Sunday, January 9, 2011
Over the next nine weeks, between now and the beginning of Lent, we are going to be looking at nine “calls” of the Christian. These are nine things which it is God’s desire to build into every person who trusts Christ as Savior and comes to call him Lord. These things are not optional. They are things that God places before a believer as gauntlets thrown down to see if he or she will pick them up. Without these things in your life, you will be incomplete, your growth in Christ stunted. Without these things in your life, you will be unable to do the will of God, except accidentally. Without these things in your life, you will be unable to call Jesus Lord and mean it.
First we have to define what a call is. And this is a great place to start an interim ministry together. Even though we have been worshipping together since mid-November, today is the beginning of something new in the life of this church and in my life. Whether we are together for a single season or for a year of seasons, you have commissioned me to help you discern what the will of God is for the future ministry of Immanuel Community Church and to do it through the ministry of preaching and teaching, and through the ministry of being a mentor to you and to your leaders; asking hard questions and listening to your hearts, taking the pulse of your energies in ministry like a good doctor would listen to the heart of a patient.
Contrary to the language Christians usually use to discuss ministry, for our purposes over the next nine weeks, we are going to define an individual Christian entering into a specific ministry opportunity as a commission rather than a call. The term is more precise and less emotional. I have received a specific commission from God to enter into ministry here as your Interim Pastor, and you have received a specific commission from God, as long as you call Immanuel Community your church, to be a church together. You may have a great deal of energy for work among the poor, or for prison ministry, or for teaching. You may sense that God is leading you to work with teenagers, as Jama and I did for twenty-five years, or you may believe God wants you to preach in a nursing home or sit by the bedsides of hospice patients.
All of these things we are going to term commissions because they are marching orders placed before a believer for a specific time in order to accomplish a specific task. Your salvation doesn’t depend on whether you accept a particular commission, and you are no more or less righteous because you are doing these things. While God will use a commission to draw you closer to him and to accomplish his purposes in the world, properly speaking, a commission is not a call.
A call, as we are going to define it over the next nine weeks is those things that are normative in the lives of all believers who claim that Jesus is Lord. The calls of the Christian life are just as essential to the spiritual health of the believer as eating the right things from the food pyramid are to the physical health of a person. Can you make it through life eating nothing but sugars and carbohydrates? Sure. But science will tell you you’ll be tired a lot of the time if you do. You need a balanced diet and regular exercise throughout your life to really flourish. God places these calls before every Christian over and over again. If you will make them the building blocks of your faith, whether Immanuel Community Church goes on in ministry for another hundred years or decides to pack it in sometime in 2012, you will be prepared and equipped to flourish as a disciple and ready to accept the next commission with grace.
When Jesus said in Matthew 22:14, “Many are called, but few are chosen,” he was not talking about specific ministries people might engage in. He was talking about spiritual life-and-death. He had just told a parable in which a man shows up at a wedding feast without the proper garment on. The king, who threw the party, had been snubbed by the invited guests, and so the king had sent his servants out to call in the people out on the main roads. In those days that was like saying, “Go out and find the riff-raff of society and invite them to come to my fancy dinner party.” As I said, one such man shows up without a wedding garment. The king’s instruction to his servants upon seeing this is, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ And then Jesus says, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
That’s pretty strong imagery to use. But before you dismiss it as unfair or unrealistic, remember that the man who said it fully believed that your eternal condition depended entirely on his own actions in embracing these calls with all his heart. In the end, his having done these things fully cost him his life.
One more word about the Call of the Christian vs. the Commissions of the Christian. I’ve been talking until now about nine calls that we’re going to look at over the next nine weeks. They are not an exhaustive list, and I’m not even going to give them all to you right now. You wouldn’t remember them anyway, and it’ll be an incentive for you to show up next week to see what the next chapter is. But in reality, the Christian only has ONE call: Jesus. Each of the things we’re going to be talking about over the next nine weeks is something foundational to Christ’s character. So really we’re not talking about calls (plural). We’re talking about CALL (singular), just as when Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians. He mentions nine things, but they are inseparable. They are the one fruit of having the Spirit guide your life.
So we’re really going to spend nine weeks looking at the same diamond and slowly turning it to see the various facets of what it means to be united with Christ.
Now that we understand the language we’re going to be using, let’s look at the Call of the Christian. These nine facets of the Call are not in any particular order. We are presenting them the way the Lectionary presented them to us. Throughout the world today believers are hearing the words of Isaiah 42:1-9 as they gather together. The charge of this call is being heard in Africa today. The charge of this call is being heard in Korea and in Thailand today. The charge of this call is being heard in Melbourne and Sydney, in London and Oslo, in Seattle and in Orlando today. We are Called Together.
The Call of Christ goes out to all who come to believe. It does not go out simultaneously to all and all will not hear it in such a way that they are able to receive it at the same time. But through the Scriptures, through the effective teaching of the Word of God, the Call of God comes to all. That is why, when you step into a setting where God is commissioning people to act together for his Kingdom, whether it is a church or a para-church ministry, you are able to recognize, and you are drawn to the Call of God operating in the lives of the believers around you. And when you step into a setting where a group of disciples are, you really don’t even need to set the ground-rules. You won’t be there to quibble about baptism or the End Times or matters of church government, because the Call Together is what Paul says it is in Philippians 2, “if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.”
This first facet of The Call of the Christian, then, is the Call to Justice.
It is framed here in Isaiah 42 as a play with two characters: the Servant, and the Lord. Most people reading Isaiah 42 will try to get themselves off the hook of discipleship by saying that this is a Messianic prophecy that has to do with Jesus only. But that isn’t what it says. It says,
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
The text isn’t singling out any ONE servant. It is giving us an example. This is the common call of all servants of God. This is not a riddle that God wants us to solve. He is simply stating something that is true of servants of God. And what he says is true of his Servant comes in three clauses. Notice I didn’t say it is three things. The Call to Justice, it turns out, is one thing. “He will bring forth justice,” in verse 1. In verse 3, “He will faithfully bring forth justice.” And in verse 5, “until he has established justice.”
In Micah 6, God puts it this way, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
In the first clause here in Isaiah 42, God tells us why his Servant brings forth justice. It is because God’s soul delights in justice and because God’s spirit brings forth justice. And so it simply follows that a person who calls himself the Servant of the Lord will do those things that delight his master. And God is clear about one other thing. Our Call Together is not just to act justly within the church or to love mercy among the redeemed. “He will bring forth justice to the nations.” We are called, individually and collectively, to be an example of the character of God before the world.
The second clause tells us how God’s Servant brings forth justice. There must be at least a few of you who have been sitting there with visions of us going down to the State House with placards or all of us running for political office or something like that. But the Gospel always works backward from the way you’d expect. And so, if you want to bring forth justice in a global way, the most effective way to do it is to exercise justice in the most local way. Christian disciples must never seek positions of power in the world, though they may occasionally find themselves commissioned to positions of some visibility. Our Call Together is quiet:
“He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;”
Our Call Together is gentle
“a bruised reed he will not break,”
Our Call Together is encouraging
“a faintly burning wick he will not quench;”
That is how the Servant of God brings forth justice.
Finally, we learn where the Servant of God brings forth justice.
“He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.”
The Servant of God is Called to bring forth justice all the time (“he will not grow faint or be discouraged”), and everywhere. When it says that the coastlands wait for his law, it means that as long as the Servant of God is on dry land, this is his mission.
Do you see why there is no escaping this? And do you see why, from the minute Constantine made Christianity the state religion of his empire in 314 AD and the church began to seek temporal power as a way of bringing about spiritual power we were already defeated? Do you see why, as long as this Call is something we merely give mental room to; as long as this Call is theoretical in the life of the average believer and is left to some special class of more well-connected men and women; as long as it is not something we ALL are actively engaged in doing, the church will remain weak and ineffective?
That’s all we have time to say right now about The Servant.
The other player in this drama, of course, is God. And above all else, we who call ourselves Servants of God must understand and know who our Lord is.
First, he is the Author whose soul creates and whose spirit gives breath:
“Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:”
Next, he is the Actor who does.
“I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
And notice that his action is not directly upon the world here. He is acting upon his Servant. “I have called YOU in righteousness. I will take YOU by the hand and keep YOU; I will give YOU as a covenant for the people.” And his action is the same as how the Servant brings forth justice. He just does it in the background. He calls us quietly in righteousness through his Word, takes us gently by the hand and keeps us, and encourages the light that we bring into the world like a someone does encouraging a tiny flame into a grand fire in a fireplace. The image of bringing light for the nations, opening blind eyes, and bringing people out of dark bondage is unmistakable. This is YOUR Call, Servant of God.
Finally, there is something God wants us to know that will Anchor us. This is what will ensure that we won’t veer off and miss what he is saying to us. And here at the beginning of an Interim ministry this is exactly the watchword we need. This is our common commission for the next several months, and if we will do this faithfully and deliberately, it will help each of us safeguard our Call Together.
If you remember nothing else we talked about this morning, remember this. God wants you and he wants me first to acknowledge his authority as Lord of our life:
“I am the LORD; that is my name,” he says, “my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” As long as we are together, know this: Jesus Christ is Lord of Immanuel Community Church, and what he says goes. Period. If you forget that along the way, you can expect me to remind you. And if I forget that along the way, I expect you to remind me.
Within the framework of Jesus actively being Lord over this church, he wants us to review where we’ve been and learn from it. He says, “Behold, the former things have come to pass.” He’s not saying history doesn’t matter. He’s telling us to look at the history and rejoice in the things God has done with here, but to realize that it IS history, a story that he has written to this point. He wants us to review that history carefully, and to listen as he speaks to us now. “New things I now declare,” he says. And finally, he wants us to wait expectantly for the new thing he is going to do with his Servants. “Before they spring forth,” he says, “I tell you of them.” That is the simple plan God has for our Interim together: Look. Listen. Wait.
Servant of God, if you are listening this morning, take up Call Together, that justice may spring forth in every place you go. And enter into the common commission that God is laying before us today: to look at our past, listen to God speak to us in the present, and wait for his future plan for this church.