One domain in which we find some semblance of meaning in our lives is the domain of fulfilling work. Interestingly, the first story that is told about David in 1 Samuel 16 is set in the workplace. This sermon considers what this episode has to tell us about the dignity of work, the dangers of work, and the deliverance of work.

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    A couple of weeks ago, my wife, Ashley, ordered some new fall clothes for the kids before the start of the new school year. Upon placing this order with a particular clothing company, she received a confirmation email announcing, “The Good Life Is Headed Your Way.” This email contained a photograph of a young model with a beaming smile on her face, dressed in casual leisure wear, sitting on the deck of a sailboat. And the caption read, “Every Day Should Feel This Good.” Ashley immediately forwarded that email to me because she knew this would provide great fodder for my fall sermon series. 

    That's one conception of the good life. The good life is a life of leisure. It’s about feeling good. And the message, of course, is that you can be rich, and young, and beautiful, and you can feel good, and have a good time—presumably if you're wearing the right kind of clothes! Now don't get me wrong. I'm all for a little rest and relaxation. God, after all, has given us a beautiful world with all the good gifts of creation for us to enjoy—food and drink, art and song, mountains and sea…replete with sailboats. So Christianity is not a world-denying, soul-crushing faith. Quite the opposite—Christianity is a world-affirming, soul-enhancing faith. But with that comes the understanding that there is so much more to the life that God has to offer. It’s not just about feeling good and having a good time.

    Last week, I mentioned that the longtime University of Chicago Professor Leon Kass recently wrote a book entitled, Leading a Worthy Life, and in it, he suggests that:

    “Nothing is more dehumanizing or certain to cause a crisis than to experience one’s life as a meaningless event in a meaningless world. The trouble is that with each passing generation we seem to have become ever more spiritually impoverished and unable to articulate satisfying answers to life’s biggest questions.”

    So here’s one of those bigger questions: What is the good life? And how can it be lived? In his book, Kass offers five domains in which people can and do find some semblance of meaning in our lives. He suggests (1) the domain of fulfilling work, (2) the private domain of love and family and friendship, (3) the public domain of devotion to one's community, one's people, one's nation, (4) the domain of seeking wisdom, pursuing the truth about ourselves and our world, and (5) the domain of devotion to something higher than ourselves, to the holy, the righteous, the divine. In other words, devotion to God. 

    What struck me about this list that Kass provides is that you find all of these domains illustrated in the life of David, which is the focus of our fall sermon series. The rise and fall and promised redemption of David, Israel's greatest king, is the single most extensive story told of one person's life in all of Scripture. That is not to suggest that David represents the ideal human being—far from it! The Scriptures present David as a complex and multi-faceted human being like the rest of us. David is not much in himself. In David, we see both flashes of brilliance as well as cringe-worthy moments of utter darkness. No, David is not much in himself. He doesn’t have a lot to tell us about how to live life successfully. If I were to tell you to “Go out there and be like David,” you would probably run your life into the ground. And yet, for all of that, whether demonstrating epic faith or disastrous sin, David lives his life before God, aware of God, responsive to God—and that’s the key to the good life.

    Last week, we suggested that if you want to live the good life, the first thing you need to figure out is who you are. We talked about the importance of grounding your identity, first and foremost, in your relationship to God above and beyond anyone or anything else. This week, I’d like us to focus on that first domain that Leon Kass mentions, the domain of fulfilling work, because the first story that is told about David after being anointed by the prophet Samuel is set in the workplace. It’s all about David’s first job. I’d like us to turn to 1 Samuel 16 and consider what this episode has to tell us about the dignity of work, the dangers of work, and the deliverance of work. Let me invite you to turn to 1 Samuel 16. I'll be reading verses 14-23. This is God's Word. 

    14Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him. 15And Saul's servants said to him, “Behold now, a harmful spirit from God is tormenting you. 16Let our lord now command your servants who are before you to seek out a man who is skillful in playing the lyre, and when the harmful spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will be well.” 17So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me a man who can play well and bring him to me.” 18One of the young men answered, “Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the Lord is with him.” 19Therefore Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me David your son, who is with the sheep.” 20And Jesse took a donkey laden with bread and a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them by David his son to Saul. 21And David came to Saul and entered his service. And Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. 22And Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.” 23And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him.

    This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love.

    The Dignity Of Work

    The first thing that David does after he is anointed king by the prophet Samuel is go to work. He enters Saul's court and becomes his right-hand man. Saul had previously been anointed as king, but he's no longer acting like it. Now David is anointed, and he is placed in the very same workplace, side-by-side with Saul. And Saul, as we see, is starting to lose his grip. I wonder what was your first job? In middle school, I was a babysitter. I earned $5 an hour. I started caddying at the local golf course. I made $21 for a loop of 18 holes if I carried one bag, $42 plus tip if I carried two bags. In high school, I started my own business of painting houses and detailing cars. When I was in college, I took an internship at an art auction house here in New York City, and I earned $6 a day—not $6 an hour, but $6 a day. It didn't even cover the subway fare. It was for the experience! 

    I wonder what your first job was. Some of you might have just graduated from college and moved to New York City for the first time. You’ve just started your first job, or maybe you’ve recently switched jobs. At the beginning, it can be challenging to figure out the personalities of your colleagues, or the culture of the organization, or the expectations of your manager. If so, it may be comforting to know that, after spending his childhood tending sheep in Bethlehem, when David moves to the big city for his first job, he ends up working for a terrible boss—who is anxious, afraid, and paranoid. Your boss might be kind of tough, but my guess is that he is not repeatedly trying to kill you, which is what David had to deal with on a semi-regular basis.

    In addition to entering Saul’s service as his armor-bearer and his personal attendant, David was a musician, skilled at playing the lyre, which was essentially a small portable harp. Whenever Saul experienced one of his bouts of mental disturbance, David provides a little music therapy. That was his first job. He had already been anointed as the king, and yet, it will still be a decade or more, before he is actually publicly recognized as king. In the meantime, he is given this rather undesirable task of looking after a wildly maniacal leader named Saul. The point is that this is David's God-assigned, God-defined task. And that is what makes all the difference. 

    For many of us work is nothing more than a “job.” It's worth nothing more than what it offers to pay the bills. In fact, the word “job” originally meant a mere piece or work—a “gob” of work—some, petty insignificant task. But what we need to figure out is how to approach our work not as a job, but as a vocation. But you see—there's the catch. The word “vocation” means calling. It is that to which one is called, but you can't have a calling unless there is a caller.

    Many people refuse to believe that there is a caller, and therefore, they hear no such call. As a result, they are forced to just choose—choose a job, choose a place of work—out of the cafeteria of options that are available to them, which sometimes can be quite overwhelming. But it's God's call that fills work, even routine, mundane tasks, with their meaning and their significance. Finding meaning in our work generally depends less on the external task itself than the manner in which it is done. 

    Let me refer to this often-used example of three laborers. Let's imagine there's three laborers who are all engaged in the exact same task. But when asked what they are doing, they provide radically different answers. You ask the first one, “What are you doing?” He says, “I'm earning a living.” The second one, engaged in the very same activity, says, “I am dragging heavy stones.” Then you ask the third one, “What are you doing?” He says, “I am building a cathedral.” Do you see the difference? I thought about this once when I was actually in Paris, standing in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I was fascinated by the structure, especially because I knew that it was built by the community of people who lived right around that church. Everybody pitched in. They did what they could, through their gifts, and their resources, and areas of expertise, to build this cathedral. It began construction in 1163 AD, but the cathedral was not completed for another 182 years.

    What vision! The people who first engaged in that back-breaking work of laying those first stones knew that neither they, nor their children, nor even their grandchildren, would ever worship within those walls, which means that as they engaged in that work, they were not doing it for themselves. They weren't even doing it for their family. They were doing it all unto the Lord. That is the difference that a true calling makes. It's hard for us to imagine anyone engaging in that kind of work with that kind of vision today, but that is what is urgently needed. What is urgently needed is for Christians to recover a sense of work as vocation—calling. 

    David is anointed king, but that doesn't mean that he is going to sit on a throne. No, for David that means service—service to, of all people, Saul. David is anointed for this task, and to be anointed means employment. To be anointed means to be set apart for a specific task, and it is that anointing, that calling, that connects our work with God's work. That is what imbues all of our work with its intrinsic dignity. 

    Think about what the Bible has to tell us about God's work. Consider the opening chapters of the Bible. You could translate Genesis 1:1 as: “In the beginning, God went to work.” Right on the first page, God is presented to us as a parent, a worker, a creator. God is a father who hovers over his newborn baby. God is an artist who creates something new that didn't exist before. God is an administrator who brings order out of chaos. God is an investor, who goes in big, despite the risk, and makes a huge bet on human beings, despite the loss that he might suffer. God is presented to us intrinsically as someone who works. As a result of that, when we receive our calling from God, our work is not only Godly, it is Godlike. You see the difference? Our work is not only Godly, it is Godlike because all of our work reflects God's own activity as a worker, and that is what imbues all of our work with its inherent dignity.

    Did you notice this as well: God works a six day work week, and then he rests on the seventh day—a day that is dedicated to worship. What does that tell you? It reminds me of something John Stott once said. He said, “It's good that you come to church, so long as you don't do it too often.” What did he mean by that? He means that it's good for us to come together in worship. It's good for us to gather in the sanctuary to worship, to pray, to hear God's Word preached, to receive the sacraments. God strengthens us and encourages us through our worship together. But the fact of the matter is that the primary place where God meets us, challenges us, stretches us, changes us, uses us is not in the sanctuary. No, it's in the day-to-day trenches of normal, everyday life—at home, at school, in the office, in the lab, in the studio, in the concert hall, in the boardroom. 

    I feel quite passionate about this because it seems to me that this becomes all the more important the deeper we move into the late modern world. Think about it. How did people in the first century—a world awash with other gods and committed to a very different kind of moral code—come to think that the key to human existence and the clue to human history lies in a man hanging on a cross? How did that happen? How did Christianity win over the western world and dislodge the old paganism? I'll tell you how it didn't happen. It didn't happen because they had a great kids program at the church in the city of Athens. It didn't happen because there was a rocking worship experience available at the church in the city of Rome. It wasn't because there was a great speaker at the church in the city of Corinth. No, the way in which Christianity won over the Western world was not through Christians gathered in worship. It was through Christians scattered in their vocations. It was through normal, everyday Christians living out their faith, loving their neighbors, serving their community, engaging in their work with passion, and integrity, and excellence. It was Christians scattered in their vocations who demonstrated to the people around them a fully different way of being human. That's what won people over. And so it is today. How will people in the 21st century—a world awash with other gods and committed to a very different kind of moral code—come to believe that the key to human existence and the clue to human history lies in a man hanging on a cross? It's not going to be because of me. It's going to be because of you. It’s not going to be because of the church gathered together in the sanctuary as important as this may be. No, it will be because of Christians scattered out there in the world, scattered in their vocations, who will change the world. 

    And if you do your job right, then maybe, just maybe, there will be more and more people who cross the threshold of a church and join Christians for worship in the sanctuary for the very first time—or perhaps for the first time in a very long time. If you do your job right, then I'll have to do my job right. The pastor Eugene Peterson once described his work as a pastor like this. He says, 

    “As a pastor, I found myself dealing with men and women who didn’t know how to act in the place of worship. When they entered the sanctuary, they left at least fifty percent of their vocabulary outside. They talked differently. They stiffened, ever so slightly. Not all of them, true, but enough to let me know that I had my work cut out for me, the work of speaking the word of God to them in the language of their working lives. For how were they going to hear and understand the gospel of Jesus Christ if they heard it only in ‘church language’? 

    How were they ever going to get a feel for the Bethlehem manger, the Galilean fishing boats, Peter’s curses, and Mary’s tears, to say nothing of the Golgotha cross, if they got it only behind stained glass to organ accompaniment? 

    And how were they ever going to realize that the adrenaline rush following Tuesday’s business deal, the nausea of spousal betrayal on Wednesday, and the interminable boredom of Friday afternoon were the actual stuff in which Christ was working their salvation if they supposed that the primary place for hearing and understanding God’s word was the sanctuary?

    The sanctuary is essential, but it isn’t the primary location for the day-by-day cultivation and practice of spirituality, the Holy Spirit shaping the Christ-life in us.

    I’m still engaged in that work, saying and showing—insisting—that the world of work is the primary context for spirituality—for experiencing God, for obeying Jesus, for receiving the Spirit. And I’m not finding it any easier.”

    The Dangers Of Work

    There is an unfortunate history that has made a distinction between what you might call sacred work and secular work, sacred godly work and secular human work. But the pages of Scripture reveal that the distinction is a false dichotomy. It's not as if the pastors and the full-time Christian ministry workers have a true vocation from God, and everybody else is just a second-class citizen within the kingdom. By the way, Jesus does not have any part-time followers! Whether it is voluntary or paid, skilled or unskilled, at home or in the workforce, every sphere of life provides us with an opportunity to contribute to God's purposes in the world if we do it all unto the Lord. That's what makes the difference, the manner in which we do it. Every Christian has a holy calling. Every Christian takes holy orders

    Along with the dignity of work, the Scriptures also point us to the danger of work, which is made clear in this episode. A few moments ago, I said that when we work well, we are not only Godly, we are Godlike. We're like God himself. But if we're Godlike, it's easy to slip into thinking that we are ourselves gods—gods within our own sphere of work. If we think we're gods, then we don't think that we need God—or at least not very much. 

    That's what happened to Saul. Saul was originally anointed by Samuel as Israel's first king, and everything started out so well. He enters the story with a compelling presence and sincere humility. Saul was a good leader. He wasn't just a good general, he was a good person. But despite all of his charisma and skill, the problem with Saul is that he just wasn't all that interested in God. Over time, he became more and more absorbed in the work itself. That is what causes his downfall. 

    On two separate occasions, the prophet Samuel confronts Saul about an act of disobedience, which took place within the context of Saul carrying out his work. It was an act of disobedience within his work, within his vocation and calling. Neither act of disobedience seemed wrong, or immoral, or sinful. Neither act seemed even all that serious. What is rather striking is that at the core, interestingly enough, both ultimately had to do with worship. In the first instance, Saul fails God because he just wants to keep the people focused. In the second instance, Saul fails God because he just wants to make the people happy. So what does he do? He gives them what they want. But that means worshiping God on their terms rather than God's terms. If we do that, then we're treating God as a mere tool, a mere means to an end rather than an end in himself. And God will not be used. That's the trap that we can all fall into. We may not be interested in God for who he is. We're only interested in what he can do for us. If you're interested in what God can do for you, rather than for who he is, then you're treating him merely as an instrument, a tool, a means to an end. 

    Saul had a great job. He was the king, but just because you have a great job doesn't mean that you'll do it well. Just because you have received a calling from God does not mean that you will be faithful. That's why our jobs present an enormous temptation to us. If through our work, we're not only Godly, but Godlike, it's incredibly tempting to look to our jobs, to our calling, to our vocation, rather than to the caller to give us a sense of identity, purpose, or redemption. And that is the very definition of an idol. An idol is anything you look to other than God to provide you with your ultimate sense of identity, purpose, or redemption.

    This is New York City, so my guess is that there are quite a few Sauls here this morning. And if you're a Saul, who has made an idol of your work, what might that look like in practice? Consider identity. You might say, “I know who I am. I know that I'm unique and special. I know that I am valuable because of my job.” How about purpose? You might say, “I know why I'm here. I know what I'm supposed to do because of my job.” You might say, “I can make up for all of my past mistakes. I can redeem myself through my job. Do you see how easy this is to do? 

    Let me use myself as an example. Don't you think it would be so easy for me to say, “I know who I am. I know that I am unique, and special, and valuable. I know why I'm here and what I'm supposed to do. I can redeem myself for all of my past mistakes because I'm a pastor!” But all of us can do that, and all of us try. We try to find our ultimate identity, purpose, and redemption in and through our calling, rather than through the caller. Do you see the idolatry in that? My calling only describes a part of who I am. It doesn't define me. My calling is only one aspect of my life. It doesn't sum up my entire purpose. My work might be important, but my job cannot save me. My job can't forgive me. My job can't redeem me. That's what Saul fails to see. Our callings are important because there's important work for us to do, but we can't look to our jobs for our righteousness. We can't redeem ourselves. We can't make ourselves righteous through our work. Only Jesus can do that. 

    The Deliverance Of Work

    Given the inherent danger within our work, what will deliver us from this temptation to idolatry? What the David story shows us is that receiving a call from God is not about getting the so-called “right job” or the “right career,” but rather, it's about doing God's work in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Look at David. David is anointed as king, but what is he called to do? He's called to play the harp. It’s probably not what he thought when he first got the job. 

    Very quickly, let me address a question that I'm sure many of you probably had when the Scripture was read. What does it mean in that very first verse, verse 14, to say, “a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented” Saul. On the one hand, it is “from the Lord,” because nothing happens to us in life outside of God’s providence. But on the other hand, let’s be clear, God is not responsible for evil. God is light, and in him, there is no darkness at all. James 1:13-14 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” Nothing happens outside of God's providential love for us, but God is never responsible for evil. 

    This harmful spirit you will notice, does not begin to plague Saul until after he is confronted about his two acts of disobedience. He refused to obey God. As a result, he opened himself up to this harmful spirit. But then notice God’s kindness to Saul. Saul is incredibly kind, and incredibly patient, and his patience is meant to lead Saul to repentance. Because what does God do? He sends David. He sends the Lord’s anointed to make him well, and to bring him some relief. 

    Look at the end result. This passage is framed by two nearly identical statements. At the beginning, in verse 14, it says: “The Spirit of the Lord departed from him.” But that phrase is bookended at the very end in verse 23 with: “And the harmful spirit departed from him.” God uses David, at least temporarily to deliver Saul from the idolatry and sin of his work life. The question is: Will Saul receive the deliverance that God provides through his anointed one? Will he respond to the Lord’s kindness to him?

    That's what brings this passage home for us. Will you receive the deliverance that God offers you through the ultimate anointed one, through Jesus himself? David anticipates and prepares us for the coming of the ultimate one who is anointed as king. And as for David, so for Jesus, when Jesus is anointed as king, that didn't mean sitting on a throne, that meant service. Jesus spent far more years of his life behind the carpenter’s bench than in public ministry. And when he engages in public ministry, it's a ministry of service. He comes to drive out all those harmful spirits that plague us so that we human beings might be made well.

    Then the question is: if Jesus has come to make us well, then how do we now discern our own calling in life? How do we hear the voice of the caller? I like the way that Frederick Buechner once put it. He said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

    Look out there at the world around you. What is the world's hunger? As you look at your family, your neighborhood, your community, your church, the city, the wider world, where are the needs great, and the laborers few? Then secondly, ask yourself what are the gifts, and the skills, and the experiences that light you up, that bring you joy. That place of intersection, where the world's deep hunger and your deep gladness meet, that causes your heart to catch fire—that very well may be exactly the spot where God is calling you to serve his purposes because that, after all, is what Jesus did. 

    That's how Jesus discerned his own calling. Jesus not only scanned the horizon of the world, but he searched the deepest recesses of your own heart, and what did he discover? He discovered that your deepest hunger, whether you recognize it or not, is to be reconciled to God. And what was Jesus' deep gladness? What filled his heart with joy? What lit him up? It was you. It was the thought of being reconciled in relationship to you now and forever. So as Jesus considered the world's deep hunger, and his deep gladness, it led him to the cross. For the joy that was set before him, Jesus despised the cross’ shame and endured what lay before him. As a result, Jesus goes to the cross to do for you what you could never do for yourself. 

    On the cross, all the harmful spirits that plague us as a result of our disobedience, as a result of our idolatry, fell on Jesus—so they do not fall on us. Jesus absorbed it all. Jesus became sin with your sin on the cross, so that you might become righteous with his righteousness. Your work cannot redeem you. Your job cannot make you righteous. Only Jesus can do that. 

    In the Old Testament, God would give his Spirit to some people some of the time to carry out a specific task, but not in the new—because in the New Testament, we see the fulfillment of God's promises. As the result of Jesus's finished work on the cross, he now pours out his Spirit on all of his people, all of the time, to empower us to do everything in service to him. Jesus embraces his calling for your sake. Now he invites you to embrace your calling for his sake. So let's get out there and get to work. 

    Let me pray for us. 

    Father, we recognize that one of the great tragedies of life, especially in the modern world in which we live, is that we might experience life as a meaningless event in a meaningless world. We recognize how spiritually impoverished we are to find satisfying answers to life's biggest questions like: What is the good life? Help us to see, Father, that there is no calling without a caller. But if there is a caller, then it imbues all of our work with dignity. We pray that you would protect us against the dangers of idolatry. Enable us to receive the deliverance that you have provided for us in and through Jesus. We pray that it would be in him that we discover our true identity, our true purpose, and our only redemption, and thus we can now find the freedom to serve you in all that we do, in all that we say, in all that we think, all the time. We ask this in Jesus' name and for his sake. Amen.