Monday, November 14, 2016

Sermon on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, "The Virtue of Work"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. What do 6th century Benedictine monks, the 19th century inventor Cyrus McCormick, and the Apostle Paul, have in common? They were each driven to be productive and hard-working, by what is often called the Christian or Biblical “work ethic.” The Benedictine monks believed Paul’s admonition that “if anyone would not work, neither should he eat” and that “idleness is the enemy of the soul.” So they were hard-working and diligent, and applied their God-given reason and creativity to invent technology that would make their work more productive and efficient. Similarly, Cyrus McCormick was saddened by the drudgery and purposelessness of seeing slaves harvesting grain by a sickle. He held strong beliefs that God had given dignity to mankind, and that work should be purposeful, and so he invented a mechanical harvester that revolutionized farming. These and many other Christians throughout history were positively driven by the rich teachings of St. Paul and the rest of the Bible about the godly virtue of work. Our Bible reading from Thessalonians gives an especially focused explanation of the virtue of work.
The origin and purpose of work traces all the way back to the first chapters of the Bible, when work was the good and blessed assignment of Adam and Eve, to care for the Garden of Eden. They were to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, they were to exercise dominion over creation, and work the ground to grow food. Work was good and enjoyable. But after they sinned, God’s curse upon Adam was particularly focused on his work. Work became a painful toil, and the ground would be cursed with thorns and thistles. He would sweat and struggle for his food, and in the end, all of us under the curse of sin would die and return to the dust of the ground. Yet even with this curse upon work, the Bible maintains from start to finish the necessity, value, and reward of hard work. Idleness and laziness lead to hunger, the neglect and falling apart of our possessions, and poverty. But hard work has the potential to reverse these things, provide for ourselves and others, and to even experience the joy and goodness of God’s created gifts, as long as life lasts. The curse of sin can certainly make it toilsome and unpleasant to work, but even so, honest labor is not in vain.
Work—whether it’s the physical work of building a house; tilling, planting, and harvesting a field of crops; or of managerial work of running a business; or working in engineering or design; or health care professions—work is quintessentially an earthly, this-worldly activity. And work is not just narrowly about a job that delivers a paycheck, but all fruitful and productive labor for ourselves, our household, our neighbors and community. But since work is such an ordinary, earthly activity, we should not for this reason think that it is not a spiritual activity. The New Testament particularly illustrates that work is not only about everyday life, but that it is a spiritual expression of our love for our neighbor. The New Testament elevates honest work from simply being a way to earn a paycheck, to a spiritual calling from God to serve our family, neighbors, community, and the poor and needy. That is to say work is not something unspiritual, but rather highly spiritual; blessed with special dignity and meaning by God!
Listen again to our reading, with these new insights in mind:
6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. (2 Thessalonians 3:6–13).

Paul discovered that many of the Thessalonian Christians were idle, and not doing any work. Paul says this certainly didn’t come from his teaching or the apostolic tradition. Rather, he showed an example by his hard work, doing even more than was required of him, so that they wouldn’t be burdened in providing for him. The Thessalonians, by contrast, were not keeping busy, but were “busybodies” or gossips. This reminds us of the old saying “idle hands are the devil’s playthings”—in other words, idleness breeds trouble.
Perhaps one clue into their lazy attitude, comes from the chapter before, that some were confused about whether Jesus had already returned, or would very soon. Perhaps some thought Jesus was coming so soon they no longer needed to work. Whether or not that was the reason for their idleness, we know that the future promises of heaven don’t excuse us from useful work and productive contributions to the world here and now. Even though Paul teaches extensively about the end times in 1 & 2 Thessalonians, he consistently encourages the lazy to “do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” The Bible promotes work as a reflection and result of our Christian spirituality.
Working quietly and earning our own living is also about self-sufficiency. Providing for yourself gives a certain sense of positive pride and accomplishment. Seeing the value and reward of hard work. 1 Thessalonians 4:10-12, Paul writes, “We urge you brothers to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” On the other hand, while the Bible teaches us to provide for ourselves, it’s not extremely individualistic nor does it separate us from community. Rather it makes us productive members of the community, for yet another reason, as Paul states in Ephesians 4:28 “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” One, but certainly not the only reason for honest labor, is so that we may show charity and give help to those in need.
Work, whether in our home or in business, in church or in society, can be toilsome or difficult. We never escape the curse of sin on work, even with advancements in technology that make work safer or more efficient. New troubles and challenges always present themselves, sometimes to discourage and frustrate us, sometimes to drive us to laziness, or even giving up. In this sinful world, we’re never promised that work will always be pleasant. But we are constantly encouraged to persevere and not give up. Paul urges us in the reading, “do not grow weary in doing good.” Don’t give up. All honest labor needs to continue, and we should never grow tired of doing good. The world is ever in need of people doing good.
Christians who have lived by this Biblical work ethic have accomplished many things throughout history. They believed that to work was to be like God, because God is a worker. In the Ten Commandments, specifically the 3rd Commandment, God states this: (Exodus 20:8–11)
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

God worked and He rested, and set the pattern for us to follow. When Jesus was accused of working on the Sabbath day, because He healed someone, (John 5:17) “Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’” To work is to be like God, and like Jesus, who works—but we must recognize that there is a world of difference between what we accomplish by our works, and what Jesus accomplishes by His. We work to provide in this life, but none of our works gain us heaven. We cannot work or do enough to win salvation.
            But the works of Jesus Christ do accomplish our salvation. While we work with our hands to earn our living, to even earn extra to share with others, and to do good for our neighbor, Jesus’ works complete the greater reward of our salvation. He, by His life, death on the cross, burial, and resurrection, works to bring the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting to all mankind. He has done this without our help, and He gives it entirely as gift to us. We receive salvation, not as wages for work that we have done, but as the free gift of salvation, paid for and earned by Jesus Christ alone.
            Jesus certainly toiled and labored not only through unpleasantness and mild difficulty, but through the constant gauntlet of rejection, and finally the abuse, mockery, and abandonment He faced on the cross. He toiled and labored without wearying of doing good, and without losing heart, because His eyes were focused on the joy that was set before Him. He endured the cross, rose from His grave, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father. We sing about it in the Tanzanian Easter hymn, “Christ has Arisen, Alleluia”. “Go spread the news: He’s not in the grave; He has arisen this world to save. Jesus’ redeeming labors are done; Even the battle with sin is won.” Jesus’ redeeming labors and battle with sin are finished and done. Not a job half-done or almost done, but it is finished. Jesus gives us the joyous work of carrying the news of His redeeming labors to the world.
            Pastors, teachers, and all of you as Christians join in that joyful labor of spreading the Good News, and whether in hardship and difficulty, or in joy and peace, we know that this labor is surely not in vain. Jesus has defeated the curse, and His labor has prepared for us an eternal rest. Without growing weary, we continue doing good and follow Him to the finish line. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians addresses the correct teaching of the “end times”. He also warns against distortions and false teachings about the return of Christ. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 addresses “idleness” (or laziness). What is the definition of these words? 2 Thess. 3:7-8, 10-12.
  2. What are the consequences of idleness? The rewards of hard work? Proverbs 10:4; 12:24; 13:4; 19:15; Ecclesiastes 10:18; Matthew 25:20-30
  3. Some think the excuse for the idleness of the Thessalonian Christians might have been that they thought the end of the world was very soon (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3). Why does the Christian’s eagerness and expectation for Jesus’ return not change the need for continuing our daily work? Who still needs us to lead an orderly and productive life? What is the ongoing duty of Christians? 2 Thessalonians 3:13; Galatians 6:9-10.
  4. What does it mean that work can sometimes become a “toil”? How was work transformed and cursed after the Fall into sin? Genesis 3:17-19; 5:29; Psalm 127:2. What does this mean about work before sin entered the world?
  5. How is work, even when it is toilsome, still necessary, purposeful, and beneficial? How is it still mixed with the problems of sin? Proverbs 14:23; 23:4; Ecclesiastes 2:10-11. How does Jesus give new spiritual purpose to toil and labor? John 4:38; 1 Corinthians 3:8; 15:58; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Timothy 4:8-10
  6. How is God a “worker”? Exodus 20:8-11; John 4:34; 5:16-17, 20. What does work lead to? Hebrews 4:9-10.
  7. Reread 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13. What good witness do Christians give by being hardworking? What benefits does it bring to themselves and others? Our works do not provide our salvation; but whose works do? John 4:38? Where then, does all our trust and hope for salvation belong?

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