Worthy of His Calling
Ecclesiastes chapter four begins by reflecting on the visible poor of the world. 'I saw the tears of the oppressed and they have no comforter'. That was nearly 3000 years ago. What has changed? The pictures of people falling off flimsy boats in the Mediterranean desperately trying to cling to the rope ladder of a ship suggest that not much has changed in the plight of the oppressed. And yet it is not the poorest who make these long journeys from African countries to Europe by route of traffickers. They actually have the resources to pay. Many are literate and able. They want a better life. Some are indeed refugees fleeing ISIS and Boko Haram and other Islamic terrorist organisations. Who wouldn't? One said 'Prayer and the money' got him through. The large majority are left where they came from, worse off and unable to change their circumstances.
When Jesus stopped at Bethany on his last journey to Jerusalem, he visited the home of a man called Simon the Leper as a guest for his evening meal. An uninvited woman came in with an alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume which she proceeded to pour over Jesus. It was an act of love and devotion. St John's Gospel tells us that this was Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus. She was the one about whom Martha complained to Jesus that she was not helping her with the housework and the preparing of the evening meal. Jesus rebuked her for complaining and commended Mary's spirituality. Jewish women loved perfume and usually carried an alabaster pendant filled with perfume round their necks. Mark and John priced the amount of perfume in this woman's jar at a year's wages for a working man – so – today – say £15,000. We might ask how she got this perfume. Gifts from men? Was the family rich? We are not told. At the feeding of the 5000 the disciples told Jesus he needed the equivalent of £10,000 of food to feed them. That compares favourably with the budgets given to our hospitals to feed patients. This perfume was worth more. As part of the research for this sermon, I found out that the most expensive perfume for sale on eBay today is £23,041. The disciples regarded the pouring out of this expensive perfume as a waste of money which they argued, could have been sold to buy a lot of food for the poor. Jesus rebuked them saying 'The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me'.
It is certainly true that in every age and generation there are many poor people in this life and world. Indeed, there are many more poor people than rich. We here this morning are comparatively rich compared to the poorest in the world – in places like Nepal and Bangladesh for example. As much as 80% of the human population are classed as poor today. Some live on 60 pence a day. Some have nothing at all. Some of us present here have been poor in our earlier days. Over the years I've heard tales of poverty, of putting folded newspaper sheets inside shoes to stop up the holes, of getting up early just to get something to eat at breakfast before sisters and brothers aplenty scoffed the lot, of never having new clothes throughout childhood. Now we have people coming to food banks in this country. No-one is as poor in this country as the poorest of the world, however. It is an improving picture overall. The poor in China are rising from their poverty. Africa is booming economically. Every indicator says that things are getting better for the poor of the world. Research indicates that the number of people living on less than $1.25 per day has decreased dramatically in the past three decades, from half the citizens in the developing world in 1981 to 21 percent in 2010, despite a 59 percent increase in the developing world population. However, a new analysis of extreme poverty released today by the World Bank shows that there are still 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty, and despite recent impressive progress, sub-Saharan Africa still accounts for more than one-third of the world’s extreme poor.
So Jesus' words hold true 'There will always be poor people in the world'. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that 'it is probably better to be dead than to be wretchedly poor and better still not to be born into poverty'. That is too negative, to pessimistic. Lots of people born into poverty have done well in life. Indeed that is the story of this country. There are many 'rags to riches' stories. Hard work, cleverness, imagination have taken people with nothing to begin with to success, comfort and even to great riches, Michelle Mone, Tom Farmer, Arnold Clark to name just three. David Livingstone was a child worker who educated himself and became a doctor and missionary explorer. Mary Slessor was one of the poorest and she became one of Scotland's greatest humanitarians and Christian missionaries. Some of you will remember the Asians expelled by Idi Amin from Uganda in 1972 who landed in Britain with nothing. Within a generation some became multi millionaires. Locally we all know people who have built successful businesses from nothing and others who were the first in their families to go to university and who then did well in the professions. And even those who just worked over the years and lived good lives saved and found themselves better off in retirement than they had ever been.
The writer of Ecclesiastes suggests that ambition is driven by jealousy. He thinks that peace of mind is better than hard work and that achievement is meaningless. We would not agree at all. Think about Jesus and His struggle and what he achieved for us all. Think about him from Darvel, Alexander Fleming, who spent his life working in a laboratory and then discovered penicillin on Friday, September 28, 1928. What about Mozart, burnt out at 28 years of age but who left the world such sublime music. The writer of Ecclesiastes was pre-Christian. Christianity gives meaning and purpose to sacrificial living, caring for others in family life and being good neighbours. Not turning our hearts against the poor of the world. Christianity has ennobled human nature and raised it above base instinct for survival and mastery, jealousy and greed. Worthy of His calling.
Paul was writing to the new Christians at Thessalonica. Today Thessaloniki has about 1 million inhabitants in its greater Thessaloniki area – like our EH postcode. It is Greece's second largest city placed to the north east of Athens and south of Bulgaria where Barbara has her summer house. It was a busy port and commercial centre in Paul's day. He begins with three affirmations of thankfulness for these new Christians' growing faith, love and perseverance amid persecutions and trials. Growing in faith is an active expression of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. How much have we learned about God, about Jesus Christ, about the Bible over the years? Much or little. Do we live closer to God than we once did or have we drifted away? Do we cling to faith like a life raft on the open sea. Are we safe in the arms of Jesus? Paul encourages the suffering Christians with his assertion that 'God is just and will cause trouble to those who are troubling Christians'. That is not an attractive proposition. Jesus forgave his enemies with his last breaths. Here Paul is consoling the suffering with the theology of divine retribution. It does not often seem that those who harm Christians and Christianity themselves suffer. ISIS may in time be beaten and dismantled but they are having plenty of time and opportunity to hurt Christians. Politicians who have abandoned Christianity in this land don't seem to suffer much. There's little to say that an agnostic or atheistic politicians will have his or her comeuppance – any more than anyone else. People who have left this Church and many other churches get on with their lives. Those who have harmed Christians have been exposed in history but that did not stop them doing their worst. People did their worst to Jesus and we must just take courage in his example and in his resurrection and living Lordship. This puts everything in eternal context.
Paul goes on to quite extreme language. 'The Lord Jesus will punish those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus'. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord. This is not comforting stuff. It seems reasonable that people who reject God in this life will not be close to God in the next. It seems unreasonable that they should suffer evermore for doing so. Paul though, emphasises the positive. Those who have believed will belong to Jesus on the day of his revealing. This includes you he says to the Thessalonian Christians. So Paul prays that 'they may be worthy of his calling so that the Lord may fulfil every good purpose in their lives'. That they may honour the name of Jesus in their lifestyle choices. And that the Lord's grace should be uppermost in their conduct of their lives. This is the language of Brethren and Baptist and independent evangelical Churches. This is not the public language of the Church of Scotland nor indeed of the Church of England. Roman Catholics have their own language of piety different from ours. Worthy of his calling It is a good standard to aspire to. It is a helpful goal. Maybe there's a little or a lot we need to do to tidy up our lives to be worthy of his calling. Let us take it on board. Let us adopt Christ's pattern. Let us seek to live as we know he wants us to live. Let us be worthy of his calling.