Well I wonder if you remember your summer jobs from high school. I remember my summer jobs; they usually were fun experiences. They were a nice break from school and involved being outside and working. And I have on my mind this week my first summer job in high school, which was between ninth and tenth grade because it was with a construction company. And for a young man to work with a big manly construction company is a big deal especially when you are just 15 or 16 years old. And I can remember very vividly my first day on the job at Gallagher Construction, up in PA. You see I was a total novice, didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I had gone out the day before and bought a tool belt. I got few tools, I got a tape measurer, and I got a set of pliers. Then I went to the section with hammers and I noticed a hammer that was fluorescent orange, and I thought it looked cool. So I decided to get that hammer. And so I showed up at the job and there were all these grizzly men I hadn’t met before and I thought I looked somewhat official with these tools.
Well as it turns out I didn’t fool anybody. My tool belt was on backwards, my tools didn’t have a scratch on them, I clearly had never grown any facial hair, and evidently this hammer wasn’t exactly up to snuff. And the men used to take and chuck it somewhere on the job site, and say: “Well at least it’s easy to find, it glows in the dark.” So I was the butt of a lot of jokes that summer and I didn’t mind so much; you come to learn that when guys give you a hard time its usually because they like you. But there was something about that first day that really bothered me. And it was that as the 8 ½ to 9 hours went by I wasn’t given anything to do. I just stood there. And the men went about their tasks very carefully and with a lot of purpose and a lot of skill, and I would nudge myself up to a group of guys somewhat sheepishly. I would ask if I could help, and they would say “Well have you used a saw like this before? Can you handle a nail gun? Have you ever done a cut like this? Could you lift this board? You might just want to stand back for now.” And so I had to stand there the whole day, with my tools in the belt and my hands in my pocket while these men labored and labored, broke a sweat and did a good days work. And I’ll never forget the feeling: I offered no value to these men. It was embarrassing. I wasn’t needed. I had no purpose on the job site. It wasn’t an enjoyable day.
And I share that experience because it illustrates something that is universally true. We are creatures who need to be needed. We need to be valued. We want to know that in our families or in our jobs or somewhere in our lives we bring value, and because of that our days are filled with purpose. We aren’t simply idle, we aren’t simply superfluous, and we aren’t unnecessary. That we are needed, we are valued.
We are starting a sermon series today that will run through the month of January we’re we going to look at this itch. We are going to talk about this desire we have to have a purpose, to have a duty. The sermon series is titled, “Our Callings, One Caller.” And during the series in the weeks ahead we are going to ask the question: what work is God doing in this world and how has he uniquely equipped us and called us into it? Because the place where we truly find value and purpose is when the movement of the work of our hands lines up with the movement and the work of God’s hands. And we see not just enjoyment, but an eternal significance to how we spend our days and how we spend our times. These are tough questions. They involve our work with family, at our school, at our jobs, on vacations, with our hobbies. We want to ask, “Lord, what are you calling us into? What is our role?” And we are going to begin today with two fundamental questions in this conversation. This sermon is very straightforward. We are going to ask: “What work is God doing?” That is the first question we have to ask, and we are going to call it “What is the mission of God?” We talk about this several weeks ago, but what is God up to in our world? What is His purpose? Does He have a mission? And secondly, we are going to ask, “How might we begin to understand our role in that mission?”
So, first, is God at work? Is God up to something in our world? Well if you look at the Bible you don’t get a picture of God who is seated on a couch with his feet up. From the book of Genesis God is active and on mission. In the Gospels, He is active and on mission. In the book of Revelation, as we peer over our horizon, He is active and on mission. He is creating people, calling them to fill His earth and to have dominion. In the Gospels, He is redeeming those people so than can again be His image, fill the earth, and do work. And then in the book of Revelation he is taking this Earth and renewing it and calling it a new heavens and a new earth. God is on mission. And if we had to distill God’s mission we might say it like this. The mission of God is to establish a kingdom where joy and flourishing are experienced in all places, because His love and lordship have been embraced by all peoples. A kingdom where joy and flourishing in all places because Jesus Christ’s love and lordship has been embraced by all peoples. Joy and flourishing in all places friends: Libya, Syria, South America, North America, Falls Church, Arlington, and your home. Joy and flourishing. God’s purview on His mission involves all things. And the real profundity of this mission of God is that He has chosen to use people to get it done. From the very first chapter in the Bible it is Adam and Eve who are to have dominion and begin to build this kingdom. In the Gospels it’s people that Jesus is redeeming and saying then through the New Testament, “You’re my body, you’re my hands and feet on the earth to do what? To bring about the reign of my Father, to establish this kingdom.” God will accomplish His mission by His power working through His son’s people.
So, the important first thing to note about what the mission of God is, is that it involves every part of your life. There is no place you’ve been, there is no place you travel, there is no job you’ve had, there is no child your rearing, there is no school you’ll go to where God from heaven isn’t looking down and saying, “I have a mission there. I have joy to bring. I have forgiveness to proclaim, and I’m calling people with tool belts to get their hands dirty.” God’s mission involves all things and He wants us to be His agents of bringing it about.
So that is the first foundation stone for this sermon. That is the mission of God. You might say we are like a group of people who show up at a vast construction site and we hear that this foreman who is also an architect is building one of the most beautiful structures known to man and he stands before and begins to look at us and points at us individually and saying, “You’re going to have that tool and do that project. I need you to do this. I’ve made you alone to work in this room, on that wall, and only you can do it. And he begins to assign us tasks and we are part of this grand project and we can’t always see what the end is going to look like, but we feel the presence of our foreman, and his delight. And we know we have a purpose on that job site. So God has a mission, and it involves us.
Well this leads us to a very natural second question: “How do we understand our role?” Have you ever wondered that? I’ve got this life ahead of me and I don’t know how long it will be. I’ve got different opportunities; I’ve got to make all kinds of tough decisions. Lord, what would you have me do? What is my role in your mission? That is a good question. I hope you are asking that question. And I think Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount gives us a helpful insight into how we can begin to understand our role. You might recall in our second reading, Jesus is on a mountain giving a sermon with all types of teaching. And he has gathered around him, you might say, his first followers. And with the mission of God, with the mission of his Father on his mind and these new followers coming to his side, he looks at them and this is what he says: “Do you want to know what your role is in this?” He says, “You, you are the light of the world. That is your role. You’re light in darkness.” It’s quite a statement to make to a group of ordinary people. Jesus isn’t saying there is alternative light; he is saying you are the light. And so I want to pause on this image and say Jesus, “Why are you telling us our role is to be light?” He could have said you are the bread of the world. You are the water of the world. You’re the soil or the air of the world. You’re the peace of the world, why light? And I think there is a few interesting properties of light that we could reflect on that will give us some insight here. First of all, light is pervasive, isn’t it? We don’t light a lamp to a room in your home and say to the lamp, “I only want you to illuminate that wall, keep your hands off the rest of the room.” No the light pervades the whole room, all the walls. The light goes underneath tables, the light reflects off walls and bends down hallways. Light pervades everything above and below, beside and before. Light is pervasive. And I think what Jesus is saying to these men and women is: “Your role in the mission of God can never be compartmentalized.” You can’t simply be about your role at church or the role in your small group or you role in your job. Like a light in a room you fill all nooks and crannies of your life. Everywhere God has put you—if He has put you at a middle school, if He has put you with a family, if He has put you in retirement, if He’s put you in a workplace, if He’s put you on vacation because you are back home from college this week, if He’s put you in a friendship—He’s saying that don’t you think that your light doesn’t shine there. Light will pervade everywhere. So our first insight about what our role is, is that it’s all pervasive. Friends, everywhere you go Jesus is saying, “That is where I’m calling you to be on mission.”
The second observation is that light is outwardly mobile. Think about it. Light waves are constantly moving outward. A light doesn’t go on and turn back on itself. A light is not self-centered, its not self seeking. Light would cease to exist if it stopped permeating outward or if it stopped moving at all. I think Jesus is saying, “When I come into you life and I change you. I want the grace and forgiveness and love that you know to permeate out like light waves.” Its not to be an insular game you play—outward mobility. Everywhere God puts you—outward mobility. How does this town need the love of Christ? How does this classroom? How does this bus ride? How does this soccer practice? Outward mobility. There is one other insight that is important about light. And that’s that light requires an inner core of energy. Right? The closer you get to a light bulb the hotter it gets. The closer our earth tilts towards the sun, the hotter it gets. Why, because there is an inner core of energy. And I find it very interesting that in John’s gospel Jesus stands in front of a group of people and says, “I am the light of the world.” And in Matthew’s gospel he stands in front of a group of people and says, “You are the light of the world.” Well which one is it Jesus? Is it you or is it us? And he says, “Yes.” We’re light because the Son of God enters into our own hearts and begins to remake us. And only in proximity to him do we shine because it’s actually his light that permeates through us. So Jesus says, “Do you want to know what your role is? Begin by looking at your life as light. You have to permeate everywhere, you are outward focused.” And my friends we’ll do no good if we are not hot for Christ during the whole process.
So we begin to see what our role is. But what have we said so far? We’ve talked about what the mission of God is, that it involves all things and includes us. And we’ve seen that our role is something like a light, but we still need to get a little more specific. What does it look like, what does it mean to shine like light in particular areas of your life? In the nuts and bolts of one’s life what is your role look like? And I think an important theme to note here is that God is at work everywhere and we must not make the mistake to think that the only time we’re working for God is when we are doing something spectacular. That the only work that is God’s work is sharing the Gospel explicitly in a great sermon or great act of evangelism. Or it’s only going on a mission’s trip. Or it’s only reading my Bible with a friend. When in fact God is at work everywhere. And its only when we begin to see the hands of our Lord at work all around us that we will understand how clear our role is to partner with Him in all places. The great German theologian and preacher Martin Luther has helped me on this, has helped me on seeing that the mundane might not be the mundane but is the place where God is at work. I want to read for you some words from the old German reformer, from a sermon and from an essay. And you might know that Martin Luther had some sharp edges so be ready. He says:
“Our foolishness consists in laying too much stress upon the show of works, and when these do not glitter as something extraordinary we regard them as of no value. And poor fools that we are, we do not see that God has attached and bound His precious treasure, namely his Word, to such common works such as family obedience, external and domestic affairs, civil affairs. So as to include these things in His order and command and He wishes us to accept them the same as though He himself did appear from heaven. What would you do if Christ himself with all the angels where visibly to descend and command you and your home to sweep your house and wash your pans and kettles. How happy you would feel as you went about those chores.”
Luther’s point is that it’s no small thing to keep a home clean so that children can flourish. It’s no small thing to work hard on that Excel spreadsheet so a company can stay above water. It’s no small thing to sit on your school bus and listen to a hurting friend because in that moment the hands of God may be sustaining her and holding her up. Luther tells us that God wears a mask, and we don’t see Him, but He is at work all over our lives, upholding his creation, sustaining it, carving out space so that people who haven’t repented yet can have more time to come to Jesus. God is at work everywhere. In an essay Luther writes:
“The works of monks and priests however old and arduous they be, do not differ in the sight of God from the works of a rustic laborer in the field or a woman going about her household task. All works are measured by God by faith alone. Indeed the menial household work of a servant is often more acceptable to God than all the fasting and prayers of a monk or priest, should they be done without faith.”
What Luther’s saying is, even the seemingly simple and small things in our lives, if we go about them with faithfulness and a good conscience before the Lord, we can begin to believe and see that He is at work.
When a little boy yesterday woke up and like his mom had told him, prayed for his daily bread. And the hours went by and he sat down for dinner and his mom slid a piping hot loaf of fresh bread in front of him and said, “Son, would you say the grace?” And the little boy clasped his hands together looked at that bread and said, “Wow, thank you Lord. You provide.” What the little boy didn’t see was months prior the farmer that woke up, even though he was tired, and went hard about the harvest. He didn’t see the truck driver. He didn’t see the mill worker who turned that wheat into flour. He didn’t see the young man who decided to work at the grocery store that summer who was given the thankless task of stocking the shelves, carry the bag of flour onto the shelf so that the little boy’s mother could buy it and go home and bake bread. And those people and those tasks where unaware that the very hands of God where teaching a little boy that he is faithful and were sustaining a small town with nourishment. Friends, often in our work we cannot see what God is up to, but when we approach it with faithfulness and thankfulness, we trust that our heavenly father is on mission to fill His world with joy and sustain it.
I used to work with a group of middle schoolers at the church. One of the young men in kind of a cheeky way asked me as we were having a conversation like this. He said, “Okay, well what does God’s work have to do with my geometry homework?” And I thought that was a tough question and I’ve thought a lot about that question. And here is what I would say to that young man, “You’ve got to work on the rhombus this Christmas break. You’ve got down the triangle and the square and the circle. But now its time to learn the rhombus, and you’ve got the choice whether or not to do a good homework assignment. Let’s say you choose to do a good assignment and turn it in when you go back to school. Because of that your teacher ends up getting a good year-end report. Because of that report she is invited back to teach next year, because of that job she can provide for her family. So young man, you may not realize it, but your homework is connected to the calling of your teacher and her ability to be a mom. Moreover, you may not know this, but God may call you to be an engineer one day. May call you to go to college and continue in math in graduate school and study engineering. And God may call you to work at a great engineering firm and help design a new railway system that cuts down the cost of travel in half and is twice as fast. And that railway system will connect two cities. And in between those two cities are tons of neighborhoods with families. And those parents because of your railway system have on average 10 more hours a week with their families because their commutes are shorter. And because of that they have healthier families and because there are healthier families there are healthier towns.” So I’d say to that middle schooler, “Your homework may have a lot to do with the mission of God. And when you sit down tonight with your No. 2 pencil you may not see where this is going, but if you work in faith, if you thank God for the opportunity to learn, if you honor your teacher and your classmates with hard work, you rest assured that your heavenly Father’s hands are up to something.”
The construction crew finally let me get to work and I ended up working with them for several summers. They put me on demolition usually and I don’t think that was a compliment. But on my last summer before I went off to college I had to help demolish a back porch and a deck and a foundation of a beautiful old home. And I spent the summer breaking my back to basically dig a hole in the ground and haul away old materials. And I remember working and working and working and coming to the end of the summer and seeing a hole in the ground. And going off to college and thinking, “Well, I guess that was good work? I don’t know.” And surprisingly years later, I ended up becoming friends with a family that was the neighbor to this house and I was at a Christmas party. And a woman recognized me and said, “You’re that young man that helped that summer on our house!” And she said, “You must come over and see.” So we walked across the back yard into her property and there was this amazing backyard with the new house and a pool and a fence and flowers and shrubbery. She took me inside and showed me the new addition and we walked outside, and as I looked at this house I noticed I was next to a tree. And I recognized that tree because I used to lean my digging iron up against it during break and I would sit down in a little spot of mulch and I’d get a little rest in the middle of the day and I’d look out on that empty pathetically messy lot. And I thought, “All that time, all that time which seemed like thankless backbreaking work, there was a much bigger vision in mind.” I may have never got to see that house. We don’t always get to see God’s finished project, but the lesson today as we begin our conversation on our callings is this: friends, God is on mission everywhere. God has projects in your families. He might have called you to be a son or daughter, husband or wife, mom or dad. God has projects in your high schools and your middle schools. He has projects in your neighborhood. He has projects in your workforce. He has projects on our vacations. We will not always see where He is going, but we must trust that He is never far off and is always at work establishing this kingdom. And He looks out at us this morning and says, “Will you get your hands dirty? I have a role for you to play. There are tools in your belt that only you can use. There is a project in your family this year. It may feel more like demolition than building, but only you can do it. And its good work.” Thomas à Kempis writing not long before Martin Luther said: “A life without purpose is a languishing and drifting thing.” None of us have a life without purpose. If you have breath in your lungs, if you stand before this New Year with any vigor you have a mighty purpose. And it is to say “yes” to being God’s light in this world. And to say, “Lord. Wherever and whenever, for your glory in faith alone, I will get my hands dirty.” That’s a mission. That’s a great God to give us such dignity to partner with Him. Amen.
Sam Ferguson serves at the Falls Church Anglican, providing leadership for the Young Adults ministry. He received his theological training at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and The University of Cambridge and was recently ordained in the Anglican Church.