Work: Cultivating the Garden
And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Abraham Lincoln said, "My father taught me to work, he did not teach me to love it.” I grew up on a farm. From 11 years-of-age, if there was work being done in the field, I was expected to make a contribution to that work. I was not expected to make an adult-sized contribution. I often worked alongside my grandfather who let me take breaks at the end of a row while he worked on ahead. I understand Lincoln’s comment. I was taught to work; whether I loved it or not was a separate issue. Still, whether I loved the work or not, I was instilled with this sense that this work contributed to the welfare of our family. I may not have loved the work, but I loved the family whose welfare was being secured by that work.
How do you regard work? For many it is what you must do in order to get to do what you want to do. Many leadership professionals counsel people that if they find work they love to do, they will never have to “work” another day in their lives. But how many people actually love their work? Some people are consumed by their work in that it is how they find significance; this is sometimes manifest in what we refer to as a workaholic.
What does the gospel say about work? Today is “Reign of Christ” or “Christ the King” Sunday; the theme of scripture text is that Christ has been made “the head over all things.” As the loud voices in heaven declare in the Apostle John’s vision: “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever!” (Revelation 11:15) If, as the gospel declares, our Lord’s sovereignty extends over all things then it also includes our work. To the Colossian church Paul wrote: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Our Lord’s sovereignty of life isn’t to be compartmentalized. 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!” This may sound to some like an encroachment on their freedom. The gospel declares we are already bound; bound by our sin. That our resistance to the Saviour’s sovereignty is evidence that we are bound. The One who is himself truth sets us free. Free to see and understand work within his gracious rule.
1. First, with respect to the gospel and work, God is a worker. Jesus worked. His trade was said to be that of a carpenter. The Greek word “tekton” means both one who works with wood and stone; a carpenter and a mason. In a small village, like Nazareth, such a person was skilled in both wood and stone work because of the need to be versatile. Further, Jesus’s ministry in announcing the kingdom of God was work. A work of healing the sick, restoring clarity of mind and heart, teaching his disciples, and preaching the good news.
We know God to be a worker because the scriptures discloses to us his work of creating the world. We also know that God rested from his work of creating on the seventh creative day; thus establishing a pattern the shows us that work is important but it isn’t everything.
That God is a worker means that work is a good thing. When God came among us in Jesus of Nazareth he did human work—thus work has intrinsic value.
2. Secondly, humans were blessed with work. Work isn’t a curse on humanity as many think. While the word “work” has four letters it is not a “four-letter-word!” Humans were created by God as the one creature who was designed for relationship with God. In that relationship we were given work to do. The work of tending the created order. Work was declared good by God when God saw all that he made and said it was very good. It is true that human sin has marred human work; but this is not the same as saying that work was somehow a curse. Work became difficult because of sin; “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread”, God declared to Adam in that account of the fall in Genesis 3.
Even though sin has tainted work it still has its intrinsic value. Timothy Keller gives a wonderful definition of how the gospel understands work. Work is taking the raw materials of creation and re-arranging them for human flourishing. The work of gardening and farming gives us an example of this that is easy to grasp. The gardener/farmer doesn’t just leave things as she finds them—but rearranges, fertilizes, weeds with an end in mind—the growth of food or flowers. The one for sustenance of human life the other for beauty of surroundings, both of which promote human flourishing.
Consider the home builder (Jesus’s trade). I for one am very happy about how the raw materials of creation are assembled to keep out wind and rain; insulation that shelters from the cold and forced air heating systems. Consider the people who take the raw mathematical structures of the world to create financial order. Think of the medical practitioner who uses the raw materials in our world to promote health, the teacher who takes raw materials to create a setting for lessons and learning. All designed for human flourishing.
Seen from another angel of vision the gospel asserts that matter matters. The gospel doesn’t assert that matter alone matters—that is materialism. Christian faith does assert that matter matters.
Think of Christ Jesus our Lord. He is the eternal Word of God made flesh. By incarnating himself in Jesus of Nazareth God has conferred unspeakable worth on human flesh and therefore on everything that sustains it. If human flesh is important to God, then so is food for the body; so is clothing for it; so is shelter for it. Because the eternal Word has become flesh, matter matters. Matter matters enormously.
Think of what the Incarnate one does. He reconciles the world to the Father by means of the cross. Note: by means of the cross, not by means of a speech; not by means of an idea; not by means of a philosophy; by means, rather, of a cross. We are reconciled to God by means of coarse wood and coursing blood.
In Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats, genuine disciples and phoney disciples, are distinguished by one issue: whether they have used their material privilege to support the hungry, the homeless, the sick.
3. Thirdly, Christ’s redemption includes our work. If the blessing of work has been corrupted by sin how is this blessing recovered?
We have to remember who we are. Who we are is governed by whose we are. We belong to Jesus Christ. He is the one, scripture tells us repeatedly, through whom and for whom everything has been made. We belong to him. We live in his company. In his company we come to know why work is good, how it is good, and how readily it’s perverted.
In the company of Jesus Christ we have also found a contentment. Cherishing our contentment in him, we don’t have a nameless emptiness that we foolishly think to be assuaged by working harder. We know that work is not designed to satisfy spiritual hunger. Knowing whose we are, we know who we are: we are those whose resistance the master’s invitation has melted as he renews every day his invitation to us – “Come to me…and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:28-29)
Now, while work is not designed to satisfy spiritual hunger, it should be noted, work can be an effective vehicle of God’s truth and God’s compassion and God’s persistent caring for all whom he has made. G.K. Chesterton, a Roman Catholic, was asked if he disagreed with The Salvation Army’s methods. “Disagree?” Chesterton replied, “A brass band is a purely spiritual thing.” So, I would add, is securing drinkable water. So is fertilizing a farm. You have not had a spiritual experience except in your physical bodies; these are always together. To work is to say “yes” to God’s gift of life.
One more story about work. It comes from a Lutheran preaching professor Dr. Davis Lose. He writes: “I woke up this morning in Phoenix and look forward to sharing the day with leaders of the Grand Canyon Synod. On my way from the airport last evening I had a rather remarkable experience. Actually, it was on the one hand rather ordinary, even mundane, but maybe that’s why it made it seem all the more extraordinary.
I’ll confess that Sky Harbor – Phoenix’s airport – is not my favorite. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful, filled with shops, restaurants, even a museum, and there’s nothing quite like emerging from whatever climate you’ve been in to the warmth of the Phoenix sun. But what I don’t like is that the rental car facility is some distance from the airport and that means one more stage in the journey from wherever I’ve been to wherever I’m going. On top of that, it’s been a great, but exhausting, week or two with celebrations, meetings, travel, sermons, writing, and all the rest. So the prospect of catching the shuttle to the rental facility was, to say the least, not attractive. …
But here’s the thing: when I got on the shuttle and we began to move, the driver started talking about Phoenix. Not just of various sites, but what he loved about it, and what he hoped we’d love about it, too. He then shared his delight over the recent and unexpected rain they’d had and how that rain brought more green into the scenery, made the air less dusty, gave us a much better view on the horizon, and created for us – and the way he told the story it really seemed like all that rain really was just of us – a fresh and clean Phoenix just waiting for us to enjoy. And, indeed, the city skyline suddenly seemed more beautiful even as he spoke.
This wasn’t just a one or two sentence patter, practiced who knows how many times a day. It was simple and genuine rejoicing in his surroundings, his job, and his comrades on this bus ride. He expressed several times how much he enjoys his work, how much it means to him to be able to help people in this way, and how much he hoped we would enjoy Phoenix.
I looked around as he was talking—pretty much non-stop on the 8 or 10 minute ride to the rental car facility—and everyone else had the same smile I did. When he was done, we clapped. We couldn’t help it. And I went to get my car feeling refreshed, happy, ready for what was coming next.
I have no idea whether or not this man was a Christian, and I certainly wouldn’t presume that only Christians know and share this kind of joy. But as he was talking, I was reminded of Paul’s admonition, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say it, rejoice” (4:4). And it struck me again what a powerful thing joy is, and how easy it is to share because it’s contagious. Which means that the joy you express to others multiplies.
And he (God) has put all things under his (Jesus) feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.