Not long ago a man in my congregation gave me a copy of a small, self-published little book on the significance of business in God’s world. The sub-title was pure gold: Did Jesus Waste Most of His Life? These words have been pinging around in my imagination and refuse to stop. Just think: when God the Son decided to become fully human and knew his life would be cut very short at that, he still chose to spend over 90% of his life outside of traditional ministry. Amidst all the cussedness and anguish of life in a fallen world, why would the God-man spend 30 of his 33 precious few years doing “ordinary” life and work?
Since Adam, the world had been waiting for the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). Since Noah, the world had been waiting for the one who will “comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the LORD has cursed” (Gen. 5:29). Since Abraham, the world had been waiting for the descendant through whom “all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). Since Moses, the world had been waiting for him who was “full of grace and truth,” of which the Law was only a shadow (Jn. 1:14,17). And since David, the world has been waiting for the great Prince of Peace, “of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end” (Isa. 9:7).
In the words of the famous Christmas carol, “long lay the world, in sin and error pining”, repeated natural disasters, human injustices and global turmoil only underscore the point. C.S. Lewis speaks with wisdom when he observed about World War 2, “The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself…. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil…turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies” (“Learning in Wartime”).
So here’s the thing to ponder: when Jesus finally does come to a world that’s never been normal, what does he do? He spends the first 10/11 of his life growing up and working as an “ordinary tradesman.” If we take the incarnation seriously, Jesus was fully God and fully infant; fully God and fully middle-schooler; fully God and fully carpenter; fully God and everything in between.
On Christmas Eve of 2008, a few months after the global financial meltdown, our church pondered the seemingly absurd idea of God giving the world a baby. I live in southeast Michigan. America’s auto industry was on its knees begging for help. And what is God’s cosmic “bailout” plan? A baby. As Herod slaughters the innocents, Mary and Joseph are reading Go, Dog. Go! to Jesus and playing toddler games in an Egyptian refugee camp. As millions were oppressed under Roman rule, the King of Kings was growing in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and men, at the speed of life (not light). While Israel languished under corrupt Temple leadership, the Great High Priest was learning to plane the wood. In short, in a world full of natural disasters, evil, violence and death, did Jesus waste the vast majority of his short life?
Asked this way, the question puts us in the position of demanding that our Sovereign defend himself according to our assumptions and values. But lets turn the question around and let Jesus challenge us: if our King thought it not a waste of his precious few years to grow up as we do and learn to work as we do, what does that suggest about the redemptive significance of “ordinary” humanness and “ordinary” calling? If, as the Gospel of John argues, Jesus’ entire life was fueled by His sense ofsentness by His Father, and his first 30 years were sent into “ordinary” human vocation, what does that suggest about the importance of ordinary vocations in God’s redemptive plan for the world?
In 2009 my congregation studied the Scriptures under the conviction that “to become more godly is to become more fully human.” By growing up as we do, Jesus sanctified and redeemed our growing up. By working as a carpenter, Jesus sanctified and redeemed our ordinary work. He created us to rule and subdue the earth and placed the first Adam in the garden to keep and guard it. Isn’t it interesting that in his first post-resurrection appearance, Jesus, the last Adam, is mistaken for a gardener? Now that He’s been raised to incorruptibility, maybe, just maybe, Jesus is preparing to get a little dirt under his fingernails as he leads us toward ruling and subduing the New Heaven and New Earth.
As C.R. Baugh, John Gilman, and Kent Hotaling argue in Our Work Loves Our Neighbor: Did Jesus Waste Most of His Life? (the source of my “stolen” question), “We believe that in his Garden Commission, God did say: ‘go into the world and make good shoes.’… Part of the whole gospel of God’s love for the world is meeting people’s need for good shoes and good food.” Yes, and by implication, meeting people’s need for a whole lot of other good things as well. I suspect that such loving industry will be our work in the new creation as well.
I was told by one of my pastoral mentors that it is sin which keeps us ministers in business. If true, then I suspect that it’ll only be the ministers and missionaries whose vocations won’t exist in the New Heaven and New Earth. It might just behoove me, then, to learn from my wife how to use the power drill she so ably wields these days.
Chuck Jacob is Senior Pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.