Forever Called

A 2006 Christmas Message

Isaiah 42:1-13

Annunciation – The word refers to the announcement given by the angel Gabriel to Mary about the birth of Jesus. While Mary was called to play a special role in the birth of Jesus as His mother, the form of her call into Christian service is a kind of model for how all Christians are called into service.

The first thing to notice is that all Christians are called into service. Salvation is not just about going to heaven in the future, it is about service to the Lord right here, right now. Christians are saved from and for. We are saved from the ultimate consequence of sin – hell and damnation, and we are saved for Christian service. And Christian salvation commences with a call.

It is not just pastors who are called to ministry, all Christians are called to ministry. “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (Titus 3:8). “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Such works of Christian service are not simply church jobs or tasks to be done at church or through officially sanctioned church activities, they need to be what someone has called “random acts of kindness.” Christian works, Christian service is not a job, but a lifestyle, not something you do once in a while, but something that you do all the time in every situation.

Consider Mary’s call to Christian service. Gabriel appeared and made an announcement. Notice that he didn’t ask her. He didn’t request her permission to accept the job. Rather, he said, hi; you are particularly blessed because the Lord is with you – no invitation, no four spiritual laws, no sinner’s prayer. It was simply the announcement that God had chosen her for service. It was like winning the lottery, except that Mary didn’t know that she had even bought a ticket. She hadn’t bought a ticket! She just won. It was that kind of announcement. That’s grace. Tag! You’re it.

And she was delighted, right? She shouted for joy, right? Wrong! “…she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). She didn’t believe it. She thought it was some kind of trick or a scam, and she got scared. So Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). That is the message of God’s saving grace. Mary was the recipient of God’s saving grace, and it scared the spit out of her. Such is the call to Christian service.

Notice that Mary’s salvation was not an escape from life. It was a call into life. It didn’t remove her from danger, but put her into danger. It was not a call for temporary service, it was a call to motherhood. Gabriel didn’t say, try it for a while and if you decide you like it, then we’ll sign you up. Not at all! Mary’s call to Christian service was neither voluntary nor temporary. She was called for a lifetime of service as Jesus’ mother. Motherhood is a 24/7 demand. And it lasts a lifetime. You cannot undo motherhood.

But neither was Mary unwilling. She willingly submitted to the Holy Spirit and to her call into service. “And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Just like Abraham had been called out of Ur to the Promised Land – and remember, he didn’t know where the Promised Land was. He didn’t know where he was going, but he went anyway. Mary didn’t know what being the mother of Jesus would require. She didn’t know where it would lead. But she agreed anyway. She was willing to go where the Lord would lead her. And that is the heart of a Christian.

Seven hundred years earlier, Isaiah wrote about the event, about the call to Christian service. Of course Isaiah had the Messiah in mind – Jesus. He knew that Jesus would be a flesh and blood person who would have a flesh and blood birth, even that he would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14). Yet, he also knew that the Messiah would be called to a life of ultimate service, that Jesus would live a life of exemplary service and dedication to God, to the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob. Seven hundred years before it happened Isaiah knew by the grace of God that the Messiah would suffer greatly in the service of the Lord and for the sake of the redemption of God’s people.

The Lord issued a call to Jesus Christ through Isaiah seven hundred years before He was born. The call to Christian service is a universal call. The call is issued to Jesus and then through Jesus to all of His people. It is one call to one people, a people untied in Christ, a people united in the purpose of Christ – the redemption of the world. But note that there is really only one call, yet the call is issued individually to each person that makes up the people of God. As Paul said, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Thus, the call issued to Jesus through Isaiah is also our call, and it is a call, not merely to salvation, but to Christian service. Isaiah begins, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).

Again, we see that God has chosen whom God has chosen. The choice is God’s not ours. The initiation belongs to the love of God. God upholds His chosen people and He delights in them – even though they are weak, inadequate and afraid. None of those things matter. Why not? Because God puts His Spirit upon those He chooses. The active ingredient, if you will, is the Spirit of God. Note also that God calls Him “my servant.”

It is not that God favors some people, some human individuals, some human personalities, some sinners, and rejects others. No, God rejects us all apart from Christ. God hates sin, and we are all sinners. God cannot fellowship with sin or with sinners because God is perfect, and association with sin would mar God’s perfection.

So, God must deal with sin. He must eliminate sin from the world if He is to inhabit or indwell the lives of believers. If God is to redeem humanity – fallen, sinful humanity – He has a two-fold task: 1) deal with sin (contain and eventually eliminate it), and 2) provide salvation and perfection for His people. This two-fold task has been God’s purpose from creation, and is found in God’s covenant from Genesis through Revelation. In short, God’s covenant accomplishes these two tasks by imposing God’s curses for covenantal disobedience and God’s blessings for covenantal obedience. This is the primary theme of Scripture.

We see this early in Genesis. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Note the blessing of God’s provision on the condition of obedience, and the potential curse for disobedience.

We see it again when Abraham left Ur and entered into a covenant with God. God’s promise or covenant with Abraham is found in Genesis 12:1-3: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” Again, note that God promises both blessings and curses.

Jesus preached a renewed covenant as can be seen in His first sermon found in Mat 4:17: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Implicit in this short sermon are God’s blessings for the obedience of repentance and God’s curses for disobedience, for the failure to repent. The newness of the New Covenant is not that it is a different covenant, but that it is a fulfilled covenant. Christ fulfilled the demands of the blessing part of the covenant for all who would turn to Him for salvation and sanctification. Those who do not turn to Jesus are left with the cursing part of the covenant that came through Adam’s sin. Understanding that God’s covenant includes both blessings and curses will keep us from much confusion about the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The reality of Adam’s Fall is the context in which the gospel of Jesus Christ is set. Apart from this context, the gospel makes no sense. The reality is that God’s curse is already in effect because God cursed Adam. “And to Adam he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return’” (Genesis 3:17-19).

The context of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the Old Testament. It is that the world, prior to Christ, was living under the curse of God, that the whole world, the air, the water, the ground and the trees all suffer under the curse of God. It is into this historical reality that Jesus Christ comes. Apart from this context, Christmas is meaningless. Or worse than meaningless, apart from this context Christmas can only be an aberration or distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Consequently, the most important thing that we as Christians can do in the midst of the Christmas season is to help people understand the reality of the context in which they – we – live.

Jesus Christ is indeed the reason for the season, but God, the God of the Old Testament, who is none other than Jesus Christ who has come in the flesh, is Lord of all, which means that He is the Lord of the heathen, Lord of the lost, Lord of all those who ignore and hate Him. He is Lord. All authority and power are in His hands. And He has come to a world that has been cursed by His Father.

He has come to save the world, yes, of course. But the thing to note is that apart from His saving, the world and everything in it will simply continue to wallow in God’s curse. It will continue its descent into hell and damnation, taking everyone and everything that does not belong to Jesus Christ with it. This is the context of Christmas, and apart from this context anything we say about Christmas can only be a distortion of the gospel.

Christmas can only be merry (joyful) for those who are in Christ. For those outside of Christ, those who reject or ignore the salvation provided by Jesus Christ, Christmas is only a yearly confirmation of damnation. This is the underlying reason for Christmas stress and anxiety. It’s not the shopping and the broken family get-togethers. It’s the damnation apart from Christ. And if it’s not your own damnation, it’s that of your loved ones, your family members and friends who continue to ignore or reject Jesus Christ.

I know that this is not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good Christmas message. But it is the message of the gospel. We usually think of the gospel as the good news of the saving message of Jesus Christ – and it is it. But it is only good news to those who receive Christ as Lord and Savior. Apart from Christ, in ignorance or rejection of Christ, the news that Jesus Christ is Lord is not so good. Christians have an advocate at the bar of God’s judgment – and that is good news indeed. But what about those who refuse the advocacy of Jesus Christ? What news does Jesus have for them?

I understand that this message is discomforting. It is supposed to be! The message that this world is actually speeding down the highway to hell is supposed to make people uncomfortable. It is precisely this lack of comfort that will drive many people to prayer, to their knees. God is at work in the spirit of this distress. To try to shut down this stress, to ignore it or deny it, amounts to shutting down the Spirit of God, to ignoring or denying God Himself. We have lost sight of the fact that salvation in Christ is a joy only in the context of a life trapped in sin, only in the light of the reality of our own hopeless impotence to stop sinning. People cannot stop sinning apart from Christ.

We desperately want to think that Jesus Christ will make our lives better, that we can find happiness and joy in Christ. And, of course, there is a measure of truth in that. But it is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that the happiness and joy of Christ come only as a result of passing through personal death and rebirth. Death and rebirth are messy and painful affairs.

During Christmas many people identify Jesus as the Christ. Most Christians think that Christmas is a good time for evangelism – and it is. But, by and large, our evangelization efforts don’t seem to be working very well. So, let me suggest a different Christmas story to share with your friends and families. It’s a Bible story about recognizing Jesus as the Christ, and about the birth of Christ in the hearts of believers. Mark tells it.

Jesus asked the disciples, “’But who do you say that I am?’” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he (Jesus) strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. (Peter rebuked Jesus!) But turning and seeing his disciples, he (Jesus) rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’ And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’” (Mark 8:29-38).

Yes, we are called to new life in Christ. But that new life only comes in the wake of the personal death and abandonment of the old life, in the wake of the death and personal abandonment of sin. Everyone wants the new life, but few are willing to die to the old, to abandon their comfortable ways of sin. The Christmas message of salvation in Christ is indeed good news, but it’s only good news to those who die in Christ, those who turn away from sin and temptation and embrace new life in Christ. Christmas is the savor of life to those who embrace Jesus Christ, and the savor of death to those who ignore or reject him (2 Corinthians 2:16).

This is God’s call. Christians are called to this, to self-denial and self-sacrifice. God called Mary to motherhood, and motherhood is all about self-denial, about putting the needs of another before your own needs. Motherhood is a great calling and a great sacrifice. Motherhood is a life-long calling.

As Calvinists, we believe in the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. This doctrine is also spoken of as “Once Saved Always Saved.” And, while true, this formulation of the doctrine can be misleading. It is the source of much misunderstanding about Reformed Christianity. A better formulation is “Once Called Always Called,” with the understanding that Christians are called into service. There is no end to Christian service. God calls people into His service, and then perseveres with them by sending His Holy Spirit to enable them to accomplish what He has called them to do.

Isaiah, through whom God who called Jesus, also wrote these words of the Lord, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Here is a Christmas gift that you can take to the bank.

Merry Christmas.

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