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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 7, 2014

 Work That Glorifies God

Nehemiah 6:1-4;  2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

              I first visited the Holy Land in 1984. My favorite part of modern-day Israel is the Galilee, that mostly rural northern region of the country set around the Sea of Galilee and stretching over mountains to the Mediterranean Sea. In those lovely hills sits the town of Nazareth. In 1984, it was still a small, quaint village. Today it is a city of some size, growing all the time. (Our Jewish guide on that first trip said jokingly to me, “If we had known it was going to be such a popular place, we would have taken better care of it!) The small town by 1984 was overrun with Christian pilgrims, there to see the hometown of Jesus. So Nazareth today is a tourist town, and this is not lost on entrepreneurial Israeli shopkeepers. One such tourist shop that caught my eye was “The Nazareth Carpenter’s Shop.” Over the door of the shop was a yoke fashioned from wood, with a small sign that was an obvious reference to Matthew 11:30. It said, “My yokes fit well.”

             For the obvious play it makes for the Christian tourist dollar, it served to remind me that from the time He was twelve until He turned thirty, the vast majority of His life, Jesus was a carpenter in Nazareth. Actually, calling Him a carpenter is not quite fair, for the word actually means in the Greek something closer to “craftsman” or “builder.” The Greek word is τέκτον. In two places in the Gospels we are told that Joseph, Jesus’ father, was a “carpenter” or “builder.” As Joseph’s oldest son, it is reasonable to infer that Jesus would have learned and practiced His father’s trade. Today I would like on this Sabbath, to consider what it means to work. I want to focus on the significance of the work we do in the light of the fact that for most of His life, Jesus worked to fashion wood and building materials that would be useful and bless the lives of others.

             Let me begin with an obvious observation: Jesus being a carpenter or craftsman dignifies the world of work. We spend a large block of time in our lives working, and Jesus did, too. It always puzzles me when people see hard, honest toil as anything other than good. Some people do so out of a misunderstanding of the Book of Genesis. You recall that when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, they were told that they must labor from the sweat of their faces. The idea some have wrongly taken from this is that work was punishment for their sins. But this is a complete misreading of the Genesis account of the Garden, for even in the Garden, Adam and Eve had work to do. Genesis 2:15 says that, “The Lord put the man and the woman in the garden of Eden to till it and to take care of it.” The Bible from its first pages to its last honors labor. The creation of the universe is described as “the work of God’s fingers.” The Church teaches of “the person and work of Christ,” and central to that is Jesus’ “atoning work” on the cross. An ancient Rabbinical saying goes, “He who does not teach his son a trade, teaches him to steal.” Rabbis in Jesus’ day were required to have another skill or trade to support themselves. Jesus was a carpenter or a builder. Paul was a tentmaker. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about the problems created by some who were “idle” in their midst, a word he used three times in our passage. “If anyone will not work, let him not eat.” Paul said. The failure of some to work while others worked hard was tearing apart the fabric of their community.

             I don’t know how you can read the Bible and conclude anything other than that God values hard work done well. Abraham and Isaac were herdsmen. Amos was a tender or dresser of sycamore trees. Luke was a physician. Plato was a stonecutter. Benjamin Franklin a printer. George Washington worked all his life as a farmer and a surveyor. Abe Lincoln was a rail splitter before he became a lawyer. Walt Whitman, the great poet, was also a carpenter and a printer. Thoreau was a pencil maker, and Churchill taught himself to become an accomplished bricklayer. So many great leaders and visionary people began their greatness with hard, honest labor of their hands. So we should never look down on any hard, honest labor that anyone does.

             Such suspicious attitudes of work may belong in some religious traditions, but never in Christianity. Greek and Roman gods were often depicted at rest on Olympus enjoying nectar and ambrosia. Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the goal of life is total repose, both here and in the afterlife. But Christians serve a Savior who said, “My Father works until now, and I work.” There is no place for indolence, or laziness in Christianity. There is no word in the Bible for “retirement,” something created by our affluent society. For the Christian, retirement is a time to do freely the work you feel called by God to do.

             The student who does not study hard, or the teacher who uses the same lecture notes year after year, or the preacher who stops reading and working to grow in his or her faith, the doctor who does not keep up with the journals and is not anxiously concerned for his or her patients, the policeman or political official who looks for favors, these people will find no support for their conduct from the scriptures.

             The great missionary William Carey knelt at the end of his life in Westminster Cathedral where he was knighted for his service. The king recited a list of what Carey had done. “You went to India, you learned Sanskrit, you served as a missionary, you worked as a shoemaker.” At which point, Carey bowed his head, saying, “Oh no, my Lord, I was never a shoemaker. I was only a cobbler.” Carey understood that the Savior was a carpenter, and hence, no one ever need be ashamed of toil honestly done.

             The second thing we can draw from Jesus being a carpenter is more from inference. The only word the Bible speaks of the quiet years of Jesus’ life, the years from age twelve to age thirty, are these: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.” The Living Bible says, “Jesus grew in favor with all people.” We can safely infer from this that if Jesus worked in this time as a builder or carpenter, He surely did it well, in a way that won Him favor among His fellow residents of Nazareth. This fact forever dignifies things like productivity, integrity in one’s vocation, self-discipline and even profit. For Jesus could not have built such a reputation without embodying all the things that we might consider today as fair, wise and best business practices. Jesus’ work must have been of the highest quality, and His dealings with people of the highest order for Him to have grown in favor “with all the people.” His word must have been His bond, and His work done as if to His Heavenly Father. I have always loved the words of George Herbert: “Teach me, my God and King, in all things Thee to see. And what I do in anything, to do it as to Thee.”

             In a word, Jesus must have regarded His work a key part of His vocation, a divine calling. All Christians should! The “priesthood of all believers” means God calls not some, but all of us. And a huge part, not the only part, of that calling includes our work, and how we do it.

             In the latter part of the twentieth century, when the history is written, the fall of communism will be an important part of the tale. With it came the spread, some would say, the triumph, of consumer capitalism. There is no doubt that free enterprise is spreading now rapidly around a shrinking globe. But the open question is whether it will be a blessing or a curse. The key will be in how we conduct our business, and how we conduct ourselves. If what we model is hard, honest work, quality products at fair prices, and a style of business that honors the dignity of people, values employees and eschews greed, we stand a chance of revolutionizing the world. But if we ignore the Biblical truths of justice and mercy, the Christ-like graces of kindness and respect, the Biblical values of honor and integrity in business, if we give in to greed and seek to reap profits that are excessive to the point of being injurious to others, if we ignore God’s law which always bends to justice, then we will reap what we sow. We are fools in America if we ever imagine that our greatest enemies are outside our borders. The greatest enemy in America today is that we would ever forget the principles that gave birth to whatever greatness we can claim as a nation, and that we ever forget that “to whom much is given, of them will much be required.” I love what Puritan Joseph Hall wrote early in the eighteenth century: “The homeliest service that we do in an honest calling, though it be to plow, or dig, if done in obedience, and conscience of God’s Commandments, is crowned with an ample reward, whereas the best works of their kind (preaching, praying, offering evangelical sacrifices) if without respect of God’s injunction and glory, are loaded with curses. God loveth adverbs; and cares not how good, but how well.”

             Finally, Jesus being a carpenter forever dignifies the Master’s materials. Jesus had to know the worth of a piece of wood, to know its value by sight and by touch. In the first church I ever served, I got to know Harry Robinson. Harry worked as an engineer, but in his fifties, discovered he had talent working as a wood sculptor. It would become his life’s passion, and still working well into his eighties, people paid huge sums for his work. I loved a bird in flight Harry had fashioned from a branch. I asked how long it took him to make it. “Making it was easy. Finding the wood that had that bird in it, though, took a long time.” I said, “The grain is beautiful.” He said, “It was twisted and gnarled, but that is the kind of wood that gives you the most beautiful grain.” Jesus understood this principle, not just in wood, but in people. Jesus saw potential.

             Jesus could see heaven in a mustard seed; Jesus could see the church in a loaf of bread; He could see faith in the simple trust of a child; He could see disciples inside fishermen and even tax collectors. Jesus always looks to us seeing all we are meant to and have it in us to be. Jesus sees our faults and flaws, but He also sees how they can be used to produce even more beautiful materials for His work. Don’t you see? We are the materials Jesus wants to use to build the kingdom. And Jesus looks at us and sees all the potential God placed within us.

             So let me close with two thoughts. First, what Alfred North Whitehead called “the principle of concretion.” What affects one, what happens anywhere, affects everything else. Your life and your work, and how you do it, makes a difference in this world.

             And of these words of George MacDonald:

 I pray, O Master, let me lie

As on Thy bench, the favored wood,

Thy saw, Thy plane, Thy chisel fly,

And make me into something good.

                                                                                     Amen.

 

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