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God Is at Work

We work hard, but we sleep because God gives to us, his beloved, while we sleep; we invest, but we rest because God is at work while we rest.


Do you have any recurring dreams? When I was a student, and for many years after, I had a recurring dream: I am enrolled in a math or French class and have forgotten to attend class and study for the course all semester long … and I have a big exam and I'm completely unprepared for it. It's about three-quarters of the way through the semester and it's too late to drop the course—and I'm afraid that my GPA is going to sink through the floor.

Now that I've been out of school for a while, I don't have that dream. But I have had another recurring dream. I'm at a church. It's about five minutes before I'm supposed to preach and the offering song is being sung, but I have NO idea what I will say. I quickly scratch out an outline, and I walk to the podium, look down at my notes, and see #!?5Z*@%. I have no idea what the symbols are supposed to trigger in my memory. So, I begin to wing it, making up the message as I go. And people start to walk out of the sanctuary.

What the dream seems to be telling me, at least in part, is that on a subconscious level I am not fully trusting the grace of God for my preaching; that I'm bearing too much of the preaching load on my shoulders. Perhaps you do, too. Or perhaps you bear too much of the psychic weight of your church or ministry or your family or a loved one on your shoulders. If so, the text we're going to look at today has good news for you.

(Read Psalm 127:1-5)

Seek God's vision

Psalm 127 begins with the words "unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain." The word "house" in the original Hebrew can mean an actual physical home or temple, but it can also refer to a household or family, as suggested later in the psalm.

The Psalmist says unless the Lord builds the house its builders labor in vain. The Psalmist says unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. When the Psalmist says the builders labor in vain, this doesn't mean that no human work can flourish without God's conspicuous, dramatic intervention, but it does mean that a work done without God's participation and guidance will ultimately be empty. It will not endure. It will be in vain. Verse 2 says, "In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat …"

If our work is not done with God's participation and guidance, even if we work very hard—rising early, staying up late, and spending all the time in between studying, preparing, preaching, organizing, leading, drinking lots of coffee—the Psalmist says that ultimately our work will be in vain. The Psalmist, implicitly, is calling us to discern where God is calling us to invest.

In 1996, when I first came to Tenth Avenue Church, where I still serve, I was intimidated by the challenge of pastoring a historic church whose "glory years" were considered to have been back in the 1950s. Church attendance had dwindled from more than 1,000 to 100 and something, and the congregation had cycled through 20 pastors and associate pastors in 20 years.

During one of my first days at the church, the secretary came into my office and said, "Ken, I just want you to know that if the church sinks now, everyone will blame you since you were the last person at the helm." She was trying to motivate me to work harder. "Um, thank you," I said, "I'm not going to need to listen to my Tony Robbins CD today!" But I felt depressed.

Not long after that, my mentor Leighton Ford, an older Presbyterian minister who lives in North Carolina, happened to be in Vancouver. We were sitting in my car outside the church. I was desperate for some encouragement, but I felt it would sound pathetic to ask for that, so instead I asked, "Can you offer me some counsel?" He crossed his long legs, paused, and said: "Remember that God is an artist. He will not lead you to copy others. So seek God for his unique vision for this place."

Psalm 127 implicitly calls us to seek God's vision for our work so that what we do aligns with God's purposes. When the Psalmist says that unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain, the Psalmist is NOT saying that we're not to work hard. (Remember, this is a psalm of Solomon, or concerning Solomon. We know Solomon worked extremely hard.) The Apostle Paul, in Colossians, calls us to work with all our hearts "as working for the Lord, not for human masters" (Col. 3:23).

God is at work even while we rest

We are to work hard, but we can relax because we know that true success is not primarily the result of our efforts, but the result of God building something. We can let go. We can feel lighter as the weight of ultimate success and failure is lifted off our shoulders. We don't live by the sweat of our brow, but by the grace of the manna provided for us.

Notice verse two again, "In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves." The Psalmist speaks here of sleep. The first part of verse 2 says, "In vain you rise early and stay up late, [anxiously] toiling for food to eat." Then the second part can be understood either as, "God grants sleep to those he loves" or "God gives to his beloved while they sleep."

Which reading is more likely to fill someone with peace, to encourage a person to refrain from rising early and staying up late because they are anxiously fretting about getting enough done and being sufficiently productive? I believe it's the second reading: "God gives to his beloved while they sleep." When we understand that God provides for us in our sleep, we can sleep.

Remember, the Hebrew concept of the day begins with evening—not with the morning. We begin our day with rest, not waking. This reminds us that even before our day begins, as Eugene Peterson notes in his book on the Psalms, God has been at work. We are entering into a work already in progress. When I wake up in the mornings these days, I see that the cherries on the tree in our backyard are turning from green to red, and that the figs on another are beginning to take shape. Similarly, even before we teach, preach, counsel, lead, God has been at work in the lives of people. Solomon received his greatest gift—his legendary wisdom from God—when? While he was sleeping! Because God is at work while we sleep, we can sleep.

The image of sleeping is instructive for us in another way as well. The process of falling asleep and resting reminds us of how we should live our lives. San Francisco Bay Area pastor John Ortberg points out that there are certain things we can do (we can turn on the lights in room), and certain things we cannot do (like control the weather). But there is a third category of things we can't control, but can influence, and falling asleep is one of them.

We cannot force ourselves to sleep. As some of us know, the more we try to force sleep, the more it eludes us. You might have a very important presentation, or a crucial, hard conversation tomorrow. And you tell yourself, "I really need to get a good night's sleep." You squeeze your eyes shut and try to force yourself to sleep. But the more intensely you try to sleep, the more sleep eludes you.

You can't force yourself to sleep, but there are certain things you can do to fall asleep. You can go into a dark room, for example, lie on a soft bed with a comfortable pillow, and close your eyes. And, because you have prepared yourself for sleep, you will very likely find that God gives you sleep. So it is in our work: there are certain things we can do, things we can't control, and some things we can influence. So we work hard, but we rest knowing that God is at work while we rest.

The metaphor of sleep is instructive, and so is the image of conceiving children. The Psalmist tells us in verse three that children are a gift from God. We live in a world where many societies in the world desire to limit populations, often through some kind of birth control, but in agricultural societies, more kids meant more farm hands and, as the Psalmist says at the end of the psalm, children could even help defend the legal interests of their aging parents in court.

Certain commentators have looked at this psalm, which affirms that children are God's gift, and have said this is definitive proof that we can do nothing but trust God for life's greatest gifts. But when it comes to children, that's not entirely accurate. Children are gifts from God, but there is something we can do to foster their conception.

I know from personal experience that children are a gift from God. Early in our marriage, my wife Sakiko and I experienced a pregnancy complication and we ending up losing our baby. Our ob-gyn said that because of the damage this pregnancy complication caused, it would be more difficult for us to experience pregnancy in the future.

Sakiko remembers that when she was in the emergency room, in the throes of this complication, she sensed a voice saying to her: "Am I not the one who opens and closes the womb?" She later realized those words were from Scripture, from Isaiah 66, and took them to mean that one day God would open her womb.

But nothing happened for five years, and she assumed the words related not to a biological child, but a spiritual one. Then she heard strange words, so bizarre that she didn't journal about them or share them with me: "When the fellowship hall was closed, I closed your womb; when you open the new building, I will open your womb."

Our church's fellowship hall, the original gathering place for the congregation, was 60 years old and in terrible shape; it was closed off a month before our wedding. We opened the new building in September 2007 and I remember cutting the blue ribbon in the opening ceremony. The next day Sakiko's pregnancy began.

It was only weeks later, in retrospect, that Sakiko remembered those prophetic words. So we believe that our son Joey is a gift from God. As is true of many things in life, children are God's gift, but a mother and father play a role in conception. There was one great exception, of course, 2,000 years ago, where a teenager miraculously conceived a baby named Jesus without the aid of a human father, but normally a mother and a father play a role. So whatever it is we are called to do, we work at it, but we rest, knowing God is at work while we rest.

As I said earlier, the word "house" in Psalm 127:1 can refer to a physical house or temple, but it can also refer to raising a household.

A family I'm close to had a teenage son who was getting in all kinds of trouble: he was involved in shoplifting and selling things he had stolen to peers in his high school; he was using drugs, dealing drugs, and joy riding. His parents didn't know what to do. His father was very traditional, and very concerned, and one day decided to take him on a field trip to the local penitentiary. "I want you to see your future home—courtesy of my tax dollars," he said afterwards. This didn't really faze his teenage son.

His mother, who had recently given her life back to Christ, went to her church's prayer meeting asked people there to pray for her son. An elderly prayer warrior named Walter Fender volunteered to pray daily for her son, and within six months that kid gave his life to Christ. That kid was me.

As parents, or as parent figures and mentors, there are certain things we cannot control in the development of our children. Ultimately, those are in God's hands. But there are things we can do to influence our children. So, we work hard at parenting. We pray. But we sleep, too, because God gives to his beloved while they sleep. We invest in our family, but we rest because God is at work while we rest.

When the city where I live and work, Vancouver, hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, security-related costs were about $1 billion. Psalm 127 says in verse 2, "Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain." So we work hard to secure the well-being of our city, and pray for its peace, but we rest easy because God gives to us, his beloved, while we sleep. We invest, but we rest because God is at work while we rest.

Abide and bear fruit

Similarly, in our spiritual lives, there are things we can do and certain things only God can do. Jesus says in John 15:5: "I am the vine you are the branches, if you remain in me and I in him or her, he or she will bear much fruit, apart from me, you can do nothing." In our spiritual lives we can choose to abide in Christ (through the Word, prayer, nature, art, our daily work, or wherever we seem to meet Christ). Choosing to abide is our work, but only God can cause us to bear fruit of a Christ-like character.

Thomas Merton was a partying student at Columbia University in the 1930s. He embraced Christ and later God called him to become a monk in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Thomas Merton, in his powerful autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, describes two kinds of monks at his monastery. There were those who tried to scrupulously live out every rule in monastery as if their growth in purity depended all on them. Then there were those super laid-back monks who did not seek to purify themselves at all, as if none of their growth depended on them. Both types of people end up falling away from God and the monastery. Merton said those who flourished spiritually were those who exercised a certain effort, engaged in spiritual disciplines, but also relaxed, played, trusting that God would carry them.

In our spiritual lives, there are certain things we can do, and certain things only God can do, so we don't take the posture of a drill sergeant, but we don't take the posture of a super laid-back, beach bum either. We make an effort, but we rest because we realize there are certain things that only God can do.

We work hard, but we sleep because God gives to us, his beloved, while we sleep. We invest, but we rest because God is at work while we rest. In our ministry, we work hard, seek to improve our skills, but we let go knowing only God can build something lasting through our work.

For years, my wife and I led a Bible study in our home for Japanese people who were either new Christians or exploring the possibility of faith. There was a Japanese woman who was part of our home Bible study who came from a Buddhist background who decided to follow Jesus. She then decided that she would be baptized. Several weeks before she was scheduled to be baptized, she became ill to the point where she had to take sick leave from work. Five days before her scheduled baptism, she told me she was experiencing great spiritual oppression and that she wanted to put off her baptism.

That evening, I shared her decision with our small group. Everyone—even the one who didn't consider himself a Christian!—felt that this woman should go for it and be baptized that Sunday. That evening, we prayed for her. The next morning I called the woman, and I asked, "How are you?" She said, "Last night as I prayed, I got this sense that God wanted me to be baptized, and this morning I feel peace and confirmation that I am to be baptized Sunday." She was baptized that Sunday and continues to walk with Christ.

In our ministry we work hard, but we sleep knowing that God is at work while we sleep. We invest, but we rest knowing that God is at work while we rest.

When in my early twenties I was working in Tokyo for the Sony Corporation. I attended a small church with 30 to 40 people on a Sunday. The pastor was 80 years old and was looking for someone to pinch-hit for him as preacher from time to time. When he discovered that I was considering the possibility of becoming a pastor, he began to invite me to be his pinch-hitter.

My grandmother in Tokyo heard a rumor that I was preaching. She was both intrigued and amused. She remembered me as a little brat whose favorite book was the Sears Christmas catalog. She recalled that I always used to ask her, "Grandma, how can I be rich when I grow up?" More out of curiosity than anything else, she decided she would come and hear me preach. She had not been to church in over two decades. On a cold, wet February morning, she rode the Tokyo subway and buses for over an hour to come to our church.

She sat in the second-to-back row on the right hand side of our small chapel. I got up and I gave a short message on the work of the Cross from Galatians 2, and sat down. The 80- year-old pastor came up to the podium and said, "Brother Shigematsu, after that kind of message, you should have given an invitation." He continued, "Come up here and give an invitation."

I was unprepared and embarrassed at such a public critique. The mood in the little chapel grew tense and awkward, but I had recently watched Billy Graham on video—so I just plagiarized him. I said, "If you are here and don't know Christ, if you need to make your commitment or re-commitment to Christ, I want you to stand up and come. By coming, you're saying in your heart, 'I commit myself to Jesus.'"

As we sang the closing hymn, I looked up. We had sung the first stanza, and no one was coming—my heart sank. We sang the second stanza, and still no one was moving. I began thinking, "Whatever special anointing or charisma Christian ministers are supposed to have, I don't have it." After the third stanza, one woman began to move her way to the aisle and toward the front (I knew that she was a Christian already, and she was likely coming forward only because she felt sorry for me and wanted to encourage me by walking down the aisle.)

We sang the final stanza and I closed the hymnal. I looked up, and to my astonishment there were 17 or 18 people, and my grandmother was among them! With tears streaming down her face, she said, "This is the happiest day of my life. I thought I was a Christian, but today for the first time, I understood why Jesus Christ died on the Cross for me." I think of that day as one of the greatest days of my life, because it was the day my grandmother experienced peace with God.


When we point someone to Christ it may not be our grandmother, but they're somebody's grandmother, or somebody's father, somebody's son, somebody's daughter, somebody's sister, somebody's "somebody." Whether or not a person opens their life to Christ isn't in our hands; it's in God's hands. When we share the good news about Jesus, we cannot transform a person's life, but we can point that person toward God. However hard we work in our ministry and service, we're also to rest. We sleep knowing that God gives to us, his beloved, while we sleep. We invest all that we are and all that we have, but we rest because God is at work while we rest.

Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything

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Sermon Outline:


I. Seek God's Vision

II. God is at work even while we rest

III. Abide and bear fruit