Not Afraid to Serve

Jeremiah 1:8 “’Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord.”

Earlier the Lord had told him, “I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” What reason did Jeremiah have to be afraid? Jeremiah knew well that none of the nations at that time loved the Lord or respected his word. There may have been a few faithful Jews living in Jerusalem, but most of their fellow citizens had no time for either God’s commands or his promises. The pagan religions around them were more fun. They approved of their favorite sins. They promised instant satisfaction, not future hope and glory. Jeremiah just knew his message would not be well received.

Jeremiah’s fears were realized to a great degree. At best he was ignored and dismissed. The other priests and prophets accused him of being unloving and needlessly negative. Plots were made to take his life. Jeremiah was just one in a long line of faithful prophets whose life was hard because people don’t really want to hear what God has to say.

Are our fears much different? Like Jeremiah, we might not say out loud, “I’m afraid of what might happen if I serve.” But the thought is there. We have seen those who stick their neck out to serve get criticized–even by their fellow believers. If we spend too much time at church, friends, neighbors, or coworkers might get the idea that we are “some kind of fanatics.” Perhaps we are afraid of putting in all that effort just to see nothing happen. We’ve put in all that work for nothing in the past.

But the greater fear is that serving makes my life less comfortable. Honestly, how many of us are interested in making our lives less comfortable? Don’t we pour almost every ounce of energy into making them comfortable as can be? Even when we seem to be enjoying success, it’s still work. In fact, if God grants us success, we might fear that we will be making more work for ourselves. It would be easier, and more comfortable, just to stay home and watch Netflix, or work on a hobby, or go to a game, than to carry the crosses we know come with serving.

The Lord answers our excuses for not serving with a promise, “I am with you and will rescue you.” Our God isn’t some awful task master. We live under grace. First, he sent his Son to live and die for us. He removed our sins, so that the promise, “I am with you,” doesn’t make us tremble with fear. It helps us brim with faith and confidence. The Lord has chosen to be our companion.

And then we know that when we are involved in his service, we aren’t out there alone. He has chosen to be our co-worker. He’s on our side. He is touching our feeble and imperfect service with his blessing, making our service possible with his strength. If God is for us, who can be against us? If God is with us, why do we need to be afraid?

You Were Made for This

Jeremiah 1:4-7 “The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’ Ah, Sovereign Lord,’ I said, ‘I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, I am only a child. You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.”

God called Jeremiah to serve as a prophet. The main purpose of a prophet was not to tell the future. He was not a divinely approved psychic or fortune-teller. The main purpose of a prophet was to deliver God’s message. It just so happened that God’s message often dealt with the future. It doesn’t take a great deal of thought, then, to conclude that a prophet needed at least some ability to get up in front of other people and to speak to them clearly.

Jeremiah was a relatively young man, and he didn’t have any experience at this sort of thing. He protested that he didn’t meet the job qualifications. “I don’t know how to speak,” “Don’t you think you should choose some silver-tongued, silver-haired orator to be your prophet instead?” he implied.

Jeremiah’s excuse may sound reasonable, but it was actually presumptuous. Even more, it was sin. The Lord had just told him he had created him for this very purpose. He was not asking him if he wanted the position. He wasn’t waiting for volunteers. He was appointing Jeremiah as a prophet. “You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.’” Turning down God’s call is not an option.

Not every one of us has been called to serve as full-time prophet. Most of us do not have a call to spend our entire lives preaching. But we would be wrong to conclude that God does not have a role for each one of us in the work of his kingdom.  Our excuses for not serving are just as sinful as Jeremiah’s. It is presumptuous to say “NO!” to God and his work, no matter who we are.

“But I don’t have the skills,” we protest. “I don’t know how to run a stewardship program. I’m not a gifted evangelist. I can’t put a Sunday School lesson together. I don’t know enough about what is going on in the congregation to know what to say or how to vote at a voters meeting.”

Do we ever really know “how to” until we become involved in doing something? I received a lot of training at my seminary. Did that mean I knew how to be a pastor when I received my first call? I knew very little about how to go after the straying sheep. I had never conducted a wedding or a funeral. I had no classes in keeping church records. Until we get involved in the work itself, we don’t really know how.

Then remember the promises the Lord gave Jeremiah. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Of course, God knows everything. He means more than he knew about Jeremiah’s existence. The Lord was assuring him that, before time began, he knew each of us personally, as his own. He had determined that we would come to faith. He decided that we would know Jesus as our Savior. He planned for us to live in the peace and joy of sins forgiven.                

“Before you were born I set you apart.” The Lord made certain that just you, and just I, would not be like the rest of the world. We have been set apart so that we don’t wander around aimlessly in search of the truth. We don’t live futile, frustrated, meaningless, empty lives. We don’t face God’s judgment and condemnation like the rest of our dying world. The Lord has set us apart to belong to him, enjoy his gifts, and serve the purpose for which he made us.

Since he knows each one of us, since he loves each of us personally, we can be sure that he will call us into work which fits our skills. Then we can trust him to give us the gifts we need to do his work.

Holy. Really.

1 Corinthians 1:1-2 “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ–their Lord and ours…”

Like the Corinthians, we have been sanctified, we have been made holy, in Christ Jesus. That’s not something Paul is looking forward to in the future. He says that it is true right now. And that is remarkable.

Consider the Corinthians. They didn’t look very holy. Sometimes we look at the believers in the early church and we wish for the good old days when the church grew by thousands of people in a single day. The believers all seemed to be full of love and life.

Then there was the Corinthian congregation. Nobody wishes their church was like this one. The congregation was shamelessly “cliquey.” The divisions between the members weren’t even subtle. Richer members avoided poorer ones. People openly claimed to follow different leaders. Godly teaching on sex was so confused that the congregation was proud to have a family practicing unrepented incest. Part of the congregation flirted with worship of pagan Gods. Worship services were disorderly. Many people used their spiritual gifts in a selfish, show-off sort of way. One faction denied a teaching as basic as the resurrection of the dead. Corinth Christian Church was not a happy place.

We may marvel at the issues in Corinth, but let’s pause to consider our own congregations, and our own selves. The churches to which I have belonged have not been strangers to the concept of cliques. Closed circles of friends can make others feel like outsiders. A pastor I know once commented in a magazine article, “Nobody I know has a spiritual track record free from sexual stumbling.” Are we any exception? Look at the silent toleration of impure behavior. Don’t forget about our own lustful thoughts. We may not make a show of our gifts like the people in Corinth. But is that because we just don’t put them to use? What would Paul have to say about us and our churches today?

This is one thing he would say: Like the Christians in Corinth, we have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. As remarkable as it may seem, God says we are holy. That’s not because you and I have never committed any sins. We have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. In him we are holy.

As believers, God doesn’t see us by ourselves anymore. We are in Christ Jesus. All the loving, miraculous, merciful, godly things Jesus said and did are wrapped around us like a big blanket. They hide our sinful lives. All of our nasty, petty, filthy, words and deeds were absorbed by Jesus, and he paid for them on the cross. Sainthood isn’t limited to our future existence in heaven. It isn’t the exclusive privilege of some class of super-Christians. In Christ Jesus, we are holy saints today.

That is why Paul could greet the Corinthians, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” When Paul began his letters this way, the word “grace” in Greek sounded almost like the Greek word for “hello.” The word peace was the standard word for greeting someone in Hebrew, shalom. These words were more than a personal wish. Grace and peace come from God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. We can be sure that we have God’s grace, and that we have peace with him, because Jesus has made us holy.

We may not look like much as Christians. We and our churches suffer from many faults and failings. But that doesn’t change who we are in Christ Jesus. In him, God has made us holy.

See the True Treasure

Matthew 2:9-12 “After they (the magi, or “wisemen”) had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”

On January 6 we celebrate The Epiphany, the coming of the Magi to find Jesus. It is difficult to express in English the great joy these visitors from the East experienced. Our translators simply tell us they were “overjoyed.” This was the most joyful of times for them, and not just because they saw the star. It was not the star, after all, that they were here for. Their joy was in the prospect of finally meeting the Christ child. Jesus himself was their joy.

Their joy wasn’t because Jesus had made their lives fantastically easier. They still had a very long journey ahead of them before they reached home. There was an angry, dangerous king to avoid. Their joy wasn’t because Jesus had suddenly showered them with earthly wealth. In just a short time this same child was going to relieve them of some very expensive gifts. Their joy wasn’t so much because of what they had in this world, but because of what they had in their hearts. They were on the verge of seeing their Savior and their King. Their joy speaks of the great value they placed upon him.

Isn’t that what real Christian joy is about? It is true that Jesus may give us the joy of having some of the things we want, or solving some of our problems, or smoothing some of our difficulties. But for all the things we must do without, the problems that don’t go away, and the difficulties we have to bear, isn’t Jesus himself the real joy? He has given us himself: his love in God’s grace, his life in payment for our sins. These things will never grow less. They can never be taken away. Jesus himself is our true treasure and having him gives us joy.

That is what leads the Magi, these truly wise men, to the next step. “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” We aren’t used to seeing the kind worship the Magi offered here. They expressed the great value this child had with their entire bodies. Their bows were not the polite half-bend with which people in Asia greet each other. They got down on their knees in front of the child. They put their faces on the floor. They were saying to him, “You are great and worthy, and we are small and low.”

We don’t have to imitate their body language to share the value they found in the Christ child. When we come to worship in a spirit of humility and brokenness, when we humbly confess our sins and trust Christ for forgiveness, when we keep our focus on Jesus and his wonderful works of love, then we will know this child’s true value. Our worship will lift us up, even if in spirit we are down on our knees.

We may be tempted to measure the value these men placed on Jesus by the treasures they brought. But we find a greater indication in our closing verse. “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” More than God wanted their offerings, he wanted hearts that obeyed him. Perhaps you remember the words the Prophet Samuel once spoke to King Saul: “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22).

The Magi avoided Herod as God had told them. The gifts they had given weren’t an empty, outward show. They were a reflection of the value Christ held in their hearts, hearts that gave God their obedience as well.

It’s still true that those who value Jesus will be careful to obey him. Our hearts may not be much of a treasure to give him. Our obedience is shaky and inconsistent at best. But God takes these things anyway. That itself is a gift of his grace, and only adds to the real treasure he has led us to find.

The Only Investment that Lasts

Luke 12:32-34 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Where is this place Jesus is describing here? The purses we use never wear out. The treasure is never exhausted. There is no danger of thieves. There are no problems with moths.

Obviously, Jesus is looking ahead to heaven. But the investment his words suggest begins even now. When we spend our treasures on ourselves, we enjoy the fruits for a little while. It’s fun while it lasts, but eventually it all comes to an end. Homes and cars, clothes and vacations, insurance policies and retirement plans, are all “purses” of a sort.  We put our money in these bags and purses. They hold our treasure for a little while, but the day comes when they are worn out. They lose their value and our investment is gone.

Take that same investment and put it into people. Then what happens? A poor family is attracted to hear about the love of Jesus because they experienced the love of some of his followers. A child learns the whole history of God’s love for him in a Christian school or Sunday school. Someone half-way around the world hears the gospel for the first time because people in our country cared enough to send missionaries.

That family with whom we will spend eternity, who will love us, and whom we will love forever, grows like interest on our principle when we spend this way. Our own hope of bliss with God is safe, not because we make heaven more secure, nor because we created this treasure for ourselves, but because by faith this is what our hearts have come to truly desire. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Where we are looking makes all the difference for how we approach the coming year. Honestly, my own life is an uninspiring and puny topic. If everything revolves around me, I won’t face this year with much confidence. But look at what we have, and look at what we can do, when we are looking at our God and his kingdom. We will have nothing to fear in the coming year.

Able to Invest for Others

Luke 12:32-33 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”

God had taken care of all our big issues of his kingdom, like life and salvation. He continues to take care of all our smaller needs, like money or food, as well. That leads Jesus to this conclusion: We can live our lives for other people.

When he says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor,” he is not saying we have to sell all our possessions. He is assuring us that God has enabled us to take care of the needs of others, and we can do so safely. After all, God has given us a whole kingdom, right?

Helping others is a major reason for which he has given us our possessions. We might be tempted to wonder, “Why did God give me these things to me if he doesn’t want me to use them all for myself? Why doesn’t he just give others what they need directly and leave me alone with my things?” But the Lord has a lovely reason for doing it this way.

When he asks us to help others, he is giving us an opportunity to demonstrate our love. Caring for someone else’s needs draws us together. It creates or strengthens a bond. In addition to our material support, those we help are lifted up emotionally. They know someone cares about them. God never created us to be independent. He put us here with other people, and he made us interdependent. This is why he gives my neighbor a need for me to fill, and he gives me a need for my neighbor to fill.

We also know what our neighbor’s greatest need is. We know the greatest poverty anyone suffers. People need the Bread of Life. Jesus just promised that God has given us the kingdom. This is the great possession that makes everything else possible. Can we give others everything else and withhold the greatest thing we have? Haven’t God’s promises made us free and confident to do whatever it takes to share the kingdom with others? We need not be afraid to give sacrificially in support of ministry at home or missions far away, because the Lord himself is the one who enables us to do so.

Nothing to Fear This Year

Luke 12:32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

Even Jesus calls us a “little” flock here. That suggests that we suffer from a certain poverty. Just as Jesus had his little group of disciples and followers who seemed like an insignificant number of people compared to the vast world population, so we Christians may feel like a little flock. Our churches don’t consist of vast numbers of people. More and more our minority status in our nation and our world becomes clear.

Nor are sheep the most powerful or assertive animals. They aren’t the roaring lions or the crafty foxes of the animal kingdom. They are generally vulnerable, dependent, and defenseless. As Jesus’ little flock of sheep, we perceive the same weaknesses in ourselves. We are vulnerable. Perhaps the year just past has exposed more of our personal vulnerabilities than we care to think about. The pandemic has ruled our lives since March. It has killed over a quarter million people in the United States alone and destroyed a wide swath of our economy. Police violence and racism, dangerous and destructive riots in reaction, the political divisiveness of an election year have all added to our sense of helplessness.

As Jesus’ little flock, his command that we not be afraid suggests that there is an issue of trust with which we must struggle. In the context, Jesus was speaking these words because he knew that it was all too easy for his disciples to worry about their daily provision. They knew that God considered them incomparably more dear than birds or flowers or other created things. Despite this knowledge, they still found it difficult to conclude that he would take care of them. They still worried about fulfilling their basic needs.

Our sin-sickened senses share the same fears. We withhold our trust. We base our conclusions on what our eyes see rather than what God promises our hearts. At times we may believe that our fears our defensible, even sensible. Such lack of trust still calls for repentance.

Then Jesus leads us to look in the right direction. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” Just look at what we have! Even before we look at the gift, look at the Giver! We have a Father who is pleased to give us things. It makes him happy to see us open his gifts. Perhaps you have had a similar experience this Christmas. You watched as your child or friend opened a gift you know they wanted. Their surprise and joy, their gasp or squeal, gave you a deep feeling of satisfaction.

The difference is that our Father is pleased to give us his gifts even when we look inside the box and we don’t get it right away, even when our reaction is a disinterested, “oh.” That doesn’t stop him, but he keeps on giving generously, and he keeps on being happy to do so.

Then there is the obvious difference in value. One Christmas there was a brand new car sitting in our neighbor’s yard with a great big bow on top. Such a gift is still a worthless trinket compared to the gifts our Father gives. He is God, and his gifts literally cost him everything. God gives us himself and the Lord of Lords and King of Kings becomes our Servant. God gives us his Son, and he sacrifices the most precious life to save us from sin, and he doesn’t resent the cost, but he is only happy to give it.

Then there is the gift he has given us here. Jesus says that he has been pleased to give you and me the kingdom! Now don’t we look silly worrying about something to eat, something to wear, or how we are going to pay for things. We are worrying about plastic beads when all this time we have been holding gold and diamonds in our hands. The Lord of all the universe has snatched us from death, cleansed us from sin, adopted us and made us his children, and given us his kingdom as our very own.

Our Father has taken care of the big things, the hard things. He will not run out of the resources necessary to care for us in the smaller things. The Apostle Paul once said, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him graciously give us all things.” This year we can be sure we have nothing to fear in light of such gifts.

It’s A Meaningful Life

Luke 2:36-38 “There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then she was a widow until she was eighty-four.”

People often assume that Simeon, the man who found the baby Jesus in the temple just before Anna, was an elderly man, but Luke doesn’t tell us this directly. About Anna there is no doubt. She was either eighty-four, or she had lived eighty-four years after her husband died. That would make her about one hundred and five years old. Either way, her age was outstanding for that time. Few people lived much beyond forty years.

The Bible considers long life a blessing, but old age brings its own set of burdens. There is the wear and tear that comes with a high mileage body. In his seventies, my grandfather once went to the doctor because of joint pain. The doctor said, “Marvin, you’ve worked hard all your life. You are simply worn out at the seams.” Aches and pains that limit what we can do are a growing reality for us with each passing year.

We don’t know how Anna felt about her age. We do know that more serious hardships were a feature of her youth. She was widowed after only seven years of marriage. If Jewish girls got married sometime in their mid-teens, then she was only in her early twenties when she buried her first and only husband. Did she see herself a widow so soon? Was this what she expected her family life to be?

Age and hardships may tempt us to lose sight of the real benefit of Christian faith and life. Some Christians wallow around in their earthly mud so much that they cannot rise above it to appreciate the spiritual blessings our Savior has given. They lean away from God toward agnosticism. A kind of spiritual hardening sets in that struggles to acknowledge that the Lord is good. Life seems meaningless if we do not properly value the heavenly life to come.

Anna was not ignorant of the hardships she had to suffer, and faith in Jesus does not make our earthly problems suddenly disappear. But Jesus does make our lives meaningful in spite of them. Like Anna, we can live our lives in God’s service. “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.”

Anna didn’t spend her long years of widowhood sulking. She spent them in worship. Every day found her at the temple until as late in the evening as they would let her stay. Here she fasted, not in the work-righteous way of the Pharisees. She fasted sincerely and voluntarily so that that time could be given to serving God. Here she prayed. Here her prophetic gifts were available to other women who undoubtedly sought her wise counsel about God’s will. Her life found meaning as she waited for the day she would meet her Savior face to face.

There is another place in God’s service that Jesus makes our life meaningful. That is in our life of witness. “Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel.” Anna knew that this was not another cute baby brought to the temple for the customary sacrifices. She spoke about this child to “all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel.” Redemption is one of those loaded words we hardly think about. It speaks about a price paid to set us free. Anna recognized Jesus as our Redeemer–the one who would pay the price, the Lamb of Sacrifice who would be the price to set us free from sin’s guilt and power. Straight from her heart Anna gave her little witness to all who would listen. This baby is redemption sent from God. He pays the price we can’t to take our sins away.

What would make your life meaningful? Inventing a cure for cancer? Making a billion dollars? Feeding people in some far away third world country? What about sharing the love of Jesus with your own children? What about helping a friend to know Jesus as his Savior? What about being part of an effort to send missionaries to people who haven’t heard the gospel before?

When we serve God by spreading the good news of redemption to others, we are making an eternal difference in their lives. And our own words about Christ and the cross, about sins forgiven and death defeated, about grace and peace and joy and life through Jesus come back to feed our own faith as well. Your life is meaningful, child of God. Jesus makes it that way.

Almost Heaven on Earth

Luke 2:12-14 “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

The only thing extraordinary about the angel’s sign is the ordinariness and humility of it all. There isn’t anything special about strips of cloth and feeding troughs.

Except that it’s not where you expect to find your God! It’s not where you expect the salvation of the world to begin. It’s not the sort of place you expect to find the foundation for your only hope of eternal life in heaven. Who would have believed such a thing if it didn’t come from the mouth of an angel sent by God? If a quiet stranger had stopped and said this to the Shepherds, would they have believed him?

But for those who, like the shepherds, have come to believe that it is so, they understand just a little bit better the astounding love that God must have for them. He stoops so low. He is born in a stable. Here is Godhood and Divinity in a form that we can approach. Here we get a brief glimpse of heaven, when we are looking at our God, lying in the manger.

The wonder of such love certainly begs his creatures to give him glory. “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’”

God’s glory clearly shines in Jesus’ humble birth. We often say that you can’t find heaven on earth, and rightly so. This world and its things can never be heaven. But on this day the Lord took a little bit of heaven’s glory, and he brought it down to earth for just a little while so that we might know him as he truly is. He did it so that someday he might take us back to heaven to bask in his glory forever.

This is possible only because Jesus is our peace. He came to end the war between earth and heaven, between us and God. He has paid for our sin and atoned for our guilt. He has led us to faith and comforted us with his love. He accomplished it all at the cross, and confirmed it at his empty tomb. But already in the stable, in the manger, we see him coming as our peace.

So, God’s favor rests on you, and me, and a world of sinners. We look into his smiling face, and his good news grants a little taste, a little glimpse of heaven, even as we live on earth.