SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 9, 2011, THE EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

What makes you special?

Think about it.  Could be anything.  Maybe you’ve got an unhittable breaking ball.  Or you’re a world-class mezzo soprano.  Maybe it’s your mind for business or ability to lead people.  You could be heir to the Hilton hotel empire, a great writer or a chef, or possess extraordinary physical beauty.  Whatever we suspect it is, we’re trained from an early age in our culture to look for and expect “specialness” of ourselves.

On a number of occasions, I have tried, unsuccessfully, to watch American Idol.  Renee’ can tell you, it’s not the bad singers that make it impossible for me to watch - in fact, the worse the singer, the more I usually enjoy watching the performance.  I can’t watch because they interview the bad singers on their way out the door after being booted off the show, and, almost invariably, they say, “The judges were flat out wrong, man.  I’m gonna just keep doing what I do because I’m the greatest voice on the planet.”  Right?  And maybe there’s something admirable about that, believing in yourself despite all evidence to the contrary.  But I always thought the best thing about the show was Simon Cowell, the mean judge.  A few years ago Teri Gross interviewed Ken Tucker on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”  At the time, Tucker was a film critic for New York Magazine, and he said Simon Cowell is important because he gives:

... a critique of the ubiquitous “everyone is special - you did a good job, no matter how you really sound,” which is what the other two judges on American Idol say.  We may hate him, but [Simon] does make sort of succinct and objective critiques, like “this is absurd, you don’t have a good voice, you should get another line of work, get out of here.”

But of course there are people who think they have a special voice when they really don’t.  They’ve been told they’re special for decades.   And the fact is that there are few things we’re more ambivalent and conflicted about than our own feelings of specialness because, although we’re indoctrinated to believe we’re special, we’re also indoctrinated to believe the exact opposite thing at the same time!  As the Anglican anthropologist Margaret Mead is famously purported to have said:  “Always remember that you are absolutely unique.  Just like everyone else.”  And if everyone is special, then are any of us really all that special?  We’re trained to expect to be special, but we’re also trained to suspect that specialness. 

What in the world does that have to do with anything?  I mention it because people sometimes level the criticism that Christians believe we’re special somehow, that God loves us more than others.  That objection’s likely to be thrown around especially when a certain word from today’s NT reading comes up:  The word “chosen.”

To Paul, it was obvious that the Thessalonians were chosen by God.  Unlike in some of Paul’s other letters, where he writes specific criticisms and corrections to faith communities, he largely lauds the church in the city of Thessalonica, partly because the evidence  was so clear that they had been chosen by God.  The word Paul uses is related to the word eklektos from the end of last week’s gospel - For many are called, but few are chosen (Matt. 22.14) - and it’s the basis for a doctrine called “election.”  I know in many churches election is the “third rail” of theology.  You don’t preach about it because if you touch it, you die, but, hey, how many Sundays is your boss in Spain so you can preach on anything you want?  So I want to take just a few minutes to look at two things:  (1) The idea of election; and (2) some implications of election.

First, the idea of Election - For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you . . . .  (1 Thess. 1.4) Americans tend to recoil against the idea of election.  For one thing, we instinctively believe our wills are free, don’t we?  (If we had time, we could talk about how the idea of free will is clearly in the Bible right alongside the doctrine of election).  But what really chaps us is that it just doesn’t seem fair.  Listen to Lesslie Newbigin in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society:

There is surely no part of Christian teaching which has been the subject of so much ridicule and indignant rejection as the doctrine of election.  How absurd for intelligent, educated people to believe that almighty God should have his favorites, that he should pick out one small tribe among all the families of humankind to be the special objects of his attention.  Is it not simply a piece of ignorant egotism? [1]

The truth is that it would simply be ignorant egotism except for one thing:  Election is not about picking favorites.  It’s not about the inherent worth of the chosen ones.  It’s all about the One who does the choosing.  He has something he wants to accomplish, and he elects people to be the means for accomplishing it.  The Bible is shot through with it.  Later Newbigin writes:

[I]t is plain that the doctrine of election is central to any true exposition of the Bible.  From the very beginning God chooses, calls, and sends particular people.  God is always the initiator.   The words of Jesus to his disciples, “You did not choose me; I chose you,” are in line with everything in the Bible from beginning to end.

Newbigin is saying God just seems to work that way, choosing one person or one family and then giving them a specific job to do.  God chose Abraham, not for Abraham’s benefit but to make him the father of many nations so he could bless them all.  God chose Israel not for Israel’s sake, but to bless all the nations in the world through Israel.  In today’s OT reading, God even chose Cyrus, the King of Persia, a pagan and an enemy of Israel, to be his “anointed” one, the one he would use to deliver his people.  “The disciples are chosen that they may be “‘fishers of men’” (Mark 1:17) . . .  The church is a body chosen ‘to declare the wonderful deeds’ of God (I Pet. 2:9).” [2] God chose the Thessalonians, just like he chooses people across time, to be witnesses of a more excellent way of life. 

Which gets us to our second point:  The implications of election are that the elect are chosen to accomplish two specific tasks -- mission and evangelism.  First, mission:  We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before out God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ . . .  (1 Thess. 1.2-3)  Calvin called this one little sentence “a brief definition of true Christianity.” [3]  Did you notice that all three of what we call the “theological virtues” are in that sentence?  Work of faith; labor of love; steadfastness of hope -- Faith, hope and love.  These are supernatural virtues God gives his church, and each of them moves out from ourselves.  Faith shifts our eyes upward to God, the source of our help.  Love pushes us out into the world to embrace other people.  And hope anchors us not in our circumstances, but in the providence of God, trusting that he is working in all things to achieve his purposes to renew the world and make the whole creation new.  That’s election to mission.

And the second implication of election is evangelism:  The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia -- your faith in God has become known everywhere.  Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us.  They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead -- Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.  (1 Thess. 1.8-10)  Paul chose the word exechetai here, the root for the word “echo” -- The message of the gospel echoed or “rang out” from the Thessalonians.  That was “verbal” evangelism.  But also “visible” evangelism.  People all over the region saw how lives changed when people became followers of Jesus.  Mount Olympus was only fifty miles south of Thessalonica, [4] so it’s safe to assume these people had worshiped carved images of the gods before they believed the gospel.  But we don’t have to go all the way to Olympus for idols; we have our own right here in Boston.  An idol is anything that demands the allegiance we owe only to God, a “God-substitute,” as John Stott says.  We can make idols of ambition and success, of our bodily appetites and desires, of our intellects, our reputations, our political philosophies, even our religion.  When God’s grace enters our lives, we find ourselves moved to turn from those idols and begin to serve - literally to be douloi or slaves of - the true and living God.

So I ask you again:  What makes you special?  Our temptation at a place like the Advent is to think we are special because we stand in the apostolic succession, or our high view of the sacraments, or our worship that’s so rich and transcendent, but those aren’t the real answers.  What really marks us out, what marks out all Christians, is that God has chosen us and given us jobs to do.  The real question for us today is what evidence our lives give that we truly belong to God.  Are we constantly looking up in faith, moving out in love and rooted deep in hope?  Do our lives ring out into the world with the verbal message of the gospel and visible proof of its power in the form of changed men and women?  Pray with me that the answers to those questions may truly and indisputably be “yes.”

Amen.


[1] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998): 80.

[2]Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed (Grand Rapids, Mich., Eerdmans, 1995): 68.

[3] John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, Ross Mackenzie trans. (Oliver & Boyd, 1961): 335 (quoted in Stott, 30).

[4] John R. W. Stott, The Message of 1 and 2 Thessalonians: The Gospel & the End of Time (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1991): 39.