An Eternal Holy Calling

March 25, 2018

Who hath saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” (2 Timothy 1:9)

There appears to be an apparent conflict between God’s salvation, which was determined “before the world began,” and our present need to persuade men to believe the gospel (2 Corinthians 5:11). Jesus urged whoever was burdened to “come unto me” (Matthew 11:28), while insisting He had chosen His disciples rather than the other way around (John 15:16). Scripture often expresses this paradox.

Ephesians 2:8-9 states that our salvation is “not of works” but comes to us by the grace of God through faith—and even that faith is God’s gift. Few would argue that salvation is some sort of cooperative work between God and man since there is no question that our salvation is not due to our efforts. Many passages verify that teaching.

Today’s text insists that our salvation was “according to his own purpose and grace.” Our salvation must meet the requirements set by God’s standards. Just what does that demand?

God must be holy and just while justifying the ungodly (Romans 3:26). His holiness cannot be compromised. Thus, the incarnate and sinless Redeemer had to be sacrificed in order to reconcile sinful man with a holy God (2 Corinthians 5:21 and Revelation 13:8b). Then, the absolute sequence of redemption through grace had to be determined for those “who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 and 1 Peter 1:2).

The result of the sacrifice and the sequence had to be fixed so that the redeemed would be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). Praise God for His “unspeakable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15). HMM III



Now, in Easter week, try reading the whole Sermon on the Mount as a blueprint for how Jesus’ Easter-people should live. Now at last, with Jesus leading the way through death to new life, we see what it might mean to be poor in spirit, to be meek, peacemakers, and so on. Now, already, the mourners are being comforted, the pure in heart glimpsing the living God in Jesus himself. Now at last, as well, those who follow Jesus will be persecuted because of their love for him and the new world of justice and joy which he has opened up, which challenges the old world to its core. Now, at last, we can see the sense in the demanding new way of life which he has launched.

That is the spirit in which, for instance, we should read the bracing commands of 5.21—48. This is what it might mean to be genuinely human! The Easter message declares that it is possible to live without anger, without lust, without divorce, swearing, revenge and hatred. Most of the world doesn’t know this, but Jesus knew it; and at Easter he calls us to die to all those things, and come alive to his new way of life. Yes, it will be tough. Yes, dying in any sense is hard and unpleasant. So many theories about human behaviour have assumed that we ought to feel as comfortable as possible as much as possible. Then we wonder why life goes downhill, rather than attaining the heights we glimpse from time to time. Easter is where we not only see those heights but start to scale them.

Then, as the Sermon reaches a kind of climax, we have this passage about worry — or rather, about not worrying. Modern life, of course, thrives on worry. We only have to think back a century or two before radio, television, regular swift mail around the country and the world, and so on, to realize that for most people most of the time the world beyond their immediate village was a closed book. Worry was localized — none the easier for that, but think what we have done. We have made a global issue of it: we worry about nuclear power in the Middle East, about bush fires in Australia, about ecological disasters in Alaska. And, of course, this doesn’t remove the local and personal worries about meeting the bills, about feeding the family, about the uncertainty of life itself.

And Jesus tells us — the Easter Jesus tells us — not to worry about any of them. He could give that instruction already, during his ministry; how much more can he give it now that he is raised from the dead, now that he has overthrown the greatest worry of all, death itself? One of the chief notes in the life of the early Christians was joy: joy because a new way of life had been launched, new creation had begun, and it was clear that God had commenced his reign and could be trusted to bring it to completion. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,’ said Jesus, ‘and all these things will be given to you as well.’ And Easter reaffirms, gloriously, the way in which Jesus drew his examples from the natural order. The birds don’t plant seed and reap harvests, but they get enough to eat. The lilies don’t work at weaving, yet they are dressed magnificently. Other philosophies might scoff at such examples: they come from this world of space, time and matter, not the eternal world of ideas. But Easter reminds us emphatically that the world of space, time and matter is redeemed, not abandoned. In raising Jesus, God has reaffirmed the goodness of the natural world, and his compassionate care for it. In that care we can rest secure.

Worry and Easter, then, don’t go together. Someone once asked that great teacher and saint, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, whether he was an optimist or a pessimist. ‘I am neither an optimist’, he said, ‘nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!’ He had learned the Easter lesson which brings the Sermon on the Mount to life. Our life.

Help us, gracious Lord, to live our whole life in full and joyful trust in the power of your resurrection.


We are now going to do something rather different. We have followed the story which Matthew tells, the story of Jesus from before his birth to after his resurrection. But Matthew was of course writing for Christians who already knew more or less ‘what happened’. They were already people who believed in Jesus, that he had died to rescue them from sin and death, that he had been raised again and was now the world’s true Lord. How would they then read Matthew’s gospel, not just as a faithful account of what had happened in the past, but as a blueprint and set of clues for how they should be living as followers of this risen Jesus today?

I have chosen four passages that we haven’t looked at in detail earlier in the book, to take us forward from the Easter story itself into the much longer Easter story that continues to this day. Jesus’ Easter people — you and me, in other words — now read the gospels in order to discover, again and again, the presence and power and leading of Jesus in and through our lives and witness. And we begin with that wonderful story about the three wise men.
Here, Matthew is saying, Jesus was already mysteriously revealed as ‘Lord of the world’ — even though the present Jewish ruler, the sad and bad old king Herod, had no interest in such things except to kill enough people (in this case, little babies) to make sure nobody would upset his own shaky grip on power. Wise men from the East: we are not told here that they were ‘kings’, though later legend has seen them as such.

Certainly Matthew intends them as representatives of the ‘many who will come from east and west’ to share the ancient Jewish dream of God’s kingdom, and all because of Jesus (see 8.11). By the same token, he is seeing Herod as typical of those ‘sons of the kingdom’ who will, at the same time, miss out on the promise. As John the Baptist would say in the next chapter, God can raise up ‘children of Abraham’ from these stones (3.9).

The story of the three wise men, then, can be seen in the light of Easter as a great encouragement to the little church as it sets off on its mission to the wider world: the wider world has already heard about him and begun to come looking for him! But here there is a delicate balance to be kept. Some, eager to show how much God loves the whole world, have seen all non-Jewish religions and philosophies as equally valid, merely needing to be encouraged and developed. But that’s not how the story works.

The wisdom of the East, including the stargazing which was such a major part of ancient learning, had brought the wise men to the point where they were ready to travel to the land of the Jews to find the new king. But they needed help to find the right spot. Help was at hand in the form of the Jewish scriptures. They and they alone provided the clue to Bethlehem. Without them, the wise men had simply ended up at the wrong address — a dangerous place to be, as anyone in Herod’s court could have told them. But, with great irony, the chief priests and scribes who have told the travellers where to find the royal child have no interest in going themselves to see whether it’s true. They assume it isn’t — until, later, Herod smells a rat and sends in his thugs to kill the babies.

Matthew seems to be saying, to his resurrection-based church, that their mission will remain rooted in the Jewish scriptures, and that they will be able with their help to draw the wisdom of the world into homage to the world’s rightful king. But he is also warning them that they must not expect all the Jewish people to join in. As Paul would put it, God has subjected all people to disobedience, so that he might have mercy on all. The good news of Jesus, his kingdom-message, cross and resurrection, is always humbling to all people. It is the place where the scriptures and the wisdom of the world can meet and celebrate, but it will take something more as well. The ‘wise men’ could just as well have been called ‘the humble men’, or indeed ‘the obedient men’. It’s people like that who could then be called ‘the overwhelmed-with-joy’ people.

Risen Lord, give us a vision of the whole world coming to worship at your feet, and enable us to play a part in bringing that to reality.