Sunday, February 23, 2014

Satisfied // Joy & Toil


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 02/23/2014
video not available for technical problems this week
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My first job, other than the chores I did to earn my allowance as a kid – chopping wood for our wood burning stove, cleaning up the garbage when the raccoons got into our trash cans – was a paper route. Hauling up the stacks to the house from the curb, counting them, folding up the papers and putting them in the carrying sack or wagon, walking to the assigned neighborhood, throwing the papers on porches or putting them inside of screen doors, collecting payments once a month, trying to get new customers, finding and training subs so I could go on vacations with my family.

A summer lawn mowing business as a teenager, with my dad’s gas powered walk-behind push mower, a Snapper.

After school in high school, packing orders in the shipping department for Creative Solutions, a software company in Ann Arbor.

Working drive-through at McDonald’s on Stadium as a proud member of the McFamily.

Lifeguarding for the Ann Arbor Parks and Rec Department, and teaching swimming lessons in-between shifts.

Building fences on horse ranches, listening to Chicago and Foreigner on my Sony Walkman.

Selling voice-processing equipment to law offices, medical practices, and car dealerships, and then managing a sales team and new product launch for Dictaphone Corporation.

And since 1996, working as pastor in different capacities. Once a week on Sundays, rain or shine.

I’m guessing my experiences aren’t that different than many of yours, generally speaking. The U.S. Census Bureau says Americans hold 7-8 different jobs before the age of 30, on average.

Jessica Pryce Jones, in her book, “Happiness at Work” calculates that the average person spends 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime. 90,000 hours. And that doesn’t even account for the kind of vocational work done by full-time parents and homemakers.

Which might just be an interesting bit of trivia, except for this little nugget. Deloitte’s Shift Index Survey in 2010 shows that 80% are dissatisfied with their jobs.

Add to that other research which shows that 25% of employees say work is their main source of stress and 40% say their job is “very or extremely stressful.”

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes, this book of ancient wisdom in the Bible that we’ve been looking at in our Satisfied series - even though he lived thousands of years before us, in a different part of the world and in a different culture – he seems to identify with how we experience work so often in our lives.


11Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done

and what I had toiled to achieve,

everything was [vapor], a chasing after the wind;

nothing was gained under the sun.



17So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is [vapor], a chasing after the wind. 18I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is [vapor]. 20So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21For people may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to others who have not toiled for it. This too is [vapor] and a great misfortune. 22What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? 23All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is [vapor].



4And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is [vapor], a chasing after the wind.


7Everyone’s toil is for the mouth,

yet the appetite is never satisfied.


Surely this can’t be the whole story? Surely there must be some hope? After all, work is part of what it means to be human, isn’t it? Or is it just a necessary evil?

Well, yes, thankfully there is more to work than this. Even in Ecclesiastes.

Work can be hard, it can be painful, there’s no guarantee of lasting results. It can make us stressed and anxious, it can rob us of rest because it we can’t get our minds off of it. It often doesn’t even come out of good motivations; we do it to keep up with the Joneses. And no matter how much we succeed, our work can never keep up with our ravenous appetites.


But listen to these passages.


24People can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?


12I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.



15So I commend the enjoyment of life because there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.


10Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.


How can both of these realities live together at the same time? Frustration, pain, futility, grief on the one hand. Joy, satisfaction, full-hearted engagement on the other.


As with so much we’ve learned from Ecclesiastes, everything has to do with perspective, with the relationship we have with work, with the posture we take towards it. If we look to work for satisfaction, if we count on it for any kind of control or meaning or identity in our lives, it will be futile, like chasing after the wind. Those first passages are designed to disrupt that, shake us loose from that way of relating to work. Stop! the teacher is saying. It’s getting you nowhere good. The second set of passages are an invitation into a new relationship with our work. An invitation to develop the profound awareness that our work is a gift from God’s hand, a container of and expression of his love, than we can stop trying to manage it like so much vapor, and begin to experience joy in our work that flows from hearts happy in God and his goodness.

In the scriptures, the first thing we learn about the Divine is that God works. Humanity, in fact, was created to help finish the creation God had started. Work is the first activity where people meet God.


15The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it…

19Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

Genesis 2v15,19-20


Work, in other words, is a fundamentally spiritual pursuit. The God who is love, creates value out of the welter and the waste. Out of his love, he shapes chaotic nothingness into a container of, and expression of, his love. And then he invites us to join him in his work, adding value to the vapor, putting our hands to creation, as he first did, and shaping it into containers of and expressions of his love. This is the first purpose of all work. Whether we are making cars or raising kids or managing money or training people or inventing new technology or teaching or making art or cooking food or farming land or building homes or planning projects or creating new fashion or adding to the beauty of people and places and spaces or marketing or developing productive and profitable businesses.

Of course, along the way, we human beings chose to work against God, to disastrous result, which means we’ve got twice as much work. Not only are we joining with God in adding value to creation – to everything under the sun – we are also redeeming everything that has gone and is going wrong as a result of our working against God. So some of our work is fixing cars and fighting fires and nursing and therapy and doctoring and disaster relief and social justice and helping people get out of debt and repairing appliances and rebuilding after tornadoes and cleaning up oil spills and working in prisons and serving in the military and law enforcement and lawyering and judging and on and on.

But all work – value adding or redemptive – is meant to be this thing we do with God and with one another to creatively coax the wild and wanton, the beautiful and the broken world into more robust and ready containers of, and expressions of, his love.

So coming back to Ecclesiastes, maybe our eyes can be a little more open to seeing what the Teacher is saying.


24People can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?



Find satisfaction isn’t a very helpful translation, to my mind. The grammer is a little tricky, because it’s structured the way we would say “tell themselves that their work is good.” But the main Hebrew word at work there is ra’ah, which doesn’t mean tell, but rather to see or look at or perceive. Show yourself that your work is good.

Our work is a container of and expression of God’s love to us. It is a gift to join with him, to cooperate with him in creation and redemption. We can meet him in our work. He’s already there, doing it before us and inviting us to help him.

But we’ll only perceive him if we change our relationship to our work. If we stop trying to find satisfaction in it – and instead find satisfaction in the one who is already present in our work, and who gave us the work to do as a gift, as an expression of and container of his love.


12I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy (samach) and to do good while they live. 13That each of them may eat and drink, and [perceive the good] in all their toil—this is the gift of God.



Again, be happy isn’t a very helpful translation. The word the Teacher uses here is samach which means to rejoice. Being happy isn’t really something we can pull off. It’s not like turning on a switch. But rejoicing is something we can do. We can recognize that life is a gift – that there is gift everywhere, all around, in the very fact that we have breath and strength at all. And out of that awareness, we can have joy. We can rejoice. We can choose to say, Yes! This is good.

I’m not talking about some kind of denial of reality, shiny happy face. Even when the vapor isn’t arranged to our liking, when not everything is as it should be (maybe we aren’t getting paid enough, or our boss is really a messed up individual, or the company we work for is a dysfunctional organization, or the job we have doesn’t match our giftings, or our co-workers are a real pain to put up with, or whatever), we can see that here, now, nonetheless there is gift from God in the work we have before us, and we can rejoice. It’s like Paul and Silas rejoicing in prison in the story in Acts 16. They are in prison, but they are rejoicing. An earthquake happens, the cell doors fly open, their chains come loose. But they don’t leave. They recognize God is in that place, and their joy comes from him, not their circumstances.

We’ve mentioned this passage earlier in our Satisfied series, but it’s worth revisiting now.


5Fools fold their hands

and ruin themselves.

6Better one handful with tranquility

than two handfuls with toil

and chasing after the wind.


Hands, handful, and handfuls are all different Hebrew words. Understanding them can give us a clue about the healthiest approach to work.


5Fools fold their hands יָד] [yad /yawd/] – hand, strength, power]

and ruin themselves.

6Better one handful כַּף] [kaph /kaf/] – palm, open hand] with tranquility

than two handfuls [חֹפֶן [chophen /kho·fen/] – handfuls, fist] with toil

and chasing after the wind.


God has given us yad – strength, power – at the core of what it means to be a human being. It’s a holy gift, a gift to be spent in work, in creative and redemptive labor. If we ignore it, fold it, turn it inward and make it about us or about our appetites, it will ruin us.

Far better to hold our hand out, palm up, like we are receiving our work as a gift from God, and offering it back to him for his purposes, in a posture of peace and rest and quietness, no striving

Than to knuckle down, both hands balled up, grabbing after success or achievement or significance in our work. Then our work is just toil and futility.

Now, this encouragement maybe makes sense:


10Whatever your hand יָד [yad /yawd/] – hand, strength, power finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.


It’s like we are reaching out our hand for whatever gift God might place in it, and when he does, then we give ourselves to that wholeheartedly, for we are meeting him in that gift, and he is meeting us, and we are alive with him in this moment, here and now.


15So I commend the enjoyment of life [joy, from the same root as rejoicing] because there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad [again, that word for rejoice]. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.


Are we getting the picture? The teacher commends joy. Receive everything as a gift. Rejoice in it. Choose to say, “Yes, this is good. God is here.” It may be the good fight of faith you are fighting, because it may be hard for you to see him in your work. But he is there. Work itself is an expression of and container of his love. It’s where we first meet him as human beings.

Maybe there is work that suits you better. Maybe there is other work God is preparing you to do. Maybe God is calling you to new work tomorrow, work that fits better with who you are and with God’s gifts in your life, work that when you do it you feel his pleasure like nothing else. But today, this is work you have is gift from him. Seek first the kingdom – perceive him present now, here, in your work – and everything else will be added to you. Your father knows you need these things. Until we can relate to our work here, now with joy and rejoicing, until our satisfaction comes from God present to us in our work and we aren’t seeking satisfaction from our work, only then can God entrust more to us.

So rejoice. Choose to say Yes, this breath, this body, these people, this provision, this work that God has given me today is good. The living God, is present in all of it, all of it is container of and expression of his love. Out of the joy that gives me I will breathe, and I will act, and I will love, and I will steward, and I will work. Then joy will accompany us in our toil all the days of the life God has given us under the sun.

And of course, there is the whole matter of God bringing all things to completion in Christ Jesus, and the way in which none of our work done in cooperation with God’s vision for the world will be in vain, and all of that, but we’ll save that for another time, some time in God’s good future for us.


For now, some final practical suggestions in our satisfied series.

1. Good Expectations. Before your work, take a moment to imagine where you work as a garden. And picture God bringing your work to you, like YHWH brought the animals to Adam. Do it again after each break. All week long.

2. Show yourself that it was Good. After work, before you re-enter your non-work world, pull out this business card, and read Genesis 1:31, putting your name in place of God, or better yet, along with God. (“saw that it was good” uses the same words as Ecclesiastes for “find satisfaction.”) All week long.

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