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Work: Now and in the World to Come

Because our work will continue and be redeemed in the world to come, we are inspired to do excellent work here knowing that our work for the Lord is not in vain.


J.R.R. Tolkien had a vision to write a kind of story that had never been told before.

He began working on what would eventually become the Lord of the Rings, but he got stuck. In order to complete this story, he had to study various ancient languages that had largely been lost, and thousands of years of various national histories. He felt despair wondering whether he would ever complete the work in his lifetime.

One morning he woke up with a short story in his mind and he wrote it down. It was called "Leaf by Niggle."

The story was about a painter named Niggle. As his name suggests, he niggled at painting, not getting much done. He would focus on getting the shade of a leaf just right. He also knew he had to take a dreaded, inevitable journey—the journey was a metaphor for death.

He didn’t make much progress in his painting, in part because he was distracted by his kind heart which led him to do many favors for his neighbors.

One night, one of Niggle`s neighbors insists that he go out into the cold and rainy evening to get a doctor for his sick wife. As a result, Niggle comes down with a chill and a fever. While working desperately on his unfinished picture the driver of the dreaded journey (the journey of death) comes to take Niggle—and Niggle bursts into tears. Niggle says, “Oh dear! And it’s not even finished. I have only completed a leaf.” (See Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf pp. 24-30).

Work is something that God created us to do. Work, in and of itself, is good. But because we human beings have turned away from God, the source of all that is good, true and beautiful, the source of Life itself, our work—like everything else in the universe—is compromised by the radioactive effects of sin. Now work, although good in and of itself, can feel frustrating, fruitless and, as was true for Niggle, incomplete.

You may begin a career or job with a noble vision to make a difference, but as you’re engaged in the work itself, you come to realize how overwhelming the needs are and your contribution feels like a drop in the bucket. Or you begin a job and you want to do great work, but “the system” makes it hard to do quality work and you grow cynical. Or you may start something with a passion to do your best, then after a while it just becomes a way to make a paycheck (or get a good grade if you’re a student).

We’re going to look at how God in Scripture describes a new heaven and a new earth, and how our everyday work—whether we are a student, working at home, or for a company, paid or serve as a volunteer—can influence and in some cases even carry over into the new world to come.

This sermon comes from Isaiah 60. The prophet Isaiah prophesies about the children of Israel returning from exile in Babylon to the city of Jerusalem beginning around the year 538 BC. However, Biblical scholars believe that Isaiah also speaks prophetically of the “new Jerusalem,” which represents how God will make our world new when heaven and earth become one in the age to come. When we see how our work now will count in the coming new age, what we do today becomes infused with new meaning, significance and energy, and we are inspired to do our best work.

(Read Isaiah 60:1-11, 19)

We’re going to explore how our work, which can feel frustrating, fruitless, and incomplete because of the radioactive effects of sin, will be redeemed and in some cases brought into the world to come. And when we know this, we experience new meaning and energy in our work and we are inspired to do better work knowing that our labor ultimately is not in vain.

New Heaven and New Earth

Isaiah 60 describes a vision that God gave the prophet Isaiah, in which he sees a city where the sun and moon would no longer be necessary. When we read Isaiah 60:19, did it remind you of another verse in the final book of the Bible? There’s a verse in Revelation which speaks of the renewed world to come. Revelation 21:23, says, “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”

Isaiah receives the vision of the future Jerusalem without any need for a light because God is the light. The Apostle John has a vision of a future Jerusalem where there is no need for a lamp because the Lamb (Jesus Christ) is the lamp.

Isaiah isn’t just seeing the Jerusalem where the children of Israel would return from exile beginning around the year 538 BC, but he's also getting a glimpse of a vision that the Apostle John on the Isle of Patmos 700 to 800 years later would have of the New Jerusalem. What in Scripture is also called the New Heaven and the New Earth (Revelation 21) when heaven and earth will become one.

There are all kinds of parallels between Isaiah's vision and John's vision. They see a city where there is no need for a sun because light radiates from God. They see a city where there is no need for a lamp because the Lamb is the lamp.

In Isaiah’s vision, we read that the gates of the city would always stand open (Isa. 60:11). The Apostle John 700 to 800 years later receives a similar vision on the Isle of Patmos and writes down these words, “On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there (Rev. 21:25).”

Isaiah in the eighth century BC, and the Apostle John in the first century, are seeing a vision of Jerusalem that is further out in the future than 538 BC and the first century. They are seeing a vision of Jerusalem that is beyond our current year of 2020.

I was just in Jerusalem in May 2018 and it is a gated city—literally and metaphorically. But both Isaiah and the Apostle John envision a future New Jerusalem, where there will be no gates. They are envisioning the New Jerusalem, a new heaven and a new earth, where heaven and earth are one.

‘Making All Things New’

The prophet Isaiah sees a city that is overflowing with cultural goods, not just from Israel but from the nations surrounding her. In fact, the references to Midian, Ephah, Sheba, and Kedar would have symbolically signalled to the ancient person all the corners of their world. Isaiah envisions a future Jerusalem with domesticated animals, camels, ships, precious minerals and jewels, and timber, which will beautify the city.

When the children of Israel returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon beginning in 538 BC, we know that the nations of the world did not fill their city with their treasures. And so Isaiah's vision of Jerusalem being filled with "the glory of the nations” refers not just to a sixth century BC vision of Jerusalem but to a new Jerusalem, to a new heaven and earth—when heaven and earth are one.

Richard Mouw, a biblical scholar and the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, in his book When the Kings Come Marching In, points out that Isaiah describes this new city, this new world that will be, a centre of commerce, a place flowing with goods and currencies. Dr. Mouw explains that when the kings of the world come marching into the new Jerusalem they will bring the best of their nations, including their camels, the ships of Tarshish, their silver and gold—all suitably redeemed and transformed.

Scripture teaches that in the age to come, if our lives belong to God, not just our souls but our bodies will be raised from the dead, resurrected with unimaginable glory and capacity yet still recognizably our own. And it seems clear from Isaiah 60 and from Revelation 21 that our world will also be transformed and redeemed, and yet it will still be recognizably this world.

In the Book of Revelation God says, “I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5); God does not say, “I will make all new things,” but “I am making all things new.” The New World will not be a straight-out replacement of this world, according to Revelation, but a divine renovation. Isaiah envisions that there will be things from our present world, including cultural artifacts, that will be redeemed and transformed and brought into the world to come.

What Will Be in the World to Come?

According to Isaiah, there will be ships of Tarshish in the New Jerusalem. And maybe also a lovingly carved First Nations (Native Indian) canoe? My colleague Edlyn who has been in the market for a Mini Cooper is wondering if there might be Mini Coopers in the world to come.

If there are cultural artifacts from our present world in the new heavens and the new earth, might some of the music from our current world make it into the world to come such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor or John Coltrane’s classic A Love Supreme?

Many of us love to eat. In Scripture, we also read of meals and feasts such as the marriage supper of the Lamb in the New World. After Jesus was raised from the dead in his resurrected body we know he ate fish. From this we could plausibly infer that we will be eating in the new world. If Jesus ate fish, might there be sushi in the world to come, or Korean barbecue or butter chicken? (Or for you with a sweet tooth: chocolate mousse or crème brûlée!)

There are domesticated animals, according to the Isaiah passage, in the world come. In another part of Isaiah (Isaiah 11:6), we read that in the new world, the wolf (also paraphrased as the lion) will lie down with the lamb.

Some of you have asked me, “Will my pet dog or cat be in heaven?” Some of the greatest thinkers in Christian church history, including John Wesley and C.S. Lewis believe that the dogs, cats, and pets of those who have given their lives to God by extension also belong to God and will be in the world to come. I am not 100% certain of this, but based on the images of Scripture and what some of the best thinkers in Christian history have believed, we may have good reason to have faith that our pets may be in the world to come.

God Sees Your Work

But we also have to be cautious about what we might project to be in the world to come. Jesus turns many of our assumptions of what is truly great upside down. He taught that many people that are considered first in this world will be last in the world to come and many who are considered last in this world will be considered first in the world to come. Jesus teaches that many of the things that are highly esteemed in this world are despised by God (Luke 16:15), and that many things that are obscure in this world are truly great in God's eyes. Some of the greatest accomplishments in God’s eyes are completely unknown by people.

In the film version of Mitch Albom’s book the Five People You Meet in Heaven, Eddie (John Voight) works as an amusement park maintenance man for most of his life. After he dies, he meets five people who help him understand the meaning of his life. The scene begins with Eddie, already having died, walking out of the ocean. He sees the large amusement park where he worked, and walks in. Several hundred people are there, welcoming him, smiling at him, nodding at him, happy to see him. The narrator says, "All the accidents he had prevented, all the lives he had kept safe—and all their children, and all their children's children— are there because of the simple things that he did, day after day."

One day God will reveal to us the impact of all we did for him and for people, no matter how big or small. As a maintenance worker, custodian, as a nanny, a parent, or someone who works behind the scenes—your work may not have been fully recognized in this world, but it will be in the age to come.

Our Labor Is Not in Vain

You may believe that your body and soul will one day be redeemed and transformed, making it into the New World. But have you ever wondered whether the work of your life will also be redeemed and transformed in the world to come?

How might knowing that shape your work now?

I began this message by describing the story of Niggle and how he had a vision to paint an entire tree, but then he was required to take that long, inevitable journey called death, and burst into tears, saying (I paraphrase), “I haven’t been able to complete my painting. I’ve only been able to finish this single leaf.”

After death, Niggle is put on a train which moves toward the mountains of the heavenly country and as Niggle is on the train he gets to the outskirts of the heavenly country and something catches his eye. He turns and what does he see? A magnificent tree with its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind. It was the tree that Niggle had envisioned but failed to fully capture. “It is a gift!” he said. And in this new world everyone would enjoy it forever.

The world that existed before his death had forgotten Niggle and his work, but in this permanently real world, his tree is now complete and would bless people forever.

Though the work we hope to do in life is frustrated by our circumstances and we may feel we can only paint a leaf or a branch, the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, as he writes about the coming resurrection of our bodies, points out that our labor for the Lord is not in vain because it will make its way into the New World that God is creating.

If this world is all there is and there is no God, then one day there will be no human beings, no life. Everything will be forgotten. It won’t matter if you made the list of the 100 richest people in British Columbia or whether our Vancouver Canucks ever won the Stanley Cup or the BC Lions win the Grey Cup. There will be no one to remember.

But if there is a God who will one day renew this world, as he has promised to do in Scripture, our labor for the Lord is not in vain.


Theologian Tom Wright writes in his book Surprised by Hope:

You are not oiling the wheels of the machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are, strange though it may seem, almost hard to believe as the resurrection itself, accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.

If this is true, then every prayer, every act of love and kindness, every minute spent teaching a special needs child to read or walk, or listening to a lonely, elderly person; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God; every act of care for the earth, every act that spreads the good news of the gospel, will find its way into the new creation that God is making and will one day bring to glorious completion.

As hard, as frustrating, as seemingly fruitless, and incomplete as our work can be, know that your labor for the Lord is not in vain. Our work matters. It will find its way into the New World as God makes all things new

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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