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The text for our consideration on this Labor Day Weekend is Colossians 3:23-24. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”
“Labor Day” was established in this country in 1882 by an organization called “The Knights of Labor” which later became “The American Federation of Labor,” which later merged with the “Congress of Industrial Organizations” and is known today as the “AFL-CIO.”
I doubt that there was any thought in the minds of those who first instituted “Labor Day,” to the Scriptural connection between the Christian life of faith the work that we do. But just because they didn’t see the connection doesn’t mean there isn’t one. In fact the Scriptures have a lot to say about the work that God’s people are given to do and the way God’s people are to do it.
In fact, God’s interest in our ‘labor’ is one of the very first things that we are faced with in the Scriptures. The very first thing that God does after He creates the world and the plants and the animals and the man, is “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Gen.2:15). It is as Adam does the labor that the Lord God has given him to do, that Adam carries out his life in faith. Listen to that. Adam responds in faith and obedience to God by going to work and doing the job that God has given him to do.
Does that surprise you? Maybe you expected that the first thing that God would tell Adam is where church is and what time worship begins. But instead, God says to Adam, “I’ve got a job for you.” And the job is gardening. That’s not very ‘spiritual’ is it? No, this is very spiritual.
Can you imagine if Adam had replied to God and said that he wanted something more ‘spiritual,’ more ‘religious’ to do than gardening? Actually that’s exactly what Adam does say to God in Genesis 3. But let’s not miss the point that this is called ‘sin.’
And let’s not miss the fact that after Adam’s great sin, what does God do? He puts Adam right back to work in the garden. But now the ground is cursed and Adam’s work is hard and painful and he gets really sweaty, and every weed and rock and drop of sweat reminds him to repent and turn to the Lord and find satisfaction and fulfillment and even worship in doing the work that the Lord has given him to do.
So from the very beginning of the Scriptures, we see that a very big part of our life of faith, our ‘spiritual life’ as we like to call it, happens right in the jobs that we have been given to do.
St. Paul connects the doing of our job to the keeping of the 1st Table of the Law – “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and strength.” “Whatever you do, work heartily, AS FOR THE LORD, and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. YOU ARE SERVING THE LORD CHRIST.”
How often do we stop to consider that the work that we do, whether it’s a job we get paid for or not, is “for the Lord?” “You are serving the Lord Christ.”
That really changes the perspective on our labor doesn’t it? We thought we were working for ourselves, for our family, our security, our advancement, our interests, for a company. We thought were working for a paycheck, the benefits. And certainly that is all a part of our work, you can’t take that away. But what we want to see here is that this is not the main thing. And to make it the main thing is to miss the main thing which is – “you are serving the Lord Christ.”
So how does this effect the way that we do our job? Well if we do the job that we have with the awareness that we are working, “for the Lord and not for men,” then we work at it “heartily,” or “with all our heart.” That means that we will work hard to do our job well.
Luther puts it like this, “A Christian shoemaker needs to make good shoes, not bad shoes with little crosses on them.”
Author Dorothy Sayers picks up on this and writes, “The church’s approach to a carpenter is usually confined to an exhortation to live a moral life, don’t get drunk and attend church regularly. What the church should be telling him is that the very first demand that His religion makes on him is that he should make good furniture.”
And even if our job is not very rewarding or fulfilling, even if we feel we are not being paid as we should, if we have the awareness that we are ‘working for the Lord and not for men,’ then we know “that from the Lord we receive THE inheritance as our reward.” And “THE inheritance” includes all of wages and benefits that our Lord’s labor has earned for us, forgiveness, life, heaven.
Can we begin to see how the work that we do at the job that we have is something that is really VERY SPIRITUAL?
What we are talking about here falls under the heading of ‘vocation.’ Our ‘vocation’ includes whatever stations and jobs in life that we have at any given time. You don’t have to go looking for a ‘vocation.’ It comes to you. And we always have multiple ‘vocations.’ And they change.
At times, our vocation is to be a child, a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a student. Then, our vocation changes and we are given the job of husband or wife, mother or father, grandmother or grandfather, employee, retiree, volunteer. All of these fit under the umbrella of “WHATEVER YOU DO…” “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men… You are serving the Lord Christ.”
So, just how is it that we are ‘serving the Lord Christ’ by doing the job, the vocation that we have? This touches on something that Luther deserves the credit for developing, which he called the “Deus Absconditus.” Literally, the ‘hidden God’ or the ‘God who hides.’ Luther says that on this side of heaven, we never do see God’s face. On the other side of heaven we ‘will see Him face to face and as He is,’ but not here. Here, God hides behind masks. And those masks are the various vocations that He gives us to work at.
Luther puts it like this, “All of our work in the field, I the garden, in the city, in the home, in the government… These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things.” “God himself is milking the cow through the poor milkmaid on the stool.”
So, if you’re looking for where or how God is at work in your life, or at work in our nation, or at work in the world, you find Him hidden behind the masks of people doing their job as parents, spouses, carpenters, accountants, teachers, doctors, policemen, soldiers, politicians. You fill in the blank with whatever your jobs happen to be.
Here’s how it works. When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread,” how does God answer that prayer that He Himself told us to pray? Well, in the past, He has been known to deliver bread and meat from the sky – the manna and quail delivered to His people in the desert, or to multiply a few loaves of bread to feed 5000. But usually, He gives people the job of farmer, baker, truck driver, grocery store worker. And as each one does their ‘job,’ their ‘vocation,’ they are “serving the Lord Christ.” God is giving us our daily bread from behind the masks of the worker.
Similarly, God heals the sick and injured. He can do that directly with the word of His mouth or the touch of his hand as we saw Him do to many in Christ. But mostly He heals the sick and injured through doctors, nurses, and all of the other vocations associated with the medical field. They are the mask of God and as they do their ‘work’ they do it “as for the Lord and not for men.” But certainly also “for men.”
God takes care of children. But He does that through mothers and father who raise their children and care for them. And God calls some to be teachers, and bus drivers and scout leaders and athletic coaches and music teachers, and through their labor, God takes care of children. They are the masks of God.
We pray as we are taught, “deliver us from evil.” And God answers our prayer through those whom He has called to be policemen, firemen, government officials, soldiers and other civil servants. They are the masks of God. God is hidden in their job.
And it is as each one does his job “heartily” “as for the Lord and not for men,” that his work becomes an act of worship to the Lord. If the farmer or teacher or mother or father is an unbeliever, God still carries out His care for others through them, but their work is not done in faith and is not pleasing to God. But when another farmer or teacher or mother or father does the exact same work as “working for the Lord and not for men,” their work becomes an offering to God which pleases God because it is done in faith.
Pretty ‘spiritual’ stuff isn’t it?
It would be very nice if we were able to conclude this sermon right here, but we cannot. All I’ve offered you so far is Law, what we should do. And there’s no power in the Law to keep the Law or to amend our sinful life. The power to keep the Law and live by faith comes from the hearing of the Gospel. And the hearing of the Gospel always begins with confession.
It is certainly significant that the one place in his Small Catechism where Luther addresses the doctrine of vocation is under the heading of Confession. Luther asks, “What sins should we confess before God? The answer: “Before God we should plead guilty to all sins…” Which are these, he asks. “Consider your calling in life according to the 10 Commandments. Are a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife or worker? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything or done any harm?”
We must all confess that we are guilty of doing our labor ‘half-heartedly,’ as for men and not for the Lord, thinking only of the reward and wages that we will receive from men for our work, with no consideration of the “mask of God” that I am.
And so you must know that there is One who has been perfectly faithful to His vocation and the work He was given to do. Jesus Christ is the true ‘mask of God’ through Whom we see the love and care of God for His whole creation. For a time, God was hidden behind the mask of the baby born of the virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, who aw crucified, died and was buried. But on the 3rd day, the ‘mask’ was removed. And we beheld the love and care of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Jesus did the work the Father gave Him to do, “heartily,” with all His heart. And by His labor we have the forgiveness of all of our sins, even our sins against our vocation. And where there is forgiveness of sins there is life and salvation. And where there is life and salvation, there is the Holy Spirit doing His work of creating faith in our heart. And where there is faith in the heart, there is repentance and where there is repentance there is the sure and certain promise that God is at work in us, making us the ‘masks of His love’ to all the world.
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”