Too many of us treat our work as if, at best, it’s a necessary evil—something we have to endure in order to get to that part of our lives that we actually enjoy. Is work really so bad? Is is supposed to be? In this sermon, I talk about how God designed us to do good work—and to find joy and satisfaction in it. I also argue that all good work is the Lord’s work.
Do you believe that your job is a way of serving the Lord and loving your neighbor?
Sermon Text: Genesis 1:24-2:4
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
“Workin’ nine to five/ What a way to make a livin,’” Dolly Parton complains. “Barely gettin’ by/ It’s all takin’ and no givin.’” Some of us may not like our jobs, but that’s O.K.: The singer of another song says that everybody’s working for the weekend, anyway. The weekend, after all, is the only time of the week we have any fun. Nothing’s worse than “just another manic Monday”: when “I wish it was Sunday/ ’Cause that’s my fun day/ My I-don’t-have-to-run day.” Another singer never wants to work at all: he just wants to bang on his drum all day. Then some of us fantasize about that moment when we can tell our boss to “take this job and shove it/ I ain’t workin’ here no more.”
So many messages in our popular culture tell us that work is a problem that needs to be solved, that work is a necessary evil, that work is something we have to endure in order to get to the part of our lives that we enjoy. We’re working for time away from work. We’re working for vacation. We’re working for retirement—when we don’t have to work at all. That’s the ideal—not working at all.
Well… If we were ancient Greeks, that would be true: In Greek mythology, when the world was created, both human beings and the gods lived together in perfect harmony. This was considered the golden age of history. And get this: no one, god nor human, had to work. The earth simply provided everything that anyone needed. I’m reminded of that series of Corona beer commercials with the couple lying on deck chairs on the beach—doing absolutely nothing but watching the waves roll in. Is this the kind of life that God intended for us? Is this what life was like in Paradise, in the Garden of Eden, before sin entered the picture and messed everything up? Did work become a necessary evil only after humanity fell into sin?
Not even close! From the very beginning, God worked. And God designed us to work—and not only that. God designed us to enjoy work—the way God himself enjoyed work.
Verse 25: “God made every kind of wildlife, every kind of livestock, and every kind of creature that crawls on the ground”—and then what? “God saw how good it was.” Then God made human beings and finished his work, and verse 31 says, “God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.” It’s as if God were pausing for a moment to admire the work that he had done: And he saw that it was very good.
Do you know the kind of joy that comes from doing good work?
Just this past week, I got a call from a local funeral home about conducting a funeral for a man who died suddenly of a heart attack—and, unfortunately, at a young age. He and his family weren’t church members and didn’t have a church home or a pastor, but I get these calls from time to time. I’m usually happy to help. So I met with the family, gathered information about his life, and planned the service. I preached a sermon that paid tribute to the man’s life and proclaimed the the good news of Jesus Christ to people who desperately needed to hear it. When the service was over, the man’s wife was deeply touched and grateful for the work I’d done. She said she just couldn’t have imagined a better service. She said it seemed as if I knew her husband, and that my words were just what she needed to hear.
I’m glad she said that. I’m like, “Yay, Brent! Good job!” There is a healthy kind of pride that we ought to take in doing a job well. Like God at the end of Genesis 1, we ought to look at our work and say, “This is supremely good.” My work in ministry today often brings me great satisfaction and joy. I mean, I couldn’t realize my first dream of being an English rock star, but this is the next best thing!
But you know what? I also experienced this same kind of joy in my “secular” career, as an engineer. One of the first projects I worked on as an engineer was at an orange juice plant in Florida. The plant processed the oranges into juice and put the juice into the cartons and bottles that you see at a grocery store. On this project, I helped design what amounted to a very, very large dishwasher—a system that periodically cleaned out all the pipes in the plant. It took me weeks to design it, and I was nervous because I’d never done anything like this before. I was worried it wouldn’t work! I’ll spare you the boring details. Suffice it to say that when we tested the system out, I knew it would work if, at a certain point in the process, a particular valve opened and water filled up a giant tank. So I was nervously watching to make sure that would happen. And when it did—when the valve opened and the tank filled with water—I remember jumping up and down, cheering. I couldn’t have been prouder if I’d landed a rover on Mars or something! I turned to the engineer standing next to me. “See, I did that! I made that valve open and that tank fill with water! Isn’t that awesome?” For some reason, he wasn’t nearly as excited as I was. But for me, this work was supremely good! And it brought me great joy.
So I’ve shared two examples of the kind of joy that I’ve experienced through work—one example was from my secular career, in engineering. And the other example was from my career in ministry as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. Here’s my question: In which of those two instances was I doing the Lord’s work?
Hint: It’s a trick question.
We talked about the very good work that God did in creating the world. But here’s the thing: this very good world that God made wasn’t wasn’t completed at the end of the sixth day. See, God left the world unfinished, because he wanted us human beings to continue the good work that he started. God wanted us to share in this task of Creation. Listen to verse 26: God says, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” In verse 28, God repeats that we are to take charge of God’s Creation—and to “master” it.
The Bible says that we’re made in God’s image and that we “resemble” God. And we most resemble God when we do the things that God does. And what do we see God doing in Genesis 1?
Pastor and author Timothy Keller puts it like this: “If we are to be God’s image-bearers with regard to creation, then we will carry on his pattern of work.” The potential of this creation, he writes, is undeveloped, “so it needs to be cultivated like a garden.” Symbolically speaking, we are to be like gardeners over God’s creation. Being a gardener is not like being a park ranger—whose job is simply to preserve the land the way we found it: Being a gardener means “rearrang[ing] the raw material of the garden so that it produces food, flowers, and beauty.”
This is, he says, the pattern we follow for all good work. We rearrange the “raw material of God’s creation in such a way that it helps the world in general, and people in particular, thrive and flourish.”
Keller gives some examples of ways in which we follow God’s pattern of work: “Farming takes the physical material of soil and seed and produces food. Music takes the physics of sound and rearranges it into something beautiful and thrilling that brings meaning to life. When we take fabric and make a piece of clothing, when we push a broom and clean up a room, when we use technology to harness the forces of electricity, when we take an unformed, naïve human mind and teach it a subject, when we teach a couple how to resolve their relational disputes, when we take simple materials and turn them into a poignant work of art—we are continuing God’s work” of helping the world, and the people within it, thrive and flourish.
One seminary president was sharing these ideas with an audience of bankers in New York City. He encouraged his audience to see God as the ultimate investment banker: “[God] leveraged his resources to create a whole world of new life.” In the same way, he said, “what if you see a human need not being met, you see a talent or resource that can meet that need, and you then invest your resources—at your risk and cost—so that the need is met and the result is new jobs, new products, and better quality of life?” What you are doing, he says, is actually God-like.
Maybe I haven’t convinced you yet? If not, consider this: Each week in this service we pray the Lord’s Prayer—and I’m sure many of us pray it in our private prayer times as well. Each time we pray it, we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” When we pray this, we understand that God isn’t dropping bread out of the sky onto our table. We usually go to the store pick up a loaf or two. And even as we go to the store and purchase bread with money, we also understand that our “daily bread” comes to us as a gift from God.
So how does God give us this gift of bread? Obviously through the gifts of wheat and milk and oil and yeast and all that good stuff that God made. But also through farmers, factory workers, engineers, mechanics, bakers, forklift operators, janitors, salespeople, truck drivers, retailers, website developers. And think of all the people involved in supporting this effort of giving us our daily bread: teachers, IT professionals, lawyers, inspectors, police officers, daycare workers, medical professionals, construction workers, architects, even diplomats. It boggles the mind to consider how many people God uses to give us our daily bread! So when we pray for our daily bread, we’re really asking God to enable all these people to do their good work, so that God can answer our prayer.
Therefore, all of these people—whether they know it or not—are working on God’s behalf to answer our prayer for our “daily bread.” And if all these people are working on God’s behalf, aren’t they really doing the Lord’s work? God is working through all of them in order to bless our lives. They are the hands and feet of God. Their work is ministry. God is loving you through them. And you are loving others—which means that God is loving others—through your good work!
And if all that’s true, God’s fingerprints are everywhere. God’s handiwork is on display, not simply when we gasp at the beauty of the Grand Canyon, or the beauty of images from the Hubble telescope, or the beauty of our child being born—although I agree it’s on display in abundance in these examples—but also when a filmmaker makes a great film, when a piano teacher teaches a child to master, when a plumber repairs a leaky pipe, when an attorney helps us solve a legal problem, when a doctor successfully treats our illness, when a towtruck operator rescues us from the side of the road, when the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens bring us and our friends a little joy, God is also at work, loving us through their good work.
Is it O.K. to thank God for giving us the gift of football? Of course it is!
We often think of miracles as God intervening in our world in some extraordinary way—which may even include suspending the laws of physics. By all means, I believe God can and does work those kinds of miracles. But if we learn to see the world in the way that I’ve described, and we learn to see God in the way that I’ve described—as constantly intervening in our lives through other people, constantly loving us through other people—then there’s a sense in which miracles happen all the time. And our lives are filled with one abundant gift from God after another. And our hearts overflow with gratitude to God for his grace and love!
Jesus was asked one time what the greatest commandment was. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Perhaps the most practical, down-to-earth, humble way that we fulfill this great commandment—the most practical, down-to-earth, humble way that we love God and neighbor—is by doing good work—honest, skillful, competent, conscientious work.
Dorothy Sayers, an English author and Christian thinker from the middle of the 20th century, put it like this: “The church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him to not be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”
So getting back to the “trick question” I asked earlier: I strongly believe that my small part in putting orange juice in cartons was doing the Lord’s work every bit as much as the work I do now. And maybe some of you will object. You consider your own work and think, “This work I do is such a small and humble thing. I can’t imagine that this small and humble work amounts to much at all in God’s kingdom.” That may be true… But given that our King, whose kingdom we serve, demonstrated his love, for example, by washing his disciples’ feet, I’d say that we Christians are mostly in the business of the “small and humble,” wouldn’t you? And God can accomplish great things through the small and humble.
May the Holy Spirit empower us to love God and neighbor by doing good work. Amen?