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High Calling in an Upside-Down World

A colleague and I were talking some years ago about how we do premarital counseling with the couples we marry. Along the way, he mentioned that he always asks each partner to describe their perfect Saturday and their perfect vacation. He is listening to see if there is real compatibility in such things, for it is a problem if the husband and wife have very different perfect pictures.

I am reminded of that colleague many Saturdays in my house. My wife’s idea of a perfect Saturday, you see, is for the whole family to be working together in various around-the-house projects. As you might expect, though, that is not necessarily every family member’s perfect picture of how to spend a Saturday.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so, too, is a good time. One person’s idea of a good time is another person’s idea of an arduous time. This one’s fun is that one’s tedium. He runs away from the very thing that she runs toward.

This principle is writ large for those of us who would be part of the kingdom of God. The things of God, you see, run contrary to the things of the world. The flesh wages war against the spirit. And what the man or woman of God is taught to value is held of little account by the surrounding culture, while the Apostle Paul is willing to call rubbish the very things that make other people proud.

And so we face a question of compatibility. Is our perfect picture the same as our Lord’s? Do we desire the same things for our lives as he does? For we must come to terms with the fact that his perfect picture is different from the world’s.

The New Testament passages that we will explore together this week give us some insight into what may be in store for those who would follow Christ. We know that it is a high calling to belong to him and to serve him. But in a world turned upside-down by sin, be forewarned what a high calling may look like.

Lamentations 1:1-6
Except for 3:22-23 — the verses about the Lord’s mercies being new every morning and his faithfulness being great — the Book of Lamentations is probably unfamiliar to most of the people in our pews. And the historical context that gave rise to these poignant poems is equally unfamiliar. Some introduction and explanation, therefore, will be required.

In 586 B.C., the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem. Babylon’s influence over the region had been growing for decades, and their hegemony over Judah was already well-established prior to this date. But when the king of Judah at that time presumed to rebel against his puppet-master, the Babylonian army came down in force. The walls of Jerusalem were torn down, much of the city was burned, scores of captives were taken away, and the Temple was destroyed.

Most of us can only try to imagine such devastation and communal tragedy, but we have never had to live through anything even approaching it. In our country, we know about the destruction caused by a hurricane or tornado, an earthquake or wildfire. Those scenes of ruined communities and devastated lives are a starting place for our imaginations. But now add in the emotional component that comes from destruction that is brought not by nature but by other people. Add in the bitterness that must have been felt when it is foreigners invading your land, killing your friends and family members, and burning down your city. And onto all of that, add in the theological crisis.

This was, you see, an era of national gods. Moab had their gods, Ammon had theirs, the Egyptians had their, the Babylonians had theirs, and Israel had the Lord. The battles between nations, then, were understood as a proxy for contests between deities. Imagine, then, the faith crisis that comes when Jerusalem — the city the Lord had chosen for his name — is defeated by the Babylonians, and when God’s temple is stripped and burned by them.

It is in the wake of that unspeakable, multi-dimensional calamity, then, that the sad songs of Lamentations were written.

The passage from Lamentations will not sound like poetry to contemporary English ears, but of course it was ancient Hebrew poetry. And even if we lack a native appreciation for its form, the beauty of the imagery translates into any language.

The passage is filled with poignant similes: “like a widow;” from princess to vassal; lovers and friends turned to enemies; and princes turned to stags that find no pasture. It is also laced with strong words — bitter weeping, suffering, groaning, grieving, and desolation. And through it all is the powerful personification of Jerusalem in tragedy.

Finally, the pervading theme of our passage is the change that has occured. The author remembers a time when “the city...once was full of people” and “was great among the nations.” But the memory of happy times is only bitter when those times are gone. Now that same city, once pulsing with life and importance, is now lonely and desolate. The tables have been turned on her in every relationship. And all that surrounds and pervades her is trouble and grief, desolation and distress.

But the writer is not just feeling sorry for himself — or for his city or his people. He recognizes the cause-and-effect involved here. “The LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions.” Jerusalem’s circumstances may be tragic, but they are not unjust.

For those who are acquainted with the messages of the judgment prophets, Lamentations will have a familiar ring. It serves as the “after” picture to the prophets’ “before.” For the warning had been sounded for decades, and now the weeping poet bears witness that it had all come true.

2 Timothy 1:1-14
Some New Testament scholars will argue that this is the latest of Paul’s letters, which makes it, in many ways, precious and poignant. Others will argue that it is not from Paul, at all, which makes the many personal references must less meaningful for us. Or, at a minimum, it is more difficult to know what to do with the personal references, for we do not know the backstory for them if this is not written from Paul to Timothy.

“Story” is always the issue in Scripture. So many, many chapters of the Bible are stories — from creation to the patriarchs, from the exodus to the conquest, from the judges to the kings, plus the Gospels and Acts. But even the hundreds and hundreds of chapters that do not read as “story” material still have stories behind them. No chapter was written in a vacuum, after all. And we will appreciate more fully that non-story material — prayer, the teaching, the prophetic message, the epistle — if we have some sense for the story that was its context.

This epistle presents itself as written from Paul to Timothy, and we know something about that story. The son of a Jewish Christian mother and a Greek father, Timothy came into contact with Paul during his missionary visit to Lystra. He became one of Paul’s missionary companions, and served as Paul’s emissary to Thessalonica and Corinth. It seems that Paul had appointed Paul to serve as pastor for the church at Ephesus. And this epistle, then, is one of the three so-called “pastoral epistles” (along with 1 Timothy and Titus), for they are written from the apostle as encouragement and instruction to men who are pastors.

The personal quality of the letter is evident from the start. Paul refers to Timothy as “my beloved child.” This is not a tract, you see; it is personal correspondence.

The familiar and intimate tone continues as Paul makes reference to Timothy’s mother and grandmother. Paul knows Timothy’s family, you see, which takes the relationship to another layer. We may have cordial relationships with a co-worker, for example, but the relationship may still be mostly a professional one. But this has the sound of a man who has been in Timothy’s house, who has sat at Timothy’s table, and who has gotten to know the home from which Timothy came.

The very personal quality of the passage continues when Paul recalls “the laying on of my hands.” We don’t know with certainty the occasion Paul has in mind, but the fact remains that Paul remembers that occasion, and he knows that Timothy remembers it, too. It is another moment of meaningful and personal interaction. It is one more lovely page in the scrapbook of this spiritual father-son relationship.

And all of that, then, lays the groundwork for the personal word that comes near the end of the passage: “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel.” If there was no close relationship in place — if there were no history between these two men — then this exhortation would be arm’s-length and theoretical. But this is an appeal that has a heart-to-heart quality to it.

Paul writes to his “beloved child” from prison. You and I may take for granted that Paul was in and out of prison — we refer to it blithely in Bible studies and sermons — but can we imagine what that was like for Paul’s dearest friends and closest associates? It is from that place of vulnerability and shame that Paul appeals to Timothy, saying, ‘Don’t be ashamed of me in my suffering; join me in my suffering!’

Everyone tries to sidle up next to the guy who’s on top. Everyone clamors to get in the picture with the one holding the trophy. But who wants to be seen with the person who is in disgrace and disfavor? Who wants to wear the jersey of the player that has been cut?

Finally, we observe that much of Paul’s instruction and encouragement to Timothy has a theme of preservation and perseverance. That is to say, the need for some people is to obtain what they do not have, to experience something they have not, to believe for the first time. In Timothy’s case, however, the need is different. He is to be reminded of the faith that was his heritage. He is to “rekindle the gift of God” that is already within him. He is encouraged to “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard” and to “guard the good treasure entrusted to you.” In this respect, Paul’s counsel to Timothy may be close-to-home for the people in our pews. It is the strong exhortation to people who already have so much from the Lord, you see, lest it be lost through neglect or squandered through insensibility.

Luke 17:5-10
If the Gospel of Luke were a jigsaw puzzle, and it was given to us in pieces, I wonder if we would put these two pieces together. On the one hand, we have a teaching about faith. That comprises verses 5 and 6. But verses 7 through 10 seem to be on a very different theme. If these two teachings were not already connected for us in the text, I doubt that many of us would point to them there on the card table and say, “Oh, look! I bet that these two pieces go together!”

The first part of the passage is about faith. The disciples, commendably, ask the Lord to increase their faith. I expect we have all made similar sorts of requests, hoping perhaps that some spiritual magic wand might make us more patient, more faith-filled, more loving, etc., rather than the sometimes arduous sanctification process that seems to be the essential method.

Interestingly, however, Jesus’ response is not really about how to increase one’s faith. He doesn’t offer to do it for them, nor does he explain to them how they might do it for themselves. Instead, he impresses upon them how little faith is needed in order to accomplish spectacular things.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he told them, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Now one suspects that such frivolous landscaping tricks are really the point of what Jesus had in mind. When he sent his followers out to do their work, after all, it was about proclaiming the kingdom, healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons (see Matthew 10:7-8). His assigned mission was not that they should go about moving mountains and mulberry trees.

The seed-vs.-tree imagery seems to be more about proportion than about the actual usefulness of commanding mulberry trees. A tiny bit of faith is sufficient to make a disproportionate impact. And that principle should not surprise us, for it resonates with so many other stories in Scripture. We think, for example, of the seemingly absurd scene where God promises an old man with no children that his descendants will rival the stars in the sky. We remember Nebuchadnezzar’s dream featuring the tiny rock that starts so small yet grows into a mountain that fills the earth. We recall of Jesus’ several teachings suggesting that the kingdom of heaven is a thing that starts small but influences and impacts things so much bigger. And my mind also turns to Charles Wesley’s marvelous application of a part of the story of Elijah to the larger pattern of God’s work: “Saw ye not the cloud arise, little as a human hand? Now it spreads along the skies, hangs o’er all the thirsty land.” (Charles Wesley, “See How Great a Flame Aspires” UMH #541)

But then the subject seems to shift rather abruptly. “Who among you,” Jesus suddenly asks, “would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field...” And what follows is a rather harsh (to our modern ears, at least) teaching about the nature of our servitude beneath the lordship of Christ.

We will consider in more detail below the substance of the teaching about discipleship in verses 7 through 10. For the present, though, let us consider the relation between it and the prior teaching. Is there some logic that connects these two pieces of the puzzle?

I am reminded of a different episode from Jesus’ ministry. A few chapters earlier in Luke’s Gospel, he tells the story of a certain centurion who sent messengers to prevail upon Jesus to heal his servant. When Jesus started toward the centurion’s house to heal the servant, however, the centurion said, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof” (Luke 7:6 NASB).

But how, then, did the centurion propose that Jesus should heal the servant if he did not come to see the servant? He explained, “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes; and to another, 'Come!' and he comes; and to my slave, 'Do this!' and he does it” (verses 7-8).

In the end, Jesus did not make the trip to the centurion’s house, and the servant was healed. But when Jesus heard the centurion’s message, “He marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that was following Him, ‘I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith’” (verse 9).

We see in these two episodes, then, certain overlapping themes. Two incidental overlaps are found in the references to slaves and to being unworthy. Those are more related to the subject of discipleship that we will take up below. Meanwhile, the two overlapping themes that are central to our purposes just now are authority and faith.

By “authority” I mean the capacity to make things happen with one’s words. This is what the disciples began to understand when they marveled, saying, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mark 4:41 NASB). This is what is evidenced in Jesus casting out demons or calling Lazarus from the tomb with his words. And this is what we see from the very beginning of Scripture when Genesis reports that God created by saying, “Let there be...”

This sort of authority, then, is what the centurion expressed. As an officer in the Roman army, he had acquired a personal understanding of how authority worked. And what he knew as a function of his relationship to his superior officers, those in his command, and his slaves is what he recognized was at stake with Jesus. Specifically, he understood that Jesus had authority over sickness — which was remarkable prescience — and that is why he affirmed that Jesus could “just say the word.”

Meanwhile, it may be precisely this sort of authority that Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples that they could say to a mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would happen. More precisely, he said, “It would obey you.” That’s not magic, you see; that is authority.

See then how, in both episodes, there is a line drawn by Jesus between authority and faith. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “you could say to this mulberry tree...” And, in the wake of the message from the centurion, Jesus remarks on his “great faith.”

In light of this, then, see how the teaching about the slave coming in from the field reads. There is an established paradigm of slave and master, which assumes complete authority by the master and complete submission by the slave. The slave is not doing a favor by obeying the one in authority over him, and the one in authority owes no thanks. It is a simple flowchart.

True faith understands the flowchart. “I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.” The disciple with faith recognizes what is under his or her authority. And that authority flows, of course, from the one who is above us — the One whom we call Master, and whom we cheerfully obey as unworthy slaves.

I live in a football town. Green Bay loves its Packers. And from time to time, we are excited to see players from the team around town, in restaurants, grocery stores, at a Post Office, or walking down the street.

If I were driving down the road one day, and I saw one of the stars from our team standing beside the road because his car had a problem, how eagerly would I stop to offer my assistance? Even if that assistance were a menial thing — helping to change the tire, running to the nearest gas station for a gas can full of fuel, or offering a ride — I would count it a privilege.

This, then, becomes the attitude of the servant of Christ. The privilege is not necessarily in what I get to do for Him, but rather in the fact that I get to do it for Him. And this, then, is what we see exemplified in the words of Paul and the teaching of Jesus.

Jesus articulates the attitude of a humble servant. The idea of “humble servant,” of course, is like a foreign language to American ears, yet it is the native language of the church. And when we recognize the One we have opportunity to serve, we discover that this is not oppression but privilege.

Clearly this is the counter-culture, counterintuitive attitude we observe in the Apostle Paul. “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner,” he writes to Timothy, “but join with me in suffering for the gospel.” Did Paul’s amanuensis misunderstand the apostle as he spoke? “Join me in suffering”? Who says such a thing? Suffering is the sort of thing we long to — indeed, endeavor to! — get out of; it’s not what we invite the people we love into.

Yet this is the man who wrote elsewhere that he wanted to know “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10 NASB). And, in our passage, he unflinchingly writes, “For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do.” But how — but why — is he so willing to suffer? Because “I know the one in whom I have put my trust.”

The world’s perfect picture is incompatible with Christian discipleship. The world clamors for profit and convenience. The world aims for self-gratification, even self-indulgence. But the disciple lives with a high calling. A high calling which, in a world turned upside down by sin, looks a lot like a calling to being low, being last, being at the bottom. But any calling to follow Christ is a high calling, indeed, no matter where it may lead.

Alternative Application(s)
Luke 17:5-10 — “Radical Discipleship”

There seems to be a growing trend in the American church to glory in the label “radical.” We talk about radical generosity, radical hospitality, radical witness, and such. But radical, of course, is a relative term. What seems radical in one time and place is perhaps just a commonplace yawn in another time and place. And this truth may be at the heart of a part of our Gospel lection.

Jesus is teaching his disciples about discipleship, and he uses imagery that is foreign (and a bit repugnant) to the modern reader.

The scene comes from that ancient world of servants and masters. Jesus envisions a slave finishing his outdoor work at the end of the day, and coming into the home for the supper hour. But then Jesus matter-of-factly notes that the master does not invite the weary worker to sit down and eat with him. On the contrary, he expects his servant to prepare and serve his meal first, after which the servant himself can sit down to eat. And then, when the day’s work is done, there is no expectation of gratitude or reward, for the slave has simply done what he ought to have done as a slave.

“We are worthless slaves,” Jesus teaches us to say.

We are much more fond, of course, of those teachings and parables that affirm our worth. We like the way the prodigal son is embraced and celebrated. We like to hear that we are worth much more than the birds that enjoy God’s provident care. We like to know that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. But we are not so fond of the discipleship litany in which our line is, “We are worthless slaves.”

And yet, we routinely call him, “Lord.” Regularly and mindlessly, we refer to God the Father and to Jesus as “Lord.” It is a standard address in our prayers. Yet we are squeamish about the implications of the title.

The picture that Jesus painted was not radical, at all. It was an ordinary part of daily life for the people of that time and place. That is why Jesus began the teaching the way that he did: “Who among you would say to your slave...” He was illustrating a spiritual principle using folks routine experience.

In our day, however, the mentality that Jesus encourages would be radical, indeed. To truly think of ourselves as servants of Christ. To mean what we say when we call him, “Lord.” Let us teach, embrace, embody, and celebrate that kind of radical discipleship in our own lives and the lives of our people.
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