The One Who Calls You Is Faithful

“The one who calls you is faithful.”

That’s 1 Thessalonians 5:24, and it is now officially one of my favorite verses in scripture.

This entire 1 Thessalonians passage is beautiful, every phrase packed full of practical encouragement in the life of faith that somehow manages to rise above plain advice and reach a lyrical joy.

These are words you can write on your heart, words you can carry around with you through the day, words you can call up when your soul is hungry for light.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul says. “Do not quench the spirit…hold fast to what is good.”

Those are lofty goals.

I wish to heck I did rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances, but I can guarantee you I don’t.

There are days it’s more like “complain always, feel sorry for myself without ceasing, and make my own life more difficult in all circumstances.”

How do we live lives drenched with rejoicing, governed by prayer, and radiating gratitude?

Both the how and the why of it are all contained in that concluding phrase: “The one who calls you is faithful.”

This phrase has more than one meaning, and we can see it through all of our scriptures appointed for today.

“The one,” of course, in “the one who calls you is faithful,” is God.

But there is more than one way to look at God’s call.

Most of us think of God’s call as our vocation, what we’ve been put on this earth to do. And that’s exactly right.

Sometimes our vocation will align with paid work, and sometimes we pursue it outside of whatever pays the bills, but each and every one of us has something we are called to do with our lives that will help bring in the Kingdom of God.

In addition to being called as individuals, we are called as a community as well.

We are called in specific ways to help those in need, we are called to share the gospel, and we are called to be a transformative communion of discipleship.

These are calls of doing, and they can be short-term or long-term.

Someone might be called to be a teacher in the broadest sweep of his life, but he experiences a short-term call to serve at a soup kitchen, where no doubt his teaching skills will be needed and used.

St. Francis is called to serve those in need as a basic ingredient of our existence, but our short-term calls might be to serve Hattie B. Stokes students or clients of the Caring Center.

But when we read, “The one who calls you is faithful,” we have to read something deeper than just the calls of doing.

What we are called to do is always and forever growing out of what we are called to be.

Here we are talking about the God who calls us by name, who calls to us of our deepest identity, whose voice speaking the Word is the very means of our creation.

And we need to hear the call of who we are before we can answer the call of what to do.

What enables us to stay true to that call through thick and thin?

What we’ve already been told by Paul: the faithfulness of God. “The one who calls you is faithful.”

You know who knew that? You know who found that out in the grimmest possible circumstances?

Two of the men our readings are focused on today, Isaiah and John the Baptist.

Isaiah dealt with poverty, hunger, war, and exile.

He watched his people suffer slavery and violence, after refusing to heed his warnings that their lives needed to change.

The Temple of God that he loved was desolated, and Israel’s enemies seemed to be winning at every turn.

What reason did he have to believe that the God he believed had called him was faithful?

“Here I am, Lord,” he had said in the throne room of Yahweh. “Send me.”

And what did he receive for having offered himself so courageously? Precious little, it seems.

And John the Baptist.

Years of ascetic discipline in the desert. Forgoing having a wife and family, community, even a roof over his head or decent food and clothing.

Similar to Isaiah, constantly proclaiming news people didn’t want to hear by means of authority they didn’t believe.

Then, his primary mission accomplished as Jesus’ ministry was launched, John watched his disciples desert him to join the Jesus movement.

Still trying to obey his call with integrity, John called out Herod for his immoral conduct and was imprisoned for it.

Far from being rescued from jail by Jesus, John was left alone, and then beheaded.

“The one who calls you is faithful.”

Really?

Sure doesn’t seem like it from what happened to Isaiah and John.

And which one of us hasn’t felt like that at some point ourselves?

We do our part. We pray and attend worship and try to be decent people, try to live as we believe God is directing us, and still tragedy and injustice crash in.

The cancer diagnosis. The job loss. The estranged child who hasn’t spoken to us for years or the parent struck down by dementia and in need of constant care.

We want to believe that the One who calls us is faithful, but a quiet and lonely part of our hearts sometimes wonders if that’s really true.

But Isaiah and John the Baptist believed that the One who called them was faithful at a level even deeper than their doubts.

On the surface, as the storms of circumstance raged around them, they had their moments of wondering if there really was anyone out there listening, just like any of us would.

But we know that they had internalized the faithfulness of God at their core. That’s the only way they would have been able to persevere through what they did endure.

They knew that their suffering and their struggles were seen, witnessed, and valued by the God who loved them.

And they knew that their suffering had a higher purpose.

They were sacrificing their well-being for the redemption of the world in the coming Messiah.

“The one who calls you is faithful.”

There is someone who had more cause to doubt this and more cause to believe it than anyone else in the Bible, and we are keeping company with her right now: the Blessed Virgin Mary.

By this stage of the game, Mary was way past “expecting” or “with child” and into “pregnant beyond belief.”

Joseph has probably broken the news that they’re going to have to travel to Bethlehem for the census, and what mother pushing nine months pregnant wouldn’t want to take a days-long trip on a donkey to a distant town where she has no friends or relatives to help her if something goes wrong?

By this time the gossip in Nazareth has probably died down a bit.

It exploded when it was first known that she was pregnant and Joseph was not the father, and then probably again when she came back from visiting Elizabeth.

Luke 1:65 says, “And all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea,” and not in a good way.

But those sun-drenched days of healing female companionship with Elizabeth are now long gone, and the stark physical realities of pregnancy have made themselves known.

Mary and Joseph have the joy in their own hearts that the child to come is holy and blessed, but they’re alone in that.

Their parents, their siblings, their friends and neighbors—they all think Mary is a girl who made a mistake and then made up a story about an angel to cover it up, and Joseph is a fool for marrying a woman he knows was unfaithful to him.

That’s not much of a supportive environment for starting a family and bringing a new baby into the world.

Maybe it felt good to get out of town for awhile, even though it would wear Mary down physically even more, and Joseph was probably sick with worry.

“The one who calls you is faithful.”

These two clung to this truth with every fiber of their beings.

They had to, just like Isaiah and John the Baptist, just like so many in the Bible and just like us today.

Our national environment is one that stokes doubt in the very possibility that we any longer have any shared values or that injustice, lying, or abuse have any consequences for perpetrators as long as partisan power and wealth are worshipped.

And yet Paul says to us, “The one who calls you is faithful.”

So what are we to do when the darkness gets us down? When the doubts start to creep up?

What are we to do when the subtle spiritual grace of Advent seems lost beneath the garish preemptive glitter of American Christmas?

Take Paul’s advice: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul says. “Do not quench the spirit…hold fast to what is good.”

Because the work matters.

The daily disciplines of caring for one another, of seeking after God’s will, of loving our neighbors in a thousand small ways—they all have a purpose.

We are contributing to the coming of Christ into the world.

This Advent is as much ours as it is Mary’s.

And our efforts join with hers and Joseph’s and Isaiah’s and John’s, to bring our Redeemer to this place, here and now.

He will be named Emmanuel, God-With-Us, and his very name affirms the truth we’ve been clinging to, the truth we long to believe, the truth that gives us strength every day.

The days are long and cold, in the outside world and sometimes in our own hearts.

But you are alive, and you are blessed, and you are needed by this community for Christ to be born within it.

You are called by God to do good work, and you are called by God to be God’s beloved.

So as we do every year, in the returning rhythm of hope, we will stake everything on the truth we proclaim: “The one who calls you is faithful.”

 

 

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