I’m going to start today by describing something many of us went through at school. This happened in our sports lessons and it also happened during our break times.
When a team game was played, two people were chosen as captains and all the other players would line up and the captains would take turns at choosing players to be on their team. It was always immediately apparent who the popular kids were. They got picked first, even before people who were actually good at whatever sport it was (in my school anyway). We lived in fear of being picked last, of being the unpopular, invisible one.
Many of us can identify with being the invisible one at school, I wasn’t the best at anything, I wasn’t in any school teams, I won no awards, I wasn’t a brain-box or geek and great at my studies, but I wasn’t a numpty either, I just muddled along in the middle, I was invisible, and I kept my head down as best I could and endured it.
One of the disciples, one of the 12 men personally selected by Jesus to carry his message of hope to the world is all but unknown to us. He is the embodiment of the unknown, invisible one.
This man is James. But not James the brother of John, not James the brother of Jesus, but a shadowy figure few people can remember if asked to list the 12 disciples. This man is James, son of Alphaeus or more commonly as James the Less. The inclusion of his name in the lists of the disciples, and the inference that he was, along with all the other disciples witness to all that Jesus said and did is practically all we know about him. James the less, if he ever did anything to stand out from the other Apostles, if he ever asked Jesus a question worthy of note, Scripture does not record it.
Practically everything he ever did or said is lost to history.
The only thing about James which stands out is that he does not stand out, he is completely obscure. He even has a common name.
But don’t forget that he is not called “the less” because he is less important! He is called the less because we know less about him.
But he was a disciple, and Jesus loved all of the disciples, he taught them all, they all spent three years with him, and they were all present at and involved in the establishing and growth of the early church.
James the Less saw the risen Christ, he received the gift of the Holy Spirit in that upper room in Jerusalem, and along with the other disciples burst out into the streets at 9 in the morning praising God.
The witness of the early church fathers was that he was thrown down from the temple in Jerusalem by the scribes and Pharisees, stoned and had his head caved in by a fuller’s club!
But James the Less is one of the ones of whom Jesus prayed to the father “they are not of the world any more than I am of the world”, and to whom he said “go into all the world”. He is every bit as much an apostle as Peter, James and John, and just as loved by and valuable to God.
This is important in todays culture because all too frequently our heads are turned by how many likes our shares our social media posts accrue, how many followers our twitter feed has or how many facebook friends we have.
Jesus says to us plainly: ultimately that stuff is worthless. He says don’t do things to be seen by men, but understand that God see the things you do when you’re on your own, and he sees the thoughts in your heart that you don’t reveal to anyone.
In fact Jesus says that if that is our motivation, when men notice and applaud us for that stuff, the reward has already come. Jesus says our Father rewards those things which honour him which we do in secret.
It has been said that if you live for the praise of men, their criticism will kill you.
Eternity will reveal the names and testimonies of people who, like James are barely noticed or remembered in this world.
I have a one point message this morning, we do not need to seek fame and notoriety in this life to have significance in the kingdom of God. God sees us even when we’re completely invisible to the world.
AND in fact God sees us even if we’re completely invisible in the church as well.
We can expect him to touch us, to give us his gifts and fill us with his spirit every bit as much as the most famous Christian you have ever heard of. Our value comes not from men, but from our Father who is in heaven
James the Less teaches us powerfully that we can walk unnoticed and practically invisible through life, that even if we’re never given an accolade by men, or even those around us, every one of us can still fulfil his purpose for our life and on the day we stand before God, we will receive ultimate accolade: “well done, Good and faithful servant, you have been faithful. Come and share your master’s happiness.”
I am going to go to one of the passages which most encourages me when I feel invisible or unnoticed and disregarded.
1 Corinthians 1:26ff: “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written:“Let him who boasts boast in the Lord”
I will pick out some Biblical Examples of people who God used who were “not” people and some ways in which we might be “not people”, and how God might view us.
not wise(26) but foolish(27) i.e. Mental Attributes
The first category is that of mental ability people who are or feel somehow that they fall short Paul describes it as not wise, but foolish. I want to extend that slightly to include some other areas internally
Moses couldn’t find the words he needed (he knows it and says so at the burning bush)
The disciples were “ordinary, unschooled men” (Acts 4:13), and It is interesting that Paul was someone whose schooling was reckoned to be one of the best of his time (Acts 22:3 “Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers”) although he also says, “I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge” (2 Corinthians 11:6)
I meet many people who feel inadequate because they didn’t do well at school, they feel that somehow things they did (or rather didn’t) do at school disqualifies them from being called into (particularly) a pastorate. There is a tendency nowadays to equate education with intelligence.
But wisdom and foolishness it isn’t just about education, it’s also about other forms of mental strength and ability, or lack of it:
- Jacob was a liar (even his name means “he deceives” Genesis 25:24)
- Joseph was spoiled (Genesis 37:3ff remember his attitude to his brothers? – actually they were his half-brothers)
- James & John had tempers (sons of thunder Mark 3:17)
- Peter was impulsive (foot in mouth disease)
- Gideon had real issues with fear (a coward?) – and had very little faith
Yet all these people were called and used by God.
Do you feel that there is something inside which means you are hesitant about going for God? Something which you feel somehow disqualifies you from service in His church, or on the mission field?
Strength: weak (v27)
Ehud was left-handed (which at that time was seen as a disability) Judges 3:12ff.
Abraham was old and childless (Genesis 12:4 tells us he was 75 when he set out from Haran).
It is thought that Paul had some kind of physical infirmity (his “thorn in the flesh” 2 Corinthians 12:7)
so often in our churches people feel that they don’t qualify because of some physical issue.
Either too old: my time is past/time to pass the baton on. etc. This denies the obvious times God called older people to do His work, it also denies the passion of older people, Caleb was 80 and one of the most passionate. Tony Lee was 78 when he and I spent 2 weeks on mission in Uganda!
Or too young: the other end of the spectrum denies ministry to the young because they are too young, although we often don’t say that, we say they “need more life experience” we have taken young people as young as 12 & 13 on mission and in fact our own children were VERY small (pre-school age) when we started taking them on mission.
Don’t buy into this clap-trap that age is a factor that contributes to whether God uses you or not! Abraham was 75, David was about 13 (but nearly 40 before he actually became king), Josiah was 8 when he became king, Moses was about 80 when God called him. When they were called, the disciples’ ages could have been anything in the range from mid teens to early 40’s, Paul wrote to Timothy “don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young”, John was elderly when God gave him the vision of heaven that we know as Revelation. So if you’re in what we might call your golden years, don’t buy the lie that your usefulness for God is over!
Your weakness could be a physical disability. But that need not stop you. One of the most memorable worship leaders I have seen was blind, an awesome keyboard player and SO used by God to lead worship. Think also about people like Kathryn Kuhlman, Joni Erickson (insert your own examples here). You may have crutches or some other form of medical device to help you live life, but don’t believe for one minute that it will stop God’s call on you.
Perhaps it’s a combination of age and disability, some infirmity which is coming on as you are getting older (arthritis for example). Many people struggle with some kind of infirmity which they think relegates them to the sidelines and watching other people do great things and have great adventures for the Lord.
Then we move into the whole realm of emotional / mental weakness. There are a whole range of emotional stuff which are hidden but no less disabling. Some are medical conditions and others come from all sorts of damage and blows we’ve had in the past:
Tendencies – I have a friend who is very open in his testimony about his alcoholism – by his own admission he was on the fast track to an early grave – but he found Christ and became a “new creation”, so that is now his past! It died on the cross with Christ and in NO WAY excludes him from being used in the kingdom of God. How about the rest of us – do we have a tendency to something we’re ashamed of: porn? smoking? quick temper? be negative?
what about fear? – Gideon was fearful all the time, and it really affected how he viewed his ability, and it affected how he acted. Are you bound by fear? God would say to you “do not be afraid, am I not with you?” (Isaiah 41:10, Jeremiah 1:8, Acts 18:9,10 amongst other verses)
inferiority / comparison “I’m not as good as him or her”. We play the comparison game so well don’t we? Even Peter did it, he looked at John and said “master what about him?” (John 21:21,22) Jesus’ response was “what’s that to you? YOU follow me”
Please hear me I am NOT saying the struggles you have (either physically or emotionally) are not real or that you just have to somehow muster enough faith to say “that’s it, I’m not putting up with (such and such) any more”, or that if you struggle with your weakness then you are somehow not “living in victory brother”. What I am saying is don’t let that define you, don’t write yourself out of God’s plan for your church, your town, your area because of it. God has a plan for your life and he can use you in your weakness. You STILL have a part to play and you are still immeasurably valuable to God – just give him it all.
Nobility / birthright / privilege: “not of noble birth” (v26)
When you look at people in the Christian world, Billy Graham, Bill Johnson, Brian Houston, Joel Osteen and others all have children who are well known and you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s as much about who your family are as it is about your calling.
Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that Franklin Graham, Suzie Woodbridge or Joel Houston or any number of preacher’s/ leader’s kids who we can name etc are not gifted or called by God, or that they don’t deserve to be in the ministries they have. What I AM saying is don’t look at those people and assume that because you don’t come from the “right” family like they do that God won’t use you!
Gideon was the “least” in the smallest family in the smallest tribe (Judges 6:15)
Jephthah 11:1–3, was a half brother in his family (and by a prostitute) he was driven away by his half brothers and told he had no place in the family and would have no part in the inheritance – yet God used him.
Jesus was from Nazareth and Nathanael asked “can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46)
There may be something in our past or in our family environment which we feel have disqualified us from His service, or some perception that we should have had the same experience as everyone else we know who is serving God – and because we haven’t it clearly means we’re not as gifted / skilled / called or whatever as them.
We do not nowadays by and large have class privilege, but there is no doubt that other factors also influence our sense of self-worth. Certainly location is a big thing – if you live in Cheddar and were to say to someone in some council tenement in a deprived inner city that we all have equal opportunities, you would probably get mugged!
It is sad to say that actually I have watched the growth of what I would call “reverse snobbery” going on in our society. I have witnessed people who are perceived as being privileged (he/she was born with a silver spoon in their mouth) being overlooked for roles especially in more deprived areas.
This includes things we grew up doing and things that are not so historic.
Value: lowly & despised (v27)
So often what others think of us or say about us can stop us moving into the victory God has for us!
In Judges 6:27–32 we already that Gideon cut down the Asherah pole (at night), and was rejected by the people, in fact only his father’s intervention saved him.
Joshua 2:1 Rahab was a prostitute (morally corrupt by her own actions), yet was used by God mightily
Luke 15 Parable of prodigal son (the son was morally bankrupt) his own actions (I know he isn’t a real person, but the parable shows how God views us when we come to him from the pigs!)
Matthew (Levi) was a tax-collector (Matthew 9:9–13). Tax Collectors were hated so much they weren’t lumped in with “sinners”, but had their very own category of being hated!
Blind man in John 9 was invisible to people around him (no-one could agree who he was when he was healed)
// this passage with Isaiah 53:2 a description of the suffering servant: He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
Other people criticise us, our character, our skills, our gifting, and if it has come from someone we love or look up to it can completely hamstring us. When I was 14 I was told I couldn’t sing, had no musical ability at all and not to bother choosing music for my exams. It stopped me getting involved in music and worship until I was in my mid 40’s. I now lead worship regularly and teach guitar and worship at a Seminary in India.
Jackie Pullinger / George Whitefield / Hudson Taylor / Smith Wigglesworth / William Carey (think I’ve got these right!) and many others were all rejected for service in the church / on the mission field, yet went on to do great things for God.
Hope for Us…
I want us to notice this morning that firstly, Paul invites us to think about ourselves here.
This passage lists some things we can consider, but it also gives us the WHY this is such an important thing to grasp.
Think of what you were Paul says. Understand yourself, and understand what it is that God chooses, the type of people HE esteems. The type of people He calls.
Ultimately it is God’s sovereign choice which defines our value, not our personal characteristics, whatever they are.
The Good News for us is that God doesn’t listen to the opinions of others. God doesn’t look at our pedigree, our past performance, take references, or give probationary periods before deciding whether or not you are useful to Him in the Kingdom and confirming your appointment as his ambassador!
So the whole point of what Paul I saying here is that one of the reasons God deliberately seems to choose unknown, invisible, flawed people is, So that we don’t think it is us who has done it.!
Gideon’s army is whittled down from 33,000 to just 300, and listen to God’s description as to WHY:_The LORD said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me’_ (Judges 7:2). In other words, we have a tendency to think that we can do the things God has called us to do.
God told Abraham he would be a father of nations, but his wife Sarah has too old to bear children. Abraham tried to give God a helping hand by having a child with her maidservant, Hagar (and didn’t that turn out well?!).
Flawed people often know who they are.
Paul reminds the Corinthians who they were. He points out their flaws, he points out that they didn’t exhibit any of the characteristics of people who would normally be viewed by the world as the right type. And that is EXACTLY why they are chosen.
God’s track record is one of choosing things that are not and making them into something. He chose a nation before it was even born, he chose prophets before they were born,
Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew (or chose) you, before you were born I set you apart”
Isaiah 49:1 “Before I was born the Lord called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name”.
Jesus chose a rag-tag motley bunch of misfits, named them disciples and with them turned the world upside down! He knows what we were like:
1 Corinthians 6:9ff “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God”
He chose you and I when we were dead in our sin “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1ff). God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were (Romans 4:17).
God has chosen the way of weakness, Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? (James 2:5).
The ultimate hope for us though is this…
Philippians 2:5ff (The Message) Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death––and the worst kind of death at that:a crucifixion
In a very real way Jesus, though he was a something, became a someone who “was not”, and it was in that action that we have the most significant life in human history.
Don’t believe the lie that the “not” of your life disqualifies you from anything God might call you to do.
Your mission / function is not dependent on you, your past, your skills and gifting, – it is entirely up to The Lord whom He chooses.
Whatever you are carrying which you think is a block to the power of God working through you is something that God is aware of yet he chooses you anyway!
If you go away with nothing else this morning, remember this. Often God doesn’t chose us despite our flaws, he chooses us BECAUSE of them!