Pentecost 11, July 31, 2016
Text: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14; 2:18–26
If you read bumper stickers, you may have seen the one that goes: “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.” Since the average U.S. household owes over fifteen thousand dollars in credit card debt, and that does NOT include mortgages, car loans, student loans, etc., a lot of us owe. For most of the workforce, that’s the best reason they can come up with for going to work each day. According to one poll, only 43 percent of American office workers are satisfied with their jobs.
Today we are going to talk about work. Do you like your job? What you do? Who you do it for? I know I am one of the blessed ones because I like doing what I do…most of the time, anyway. Work is supposed to be a good thing. Before the fall into sin, when the world was created, God put Adam “in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). (Cat Videos, Pokemon Go) After they sinned, however, God cursed the earth, so that Adam’s work would be a burden.
As Christians, it is difficult for us to live in this tension. On the one hand, we know deep in here that work is a good thing. Our vocation, our work, is a gift from God for service to Him and service to others. On the other hand, such labor is not easy. It is difficult, even painful sometimes. What a blessing, then, for us, to hear this passage from Ecclesiastes this morning. In Ecclesiastes, God offers us the idea that doing our work can, and should be joyful.
In our text, we have “the words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1). I believe this author was Solomon, and this was written towards the end of his life; after he had a good reign as king, after he had a thousand women in his harem, after many of them led him away from faith in God, and after he came back to faith in God. “Vanity of vanities,” he begins. “All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:2–3).
In the Old Testament, there are many words for work. “Toil” is one of them. This word, however, stresses the pain of our daily labors. In our text, Solomon says that he hates his toil precisely because he cannot control what happens to the fruit of his labor. He knows he can’t keep what he has earned in his life’s work and accomplishments. In the end, he needs to leave it to others. He could build barns and then build bigger barns and use them to store all of his wealth, only to find that one night he dies and all that he has accumulated is left to others (cf. Lk 12:13–21). In other words, Solomon realizes that, “YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU.”
That is why it is so important to listen closely as the Preacher closes this text. At the very end, Solomon opens our eyes to what comes “from the hand of God” (2:24b). He reveals how there can be joy in our labor. Solomon says, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil” (2:24a). Solomon, looking back on his long career, realizes what a blessing it is to find joy in your work.
God has given us the gift of daily labor and calls us to find satisfaction in that work, day after day. I see some eye rolling out there but would you really be happy if you literally had to do nothing? Wouldn’t that get boring? Work is a good thing: it keeps us busy and it gives us an opportunity to serve God and each other.
Too often, we turn our work in this world into an idol. Too often we see our jobs and careers as just a way to get more money so we can buy more stuff. It is the means where we try to build ourselves our own little kingdom. Advertising invites us to think that the true enjoyment of life lies just on the horizon, with one more purchase. So we work to earn money to buy that car, to build that house, to take that vacation, to find a joy in life that lasts. Is that where we really find joy that lasts?
Driving to worship at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Edmond Oklahoma can get you thinking. No matter what direction you are coming here from, you have to climb the hill where this church sits. Now if you come from the south, or the west (as I do), the road takes you by shopping places. One of the first things I noticed about Edmond is every intersection is shopping, and in between are housing developments. Anyway, so as you drive here there are shopping places you have to go past. It would be easy to turn off at one of the many entrances and go shopping. But as you get closer here, and look in the right direction, you see that cross up there above these shopping places, and it gets higher the closer you get to St. Mark. A cross, etched against the sky. In that moment, you are experiencing the tension of Christian vocation in America.
In America, people often associate work with earning a living. Having money not only for necessary expenses but also for the joys of consumption. Going shopping. Satisfying your desires. Finding those things you can buy to make yourself happy. That’s the joy that comes from work for many people.
Work was never meant to be the “be all and end all” of our lives. And such efforts will ultimately fail us. Think about this: Do you really find contentment in the stuff you buy? Now you have before you a guy who bought a much bigger house last year because having two kids and that horse back there in 1600 square feet was stressing us out. We like the house we bought last year, and we in our family are not bouncing off each other nearly as much as we used to, but that is not where my contentment or my peace truly comes from.
Peace and contentment come from knowing that God loves you, that Jesus died and rose for you, that even when we are greedy and selfish, when we repent we are forgiven.
Christians live differently. For us, work is not a way to fulfill our consumer desires. God didn’t put us here to keep Amazon.com afloat. No. Work is an opportunity for faithful living. Jesus has forgiven us our sins and called us to faithful service in the world. In work, we have a chance to reveal to the world just a glimpse of how God wants things to be.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus said. “And I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). Jesus took the punishment of God’s wrath for our sins on the cross, and He opened the kingdom of heaven to us when He rose again. Saved by Jesus Christ, we are freed from having work as our master. Now, work is a joyful place for service: service to God and service to others. In such work, God has given us a double joy.
Jesus Christ’s work of salvation has claimed all of our lives. Now, all that we do is done for Him. There is a joy to be found in raising children, in preparing food, in cleaning house, in serving clients at our place of business. C.S. Lewis wrote, “The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a (cleaning) woman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.’ This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a (rooster) must crow.” Whatever jobs, chores we do, we do them for God.
Since my ordination, I have stated many times (smiling) that God is my boss. That really is true for all Christians. I’ll put it this way: You know it’s true…everything we do, we do it for HIM. God originally called Adam and Eve to take care of creation, and now, after Jesus has saved us, the world is wide open for service to God. There is no work in this world that is too small for God to find pleasure in our service. Everything we do, we should do well, for Him.
God has given us vocations, jobs, careers, places for faithful service. For some, this vocation involves employment in the workforce. If you are not employed outside of the home, however, that does not mean you are not working. Many of us know the work of raising a family, serving the local community, caring for creation. Whatever our vocation, to His faithful people, God gives a double joy in daily work. We find joy in serving God, and we find joy in serving others.
This sermon adapted from Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol. 26, Part 3.