Work

This is the third in a sermon series on issues that face us as Christians. And this morning the issue is work. The actor Noel Coward loved it. 'Work is much more fun than fun,' he said. More of us, I guess, would identify with Ronald Reagan's famous quote: 'They say hard work never hurt anybody, but I figure: Why take the chance?' Love it or hate it, we all have to do it. Which begs the question: exactly what are we thinking about? What is work? I take it that work is everything we do when we're not asleep or resting or spending leisure time. It's the whole business of living. Some work is necessary - faces must be fed. Nappies must be changed. Some of it's unnecessary. We don't need holidays in the sun or big houses. But we have them and many other unnecessary things - which all cause work. Some work is paid, and that's the only form of work our culture really values. But a vast amount is unpaid: Studying, washing up, parenting, grandparenting, voluntary work, you name it. Next question: why are we thinking about it? Well, partly because it fills so much of our waking hours. I looked on the bookstall to see what we had on work. No joy. By contrast we have half a shelf on sex. And yet which is going to occupy more of your time next week? But work also needs thinking about because of Romans 12.2:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.'

The world around us works for the wrong reasons and the wrong rewards. One extreme encourages us to be workaholics. The other dreams of a work-free leisure society. And both are wrong. So third question: how should we think about it as believers? (Or any other issue, for that matter). Well, from the Bible, obviously. But along the Bible's time. All Christian thinking must be done in that framework on the outline:

Creation: we need to ask: How did God design things to be?

Fall: how has human sin frustrated that design?

Salvation in progress: what difference does it make to be a Christian, yet still living in a fallen world?

And finally, salvation complete: what is the future beyond death, and what perspective should that give us on the here and now.

So, firstly, CREATION (Genesis 1-2) Genesis 2.2:

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing.

And (verse 1): the work in question was - creating the entire universe. So God himself is a worker. Genesis 1 is about God working: planning and deciding ('Let there be light', 1.3), doing, ('and there was light', 1.3), evaluating ('God saw that the light was good', 1.4), organising ('Now the earth was formless and empty...', 1.2, but by the time he'd finished it was ordered and filled). Those things are the ingredients of work. And God is a worker. If the god of Buddhism were real (which he's not) and became human, he'd lead a life of meditation. God's Son became human and worked as a carpenter. Work is dignified because it's God-like. Which is why inability to work or find work is such a trial. God is a worker. And we humans are made in his image. Which makes us workers. Genesis 1.26:

Then God said, 'Let us make man in our own image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'

Or Genesis 2.15:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden to work it and take care of it.

[I'm not, here, going to go into issues of the environment. For that, there was a sermon this time last year, in a similar series, on 'Creation and Ecology', Sunday 11 August 1996. Tapes/transcripts available.] The point is: work is not something we should be trying to escape. We live in a culture that dreams of the leisure-society, where it's all play and no work. But that is not the ideal world. Not according to Genesis. Neil Postman wrote a best-selling book about the way our society lives for leisure - for films, and TV and so on. The title: 'Amusing Ourselves to Death'. Which is a brilliant description of the lives of many people in our society, isn't it? The leisure-society is actually a nightmare because in reality it's the self-indulgence society, the filling-time society, the killing-time society, the 'Why am I here?' society - with no purpose. We were not made for leisure. We were made to work. There was work in the Garden of Eden. And I take it there's work in heaven. But we're more than just workers. Genesis 2.2-3:

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

And that became the reason for the Sabbath day in the OT (see Exodus 20.8-11, Deuteronomy 5.12-15). In the NT, under the new covenant, a Sabbath day isn't commanded for us as it was for God's people when they were a nation (see Romans 14.1-6, Colossians 2.16-17). But the principle of a rest-day, one in seven, still stands built into creation. And it's for our good: so we remember and nurture our primary relationship - that is with God. By taking that rest-day we're saying, 'I'm more than a worker. There's more to me than dealing with figures or food or clients or contracts.' We rest to remind ourselves that our primary relationship is not to our work, but to God. Because if we lose sight of that relationship, we don't work properly. We don't do anything properly. We so easily become absorbed in work that we forget that we were made for fellowship with God. And rest reminds us that we were made, above all, for fellowship with God. And I guess many of us need to learn what rest is. Because our 'leisure' time and social lives are often no different from the world around: as busy as our work-time; so hectic that we come out relationally and spiritually empty. Have you noticed how easy it is to fill a Saturday or even a whole weekend and never pray? Never read the Bible? Never talk Christianly with your husband or wife? It may be 'leisure', as the world sees it. But it's not 'rest', as the Bible sees it. Rest isn't just rest from work; it isn't even just rest with others - husband, wife, family, friends. Rest is rest with God. And if we don't rest, is it any surprise we find it hard to face the world of work? Well, that's creation. Let's move one step along the Bible's time-line: Secondly, THE FALL We need to understand the effect of sin, and its consequences, on work. Genesis 3 tells us how the first man and woman rebelled against God. They crossed God out of the picture of their lives and chose to try running their lives without reference to him. And we, in their footsteps, have all done the same. Which is sin: leaving God out of the picture and trying to find meaning and identity without him. And it affects everything - including work. Just think of how we meet people. 'Hello, I'm John.' 'Nice to meet you. I'm Ian.' 'And what do you do, Ian?' When we leave God out of the picture, we become what we do. 'I'm a doctor,' says someone, and they feel good about themselves. Because society feels good about doctors. 'I'm a dustman,' says another, but he doesn't feel so good. When we leave God out of the picture, we forget we're valuable simply because he made us and loves us. And we look for self-worth from work. From our careers. From our children. From our exam results. From the University we can say we've been to. From how much they pay us. With the fall, work becomes our identity. But it always leaves us insecure. Even when we're at the top. In fact, especially when we're at the top. G. K. Chesterton wrote this: 'When man stops worshipping God, he doesn't worship nothing. He worships anything.' And the career and the family - where it survives - are two great idols of our society. People live for them as their god, as their substitute for God himself. Which is why God put a curse on work. Genesis 3.17:

To Adam [God] said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,'

"Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."

Which was not an act of harshness, but an act of kindness. God has seen to it that life without him is frustrated (compare Romans 8.20-22, which is a commentary on Genesis 3). It doesn't work. And our experience of that - in work (Genesis 3. 17-19) and relationships (Genesis 3.16) - is designed to make us ask the question, 'What are we doing wrong?' To which the answer is: leaving God out of the picture. And that curse will affect our work, too, even as believers, because we are still living in a fallen world. The curse means we will always be insecure if we look for our identity and value in our work. The curse means job satisfaction will always be an ideal that escapes us. It is not something to be expected. Work has become 'painful toil', v17. That's why we had that OT reading from Ecclesiastes (2.17-26) - the book that shows that even the good things of life, like work, leave us dissatisfied in a fallen world. Without the eye of faith, we too would be forced to say, 'Meaningless' (Ecclesiastes 2.17, 19, 21, 23, 26), pointless. What's the point of medicine when no-one ultimately survives? Or of engineering, when everything ultimately falls down or wears out? Or of a career in the police or the law or so many of the services or authorities where your time is spent regulating the effects of sin? 'Meaningless,' we would say, unless we knew there were bigger purposes in the world to live for. And often we have to face squarely the triviality or the monotony or the frustration of our work, and say to ourselves, 'But there are bigger purposes for which I'm doing this.' Most people in this country say they dislike their work. And if we have a measure of satisfaction, we should remember that in a fallen world that's something out of the ordinary. According to Ecclesiastes, it's not something I can expect of a fallen world. Nonetheless:

A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. [And if he does?] This, too, I see, is from the hand of God. (Ecclesiastes 2.24)

And the curse means we shouldn't be surprised when we find ourselves saying, 'You know, it's all I can do just to survive right now.' Well, Genesis 3.19: 'by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.' God's message, through the curse - for those with ears to hear - is: 'You can't survive. Not without me.' As Paul put it, writing of the Lord Jesus Christ: 'He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.' (Colossians 1.17) Without him, life simply doesn't 'hold together'; it falls apart. We can still exist without him, but we can't live. Creation. Fall. Then: Thirdly, SALVATION IN PROGRESS Would you turn to 1 Corinthians 7.17-24. We live after creation; after the fall; after the first coming of the Lord Jesus. So what if we're believers - people who've stepped out of line with the rest of the world and turned back to Jesus as Lord? That's who Paul is writing to: 1 Corinthians 1.2:

'To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified [set apart', from one group into another] in Jesus Christ and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ - their Lord and ours.' (1 Corinthians 1.2)

Which simply means that to become a Christian is not to add an extra religious bit to life - a going to church bit, a reading-your-Bible bit, and so on. To become a Christian is to bring all that I am, in all my life circumstances, under the Lordship of Jesus. Which includes my work. The Corinthians had funny ideas about sex and work. Having become Christians, they began to think both activities were somehow less than 'spiritual'. Most of chapter 7 is about sex and marriage (see 7.1), but v17 onwards is about work, among other things. And the unspoken question Paul is addressing is something like this: 'Isn't work rather 'unspiritual'? Now I'm a Christian and I've found out what life's really about, wouldn't it be better to give up my work and spend all my time in Bible study, prayer, church activities - or even to become a full-time paid Christian worker?' And Paul says: No. No it wouldn't. In fact, he says, you've missed the whole point. If Jesus is your Lord, you can and should worship him (that is, live for him) everywhere. The 'work-place' (paid or unpaid, remember) is the worship-place. And whenever we narrow the word 'worship' to describe what we do here when we meet as a church, we make the same mistake all over again. [See Romans 12.1-2 for the NT understanding of worship as the living of one's whole life in response to God's mercy in saving us. So, to say, 'I go to church to worship' is like saying, 'I go to bed to breathe'. It's true enough that I do breathe in bed, but it's not why I go to bed; I go to bed to sleep, to be prepared for another day. Similarly, it's true enough that I do worship - that is, live for God - when I am at church. But, that's not why I go to church. I go to church to be prepared for another week's worship, out there in the world of work and rest and play and relationships. I go to church to be prepared by the teaching of God's word and the fellowship of his people. So, next time someone asks you, 'And where do you worship?', don't say, 'At JPC.' Say, 'Everywhere.'] 1 Corinthians 7.17:

Nevertheless, each one should retain the position in life that the Lord assigned to him, and [literally - RSV is a better translation] in which God has called him.'

So, I think of a friend converted while doing teacher training. God hasn't 'called him' to be a teacher. That's not how the NT uses the term 'call'. The word 'call' in the NT is used for God calling us through the gospel to have Jesus as our Lord. But God did call this friend to Jesus while he happened to be in (or embarking on) the teaching profession. So what should he do, then? Drop teaching and 'go and do something for the Lord'? No! Paul says: stay there. 'Retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to [you], and in which the Lord called [you].' Don't misunderstand what it is to be spiritual. Being spiritual is simply living for Jesus as your Lord where you are.' And unless where you are is immoral, stay where you are and live for Jesus. If where you are is immoral, you need to change. It's probable that, before coming to Christ, some of the Corinthians had been involved in pretty immoral work (see 1 Corinthians 6.9-11, which mentions 'thieves' and 'swindlers'). Of them, Paul would have demanded changes of work - because the Lord calls us to repent of what he says is immoral. If you're a school teacher, stay where you are and live for Christ, there. If you're a bank robber, you need to find a second career, now you've become a Christian (see Ephesians 4.28, too.) And Paul says, so long as it's moral, the thing that counts (v19) is not what you are, or what you do, but how you do it for God. He switches to a different example in v19, but the thought is clear: 'Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts.' He might just as well have said, 'Being a doctor or a dustman is nothing in itself. Being a lawyer or a lollipop lady is nothing in itself. How we do it; doing it for God is what counts.' Here, for example, is Paul's teaching on how employees and employers are to do their work for the Lord: Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favouritism. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.' (Colossians 3.22-4.1; see also Ephesians 6.5-9, 1 Timothy 6.1-2, 1 Peter 2.18-25) The 'work-place' (paid and unpaid) is the worship-place. The Lord is there with us, and doing it for him is what counts. And that gives purpose to our work when our managers or our husband or children fail to notice it or appreciate it. It gives purpose to everything from dealing with a stroppy customer to feeding a baby in the middle of the night. And notice how Paul echoes Genesis: we are not what we do. 1 Corinthians 7.21-22:

Were you a slave when you were called [ ie, when you heard the gospel and responded]? Don't let it trouble you - although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called is the Lord's freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ's slave.'

Well, there's a word for low-status workers, if that's what we feel we are in our society. Don't let it trouble you, because that's not your identity. That's not who you are. First and foremost, you have the great status of belonging to Christ. And sweeping the road for him has more purpose and value than being a pagan earning millions for yourself. (See Luke 12.13-21, the parable of the rich fool). And there's a word for the high-status workers among us. Don't let it go to your head. Don't look for your status and security there. The world will swell your head with letters after your name and on the boot of your car, and with the size of your salary. But Paul says to the high status ones in the Corinthian church: that's not who you really are, either, if you're a believer. You're Christ's slave. And, paradoxically, that's where you'll find real greatness, as you sit in the boardroom, or behind the wheel of your BMW. And by extension there's a word for the unpaid worker. Maybe the retired person who's active and purposeful for Christ. Or the house-bound or disabled person whose great work is hospitality, or letter-writing, or prayer. Or the mother at home with young children. Society doesn't think anything of what you do because you don't earn anything for it. Well don't let that trouble you, either. You're earning Christ's approval. He doesn't need to give you a pay-slip to give you purpose and value in your work. So, lastly, SALVATION IN PROGRESS UNTIL COMPLETE Time won't last forever. Jesus is coming back to end history and to complete the salvation - from sin and its consequences - which he's begun. That will involve judgement and the two destinations for all human beings of heaven and hell. So we need, finally, to look at work from the perspective of eternity. 1 Corinthians 7.29-31:

What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none [he's not talking neglect; he's talking priorities, and he's deliberately blunt so we sit up and get the point]; those who mourn as if they did not; those who were happy as if they were not; those who buy something as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of this world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

So: we won't become engrossed in work or in the rewards of work. Our culture does both. Witness: the adverts for the new Eldon Shopping Centre credit card. I quote: 'The Eldon Centre Card. A rewarding shopping experience has arrived.' Shopping is now the great reason for living, the great experience to seek. And to people who know the true reason for life, who look forward to the experience of heaven, Paul says: Don't be like them. 'For this world in its present form is passing away.' [NB: the NT tells us to work in order to feed and provide for ourselves, our families, and others (1 Thessalonians 4.11-12, 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13, 1 Timothy 5.3-8, Ephesians 4.28). It also tells us to be content if we have food and clothing, not to love money, not to imitate the pagan lifestyle of consumerism, not to chase ever-higher standard of living, not to love money (1 Timothy 6.6-10, Matthew 6.19-34)] The other consequence of the eternal perspective is this: we will act on the fact that the work of evangelism (that is, making the gospel known to, others) is of ultimate importance in a way that all other work is not. Please don't mishear me: I'm not saying that other work is neither important nor valuable. I'm simply saying that in the light of eternity, and of the gospel, there is a relative scale of importance. And evangelism is at the top. So we won't overvalue our work, however much the world may. To get a class through GCSE's is great. But it won't give them any answers for the day of judgement. In heaven, I'll be more grateful to a maths teacher of mine for leading me to Christ through running a CU, than for helping me get my A-level. I'm glad he taught me group theory and differentiation. I'm infinitely more glad he taught me that Jesus died in my place for my sins so I could be forgiven. And then, we'll regard the way we work as a means of witness for Christ. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Christians: 'Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders' (1 Thessalonians 4.11-12) If you let it be known you're a Christian, the way you run your office or company or home will speak for Christ. And then, we'll get involved in the work of the gospel outside our other work. That maths teacher who led me to Christ taught well. But had he not also run a CU and prayed for me I might still be a pagan, simply thinking what a nice bloke he was. Which, in the face of eternity, wouldn't be much help to me. 'For this world in its present form is passing away.' People around us are going either to heaven or hell. And like that maths teacher, we need to carve out time for the work of the gospel - whether it's serving in an area of church, or beyond church. And it's encouraged me over recent months in JPC to hear of people doing that. I think of a married couple who decided they only needed one income, to set the other free - in part, for gospel-work. Or medics choosing options that minimise work-time; or choosing the GP pathway to have the flexibility of part-time working - again for the sake of gospel-work. Or people negotiating flexible hours so as to be involved with the outreach of the Mother and Toddlers/Babies groups. I know that for many of us, there is little, maybe no, flexibility; just the full-blown mania of today's paid work-place. But there is room for manoeuvre for some of us, and the gospel demands we use it. Lastly, if we see the eternal perspective we will support full-time paid Christian workers - and make that central to our strategy of earning and spending. And we need to get business-like here. One member of my home-group shared for prayer the possibility of two jobs she might move to. I said, 'What's the difference?' She said, 'Nothing, really. Except that one pays £8000 more.' Something like that, anyway. 'No choice, then,' I said, 'You should go for the extra £8000.' At which I sensed a slight ripple through the home-group. If not of disapproval, at least of surprise. But £8000 is a Parish Assistant's salary plus expenses. £8000 is a one-year training for a possible future minister of the gospel and leader of the church. I wasn't suggesting she keep it. We need Christian professionals with a vision for making money in order to support the work of the gospel. There are different gifts and ministries in the local church. Earning a lot of money is not mine (although I am called to give, on my salary, just as you are on yours, if you have paid work). But if your gift is to earn a lot, do you see it as a gift and a ministry to be used for God? Will you follow the Christian example of John Laing? At the start of building up the family business into a construction giant, he pledged to God to peg his standard of living, save a necessary amount for old age, and simply give the rest for the gospel. When he died, having made millions, they read the will. He left about £400. It all went to the gospel. The modern CU movement was pretty much built on his giving. He understood v31: 'For this world in its present form is passing away.' Well, that's a sketch of the Bible's overview of work. I trust something of God's mind on the issue. So let me leave you with the Bible references, and Romans 12:2 as your agenda: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Questions for further thought

What principles can you find from this overview for deciding what kind of paid work to look for, or deciding on job changes? Whether your work is paid or unpaid, what help does this overview give about the attitude you work with? What should be our response to work/work-places that we dislike? What is the balance in your life between work and rest? What needs to change, if anything? What is the balance in your life between work and gospel-work? What needs to change, if anything? How can your work-place(s) provide opportunities for witness? How can you make progress, in this?

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