If you were the Son of God—with thirty-three years to save the world—how would you invest your time? What would you prioritise, as a neoLeader?
If it were me, I’d kick off with some spectacular show to draw attention, and then stick it to the guys in power to reclaim my kingdom. No dilly dallying, right? Out with the mundane, and in with the miraculous. Or maybe this: find the biggest church gathering, preach to the choir, and build a movement of loyal supporters to beat the same drum. Strategy 101, right? If the ‘good news’ is simply that the Saviour paid for our sins on the cross, then I’d want to head straight to Jerusalem for the showdown, disciples in tow, not get holed up in some sweat shop for half my life.
And this is precisely why Jesus’ life is an enigma. His path meandered.
A few years back I chatted with a leader of a missions organization about ‘evangelism Jesus-style.’ He was clearly confused. ‘How could Jesus evangelise when the gospel is Christ crucified for our sins? What would he say? “Hey folks, in a few years’ time I’ll die on your behalf and then rise again, so trust in me now—I will save you.”’ I asked what sense he made of Jesus’ formative years, if the cross was all that mattered. His reply: ‘Interesting point! Why did Jesus waste all that time? I mean, he could have just come as an adult, taught us the basics, paid for our sins, and then left the church in his place.’
If the parts don’t fit, then maybe we’ve shrunk the gospel.
Granted, Jesus’ life began with a miracle of incarnation—God takes on flesh. But as C. S. Lewis noted, this miraculous spermatozoon was absorbed by nature, in an otherwise uneventful nine-month pregnancy. Most of Jesus’ life was mundane—earthy, this-worldly. Being in very nature God, Jesus was simultaneously fully human. He learned to walk and talk, he was toilet trained, schooled, socialised, and even put to work.
Admittedly, the Biblical accounts don’t dwell on the details. While the synoptics do mention the birth narratives, they essentially jump from Jesus debating in the temple at age twelve, to the public launch of his ministry hot on cousin John’s heels in the desert. Luke 2:52 indicates that Jesus grew ‘in wisdom and stature, favour with God and favour with people.’ But what does this mean? In Matthew 13:55, after an authoritative sermon, Jesus’ Galilean peers try to undermine his reputation: ‘Is this not the carpenter’s son?’ We gather from a related passage in Mark 6:3 that Joseph’s legacy lived on: ‘“Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon?” So they were offended at him.’ Now, technically, ‘carpenter’ doesn’t cut it. In Greek, the word is tekton, which in the broadest sense means ‘a builder of structures.’ (Think Master Builders Australia.) Joseph and Jesus could have been designers, construction engineers, or even architects.
This all sounds pretty hum-drum, right? (For my liturgical friends, I guess that’s why ‘ordinary time’ makes up the bulk of the church calendar—nothing noteworthy, just going through the rhythms and motions of life.) Jesus’ daily grind is so understated that apocryphal gospels two centuries later tried to fill in the gaps. We read of Joseph commissioned to make a throne, but his mis-measurement lands him in trouble. Jesus comes to the rescue, miraculously modifying the dimensions, so that both get the kudos for a job well done. We rightly reject such spurious stories.
And yet, it’s all too common in Christian circles today to motivate the masses of up-and-coming leaders with big stories of radical and near instantaneous transformation, spectacular encounters, mostly centred on church-based leaders, pastors and public evangelists. This sounds a world away from the cut-and-thrust of the modern marketplace, and the steady and unspectacular job of serving alongside our non-Christian peers where the church has little to no authority.
In this context, I can’t help but wonder if we, too, are offended by the ordinary-ness of Jesus’ life.
Can we walk and work with Jesus without getting bored?
While the Biblical accounts don’t trace the contours of Jesus’ working life, our theology must. For Jesus, apprenticeship and working with his hands wasn’t a pointless aside while he waited for the right time to save the world. If you follow one of the church’s greatest early theologians, Irenaeus, Jesus’ work was itself part of redemption. I’m talking about recapitulation. Jesus didn’t just reverse the sins of Adam on the cross. Yes, this was the climax of redemption. But God set things right through Jesus by summing up all of human life in himself. By faithful living in all of life’s stages and callings—as an infant, child, teen, worker, and adult—he sanctifies it with his divinity. It’s an echo of God’s “very good” announced over creation right at the beginning of the story.
Creation. Fall. Redemption. As we explore at Malyon in my course on “Vocational Stewardship”, work is not a distraction. It’s arguably the most important frontline on which young adults can practice leadership, represent Jesus everyday and seek the flourishing of our city through whole-life discipleship. If I were to speak of “workplace witness,” most of us would think of ethical practices and inserting Jesus in every conversation. But what if workplace witness is about living and sharing the reign of God through all of our activities? (For great examples, watch some of the Transforming Work stories here, courtesy of Malyon’s Workplace Centre)
Remember the Big Story? God created us to tend and care for His garden planet, to cultivate it out of love for God, others, and all creation. But we fell. We turned inward and worked for our own gain irrespective of others. The result? Curse. All we do—whether procreating, playing, or cultivating—is damaged by sin. It’s hard work being productive when the ground is infested with thorns and thistles. But Christ has redeemed us. We are a new creation in him. In turning from our agenda to God’s, we are filled with his creative Spirit. We are empowered to work for good in a mixed field, to restrain sin, and promote shalom. We can partner with God toward the flourishing of all life. And we labour in hope that one day God will resurrect all our efforts for his glory, and plant us afresh in a garden-city where we can meaningfully engage, for love of God, neighbour, and the whole cosmos.
Can you see the radical implications of this story for how we frame leadership today? Dualism is out. There is no separating and privileging spiritual (good) over material (bad), supernatural over natural, church gathered over church scattered, or miraculous Sundays over mundane Mondays.
Whatever we do toward flourishing—by better loving God, loving others, and cultivating the world—is for His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). Prayer, play, producing: it’s all for God. Remember that implicit spiritual hierarchy: missionary is best, then pastor if you stay at home; traveling down the rungs, it’s noble to volunteer in church, or be a doctor or teacher; if you must, serve with your hands in a trade; but don’t pursue those spiritually worthless careers centred around (dirty) money, power, and pleasure, like banking, law, and the arts. In God’s holistic economy, we need to flip this ladder on its side. Every one of these professions has a creative purpose in the world. Every profession (including Pastoring!) is tainted by sin. And every profession can be redeemed in the power of the Spirit.
Let me cut to the chase. It’s noble and necessary for you to serve in the church, for the building up of the body of Christ. (Think worship band, Sunday School, and growth groups.) And it’s vital that this built-up-body corporately carries this blessing into the world. (Think structured outreaches, Alpha, and practical neighbourhood help.) But all of this happens in your sparetime. What would it look like if your frontline vocation, the bulk of your hours, were intentionally geared for the glory of God? If your leadership development attended as much to the marketplace as making disciples through Friday night’s youth ministry? … As a business executive, plumber, student, check-out-chick, sales agent, nurse, news reader, video editor, accountant, mum, teacher, what does it mean to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness-justice? How might you live and share the Big Story of creation, fall, and redemption, through your ‘work’?
What you do in your everyday vocation matters. It’s a spiritual act of worship. Like Jesus and Joseph sweating it up in the workshop, your ordinary actions and mundane motions in a very real sense participate with God in saving the world. But this isn’t necessarily so. It will take thoughtful reflection, prayer, and some intentional modifying of what you do to more effectively restrain sin and promote shalom for the glory of God and the flourishing of life on this planet.
So, how do how ordinary people seek first God’s kingdom through their vocation. Ask yourself this:
In my vocation, how can I be a sign of God’s Kingdom, pointing people to Jesus in word and deed?
How can I partner with the Spirit in the nature of the work (daily tasks), the context of the work (work environment and relationships), the product of the work (goods and services), and the reward from the work (whether financial, relational, or environmental)?
This week, may you meander with Jesus. As you engage the mundane tasks of your vocation—swiping a bar code, entering data, hitting the books, sweeping the floors—may you practice the presence of God, and lead by carrying the church into the marketplace. See the Saviour of the world by your side, hammering in nails. And know that this, too, is very good.
By David Benson