In our culture, we imagine Paradise as a place free from work, and that work, at best, is a necessary evil. In fact, most of us want to make enough money some day so that we can stop working entirely. Today’s scripture is literally about Paradise—the Garden of Eden—and what do we see the first humans doing in Paradise? Working! The truth is, we were made to work. Work is good gift from God. If this is true, however, why does work so often become harmful to us? How can we work in the way that God intended—in a way that enables us to also enjoy Sabbath rest?
Sermon Text: Genesis 1:26-2:3; 2:7-9, 15
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Most of you have probably heard about NFL players such as Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson who have faced legal trouble recently over the problem of domestic abuse. A lot of people are wondering if there’s a connection between playing this seemingly violent sport of football in the NFL and domestic abuse. Is there something about the job that contributes to the problem? Last week, an editor at Christianity Today used these high-profile stories to shed light on a more widespread problem at home—a problem that very likely affects you or someone you love. It’s not domestic abuse but domestic neglect. And we know for sure there’s a strong connection between our jobs and this problem.
For example, how many of you remember the 40 hour work week? According to one Washington think-tank, 86 percent of men and 67 percent of women now work more than 40 hours a week. We already get far fewer vacation days than our European counterparts, for instance, and we rarely take all the days that we’re entitled to. Most of us believe it’s bad for our careers to be away from work for very long.
Then there’s the related problem of not really being away from work, even when we’re away from work. I liked this headline in the satirical “newspaper” The Onion: “Laid-Back Company Allows Employees to Work from Home after 6 P.M.” The CEO of the company is quoted as saying, “If it helps them be efficient and get more done, I have no problem with people working remotely once they’ve left the office for the day.” He noted that as long as they’re doing their jobs, the location where his staff members choose to work between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. is ‘completely up to them.’”
Some of you probably work for companies like that!
Also, have you ever heard someone say, “I’m sick of my job”? That’s almost literally true today! The CDC reports that the longer hours we’re putting in at work are “associated with poorer perceived general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses, and increased mortality. Two recent studies have linked long work hours to a higher risk of depression” and anxiety. Over half of us report that our jobs interfere with our family and home responsibilities.
We have a problem—a crisis—related to work in this country. But the problem, today’s scripture tells us, isn’t work itself.
In today’s scripture, the Bible says we are made in God’s image, after his likeness. Among other things, being “made in God’s image” means that in some sense we’re supposed to imitate God and do what God does. And what do we see God doing in Genesis chapter 1? That’s right, God is working. God is creating. God is bringing order out of chaos. And as God’s representatives in this world, we’re supposed to follow his pattern of work: which means, taking the raw materials that God has given us—including our bodies, our talents, our money, our resources, the things of the earth—and making something better out of them. Or making something beautiful out of them. Or making something useful out of them—taking what God gives us and making things that enable our world to survive and thrive.
It’s easy to see how artists do this. Whereas you and I might only have seen a slab of marble, Michelangelo saw his masterpiece David, and he took that marble and transformed it into something beautiful.
But this kind of work isn’t just for artists: all honest work—no matter how humble it is—follows God’s pattern of work—of creating, of bringing order out of chaos. Think about it: Farmers take the “physical material of soil and seed and produce food.” Entrepreneurs take investors’ money and create products and services that benefit our lives. Musicians take the physics of sound and rearrange them into something beautiful and thrilling that gives 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 take an unformed, naïve human mind and teach it a subject,” the way teachers do, we are following God’s pattern of work. When we care for Creation—the environment—and when we care for God’s creatures, for example, the way Bob Heath does in his work to rescue golden retrievers and adopt them into loving homes, or the way Ashley Kirk will be doing when she works with veterinarians—we are doing the good work that God created us to do.
Work is good. God created us to work.
By contrast, we usually think that work is, at best, a necessary evil—something we have to do to get enough money to pay the bills, and we want to have enough money some day not to have to work at all. Right? That’s our dream. Paradise, in our minds, means not working! Think of that beer commercial that’s so popular that pictures a couple of people lying on deck chairs, looking at the ocean in some tropic island paradise—doing absolutely nothing at all. And that’s the dream, right? That’s paradise, as we imagine it!
But that’s not paradise at all. God shows us paradise in today’s scripture—and what does it look like? Does it look like Adam and Eve lying on a beach doing nothing? No, it looks like Adam and Eve working—just like God also works!
We often say, “We work in order to live.” From a biblical perspective, that’s almost exactly opposite the truth. For the most part, we live in order to work! It’s what we were made for!
But getting back to what I said at the beginning of the sermon, why does work—this otherwise good gift from God—so often go bad?
Interestingly enough, Madonna, of all people, gave an insightful interview in Vogue magazine years ago that sheds light on this very question. She said that what drives her to work so hard is her “horrible feeling of inadequacy. I’m always struggling with that fear. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being, and then I get to another stage and think I’m mediocre and uninteresting. And I find a way to get myself out of that. Again and again. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody,” she said, “I still have to prove that I’m Somebody. My struggle has never ended, and it probably never will.”
Because even though I’ve become Somebody, I still have to prove that I’m Somebody.
This reminds me of the movie Chariots of Fire. It’s based in part on the true story of an Olympic runner from Britain in the 1920s named Harold Abrahams. He’s a great runner. No one is more driven to succeed than he is. No one wants to win more than he does. No one has worked harder than he has. But in his first couple of races at the Olympics, he loses. So it comes down to one last race—the hundred-meter (although I believe it was still measured in yards back then). He tells his trainer, “I have 10 seconds to justify my existence.” I don’t know whether the real-life Abrahams uttered these words, but if he did, they are among the saddest words ever spoken. “I have 10 seconds to justify my existence.”
See, whether we’re using work to justify our existence, or prove to ourselves that we’re not mediocre and uninteresting, or prove to ourselves and to others that we really are “Somebody,” we have turned work into an idol. Which, as I’ve preached before, is another way of saying that we are looking to our job, our work, our career to fill a hole in our heart that only God can fill. The problem with looking to things outside of God to fill that God-sized hole in our heart is that these things are never enough, no matter how much of them we get. Nothing outside of God himself can satisfy us.
And what happens when we worship things like work, or success, or money? What happens is we can never truly find the rest that we are also created for.
Rest… Sabbath. If we’re created in God’s image, and we do what God does, that means we are made to work, yes, but it also means what? We are made to rest from our work. We all know this. Many of us also know that we’re not very good at it. We say, “We need to find balance in our lives—the right balance between work and family, or work and leisure, or work and rest.” Balance. But maybe balance isn’t the right word: see, if we’re not resting properly, guess what? We’re also not working properly.
Here’s what I mean: in verse 31 of Chapter 1, it says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” So the sixth day is finished. God has just finished making everything on the sixth day. But then we get to Chapter 2, verse 2: It says, “On the seventh day God finished his work.” Well, wait a minute. Didn’t God finish his work on Day 6. Yet here the Bible says that he really finished on Day 7. That’s confusing. What does that mean? I think this is God’s way of telling us that our work isn’t truly finished until we’ve stopped and rested.
Your “job” isn’t finished, in other words, until you’ve taken time to rest—true Sabbath rest. According to Tim Keller, Sabbath rest is a “declaration of freedom”: “It means you are not a slave—not to your culture’s expectations, your family’s hopes, your… school’s demands, not even to you own insecurities. It is important that you learn to speak this truth to yourself with a note of triumph—otherwise you will feel guilty for taking time off, or you will be unable to truly unplug.”
So how are we doing at resting, and unplugging, and taking time off? Maybe not so good, right?
In the gospels, we’re told that Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee one night in a small fishing boat with his twelve disciples. A terrible storm came up. Wind and waves were battering the tiny ship. The disciples were quite confident that they were going to die. And where’s Jesus in this time of crisis? He’s asleep on a pillow in the stern of the ship. Remarkable, isn’t it? You know how sleep is… It’s very difficult to achieve it if you’re worried or anxious or stressed. Right? But there’s Jesus. Sleeping in the midst of a terrifying storm. How does he manage to sleep?
Because he had a deep and abiding faith that his heavenly Father was taking care of him. See, Sabbath rest is also an act of faith: We’re able to step away from our work—we can afford to step away from our work—because why? We’re not carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. You know who is? God. He’s got this under control. He’ll make sure the world keeps turning. He’ll make sure everything works out. Jesus knew this. We need to know it, too!
Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you”—what? “Rest.” Don’t you want rest? The only place you’ll find true rest is in Christ alone.
So here we are, the first week in our stewardship season, and I haven’t said a word about money. And you’re thinking, “I’m off the hook. Pastor Brent didn’t step on my toes at all. This is great!” I didn’t talk about money, in part because stewardship is so much more than that. Stewardship means that God gives us everything that we need to survive—just as he gave these first humans everything. And it’s up to us to use these gifts God gives us responsibly and faithfully, according to his will and not our own. That means, for example, trusting that we can take time away from work and rest—knowing that we’ll be O.K. God will continue to care for us.
And it also means trusting that we can be generous with the financial gifts that God gives us—by sharing them with others—and trust that God will continue to take care of us. I’ll say more about that next week. My point is, our workaholism, our inability to find Sabbath rest, is a symptom of the same problem that prevents us from being as generous as God wants us to be.
Remember that Madonna interview? She had to work hard all the time to prove to herself and others that she was Somebody. But don’t you see? God has already proven that she’s Somebody, And he’s already proven that you’re Somebody. And he’s already proven that I’m Somebody. How? On the cross! When our Lord Jesus went to the cross, it was as if he were saying, “[Name], I love you so much that I left my home in heaven for you; I sacrificed all that power that I had as God for you. Because I love you, I let other people insult me, mock me, spit on me, beat me, whip me, and nail me to this cross. By rights, I could have ordered an army of angels to come and wipe out every person who put me on that cross—because that’s what they deserved—but I loved you too much to do that. Because when they nailed me to the cross, it was as if I were taking each one of your sins—past, present, and future—and nailing them to the cross with me. I took your guilt upon myself, I died in your place, I suffered hell for you—so that you wouldn’t have to. Because I love you.
“But believe me when I say this: all the sacrifice, all the suffering, all the dying was completely worth it to me because it means that you will be with me—in my Father’s house—for all eternity.
“That’s what you are worth to me. That’s how much I love you. So have nothing to prove to me.” And if you have nothing to prove to me, you certainly don’t have anything to prove to yourself or anyone else. You belong to me. You’re a child of my heavenly Father.”
So at our house right now we have these baby chicks. It’s for a school science fair project. And let me tell you: baby chicks are absolutely as cute as advertised. Little fuzzy yellow adorable things. Just perfect. You know, babies are like that, too. Right? Cute, adorable, perfect in every way. They grow up and become teenagers and then all bets are off! But think of the love and pride and affection that parents feel for their little babies. Babies couldn’t be more trouble, but parents don’t care; all babies are perfect in their parents’ eyes.
Listen: Because of what Christ has done for you—in taking your sins away, cleansing you of your sins—that’s how our heavenly Father see you. Did you know that? Because of Jesus, you are perfect and beautiful in your Father’s eyes—and he couldn’t love you more!”
 These ideas are courtesy of Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work with God’s Work (New York: Dutton, 2012), 58-9.
 Ibid., 236.
 Matthew 11:28