Sermons, Uncategorized

Rock That Says My Name

my_tombstoneI like to listen to music from a variety of genres, favoring songs that have thoughtful lyrics reflecting a true picture of the human condition with all of its joy and sorrows, challenges and triumphs, its scars and freckles, beauty marks and warts.

Some songs grow on you over time; others connect with you immediately. My current favorite, “Rock That Says My Name,” falls into the latter category. The first time I heard it, I loved it. The more I hear it, the more its message resonates with me. “Rock That Says My Name” was released January 18, 2019 by The Steel Woods, a relatively new band whose music balances heavy blues-rock with Southern poetry, adding a bit of plainspoken outlaw country to the mix. (If you wish to listen to it, you will find a link to the official YouTube version of the song here. Click on “more” to read the lyrics.)

“Rock That Says My Name” is a story told from the point of view of a man who works at a cemetery. A jack-of-all-trades, he keeps the grounds, digs the graves, carves and polishes the gravestones, serves as pall bearer, helps with the burial, and when called upon, is willing to put on a suit and tie so he can join in the mourning. Though it’s not exactly the most glamorous job, it is necessary work, and the man finds great satisfaction and contentment in his job that he’s been doing for fifty years.

What gives this man such satisfaction? I would suggest two things: faith and vocation. This comes out especially in the chorus:

Well I ain’t afraid to die ‘cause I know where I’ll go.
There I’ll live forever on the streets made of gold.
‘Til then I’ll keep on working, you won’t hear me complain
And every day I’ll tip my hat to the rock that says my name.

The man knows his ultimate destination—in heaven to be with the Lord for eternity. This frees him to serve his neighbor as he carries out his calling in life. It enables him to do his work in a way that respects and affirms the dignity of human life even as he daily walks amid death and all its accessories.

As he faithfully follows his vocation, the man recognizes that the day will soon come when it will be his own grave that is dug, his own gravestone that is carved. He and his wife have picked out their own plots right by the cemetery gate, where the sun shines every day. He’s carved his name on the stone. All that’s left is for someone else to add the date of his death next to the date of birth, throw the dirt on top of him, sow some grass seeds and let it grow.

In the meanwhile, the man carries on with his vocation, working each day without complaint. And just so he remembers all this, he says “every day I’ll tip my hat to the rock that says my name.”

I’m reminded of Psalm 90, which I often use when I conduct funerals. After talking about the eternal nature of God and the mortal nature of God’s fallen human creatures, Moses prays:

Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom… Satisfy us in the morning with Your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as You have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil… Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (v. 12-17, emphasis added).

Moses’ closing prayer contains two main elements. The first is a plea for understanding and wisdom. As we daily observe death all around us, we are warned to make the most of this time of grace that God has given us, since death is inevitable. We are warned against being like the rich fool who accumulated treasure on earth but forgot about the needs of his soul (Luke 12:13-21). Since we have only one life and that one life is short, we should use it to gain the wisdom that comes from God. That wisdom is the message of the Gospel, through which we gain forgiveness of sins and salvation.

The second part of Moses’ prayer is a plea for mercy. We do not deserve to have our lives prolonged, but we pray that God will give us the time and the wisdom to serve Him faithfully on this earth. Such labor brings joy to all the days of our lives, even to life under the burdens of sin. Only the labor that we do for the Gospel can produce fruits that will endure into eternity. We pray that God will establish and bless our labors for the Gospel so that they will bear fruit for us, for our children, and for others, now and forever.

“Rock That Says My Name” ends with the voice of a Southern preacher reading a fitting portion of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 19-20:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,
Where moth and rust doth corrupt
And where thieves break through and steal,
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
Where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt
And where thieves do not break through nor steal.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

As beloved children of God, heirs of His kingdom, we have something that lasts long beyond anything that this fleeting world has to offer. We realize how few are the days that we actually have in this present world, and how our only real security and refuge is found in God, through His Son Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. We are also reminded that just as the treasures of this earth are only temporary, so are our sorrows and troubles. They will all be forgotten when we come to the eternal joy and glory of being in God’s eternal presence. This proper perspective frees us to live in service our neighbor, living out our vocations joyously without fear or regret, no matter to where or to what God may call us.

By God’s grace, may He make you and I learn to number our days that we may gain hearts of wisdom. May He make us glad for as many days as He has afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. May the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us! May God grant this to us all.

Sermons, Uncategorized

(Re)Created to Serve and Give

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But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also (2 Corinthians 8:7).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

I often marvel at the spiritual insights of children. One week during chapel services I was teaching the preschool children about David the shepherd boy as part of a series of lessons on loving our neighbor. I showed the kids two pictures: one of David as a young boy watching over his family’s sheep, and another of David as the grown-up king of the nation of Israel. And then I asked them, “Which one of David’s jobs was more important—shepherd or king?”

Most of them replied predictably: “King!” But one of them stole my thunder. “It depends upon whether or not you’re one of the sheep,” Patrick said. And he was exactly right. Both jobs are important for those who are under their care and influence. For the sheep, the shepherd is going to have much more direct impact. He serves them. They depend upon him for food and water and protection. The king might be able to help provide those things for the people of the nation, but he won’t be too concerned about a few sheep.

Both positions of shepherd and king are God-given vocations—callings or stations in life. God gives the shepherd the privilege and responsibility of caring for the sheep in his flock. God gives the king the responsibility to care for the people in his nation. God gives you each of your various vocations.

God created humans to work and to serve. If you look back at life before sin, you’ll find work and service there. When God created Adam and Eve, it wasn’t for them to lounge around. As He worked to serve them, they were to work by caring for creation and by serving one another.

This is important: before there was sin in the world, there was work and service. To be sure, it was easier back then, as work wouldn’t be bothered by thorns and thistles, crabby customers, unreasonable supervisors, and the like; but even today, God has created you to work and serve in the place He puts you. This is true of everyone, regardless of whether they are a believer or not. Regardless of if they recognize their vocation is a calling from God or not.

This means a king has no higher calling than a shepherd. If either one neglects to do his duty, those under his care are going to suffer. A doctor has no higher calling than the woman who cleans and disinfects the operating room. If either one does not take her work seriously patients may get sick and die.

For Christians, this gives a completely different understanding of our daily life and a greater appreciation for all vocations. If you’re a Christian, whatever you do according to God’s will is holy, your vocation is holy and given by God for the purpose of serving your neighbor. Work should not be considered a “four-letter word,” but a gift of God.

Now, if work and service are gifts from God, you can bet the devil is going to do his best to ruin those gifts and your perception of them. Look at the popular notion of work today: a job is something you have to do Monday through Friday, so that you can get the days off to do what you really want to do.

But if you’re working for the weekend, you’re not going to see your job as a holy vocation, but rather as a hassle, or boring and unfulfilling. Aren’t you? Instead of rejoicing in the quality of work, you’re more likely to settle for “good enough.” Right? But what would happen if the weekend was a time that refreshed and prepared you to return to that holy vocation you wanted to do? That’s how it is, once you’re set free from the sins of sloth and selfishness. It’s another good reason to repent when you find yourself resenting the prospect of going to work. Remember: God created you to work and serve whatever stage of your life.

We’ll add one more: God created you to give. Giving is part of serving. As God gives us to do to serve others, so He also gives us to give to serve others. Where the Lord gives us abundance, He also gives us the opportunity to support church and charity, to help our neighbor, to assist a relative in need.

Now, if we’re tempted to deny that work is a gift from God, it’s going to be that much easier to deny that giving is a gift from God. It’s all too easy to see giving as an ugly test that comes with salvation, as in, “I have to give so that I can prove I’m not guilty of being greedy or to show I am truly thankful.” But both of those are attempts to motivate with the Law; and Law can cannot properly motivate or empower. It only kills and condemns.

God created you to give, which is why the devil will do his best to prevent you from giving to others. Beware, too, because greed acts much like sloth. The less you give, the less you want to give; the more you keep, and the more you’ll focus on keeping. And rather than seeing the proper solution is giving more, you’ll be inclined to believe that happiness will be found in gathering more for yourself.

The Macedonians were not like this at all. They were afflicted and poor, yet they continued to experience an “abundance of joy,” which “overflowed in a wealth of generosity.” This generous giving was an act of God’s grace in Christ.

The generosity of the Macedonians was exhibited in three ways. First, they gave not just as much as they could, but even more than that. Like the widow with her mite, they had given in a way some might consider reckless or imprudent.

Second, no one had pressured them into giving. They had decided “of their own free will” to be so overwhelmingly generous in their offering. They had, in fact, “begged earnestly for the favor of taking part” in “this act of grace.”

And third: “They gave themselves first to the Lord…” The Macedonians gave something more important than money with their offerings—they gave themselves back to the Lord who had given Himself into death for them.

Paul ties everything connected with giving to the grace that God has given to His people. God’s grace centers on His gift of Jesus Christ and His redemptive work on our behalf. That grace moves us to be gracious—to freely, gladly give everything, including our material goods, back to the Lord. The offerings of a Christian, then, are part of our worship, our response to God’s grace.

Notice how evangelically Paul encourages the giving of the Corinthians! He doesn’t bargain with them or exploit their guilt or try to squeeze dead works out of their old Adam. He addresses the new man who loves to do God’s will and welcomes opportunities to express the gratitude of a reborn heart, as a fruit of faith. That is why Paul is careful to say, “I am not commanding you.” He does not want this offering to be given reluctantly or grudgingly, but freely and generously.

As always, Paul points to Jesus, the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” in fact. Paul uses the same terms, “rich” and “poor,” he had been using in talking about the offering of the Macedonians. “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor so that you by His poverty might become rich.”

It is not difficult to see that the Jesus who Paul holds up as a perfect model of sacrificial giving is much more than just a model. He is first a Savior. Through His humbling Himself all the way to death, the Corinthians are spiritually rich beyond compare. Their sins are forgiven. They are enjoying brand new lives as part of God’s family. An eternity of joy awaits them.

They know all of that, but like you and me, they need to be reminded of it daily. If their eyes turn from the Christ, every area of their Christian lives, including their stewardship practices, will soon degenerate into dead works instead of being good works. To be “acts of grace” their offerings must be gifts driven by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Christ who became poor to make us rich is the foundation on which all Christian stewardship rests. He is our Savior. He is our motivator. He is our example. And in that order.

Saved by His grace, we are then motivated to follow Christ’s example. Knowing the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we learn to be sacrificial and generous in our giving. And in the process, we are surprised to discover joy. One of the mysteries of God’s grace is that joy grows out of unselfish, sacrificial giving. The suggestion is not “Give until it hurts” but “Give until it feels good.” Only those who get beyond giving only what they won’t miss will find that joy.

How much should you give? God doesn’t give us percentages or amounts. Giving is to be an act of grace. As you see needs arise—be it disaster relief after a hurricane, a family that is struggling with economic hardship, or your weekly offering, you’re created to help and to serve as you are able.

Given all this, what would keep you from giving? What would prevent you from doing what God has created you to do?

It might be fear, fear that if you give you may end up not having enough for yourself. If that is the case, remember to be sensible in what you give and what you keep, but also be careful that fear is not the master who dictates what you do, because fear is a terrible idol to have.

It might be selfishness. You have plans for some luxuries in life, and you’d rather spend your money on those. While luxuries are not intrinsically sinful, take care that selfishness is not defeating your God-given desire to give and to serve.

It might be a restless feeling that you need more than you have because you are not satisfied. But contentment springs not from having much, but from doing what God has given you to do with what He has given you.

So God has created you to work and to serve and to give. But with all those temptations out there and that sinful nature within, you’ll never work and serve and give as you ought. As you do your best to do these things, you will likely avoid much of the restless desperation that haunts those who live only for themselves, but your best efforts are still hardly enough to earn eternal life.

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, abound all the more in this act of grace—“the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You do not rejoice today simply in your own working and serving and giving. Those would never be enough to gain you favor with God. No, you rejoice today because of the Lord’s working and serving and giving. You rejoice today, because the Lord who created you to work and serve and give, redeemed you and is now at work recreating you in His own image through His means of grace. In Holy Baptism Jesus gives you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. In Holy Communion, Christ gives you His very own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and to strengthen you in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another.

So you rejoice this day. God created you to work and to serve and to give: therefore, your labors each day are what He has given you to do. Where sin sought to destroy those gifts and even rob you of life, Christ died to redeem you, to set you free from sin. Therefore, you are set free to work and to serve and to give. Therefore, your labors each day are holy, because they are sanctified by God.

But even more, you rejoice in this: while sin still taints your work and your service and your giving, this does not harm your salvation—because your salvation doesn’t depend on your work and your service and your giving. This is an act of grace. Salvation is yours on account of Jesus Christ, because He has worked and served and given and lived and died for you.

Therefore, in whatever you do, you rejoice this day to be God’s holy people, recreated to serve and give freely. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.