Scriptures: Ecclesiastes 3:9-13; Psalm 66:1-9; Ephesians 2:19-22
Well, here we are. It’s the last great holiday weekend of the summer and it’s celebrated with sunscreen, water sports, the last weekend at the lake, and another day to sleep in. Somehow the entrepreneurs haven’t figured out how to get us to buy Labor Day cards and Labor Day gifts…yet.
While Labor Day does not mark one of the Christian holidays, there is every biblical reason to understand that our labor, and our work, relates to our faith in our Lord.
When I talk about work, I recognize there are many kinds of work. Some of us work for money and benefits. Some of us work long hours as volunteers. Both are producing something that is needed. God cares about our work, whatever it may be, and our work is to be done as though it is unto the Lord, for it is. How we work and serve is a reflection of the Christ in our lives.
We do different kinds of work for different reasons and to produce different results. We work to have food and clothing and housing and transportation and to make the lives of others better.
As each of us labors at whatever we do, it is important that we search for a level of meaning that transcends any actual monetary compensation that we might receive for it. After a while, one cannot be paid enough to do good work. After a while the recognition of work well done and the appreciation shown for our work is the highest motivation that we can have.
Will we accomplish everything in our lifetime that we hoped or dreamed to do? Probably not, unless our hopes and dreams were very small. Will we accomplish some things that we never hoped or dreamed that we would? Probably so, for life takes many turns and twists that we could never have anticipated.
The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes writes, almost in a journaling fashion, of his view of life. At times he has satisfaction in his work; at times he has cynicism; at times he has a sense of futility about life.
From his writing, we can imagine that he was in, or past, middle age. He writes:
“What does one really get from hard work? I have thought about this in connection with all the various kinds of work God has given to humankind.
Everything is appropriate in its own time. But though God has planted eternity in the hearts of men and women, even humankind cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”
Then he writes: “Anything I wanted, I took. (He was the king after all.). I even found great pleasure in hard work. But as I looked at everything I had tried, (all the getting of things), it was all so useless, a chasing of the wind, and there was nothing really worthwhile anymore.”
King Solomon was trying to deal with his fear of growing old and dying without ever feeling that he had really lived. He seems to be searching desperately for something to give his life enduring meaning.
If you read his words when you are young, you may identify with the writer, even admire him, for pointing out the hypocrisy and shallowness of the world around him. If you read his words when you are more mature, you may see a very frightened old man who is consumed with fear that all that he has accomplished in life, and it is much, and all that he has accumulated will mean nothing when he is dead.
He has accomplished much as measured by others. He has
- many houses (mansions for a king)
- many vineyards,
- treated himself to all of the pleasures of life,
- gained more wealth than anyone before him,
but he realizes that there is nothing of lasting value.
Yes, he built the Temple of the Lord. That was an assignment given to him by his father, David, and as a religious man, he did it for God. But the real priority in his life was the accumulation of things that would bring pleasure and status and recognition to himself. All that he has accumulated will pass away with him at his death. No longer, in his youthful curiosity, is he asking, “What does life mean? Now he is asking “What will my life mean?”
If wealth and pleasure did not give this man’s life enduring meaning, what does it say to us about those things that we consider so important in our lives?
He is asking the questions that all of us sooner or later will ask:
“Will it matter that I lived?”
“Will anything or anyone be changed for the better because I was?”
There is nothing wrong with being successful. There is nothing wrong with having enough power to bring about good influence over events and decisions, but there is something wrong about the single-minded pursuit of wealth and power in a way that shuts us off from other people and from God. It could put us in a position where the only thing worse than losing is winning.
There is a story behind the establishing of the Nobel Prize, the supreme awards given for achievement in the arts and sciences. Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, made a fortune by inventing more powerful explosives and licensing the formula to governments to make weapons.
One day, Nobel’s brother died, and one newspaper by accident printed an obituary notice for Alfred instead of his brother. It identified him as the inventor of dynamite and the man who made a fortune by enabling armies to achieve new levels of mass destruction.
Nobel had the unique opportunity to read his own obituary in his lifetime and seeing how he would be remembered. He was shocked to think that this was what his life would add up to, to be remembered as a merchant of death and destruction.
Nobel took his fortune and used it to establish the awards for accomplishments in various fields that would benefit humanity. It is for his recognition of the accomplishments of others, not for his explosives, that Nobel is remembered today.
When Nobel was most “successful,” he was working against life and against humanity. When he realized what he would leave behind if that were all he did, he gave the last part of his life to another direction.
Does it matter who we are in whatever we may decide to do? Does it matter that we are good, honest, faithful, compassionate people? Being authentic as Christians in our work matters. Does it matter about the quality of our work. All honest work is honorable.
Jesus thought that there ought to be a quality about our work, no matter what that work might be. He reminds us that we are to act like the salt of the earth that gives seasoning and preserving and the light of the world that gives understanding and illumination, no matter where we find ourselves. He reminds us that we are to act like the people we claim to be so that the world may see Christ in us.
Paul would write to the Christians in Colossi, “Whatever you do, work at it heartily as for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.” (Colossians 3:23)
Will we sometimes fail to accomplish that which we dearly desire? Of course! We are human; we do not control the universe. But what we experience as failure as seen through human eyes is not necessarily failure as seen through God’s eyes.
People might have said to Jimmy Carter at the end of his first term as President of the United States, “So you won’t be President of the United States any longer. Not enough people liked you to keep you as President.”
He left the presidency and returned to Georgia financially poor and emotionally spent, but his greatest contribution to humanity happened after he was no longer President.
Carter wrote, “When we came home, I had no idea what I would do with the rest of my life. Then late one night, lying in bed after a few hours sleep, I had a revelation. I would not just build a presidential library, but I would set myself up as a freelance global mediator, statesman and global health advocate who would work across political and humanitarian divides.”
Over the decades he has, among other things,
- negotiated with rogue leaders of countries, including the father of the current leader of North Korea;
- fought to eradicate diseases affilicting hundreds of millions of people in tropical Africa, including river blindness, malaria, and trachoma;
- monitored elections in 100 nations;
- and, as long as he health allowed, along with Rosalynn, devoted a week of work every year to Habitat for Humanity.
Carter would later write that he would choose his work through the Carter Center over four more years in office.
Some of you may not be doing the work that you once dreamed about doing but look at the very real achievements that you have contributed for the good of others. If you lose faith in yourself because you have done only some of what you wanted in life and not all of it and you forget all of your victories because of some defeat – that would be failure. God knows better than any human being our wounds and sorrows, the scars on our hearts from having wanted to do more and do better and not being able.
The writer of Ecclesiastes finally puts our work and our life into perspective when he reminds us that
- while everything that we put our hand to is not going to be just as we wish it to be,
- while life sometimes seems meaningless to us,
- there is a quality of life-work to which we need to give attention.
“Eat your bread with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do.”
May we always recognize that it is for God that we work, no matter what our task may be, and that it is God who looks upon our hearts and our intentions, not as others do.