Good morning! We all know how to say Happy New Year, but how about Happy Epiphany! Epiphany means “the appearance of something that was hidden” or “a revelation” or “a manifestation”, and today is the Sunday when we celebrate not only that Jesus Christ has come into the world, but we can recognize him as God. Today we celebrate that God has come into the room, or, to put it in the Bible’s words from John 3:19: “The light has come into the world.”
Epiphany’s image is light. And on this day each year we read in Matthew Chapter 2.1-12 about the magi, the wise men, astrologers led by the light of a star, Gentiles led to a Jewish baby who was revealed to them to be Christ the King. They were the first of the Gentiles to recognize who he was, and when they saw him, they bowed down. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s true.
But if we were to read just a couple verses more, to verse 2:16, we’d read another story, also true, but awful. On the heels of the magi there is Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. We cannot remember the story of the wise men without also remembering the tragedy of the children. They are part of the same story. It’s a messy world that God loves. There’s a lot of darkness that the light keeps coming into, and needs to.
So Epiphany—New Year—let’s start this year with a question. What do these Falls Church members have in common? What’s a golden thread here that holds these folks—some of you—together?
- There’s George, a banker who started a bank that specializes in helping people not default on their loans.
- There’s Jeff, a patent lawyer specializing in protecting intellectual property, because it’s a justice issue.
- There’s Eldon, a man who when he’s not sharing the Gospel with somebody in Starbucks, is making the world more beautiful by painting houses.
- There’s Joyce, who’s brought more beauty into the world by painting paintings.
- There’s Hans, who started Elevation Burger to provide healthy hamburgers to people in a way that’s also good for the earth.
- There’s Nicholas, a priest, whose knowledge of theology, church history, and liturgy is unmatched on staff—as are his jokes too, for which we can all be grateful!
- There’s Megan and Sharon and Katherine, staffers on Capitol Hill, doing their best to serve the common good through good government…and if I had a vote I would say they deserve a little vacation, amen?
- There’s Steve and Nancy, missionaries to Niger, she a nurse, he a hydrologist bringing water in the desert, and now creating a Bible training school for nomadic peoples in the Sahara.
- There are teachers and educators like Donna, Elaine, Amy, and Meg trying to bring learning and wisdom to our children so that these kids can live into their full potential for their good and the good of the world.
- There’s Anne, who left her consulting practice to go full time with the Navigators in order to disciple young women in the Washington, DC, area.
- There’s Susan, and Melissa, and Mary Z, and Meredith, stay-at-home Moms faithfully fulfilling one of the most important, and noble, and absolutely sacrificial vocations there is. I think of Christine, raising five kids and volunteering to chair the board of the best addiction recovery program in the city, Samaritan Inns.
- There’s Sam, retired, who is one of the busiest people I know. The myth of quiet retirement is exactly that, a myth! He’s grandfathering his grandkids, he’s serving on boards, he’s leading our church on the vestry, he’s serving our denomination in so many ways I can’t keep them straight!
- And then a nameless lawyer amongst us, dear to us, who decades ago was literally packing up his car to go to law school, when a well-intentioned friend came up to him and pled with him through tears to abandon his law school plans in order to go into “full-time Christian ministry” or else my friend would be “throwing his life away.” Well, fortunately our dear lawyer friend did not listen to that advice, and would go on to become a lawyer seeking justice in international corruption cases and then, precisely because of his platform and expertise, serving and leading on more boards than I can count.
So what do these Falls Church members have in common…what’s a golden thread here? In every case, each of their work is a way that God is doing his work in the world. God is loving the world through each of their vocations, and each of their vocations matter, none more than the others and none less than the others. Each of them illustrates that our work is God’s work, and that our work matters, and that our work matters to God. Each of them illustrates that God still loves the world. Each of them illustrates through faithfully pursuing their current vocation that the light of Christ still shines.
I’ve mentioned before from this pulpit that there have been several sea changes in the last decade or two that represent a recovery in the evangelical tradition of important elements of God’s heart and God’s way. These are in the arena of justice—we get it now; in the area of spiritual formation—we get it now. And there are a couple of others, but here’s a third for this morning: a renewed emphasis and understanding of vocation, of calling, and its many implications, especially in our work. That we’ve arrived at a catalytic tipping point in this conversation is evidenced by Tim Keller’s new book. He’s perhaps the most respected pastoral theologian in the country right now, and his newest book has been on the shelves just two months; you can read a review about it in The New York Times just yesterday. It’s called Every Good Work: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. In it he asserts this and I think rightly: “Perhaps not since the days of the Protestant Reformation has there been so much attention paid to the relationship of Christian faith to work as there has been today.”
Thanks be to God! It’s timely. God’s doing this because we need it. In a Barna survey completed in 2011, 84 percent of Christians between 18 and 29 said they had no idea how the Bible applies to their occupational field or professional interests. Thank God that He is doing something.
So in light of our moment, and in light of this need, our sermon series for the next six weeks or so— Our Callings, One Caller—will focus on calling and several of its key facets. Sam kicked it off last week with a great sermon on the Mission of God.
This morning, before we affirm one of our deepest callings–to love the world–we want to hold onto something and hold it up—it’s critically important always before us, that is there is a difference between our primary calling, and our secondary callings. Os Guinness puts it as well as anybody in his book The Call, so I’ll read him and then I’ll illustrate what he’s saying with one of my favorite songs.
“Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, for him. First and foremost we are called to Someone (God), not to something (motherhood, politics, or teaching, etc), or to somewhere (such as the inner-city or Outer Mongolia). Our secondary calling, considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for God. We can therefore properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or to the practice of law or to art history, etc. But these and other things are always secondary, never the primary calling. They are ‘callings’ rather than the ‘calling’.”
Bono is the lead singer and songwriter for the band U2, And he is, well, a singer. And his song ‘Magnificent’ picks up both callings, primary and secondary. It starts with the primary calling. See if you can see it.
I was born to be with you in this space and time
After that and ever after (there’s primary calling: I was born to be with you.)
(here comes the secondary calling….)
I was born to sing for you I
didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to.
I give you back my voice from the womb
My first cry, a joyful noise…
Isn’t that gorgeous? I was born to sing; here’s my voice. A singer, born to sing for God, and one who has found that most happy place of being able to earn a living doing it (and quite a living!).
Parker Palmer says to us in Let Your Life Speak, “We find our [secondary] callings by claiming authentic selfhood, by being who we are…the deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elementary and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’”
Our primary call is to the One who made us. Our secondary callings are our efforts to be faithful with who he has made us.
And there is only one context where our callings work themselves out, where our vocations take actual form and substance, and that is the very messy world in which we all live, a world in which messiness takes myriad form. Our jobs are part of this world, our families are part of this world, our church is part of this world, our hobbies are part of this world, our relationships are part of this world. This world is where we pursue our vocations in their myriad form, and this presents quite a challenge, a challenge that increases as we get older, and increases as we live more and more deeply into the vocations God has given us.
There’s a myth that when we faithfully pursue God’s call on our life that our life will get easier. It’s exactly that, a myth.
The Falls Church’s own Steve Garber of The Washington Institute puts this question very well and very succinctly in a forthcoming book: “Can you know the world and still love the world?” This question can be illustrated through a number of vocations, pretty much all of them, from law to parenting to journalism to relief and development to business to the church to education to the arts, and so on, but we’re in Washington, so let’s talk politics.
A man or a woman has said yes to their primary call to follow God, and precisely because they’ve said this “yes” they then feel a secondary call to pursue the common good for all people by creating good law and ensuring good governance and protecting against corruption. And so they go into politics with (ideally) the right intentions and the highest hopes. And in going into that world, it doesn’t take long to slam into how messy the world actually is. This famous comparison made its way into print in 1869: “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion to how we know how they are made.”
Two examples, one old but fresh and one so new the wounds haven’t healed yet. Many of us have seen the movie Lincoln. It should have been simply an inspirational tale about how our country easily did the right thing by abolishing slavery under the leadership of a man who only needed to appeal to moral law, thus leading to a unanimous vote to enact the 13th Amendment. Shouldn’t that have been the story?
But it wasn’t that simple, and instead we were treated to an inside view of the wide variety of tools needed to secure a successful vote—from intimidation to threats to promises and perks and positions and to carefully chosen words to keep the whole truth from coming into view—and still with all that, the vote passed by two votes! That was 150 years ago.
And then last week, with the back and forth on the fiscal cliff, most folks were pretty frustrated at what was required to find some way forward, and I’m quite sure that the people who were the most frustrated were those who were closest to it, including some of you. There you are, trying to do your best work for God’s sake, and the deeper you get into it the harder it gets, and everyone has their bitter pill, or pills, to swallow. And you find might yourself asking Steve’s question, “I love this world, but as I continue to get to really know this world, can I still love this world? Can I still do this work?”
The form of that question comes to all of us in each of our vocation. Those with eyes to see and any mileage under their belts inevitably will come to this question. All of us come to it, regardless of our calling and where it works itself out. I wish that I could tell you, that after 20 years of following my vocation in the church, that I’ve never come close to this question. Can I know the church and still love the church? Believe you me, I’ve asked that question a lot and I still do—and expect I still will. Can I love the church—universal and even local—after I’ve gotten to know what it really looks like? Gordon Cosby once said, “The church is like family, and families are messy.”
Can you know the world and still love the world…it’s a good question, and it’s got a simple answer. But even more than that, it’s got a mandate, even a calling. Yes, yes, we can know the world and still love the world; in fact, as believers in God and followers of Jesus, we’re called to love the world, a calling that becomes all the more powerful precisely when we know how the world really works and we still choose to engage and love it.
Made in the image of God, we are called to God, and we are called to be like God. It’s really that simple. And God loves the world, past, present, forever. So I just ask the question, How does God love the world? And right off the top of my head, 13 ways come to mind:
1. God loves the world by creating it, by the sheer act of bringing it into being. (Gen 1)
2. He loves the world by sustaining it. (Psalm 65)
3.He loves the world by creating people to make something of it, to make culture, and to take care of it as good stewards. (Genesis 2:15)
4. He loves the people he’s created as his own children. (1 John)
5. He loves people by giving us good work to do that will bless others.
6. He loves people by giving us freedom, even when though we use it poorly.
7.He loves people by offering salvation through his Son: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 2:4)
8.He loves the world by sending people as messengers of his good news and witnesses to him.
9.He loves the world through the Church—I cannot think about what this world would look like if it weren’t for the Church. He loves the Church, his hands and feet.
10.He loves the world by giving us the Sacraments…we get loved on by God this morning at this table!
11.He loves the world by sending his Holy Spirit, all the time.
12.He loves the world by one day purifying it and re-creating it, making it new.
And last for this morning, and certainly not least, the way that God most demonstrates his love for the world, is by sending his Son into the mess of it, to redeem it, and to save us.
We’ve heard the gospel of Matthew read, but the text to reflect on this morning is John 3:16, Jesus’ words:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.
John 3.16 is probably the best known, most loved, often quoted, most memorized verse in the Bible. How many of you have memorized it? How many of you memorized it as a child?
Well, it should be memorized, for John 3:16 is about the clearest, quickest distillation of one of the deep aspects of the gospel, in just over 20 words. But oh my, what words. In your sermon notes I’ve highlighted some of the biggies, each one of which has inspired hundreds of books.
God: There is a God
Loved: This God loves
The World: The Greek word here is cosmos, from which we get our word, well, cosmos. It means everything, all creation, unseen and seen, the whole world, and all peoples of the world…for God so loved the cosmos that he…
Gave: The way God loves is self-giving love—that’s what love is, that’s what love does— shown dramatically through the next word
His only Son: Jesus, who because he is begotten of God is God, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made
Whoever: Here Jesus narrows down God’s cosmic love to a radically personal love. God’s love is surely for people, everyone and any one (operative word being “one”) that God’s cosmic love settles on individuals—anyone who…
Believes: Anyone will be saved who puts their faith in Jesus by believing who he is (God’s Son) and believing what he’s done (dying on the cross and rising from the dead) and who puts their trust and hope in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. And friends, we all have sinned. If there’s one empirically verifiable verse in the whole Bible, it’s that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And there is real consequence for this.
Perish: There is such a thing as hell, there is such a thing as living apart from God forever, there is such a thing as death after death. And this is exactly what Jesus comes to save us from but even more so what he comes to save us for…
Eternal life: Eternal life, starting from the first moment we put our faith in Christ and lasting forever. Death is but a doorway into the reality that’s already been accomplished for us.
Like I said, big words in John 3:16. But for this morning there’s one word to note—actually a small one—that seems to be insignificant, except it’s not. It ties back to all that we’ve been talking about…it’s the word ‘So’. For God so loved the world… God really loves the world in a million more than 13 ways, but he really shows his love when he sends his Son not to condemn the world, but to save it. Jesus’s posture when he comes and when he is here, is not one of pointing a finger; his posture is one of wide embrace. God’s constant posture is kindness, not condemnation; it’s love, not abandonment.
And this is amazing, considering the God of all being knows this world from the inside and out, from beginning to end, everything that’s ever happened on this world, anything that ever will, every action of every human being ever taken, anything that has ever happened to another human being or will happen; every thought, every motivation, he even is able to see the things inside of our own hearts that we have no idea are there—but if we knew they were there we would fall down weeping and not sure how we could have any hope for ourselves. He sees that too.
He knows better than all beings that the world is messy, that the world is bloody, and he knows it better than we ever will no matter how much we see or into which arena our vocations take us or how far. Jesus comes knowing that he’s going to be rejected by this world. He says as much, at the beginning of his ministry—did you hear that when I read John 3? “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light.” And yet he comes, because not everyone would love the darkness rather than the light, some would allow themselves be embraced by his love.
I just hope that all of us here this morning are those people who have said “Yes, God, I will let you love me because I see that light is better than darkness.”
So can you know the world and still love the world? God does, and so not only should we, we can. We can know the world and still love it; in fact we’re called to because this is what our God does. For him it was costly, and for us it is costly, but it doesn’t change this aspect of our calling. By fixing our eyes on Jesus and what he did for love, the way that he loves, we’re enabled to love. And we, like him, are enabled to go into the mess and face the hurt and encounter brokenness with love, not coming with condemnation but rather with the great message of salvation. Through our words, yes, but even through our actions, simply through the good work that we try to do in the brokenness of the world as it is.
So at the beginning of a new year, and over the next six weeks thinking of Our Callings and One Caller, I’ll leave us with some questions.
What can you do in the next 6 weeks to draw closer to the One who loves you, and faithfully pursue your first vocation? Friends, it been my experience, personally and through observation, that the more faithful we are to our primary vocation to God first, the clearer all the secondary questions become along the way.
What will your posture be toward the world you live in and the work you do? Can it be love? I know some of the work that you do and some of the pain that leads you right into specifically because you are called, can we still love?
How can we love the world this year, in spite of all the world throws at us? How can we stay engaged? The temptation as you go through life is at some point just to chuck it and say “Unfixable; don’t want to go there anymore; seen too much, know too much; I’m out.” So here’s the question for the year: How can we stay engaged? Especially when we know what engagement costs us?
And how can we love the people that God has given us in our own little relational universes? How can we love them for their sake, for our sake, for God’s sake?
St. John says something else to us this Epiphany season: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
We thank you, oh God, for the light of Jesus Christ breaking into this world and into our world. So we pray that you would so fill us with his light that we would be your light. We pray that you would so fill us with your love that we would be your love. And we thank you; we thank you for the high calling of following in the footsteps of your Son who did not reject this world, but came to save it and us.