Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This is adapted from a sermon preached at Refresh Pastors and Leaders Conference on June 5, 2015, in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Do you have any recurring dreams? When I was a student, and for many years after, I had a recurring dream: I am enrolled in a math or French course and have forgotten to attend class and study for the course all semester long. I now have a big exam, and I’m completely unprepared for it. It’s about three-quarters of the way through the semester, too late to drop the course -- and I’m afraid that my GPA is going to sink through the floor.
Now that I’ve been out of school for a while, I don’t have that dream.
But I have another recurring dream.
I’m at a church. It’s about five minutes before I’m supposed to preach, and the offering song is being sung, but I have no idea what I will say. I quickly scratch out an outline, then walk to the podium, look down at my notes and see “#!?5Z*@%.” I have no idea what the symbols are supposed to trigger in my memory.
So I begin to wing it, making up the message as I go, and people start to walk out of the sanctuary.
What the dream seems to be telling me, at least in part, is that on a subconscious level, I am not fully trusting the grace of God for my preaching; I am bearing too much of the preaching load on my shoulders.
Perhaps you are doing the same.
Or perhaps you are bearing too much of the psychic weight of your church or ministry or family or loved one on your shoulders.
If so, Psalm 127 has good news for you.
The psalm begins with the words, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (NIV). The word “house” in the original Hebrew can mean an actual physical home or temple, but it can also refer to a household or family, as suggested later in the psalm.
The psalmist says that unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.
The psalmist says that unless the Lord watches over the city, its guards stand watch in vain.
When the psalmist says the builders labor in vain, this doesn’t mean that no human work can flourish without God’s conspicuous, dramatic intervention, but it does mean that a work done without God’s participation and guidance will ultimately be empty. It will not endure. It will be in vain.
Verse 2 says:
In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat --
If our work is not done with God’s participation and guidance, even if we work very hard -- rising early, staying up late, spending all the time in between studying, preparing, preaching, organizing, leading, drinking lots of coffee -- the psalmist says that ultimately, our work will be in vain.
The psalmist, implicitly, is calling us to discern where God is calling us to invest.
In 1996, when I first came to Tenth Avenue Church, where I still serve, I was intimidated by the challenge of pastoring a historic church whose “glory years” were considered to have been back in the 1950s. Church attendance had dwindled from more than 1,000 to just over 100, and the congregation had cycled through 20 pastors and associate pastors in 20 years.
During one of my first days at the church, the secretary came into my office and said, “Ken, I just want you to know that if the church sinks now, everyone will blame you, since you were the last person at the helm.” She was trying to motivate me to work harder. “Um, thank you,” I joked, “I’m not going to need to listen to my Tony Robbins CD today!”
But I felt depressed.
Not long after that, my mentor Leighton Ford, an older Presbyterian minister who lives in North Carolina, happened to be in Vancouver. We were sitting in my car outside the church. I was desperate for some encouragement but felt it would sound pathetic to ask for that, so instead I asked, “Can you offer me some counsel?”
He crossed his long legs, paused and said, “Remember that God is an artist. He will not lead you to copy others. So seek God for his unique vision for this place.”
Psalm 127 implicitly calls us to seek God’s vision for our work so that what we do aligns with God’s purposes.
When the psalmist says that unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain, the psalmist is not saying that we’re not to work hard. (Remember, this is a psalm “of Solomon,” or concerning Solomon, and we know that Solomon worked extremely hard.) The apostle Paul, in Colossians, calls us to work with all our hearts “as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23).
We are to work hard, but we also can relax, because we know that true success is not primarily the result of our efforts but the result of God building something.
We can let go. We can feel lighter as the weight of ultimate success and failure is lifted off our shoulders. We don’t live by the sweat of our brow but by the grace of the manna provided for us.
Notice again verse 2:
In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat --
for he grants sleep to those he loves.
The psalmist speaks here of sleep.
The first part of verse 2 says, “In vain you rise early and stay up late, [anxiously] toiling for food to eat.” Then the second part can be understood either as, “God grants sleep to those he loves” or “God gives to his beloved while they sleep.”
Which reading is more likely to fill us with peace, to encourage us to refrain from rising early and staying up late because we are anxiously fretting about getting enough done and being sufficiently productive?
I believe it’s the second reading: “God gives to his beloved while they sleep.” When we understand that God provides for us in our sleep, we can sleep.
Remember, the Hebrew concept of the day begins with evening -- not morning. We begin our day with rest, not waking.
This reminds us that even before our day starts, as Eugene Peterson notes in his book on the Psalms, God has been at work. We are entering into a work already in progress. When I wake up in the mornings these days, I see that the cherries on the tree in our backyard are turning from green to red, and that the figs on another are beginning to take shape.
Similarly, even before we teach, preach, counsel, lead, God has been at work in the lives of people.
Solomon received his greatest gift -- his legendary wisdom from God -- when? While he was sleeping!
Because God is at work while we sleep, we can sleep.
The image of sleeping is instructive for us in another way as well.
The process of falling asleep and resting reminds us of how we should live our lives.
San Francisco Bay Area pastor John Ortberg points out that there are certain things we can do (like turning on the lights in a room) and certain things we cannot do (like controlling the weather). But there is a third category of things, things we cannot control but can influence, or prepare for -- and falling asleep is one of them.
We cannot force ourselves to sleep. As some of us know, the more we try to force sleep, the more it eludes us.
You might have a very important presentation coming up tomorrow, or a crucial, hard conversation. And you tell yourself, “I really need to get a good night’s sleep.” You squeeze your eyes shut and try to force yourself to sleep. But the more intensely you try to sleep, the more sleep eludes you.
You can’t force yourself to sleep, but there are certain things you can do to prepare yourself for sleep.
You can go into a dark room, for example, lie on a soft bed with a comfortable pillow, close your eyes. (You might listen to one of my sermons!) And because you have prepared yourself for sleep, you will very likely find that God gives you sleep.
So it is in our work: there are certain things we can do, certain things we cannot do and certain things we can influence or prepare for. So we work hard, but then we rest, knowing that God is at work while we rest.
The metaphor of sleep is instructive. So too is the image of conceiving children.
The psalmist tells us in verse 3 that children are a gift from God.
We live in a world where many societies desire to limit populations, often through some kind of birth control, but in agricultural societies, more kids mean more farmhands, and as the psalmist says at end of the psalm, children can even help defend the legal interests of their aging parents in court.
Certain commentators have taken this psalm’s affirmation that children are a gift from God as definitive proof that we can do nothing but trust God for life’s greatest gifts. But when it comes to children, that’s not entirely accurate. Children are a gift from God, but there is something we can do to foster their conception.
I know from personal experience that children are a gift from God. Early in our marriage, my wife, Sakiko, and I experienced a pregnancy complication, and we ended up losing our baby. Our OB-GYN said that because of the damage from the complication, it would be more difficult for us to become pregnant in the future.
When Sakiko was in the emergency room in the throes of this complication, she sensed a voice saying to her, “Am I not the one who opens and closes the womb?” She later realized that those words were from Scripture, from Isaiah 66, and took them to mean that one day God would open her womb. But nothing happened for five years, and she began to assume that the words related not to a biological child but to a spiritual one.
Then she heard strange words, so bizarre that she didn’t journal about them or share them with me: “When the fellowship hall was closed, I closed your womb; when you open the new building, I will open your womb.”
Our church’s fellowship hall, the original gathering place for the congregation -- some 60 years old and in terrible shape -- had been closed off a month before our wedding in 2001. We opened the new building in September 2007, and I remember cutting the blue ribbon in the opening ceremony.
The next day, Sakiko’s pregnancy began.
It was only weeks later, in retrospect, that Sakiko remembered those prophetic words. So we believe that our son, Joey, is a gift from God. (Of course, when he gets into trouble at school, we sometimes wonder, “Could this be the promised child?!”)
As is true of many things in life, children are God’s gift, but a mother and father play a role in conception. There was one great exception, of course, 2,000 years ago, where a teenage mother miraculously conceived a baby named Jesus without the aid of a human father. But normally, a mother and a father play a role.
So whatever it is we are called to do, we work at it, but we also rest, knowing that God is at work while we rest.
As I said earlier, the word “house” in Psalm 127:1 can refer to a physical house or temple, but it can also refer to a household.
A family I’m close to had a teenage son who was getting into all kinds of trouble. He was involved in shoplifting and selling stolen items to his peers at school; he was using drugs, dealing drugs, joyriding.
His parents didn’t know what to do. His father was very traditional, and very concerned, and one day decided to take the son on a field trip to the local penitentiary. “I just wanted you to see your future home -- courtesy of my tax dollars,” he said. This didn’t really faze the teenage son.
His mother, who had recently given her life back to Christ, asked people at her church’s prayer meeting to pray for her son. An elderly prayer warrior named Walter Fender volunteered to pray daily for him, and within six months that kid gave his life to Christ. That kid was me.
As parents, or as parent figures and mentors, we know that there are certain things we cannot control in the development of our children. Ultimately, those are in God’s hands. But there are things we can do to influence our children. So we work hard at parenting, and we pray. But we also sleep, because God gives to his beloved while they sleep. We invest in our family, but we also rest, because God is at work while we rest.
So too in our ministry, we work hard, but we also sleep, knowing that God is at work while we sleep. We invest, but we also rest, knowing that God is at work while we rest.
When in my early 20s I was working in Tokyo for the Sony Corporation, I attended a small church with 30 to 40 people on a Sunday. The pastor was 80 years old and was looking for someone to pinch-hit for him as preacher from time to time. When he discovered that I was considering the possibility of becoming a pastor, he began to invite me to be his pinch hitter.
My grandmother in Tokyo heard that I was preaching. She was both intrigued and amused. She remembered me as a little brat whose favorite book was the Sears Christmas catalog. She recalled that I always used to ask her, “Grandma, how can I be rich when I grow up?”
More out of curiosity than anything else, she decided she would come and hear me preach. She had not been to church in over two decades. On a cold, wet February morning, she rode the Tokyo subway and buses for over an hour to come to our church.
She sat in the second-to-last row on the right-hand side of our small chapel.
I got up and gave a short message on the work of the cross from Galatians 2 and then sat down. The 80-year-old pastor came up to the podium and said, “Brother Shigematsu, after that kind of message, you should have given an invitation. Come up here and give an invitation.”
I was unprepared and embarrassed at such a public critique. The mood in the little chapel grew tense and awkward, but I had recently watched Billy Graham on video … so I just plagiarized him. I said, “If you are here and don’t know Christ, if you need to make your commitment or recommitment to Christ, I want you to stand up and come. By coming, you’re saying in your heart, ‘I commit myself to Jesus.’”
As we sang the closing hymn, I looked up from my hymnal. We had sung the first stanza, and no one was coming. My heart sank. We sang the second stanza, and still no one was moving. I began thinking, “Whatever special anointing or charisma Christian ministers are supposed to have, I don’t have it.”
After the third stanza, one woman began to move her way to the aisle and toward the front. I knew that she was a Christian already and was likely coming forward only because she felt sorry for me and wanted to encourage me by walking down the aisle.
We sang the final stanza, and I closed the hymnal. I looked up, and to my astonishment, there were now 17 or 18 people gathered at the front -- and my grandmother was among them!
With tears streaming down her face, she said, “This is the happiest day of my life. I thought I was a Christian, but today for the first time, I understood why Jesus Christ died on the cross for me.”
I think of that day as one of the greatest days of my life, because it was the day my grandmother experienced peace with God.
When we point someone to Christ, it may not be our grandmother, but it is somebody’s grandmother or somebody’s father, somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister -- somebody’s “somebody.”
Whether or not a person opens his or her life to Christ isn’t in our hands; it’s in God’s hands. When we share the good news about Jesus, we cannot transform a person’s life, but we can point that person toward God.
However hard we work in our ministry and service, we’re also called to rest. We sleep knowing that God gives to us, his beloved, while we sleep. We invest all that we are and all that we have, but we also rest, because God is at work while we rest.
The full version of this sermon was published on PreachingToday.com. It can be found here. This sermon is used by permission from Preaching Today. Copyright Preaching Today, 2015.