This sermon is part of the sermon series "ReImagine Work". See series.
Suppose someone were to show up at your workplace tomorrow, shove a microphone in your face, and ask, "How do you think your work affects the world?" What would you say? Would you stumble and hem and haw for a few moments? Would you eventually be able to come up with a cheery answer?
How does your work affect the world?
That's the question we'd like to focus on this morning in the second week of our ReImagine Work series. The big idea of the series is that work is good—in spite of how it is often portrayed in shows like, The Office, or comic strips like Dilbert. We're not pretending that work isn't hard, or that it doesn't at times feel absurd, or brutal, or simply necessary. We are saying that work, when it's properly understood and performed, can be good.
Last week we learned that work is good for God; no matter what we do for a living, from attending school to retirement and everything in between, if we do it to the best of our ability, as if we were doing it for God himself, our work can become an act of worship. Now we're going to discover that work is good for the world; that your work, whatever it is, can have spiritual value and eternal significance.
We asked several people the question, "How do you think your work affects the world?" We heard some positive, upbeat answers. One man happened to have enjoyed a remarkable career in politics, construction, engineering, and law. How did he answer? "Meaningless, meaningless. My heart despairs over all my toilsome labor under the sun. All of it is meaningless and a chasing after the wind." That man, of course, was Solomon, one of the most industrious and productive workers in all of human history. We still speak of his accomplishments 3,000 years later, and yet he felt as though his work was meaningless, and had no lasting value.
We all feel that way, sometimes. Does our work really matter? It's nice to know the donut we made will make someone happy for a few moments, but is that a good enough reason to get out of bed every morning? The average full-time worker will put in about 100,000 hours in his or her lifetime. (If you're an at-home mom, you can probably double that.) What will you have to show for all those hours? What difference will you have made in the world?
The question becomes especially pointed for Christ-followers, who get frustrated by the amount of time and energy they spend on the job when they'd rather be doing God's work—serving the church or spreading the gospel. Listen to how one man resolved that tension:.
"For ten years I worked as an architect in a large firm in my city. I enjoyed my work, but as I thought about it, my work seemed insignificant. For example, I helped design some office buildings in the downtown part of that city, and some homes on the outskirts of the city. But I realized that those office buildings would last 50, at most 75 years. They'd be pulled down. Those mansions would become tomorrow's boarding houses or slums. I felt I wanted to do something really significant, with eternal value.
So I gave up my job as an architect, went to seminary, and now I'm working on a mission field. I give people the gospel, and build into their lives truth that has eternal significance."
Is that what it comes down to? Do you have to quit your job to do God's work in the world or is it possible to find spiritual value and eternal significance in the job you have right now? Let's go to the Scripture and see what God has to say about how our work affects the world. Let's go back to the beginning to Genesis 1-2.
Work to be done
Genesis 1:1-2 says, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters." Last week we pointed out that God is a worker, and that he has been working since the very beginning of the universe. Here we learn a bit about the kind of work God has been doing. We're told that in the beginning he "created." That word "created" implies more than just bringing something out of nothing; calling the universe into existence. It also means organizing what exists and assigning functionality to the various parts. That's exactly what we see God doing here. Where there was chaos, he brought order. Where there was emptiness, he produced fullness. Where there was darkness, he introduced light.
That was just the beginning. There was more work to be done—so much that it would take six days to accomplish it all, (or six ages, however you want to reckon it). We don't have time to read the entire chapter, but we know how it goes. We know that the creation of the universe required intelligence. There's a clear sense of intentionality to the work; it unfolds in a logical progression, day after day, with increasing complexity and purpose. It required a variety of skills. We read that God spoke. God gathered. God set in place. God made. The work of creation involved intelligence, skill, and partnership. Verse 1 tells us that God the Father initiated this work, but verse 2 tells us that God the Spirit was present hovering over the waters. The New Testament later tells us that God the Son was the agent through whom all things were made. All three members of the Godhead participated in the work of creation. It was a work that required intelligence, skill, and partnership. At the end of day, God looked at all he had made and said, "It is good."
But the job wasn't finished. There was still more work to be done. God creates man in verse 26.
Notice two things. First, human beings were made in God's image, to reflect his nature and attributes, including God's ability to work. Human beings were given intelligence—minds that could reason and compute and imagine. Human beings were given skills and physical capacities that enable them to work—upright posture, opposable thumbs, five keen senses, and physical strength. Human beings were given other human beings with whom they could work—first a man and woman, but then children, siblings, relatives, and neighbors. We were designed by God to work, in the same ways that he works—with intelligence, and skill, and in partnership with other workers.
Secondly, notice that God intended those human beings to carry on the work that he had begun. He expected them to increase, to expand, to subdue, and to govern the world that He he had created. In other words, when God finished creating the universe, the work still wasn't done. God rested on the seventh day, but he didn't quit. The work of creation was going to continue, for a long time. In fact, this word, create, will show up again and again in Scripture, to describe God's continuing activity in the world on behalf of his people. God intended that men and women should work with him in expanding and extending his rule over the heavens and the earth.
Jump down to Genesis 2:15, where we read about the Garden of Eden, this wonderful ecosystem God created for the man and woman. "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." This Garden, beautiful as it was, still needed some work. It needed tending, and cultivating. It needed expansion, and diversification, and protection. God expected Adam and Eve to use their knowledge, skill, and partnership with each other to make that Garden all it was capable of becoming.
This is interesting. We've always understood that when God created the universe, and the Garden of Eden in particular, it was perfect. In one sense of that word, it was. It was everything God intended it to be at that moment. But it wasn't everything it could be. It wasn't everything it would be when his plans were fully accomplished. The world God created was good. In fact, it was very good. But it wasn't done. It was perfect, but it wasn't perfected.
Let's step aside from this story and see if I can illustrate this a bit. Does anybody recognize this object? It's a mobile phone —one of the original mobile phones. Do you remember when these first came out? It was an amazing invention. You could talk to people even when you were away from your home. A woman in our neighborhood was one of the first people in our town to get one. It was this huge walkie-talkie type thing that she carried in a holster on her belt, with a big antenna sticking out and long curly cord. It looked pretty ridiculous. You'd see her in the grocery store or on the soccer field with this big old phone, and people would say, "That's ridiculous. Why would anyone need a phone at the soccer field?!" Remember those days?
Now, do you know what this is? It's an iPhone. Apple recently announced the latest version of the mobile phone. It's not just a phone, of course. It's a computer, a camera, a personal listening system, a TV, and an organizer.
The mobile phone, when it first came out, was good. It was complete. It was everything a mobile phone was capable of being at the time. But it wasn't everything a mobile phone could be, or would be. There was still more work to be done. The iPhone is very good; it does far more than the original phone could do. But it's still not done. We can't even imagine what phones will look like, and what they'll be capable of five, ten, or 100 years from now.
So it was in the Garden of Eden. It was perfect, but it wasn't perfected. There was a lot more work yet to be done. We imagine the Garden of Eden as some sort of tropical paradise—a primitive Club Med where Adam and Eve would spend their days sipping pina coladas and watching the sunset, while the animals romped playfully in the trees. But that wasn't it at all. They had work to do.
Those plants and shrubs needed tending, and pruning, so that they would produce more fruit and better fruit. Those animals needed to be named and tamed, so they could be useful. Adam and Eve needed to procreate, to bring more human beings into the world. (It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it!) Those offspring would need to be cared for—nurtured and protected and educated. And somebody would have to make the pina coladas!
Remember now, all this took place before Adam and Eve fell into sin, before the ground was cursed. We tend to think that work is a result of the curse but that's not the case at all. Human beings were working before the Fall, and God was working before human beings needed to be saved.
Knowledge, skill, and connections
And so Creation was just Phase One of God's eternal plan for the universe. God intended for human beings to use their knowledge, skill, and connections to make the world all that he intended it to be. When we do that, our work is good.
What kind of work do you do? How do you make the world work the way God intends it to work? Some work is primarily knowledge-based —medicine, law, education, IT, or financial services. Other work is skill-based—carpentry, manufacturing, athletics, fine arts, or culinary arts. Then there is work that involves the managing and leveraging of relationships—HR, sales, parenting, management, or the helping professions.
Sometimes work looks different in other cultures. A couple of years ago, my wife Karen and I were in Chad, ministering with our missionaries Jeff and Judy Heath. As we wandered around the streets and neighborhoods of N'Djamena, I kept seeing men sitting around in groups on mats or stools, in the middle of the day, sometimes in front of their shops, often in front of their homes. They seemed to spend all their time sipping tea and shooting the breeze. I finally asked Jeff why all the men were just sitting around and not working. He explained that in a relational economy, people work by making connections. They may not have the product or service you need, but they know someone who does. People do business with people they know and trust. We visited a friend of Jeff's who ran a hardware store in the market. The store was no bigger than a closet, with a random assortment of electrical supplies and other odds and ends. I wondered why anyone would come to his shop when he had so little inventory. Right about that time a customer came by, and when the shop owner didn't have what he needed, he put his arm on the man's shoulder, and walked him to a friend's store that happened to carry the item. That's not Home Depot's strategy, but it works in Chad.
Work takes all kinds of forms and expressions, from one field to another and from one culture to another. Whenever people use their knowledge, skills, or connections to make life better, they're doing good work.
I was reading a scary article in the paper last week about botnets. You know what a botnet is? Neither did I, and I wish I still didn't . A botnet is a nasty strain of computer virus that can steal your identity, destroy your computer, and bring an end to civilization as we know it. Listen to what this article had to say about botnets: "They secretly install themselves on thousands or even millions of personal computers, band these computers together into an unwitting army of zombies, and use the collective powers of the dragooned network to commit Internet crimes." Yikes! You know what I was thinking as I read that article? I was thinking, I am so glad there are people out there who understand this stuff, who right now are writing code or messsing with motherboards or doing whatever it is they do to keep the world safe from botnets. Believe me, your work matters! All work matters. When you make life better for somebody, when you make one corner of the world a safer, happier, healthier place, you're doing good work. In fact, you're doing God's work.
We often make an artificial distinction between sacred work and secular work; between God's work and our work. But the Bible tells us that all work is God's work, if it's helping people and the world to become all that God intends them to be.
Let's return to that architect who left his profession to become a missionary. I'm not prepared to question his call, but I am prepared to question his reasoning. He reasoned that designing office buildings and houses had no spiritual significance and no eternal value. But if his office buildings added beauty and efficiency and prosperity to the city, then his work was significant, because God wants his world to be beautiful and efficient and prosperous. If the homes he designed provided people with safety and comfort and a life together, then his work had lasting value, because the people living in those homes have eternal value to God, and he wants them to enjoy the safety and nurture that a home can provide.
The same can be said for any profession or occupation. God wants his world to be beautiful, so he commissions people to be artists, and designers, and beauticians, and paint store owners. God wants people to be healthy, so he commissions others to be physicians, and nurses, and nutritionists, and therapists. God wants children to be loved and nurtured, so he raises up parents and grandparents and coaches and den mothers and child care workers. God wants knowledge to increase and to be useful, so he recruits people to do research and design computers and write books and teach students and explore new frontiers. God cares about justice, so he calls people to be attorneys and judges and lawmakers and social workers. God values order, - so Hhe puts managers in charge of departments, secretaries in charge of offices, and homemakers in charge of households. God wants people to live in peace and safety, so he enlists soldiers and police officers and government officials.
You get the idea. When we work to make life better for the people God loves, for the world he created, we're doing good work. We're doing God's work.
Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has become one of the most effective urban churches in the country today. That's because their mission is to bless the city not just by holding worship services and offering Bible studies, but also by making Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs better places to live, work, and play. Tim Keller, pastor of the church, puts it this way: "We equip our people to think out the implications of the gospel for art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship. If Christians living in major cultural centers do their work in an excellent but distinctive manner, that will produce a different kind of culture than the one we live in now." What the members of Redeemer Presbyterian are doing for New York, we can do where we live , simply by going to work every day, and using your knowledge, skills, and connections to make life better for people and communities.
One man's work
This weekend, we remind ourselves that there was a time in this country, a time some of us can remember, when people of color couldn't eat in certain restaurants, couldn't attend certain schools, couldn't live in certain neighborhoods, and couldn't pursue certain careers. Things had been that way for a long time, and many attempts to change the system had failed. But along came a man. A minister by profession called and trained to do God's work of preaching the gospel, teaching the Bible, and serving the church. He did those things well, but God had a special work for Martin Luther King, Jr. to do. King didn't like the way the world was working in the 1950's. He didn't think that's what God had in mind for humanity.
So he went to work. He used his knowledge of history and government and human behavior to teach people a new strategy for social change non-violent resistance. He used his skill with words to inspire and to challenge the American people to pursue the dream of an integrated and just society. He used his connections with politicians and clergymen to put pressure on our nation's leading industries and institutions. Soon other workers joined the cause—a cleaning woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus, social workers who went south to register voters, small business owners who dared to serve people of color, educators who taught their students that all people were created equal, lawmakers who drafted and passed civil rights legislation.
By his work he set in motion a movement that would transform this nation into a place where white children and black children would join hands and go to school together, and where people of all races and backgrounds would sit down together at the table of brotherhood. We still have a long way to go, but America is a better nation today, and we are a better people, because one man was determined to do his part to make this world work the way God intended it to work.
Every Monday morning, you and I have the same opportunity, to put our knowledge, skills, and connections to work;—if not for justice, then for beauty, or truth, or health, or whatever endeavor God calls us to. When you and I work to make life better for one person, for one community, for one industry, we are joining God in the work he's been doing from the very beginning—the creation and expansion of a universe that will reflect his glory in ever increasing ways for all of eternity. When you understand this, work is good. In fact, it's very good.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.