Thanksgiving to Our God of Goodness: Psalm 65

This week we’ve come to Thanksgiving, my third favorite holiday. (My first would be a dead heat between Christmas and Easter!)

Thanksgiving is simple, not over-commercialized, and tied to the material world God has made. I like that … But, this year, as last, I enter the holiday week asking questions: What is the difference between simply giving thanks and giving thanks as one who has been with God? (Or, like a good Woodlander, I ask: How am I changed by faith in Christ as I think about Thanksgiving?)

Psalm 65 is a hymn of thanksgiving, likely sung in public worship. We don’t know for sure, but some scholars feel it might have been composed in the southern kingdom, in thanksgiving for deliverance from Sennacherib the Assyrian (around 712 B.C.). If correct, Isaiah 37.30 helps us understand its significance:

And this shall be the sign for you: this year you shall eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs from that. Then in the third year sow and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit.

Isaiah 37 looks forward to Sennacherib’s destruction and ties the harvest to God’s provision for His people. God is saying, Watch my work in My world, and my provision will be a sign for you. The connection between the two passages is not air-tight, but we find the same reasoning in Psalm 65.

Those who have been with God are changed (:1-4). The psalm starts in the Temple of the LORD, the meeting place for God with His people. “To you praise is silent, O God in Zion” (verse 1). Hard as this idea is to translate, it doubtless includes the idea that preparation for praise requires reflection and contemplation that takes place in silence. The result will be (verse 2) repayment of vows. Paying God monetary gifts and returning praise is appropriate.

Sins are removed (verse 3), as God atones for the iniquities of His people. These, His people, are then changed to enjoy God’s blessing (verses 4-5).

Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple (ESV).

What I like so much about this psalm is the way it moves from the spiritual to the material. When we have been with God (verses 1-4), we understand that God’s goodness is to be enjoyed spiritually, and materially too (verses 5-13). In the next two movements we see that those who have been changed by God now have the imaginations to recognize God’s work in His Creation.

Those who have been with God see God’s work in power (:5-8). By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness, O God of our salvation, the hope of all the ends of the earth and the farthest seas … This might have included the destruction of a great, invading Assyrian army. It certainly includes God’s works in nature.

Those who have been with God recognized God’s work in creation. [He] established the mountains in strength being girded in might … [He] stills the roar of the sea, the roar of the waves. These are not random acts of nature, but natural phenomena that God controls—while not ruling out the laws of the nature that God oversees.

Those who have been with God will include people from the ends of the earth (:8). … Those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs. You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy. 

Is this true? Do all peoples everywhere recognize God and praise Him?

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga the old hobbit, Bilbo, writes some fantastic poetry that helps us here:

All that is gold does not glitter …  Not all who wander are lost … The old that is strong does not wither … Deep roots are not reached by the frost … From the ashes a fire shall be woken … A light from the shadows shall spring Renewed shall be blade that was broken … The crownless again shall be king.

Tolkien crafts his imaginative world in a worldview that recognizes decline and fallenness. Not all is as it should be. Yet, Tolkien’s character have a glorious theology of the end.

In the same way, to say that God is praised to the ends of the earth is to have a view of the end that we recognize will be fulfilled by Christ at His Second Coming. In the meantime, we give thanks. And, as the changed by God recognize God’s work in Creation, we move from thunderstorms to raindrops.

Those who have been with God see God’s work in earthly goodness (:9-13). This includes the gentleness of Creation:

You visit the earth and water it; You greatly enrich it. The river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it …

Likewise, it includes the overflow of the harvest:

You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening its with showers, and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.

Note the theme of overflowing. Remind you of Thanksgiving? Note how the psalmist personifies nature itself: the stuff of God’s world must sing for joy! And, those who have been with God, who have been changed by God, they see God’s Creation differently!

This year as we sit down to our turkeys, let’s bear in mind a couple of things:

First, let’s recognize the difference between the imaginary and the imagination. The imaginary is the escapist world we make up to help ourselves feel good. Comic books, action-packed movies, gadgets, advertising—these belong to the imaginary.

By contrast, the imagination is the actual world of possibility we can’t see, except by faith. I think Paul had this in mind in Romans 12.2:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind … 

Beings transformed to see everything in Creation as evidence of God’s goodness is a work of God through the redeemed imagination.

Second, let’s recognize that Thanksgiving looks back to a fruitful harvest and forward to a time of abundance at Christ’s return. There’s coming a day when every meal will be as our Thanksgiving table. Those who have been with God by faith can see this!

So, if you’ve trusted in Christ, and so have been with God—be changed this Thanksgiving. See God in His works, and give thanks!

 

Here’s a few questions to keep you talking about Psalm 65 this Thanksgiving:

The Psalmist takes us from God’s spiritual work (verses 1-4) to God’s work in His material world (verses 5-13). Those who have been with God recognize God’s work in both. Why is this thought so important for us as modern people? 

Have you ever thought about your Thanksgiving turkey being a picture of the abundance God’s people will know at the return of Christ? How does this connection put a different spin on your Thanksgiving celebration? 

What are you thankful for in this past year? What are you thankful for that you will experience at Christ’s return? 

Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Reversal: Jonah 2.1-10

Have you ever heard a testimony that just didn’t sound right? Maybe, something like: “My life was a mess, but then I wised up and trusted God, and so now I’ve pulled it together …” Crassly put, but I bet you’ve heard something of the kind.

This week in Jonah 2, we find the prophet in the belly of the fish. Jonah’s initial response to God’s commission to preach to Nineveh was flight (1.1-4a). This response resulted in the prophet being out to sea, plunging toward death and destruction and in the company of Gentile Mariners. The continuing result of Jonah’s disobedience was Jonah’s apprehension by God (tossed from the ship and swallowed by the fish) and reverent fear of the One-True-God on the part of the Gentile mariners (1.4b-17).

Now, in the belly of the fish (a place of both death and reversal) Jonah prays to God. In his psalm of declarative praise, Jonah reverses his preference for death over obedience (:1-6). Jonah responds to God, recognizing God’s attentiveness: I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me (:1). How ironic. The Mariners had been praying to God when Jonah wasn’t. The ship chosen by Jonah had taken him to death and chaos, indicated by the sea; the fish chosen by God will carry Jonah to life, indicated by dry land. God had attended Jonah, but how odd Jonah would take credit for doing the calling.

Jonah responds to God, recognizing God’s mercy in judgment (:3). For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. “You did this to me!” Jonah seems to be saying. Oh, how extreme Your judgement. How severe Your mercy.

Jonah responds to God, recognizing God’s deliverance (:4-6). Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” Jonah is quoting himself here. Prayers offered “toward the temple” reflect the language of exiles. Jonah will attempt to come to God once more, even as he passes into death: The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me … Language here reflects Ancient Near Eastern cosmology. He’s sinking, so he understands, to the foot of the mountains that hold the earth; he’s wrapped in the reeds of the River of Death. He’s going DOWN … DOWN … DOWN, even as he’s traveled since first rejecting God.

Then, we come to the crucial colon of the psalm: … yet you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God (:6b). In recognizing Israel’s God as his God, Jonah experiences reversal. He begins to move UP.

In the second half of the psalm, Jonah resolves to re-enter God’s merciful plan (:7-10). When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you in your holy temple (:7). Fantastic! But, where is Jonah’s emphasis?

Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love, but I  with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you … (:8-9) True again, but something isn’t right here! There’s no repentance. There’s too much self-piety … too much self-resolve … too much passion for calling out other sinners … not enough brokenness.

… what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD (:9) And so it does, but in resolving to do what he hadn’t done before, the reader gets the feeling that the story is not done yet. And, it isn’t. God responds to Jonah (:10). And the fish, carrying Jonah to dry land where he will continue his lessons in God’s merciful plan, vomits Jonah on the shore.

Stepping back a bit from the story, we as readers recognize that Jonah thinks that God is all about getting him to go somewhere to do a job. We can see that God is really about the business of peeling back the layers of self-piety and bringing holiness to Jonah, even while He accomplishes His mission for the nations.

Jonah doesn’t get that, yet. And, sometimes, we don’t get it either.

My response to God in His merciful plan might involve misplaced self-reliance. 

Likely, this comes in our place of greatest struggle—probably the place where we feel we must work the hardest. Possibly, it’s here where we most desire to make a good showing of conforming to God.

That just could be the place where God wants us to know the greatest brokenness. Then, we might (like verse :6b, where Jonah got it right!) say with Jonah: … you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God!

 

Have another look at Jonah 2.1-10 and think through the following questions:

There’s laugh-out-loud irony in this passage, and it’s hard not to smile at Jonah’s poor example of following God. What about Jonah’s thinking in this passage do you find most puzzling?

Where in my life am I straining to please God? Where am I lashing out at injustice, or something that isn’t right in my life? 

Could it be that these two questions together could lead us to the hidden places in our lives where we’re simply trying to conform to God without actually being broken in His presence? 

Where have I known real brokenness over my sin? How is that different than simply trying harder to please God or resolving to do what’s right in God’s presence? 

Jonah’s career contrasts sharply with the ministry of the Lord Jesus. Where do you catch a bit of foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry in this passage? How is Jonah both like and unlike Christ? 

Caught!: Jonah 1.4b-17

This week, in our study of The Book of Jonah, God catches the prophet Jonah, even as Jonah flies from the sense of God’s presence. The result of Jonah’s flight toward death is Jonah’s apprehension by God and reverent fear of the One-True-God on the part of Jonah’s Gentile shipmates.

My resistance to God will not overcome God’s merciful plan.

Have a look at Jonah 1.4b-17 (2.1 in some translations). Find somebody to discuss this passage with and see what you find.

Knowing that the great storm of Jonah 1 is a picture of God’s divine wrath, what does this account tell us about God’s hatred of sin within His merciful plan for sinners? 

What acts of futility do you see in this account? What do they tell us about the possibility of escaping form God’s plan? 

In :5b-6, Jonah is asleep in the bottom of the ship. Of whom does this scene remind you? Read Matthew 8.23-27 and compare and contrast the account of Jesus calming the sea with this scene from Jonah. How is Jonah like Jesus? How is he different? 

How are the mariners different than Jonah in this account? What are the different stages of their growth in faith? How might Romans 11.29 inform our understanding of this picture of Gentile belief we’re seeing in Jonah 1?

Read Matthew 12.38-40. How is the picture of Jonah being swallowed by the great fish a picture of Jesus? How is the casting of Jonah into the sea to satisfy God’s wrath both like and unlike Jesus’ death on the cross, as well as Jesus’ burial over three days? 

What does Jonah 1 tell us about our own resistance to God’s merciful plan? 

How does God use storms in our lives? What is the difference between suffering as a non-believer (Rm 1.18-19) and experiencing hardship as a believer? (1 Jn 1.9; Heb 12.3 … 5b-7). 

Flight!: Jonah 1.1-4a

Sometimes, my response to God’s merciful plan includes resistance.

The Book of Jonah is fantastic drama! The historical, prophetic narrative account of Jonah (working in the 8th century before Christ and during the days of Israel’s divided kingdom) involves the vast landscape of God’s mission to the nations. Within the cosmic plan of God, you have Jonah—small, flawed, deeply insecure, kind of a “loser,” a whole bunch like us.

God commissions Jonah to join His Mission (:1-2). The book opens with the prophetic word formula: “The word of the LORD came to Jonah …” (ESV). God’s Word broke suddenly into Jonah’s life. God’s Word often did in the lives of God’s prophets (see also 1 Sam 15.10; 1 Kings 18.1). And, God’s prophets often doubted themselves when God’s Word came. (Think: Moses, Ex 3-4).

God’s Word broke in on Jonah urgently and with clarity: ” … Arise … go to Nineveh, the great city and call against it.” Nineveh, not yet the capitol of Assyria, was yet the major city in the rising, global power to the east of Israel. Sending a prophet there was unprecedented. God typically sent prophets to confront Israel over her failures. If He dealt with other nations, it was for the refinement of Israel. God is up to something big here!

God’s Word broke in on Jonah with purpose: ” … for their evil has come up before me.” Jonah, accustomed to confronting evil (as he’d done under Israel’s King Jeroboam II, 2 Kings 14.25), will be tested in a new way by this assignment. He’s hardly ready. Often, we aren’t either. So, in response to God’s Word …

Jonah resists God’s Mission and flees (:3). The irony here is laugh-out-loud material. The dynamic reading goes something like this: ” … Arise … go to Nineveh. So, Jonah arose … and fled away from the presence of the LORD.” Jonah’s reason is unknown here (It will be revealed in 4.2), but his response is, in every way, perfectly wrong. There’s also absurdity in fleeing the presence of God. “The earth is the LORD’s and the fulness thereof” (Ps 24.1). You can’t get away from God, but you can run from the sense of His presence.

Jonah flees downward. There’s rhetorical and artistic power in this description. “And, he went down to Joppa …” Then, Jonah went DOWN into the ship. Later, he will go DOWN into the sea. And the fish will take Jonah DOWN to the bottom of the sea. In his flight from God Jonah is going down … down … down, into chaos and death. Only when he encounters God in the most unlikely of places will he be reborn to life.

Jonah flees to an exotic destination on the rim of the known world. We catch a hint of what people thought of Tarshish from 2 Chronicles 9.21, describing shipping in the Golden Age of Solomon: “Once every three years the ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes and peacocks.” Sounds like a good missionary destination, doesn’t it? Except God hadn’t sent him there. Jonah is going west, not east.

God rebukes Jonah for resisting His mission (:4a). We have to believe that if Jonah had stuck around God would have talked to him, reasoned with him, given him a sign. This was God’s way with Moses earlier. But, Jonah had to do things the hard way. He couldn’t escape God, and God responded.

The stormy sea is often a picture in the Hebrew Old Testament of chaos and destruction, apart from the formative order of God’s work. (Think of the first verses of Genesis, how God organized creation from that which was “formless” and “void”.) Here, Jonah is headed for destruction. There’s also the theme of the “giantesque,” the really large: “But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea …” Later, there will be a great tempest, a great fish, a great city, a great selfish anger, and a great selfish delight. Everything in God’s mission is too big for Jonah!

And, as we draw back to think about the effect of these first verses on our own lives, we realize that everything about God’s mission is too big for us, too.

Jonah is a great book for those who trusted Christ long ago. Jonah had a fine resume of having served God, but he’d gone into retirement, apparently. What God calls Jonah to is present, not past, faithfulness. Unlike Jonah, we don’t have to wait for a particular word to come from the Lord. We have God’s revelation of Himself in the Gospel, in our Old and New Testaments. This puts us in a great place to ask ourselves: Am I following God through His Word now?!

Jonah had his reasons for not following God (to be revealed deeper in the book). And, we have our reasons why we might not be following God: We’re busy (doing good things) … we’re hurt … we’ve chosen sides against somebody who doesn’t care much for God … we don’t think God can find us.

Whatever our reasons, the beginning of a study on the excellent little book of Jonah is a great time to check our present attitude toward God and His call on our lives, especially as we consider God’s mission of mercy on the undeserving.

Sometimes, my response to God’s merciful plan includes resistance. Am I resisting God? …

 

Find someone with whom you discuss Scripture. Talk about some of the following questions, and then read through the rest of the Book of Jonah to prepare for next week. 

In your own words, describe why the little Book of Jonah has such power as a story. What about this prophetic narrative grips you? 

What do you suspect God is up to, at this juncture in Jonah? What do you think God is doing in the nations, and in Jonah’s life? 

What are some ways that you are putting yourself in the place to hear from God in His Word? 

Are there places in your life where you don’t want to hear from God? When were some times when this was true in the past? 

Are there places in your broken experience with God and other people where you don’t think God can go? Do you have a redemptive story about a time where God broke through one of these places? How about sharing this story? 

 

 

Psalm 106: God’s Graciousness to His People (on Mission)

This week at Woodland we transition from our series on “work” to thinking about how our work in God’s world interacts with God’s Mission in the world.

Unlikely as it might seem at first (with its images of giant fish and withering plants), the Old Testament Book of Jonah will be the place where, in the coming weeks, we will see God joining His large-scale work among nations and peoples with His work among individual people—like Jonah, but also you and me.

Before beginning Jonah next week, however, we consider a psalm that introduces the heart-issues with which Jonah will struggle. While originally addressed to the Nation of Israel in its quest to find restoration after its exile in Babylon, Psalm 106 causes those of us who live after the cross to ask: What kind of people does God want us to be as we participate in His mission for the world? … What is our right response to our gracious God who sends us out in mission? 

The psalm is a long one recounting Israel’s need to praise God for His gracious acts (:1-5), Israel’s need to acknowledge its sinfulness (:6-46) and Israel’s need to continue to trust God for deliverance (:47-48). “Save us, O LORD God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name, and glory in your praise” (:47).

Like the Nation, our right response to our gracious God is praise, acknowledgement of sinfulness and trust for deliverance. 

We’ll see, next week, that Jonah (though living a bit before the exile and the Nation’s restoration) will struggle with all aspects of this psalmist’s injunction.

For the moment, circle up with someone with whom you discuss Scripture. Consider the following questions as you reflect on Psalm 106.

Where do you most struggle with the psalmist’s commendation for responding to God’s gracious acts? Is it hard for you to praise God always? How about acknowledging sinfulness? Or, trusting God? 

What do you find most amazing about God’s gracious acts? (Think of God’s mission in sending Jesus, providing atonement for our sins, not to mention God’s work of including us in His mission to the world.)

What do you think about the idea that having our sins covered isn’t the same thing as forgetting them? While realizing that God doesn’t hold our sins against us (Ps 103.11-12), when is it a good time to reflect on our own sinfulness?

Why is trust in God an ongoing need in the Christian life? Why can’t we just “get saved” and be done with it? 

What are some images that come to your mind regarding the Book of Jonah? What do you think this message on Psalm 106 has to do with that book we’ll be starting next week? 

 

Work Endures: Isaiah 65.17-25; Acts 3.18-21; Rev 21.1-5a, 22-27

Among my favorite buildings in the old logging community of Westboro, Wisconsin is Jordan and Anna’s house. Built in the 1890s, the structure served as the meeting place for the Swedish Methodists until that congregation disbanded, sometime before the 1970s. Soon after, the congregation that today is Woodland purchased the structure for our first meeting place. In fact, Woodland’s first pastor, Rev. Richard Neil, preached right where Jordan and Anna sit for dinner.

Now, Jordan and Anna had to make restoration. The building had to be hoisted up and a new foundation laid. A metal roof and new siding had to be added. Some things were preserved, like the hard wood within and the really excellent gothic-looking windows. Jordan and Anna’s house resembles the original structure, but it is new. 

The restoration of an old building gives us a picture of God’s end game in restoring our work to its original purpose through Christ. As we’ve been thinking about work, we’ve discussed the goodness of work—work matters, because God works. God Himself created image-bearers and commissioned us to flourish (Genesis 1.28). This, God said, is “very good.” We’ve also noted the frustration of work—work frustrates, because people sin. The poor workmanship of our first parents in the garden resulted in the fall of creation with catastrophic consequences for our ability to flourish in human relations and in drawing a livelihood from the earth (Genesis 3.15-19, especially). Dark as this is, we find good news in our redemption in work—work reveals our relationship to God, because Christ redeems. The work of Christ, we learn, buys back our relationship with God for those who come to God through faith in Christ. That’s good news! But, even here works remains frustrating for us who live between Christ’s two comings, because ” … the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8.19). Where we are today—pressing forward toward Christ’s return—our work reminds of constantly of our need for Christ.

Scripture also gives us pictures of the final state of our work. But, like those birthday-favor, toy kaleidoscopes that pile images on top of images when we point them toward the light and look through them, we’re given only a composite view of the future. (The nature of prophecy is such that it’s hard to hyper-analyze or create elaborate systems for things that haven’t happened yet.) Here’s some things we need to know:

God will restore creation (Isaiah 65.17-25). Among the many Old Testament pictures of restoration we receive, I like Isaiah 65. This image describes the curse of Genesis 3 worked backwards. At the final coming of Messiah relationship with God will be restored: “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear” (:24). Human relations will be restored: “They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity; they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD” (:23). Work relations will be restored: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit … and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands” (:21 … :22). Creation won’t struggle (red in tooth and claw) with itself: “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food” (:25). Notice how physical and material this restoration is!

Sometimes, it’s helpful for me to think about what it would be like to do my particular work, but without fallenness. How would it be, if I could understood biblical passage without mental strain and fear of making mistakes? How would it be, if I could only learn and remember everybody’s names?! I work best when I rest in God and ask Him to gift me for His work, so that I kinda sorta work outside my fallenness. It’s only a hunch, but I suspect that’s what’s going on with spiritual gifting. Sometimes, God meets us now like we will know Him then.

God will restore creation through Christ (Acts 3.18-21). Restoration involves God’s work in stages. We saw that last week in Romans 8; we see it in other places. Christ suffered on the cross to restore us to God. That’s in the past for us now. God’s work of restoration will be completed when Christ comes again:

“Repent therefore,” is Peter’s word to his fellow Jews after Christ’s return to the Father, “and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the LORD, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3.19-21).

Note how Christ’s once and future work involves our participation. We’re to “repent,” to have a change of mind with regard to Christ. This repentance has everything to do with our work. For me—I’ve come to discern—I need also to repent of my tendency to try to solve all the problems in my life on my own. So, for example, before jumping into my email first thing in the morning, I need a long meditation. I need to reflect on my “creatureliness,” the limits of my human ability. I need to ask the LORD to accomplish His work through me, and in His timing. In doing so, I once again begin to know just a little bit of that restoration that I’ll know fully when I work in eternity.

God will restore creation through Christ to reclaim the work of nations (Rev 21.1-5a … 22-27). The final two chapters in Revelation give us what we need to know about life after Christ’s return. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away …” (:1-2a). Interesting is the word choice here. The Apostle John could have chosen neos (new, as in totally different) or keinos (new, as in the same, but restored). He chose the later. This is our world as it should be! Except now, heaven has come to earth. God dwells with His people!

And, there’s redeemed work here. “The gates [of the New Jerusalem] will never be shut” (:25). In ancient cities gates were the places to transact business. And, they were closed at night for protection. No need here! God is with His people. And, through these gates will pass ” … the glory of the nations” (:26). Note again how physical and “real” it all is. Work will endure into eternity. Only, we’ll have God Himself as our Master. And, we’ll work without the curse.

Work endures, because God restores. 

So, what do we do? What difference do these pictures of restored work make for me this week? Well, Jordan and Anna need to keep building their house in hope—not hope that God MIGHT restore, but hope that God WILL RESTORE. We hope because the final act of redemption hasn’t happened YET! And, you and I need to keep working at what we’ve been given to do … in hope … in faith … asking God to establish the work of our hands in Christ.

 

Gather with somebody else and think through these questions about how work will endure, because God restores: 

 

Which of the three passages we’ve looked at surprises you most? What about them is new or different for you?

 

What would YOUR work look like, if you weren’t fallen? Can you even imagine that picture? Try for a minute. 

 

What does it look like for you to work in faith, trusting that God will help you flourish (Genesis 1.28) and will “establish the work of your hands” (Psalm 90.17)? Think, maybe, of the difference between the times when you’ve tried to work under your own power and the times when you’ve trusted in God for the results. 

 

How do you need to grow in the way you think and feel about your work? 

 

Work Reveals: Romans 8.18-25

Whom do you work for? Better, maybe. Whom do you want to please in your work?

Likely, you have a boss. Maybe, a board of directors, or shareholders. There’s probably somebody you care very much about pleasing in your work. And, this week at Woodland, we’re thinking about how our work reveals these important relationships. We’re also thinking about how work, properly understood, reveals our relationship to God as redeemed image-bearers of God.

Romans 8.18-25 meets us right where we live in our work lives, right where we’re situated in the tension between Christ’s two comings. We know about the goodness of work from Genesis 1-2. Work matters, because God works. We also know about the frustration of work from Genesis 3. Work frustrates, because people sin. What’s difficult for us is how Christ’s work on the cross—while saving us—doesn’t seem to change our work lives a great deal. Work still frustrates!

Important for us to realize is that our work (including its struggle and the way we do it!) reveals whom we belong to, because Jesus has bought us back (at the cross) and will buy us back (at His return) from our fallenness. The toil of work reveals our relationship as children of God.

Romans 8.18-25 is structured like one of those department store dressing rooms with the funhouse, infinite-mirror effect where two mirrors reflect one another. Quick observation shows that six “for”s explain one another and take us from Genesis 3-like despair to the certainty of incredible hope.

for … Present frustration can’t compare with future glory (:18) Sure, machinery breaks in our work. And, we’re passed over for promotions. And then, there’s times when sick days don’t cover the sickness. And, most of us know boredom and mindless repetition in our work. But, it’s not always going to be this way! Jesus’ work on the cross—received by faith—has made us heirs of God. We have an incredible inheritance to look forward to. But, we don’t have it yet. Verse 19 explains why.

for … Creation is waiting for us (:19). For creation waits with eager longing for the sons of God to be revealed (ESV). The word “expectation” actually means something like “to stretch the neck out”. God has begun to work the curse backwards by beginning with His image-bearers. So, while we await Christ’s return, the picture here is of the poor, frustrated, cursed creation poised for the completion of God’s work in us.

for … God frustrated creation to bring about freedom (:20-21). These verses recast Genesis 3 and explain why creation waits so eagerly. God Himself frustrated creation, so that it would be obvious that creation needs the same redeemer that we have. … cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life (Gen 3.17).

God’s answer to all this: a Savior, who begins with God’s image-bears. We find the first hint of this champion in Genesis 3.15, He shall crush your head … Till that champion comes, the present futility in creation should alert everybody to the need for a Savior. Take disasters like those in Houston, the Florida coast, Puerto Rico, and Mexico City. I need to draw the connection between those desperate situations and God’s work with me! Come for me, Lord Jesus, and then heal this poor world!

for … We suffer with creation till Christ comes (:22-23). Till Jesus comes, we groan with creation. Catch the reference to Genesis 3.16, as all creation tries to be fruitful, but can’t. In many ways we’re not out of the woods yet. We have the “first-fruits” of the Spirit of God, who lives in us and reminds us, “It’s all true!” We’re like adopted children who have new birth certificates all printed and ready, but haven’t yet met our new parents. We’re waiting for the final redemption of our bodies that will be renewed, along with creation, at Christ’s coming (see also 1 Corinthians 15). That will be the day!

for … We’re saved into hope which builds patience (:24-25). Till Christ returns, we’re hopeful, not because we might not be free of painful toil, but because that freedom hasn’t come yet. This hope of being in a new creation with bodies that work without sin is the hope we’re saved into. Till then, painful toil reminds me of whom I belong to. And, this hope increases my patience.

So, whom do you really work for?

You’re not wrong to think of your boss or company or clients. But, Romans 8.18-25 reminds us that we can be cheered in the midst of really hard work with the truth that we’re pressing toward the fulness of our new relationship as children of God.

 

Take a minute to consider the following questions as you consider Romans 8.18-24 and think about your daily work routine. 

Look back through the passage and find each “for”. How do each of the ideas these words mark summarize or explain the idea before it? 

What practical benefit does knowing that you belong to God have for your everyday work? 

Have you ever thought that God works in stages in our redemption? What did Christ accomplish at the cross? What will He accomplish at His return? How does this distinction help you make sense of the everyday world you live and work in? 

What are some particular frustrations you have in your work? What does your hope in the future redemption of your body at Christ’s return contribute to the way you respond to these frustrations? 

Work Frustrates: Genesis 3.15-19

What’s the most frustrating job you’ve ever had? 

Recalling that job is easy, right? The one where you had to ride the clock, the one were you got micro-managed, the one with all the broken machinery you got stuck with. Frustrating, wasn’t it?

We’re spending these early fall weeks at Woodland thinking about work. We started last week, in Genesis 1-2, thinking about the goodness of work: work matters, because God works. God Himself is a worker. He made an image-bearer to share His own work; He instructs mankind to flourish; He provides the means through creation for humankind to live through work; His material creation is good; and, He takes satisfaction in His work.

All of this means that the work we do matters! Yes, in addition to the opportunities I have to build relationships and share the Gospel with co-workers, my work matters in and of itself. Much of this is because my work is the way God cares for other people through me. “God Himself milks the cows through him whose vocation it is,” as Martin Luther said.

But figuring out just how God is working through us is pretty hard in a technological world where product is often so far removed from worker, where people often get treated like machines, where work is done badly.

Genesis 2-3 helps us understand how we got here. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall surely not eat,  for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (2:16, ESV).

We know the story. Our first parents chose, in the critical moment, to ignore God’s Cultural Mandate of 1:28. Their failure to flourish according to God’s design was—among other failures—the failure to work well. And so, today: work frustrates, because people sin. 

In the oracle of Genesis 3, following creation’s fall, God Himself addresses His creation through the Satanically possessed snake, and He addresses us (really) through our first parents (3.14-19). Important to digest is the truth that God now describes the world as it is in rebellion against Him. These are descriptions, not prescriptions. It’s not supposed to be this way! But it will be, for a time, and here are the results of man’s shoddy workmanship:

Creation is fallen (:3.15). The snake is a fascinating creature in the biblical account. Since the serpent represents creation, and the sub-human animal order in particular, his presence allows God to speak to His creation. Since the serpent is possessed by the Evil One, God may address the power behind the animal, but in a way intelligible to us. The mere fact that the Creator speaks directly to the slithering creature at all, while bypassing His vice-regent image-bearer, indicates disturbance in the created order. In God’s edict itself we learn that humanity—which was to show creation what God is like—will now struggle for survival and be challenged by creation. He shall bruise your head, but you shall bruise his heel.

Here we have the root of every problem in work. Work, which was to result in human flourishing, will now be the means to bare survival. In scrapping with the serpent in the dust, it won’t be clear who has dominion. And, in a more technological age, people will increasingly be treated like machines, rather than image-bearers. This will be the source of all the “dumb” jobs we’ll ever do. Even okay jobs (like being a lifeguard or a security guard) will be tainted with the curse, because they owe their very existence to human inability, deception and failure.

Human working relationships are fallen (:3.16). God then addresses us as women and men through our first parents. To Eve He explains that the work of producing offspring will now be frustrated. I will greatly multiply your painful toil in conception, and in painful toil you will bring forth sons (my translation).

This isn’t talking so much about delivering babies as it is the entire business of bringing up offspring. God is saying, You’ll want children, but then you won’t be able to have them (maybe); but then you’ll have them, but then they’ll break your heart … And, we have to look no further than Cain and Abel to see how that worked out for Eve.

More, and speaking to all women, your relationships with men will be frustrated. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. You’ll crave male affection and attention, but then men will bully you! You’ll do the hard work of homemaking, but be under-appreciated. Sexual intimacy too will become a source of contention. Some of you will stand up for yourselves and get liberated, but you won’t be affirming men; you’ll be trying to live without them. Men will get confused about masculinity, so that (some) professional football players will beat up their girlfriends, but you’ll cheer for them anyway (if they wear the right uniforms). Then, the whole idea of gender will get confused, so that people will be encouraged to spend their lives reconsidering the gender that they now believe society assigned to them at birth … So much for human fruitfulness!

Cultivation of the earth is fallenness (3.17-19). In addressing men (through Adam), God comes to what we typically consider “work”. Thorns and thistles [shall be caused to grow], and you shall eat the plants of the field. In other words, you will eat, but it will be frustrating. By the [sweat of your nose] you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. More good news—death will be your only escape from this affair. Barely hopeful. And, so much for being “like God”.

We have here the source of all frustration in work, pictured by the struggle with the ground. Creation will fight you, God says. Yes, you might try to cheat this process, and it might look for a time like you’re winning (and some people will get rich!), but there’s always a cost. You’ll use pesticides, we imagine God explaining, so you’ll produce more from the earth. But then the bees will start to disappear, along with their pollinating work. And then, everybody will become so gluten intolerant that you can’t eat the stuff of the field anyway. You’ll clone sheep, but then instead of improving breeds you’ll now be stuck with the weaknesses of whatever breed you’ve cloned. You’ll clear cut the Northwoods of Wisconsin, so that when all the trees are gone, Westboro and Rib Lake will practically die—and the railroad will leave, and the high school in Westboro will close, and (in 2017) you’ll barely be able to support your little library …

Are we discouraged yet? Remember, if we don’t understand the human condition to be really, really bad, then we won’t understand the Gospel to be really, really good news.

And, here’s the Good News! There’s a little trickle of water in the desert of Genesis 3. In verses 22-24, our first parents are cast from the Garden, and an angel guards the way back,  … lest he reach out his hand and … live forever. God is not content to let us live in fallenness.

The other bit of good news appears so slender that it might be easily missed in verse 15, from God’s address to the snake: … he shall bruise (or, crush) your head, and you will bruise his heel. There’s a champion worker coming! Yes, this champion will be hurt too in the struggle with fallen creation, but fallenness will not prevail. In fact, this champion will work the cruse backwards!

So, even as we lean into that outline of hope we glean from Genesis 3, we draw some takeaways for our workweeks ahead:

Every time we feel frustration in our work, it’s an opportunity to remember that we aren’t gods—there is a particular way that God wants us to flourish. Also, that same frustration provides opportunity to remember that God has planned something better for us. And, in Christ, He worked (and is working) to bring it to fruition!

 

Here are some thoughts question that would be good to consider as we work this week: 

How much of your frustration with your work is the result of sin?

How much of your frustration with your work will Jesus finally redeem when He comes? 

How does God’s grace in your life help you serve God through your work while you press toward the return of Christ? 

How badly do we need hope in the champion worker who has come? (That’s Jesus, by the way …!)

How badly do your fellow image-bearers need you to persevere, because you understand the big picture about what God is doing? 

How much does the hope with which we do our jobs demonstrate that we understand the Gospel? 

 

 

 

 

Work Matters: Genesis 1.26-2.3

What are some words that describe how you feel about your work? Fulfillment? … Frustration? … Denial? 

During these early fall weeks at Woodland we’re thinking together about work—it’s goodness, problems, redemption and goal. This is work in its broadest sense—not (necessarily) our jobs or what we do for a paycheck, but the organizing, fashioning, creating and playing we do in the world. If you’re a homemaker, you work (probably harder than anybody). If you’re retired or a student or a child or unemployed or disabled, you still work.

We start our thinking by going to Genesis 1 and thinking about God’s work. The immediate problem in this opening chapter of the Bible is that God’s creation is formless and void. In response, God works. He addresses formlessness by creating categories of heaven and earth, light and darkness, sky above and waters (then dry land) below, and day and night. Then, he fills the void with the products of His work—plants, ocean life, critters. Then, as His crowning work, God does something surprising: He creates someone with whom He will share His work.

Since the focus of Genesis doesn’t switch to man’s doings until Genesis 2.4, it’s instructive to focus on God’s work in 1.26-2.3 as the pattern for our own. Here’s some things God does in His work:

God makes image-bearers and give them work (:26-27). Let us make man in our image, after our likeness … And let them have dominion. Old Testament commentator Keil Delitsch tells us that Ancient kings set up images of themselves at the borders of their territory. God is doing something like that here. He’s placing His stamp on the world by creating someone who shares many of His attributes, and then He’s giving humankind authority in His world. It’s like God is saying, My image-bearers will show the borders of my rule. The whole earth!

Chapter 2 of Genesis recasts the creation story from the vantage-point of humankind. In verse 15, we learn more about mankind’s work, The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. These are important words. “Work” has about it the idea of progress through cultivation. “Keep” involves tending and protecting through conversation. Importantly, both of these ideas have about them the idea of physical, bodily work. But importantly, they both came to be used later in the Old Testament of the worship of God. Alan Ross remarks, “Whatever activity that man was to engage in in the garden … it was described as spiritual service to the LORD.”

God instructs mankind to flourish through work (:28) … bear fruit … be many … fill the earth. This is the Cultural Mandate. God’s work in multiplying His creation is to be carried out by His image-bearers. This includes making babies, but also every kind of work.

What do you want for Westboro and Rib Lake? This is the kind of question I discussed recently with the editor of our local paper. My answer: we at Woodland want Westboro and Rib Lake to flourish! We want jobs, strong families, healthy businesses, devoted public servants. We want our little library in Westboro to stay open. We even care about the bar that sells pretty good burgers. Of course, real flourishing doesn’t happen without the Gospel. (That part didn’t get printed, but we’ll try again next time.) Asking ourselves where our local places most need to experience human flourishing and where God has uniquely positioned us in our local churches to address these needs is all about the Cultural Mandate we’re to carry out.

God provides means to live through work (:29-30). Behold! I have given you every green plant, which sows seed, on the earth and every tree, which sows fruit tree in it, to eat (my translation). While it blows by us in the English, it’s clear in the original that creation itself has created life in it. Plants have the stuff of plant life to allow them to reproduce after their kind. Same thing with apple trees. We’re reading an early description of genetics here—and long before the discovery of DNA. God’s message is that all this creation will meet the needs of His image-bearers, if they steward it properly. Here is an ecological message early in the Bible!

God makes good stuff in His work! (:31) … And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. Not just “good,” but “very good.” From God’s judgment at His reflection of His work, we know that God doesn’t just care about “spiritual” things (like going to church and personal quiet times), but about His physical world.

For us, this means that if you’re an electrician, you need to love circuits and wires! If you cut hair, you need to love introducing beauty into the world! If you’re a logger, you need to care about the proper way to do things and the health of the land! There’s real goodness in the stuff of work, because God made it (and us!) and approves of His good creation.

Finally, God takes satisfaction in His work (2.1-3) … God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. God didn’t rest because He was tired, but because He was finished. And, as His image-bearers, we’re designed to enter into His Shalom—this picture of completion, satisfaction, well-being and fulness.

Here’s some takeaways from our reflection on God’s work in Genesis 1.26-2.3:

My work (in and of itself) matters to God. Sometimes in churches the idea is floated that God puts us in jobs only to share the Gospel. Of course, God places us in various situations to talk about the work of Christ! But, God also cares about our work in His creation for its own sake. This means that if I’m a student, God cares about my preparation. If I’m a line-worker in a factory, God cares about my punctuality and efficiency—and the value I add to the world through the profitability of my company, even if I’m a temporary worker!

My work is the way God cares for others. “God milks the cows through him whose vocation it is,” Martin Luther would say, in his day. God can work directly, but He typically works through people. This means that, if I’m milking cows, for instance, God is really feeding people through me. This also means that I ought to respect the work God is doing through others. The checker at the grocery store isn’t a vending machine. And, perhaps, I ought to put away my cell phone in line. Ask her about her day, when she gets off. Ask him his opinion of some product. God is working through others, whether they know Him or not.

My work can be done well or badly. Genesis 2.16 will place limits around the work of our first parents: they’re to eat from the tree of life, not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Not all activity is work that honors God.

And here, we arrive at the tension we feel when we consider the goodness of work, and our work in particular. Something has gone terribly wrong. Something has disturbed that pure, pristine picture of work we read about in Genesis 1 when we consider God’s intention for our work in imitation of His own. That’s our business for next week.

But, the picture we receive at creation shows us where we’ve come from. And, it gives us the right place to start in thinking about our work.

Work matters, because God Himself works!

 

This week we welcome to new small groups to our adult ministries at Woodland. Glad you could join us, Marschke/Petersen and Petersen/Everson groups! But, regardless of where you are in reading this, do find someone with whom you can think about the goodness of work. And, consider these questions:

 

What words did you use to describe how you feel about your work? 

 

How does knowing that God Himself works change the way you think about your own work? 

 

What specific ways does God serve His creation through you and your work? (How many can you list?)

 

How does your perception of work need to change, now that you’ve considered God’s work in Genesis 1.26-2.3? 

 

Thinking of your involvement in your church family, what is some work that yet needs to be done in your community? (Where does your community most need to see human flourishing? Where is your church family uniquely positioned to address these needs?)

 

Eye Apples and Dolly Tea …

Keep me as the apple of your eye … pleads Psalmist David of God (Psalm 17.8)

… he kept him as the apple of his eye, Moses writes of God’s care for His people, Israel (Deuteronomy 32.10).

keep my commandments and live; keep my teaching as the apple of your eye … the LORD instructs His people (Proverbs 7.2).

School has begun, in our little house in the Northwoods. And, while other schools convoke the new school year with a dance or homecoming football game, we mark the beginning of the academic year with … the dolly tea-party!

It works like this: The girls—led by Lead Teacher, Mommy Amanda—prepare cupcakes and other delectables. Children personalize nameplates and table settings. Preparation lasts several days. It is to be a sumptuous affair.

Daddy Bryan (school principal) inaugurates the event itself by painting the girls’ nails, in the driveway. Then, the boys help one another into black suits and—bringing select stuffed animal guests (the famous Teddy for Daddy, Prancer for Henry, Baby Tiger for Jack, though he’d now prefer you didn’t know about it)—the boys approach the formal front entrance to the house. Girls hands are kissed, and we all sit down to tea. Greta Grace’s Emma and Sara likewise attend—thus, the dolly tea party. After tea and cakes, we all dance. Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, that kind of thing. When the fun has been had, the boys depart till the next year, and lessons begin the next day …

There is history to all this. In the summer of 2013, following a season of great loss for our family, we determined to celebrate what we had been given. We had dollies and stuffed bears, no doubt, but we also had one another and every opportunity to celebrate outrageously, and in ways that young children can understand.

The connection to our home learning goes something like this: if we as parents desire our children to take God, His Word and His world seriously, we’d better understand something of the Father’s great love for His people. A beginning to this life-long study might just be to learn what it means to be dear to one another. And, if that love for one another be so great, then Oh! how much more must be the love of the Father for His children! And, if the hurts and loss known to every family might be so redeemed by parents who drop to their knees to create and discover and play and heal, then how much more must be the riches of our great Creator who gives us all things to enjoy for our present and eternal good and His great glory. So goes the formation of our imaginations in truth.

And so, we’ve begun again … the good, the true, the beautiful. And, it all begins with eye apples and dolly tea!

Original dolly tea, 2013