Abide In Him!
Useless! Solomon tells us that our labour is useless if the Lord does not work on our behalf. Three times in two verses, Solomon uses the word “vain” to describe a person’s labour when God is absent (Ps. 127:1, 2).
Useless! Jesus says that “Apart from (Him) we can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). And notice what Jesus does not say. Jesus does not say, ‘Apart from Me you can only accomplish so much’; He does not say, ‘Apart from Me your success will be limited’. No, Jesus declares, “Apart from Me you can do nothing”.
In what sense is that true? As I compare this text in the light of all of Scripture, I reckon that what Jesus is saying is that apart from Him we are incapable of pleasing God. Apart from Christ, we can accomplish no lasting thing.
I grant you that a person may become quite successful by worldly standards without ever enlisting the help of the Lord. This city alone, never mind the rest of the world for a minute, is filled with millionaires—and how many of them sought the Lord’s assistance at every turn? This city is filled with accomplished professionals; some of them world renowned for their abilities. Important competitions are won all the time, and significant milestones are reached, by individuals who never took a single moment to call upon the Lord for help.
There is a way to succeed without the help of the Lord, but the Bible continually warns us that this way leads to ruin. As Solomon has said, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12). Or as Jesus put it, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mt. 16:26).
So you see, there are at least two categories for success: Success that counts for this world only and success that counts for this world and the next. Framed in this manner, it should not take you more than a second to figure out which category of success is preferable. And so wanting our labour to count for, both, this world and the next, we should eagerly seek to understand how to accomplish this. For while we aspire to hear the words ‘well done’ by a colleague, a friend, or our spouse, what profit is that if our Lord regards our work as useless?
I believe I have told you the story of when I moved to Thornhill in the mid 1990’s, and how I was meticulously sorting all of my hockey cards. I think I told you about how, after sorting 50,000 hockey cards into different boxes, I carefully placed them on a set of shelves, which I had just built. When I was finally done sorting, and the boxes were finally on the shelf, I remember feeling a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Not only had I constructed a set of shelves on my own, but I had also successfully ordered my massive collection. Having completed this work, I retired to the living room to watch some TV. I had only been sitting for a few minutes when I heard a thunderous crash from the next room.
The weight of the hockey card boxes was too much for my newly installed shelves to bear. As a result, there were 50,000 hockey cards scattered all over the floor. Useless! The dozens of hours I invested in sorting my cards was in vain.
If you feel any sympathy for me as I recount that story, I suspect it is because you understand how frustrating it is for hard work to be done in vain. We want our work to count for something. We want our work to last.
Beloved, I fear that all of us have spent considerable time and energy on things that will not be regarded by our Lord in eternity. I suspect that, even now, many of us are neglecting to call upon the Lord—first, to help us prioritize what we should be doing and, second, to help us carry out the work entrusted to us.
We may win awards, there may be dinners in our honour, we may be financially rewarded for our work in this world, but if the Lord is not in our labour our reward will be limited to this life only.
The wise person doesn’t simply want his work to last for this life only. For our work to last for eternity, it is necessary for us to abide in the Lord, and to enlist His help.
Jesus instructs us in this regard using the image of a vine and its branches, saying, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).
To this point, we have only focused on the negative aspect of Jesus’ words—apart from Him we can do nothing that will last for eternity. But there is a positive aspect to His statement as well—if we do abide in Him we will bear much fruit. If we abide in Him we can accomplish something that will last forever.
The scope of what we can accomplish while abiding in Christ is beyond what I could ever hope to cover in this sermon. For this reason, I would like to narrow our application to our home, where we live, and to God’s house, where we worship. I wonder which Solomon had in mind when he wrote, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they who build it labour in vain”. It is possible he was thinking of both.
As we think about what is most precious to us, I hope we agree that our relationship with Christ, and our relationship with our family are of paramount importance. I hope that we do not unduly elevate the importance of our career, our status within society, or our wealth.
I can tell you that in all the times that I have sat with a dying person, not once have I heard anyone say, ‘Pastor, I wish I would have spent more time at work. I wish I had spent more time working on my professional reputation.’ I have never heard anyone say, ‘I wish I had more money in the bank.’ What I have heard instead is regret about time not spent in worship and the service of our Lord. What I have heard instead is regret about time not spent with family.
So, what are we to do? If abiding in Christ is the key to pleasing God in the context of family, and in worship, how do we do this?
We do this, first of all, through prayer. What do you normally do when you need help from someone? You ask them. You tell the person what you need, and you explain why it is that you are incapable of successfully completing the task without their assistance.
This is what you must do with Christ. In prayer, we confess our inadequacies as a father or mother, we confess our shortcomings as a parent, and we declare our inability to properly worship and serve God apart from Christ.
We are to pray for Divine assistance out of a genuine sense of need. And when we do this, what does the Lord promise? He promises this from Psalm 50:15, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble (and) I shall rescue you, and you will honour Me.”
Thankfully, the Lord, in His mercy, often helps us in spite of our neglect in calling upon Him. Yet, if we aspire to constantly abide in Christ, if we desire unbroken fellowship with Him, this cannot be accomplished apart from praying out of a genuine sense of need.
The second thing we must do, if we are to abide in Christ, is we must drop those things we are clinging to. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other” (Mt. 6:24).
What does this mean? Is Jesus saying, ‘Never mind your family; serve Me instead’? Is Jesus saying, ‘Forget about your career and professional obligations and serve Me’? No. He is simply saying that we can only have one Master. A bit further on in the same passage, Jesus commands us, “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt. 6:33).
In other words, don’t seek to do ten things at the same time. Don’t seek to please multiple masters. You cannot abide in Christ while you are clinging to the things of this world. No one can serve two masters.
I think of this often as I watch Anya trying to manage her priorities. She has a favourite bear that she drags around everywhere she goes. Allie and I had to purchase identical models of the same bear because the original was becoming quite worn. Now, it is not uncommon for Anya to carry two bears, one in each hand. This is fine until we hand her a bottle of milk. Not wanting to relinquish either bear, Anya finds it impossible to grip her milk bottle and drink. In fact, her dexterity is such that for Anya to grip this large milk container she needs to drop both of her bears—she needs empty hands.
Beloved, this is how we are to approach Christ. We cannot abide in Him if our arms are full. We cannot abide in Him if we have given our priorities elsewhere.
The apostle Paul says that there will come a day when all of our works will be tested by “fire” (1Cor. 3:12-15). That is, everything we have done will either be refined by the fire, or consumed by the fire—depending on the quality of our work. And, the quality of our work will depend on whether or not it has been built upon the foundation of Christ; it will depend on whether or not Christ has co-laboured with us in the work.
Useless! I don’t want to hear those words from my Lord, and I’m guessing you don’t want to either.
Seek first the Lord in everything—pray to Him, that Christ may co-labour with you in all things. And when you call upon Him, call upon Him with empty hands—give over to Him those things you are clinging to. Let Christ become that which you cherish most. For, when that happens, nothing you do will be done in vain. Amen.