Our Scripture passages this morning lift up two extraordinary individuals. In the passage from Isaiah, we hear the testimony of one who has been chosen by God to bring God’s message to “all the nations.” Scholarship tells us that this Scripture is set in the time when the Hebrew people were in exile in Babylon. These traumatized and dislocated people were shaken to their core. Then one in their midst heard God’s call. Not only was there a way forward, a future to be had, but God had chosen this anonymous individual to be God’s instrument and to illuminate the Way for all people.
The second extraordinary person in our Scripture this morning is Jesus. Jesus, chosen by God to bring God’s redemptive, salvific work into the world, spends 40 days facing his fears, his hunger and his temptations before emerging ready for the good work that God has given him to do.
Pretty amazing witnesses this morning by some pretty amazing individuals.
But before we see where we may fit into all of this, let us pray:
Holy God, place your hand on us this morning. Raise us up and chose us as your own, so that we too may do your will. And, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our all our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
What would you say, if I were to tell you, that like the one in our passage from Isaiah and like Jesus, you too have been chosen by God? What would you say, if I were to tell you that the hand of the Holy One is upon you and that you too have been chosen to do great things? What would you say? Would you believe me?
Don’t worry! You won’t hurt my feelings if you were to say “No! I think not and in fact I think you must be starting to lose it for even suggesting such a thing!”
For that would surely be my response. Chosen by God? Who me? Come on! Why in the world would we even begin to think that could possibly be true when there is just so much evidence to the contrary?
Chosen? Just hearing the word catapults me back to fourth grade. I’m lined up on the playground, mortified once again by the process of waiting to get picked for a team. I can still feel the sting of shame of not being good enough to have been first, second or even seventh to be chosen.
Chosen? How could that be when that dream job or promotion or new client was just given to someone else?
Chosen? How could that possibly be true when we find ourselves barely able to get through the day without falling apart?
Our failings are so familiar and fresh to us. Surely God sees them too. And doesn’t such failings summarily disqualify us from any consideration of chosen status?
We are so used to a world view that says that only the worthy, the best and the brightest are chosen. This is the season when our young people are making college applications and are crossing their fingers (and toes) just hoping — hoping that they will be chosen. That they will have what it takes and that all of their hard work will be rewarded. We are used to “Chosenness” being a reward that comes to a few at the end of hard work.
Despite being raised in the church, I can honestly say that I did not really read the Bible until I was in seminary. Sure I knew many of the Bible stories and could probably have named the four gospels but I never really delved into Scripture.
So when I finally did, I was a bit shocked to read the passage from Luke that we have for today. A passage that is found in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as well. I was sure that the author of the text must have gotten it wrong. For Jesus goes from his baptism, from being chosen and blessed by God out into the wilderness to be tested and to face temptation. Shouldn’t the order be reversed, I thought? Isn’t it our testing and overcoming our temptations that which determines if we are worthy to be chosen and blessed?
But it turns out how we tend to see things is not the way that God does.
On Dec. 23rd we gathered right here to baptize Diane Tilllotson’s granddaughter, dear little Cecily. And the incredible grace that we celebrated came home to me again in that beautiful moment when the waters of baptism were dripping down her wide eyed little face. It is by God’s grace, not our merit that we are chosen, claimed and loved by God. Before we were brave, or brilliant, or terrified and terrible, we were chosen by God. Cecily all decked out in her beautiful little white dress had been chosen, simply because she is not for what she has done. My prayer for on the day of her baptism, and for all of us every day is to realize that being chosen by God is our starting place. Our beginning. Everything we do then flows out of the grace of our essential choseness.
Now if we are to accept that we are all chosen by God, we come face to face with another problem for us to overcome. That is — our idea that the value of being chosen lies in the fact that others are not chosen. In our view, “to be chosen” is to be set apart from the rest. To be “chosen” is to be “special.” Right?
What good is it if you are chosen to receive a prize and then only learn that everyone in your class, or school, or business, or neighborhood or church also received that prize? The value of that prize just falls away if everyone gets it too, right?
Wrong, at least in terms of how God’s seems to see things. It is like in that book The Shack, by William Young, where the God figure in the story says to the protagonist while in conversation about someone, “I am particularly fond of her.” And then says it again later “I am particularly fond of him” when someone else comes up in conversation and this continues over and over again, until the protagonist realizes that God is particularly fond of everyone! In our view of things, value is conferred through exclusion, but inclusion seems to be the way of God.
And that, I am coming to understand, means that God has chosen you, and me, and the mailman, and the woman at the checkout, and the crossing guard. God has chosen us all, every one, everywhere. And the truth that God has chosen us all does not make being chosen by God any less remarkable or important.
So if we are willing to entertain the idea that we are all chosen by God, the question then becomes
“Chosen for what?”
Here is how our passage from Isaiah answers that questions:
And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
We are chosen to be God’s servant. We are chosen to serve God. Now I want to unpack that word servant in a moment because for most of us “servant” is a word we tend to recoil from. But first I want to note something very interesting.
In the ancient near East, it was well understood in the creation myths of many cultures that the reason humans exist is so that they can serve the Gods. Serving the Gods meant appeasing them by making sacrifices and worshiping. The Gods were what mattered, humanity did not. Humanity was just there to be slaves really of the Gods.
Serving God, however, for our ancestors of faith meant something very different. Servicing God is inextricably linked with serving others. Serving God means being a light to the nations so that Gods’ salvation may reach to the end of the earth. Serving God in our faith tradition means restoring the survivors, bringing a light to the nations, aiding in God’s work of salvation for the entire earth. This is God’s instruction to us.
We are chosen so that we may be of service to God’s salvific and redemptive work in the world. That ultimately is our vocation, our calling, the reason that we have been given the gift of being alive. If you ever wake up at 4:00 in the morning and start wondering what on earth is your life all about I hope you will remember this. We have been given the gift of life so that we may be of service to God and being of service to God means living love out into the world just as Jesus our great teacher and guide did. We are here to serve and be of service.
This does not mean we are to be exploited, or taken advantage of. This does not mean we are to silently suffer abuse or be a doormat for others to walk all over. Servanthood is about acting for and on behalf of God’s desires for the world. It requires, courage, commitment, stamina, vision, and, as we see in our Gospel reading for today, it also requires coming face to face with our fears and our temptations.
For the very first thing that happens after Jesus is lifted up as God’s beloved in the waters of the Jordan is that he is “led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” This is no accident. Jesus was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness” the text says God had already chosen Jesus but before Jesus could start his public ministry in service to God, it seems that he needed time to choose God. The scripture does not tell us how Jesus was tempted by the devil during those forty days it just tells us that when they were over, he has the resolve he needs.
For after those forty days, the devil comes at him three final times but there is no longer any temptation there. No longer any struggle. Jesus is in. He has said “yes” to being chosen. He has said “yes” to being a servant of God. He will need to find and return to the solidity of that conviction again and again throughout his ministry, but for now at this crucial beginning of his servanthood he has found it and he will not be moved.
There is another that faced temptation in the early, crucible days of his servanthood. There is another servant of God that we remember today.
I am speaking of course of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Very early on in MLK’s ministry he faced his wilderness time. The story goes that one night he was very afraid. His life had been threatened and he feared for the lives of his wife and baby girl asleep in the next room. The story goes that he was sitting at his kitchen table looking into his cup of untouched coffee. He came face to face with his fear and a sense of his own inadequacy. And in the wilderness of his kitchen table on that night, he prayed “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment, King wrote “ I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Three days later a bomb blasted his house and his family escaped harm by a hairsbreadth. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
Now be assured, I am not suggesting as servants of God we are all called to be heroes of the faith like MLK or Jesus, or Archbishop Romero or Gandi or Dorothy Day, Rosa Parks but I am suggesting that we like them are to be faithful to having been chosen by God for living love out into the world.
I am suggesting that being a servant of God can be a kind of North Star to us. A way that we chart our way through the waters of our time. When we wonder what we are to do, where we are to spend our time and our treasure, what we believe and how we are to live, knowing that we are chosen by God to be of service to God can be our guiding light. And I am convinced that we will need such a light, such an orientation in the days, months and years to come.
How will we then in the specific circumstances of our lives, stand in the fullness of the gifts we possess and be a servant to the one who loves unconditionally, forgives and redeems unceasingly, strives for justice relentlessly and delights in beauty unendingly? How will we be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth?
Let me end by returning to that with which I began. Do not think you are too small, too weak, too flawed, too failed to be of service to God. Do not think your reach is too restricted or your scope of influence too narrow to be of service to the world. You have been chosen. You have been given life to be of service to the author of life and being of service means finding the courage to love wherever and in whatever circumstance you find yourself in.
And here is the good news! Your ability to love in this way has actually nothing to do with your own ability. It has nothing to do with how good, strong, or worthy you are. Your ability to love in this way and to be of service to God has only to do with your willingness to accept, in the words of Kierkegaard, that “you are acceptable” and to let your “yes” be a doorway so that the love of God may flow through you as it has done through the heroes of our faith and the anonymous ones in our midst
May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen