Sunday, September 27, 2009

Worthy of His Calling

Texts: Malachi 3:13 - 4:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12

WHY SHOULD ANYONE WANT TO become a Christian? If you or I were talking to an unbeliever, someone we knew and cared about-- and the subject of church came up and that person should ask, "Why should I become a Christian? What’s in it for me?" how should we respond?

Maybe we could tell him about the fellowship and good times he could find as a member of a Christian church like 1st Presbyterian.
Maybe we could point to all the good works Christians do for other people and say how good she’d feel to be part of that.

Or, we could tell him that believing in Jesus will make him more fulfilled as a human being, that Jesus will give him a sense of purpose and higher goals for living. We could tell her that once Jesus is in her life, she’ll have new and wonderful ways to make her marriage better and help her raise obedient, well-adjusted children.

Or how’s this? We could even tell him (though really, we shouldn't) that faith in Jesus Christ will make him happier, more comfortable, and more prosperous in this world; and, if he cares about such things, it’ll also guarantee him happiness and security in the world to come. We could say that when you’re a Christian, Jesus solves all your problems, that once you have true faith, you won’t have to struggle with anything anymore. I mean, there are popular preachers out there who say that, and look how many people they have in their pews!

We could say all these things to an interested unbeliever. And some of them (some of them!) are true to an extent. But none of them get to the heart of what God has in store for us when we confess our faith in the Savior, Jesus Christ. If we wanted to be truly honest with our unbelieving friend or neighbor or family member, maybe we should quote to him the words of the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "When Jesus calls a man, He bids him come and die."

Ouch. That’s not a church marketing pitch designed to win a lot of customers, is it? And maybe, yes, that’s not what we’d want to lead with. But if we said that, it would be true, and once our unbelieving friend or you or I or anyone else understands the depths of that truth, we’ll see that it’s the most comforting, fulfilling offer we could ever be made. The call to become a disciple of Jesus Christ is God’s call for us to identify with and participate in the sufferings of His crucified Son. Christianity is all about the cross. Our very baptism depicts us being immersed in the death of the wounded Messiah. But that’s really good news! Because only by dying to ourselves, our wants, our needs, our sense of who we are and what we can do and what we should be, can we be raised with Christ to the new life of joy and fulfilment and meaning God has planned for us. Only by humbling ourselves and wanting and worshipping God for who He is-- adoring our Triune Lord in all the glorious splendor of His holiness because He eternally deserves it--can we find glory and meaning in this life on earth and beyond that, in our life face to face with Him in heaven.

Which is why St. Paul, in our reading from 2 Thessalonians, reminds us that our relationship with Him through His Son Jesus Christ is a calling. From our human point of view, we church members may think we analyzed the pros and cons of buying into this Christianity deal and said Yes because it made sense or seemed like a good way to live. But you and I could never even consider, never even imagine, never even desire belonging to Jesus Christ if God Himself from all eternity had not elected to bring us into fellowship with Him through the shed blood of His only-begotten Son. How could we? Like everyone else, we were lost in trespasses and sins. We were rebels against Him and His righteous will. We didn’t want God. Maybe we wanted some things we could get out of Him, but we didn’t desire God for Himself! And because of our idolatry and sin we deserved God’s wrath just as much as the most vicious serial killer or genocidal tyrant.

Now frankly, when I turn that around and preach it at myself, I want to say, "Hey, wait a minute. I’m not that bad! Actually, I’m a pretty nice person! And so are most of the people I know, even the unbelievers!" But that very thought alerts me to yet another area in my life where Jesus bids me come and die. I may think I know what’s what in this world and how things really are. But God in Christ calls me-- and you-- to give that up and see things His way instead. He calls us to accept the utter wickedness of sin-- any sin-- and the utter burning holy righteousness of God. At the very least, He calls us to submit to what He says about us and our helpless condition and have faith that His will and wisdom are always best, whether we understand it now or not.

But there is another sense in which our calling as Christians is a call to suffering and death. We see it in 2 Thessalonians 1:4 and 5. Paul says, "Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering." When we live openly and honestly as Christians in this fallen world, we will suffer persecution. It may be mild, it may be severe, but it goes with our calling. When God in His sovereign power claims us for His own, He makes us new creatures through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We no longer are the same kind of human beings we were when we were born in sin into this world. No, through Christ we are now children of God, sons and daughters of the Lord and Creator of the universe. It’s natural that those who are still in rebellion against Him will hate and despise and persecute us as well.

Here in America, that persecution hasn’t been the open sort of trouble that came upon the Christians in Thessalonika. Or that comes even now to our brothers and sisters in places like India and Somalia and Viet Nam. But if we are Christians called by God, if we are worthy of the calling laid upon us, there will be times when we certainly will encounter trouble, misunderstanding, opposition, and even outright persecution because we are who we are. In those times the first thing that has to die is our dream of fitting in with everyone else. "Can’t we all just get along?" is not necessarily a Christian principle! Yes, be at peace with everyone, inasmuch as it lies with you, as our brother the Apostle Peter wrote. But far above that, let us strive to be at peace with God our Father, who has made us His own. Being a Christian means desiring His pleasure, His promises, His rewards above everything this world can give, even when we see none of that coming true in the present time.

I wonder if our frequent failure to grow as Christians and as churches has a lot to do with our taking a consumer view of our relationship with Jesus Christ. If we buy into Him because we think He’ll make us more fulfilled and comfortable, how can we be the world-changing soldiers of the King every child of His should be? Suffering and persecution comes with the package. To think otherwise would be like somebody who joined the US Army strictly because of the college tuition and job benefits, then was astonished because the Government sent him overseas to fight. I remember a case like that back in the early ’90s, when the First Gulf War was going on. A woman, a medical doctor, had joined up for the educational benefits. But when her unit was called up to go to Iraq, she refused to go with them to exercise her skills in the field. She claimed going to a war zone wasn’t what she’d joined the Army for. There was a court-martial, then a civil case, and the judges all ruled against her. Regardless of any benefits offered, the Army is about fighting the enemy. You should know that going in. In the same way, the Christian life is about putting God first in everything, and being willing to take the flak the world will fire at you because of it.

But as we heard before, we don’t really join God’s army, we’re drafted into it. We’re called. At the end of this service, we’ll be singing, "Once to every man and nation/ Comes the moment to decide." And it’s true: from our side we do have to make a decision for Christ. But understand, we can make that decision, we can say Yes to Him, only because God has first laid His electing hand upon us and brought us already into His fellowship. And as He does He gives us all the benefits of belonging to Him through His Son.

The complainers in our reading from Malachi didn’t want the benefits of God. They wanted the benefits of this world, right now. "It is futile to serve God," they say. "What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty?" Doggonit, they’d put a dollar’s worth of ritual and fasting into the divine vending machine and now they wanted their Coke! With change!

It’s worth noting that this is the same gang of priests and people that the Lord has been bringing a case against for the entire book of Malachi. Their "worship" was insincere all along. But even in this one passage, we see the error of believing in Christ because we think He’ll satisfy our self-defined needs. Friends, we have needs only God knows about, and only by His calling and faithfulness can they ever be fulfilled.

In both our passages we see one of these needs, the need to be saved from the wrath to come. Malachi reports that those who fear the Lord and honor His name will be spared in the day of judgment, as a man compassionately spares his son who serves him. In the great day of burning, the arrogant and every evildoer, all who claim they don’t need God and don’t want God, all who want God only on their terms and according to their preferences, all such will be destroyed like stubble. Paul takes up the same theme: Through him the Spirit promises that the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven in blazing fire to punish those who do not know God and who don’t obey His gospel.

That’s not something we like to think of as happening to our unbelieving family and friends. But as Paul says, God is just. If someone says No to God, God will give him what he desires and say No to him.

But, as Malachi says, for those who revere His name, those who are the called according to His purpose, the Sun of Righteousness will arise with healing in its wings. Now "Sun of Righteousness" is a figure of speech for our Lord and Messiah Jesus, who comes as the Light of the World to bring salvation and enlightenment to all who believe. Paul reminds us that we will be glorified in Christ at His coming, and those who trouble us because we belong to Jesus will be paid back with trouble, according to His perfect justice. It must be so, for whoever will not accept the death of the Son of God in their behalf, will have to bear their own just death in themselves. This is not revenge or retribution, it is simple justice.

But beyond our need to be saved from the wrath to come, we need to know the glory and joy of true fellowship with our Lord. Malachi says that God’s faithful ones will be His, like a treasured possession a man gathers up and preserves. Or as some translations puts it, we will be His precious jewels. But the benefits of Christ are not only for the day of our Lord’s return. No, Paul prays for the Thessalonians and for us that by His power God may fulfill every good purpose of ours. This prayer is for us now, and since Paul is writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can confidently take it that he prays for things it’s God’s intention to give. God promises to bless and prosper every good work offered up in sincerity and love to His name! Even the least act prompted by your faith, He will bless; even the slightest humbling of our wills, even the least endurance of suffering or trouble for His name’s sake, He will remember and reward with good. And why? So that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in us, and we may be glorified in Him.

This is why we should be Christians. This is why we should tell our unbelieving family, neighbors, and friends about Him and what He has done for them in His death and resurrection and invite them to become Christians, too. Not for our own glory, but for glorious fellowship and fulfillment in Him. Not through our own good works, but through His grace and His grace alone. He calls us to suffer, because when we suffer with Him, we gain the reward of His suffering; He calls us to die, that in Him we might gloriously rise. Let those who will, seek God only for the earthly goods they can get out of him; by His grace we will seek Him for Himself and the glory of His name. Christian, Jesus calls you to suffer and die with Him, and then enter with Him into glory; may our God count you worthy of His calling.