Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Ecclesiastes 1:2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. Ecclesiastes 1:12-14 12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. Ecclesiastes 2:18-3:1 18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. 24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
If you stand in the courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts, you will be surrounded by beautiful murals. Twenty-seven fresco panels, painted by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, celebrate the beauty of work. The Detroit Industry Murals make labor beautiful. The two largest murals capture scenes from Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant.
In 2013, when the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy, the murals were ironic. The beauty of labor captured in painting was contrasted with the loss of labor and the hardships of life in the city.
Unfortunately, you don’t need a museum and an entire city to awaken you to that tension. That tension is something that is present in all of our daily labor. Work is both a beauty and a burden.
Before the fall into sin, when the world was created, God put Adam “in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). There was a beauty to his work, caring for the world and serving his Creator. After the fall, however, God cursed the earth, so that Adam’s work would be a burden. “In pain you shall eat of [the ground all the days of your life,” and “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” God said (Gen 3:17, 19).
As Christians, it is difficult for us to live in this tension. On the one hand, there is a beauty to our labor. Our vocation, our work, is a gift from God for service to him and service to others. On the other hand, such labor is not easy. It is difficult, painful. It demands the sweat of our brow and perseverance through pain.
What a blessing, then, for us, to hear this passage from Ecclesiastes this morning. In Ecclesiastes, God offers us a short but encouraging word that helps us find a double joy in the daily labor that we pursue.
[God Has Given Us a Double Joy in Daily Work.]
In our text, we have “the words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1). Although this preacher was king, he struggles with work. “Vanity of vanities,” he begins. “All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:2–3).
In the Old Testament, there are many words for work. “Toil” is one of them. This word, however, stresses the pain of our daily labor. In Psalm 90, Moses contemplates the shortness of life. “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Ps 90:10). The problem with our labor in these cases is not so much its difficulty but its disappearance. Ultimately, it passes away.
In our text, the Preacher echoes this wisdom. He says that he hates his toil precisely because he cannot control what happens to the fruit of his labor. He cannot gather the fruit of his labor and trust that it will last. In the end, he needs to leave it to others. He could build barns and then build bigger barns and use them to store all of his wealth, only to find that one night he dies and all that he has accumulated is left to others (cf. Lk 12:13–21).
That is why it is so important to listen closely as the Preacher closes this text. At the very end, the Preacher opens our eyes to what comes “from the hand of God” (2:24b). He reveals how there can be joy in our labor. The Preacher says, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil” (2:24a).
God has given us the gift of daily labor and calls us to find satisfaction in that labor, day-by-day. We work not to build a kingdom for ourselves in this world but rather to give service to God and to others.
Too often, we turn our work in this world into an idol. It is the means whereby we hope to build ourselves a kingdom. Advertising invites us to think that the true enjoyment of life lies just on the horizon, with one more purchase. So, we work to earn money to buy that car, to build that house, to take that vacation, to find a joy in life that lasts. Work was never meant to accomplish that. And such efforts will ultimately fail us.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus said. “And I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). Jesus came to bring us into God’s kingdom, and his work for us will never fail. He bore the punishment of God’s wrath for our sins on the cross, and he opened the kingdom of heaven to us, his creatures. The joy and hope of our life is that Jesus is the one who toiled, who labored for us. The curse of sin was pain and suffering in labor. (It was not labor or work, but the suffering, the tediousness, the tiredness that comes with it.) Jesus bore that suffering and pain, all the way to the cross. He labored for us to enter into the kingdom of God. On account of his labor we do not have to labor to enter into God’s kingdom or grace.
Saved by Christ, we are freed from having work as our master. Now, work is a joyful place for service: service to God and service to others. In such work, God has given us a double joy.
God gives us the joy of service to him in our daily labor. Christ’s work of salvation has claimed all of our lives. Now, all that we do is done for him. There is a joy to be found in raising children, in preparing food, in cleaning house, in serving clients at our place of business. God originally called Adam and Eve to care for creation, and now, after our redemption, the world is wide open for service to God. There is no work in this world that is too small for God to find pleasure in our service.
God also gives us joy in serving others. In early editions of the Small Catechism, the petition “Give us this day our daily bread” was accompanied by a woodcut. In that woodcut, you did not have a loaf of bread on a table. Instead, you had Jesus feeding the five thousand with the bread of a small child. That image captures a second joy that lies in our daily labor. The joy of serving others through the fruits of our labor. Just as the child’s small loaves in the hands of Jesus fed five thousand, so, too, our acts of service in the hands of God can raise a family, care for the dying, contribute to the welfare of a community, and care for the world.
I have had the experience of driving around town after church on a Sunday morning. I have noticed one thing in particular: the church parking lots have few cars; the malls and shopping centers are packed with cars.
In America, people often associate work with earning a living. Having money not only for necessary expenses but also for the joys of consumption. Going shopping. Satisfying your desires. Finding those things you can buy to make yourself happy. That’s the joy that comes from work for many people.
Christians, however, live differently. For them, work is not a way to fulfill consumerist desires. No. Work is an opportunity for faithful living. Christ has forgiven us our sins and called us to faithful service in the world. In work, we have a chance to reveal to the world just a glimpse of God’s good design.
God has given us vocations, places for faithful service. For some, vocation involves employment in the workforce. If you are not employed, however, that does not mean you are not working. Vocation also involves raising a family, changing the diapers, mowing the grass, fixing a broken window, serving the local community, exercising your civic duties, caring for the creation, not wasting natural resources or polluting the air and water. To his faithful people, God gives a double joy in daily work. We find joy in serving God through daily labor, and we find joy in serving others through our work. Amen.