Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 3, 2019
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
The Lord said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a youth'; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord."
Jeremiah 1:7, 8 (ESV)
Sociologists tell us that there two different types of churches: There are, first of all, what they call "high-demand" churches. These are churches in which it is expected that all of the members will be at worship and at other church-related events at least three times during the week and will contribute to the church at least one-tenth of their income (before taxes). In addition to this, it is expected that all of the members of these “high-demand” churches will serve their church with such commitment that the question is not whether or not they will serve but rather in what specific capacity they will serve. The other type of church is the "volunteer" church, in which there are really no expectations at all. The members of these churches attend worship whenever they don't have something better to do, they contribute whatever they feel they can spare (after they’ve gotten everything that they want for themselves), and they serve (albeit grudgingly) only when they run out of excuses not to. It should come as no great surprise to any of us that the overwhelming majority of the congregations within our fellowship fall into the latter category. Please bear in mind that these two types of churches are descriptive and not prescriptive. They are not so much a vision of how things ought to be as they are an honest assessment of how things really are.
The avoidance of participation in God's work on the part of God's people is nothing new. We're all familiar with the Biblical examples of various people of God doing just that: Moses begging the Lord to kill him rather than have him continue to minister to the stubborn Israelites; Jonah responding to the Lord's call to preach to the Ninevites by running in the opposite direction; the disciples of Jesus going into hiding while their Lord was being tried and executed. In this morning's Old Testament Reading we hear about the call of Jeremiah who, at the time of his call, was probably a teenager. Far from jumping at the chance to serve the Lord, Jeremiah modestly points out that this must be some kind of mistake, since he is only a youth--no match, to be sure, for complacent, set-in-their-ways veterans of indifference. As we look at Jeremiah's experience this morning, let’s also look at ourselves as we bear in mind that the Lord calls His people to action and that the Lord Himself makes that action happen.
You have to admit that the people who the Lord calls to be His people carrying out His work are, more often than not, the kind of people that you and I would be least likely to choose. Take a look at Adam and Eve, for example: Right after they rebelled against God and corrupted His perfect creation, the Lord promised that One of their descendants would redeem humanity from the sin that they had introduced. What about Abraham?: The Lord chose him, even though he was born to and raised in a pagan family, to be the father of His chosen nation, and the Lord carried out His plan even after Abraham doubted the Lord's promise of descendants and took matters into his own hands by having an illegitimate son by his wife's maid. Consider Moses: He had gone into hiding after murdering an Egyptian when the Lord called him to lead the children of Israel out of slavery and into the land of promise. And, last but most certainly not least, when God became Man in Jesus Christ He chose to be born in poverty under circumstances that most people considered to be scandalous and, if all of that wasn't bad enough, His greatest accomplishment was manifested in a painful and humiliating death as a common criminal.
The Lord calls and uses people to carry out His work in the world in spite of their inadequacies. He also calls and uses people in spite of their fears. And don't kid yourself--there are a lot of very real fears associated with representing the Lord in word and deed. The person who speaks for God had better make sure that what he is saying is truly the Word of the Lord and not just his own opinions. The person who responds to various situations of human need had better make sure that he is properly applying the Law and the Gospel as each is needed. The person who takes a leadership position in the congregation had better make sure that his leading is where the Lord wants him to lead. Nobody ever said that it would be easy. Unlike us, the Lord doesn't call people to work in His Church by misleading them into thinking that "there's nothing to it." The truth is that there’s a lot to it. The work of the Lord in this world is very difficult work--even frightening. But be that as it may, He calls people like you and me to do it.
The Lord who calls us to serve Him by serving others also gives us the motivation and the gifts that we need to live up to that calling. The Gospel of Christ is a life-giving message given to us to share with the whole world, and in that Gospel the Holy Spirit supplies us with all of the motivation and strength that we need to share it. No, we don't share the Gospel with others because it is our obligation and duty to do so (although it is). And we don't share the Gospel because the Church needs more members (although it does). We share the Gospel of Christ with others for no other reason than that we who have been made alive in Christ know what it means to have the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of everlasting life and we are moved by a love for the lost to be a part of making these blessings a reality to all for whom the Savior died.
Like Jeremiah, our first inclination when we are called to serve is to beg off (being fearful of our inadequacies), but we have no reason to be intimidated or frightened about being a part of the Gospel ministry because the God who has called us to this task has Himself made up for our inadequacies and calmed our fears in the life and ministry of His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus was adequate for us by living the perfect life for us and by suffering and dying on the cross in our place to take away our sin. What He has done perfectly redeems our imperfection so that no matter how inadequate we might be, we can still glorify God and serve others with boldness and joy, knowing that the perfect and completed work of our Savior is the power behind our imperfect and inadequate efforts, making them acceptable to God and useful to the Holy Spirit as He builds up Christ’s kingdom of grace in the world.
Like Jeremiah, we can participate in the work of the Lord in spite of our imperfections and in spite of all of the resistance that we are bound to meet in the world, and the reason why we can is that in the end it is not really we who do it but God. Because we do what we do in His name, at His command, in accordance with His will, and relying on His strength, we know that the Lord will bless our efforts. Even if we don’t always see visible or immediate results, we have His promise that His Holy Spirit always accompanies the Gospel Word that we share and carries out the will of the Father in that Gospel Word. And so, armed with His strength, we go forward boldly, knowing that He is with us, since He Himself has assured us: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
May the God who caused light to shine out of darkness cause you to increase and abound in love toward one another and toward all people, as His love abounds for us; and may the glory of His Son be manifested to you and in you, that you may be witnesses to all nations now and until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.