The last time I was invited to preach in a Baptist church was in the mid-1990s. I was ministering in Hertford and the then senior pastor of Hertford Baptist Church and I worked a pulpit exchange. The day before it was due to happen, I went down with flu and the inexperienced assistant pastor had to put together a sermon from scratch and preach in my place.
So I’d like to thank Paul for the invitation to preach here tonight. We first worked together on re:fresh08, and he then invited me to join the board of Ministry Today. It’s very kind of him to give me this opportunity, just six months before my family and I leave Chelmsford for pastures new.
To our Bible passage, then. You might think this is a strange choice for this time of year. We’ve just about got Christmas done and dusted, and here are some verses about the Resurrection! It is the climax of the apostle Paul’s teaching on the Resurrection. Some say it contains the text that should be placed over every church crèche: ‘We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed’ (verse 51b).
But, no, I’m not going to preach on that tonight, despite being the father of young children and the changing of nappies being a memory from only five years ago. Instead, I want to preach on a verse that has meant a lot to me. It has kept me going in bad times, even when I haven’t understood it. Not long ago, when I was going through a rough period, I was thinking about this verse. Someone who knew life was difficult for me prayed with me, and without knowing I was thinking about it, she prayed this Bible verse with me. It is very special to me. Because it has sustained me, my prayer is that it will encourage you if you are sailing through choppy waters in your life.
What’s the verse? It’s the very last one of the passage, verse 58:
‘Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’
I want to explore it with three questions: what, why and how? What is the problem? Why does this verse help? How can I live it out?
Firstly, then, what is the problem? Let me tell you some of my own story. From the age of five, teachers expected me to go to university. My favourite subject at school – this will put you off me! – was Maths. Accordingly, when it came to choosing my A-Levels, I selected Maths, Physics and Chemistry. I decided I wanted to study Computer Science at university, and received a very good offer from Imperial College, London.
One month before the A-Levels, it all went wrong. I suddenly began to suffer excruciating neck pain. I never sat the exams. I tried to repeat my final year at school, but although I would have been physically fit enough to take the exams twelve months later, I would never have done myself justice. I decided to leave school, take a job and review my future long term.
That job proved to be a clerical one in the Civil Service, working in social security. I worked for what was then called the Department of Health and Social Security – or, as our critics called us, the Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity. Much of it comes under the Department of Work and Pensions these days, or even HM Revenue and Customs.
I can tell you the odd funny story about that time. Not least when I had a job making sure that self-employed people paid the right National Insurance contributions. One day in the post came a letter from a woman who was returning her self-employed papers. She was winding up her business due, she said, to ‘unforeseen circumstances’. I looked up her records: she was a clairvoyant.
But mostly, those were chinks of light in a dismal and depressing job. What on earth was I doing there? Why had God allowed the neck problem? My career didn’t advance and the work didn’t normally use my abilities.
And Paul says in our verse, ‘in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ I suggest that my experience of working life – and it can be the same in the ministry sometimes – is that we wonder what on earth we’re doing here. Our job doesn’t seem to achieve anything. Our studies at school or college seem to be going nowhere. Our experience of family or friends isn’t anything to write home about, however much effort we put into relationships. Has that been your experience? Perhaps it is right now.
And Paul says, ‘in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ What we are doing sometimes does feel like it’s in vain. However hard we work, we aren’t achieving anything for the kingdom of God or our own personal fulfilment.
But you know what? Paul himself knew this experience. He refers elsewhere in this chapter, this letter and other letters to not labouring for the Lord in vain (15:10; 9:26; Galatians 2:2; Philippians 2:16). Not only that, he recognises it is a possibility for the readers of this letter. If you go back to the beginning of chapter 15, you find a clue as to why he dictated this chapter:
‘Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain.’ (Verses 1-2, italics mine.)
So if you feel like your efforts are in vain, let this give you good heart. You are not alone. Your experience was familiar to the great apostle and the early church. Don’t feel condemned. God understands you, and his word has encouragement for you.
It may be enough just to know that, but I’m going to move on to my second question, why does this verse help? Because if you’re anything like me, you want to know the whys and wherefores of an issue. Now I’m a parent of a six-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son, that comes back to haunt me. “Why, Dad?”
But ‘why’ is important. Why can Paul tell the Corinthians to ‘be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord’? What is it that means the know that ‘in the Lord’ their ‘labour is not in vain’?
There is an obvious answer. As we’ve said, this whole chapter is about the Resurrection. If you want to know why to keep on keeping on, the answer is the Resurrection. The Resurrection is what makes everything we do for the Lord worthwhile.
How does the Resurrection make our labour worthwhile? Let me pick out one thing Paul says about it from earlier in the chapter. He says in verse 20, ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died’ (italics mine).
It’s this notion of first fruits. In New Testament times, you got to celebrate the harvest twice in the year. Not only was there the equivalent of our harvest festival in late summer or early autumn, there was a festival of first fruits in late spring. It happened at Pentecost. People celebrated the fact that the first fruits to be picked were the sign that the full and final harvest would come later in the year.
When Paul calls the Resurrection of Jesus the ‘first fruits’ he says it’s the promise of the full harvest, in other words, when all will be raised from the dead. It’s the promise that just as God the Father restored Jesus to bodily life, so he will physically resurrect all people.
It’s part of the great New Testament vision for the future, God’s new creation. The new heavens and the new earth. Whatever God destroys at the end of all things, he will make all things new. Our future is not to be disembodied spirits floating on clouds and playing harps, it is to be bodily resurrected people living, working and worshipping in God’s new creation.
And that vision is why the Resurrection helps us when we feel our labour is in vain. It’s because everything we do in the Lord’s service now is a sign of the new creation. We don’t know how God will incorporate or transform all our work for him now into the new heavens and the new earth – it will be ‘in ways at which we can presently only guess’.
Something Martin Luther once said about the Second Coming helps me envision what this means. He said that if he knew Jesus were returning tomorrow, he would plant a tree today. In other words, the new creation with the resurrection of the dead makes all those little deeds of goodness today worthwhile. Tom Wright puts it this way:
‘You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to fall over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something which will become, in due course, part of God’s new world.’
I think we best approach this as visionaries and dreamers. The other day I took a school assembly as part of a series about heroes of the faith. My topic was Martin Luther King. I downloaded from YouTube a video of the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech from 1963, and edited it down. During the assembly I showed a couple of minutes from the speech, beginning with the ‘I have a dream’ refrain, which doesn’t come until about twelve minutes in. So the children just saw the clips where King said he had a dream that his four children would one day be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character, and where he said he had a dream that one day black and white children would sit down and play with each other as sisters and brothers.
At the end of the assembly, I asked them to shut their eyes and imagine their dream of what God’s new world would look like, then to pray they would be brave enough to work for it.
And I think something like that is what Paul calls us to do here. What is your dream – based on Scripture – of what God’s new creation looks like? What do you believe is coming with the resurrection of the dead and the new heavens and new earth? How would you ‘build for the kingdom’ OF God? Can you be a dreamer for the kingdom with the passion to put your dream into practice by the power of the Spirit?
So to my third and final question: how can I live it out? Well, note that Paul talks about being ‘steadfast’ and ‘immovable’ – that is, steadfast and immovable in the gospel. The foundation for labouring hopefully is to nurture our faith. My Christian tradition has historically referred to certain practices as ‘means of grace’ – special things which God particularly honours as ways in which he builds us up in the faith. These include worship, prayer, taking Holy Communion and sharing in a small group. Today Christians often call these and other similar practices ‘spiritual disciplines’, and my congregations will tell you I am always banging on about them.
We need to renew our commitment to those regular, faithful acts where we deliberately put ourselves in a place where we expect to hear the voice of God. It won’t always be spectacular, but that isn’t the point. It’s more like an ongoing regular healthy diet than an occasional banquet.
And most especially when we use ‘means of grace’ or ‘spiritual disciplines’, the big issue is not simply to go on a head trip because we have understood something afresh or heard God speak. It’s to put it into practice. We can learn all the doctrine we like, but unless it’s a basis for godly action, it’s a waste of time. So let’s be grounded in the faith, taking advantage of opportunities that come our way, and from that foundation let’s spring into action.
But there’s one other emphasis in the ‘how’ that Paul makes and I’d like to stress it. I confess it’s one that challenges me. He talks about ‘always excelling in the work of the Lord’ (italics mine). I know the call to excellence is one thing that Paul your pastor feels very strongly about. Why does it challenge me? It isn’t that I don’t want to be good at what I do for the Lord – far from it. As somebody has put it:
‘If everything comes from God’s overflowing grace, can we measure service to Christ grudgingly?’
There is no way we can hold a good conscience as Christians if we serve grudgingly. The gospel reminds us of God’s overflowing grace, and any response encouraged by the Holy Spirit is going to be a wholehearted one. That of itself encourages us in the direction of excellence, whether it’s something we do in church, whether it’s direct and overt witness to Jesus Christ, or whether it’s going about your studies or your work diligently and conscientiously.
I don’t have a problem with any of that. But where this challenges me is this: I can easily sign up to the ‘excellence’ idea when it’s about something I know I’m gifted in. Excellence becomes uncomfortable for me when I have to confront my weaknesses. To a certain extent I just want to concentrate on my strengths. To some extent that’s fine. I can advocate a creed of ‘do what you do, do well’ and find other people to cover the areas where I’m not strong. That’s a good and proper understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ where we all have our differing gifts and we all need each other.
However, if I’m not careful, it can degenerate into a cop-out. I spent some time last year during a sabbatical from work studying ministry and personality type. Part of this involved going away on a course. The tutor used a well-known tool that analyses the preferences of different personality types. For as long as we were looking at the preferences of different personality types, I was happy. But he then said this: it’s good in the first half of life to concentrate on your strengths. In the second half of life, it’s worth thinking about whether you can improve some of your weaknesses.
I didn’t want to hear that.
Then yesterday, I was reading a book I’m reviewing for Ministry Today and while it is a title aimed at pastors, there was a chapter on ‘excelling’, and a paragraph that related to this point:
‘What are your strengths and your weaknesses? Sharpen your strengths, and develop your weaknesses. Become better where you are good, and become good where you are weak. No matter what leadership gifts you think you lack, God is able to do great work in and through you. Believe in your call, then work and pray.’
If you’re not called to leadership, ignore that reference. But we are all called. Is this something we can do – to become better where we are good and become good where we are weak? By the power of the Holy Spirit it certainly is. What a way to spite the enemy if he has discouraged us to the point of thinking our labour in the Lord is in vain! We can turn it back on him by redoubling our efforts, because we believe in the risen Christ and the coming new creation.
As I said at the beginning, we are due to leave Chelmsford in six months’ time. One of my goals in that period is not to be ‘demob happy’ but to use it partly to improve some of my weaknesses. For me, that’s a part of aiming to excel ‘in the work of the Lord’.
Could you make a commitment like that? Let’s pray.
 Tom Wright, Surprised By Hope, p169.
 Op. cit., p219.
 Op. cit., p157.