I’ll ask you once more, do you believe it? Whatever the work you have to do this week, whether that be at your job, as a parent, as a student, even as a volunteer, are you able to see God behind the mask of that work and recognize that as you do the work God has given you to do you become the means or agent of grace through which God serves others and builds his kingdom on this earth? Do you believe it?
Let me end with this image. The Bible presents us two versions of paradise, one at the beginning in Genesis and one at the end in Revelation. In the beginning, paradise is pictured as a garden. When God creates the earth in Genesis the paradise he creates is natural and pristine. This is the sort of image I have of the world at that time – lush, green, untouched. And for years I imagined that God’s goal at the end of time was to restore the earth to this natural and unmolested state. When you go camping they tell you to leave everything just as you found it. That’s what I pictured God was saying to us. In heaven one day there will be a paradise just the way people once found it when the earth began.
It took me some years to learn that’s actually not how the Bible describes it. In fact, the Bible doesn’t speak about the paradise to come as a garden but instead speaks about it as a city. In the very final pages of scripture, Revelation 21:1 reads, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
I have come to believe that while this image of creation is beautiful to God, so is this. God loves nature. God also loves cities, and culture, and civilization, and architecture, and art, and politics, and business, and technology. When shaped in ways that serve other people and bring honor to him, God loves all of these things just as much as he loves trees, and mountains, and meadows and sunsets.
Cities which God loves, however, don’t just happen. Cities, as you know, must be built. Cities take work, a lot of work by a lot of people doing a lot of different things. Should we expect that God’s city, the New Jerusalem, will be any different? Each one of us here today is called to different work, but the work all of us are called to is sacred, no matter what it is. Your work in this world is meant to be the mask for God’s work in this world. As you come to believe this is true, Monday mornings are going to begin to look a whole lot different for you.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Genesis 2:4-9,15. What stands out to you from this text?
The first thing God has people do after creation is work. Why?
Jeff pointed out that since God is a worker, when we work we then reflect the image of God in us. Ulrich Zwingli said, “There is nothing in the universe so like God as the worker.” What do you think about this? When you work are you doing what God does?
Think about a time in your life when you did work which you found to be deeply meaningful and satisfying? How about a time when you couldn’t find any good work and you were discouraged and empty?
If you were given the chance to live the rest of your life in complete leisure, never having to work another day, would you take it? Why or why not?
What is the work you are doing now? Do you feel like your work is sacred work? Why or why not? What makes work sacred?
Read the Lester DeKoster quote above? What do you think he is saying? Do you agree?
What is one thing you could do which would help you see your work differently?
Suggested Scriptures for the Week: Taken from the Seeking God’s Face resource our church is using daily.
Monday: Psalm 142 ~ Ephesians 2:1-10
Tuesday: Psalm 143:1-2, 7, 11-12 ~ Eph. 3:14-21
Wednesday: Psalm 144:1-4, 9-10 ~ Eph. 4:1-6
Thursday: Psalm 145:1-7 ~ Ephesians 4:17, 25—5:2
Friday: Psalm 146:1-5 ~ Ephesians 5:8-20
Saturday: Psalm 147:1-7 ~ Ephesians 6:10-18
Sunday: Psalm 148:1-4, 13-14 ~ Hebrews 1:1-4
 Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, (New York: Dutton, 2012), p. 160. This book played a vital role in informing the content of this sermon. I highly recommend it to anybody seeking to better understand their work from God’s perspective.
 Tim Keller writes brilliantly on this in Center Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). See particularly Chapter 7.
 Cited by Tim Keller in Every Good Endeavor, p. 75-76.
 NIV. Emphasis mine.
 Keller, Every Good Endeavor, p. 50-51.
 Cited in a wonderful article by Chris Armstrong in Leadership Journal called “Refocused Vocation.” Read it at http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2013/winter/refocused-vocation.html