The Gift of Work for Blue Collar Workers (Sermon Notes)

Sermon Notes / Produced by partner of TOW

So…how do you like your job?

A Gallup poll released less than two weeks ago has some startling things to say about the realities of the American workplace. And some related research, though not quite so recent, reveals some equally fascinating data about workers attitudes regarding their jobs.

In a report released on August 29th of this year, Gallup says that “Adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of 47 hours per week.”1 Think of that—the average “full time” American worker is really working six 8-hour days a week, not five. Nearly four in 10 (40%!) say they typically work at least 50 hours…and 18% say they typically work over 60 hours a week.

I’d say the 40-hour work week isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, huh?

A survey done about a year ago by Harris Interactive reported that “55 percent of American workers would like to change careers. [More specifically], nearly 80 percent of working adults in their 20s and nearly two-thirds of those in their 30s would like to do so.”2 Now—that survey was done for the University of Phoenix, so there might be a little “institutional bias” built into the survey there…but a larger survey—150,000 participants— released by Gallup a year ago says something similar. Gallup reported that “70 percent of American workers are either disengaged or actively disengaged in their jobs.”3 Specifically, about 50% don’t really care about their jobs—they’re just putting in their time. And about 20% resent their jobs enough that they look for ways to “muck up” the works!

Put another way, On average, only about 30% of us really like going to work.

Wow! For something that eats up roughly a third of your life—think of it: sleep takes a third, work takes a third, and your pastor would like a good chunk of the other third, please—it has to be a tough thing to dislike your work that much.

And in case you’re wondering—this isn’t an east coast or west coast thing: Kansas lines right up with the national averages on this one.

So…is that the deal? That once I finish school and enter the work force, the odds are I’m really not going to like what I do with a third of the rest of my life—and I might even hate it? That “life’s hard, and then you die, and then they throw dirt in your face”…but before all that, I get to plug away, 9 to 5 for 40 or 50 years…(and for some of us, it won’t be that convenient—there’ll be 2nd shift, 3rd shift, and swing shift work!)

No wonder everybody know how this phrase ends: “Thank God it’s … Friday!” No wonder Loverboy made a hit when they sang “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend”!

Work’s a bear, isn’t it?

Over the next four Sundays, we’re going to be looking at the subject of work—at what the Bible has to say about work—about God’s intention for the place of work in our lives. And I’ll just tell you up front: For all the frustration that work can be…for all the challenges of having too much work, too little work, or (at times when we wish we had it) no work at all … for all the difficulties of satisfying the impossible boss or getting along with the unbearable co-worker or motivating the unproductive employee … I’m convinced that God intends for our work to be a purposeful and pleasing part of our lives. That—in spite of its challenges—work can become something we look forward to and understand differently when we consider what God has to say about work. That over the next four weeks, God the Holy Spirit would like to transform our hearts so that the thought of "9 to 5 ‘til Kingdom Come" transitions from sounding like something ominous and foreboding—like a threat— to sounding, rather, like something rich with hope and promise (as I believe it is). So let’s dive in together. And there’s no better place to start than at the beginning —Genesis, chapter 1. I’m guessing you’re familiar with these opening words:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

That’s the opening statement—the opening declaration…the summary statement …a “chapter heading,” as it were—for all that follows. And as the story of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth unfolds, the Scriptures establish clearly the pattern for how it happens: God speaks, and life results.

This happens again and again, verse by verse, something like the growing refrain of a great concerto’s musical theme (I like to think). (Have you ever heard Beethoven’s Fifth? Or Ravel’s Bolero?) At God’s voice, light fills the darkness, vegetation fills the land, fish fill the oceans, creatures fill the forests, and birds fill the air. There’s a repeated motif, but each time it grows in intensity and complexity and beauty.

In Genesis 1:26, however, God the Divine Composer introduces a new motif and a new instrument through which to sound it:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’” (Genesis 1:26)

The new motif is dominion—“let them rule”…and the new instrument is humanity— this creature formed in the image of God! (The Scriptures don’t make that statement about any other part of created order. No other part of creation is formed “in the image of God.”) And I invite you not to miss the turn the creation story takes in verse 26. Because here, Scripture reveals humanity in this way:

Humanity is like everything else, in that we are created, but like nothing else, in that we’re formed of the dust of the earth, animated by the breath of God, and created in the image of God.

Now, over the centuries, a lot of people have spent a lot of time pondering and discussing and debating what that means: what it means to be formed in the image of God. The bottom line is, there are things about God that find points of correspondence in us. There’s “stuff” about us that reflects “stuff” about Him!

And here’s something I’d like you to see as we think about this: We spend a lot of time talking about what God is like. And we say things like, “God is love. God is righteous. God is sovereign. God is compassionate.” And all those things are true. But there’s something else revealed in Genesis 1 about who God is and what God is like that I seldom hear anyone mention—and it’s this: God is a worker.

“My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17)

That God is a Worker is clear from all the activity of Genesis 1. It’s clear from the declaration of Jesus Himself in John, chapter 5. But if that’s not enough to convince you of its significance, please notice that when we get to a sort of “summary statement” about the creation account in Genesis 2—the Scriptures describe God as working three times in two verses!

“By the seventh day, God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:2-3)

Here’s something interesting: The Hebrew word translated “work” here is used only four times in the entire Old Testament to describe the work of God--three of those times are right here. But the word is used 151 other times in the Old Testament —every time describing the ordinary work of ordinary people. Because of that, I’m suggesting that— inspired by the Holy Spirit—the author of Genesis wanted to make sure *we* made the connection between God’s work and ours. You see, from the beginning God Works. And from the beginning so do we.

If you’re familiar at all with what Genesis says, you know that in chapter 3, there’s the whole story of Adam and Eve and the serpent and the “forbidden fruit” (we usually say “apple”, but the Bible’s not specific). And you likely recall that—as a result of Adam and Eve’s foolish dismissal of God’s command and their choice to partake of the forbidden fruit regardless—God pronounces a curse upon Eve, upon Adam, and upon the serpent. And the curse upon Adam relates directly to his work—

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground… (Genesis 3:17-19)

Bummer, right? I mean—huge bummer! And the trouble is that many of us—if we’ve considered what the Bible has to say about work at all—have taken our cues from this passage, have identified all too easily with what this passage says about work and, in the process, neglected other—(I say) more significant passages!

You see, humanity’s history with work goes back further than the curse! It’s clear that, because of God’s fully righteous declaration in response to Adam’s sin, work takes on a more difficult and burdensome quality. “Work,” says Edward Veith, “is a virtue tainted by sin.” But we’ve got to be careful when we think about work—and the challenges it presents—not to throw the baby out with the bathwater! Work began as God’s gift! Nothing’s changed that!

When God forms Adam from the dust of the earth (And by the way, the word used for God’s forming of Adam is another word for human work—it’s the word that describes the activity of a craftsman, an artisan, and most frequently the activity of a potter forming the clay), but when God forms Adam from the dust of the earth and breathes into him the “breath of life,” He then places Adam in the Garden of Eden—another part of the story we all know. But He doesn’t place Adam in the Garden with, you know, one of those portable lounge chairs and a glass of iced tea. No—He puts Adam in a garden and gives the man a plow and a harrow:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (Genesis 2:15 )

So—know this—work didn’t come about as a result of our sin. The curse that God pronounces doesn’t say that Adam has, now, to work—Adam was already working. It simply declares that the difficulties of work would increase.

Friend, the curse declared that the difficulties in childbirth would increase, too—and we still thing (in spite of the labor) that that’s a beautiful thing, too! So…even in the Garden of Eden—even in a perfect world—life was not, for Adam, workless—some sort of all-inclusive vacation resort, where he was waited on hand and foot. Eden was a workplace, where Adam engaged and cultivated creation!

Work is included in God’s gift of a perfect world. Because we’re made in the image of a God who works our world would be incomplete—less perfect—without it.

Let’s talk for a minute, then, about the purpose of work.

Adam, Scripture says, is called to “work” the Garden and “take care of it.” You may hear this sometimes described as “the cultural mandate”—humanity’s responsibility to “make something” of the world we’ve been given. Interestingly, the words used here are the same words used consistently throughout the Old Testament to describe the ministry offered to God by Israel’s priests. Adam’s labor in the Garden is no different than the ministry of the priests—it is an act of spiritual service to the Lord…and the Garden (where Adam works!) is the sanctuary in which that ministry takes place!

And here’s where we really begin to see the purpose behind work as God’s gift, and also ways, then, that we can offer our work back to God. Based on what we know from Adam, we can say three things our work accomplishes:

1) Our work continues God’s work

God—in the creation account of Genesis, chapter 1—takes what is “formless and empty” (”without form, and void” KJV) and brings it to life. He shapes it. He defines it. He establishes boundaries between the various components…and, by establishing those boundaries, establishes relationship between the elements of this created order—He creates the dry land and separates the water from it, for example. Puts the birds in the trees and the fish in the seas. He’s putting things where they go. (Mothers of toddlers—listen up—your work has a divine precedent! Bringing order where there was once chaos!)

And as part of God’s creative actions, then, He plants a garden, full of all kinds of trees, the Bible says:

The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground— trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.(Genesis 2:9 )

The trees were pleasing to the eye and good for food. And then He plants Adam in that garden, giving Adam responsibility.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.(Genesis 2:15)

Work the Garden and take care of it. The command is to care for what God has created, while cultivating it into something even more. (It occurs to me that if you’re familiar with the Parable of the Talents in the New Testament—the story Jesus tells of the master who gave one servant five talents, and another two talents, and a third, one talent— and expected them to cultivate what he supplied into something more. Well, that’s the idea here!) Adam has a preserving and cultivating responsibility.

In chapter 1, the command is worded a bit differently:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28 )

"Be fruitful…increase…fill the earth…and subdue it.” The challenge—the charge—is the same: “Continue my work. Move what I’ve started toward its logical and beautiful conclusion! Don’t just populate the earth (you understand that—right? The command is bigger than that. If God had simply wanted 7 billion breathing bodies on the earth, He could have done that!) Don’t just populate the earth: create a civilization—a culture—a world of ‘delight’ (which is what the word ‘Eden’ means) where rich and significant fellowship with me and with other people and with the rest of created order is the norm!”

God’s intention, then, is that Adam’s work continue His. And I’m arguing that God’s intention hasn’t changed—that His intention is that our work now “continue to continue” His. That our work continue to shape this world into all God envisioned for it when He, himself, began the process of shaping it in Genesis, chapter 1. And that’s a statement made not just about the things we consider “spiritual” things—but the predictable and ordinary things we deal with every day. Yes, even on the job. Your job is your garden to cultivate to God’s glory!

And this is where I say: if your thought, right now, is “well, my work never feels like I’m cultivating Eden!”—well, hang in there with me. Sometimes it’s our work that needs transformed—always we’re battling the ongoing impact of sin and its curse—but sometimes, it’s just the way we see our work that needs transformed—sometimes we need to grow our capacity to see what we’re doing in the “ordinary” of our world as one of God’s tool for continuing to create His extraordinary world. In this way, our work continues God’s work.

2) Our work partners with God’s work

Part of what it means for humanity to be formed “in the image of God” is that we were designed to serve as God’s representative on God’s behalf in God’s world.

When God says within Himself: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule…” (Genesis 1:26) and when God says to humanity: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28 ) that is a commissioning ceremony. We are commissioned to co-regency, to partnership, with the God who rules over all. Specifically, we are appointed to rule over the earth as He would rule over the earth. But the only way we’re ever going to do that is in partnership with Him.

When God places Adam in the Garden with instructions to “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15) God doesn’t, then, just wander off to other places and abandon Adam, leaving Adam to figure out what that’s all supposed to look like on his own. Rather, it’s clear (specifically from the breaking of fellowship that occurred with Adam’s sin) that, prior to Adam’s sin, continuing fellowship had been the norm: that God and Adam were operating in partnership on this thing. Working together.

Indeed, even within the Godhead, God Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— always exists and acts in partnership. And the gift of “work” that God has extended to us is not a gift from a deist God who—like some cosmic clockmaker—sets the world in order, gets it to ticking, and then goes off and busies Himself with other things. Rather, the God of the Christian Scriptures is an engaged God—fully and continually involved with His creation. We read it a moment ago—Jesus said about the Father (and then about Himself):

“My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17)

And guess what? The invitation to partnership with God in the work He is doing remains. “Join us,” Jesus says…

“As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me” (John 9:4)

Indeed, God already has your garden plot ready:

For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10)

The thing’s plowed and planted, so to speak—and all God needs is a partner willing to bring it to fruition! And I know what you think when I say that. Okay—at least, I think I know what you think when I say that. You think: “Okay, Pastor. After I’ve put in the 47 hours my 40-hour work week demands, and— well, after that, the kids have sports, and Aunt Mamie’s coming in—but after those things I can get around to those “good works” God’s prepared in advance.”

No—maybe the God who gave you the gift of work, who formed you in His image—He, himself, being a worker—and who cultivated the garden in advance for you as He mapped out the days of your life, maybe He wasn’t ignoring the fact that you had a job that consumes, on its own, a third of your adult lifetime. Maybe even a third of the “good works” He’s prepared in advance for you to do are tasks you can partner with Him on, in the daily grind of the 9 to 5. Maybe He’s already got that figured out!

Maybe there’s some way in which your work was God’s work before it ever became your work. Maybe God’s already got that figured out. Because when I read Genesis, Our work partners with God’s work. It’s what I see in the life of Adam. It’s what I see in the example of Jesus. It’s what I read as the promise of Scripture. Maybe my work means more than I’ve thought. I’m declaring that it does, because Our work continues God’s work. Our work partners with God’s work.

3) Our work remains blessed with His authority and purpose

Here’s something I hope you can appreciate. It’s not just our souls that Jesus redeems. Jesus didn’t humble himself from eternal glory to the taking on of human flesh, live a sinless life in the face of Satan’s most compelling temptations, die an unspeakably horrific death on a rugged cross ,just so that our sins could be forgiven, our souls redeemed, and the rest of all we are and all we know left to rot as somehow unimportant or unredeemable. If there’s anything I hope we can see with “new eyes” over the next few weeks, it’s that all of created order looks for, longs for, and is promised liberation through Christ.

… the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed… (Romans 8:19)

Why? Because the creation exists alive with hope of liberation:

…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:21 )

From its bondage to decay and in equal hope of its experience of the same freedom and glory the children of God already know. The creation itself groans, Romans says, in anticipation of this liberation. And here’s the deal: If it’s the whole of created order that Christ died to redeem—and I get it, that might be a concept some of you’ve not thought much about, but—as you’ve heard me say, perhaps—it’s not just a bunch of disembodied souls occupying some ethereal heaven “up there, somewhere” that is the hope of the Christian. In spite of the popular mythology, it’s not a harp and a cloud and angel wings we’re looking for. It is, rather, the consummation of all things in Christ—the completion, in full, of what God had in mind when He first spoke the worlds into existence. It is the full enjoyment of a new heaven (yes) but also a new earth—functioning as it ought to—as the home of righteousness—each of us participating in a resurrected body just as glorious as Christ’s resurrected body—that is our hope!

And if it’s all of that Christ died to redeem, if it’s the whole of created order for which He gave His life, if Jesus’ redemption is just that big, why wouldn’t His redemptive act stretch to include your job, as well?

If He’s restoring all things, then why would He not restore to your work—in the garden He’s prepared for you—the same authority and purpose that marked Adam’s work in the garden God prepared for him? But if that’s so, what does your job look like when you see it like that?

I’m asking you to consider these question:

  1. Our work continues His. What does your work look like when it continues the kind of creative, cultivating ordering of this world that He did in Genesis 1?
  2. Our work partners with His. What does your work look like when you’re not at your task alone…or even by your own design…but rather, in partnership with Him?
  3. Our work remains blessed with His authority and purpose. What does your work look like when you dare to believe it to be ordained of God and blessed with His authority and purpose?

Discussion Guide for The Gift of Work for Blue Collar Workers

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These discussion questions relate to Kent Duncan’s sermon: The Gift of Work for Blue Collar Workers. Learn more about his integrated outreach to blue collar workers by reading his thesis: Facilitating Marketplace Ministry in a Blue-Collar Context.

Tell us something about yourself by answering one of the following questions:

  1. How’d you end up with the job you’ve got?
  2. What’s the best part of the work you do?
  3. What’s the worst day on the job you’ve ever had?
  4. What do you do/make at your job?
  5. If you could have the perfect job, what would it be?

Discussion Questions relating to this week’s sermon: The Gift of Work for Blue Collar Workers

  1. Read Genesis 2:8-17. This passage shows that Adam had work-related responsibilities even in the Garden of Eden. What does this suggest to you about the nature of work? How’d you imagine Adam’s experience of labor in the Garden of Eden?
  2. Genesis 1:27 says that humanity is created “in the image of God.” Ancient accounts from other cultures use that phrase as well, but only of a nation’s king as their god’s representative over the land. What do you think is the significance, then of Genesis describing every human as formed “in the image of God”?
  3. In Genesis 1:28, Adam’s assignment is to “fill the earth and subdue it,” to “rule over” it. In Genesis 2:15, Adam is directed to “work” and “take care of” the Garden of Eden. How does this relate to God’s creative activity in Genesis chapter 1?
  4. The Hebrew words translated “work” and “take care of” in Genesis 2:15 are the same words used throughout the Old Testament for the ministry of Israel’s priests. What does this tell you about how God views human labor?
  5. G. Charles Aalders suggest that “caring for” the Garden included defending it against “hostile forces."1 Bruce Waltke agrees, declaring that “as priest and guardians of the garden, Adam and Eve should have driven out the serpent."2 These comments suggest that Adam’s responsibilities in the garden included not only the cultivation of the ground but also the defense of God’s territory. In what way do your work responsibilities reflect these of Adam?
  6. Andy Crouch suggests that over the last 100 years or so Christians have typically reacted to culture in one of four ways: by (1) condemning, (2) critiquing, (3) copying, or simply (4) consuming it. He suggests a fifth possibility: cultivating culture. How do Adam’s responsibilities to cultivate and create within the Garden shape your thoughts about God’s purpose in your work?
  7. In what ways might you view your work differently this week in light of the Scriptures we’ve looked at today?