Sacred Work, Sacred Sacrifice
My first full-time job was at an air conditioner company, processing calls from repairmen to see if their work qualified for energy efficiency rebates. Every day I woke up at 6am, left the house by 7am to catch my bus, and walked from the bus stop to reach my job by 9am. Every day I sat in front of the same computer, giving the same “This is Alex with [company name]. How can I help you?” greeting to every caller, inputting the same data on air conditioner cooling capacity over and over, eating my lunch every day on the same bench outside the company office, taking the bus back after 5pm every day, and getting home by 6:30pm every day. The work was fine but very repetitive. Ironically, I enjoyed the air conditioner repairmen who hated me, since at least they made things exciting. There a one repairman out in Louisiana who always cussed me out, blaming his inability to fix air conditioners on me. I remember once he called, I said hello, then before anything else I aimed my phone receiver at my supervisor across the room. The torrent of obscenity that screeched out from that man over the phone was so loud my boss whirled around to glare at me for searing, before realizing it was you-know-who calling again. Not a pleasant call, but at least not boring. I think back to my air conditioner job when I read scriptures like today’s. The Bible says lots about farming and herding. It says a fair amount about teaching and soldiering. But what does the Bible say about working in a call center? Or in a factory? Or behind a desk all day? Where is Jesus Christ in such jobs?
Leviticus today details a sacrificial ritual celebrating the barley harvest around the holiday of Passover. Notice the beginning of the decree, “When you enter the land that I am giving you, and you reap its harvest…” Notice also, “You shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears—this is a barley harvest ritual—[shall eat no barley] until that very day, until you have brought this offering to the Lord.” So together, God tells the Israelite’s he’s giving them the land, this land shall have harvests for them to reap, but they cannot eat this harvest until its fruits are shared with God. It’s like God is a farmer and the Israelites his hired hands: he’s giving this people land to till and enjoy but asks for the first crop, since it’s still his farm. If you read Deuteronomy 26, you’ll see a similar idea in its harvest sacrifice: “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” The Israelites saw their farming as partnership with God, as a symbiosis where God gives the Israelites resources, they cultivate what God gives them, and this harvest offering to God thanks and celebrates this shared work.
Let’s look at 1 Corinthians. To give some context, the Apostle Paul is dealing with drama in the Corinthian church—image that, drama in a church—and so here is stamping out bickering there over whether he or this guy Apollos is a better teacher. So Paul writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” Later on Paul writes, “For we are God’s servants, working together. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.” Here again, just like in Leviticus, believers are seeing their work as a partnership with the Lord. Neither Paul nor Apollos matters in this argument, he says, because God is the one in charge, the one who gives both men the skills they need, the one who’s actually changing hearts. Paul is working his behind off—the maps of Paul’s journeys are stunning, how often he moves around to do God’s work—Paul is working hard. Yet nonetheless he sees this work as a partnership with God.
Reading those two scriptures… and thinking about my work in that air conditioner center, about work in factories, in offices, wherever… I realize there is indeed a Christian view of work. If Paul can see his missionary work the same way the Israelites saw farming, it stands to reason the rest of us can see our work in similar ways, within reason. God grants us abilities: whether it’s strength of muscle, a keen mind to sort out problems, patience to deal with rude customers, nimble fingers to type all day. And it’s God’s sovereign providence that grants us tasks that need doing, whether it’s crops that must be harvested, repairs that must be made, calls that must be answered, figures that must be tallied. Stepping into the Biblical mindset of Paul and Leviticus… gives our work a sacred dimension that wasn’t there before. Farming is no longer just shoveling manure: it’s working with God to till the land. Factory work is no longer merely churning out Chryslers: it’s using your God-given skills to create machines that let God’s people explore the world. It’s a mindset that sees yourself as part of something larger, as a piece of creation’s grand scheme, as a partner with God in whatever it is you do, that God might use your skill and your work to make the world a slightly better place. A Christian poet once wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” In a way, this Biblical perspective on work invites us to consider that perhaps no job is an island, that every task we do has some part in God’s grand scheme for creation. That doesn’t make our work necessarily better—my air conditioner job was drudgery—and it doesn’t mean we should settle for bad wages or unethical business practices. The Israelites also invented the weekend and enshrined protections for workers, so don’t think this sermon is saying “work shall set you free” like the Nazis plastered above their slave labor camps. No: Old Testament laws also demand work be fairly paid and protected. But this change in perspective does infuse a sacred meaning, a sense of dignity, into what otherwise might feel only like mundane, routine toil.
And it’s this view of work that informs stewardship and giving in the Bible. Often when I think of church offerings—both before I was a preacher and even now—it feels greedy. “Who’s this fellow asking for a chunk of my change? Let him answer phones nonstop for eight hours a day!” But in Leviticus and elsewhere, a mindset of partnering with the Lord in every task meant that—in Biblical minds—God is not some Johnny-come-lately only asking for stuff once the work was done, God is not an emperor in some far-off palace demanding tribute but never bothering to come over to do the work himself. No. Rather both Old and New Testaments see God working alongside us people. And so giving is born out of a sense of gratitude for God’s presence, for God’s grace, for the gifts God gave that enable us to reap whatever harvest we are given. It’s the same story across the Bible: God routinely gets down in the mud and blood to work with us. In the creation of humanity, the Lord creates a paradise… and then gives it to the humans he created, telling them it’s their job to watch over and care for it on God’s behalf. It’s why the Hebrews were given the Sabbath rest every seven days: if work has a sacred dimension to it—since we work with and alongside God—so too must relaxing and unwinding from work have a sacred dimension—since the Bible says God also rested after creating the world. When we were trapped in sin and couldn’t escape, God came down among us in the person of Jesus to do the work hands-on and show us how to live. Throughout the Bible there’s this sense of partnership with God, not only in ministry and worship… but in all tasks, in all jobs, in all work.
Now I’m not saying all jobs are fun. I don’t think the Bible means all tasks are pleasant. Obviously not: work can be brutal, whether you’re an exhausted factory worker, a nurse grieving a lost patient, or a burned out office clerk. But even Israelite farmers, sweating after harvesting barley, took time to remember and celebrate that God worked with them, that God was a partner in their labor. It didn’t make the work easier or less smelly. But it gave their work dignity, a sense of being connected to God’s greater plan for their nation, for the entire world. This sacredness is why the laws God gave Moses also enshrined rights for Israelite workers: because God worked with them, workers were to be protected. Paul saw similar sacredness in his own work, even as he found himself neck-deep in drama and politicking. So I hope this week—when work gets you down—you do like the Israelites did. Realize you are more than just drudgery. Every act we make—at work, at school, at home, in town—every act is part of a grander narrative, a sentence in the book of God redeeming the world. So take confidence in knowing that God not only watches over you… but also labors alongside you and even works through you. By the grace of God, your life and your work… are far grander than you realize. Amen.