Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Joy of Duty, the Duty of Joy

Texts: Genesis 29:14b-20; Proverbs 8:27-31; Romans 5:1-5; Ephesians 6:5-8; Hebrews 12:2-3

HAVE YOU EVER HAD A job you absolutely hated?   Maybe you still have it. Your boss is arbitrary and unfair.  Your duties are repetitious or degrading.  Your pay in no wise measures up to everything you’re required to do.  You’re going crazy.  How can you spend one-more-day laboring at it?  But with the state of the economy, where are you going to go?  And you’re a Christian, so you know it’d be a sin to commit sabotage or tell off the boss to his face.  So you suffer through it, all the while comforting yourself with this thought: “I feel miserable, and in this job I’m going to keep on feeling miserable.  But blast it all, I’m Doing My Duty, and God will give me credit for all the misery I’m going through as I Do My Duty.  In fact, if I enjoyed my job and did my duty out of joy, there’d be no merit in it at all.  So Lord,  look at all the misery I’m going through on this rotten job, and give me the reward I deserve.”

That’s the default attitude for human beings going through difficult, unavoidable situations, whether we’re Christians or not.  It might not be a job we feel trapped in.  Our unwelcome duty may be taking care of an infirm or ill relative, where he or she is ungrateful and everyone else in the family leaves all the heavy lifting-- maybe literally-- to you.   Or maybe the difficult duty you face is keeping a struggling marriage together for the sake of the children.  Or you’ve taken on a task for an organization you belong to and now that you’ve got it, nobody else will step up so you can resign in good conscience.  Or maybe, just maybe, the struggle and suffering you’re undergoing has to do with bearing with ridicule and disadvantage because you belong to Jesus Christ.

In all these situations, we have a natural inclination to believe that God should give us credit for how terrible our duty makes us feel.   In fact, we assume that if we felt joy and love in our duty, it wouldn’t be Duty at all.  Sometimes the object of all our self-sacrifice will even say: “You don’t really love me, you’re only doing this for me out of duty!”  We feel that Duty by nature is something done because we have to, not because we want to or take any pleasure in it.  I mean, if somehow we enjoyed our duty, wouldn’t that be selfish of us?  (I’m speaking according to conventional wisdom).  That means the more reluctant we are to do our duty, the greater the merit there is in it..

But is this what the Bible says about Duty and Joy?  What is God’s will concerning them both?  This morning we’ll examine a few brief passages that shed light on this subject, and by the help of the Holy Spirit may they aid us as we love and serve God and our neighbor in this present age.

We read these verses in the order they appear in the Bible, but I’ll start with the reading from Proverbs 8 first.  The context here might be called “The Song of Wisdom” or “Wisdom’s Manifesto.” In Proverbs Wisdom is personified as a woman, but when you look at the qualities and attributes she demonstrates, you realize that this describes none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity.  And doesn’t St. Paul call Christ “the Wisdom of God” in I Corinthians?  In our Proverbs passage we see the eternal Son of God, God’s eternal Wisdom, laboring at the Father’s side in the work of creation.  We see this truth confirmed in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where it says that  “by him all things were created,” and in St. John’s Gospel, where it is written that “without Him [that is, Jesus Christ] nothing was made that has been made.”  Jesus our Lord in dutiful submission to the will of His Father labored as the craftsman at the Father’s side, making everything that is.  And what does Christ the Wisdom of God say?  Speaking in the guise of Lady Wisdom He says:

I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.

God the Son did His duty to the Father, and in His duty He took delight and joy!

Now, it might be objected: The work of creation was not Duty for the Son.  But not so fast.  What is duty?  It is what is due to or owed someone.  The Scriptures make it clear in various places that God the Father is owed all obedience, honor, and submission, and from eternity God the Son pays His Father His due.  He does His duty, and He does it joyfully.

We, brothers and sisters, are now children of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, saved by His precious blood.  We follow in His footsteps in rendering all obedience, honor, and loving submission to God our Father, and like Him, we are called to do it with joy.

But another objection might be raised: Yes, but it’s one thing to render joyful duty to God.  What about to other people? That’s where we face all the trouble and hardship that we want credit for!  That’s where duty stops having anything to do with joy and love!  Isn’t it?

But consider the story of Jacob and Rachel in Genesis.  “I”ll work for you seven years, Uncle Laban, in return for your younger daughter Rachel,” promises Jacob.  And so “Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.”  Jacob was doing his duty all that time.  He promised his service to his Uncle Laban, and he owed it to him according to his promise.  He felt that Rachel deserved any amount of service, and he rendered it.  Now, Laban did not do his duty towards Jacob; we all know the trick he pulled substituting Leah for Rachel on the wedding night.  Even so, for Jacob, duty and love were so intertwined for the sake of Rachel and it was hard to tell the difference between the two.

So it should be with us as Christians.  There should be no distinction between duty and love and the joy that flows from both.  Even as we fall short of the goal, we should strive and long for the time when we could so love all those we serve so deeply that the time and difficulties would seem like nothing.

Yes, all right, we can object, but it was Rachel that Jacob was doing his loving duty for.  What if he’d known he was actually serving seven years for Leah with her weak eyes and not-so-lovely form?  In our own lives, we might ask what joy can there be in working for that mean boss or taking care of that ungrateful relative or bearing patiently with that belittling parent or spouse?   We cannot possibly pretend we like being put down and called names and worked to death for someone who thinks we’re only around to serve their purposes.

Christian friends, God does not call us to pretend to like it, let alone to actually like it.  Nevertheless, it is His will that we should find joy in doing our duty, wherever it may lie.

Romans 5 deals with our duty to accept suffering with a joyful heart.  This suffering would be especially what we might undergo for the sake of Jesus Christ, but the passage doesn’t limit it to that.  Verse 2 says, “[W]e rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”  All right, that’s understandable.  But Paul goes on to say, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings.” Why?  Are we supposed to be like those Medieval monks who scourged themselves, thinking they were gaining merit with God by self-cruelty?  No, we rejoice in our sufferings because of the results we can expect from them.  Jacob surely rejoiced in his seven years of labor because they were (supposed to) result in Rachel.  For us, suffering patiently and even joyfully borne results in perseverance: we learn to keep on keeping on.  That produces strong character: We become people who can bear up under hard testing.  And as we develop that kind of character, our hope in God grows all the more.  By hope we aren’t talking about mere wishful thinking, but to a confidence that looks ahead and knows that the promises God makes to us in Jesus Christ He will keep.  We know it because He’s already keeping His promise of love to us even now, pouring it into our hearts through His Spirit.  And refreshed by His love we can rejoice in whatever that rotten job or difficult relationship or physical ordeal throws at us, because our hope in God will never disappoint us.

In the same way, in our passage from Colossians chapter 1,  Paul by the Spirit prays that the Colossians and all believers may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.  Why?  So we may live a life worthy and pleasing to the Lord.  So we can bear fruit in every good work, and grow in the knowledge of God.

Sometimes we think, “Oh, that would be so easy if I didn’t have all the hassles of daily life to contend with!”  But it’s the other way around.  Bearing fruit for God happens in the midst of the real trials of this earthly life, as we encounter trouble and suffering and hard, boring, ungrateful labor. And so Paul prays that we may be strengthened with all of God’s mighty power so we might have great endurance and patience.

What is this endurance and patience?  Is it gritting our teeth and just getting through it?  No, in all we endure God desires that we should joyfully give thanks to Him.  Why?  Because it is through our hard labor and trials that His glorious might is revealed in us.  Because in them we are more and more driven to trust Him and not our own abilities.  Because He’s teaching us to seek our satisfaction not in the joys and pleasures of this earth, but in the inheritance of the saints He has laid up for us in the kingdom of light.  This inheritance is eternal blissful fellowship with Him, and it’s not something we can earn; it’s already ours through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 6 brings the issue home.  Now, slavery is never God’s ideal for how one human being should relate to another.  Nevertheless, it existed as an integral part of 1st century Greco-Roman society, just as tedious, low-paying jobs exist in ours.  This passage does not advise us on getting better employment, any more than it deals with how a slave might try to become free.  What it does command is that as long as we are under a given boss or master, we should respect and obey him sincerely, just as we would respect, fear, and obey Jesus Christ.  Not going about moaning, “I’m miserable; O Lord, reward me for my misery!” but doing the will of God from our hearts.  Again, Paul says, “serve wholeheartedly.”  Not much room there for keeping a tally of our injuries and expecting God to pay us back for them, is there?

But wait a minute.  Look, here in verse 8, it says the Lord will reward us.  Yes, He will.  But not for how much we hated the whole experience, whatever it was.  Our reward will be for our faithfulness in the situation, for our service to Him no matter how terrible our boss might be, for our wholeheartedness and joy in the Lord as we imitate Jesus Christ-- who did not shirk the dirtiest, most offensive, and most demeaning job of all:  going to the cross to pay the price for our sins.

So in all the hard labors and trials of our life, let us indeed

. . . fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Jesus willingly went through suffering for the joy of winning you and me as His redeemed people.  You belong to Him now; remember that and be comforted whenever you encounter trouble and opposition.  He has brought you out of sin and death and He certainly can give you joy in the midst of whatever hard labor you may go through.

But what about getting credit for our suffering?  If by that we expect God to reward us for having a bleak, miserable, unloving, and joyless attitude towards our work and relationships, sorry, we’re out of luck.  The Son of God rejoiced over us at creation and joyfully went through hell to present us as His workmanship before the Father.  We are now children of God, beloved by Christ who died and rose for us.  Since this is true of Him and true of us, we owe it to Him to take joy in our duty, and we also owe Him the duty of joy, just as He rendered joyful duty and dutiful joy to His Father in heaven.

And isn’t this what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves?  If we were perfect people in this very imperfect world, we would be so filled with love for our neighbor that the worst kind of service for the most difficult person would be like Jacob serving to get Rachel.  And as a very imperfect human being I’m tempted to tell you (and myself) that of course God does not expect that of us. But I’d be wrong.  He does expect that of us, for He expects us to grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, who joyfully suffered that we might live.

But take heart, brothers and sisters! He expects it of us through the peace, wisdom, and strength of Christ, not through our own. God loves you: Ask Him to help you love your neighbor.  God rejoices over you in Christ; pray in all things that He will bring you more and more to rejoice in Him.  And pray with all His saints that He will bring us through suffering at last to His kingdom of light, where duty is joy and joy is duty, to the praise of His glorious name.  Amen.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

When Our Hard Work Doesn't Work

Texts: Romans 4:1-25; John 6:22-29

TOMORROW IS LABOR DAY, WHEN we celebrate the efforts and accomplishments of America's workers.  So it was appropriate that recently the actor Ashton Kucher should give an audience of young people a strong exhortation about the value and necessity of hard work.  He was speaking at the Teen Choice Awards, and among other things, he said, "I've noticed throughout my life that Opportunity looks a lot like hard work."  His point was that nobody should sit around passively and then complain when opportunity to get ahead seems to pass them by. Hard work is essential, and the kids need to get that through their heads while they're young, and save themselves a lifetime of disappointment and misery.

That's how it operates in this world, "under the sun," as Solomon put it in Ecclesiastes.  You get what you work for, and if you don't work, you don't get. And if you can work but refuse to, and by dint of welfare and handouts you do get, you're settling for way less than second best, and when the handouts run out, you'll be sunk.  It's the way things are.

But there's a sphere where all these facts are stood on their heads.  Where to stop working is virtue, where to keep on working is to do evil, where being willing simply to reach out and receive good things we don't deserve is to be the happiest of all.

St. Paul speaks of this condition in our reading from the fourth chapter of his letter to the Romans.  Now, in the Bible, context is everything.  So we need to remember that prior to this, up to the first part of chapter 3, the Holy Spirit has convicted us all, Jews and Gentiles alike, of unrighteousness before God.  The Jews have the Law of Moses written on tablets of stone; they don't obey it.  The Gentiles (and all mankind, really) have the natural law of God inscribes on their hearts, and they suppress it and break it, too.  So we're all in the position where the law has declared us all guilty.  God has brought us to this position so that, as Paul writes in 3:19-20,

. . . [E]very mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.  Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

The law of God, whether it's the written law given through Moses or our inward sense of right and wrong, describes the work, the big job we have to do in order to please our Lord and Creator.  Ultimately, whether we acknowledge Him or not, God is our Boss, and if He wants to fire us, there's no place else to go.

And even if we feel we want to do what is just and right and do the work God requires, every day we're putting ourselves more in His disfavor.  We're like incompetent workers who not only don't do our jobs, but even when we're trying our best we break the machinery and alienate the customers and embezzle our employer's funds. When it comes to achieving favor with God, our hard work doesn't work.  This is how it is when we depend on ourselves to gain and maintain our own righteousness by obeying the law.

But the good news, as Paul tells us in the last part of Romans chapter 3, is that God Himself has done all the hard work for us through His Son Jesus Christ.  His blood shed on the cross makes everything right between us and our divine Employer: We are justified in His sight.  His death paid the price to buy us back out of slavery to sin: In Jesus Christ we are redeemed.  His sacrifice of Himself propitiated the wrath that God rightly had directed against us for our sin: He has settled the our sin debt for us and it will never be held against us again.

Jesus Christ did all this for us when He died on Calvary, and His resurrection proves that God accepted His work.  But how do we make the work of Jesus Christ our own?  Do we do it by laboring really hard to love God and our neighbor, so we'll deserve the favor of Christ?

Well, think of the words of Jesus Himself as recorded in the sixth chapter of John's gospel.  The day before He had fed the 5,000-plus on the east side of the Sea of Galilee.  Then somehow He'd transported Himself to the Capernaum side of the lake, though everyone had seen the disciples go off in the only boat they had without Him.  Even though they didn't necessarily know Jesus had walked most of the way across on the water, they certainly were sure that this Rabbi was a special representative of God and they weren't going to lose hold of Him.  They were racing around, working hard not to lose hold of Him.

But as Jesus says, "You are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."   He seems to be agreeing with the idea we all have, that spiritual blessings, like earthly ones, have to be earned by our own efforts.  So of course the representatives of the crowd ask Jesus, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"

Now, they knew the Law.  And they knew God expected them to keep it.  But maybe, just maybe Rabbi Jesus would give them some wonderful new tip so they could keep it.

And Jesus says simply, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

That's it.  If they or we want to gain eternal life, if we want to appropriate the work of Christ on the cross for ourselves, we must not work.  We must let God do all the work and simply receive the gift of salvation by faith in Christ alone.  Our work has no place in God's plan to make us right with Him.  In fact, to insist on working for it ourselves is to imply that Jesus and His death aren't good enough for us.

But if you've read your Bible and knew about the patriarch Abraham, you might be inclined to object.  Wasn't Abraham justified by his works when he obeyed God and left Ur and then Haran to go to the land of Canaan?  Didn't God reward him for his deed when he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah?   Abraham pleased God by his works, didn't he? and aren't we to be sons of Abraham and follow in his footsteps?

Not so fast, Paul says in Chapter 4.  How was it actually that Abraham pleased God?  The Apostle quotes Genesis 15:6:  "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."  It was by faith and faith alone that Father Abraham was accepted as righteous before God!

And is the righteousness that God credited Abraham by faith the heritage only for the circumcised, that is, the Jews?  No, because God created that faith in him and accepted that faith before the sign of circumcision was even given.  The important thing is not whether we are Jews or Gentiles, the important thing is that God does His work in us and credits righteousness to us by faith.  To walk in the footsteps of Abraham, Paul argues in verse 12, is to receive by faith the work that God has done for us and to live our lives trusting that God has done everything necessary for us to be accepted by Him.  Just as Abraham looked forward to Christ and trusted in the work He would do, we look back on the saving work Jesus completed and trust that it is enough and more than enough, apart from anything we could accomplish.

But--!  But--!  Don't we have to do something to be Abraham's true heirs?  The other day I heard that some television host was arguing that if you don't think the impending national healthcare law is a great thing you can't possibly be a real Christian.  The radio host who passed this story along thought this was ridiculous on political grounds.  As Christians, we first and foremost have to reject this statement on spiritual grounds.  We are Christians through being accepted by God in Jesus Christ, and that was due to no work of kindness of ours, public or private.  For as our reading says, "It was not through law--" [And the law is largely about how we should be kind to one another] "--Not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith."

But let's say it were possible for someone to receive the new heaven and new earth God promises by his or her hard work trying to love God and neighbor.  If that were the case, Paul says, "faith has no value and the promise is worthless."  But we've already seen that doing our best to please God-- that is, following the law-- doesn't get us anywhere.  It only puts us deeper into God's righteous wrath.

But being right with God through faith is an entirely different story.  For one thing, it's totally inclusive.  For it says in verse 16;

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring-- not only to those who are of the law [that is, ethnic Jews], but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham.  He is the father of us all.

This is totally countercultural!  The culture says-- what is that song from The Sound of Music?  It goes something like

Nothing comes from nothing,
Nothing ever could;
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must've done something good.1

Human culture says it's all about work and rewards.  But the promise of God comes to us who are dead in trespasses and sins, who are totally helpless and can't do a single solitary thing to work our way to eternal life.  And see! He makes us alive in Christ!  Our God is the God who does call something out of nothing by the power of His Word, and He does it every time the Holy Spirit plants faith in Jesus Christ into a lost sinner, like each of us were before He gave us new life in Christ.

Our God is the God who "calls things that are not as though they were."  And when He speaks, those things spring into being!  How do we know this is true in time and space and not just in theory?  Well, says Paul, look at the whole history of the birth of Isaac.  Both Abraham and Sarah were as good as dead where it came to having children.  They totally didn't have it in them.  But God had promised him a son from his own loins by his wife Sarah herself and no surrogate.  God in His mercy maintained and repeated this promise even after the fiasco with Hagar and her son Ishmael.  And without wavering Abraham believed that the Lord indeed would give him his own begotten son by Sarah.  He had faith that God had the power to do what He had promised, and this faith was "credited to him as righteousness."

So what does this mean for us as we go about our lives as children of God living in an ungodly world?  First, we must resist the Devil's lie that God requires more of us than faith in the finished work of His Son Jesus Christ, or that faith itself is some kind of a work we do, and not itself the gift of God.

We must stand firmly against the world's conception that being a Christian is about doing good deeds, and the more good deeds you do, the better Christian you are.  Yes, God does want us to walk in the footsteps of our Father Abraham, who acted on the divine promises he believed.  But our actions and our work do not make us his children or children of the living God.  That all comes by grace through faith in Christ alone.

And we must utterly reject the falsehood that creeps upon us when we're depressed or in a bad situation, the nasty little voice that suggests we're not good enough to be saved by the blood of Christ, or worse, that somehow the blood of Christ isn't strong enough to save a wretch like you or me.  If we were good, we wouldn't need saving!  And the promise of God in Jesus stands firm and strong.  His cross is more than sufficient to save us from all our sins.

For what does the Apostle say at the end of our reading from Romans?

The words "It was credited to him" were written not for him [Abraham] alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness-- for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.  He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

In the sphere of this world, by all means, work as hard as you can at the vocation God has called you to.  But in the sphere of the world to come, stop struggling, stop your fruitless working, put down your tools and come with empty hands ready to receive.  The Son of Man gives you the food that endures to eternal life, and He gives you the faith you need to take it from His hand.  By His grace, may you cease your labors and rest forever in Him.  Amen.
1  By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, 1959