A CHOSEN PEOPLE
A major university experienced an amazing turnaround in its football program a few years ago. The next spring, at the opening of spring training, the coach gathered his players together for a team meeting. As the players found their seats, the coach announced he was going to hand out awards that many of the players had earned in the fall. As the coach called players forward and handed them their awards, they were cheered by their teammates.
Then one of the assistant coaches gave the head coach a placard representing the national coach of the year award he had won for the team’s play. He accepted it proudly. Then, as the applause subsided, the coach walked to a trashcan which was marked with the year of their outstanding season, took an admiring glance at the placard, then dumped it into the trash can.
In the silence that followed, one by one, the teams stars dumped their awards on top of the coach’s. The message was clear: “What you did last year was terrific. But look at the calendar: it’s not last year anymore.”
Good advice. The team had experienced a great year, but they needed to put it behind them and focus on the year ahead.
In our Old Testament lesson Israel has experienced many BAD years. Many of their best people are in exile in Babylon. It is not a happy time. But a prophet arises, a man named Isaiah. And he brings them a message of hope, and the message was something like this: This has been a difficult time, but look at the calendar. It’s not the past anymore. God is alive and at work in human history. “Don’t remember the former things,” Isaiah says to them, and speaking in the name of God, “or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing …” In other words, don’t look back at your disappointments, this is a new day.
In order to encourage them even more, Isaiah has them look even further back into their history–to the Exodus, when God led the people out of slavery in Egypt. He reminds them of the time when the waters were rolled back to let them pass and how the waters closed once again over the Egyptian chariots. Isaiah reminds them of their miraculous deliverance from the hand of Pharaoh, and he assures them God will do it again. God will restore the Israelites to their home in Judea.
Don’t despair, Isaiah says to them. “Don’t remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
“The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
The imagery is striking. God will build a superhighway in the wilderness, says Isaiah; rivers will flow in the desert, even the wild animals–the jackals in the ostriches–will honor God. Why will God do all this? One reason: God has chosen Israel. Why has God chosen Israel? Israel is “the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
God’s hand was upon Israel. Israel was a chosen people.
You may be familiar with Tevye in the play, “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevye is a pious Russian Jewish peasant who loves to stare up into the sky and argue with God. In one particularly dark moment, when everything seems to be going wrong in his little Jewish community, Tevye looks toward the sky and says to God: “It’s true we are the Chosen People. But once in a while can’t you choose someone else?”
That seems to me reminiscent of a little verse in the book of Amos. God says to Israel: “Of all the peoples of the earth, I have chosen you alone.” Then God adds, “That is why I must punish you the more for all your sins.” Whoa, is that what it means to be chosen, that you will be punished even more for your sins? There were surely many times in history when the Jewish people prayed, “Can’t you choose someone else?”
How about you? Have you ever considered yourself chosen by God?
Martha Graham was one of the foremost dancers of the 20th century. On one occasion she commented: “People have asked me why I chose to be a dancer. I did not choose to be a dancer. I was chosen to be a dancer, and with that you live all your life. When any young student asks me, ‘Do you think I should be a dancer?’ I always say, ‘If you ask me that question, no! Only if there is only one way to make life vivid for yourself, and for others, should you embark upon such a career.’”
Martha Graham felt she was chosen. What does it mean to be chosen? Does it mean that all your actions are preordained, predestined?
You may be familiar with the story of two ministers who agreed to swap pulpits on Sunday morning as a sign of ecumenical good will. Each would preach that day in the other’s church. The date was 1850, the place Boston. One of the ministers was Lyman Beecher, best known of Boston’s great preachers. The other was a neighboring Presbyterian minister who believed strongly in predestination, an idea which Beecher could not accept.
That Sunday morning each man set out for the other’s church, a block or two away, to keep the appointment. They met on the sidewalk, halfway between the two churches, and stopped to exchange greetings. The Presbyterian minister said, “Dr. Beecher, I wish to call your attention to the fact that before God created the world, before he set the stars in their motion, he arranged that I was to preach in your pulpit this morning and you in mine.”
“Is that so?” said Lyman Beecher, glaring at his Calvinist friend. “Then I won’t do it,” he said and turned and went back to his own church and preached there that morning.
You do not have to be a Presbyterian to believe that people are chosen by God. Let’s consider our situation. You and I may think that we chose by our own free volition to be Christians, but is that necessarily so? Most of us came from Christian families. We grew up at least nominally in a Christian nation. It was primarily an accident of birth. We could have been brought up in an animist tribe in New Guinea or in a strict Muslim family in Saudi Arabia. Would we have still found our way to Christ? Maybe, but it’s doubtful in a sense we were chosen before we were ever born to be where we are. Certainly we are free to ignore our upbringing, ignore the teachings we have received, ignore the culture of which we are a part. One thing we dare not do, however, is boast about our faith as if it was something we accomplished all on our own. It was not. There was an intermingling of the influence of others as well as our own will that was responsible. We could build a case that we were chosen before we were even in our mother’s womb. We were chosen. Now, chosen for what?
God chose Israel for a purpose–to declare God’s praise. That is Isaiah’s testimony. Israel was to declare God’s praise. In another place in Isaiah we read, “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles …”
Israel wasn’t chosen because God loved Israel more than the other peoples of the world. Israel was chosen for a purpose–to declare God’s praise to all nations.
This is why you and I were chosen as well. I hope you understand that. We are a very fortunate people. If we interpret our good fortune to mean that God somehow prefers us to others, it would be a disastrous mistake. If God has chosen us, it is for a reason. It is because God wants us to declare God’s praise before our friends and neighbors and coworkers.
Now, how do we declare God’s praise? We do it by living a life of genuine Christian love.
Author Max Lucado tells about a woman in a small Arkansas community who was a single mom with a frail baby. This hard-working mom had a neighbor who would stop by every few days and keep the child so she could shop. After some weeks this neighbor shared more than her time with this hard-working mom; she shared her faith in Jesus Christ. This young mother was deeply affected by her neighbor’s actions and gave her heart to Jesus.
The friends of the young woman objected. “Do you know what those people teach?” they contested.
“Here is what I know,” she told them. “They held my baby.”
That’s what she knew and that’s what mattered to her. She had experienced the love of Jesus from her neighbor. That is what it means to declare God’s praise before the peoples.
Let me tell you a remarkable story about Silas, a Christian pastor in West Africa. Silas wanted to provide a witness to his neighbors who were Muslims. But when he tried preaching in a nearby village, the residents attacked him and ran him out of town.
Instead of giving up, Silas decided to take a different tack. He enrolled in a local Islamic school. While studying the Muslim faith, he began building relationships with the other students. He took on all the chores the other students didn’t want to do, the dirtiest and the hardest tasks. Silas’ church cut off support for him because they disagreed with his methods. His wife questioned why he would stoop so low as to do the jobs the other students wouldn’t. But Silas’s acts of service among the students caused them to listen respectfully when Silas shared about his faith in Jesus Christ. Now Silas is a graduate of an Islamic school. That means that, in his community, he is free to speak in Muslim mosques. And he takes the opportunity to tell his neighbors about Jesus. Neighbors who previously rejected his message are now coming to Christ because they have been moved by Silas’ servant attitude.
How do we declare God’s praise? Here it is. We show the love of Jesus.
But there is one more thing that needs to be said. Once God has placed His hand on us, He does not let go.
That’s the other side of being chosen by God. It is very difficult to get God to give up on you. I suppose it is possible, but you are going to have to fight very, very hard against God to make God throw up his hands and walked away.
In the early pioneer days around Chicago there lived a fine Quaker family by the name of Hartman. John, one of the sons, had grown to manhood, and was then about 19 years of age. One day he and his father had a violent quarrel, which was a very unusual occurrence in that family of peace lovers.
It was so serious that the father ordered the son to leave home. John, then as large and as tall as his father, arose and promised, “Father, I’ll go and will never return until I have a personal invitation from you.”
John decided to go West in search of work, and so with pick and shovel he found a wagon train that was heading out for California, where gold had been discovered.
Only a few days had passed when the heartbroken father came to himself and, remorseful, he acknowledged his mistake. He decided to go in search of his son. He sold some of his stock to provide means for his wife and family while he was gone, as well as for him to make the trip. He learned that his boy had gone West; heading for California. Soon he was tramping from one camp to another, only to find that John had left each camp just ahead of him.
Finally, with all of his money spent, the father realized that he must return home. But an idea came to him as he rounded a bend and noticed an overhanging ledge of rock.
“I will paint a message upon the rocks inviting John to come home,” he thought. And so he did–again and again and again. With a prayer in his heart that his son would come along that trail before the wind and the weather effaced the writing, the father headed back to Chicago. By Providence, young John was making his way along the trail when suddenly he noticed the words: “John Hartman, your father loves you. Come home!” He bit his lip and went on stubbornly, but there it was again: “John Hartman, your father loves you. Come home!” The message got to him.
“Father must have loved me a great deal to come way out here and write this message where everyone could see it,” John thought to himself. “I’m going home!” And he did.
Jesus taught us that God is like that and we ought never forget it. You and I are a chosen people. We have been chosen to declare God’s praise by showing forth the love of Jesus. And finally, we can rejoice, whatever mistakes we’ve made or how far we have gone astray: God does not easily give up on those he has chosen.