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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Genesis 1:26 – 3:23
“Blessed and Cursed”
April 19, 2015 - Third Sunday of Easter

         Worked is blessed and cursed, cursed and blessed. There are lots of jokes about the “oldest profession,” but from Scripture’s point of view, the first work given to human beings was gardening or farming. And if you’ve worked on a farm or even tried to grow a garden, then you know that work is blessed and rewarding as well as cursed and frustrating.

         There is a kind of God-given instinct in all of us to carry out that first creation “mandate,” there in Genesis 1:26, 28 and 29, a human drive to have dominion over the earth, to have it serve and feed us. Dominion “over the fish of the sea” comes first, but I’m not sure all the times I’ve been skunked on a fishing trip counts as much dominion. Seriously, the dominion God gave us is not control. It’s loving care.

         Verses 26 and 27 are the reason for dominion. We are created in the image of God. God worked for six days to create our world. He then made beings in His own image to join Him in caring for that world. God has the caring dominion of the Creator, the one who made it all. He gave us the caretaking sub-dominion for what He made.

         The first and basic human occupation is to partner with God to care for what He made. One aspect of that care in partnership with God will be to put creation to good use to feed and provide for ourselves and others. But that’s not the whole of our dominion over creation and not the whole of human work as God first intended it.

         Unlike what some Christians think or what secular folks think all Christians think, dominion over the earth is no excuse to mine and log and frack and genetically manipulate our world until we’ve sucked it dry and lifeless, all for building homes or stocking grocery stores. It’s no excuse for the fact you don’t want to eat the fish out of Cottage Grove Reservoir because of mercury from mining done decades ago. It’s no excuse for treating animals like food production machines. It’s no excuse for thinking we can take what we want from the world and leave future generations to worry about the consequences.

         We also realize from Genesis and the rest of Scripture that work is not all that God gave us to do. The beginning of chapter 2 is the first indication of a gift which runs through all of Scripture, rest. God worked, then God rested in Genesis 2:2. If our work is to be at all a genuine partnership with God’s work, then it will lead to rest.

         Read on through Scripture, and you find that the most vital human experiences happen when we are resting rather than working. Jesus told a little parable about a farmer planting seed in Mark 4. The plants grow whether the planter is asleep or awake. And the kingdom of God is like that. We do not work for our salvation. It’s a gift of God.

         Talking about Christian mission, Paul echoed Jesus’ parable in I Corinthians 3:7. “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” We have a work, taking care of creation, sharing the Gospel. But God is always the greater partner. God began and God completes our work. Work depends on the grace of God, on receiving His good gifts. To teach us that, God Himself took a day off, and gave us a day of rest from the very beginning.

         The Bible’s first actual description of human work, apart from that general gift of dominion over the rest of creation, is not about useful, productive work at all. It’s not hard labor or environmental exploitation or the hunter-gatherer activity of primeval proto-humans. The first specific work given to Adam in chapter 2 verse 15 was to tend and look after a garden. And if we just back up to verses 8 and 9, then verses 10 to 11, we see that it’s a garden which God both planted and watered. God did all the hard work.

         Verse 15 tells us God put the man there in the garden “to till it and keep it.” Other translations say, “to work it and keep it.” But God planted the garden, so “tilling” or “working” did not mean backbreaking hard labor of plowing new ground or digging holes for trees in solid clay like here in the Willamette Valley. It’s hard to say what work Adam did in the garden of Eden, but God did the really difficult work. Adam was there to look after things rather than break new ground.

         A second part to human work appears in the story of Eve in verses 18 to 25 of chapter 2. We usually focus on Adam and his rib and the human relationship God created. But we also catch a glimpse of another sort of human activity which God gave to us. In verse 19, God presented all the land animals and birds to the man “to see what he would call them,” and in verse 20 Adam gave names to every one of them.

         The second part of the blessing of work is again not hard labor, but the intellectual joy of giving names to all the creatures God made. And that delightful work of naming leads to God’s gift of one last being for the man to name, the one who will be an equal and true partner. So in verse 23 the “Man” calls this new person “Woman” because she is his own flesh and bone, like him in a way that no other creature on earth is like him.

         We still continue that happy task of naming the world and naming each other. Ask any parent who has spent time finding the perfect names for a new baby or any scientist who has found and named a new species of mollusk or a new subatomic particle. A mother or a scientist worked hard to get to the point where a name was needed, but the naming itself is pure pleasure, the delight and fun of picking out a name which distinguishes that little person or that new discovery from every other being on earth.

         Work as first given to us, as God first created it, was meant to be a joy, a blessing, to bring us happiness. The first human beings were meant to enjoy the garden and especially enjoy the One who planted it. The first human beings were to rejoice in the mental activity of identifying, classifying, and naming all the wonderful diversity of our world’s biosphere and celebrating the Creator of it all.

         The first question of the Westminster Catechism is, “What is the chief end of man?” In other words, what is our purpose? The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Augustine said God is what we truly want, what we most desire, that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Thomas Aquinas took Aristotle’s insight that human beings always aim to be happy and added the Christian realization that, like Augustine said, only God can make us truly happy. Therefore our aim in life, our best and most satisfying human “work” is to celebrate and enjoy God.

         In Genesis 3 sin ruined the blessing of work as a way to glorify and enjoy God in and through His creation. The serpent tempted Eve telling her in verse 5 that she and Adam could be like God, that they could provide their own happiness. The devil wanted to deceive us and sway us away from our true purpose, away from our true joy which can only be found by enjoying creation as a gift from its Creator.

         There is way too much to say about all three of these chapters and especially about the “fall of humanity,” here in chapter 3. But we are focusing on what the beginning of Scripture tells us about work. So let’s jump down to the curses placed on human beings starting in verse 16.

         One result of sin is a curse on human biology, particularly on childbearing, making it more difficult and painful than it ought to be. I’m way out of my depth saying anything about something I’ve only experienced by observation, but I think it’s safe to say that almost any woman wonders why it has to be so hard. It’s a curse on what was meant to be blessed and happy work for women. What was meant to be all joy now gets called “labor,” work as hard and dangerous as any on earth.

         In verses 17 to 19 man’s first happy  work of tilling and looking after a garden becomes a constant battle with nature, with the creation which God originally made good. Anyone who’s weeded a garden or tried to protect a crop from weather and bugs and critters and invasive plants knows how real that curse is. Plant that lovely row of broccoli seedlings, turn around, and verse 18 comes true, “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.”

         The blessing of work, whether the domestic tasks of raising children, or all the various occupations we have outside our homes, is also curse, as a result of sin. Work was meant to be a way for us to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, but most of the time for most people in the world, it’s simply a hard, painful way to survive, until like verse 19 says, we return to the dust from which we were taken.

         That curse on work is not just God being mean. It’s not revenge by a spiteful, jealous deity who doesn’t like being disobeyed. God let the work be cursed so we would turn back to true happiness, turn back to Him. If we could find complete joy and fulfillment by working hard, we might never look for something better, something more satisfying.

         God still worked on our behalf after the fall. In verse 21 God made clothes out of animal skins for Adam and Eve. Some have seen in that a sign of the shedding of blood in animal sacrifices and Jesus’ final sacrifice. Maybe, but at the least it is a sign that what we need does not and cannot all come from our own efforts. As we say in our Communion service here, “We stand in constant need of his mercy and help.”

         We respond to the cursedness of our work in different ways. We try to escape it. That’s the foolish dream exploited by folks who want to sell us lottery tickets. It’s a total contradiction. They’re working hard to get us to believe that with just a little bit of luck we won’t need to work at all. It’s a similar story for Ponzi scheme investment “opportunities,” e-mail work-at-home offers, and every get-rich-quick book offered on Amazon. They’re all trying to tell us that we don’t really need to work or that work can be easy.

         The Bible says we need to work, that it’s part of God’s plan for us, not just here in Genesis but throughout. We studied Proverbs together last year, heard how many times that book tells us to be diligent, not lazy. II Thessalonians 3:10 and 11 puts it more bluntly about folks in that church who thought the could live “in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” Paul said, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” God gave us work.

         You might think to get out of the curse of work by finding an occupation you enjoy. That’s the lie being sold today through our current educational system. Everyone can learn and prepare for a meaningful, pleasant, satisfying lifetime career. As I indicated last week, that’s as much a pipe dream as not working for most of the world and for most of us. And even those of you who landed in the career you wanted probably realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t as pleasant or as easy as you thought it would be.

         Even specifically Christian work won’t satisfy you completely and make you perfectly happy, work like Jesus gave us in our Gospel reading from Luke 24, to take the good news to the world, to be witnesses of the fact He rose from the dead and offers forgiveness for our sins and peace with God. Even that holy, sweet Gospel work is often hard, painful, frustrating and disappointing.

         We can’t get out of the curse of work by not doing it or by finding the right job. The only way work can be the blessing God meant it to be is to find hope and happiness somewhere else than in work. God meant that from the beginning. Even when work was all good, all blessed, there was a day of rest, a day to remember that what we truly need does not come from our own efforts, but from the gracious and generous hand of God.

         That’s the message Jesus gave the Apostles. There is forgiveness and healing of the curse in Him. That’s the word we heard in our reading from I John 3, that our first identity is not as workers, but as children of God, and that our hope is not in what we do or what we make, but our hope is in Him and what He will make of us.

         Which all is why we are here this morning. We’ve left work behind to do useless and unproductive things like singing and praying and listening to the Bible read. Like Josef Pieper so brilliantly teaches, our rest on the Sabbath day has no purpose. God did not command a day of rest so we could do better work. He does not call us to come together and sing His praises and listen to His word because it will make us more productive. No, God asks us to rest and worship Him because that just is our purpose, what we were meant to do. Really good work is labor and service which becomes worship. We’ll have more to say about that next week.

         Please don’t let any misguided Christian try to tell you worship will help you be a better worker or that memorizing Scripture will raise your grades at school or that being in church will save your marriage or any other well-meaning good-sounding way of saying that glorifying and enjoying God has any other purpose than glorifying and enjoying God.

         Instead of how you might escape work, think this week of how Jesus can redeem work, and how you might help someone else let Jesus redeem their work. We are waiting, as John said, to be something we don’t know yet, to be like Jesus when we see Him as He really is. That’s what we work toward, seeing Jesus, both now and then, because that’s when we can do what we were meant to do, glorify and enjoy Him perfectly and forever.

         Until then, we see Jesus partially, in smaller ways, in work that’s done with love for God and for what He’s made, including each other. Ray is an older gentleman from Churchill Estates. He’s a Christian and his wife is in memory care there. He takes his walker and strolls through our church yard two or three times a day sometimes with his wife, sometimes alone. Ray is retired. He does not work anymore. If work is our purpose in life, then Ray, and lots of other folks like him, have none, have no purpose.

         Friday I saw Ray out by our new bench along the west walk. Stan put it in just before Easter and even did a little planting around it, grass seed and some yellow tulips and a couple of other plants. He did great work, but Stan told me, “Well the plants will look nice for a couple weeks before they die from lack of water.”

         When I saw him Ray there, he was bending over, leaning on his walker, gently pouring water from a bottle on those plants to keep them from drying out in the bright warm weather we’ve had the last few days. I could tell it took a lot of effort for him. But he had a purpose right then, adding what he could to Stan’s work. And he had that oldest of occupations, gardening, adding what he could to God’s work.

         Ray is all of us in relation to God. God created us and our world. God saved us and our world in Jesus Christ. Our purpose is what it’s always been, to find that original blessing God gave us in work, by adding what we can to what God has done. By faith in Jesus you can have that gift again, meaning and purpose through worshipping Him. And you will be able to worship in your work, no matter what it is. May God bless your work in Jesus.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated April 19, 2015