People often ask me where I get my links and stories I share in sermons or on Facebook. One of my sources is an app called Pocket. Pocket is a way for people to quickly store articles they read. Pocket then sees what interests people and then develops a feed of what people are reading. About a week after New Years Day a flood of articles was in the stream was time management, reaching your goals, fulfilling your dreams, etc.
Why do all of these articles appear around New Years?
The publishers of course already know what the demand is at what time of year so towards the end of the year they look for people to write these articles. Why does everyone, at something as arbitrary as a change in a number, suddenly start to take stock of their lives and make resolutions to improve their performance in life?
We live in a culture that has perfected the art of keeping us pre-occupied and distracted with a thousand things around us. We try to keep ourselves in a coma of distraction. It is when the calendar changes that large number at the end that we begin to pull out our dreams, our expectations and redouble our efforts to find ways to acheive what we imagine we are capable of or entitled to.
The focus then turns to management. How can we plan better, be more intentional, be more proactive, find the technique in our life to grab a hold of ourselves to achieve what we imagine is beautiful, or will fullfill or make us feel alive or look successful.
In Defense of Management
Before I go any further I should the attack on management I’m about to wage. Management is essentially stewardship. We all are given a limited amount of time, energy, resources, opportunities and we are responsible for what we do with them. Jesus has a number of parables that focus us on this and declare that in the end God will call upon us to give an account for what we have done with what we have been given.
One of the chief casualties of this coma of distraction is in fact our ability to be good stewards. We are too distracted by the daily to understand that we are frittering away important things. Our ability to estimate what is important and what is secondary is hampered by the tyranny of the urgent.
Because of this many of the articles exhorting us and helping us manage our lives better can in fact do us a world of good. the yearly tick of the calendar does us a favor.
Management in the Age of Decay
Having given management and stewardship their due I want us to pay attention to another casualty of the coma of distraction, the ultimate. Two weeks ago we heard from Qoheleth, the teacher of Ecclesiastes who was excellent in management and tested all of life “under the sun” and declared it all to be meaningless. God makes everything beautiful in its time but he also haunts us by placing eternity in our hearts. This eternity force us to realize that all that we build, no matter how excellent we manage, will be eaten by the age of decay in time. It all goes. This is the one incontrovertible fact that even every atheist must admit. The second law of thermodynamics robs the world of everything under the sun. The moral and immoral, the dilligent and the indolent, the brilliant and the dullard all amount in time, under the sun, to the same.
The Claims of Jesus
The coma of distraction combined with the pervasive skepticism of our age to keep us from asking questions of ultimate importance. As a Christian I believe the attention Jesus deserves in our lives suffers because of this. Jesus either gets trotted out as a remedy to some acute crisis or relegated to the shelf of famous people who might have made a helpful contribution to human culture. In either case, the main complaint of many who either reject or walk away from Christianity remains that this man who lived 2000 years ago is of no importance to my life lived in the moment. If he offered some sage advice or perspective that I might be able to employ fine, but beyond that he can be nothing better than a tool that I might find useful in the management of my own life. Even if we decide to award Jesus some special status he is separated from us by the door of death only to be scene through the keyhole of the written word undermined by the pervasive skepticism that what we see might be corrupted by two millenia of the telephone game.
Jesus as the Kind of Leader or Guru We Imagine
The baptism of Jesus has remained a tantalizing puzzle throughout the history of reading the Bible. Remember, the Bible is the grand-daddy of fan-dom. For thousands of years millions and millions of people have poured over its pages, reading, analyzing, debating, working through ever word. Near the beginning of each of the four gospels in the Bible Jesus comes to John the Baptist and asks to be baptized. Only in one Gospel does John ask the most obvious question that this famous baptism begs. “Why should Jesus be baptized?”
John the Baptist was out by the Jordan in the wilderness warning people about the imminent threat of the coming God and the wrath he would bring. People came out to John in fear and trembling hoping his baptism of repentence would offer them some protection against the intervention of this purifying God. The repentence was understood as a cleansing of old sins, the washing away of faults from one’s soul and sins from one’s balance sheet. Those who came to be washed by this great prophet would at least have a hope of standing in front of this God described as unquenchable fire.
When John sees Jesus coming to him asking to be baptized John does the natural thing of objecting. By any standard of human status Jesus stands above John and if someone needs to be washed it is John. Only in Matthew does this little interchange get recorded. We imagine Jesus’ response to John should settle the question but if the history of interpretation is any clue it hardly does. What does Jesus mean by “to fulfill all righteousness”?
We imagine that Jesus is a teacher and we his pupils, and that is true in its own right, but that is only one piece of the picture. Jesus is about to do something that means everything, not simply in terms of something we should follow, but something that is done for us.
Many of the possible understandings of Jesus’ explanation are possibly true at one. Jesus shows himself to be humble here. He is not above taking the low seat. He talks about this on many occasions and tells us that if we wish to be like him we must be the servant of all.
Baptism as Ordeal
Baptism itself has multiple meanings. One, as we noted above is the washing away of our sin. Another is a ceremonial ordeal, a trial by water.
We see these ordeals throughout the Bible and in history. The idea is that God or the gods judge us by fortunate or unfortunate outcomes. The book of Daniel has some of the most vivid ordeals in the Bible. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are tried by fire in the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel is tried in the lion’s den. In each case they are vindicated by a supernatural rescue from what in most accounts would be certain death.
One meaning of baptism is a ceremonial trial by water. Those who come out of the water are vindicated by God and declared to be righteous. In this sense Jesus’ baptism points to the cross, which will be trial by crucifixion from which he will emerge three days later form the tomb.
Unique Elements of Jesus’ Baptism
While only Matthew has John asking the most obvious question, all four Gospels have the unique elements of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus goes into the water, the clouds part, the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove, and God speaks his blessed ownership and approval of Jesus as his son.
As I mentioned before the Bible is the mother-of-all-fandoms. Bible nerds seeing this elements immediately notice that what is being hyperlinked here are some very foundational stories in the book of Genesis.
If you page back to the beginning of the Bible you’ll find the story of creation in Genesis 1 beginning with the great cosmic sea of chaos. The Spirit hovers above the waters like a bird and God speaks creation into being. In Genesis 8 the echo of the creation story in judgment has Noah sending the dove over the waters.
Now we have Jesus coming out of the water of judgment being declared as righteous, beloved, declared to have the greatest status. This one moment is a vision of creation, old and new. It draws together the moment of creation and points to the moment of future re-creation in the resurrection and the renewal of all creation.
An Answer Larger Than Your Puny Management
As I mentioned early our pre-occupation with management is both important and insufficient. The best managed life ends just like the squandered life. What we require so save not only our lives themselves but also anything won by any management is the renewal of creation including the redemption of our stories. I know no other person in all of human history who offers this.
Union with Christ who has conquered death
The Apostle Paul traveled around the ancient Roman empire starting churches. In the church he started in Thessalonica the believers there were troubled because their Christian friends were dying. They believed that Jesus had risen from the dead and but their friends were dying and they wondered what had become of them. Like most citizens of the Roman empire they had vague notions of life after death and some degree of judgment with reward or punishment. Hades, as the Greeks called it, was the abode of the dead. Good, wealthy or powerful people got better spaces, bad, poor or unfortunate people got worse. What did Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mean to those who, in Paul’s words, “have fallen asleep”?
Paul assures them that they are with the Lord. What did he mean? He meant just what the whole New Testament says, that we are united with Jesus by baptism into his death, and so we are united with him in his resurrection. We, like him in his resurrection, receive new bodies, bodies that will reign over our sister nature who will be remade as well. If you want to read some of Paul’s clearest writing on this read Romans 8.
Jesus redeems our decaying bodies with the decaying creation into a new creation. All of this is imaged in his baptism. The righteousness of God is finally fulfilled.
So where are you in the New Year? Do you hope that a new effort at management will somehow turn your life around in 2017? Will you, after a few weeks of trying be once again drowned in the coma of distraction within which we spend much of our time? What plan can you present to actually address the age of decay?
The Christian story is not that dilligent people get rewarded for their dilligence. It is that we are unable to save ourselves through our dilligence, but one has gone into the water and come out. He has gone into death and emerged, taking all those who follow him into the water with him.
CS Lewis drew this all together in this image of a diver in his essay “The Grand Miracle”
one has the picture of a diver, stripping off garment after garment, making himself naked, then flashing for a moment in the air, and then down through the green, and warm, and sunlit water into the pitch black, cold, freezing water, down into the mud and slime, then up again, his lungs almost bursting, back again to the green and warm and sunlit water, and then at last out into the sunshine, holding in his hand the dripping thing he went down to get. This thing is human nature; but, associated with it, all nature, the new universe. That indeed is a point I cannot go into tonight, because it would take a whole sermon—this connexion between human nature and nature in general. It sounds startling, but I believe it can be fully justified.
Now, as soon as you have thought of this, this pattern of the huge dive down to the bottom, into the depths of the universe and coming up again into the light, everyone will see at once how that is imitated and echoed by the principles of the natural world; the descent of the seed into the soil, and its rising again in the plants. There are also sorts of things in our own spiritual life where a thing has to be killed, and broken, in order that it may then become bright, and strong, and splendid. The analogy is obvious.
Lewis, C. S. (1994). God in the Dock. (W. Hooper, Ed.) (pp. 78–79). HarperOne.
The Christian Life today is living inbetween the baptismal and crucifixion trial of Jesus, his vindication and our own. The good management which he demands yet cannot save us is transformed into gifts of gratitude that we give back to him. Outwardly we waste away but inwardly we are being renewed day by day. The gifts and accomplishments that we produced are not lost but remembered by him to be perfected in the renewal of all things.
Lewis concludes his grand essay in this way.
That is why I think this Grand Miracle is the missing chapter in this novel, the chapter on which the whole plot turns; that is why I believe that God really has dived down into the bottom of creation, and has come up bringing the whole redeemed nature on His shoulder. The miracles that have already happened are, of course, as Scripture so often says, the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on. Christ has risen, and so we shall rise. St Peter for a few seconds walked on the water;9 and the day will come when there will be a re-made universe, infinitely obedient to the will of glorified and obedient men, when we can do all things, when we shall be those gods that we are described as being in Scripture. To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that. Two thousand years are only a day or two by this scale. A man really ought to say, ‘The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago’ in the same spirit in which he says, ‘I saw a crocus yesterday.’ Because we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring cames slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned. There is, of course, this difference, that in the natural spring the crocus cannot choose whether it will respond or not. We can. We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on into those ‘high mid-summer pomps’ in which our Leader, the Son of man, already dwells, and to which He is calling us. It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.
Lewis, C. S. (1994). God in the Dock. (W. Hooper, Ed.) (p. 85). HarperOne.