January 28, 2018

Yep - You're Included!

4th Sunday of Epiphany

First Lesson:   1 Kings 19:19-21

Second Lesson: Acts 13:1-5

Gospel Lesson: Mark 1:14-20

No hands. How many of you were picked last for kickball at recess? How many of you waited to be asked to prom, but the invite never came? How many of you had to go to 15 different places until someone hired you? How many of you had your heart broken because you thought someone was “the one” but they didn’t feel the same about you? How many of you feel like you’d be the last one picked to lead a discussion on proper parenting, planning, or proper use of gifts and talents? 

No hands. Good. Of course every one of us here would have raised a hand for at least 1, 2, or 3 of those.  Why? We all have inadequacies/insufficiencies. There are always better athletes than us out there, just as there are more attractive marriage partners, more skilled workers, better parents, and more successful time managers. That is reality.

And that can affect us.  We can wallow in self-pity. “I’m not special.  I don’t have anything to offer others. I’m just plain, old boring me.”  We can be filled with envy.  “I wish I had her ability to communicate or his ability to win people over.” Or we can give up.  “I’m a nobody, another face in the crowd. I’ll never be used for some great purpose.” We don’t like to admit it, but there are those days, esp. days filled with screw ups, that even the most confident among us gives in and deals with despair, frustration, and resignation. But is it true we’re not special? That we have nothing to offer others? That others are “better” than us? That we’ll never be used for a great purpose? Our hearts say, “Yes!”  God’s Word, though, says differently.

We are in 1st Kings, and the 1st person we need to talk about is Elijah. God used him to accomplish great things.  He was a rock in a time when Israel’s spiritual condition was terrible. He went toe to toe with the prophets of the false god Baal and God granted him a stunning victory. Read about it in 1st Kings 18. Elijah wasn’t a nobody.  He had something to offer others.  And he was used for a great and wonderful purpose.

In time, God told Elijah to take on a student and be a spiritual mentor to his replacement. That person was Elisha. Who was Elisha? The son of Shaphat. What do we know about Shaphat? Absolutely nothing. We have guesses, but Elisha did not come from some royal bloodline.  His family wasn’t famous in the land.  It seems like they were like the Jones down the block – average people. Yes, it seems like they were pretty well off, but besides that, they were probably rather normal.

So Elijah goes to meet him, and at the time, Elisha is working oxen in the fields.  Farming was common back then, and in many ways it was an “ordinary man” type of job.  Without a word, Elijah places his cloak around him. This sounds weird to our modern ears.  If I went down to Regner and put my jacket on someone, I’d be a weirdo at best and a creep who would get a visit from the cops at worst.  Back then, passing on your cloak meant something.  This was a sign that Elijah was calling Elisha to follow him.  It was a sign that Elisha would be his student and he would be Elisha’s mentor.

And Elisha clearly gets this. But before heading off, he says, “Let me kiss my mother and father goodbye.” Normal, right? We hug family when we leave for a week-long business trip or when parents go to the Bahamas.  Elisha is ready to leave his family for good, so it is only natural that he gives them a proper goodbye.  Elijah says, “Have at it!” and he does.  Then he leaves his old life behind – burning the farming equipment and preparing a meal with the oxen – and follows Elijah.

There are many things to commend Elisha for here, but do you see anything super special about him?  Does it seem like people would see Elisha and say, “That guy will do great things”?  Do you imagine Elisha working the fields saying, “This is preparing me for some huge event in the future that will really impact God’s people”?  I don’t.  If I had to guess, I bet Elisha sat behind that plow thinking, “Will I ever do anything special? Will I ever, can I ever, make an impact on the lives of other?” 

But what did God do through this every day, common guy?  Great things.  After Elijah was taken to heaven in a whirlwind, he took up Elijah’s ministry. Through him, God did miracles to help lots of people. Through him, God made sure the people always had at least one prophet sharing God’s truth. Through him, he even brought a dead person to life.  He was a faithful servant to his final days, days filled with God using him to impact the lives of others in a very spiritually positive way.

The point?  God did not pick the best kickball player, the most attractive guy, or one who to whom people are naturally drawn because of her charisma. It sounds like he picked an average, ordinary kind of guy. And that jibes with our other two lessons.  Who did Jesus call as disciples?  Fishermen, tax collectors, farmers – a bunch of nobodies in the world’s eyes.  And while Paul is a superhero of faith to us, remember he admitted he wasn’t a great speaker, and it doesn’t sound like he was much to look at.  All the people mentioned sound quite average.  But God used these average people to truly accomplish great things.  And anything done is service to the Lord for the benefit of his people is considered a great thing.

So what about you?  Who are you?  Are you just the last one picked for things, a regular schlub like everybody else, one who won’t have much of an impact?  This answer might surprise you: Maybe.  Why say that?  Because if that is all you think you are, it will be kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of thing.  You will think this about yourself, come to the conclusion nothing will ever change, feel sorry for yourself, and then hole up in whatever is comfortable for the rest of your life.

But all those things we have mentioned don’t really define you – the real you.  Do you need a reminder of who you really are? You do. Me too. You’re a child of God. He is blood to you and you to him. And this is the case due to Jesus. You know that, but think about the depth of that truth.  Perfect, holy Jesus came because he so loved the world, yes, but also because he so loved you.  That love was so strong he couldn’t turn from his mission though he knew the cross and all its horrors awaited him.  He endured hell on that cross so you wouldn’t have to think about that with fear for one second.

And by all that, what did he make you?  A child of God.  You are one whom God brought into his family through baptism.  He put his name on you and declared, “This one is mine.  He/she belongs to me.”  You are one in whom God placed a heart of faith that knows/trusts God’s Word, God’s love, God’s grace, God’s presence, and the fulfillment of all God’s promises.  You’re so connected with your Lord, that, as Paul says in Romans, “Neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”  That’s who, that’s what you are.

And we draw even more from the family aspect.  Parents, you give something to your children.  Cooper has many of Lori’s features.  Avery has my deep, dark, mysteriously entrancing brown eyes. What has God passed on to us?  Many things.  To Elisha, he gave a spirit of humility so to serve others.  He gave him a strong trust. He burned his past life and moved ahead relying on God. And he gave him a faithful spirit.  No matter what happened, Elisha faithfully stuck to his guns. Being part of God’s family has many benefits.  And one of them is the different skills, talents, and abilities with which God has blessed us.

So what are yours?  You do have them – many of them, in fact. St. Paul writes this in 1st Corinthians: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”  He doesn’t say, “This part is only for some of you, for the really talented people.”  He is talking to all believers, because all believers are a part of God’s family, and therefore all believers have been given many, many different spiritual gifts and talents.

Open your service folder. Notice 3 lines there.  I will give you a minute or two.  Grab a pen (or just think about) 3 different skills/talents/abilities God has given to you. And really think.  Don’t just put something down to be done.  Ponder the different ways God has blessed you.  While you are doing that, in high school, a pastor teacher had us do this exercise.  And I put down, “I work well with little kids.”  The class laughed at me.  The pastor commended me.  And for the most part, that still is true.  I really like God’s little people and think I can communicate with them quite well. That is not cocky, because this isn’t something I have done, some skill I found by myself.  It is a gift from God.  So think about it – what are yours?

Does anyone want to be so bold as to mention something they wrote or thought? I know it feels like we are tooting our own horns, and there is always that chance for sinful pride to rear its ugly head.  But done correctly, this is a “praise God” kind of thing.  If Avery tells her friends, “I have my dad’s deep, soulful brown eyes”, isn’t that ultimately a compliment about me?  When we say, “God gave me this skill, this talent, or this ability”, isn’t that ultimately a compliment about him – the giver?

But still we can say, “He/she has more impressive gifts to offer others!” From a worldly perspective, yes. Not with God. The gifts, talents, and skills God gave you, he gave to you for a purpose.  Let’s say your gift is patience.  No TV show or web series will be made about you, but isn’t patience as a parent, a friend, or a coworker an amazing gift?  To be able to calm others, evaluate the situation correctly, and find a godly solution is a blessing. The world doesn’t think so.  God disagrees.

Maybe you have the gift of compassion.  Ours is a hurting, angry world.  To be able to show godly compassion to the suffering is an amazing gift. Maybe you have the gift of communication. People get what you say because you present the info clearly. Esp. as a Christian, isn’t that an amazing gift you can use as you share God’s truth, maybe even as a teacher or a preacher? Maybe your gift is you love to do stuff no one else likes, stuff that never gets noticed. Where would our church be if we didn’t have people who scrub floors at 11 PM, scrape snow on Sundays, or make sure the mowers have gas?

Over and over God talks about his family as a body – the body of Christ.  Bodies have many parts, and no one part is more important than the other.  All work together for the good of the whole body.  The same is true of the Christian body.  If God didn’t give you a specific gift, he gave it to someone else.  Join your gift with his, with hers, and with theirs, and what do we have?  A body working.  A body serving.  A body that, as one unit, praises the Lord.

This is not just a sermon to recruit more people to do stuff around here. I hope that’s a byproduct of this, but it’s not the main point. The main point is you are special, for you are a child of God. You’re one he decided to give different gifts and talents. You’re one for whom God made the ultimate sacrifice so you’re part of his family. And you are one God will continue to use to carry out his purposes and be a blessing to those around you, esp. those who belong to the body of Christ.

You may think you will always just be the last picked, not very successful, and average and ordinary in every way.  Maybe Elisha thought that too.  Maybe a lot of people in the Bible whom God built up to do great things thought that at one time.  But it is not true.  You are loved.  You are welcome in God’s family.  You are his own, bought at an expensive price – the life of his Son.  And the God who did that for you is the God who blesses you with what you need to carry out the personal ministry to which he has called you.  If you want more direction on how to use your gifts, esp. here in the congregation, please let me know. I would be glad to help in whatever way I can.  But whatever the case me be, keep your eyes open – open to what God has made you and how God has blessed you.  And with a heart overflowing with thanks and appreciation, when the opportunity to jump in and serve arises, I pray we don’t say, “I am a nobody.”  Instead, knowing God’s grace and God’s gift, we say along with the prophet Isaiah, “Here am I! Send me!  Send me!”  Amen.