Called into Service – Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

One thing that Lutherans are big on is insisting that we don’t earn God’s love. We don’t earn our salvation. God loves us as a free gift, given to us in Jesus, made real for us through Jesus’ death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter. Let me make this categorically clear: there is nothing you can do and there is nothing you don’t do that will remove you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is the fundamental foundation of the gospel, the good news. It’s what frees us from sin, death, and the devil. Living our lives like that makes a difference is what faith is all about.

But—you knew there was a “but”—but, as St. James, the brother of Jesus, rightly puts it—“Faith without works is dead.” Said another way, having a relationship with God where you don’t do anything is meaningless. James goes on to say, “for just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” To be a true Christian means to live your life like your relationship with God in Jesus matters. It means putting your faith to work…Using the gift that God has given you. So as we go deeper into the sermon today, rest assured that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, but ask yourself—what difference does that make to me, and do I live my life like it matters? How can I live like it matters?

Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

A few weeks back, I told you I like too cook. When you cook, you get to play with fun toys, kitchen gadgets. In fact, they’re tools that are meant to make cooking easier, tools for specific tasks in the kitchen. I have a few kitchen tools here today…Here we have a simple spoon. This is a rather multi-purpose tool. You can use it to stir things. This spoon would be good for stirring in a big pot. You might like to say you could really stir the pot with this spoon. Get it? Okay. Okay. At any rate, this spoon could also be used to dish food out of a pot onto a plate or into bowls with it. It doesn’t have slots, so it would hold juices or sauces so you could dish that out onto the plate as well.

Here we have a spatula. This is a multi-purpose tool too. You can use it while you’re cooking to flip things in a pan. Like flipping an egg. You might say it’s an egg-cellent tool for that…Get it? Okay. Okay. I know it’s bad. I’m bad…A spatula is also good for dishing things. Flat things…like tarts, or pies, or certain types of crisps. You can use some spatulas for serving cake.

And here we have the tongs. Again—a multipurpose tool. The tongs are primarily used to pick things up. You can use the tongs to pick up food and put it into a hot pan or skillet. Or you can use tongs to turn something without burning yourself. You can use the tongs to take something out of a hot pan or skillet or off the grill. Tongs are also good for dishing out food, too. You might use tongs to serve salad. Whatever the case may be, you always need to do a few test clicks with the tongs to make sure they’re working correctly when you’re using them. No real cook doesn’t test the tongs before cooking—and maybe even a few times during cooking, just for good measure.

Then finally, here’s an important tool. This one is for dishing out ice cream. I suppose you could use it for other things like making melon balls and dishing other things, but the most important thing this does, by far its most critical task, is serving ice cream. This tool may be multi-purpose, but really…it was designed to primarily do one thing—scoop and serve delicious, delicious ice cream.

Serve.

That’s an interesting word…

Serve.

During this season of Lent, we are looking at the five acts of discipleship. The first two weeks, we looked at the act of worshipping and the act of praying. This week, we are looking at the act of serving.

Service is one of those things that we know is part and parcel to a life of discipleship, but sometimes we get a bit confused about it. We might not necessarily know exactly how to best serve. We might not feel motivated to serve. We might even want to serve. But we know that we should serve. Serving is one of the acts of discipleship that people often feel guilty about, thinking they know they ought to serve if they’re not serving, or thinking they ought to do more even if they are serving. Sometimes people feel resentful about serving, thinking they’re doing more than their share of serving while others aren’t doing enough. 

Service as a disciple of Jesus is difficult, in some regards, because it’s tied up with working. And in a lot of ways, serving is working. When we serve, we are doing something, we are seeking to accomplish something. But we’re not doing something just to do it. And we’re not doing something for ourselves when we’re serving. Serving is inherently about someone else. Serving is working, serving is doing something for the good of someone else. Service is by itself very nature not about us, but about someone or something else. Service is an action that is very much, in fact, is very completely directed away from us and toward someone else’s or something else’s benefit. We don’t serve so that we benefit; we serve so that someone else benefits.

In today’s first lesson, Moses is called in service by God. God shows up in a fiery bush to Moses while he’s out in the middle of nowhere shepherding. He’s taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep. Now—this was Moses’ job. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, was a priest of Midian, a mountainous region in northwestern Saudi Arabia, just south of the Negeb desert that formed the kingdom of Judah, and along the eastern coast of the Red Sea, immediately to the southeast of the Sinai Peninsula. Moses came to Midian after fleeing Egypt, which sits opposite Midian on the western shore of the Red Sea. And so, Moses is out in these mountains, shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep. Since Jethro was a priest, we know he had some social standing among the Midianites, and so Moses had a decent job as a shepherd. Among the Bedouins—the people who live in this region of the Arabian peninsula—herding sheep and goats, particularly in the time of Moses, was a lucrative business. The larger your herds, the better your place in society. To say that Jethro was a priest who had sheep is to indirectly say that he was a well-off man. And Moses worked for him.

God shows up while Moses is working, and he calls him into service. He needs Moses to return to Egypt and deliver his people—both God’s people and Moses’ people—from their captivity. Moses is hesitant at first at this call to service. He tries to come up with excuses. “Well, who am I supposed to say sent me?” he asks. God tells him to tell them the truth, effectively. Tell them that the God of their ancestors sent you. Moses, still not convinced, and likely still trying to get out of going off from his good life in Midian, objects: “They won’t trust me,” he says. “They won’t listen to a word I say. They’re going to say, ‘God? Appear to you? Hardly!’” Moses isn’t excited about being called into service here…But God doesn’t relent. And this is the important part for us today…So God said: “What’s that in your hand?” Moses answers: “A staff.” God says to him: “Throw it on the ground.” So Moses does that. In an instant, it becomes a snake.

Imagine Moses jumping back, recoiling at the sight of the snake. Not only the staff that he had just been holding literally transforms before his eyes, but it’s a snake—not something good, to be sure. But God tells Moses to pick it up by the tail, and when Moses does that, the snake turns back into his staff. God then tells Moses again to head off to Egypt, and Moses finally relinquishes and obeys God. He gives into God’s call to service.

This staff that Moses has is important in how he responds to God’s call to serve. This staff is Moses’ staff for shepherding. But God repurposes it, uses it as a tool for his purposes. Moses uses his staff to change the water of the Nile to blood, the first of the plagues of Egypt. At the Red Sea, Moses again uses his staff to part the water so the Hebrews, now away from Egypt, can walk across on dry ground. He uses the same staff to cause the waters to come crashing back down on the army of the Egyptians, destroying the deadly enemy bent on holding the God’s people captive. This staff is a tool Moses used to shepherd the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro, but when God summoned him to service, it became a tool that served God’s purposes. Moses was still a shepherd, but this time a shepherd of the people of God. And his staff was still used to protect the flock, but in a different way. God repurposed the tools Moses had and used them for his greater glory—for redemption and restoration, for setting right what was wrong.

The same is true for us when God calls us into service as disciples of Jesus. Each of us, each and every one of us is called to serve and love our neighbor as we have been served and loved by God in Jesus. And each and every one us possesses distinctive gifts and graces from God that we can, should, and many of us do use to serve one another, other people, and the little bit of God’s creation we inhabit. But we shouldn’t shrink back from service for thinking that we don’t have what it takes, or that we’re ill equipped. God takes what we have, and uses it for his greater glory—often in ways that are surprising to us.

To serve as a disciple of Jesus is to serve with a knowledge, a conviction, a devotion that isn’t about using our skills, our talents, or our aptitudes for ourselves, but for the sake others—particularly, like in the case of Moses who God calls upon to deliver the Hebrew people from slavery, particularly when others are need of our service. Instead of saying, “There is nothing I can do,” ask yourself rather, “How has God already gifted me that I can use to serve, both the ones in need and to God’s greater glory?” When we reframe the question, when we look at it from a perspective of what God can do with us instead of how limited we are, God will do miraculous things. The true service we render is not our own, but God’s done through us. Like Moses served as a means for God to deliver his people from the hand of the Egyptians, so too does God use us to deliver those who desperately need comfort, respite, and solace from the captivity to whatever robs them of fullness of life. God has given us many distinctive gifts and graces—how are we going to give back that we might gift and grace others as we have been so richly gifted and graced? How will we repurpose the tools God has given us for service in God’s reign of peace, of perfect shalom?

God calls us each, each and every one us, with our own distinctive abilities, God-given abilities, to use them not only for ourselves, but in reflection of his love for us, his love for us embodied in Jesus who used everything he had, even his own life, in service to us. In the same way that we have been served, served so completely, so too are we called to serve. God has given us that we need, God has given us tools to love and serve him by loving and serving each other, other people, and the world we live as we have been so loved. The question is whether or not we can respond to God’s call to do so, if we can use the tools God has given us. The answer to that is a resounding “yes.” Because God always gets what God wants, stopping at nothing to get it, and God wants us in his service.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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