Throughout this season of Advent we have been following Mary and Joseph in their journey to Bethlehem. Their journey began when God called Mary to be the mother of Jesus. An angel appeared to her and told her she would bear a son and her response was “behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Joseph was called to be Jesus’ earthly father. Joseph also was visited by an angel in a dream who told him not to set Mary aside because she was with child and when Joseph awoke his response was to do as the angel had told him. In today’s epistle we are told that Paul was called to be an apostle and the letter to the Romans is addressed to all those called to be saints.
As believers in Jesus Christ we to are called; while our calling may not be heralded by angels or by being stroke blind, nevertheless we are called. He calls us to discipleship. We are called to follow in His way of love. With Christmas, he calls us to a cave where the new born baby Jesus lays. Then He calls us to the streets and hills where Jesus preaches and heals. On Good Friday, He calls us to the cross to see His sacrifice of love. And on Easter, He calls us to the empty tomb to witness the resurrected Christ. Every day He calls us.
Bonhoffer wrote “God calls us to die.” And Paul tells us that we must die, die to self and live in Christ. To die to self is to set aside what we want in this moment and focus instead on loving God with everything we have and valuing others as highly as we value ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). This moves us away from self-centeredness and closer to becoming openhearted followers of Christ who care deeply for others. It’s much easier to pay attention to the concerns, interests and needs of others (Philippians 2:3-4) when our own interests no longer consume us. As we die to self, we open ourselves to God’s love. We are answering God’s call to us. And with this answer our old self begins to slip away. Jealousy, impatience, intolerance, selfishness all those negative feelings diminish and God fills us with love. We are born again as Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3: 1-21); we are born to the Spirit. Paul states “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2: 20) Jesus described this dying-to-self process as part of following Him: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). In dying to self, we find genuine life by depending on God, who provides much more than we can imagine. Part of the life that we find and the fruit we bear is not only living a richer life with God but also becoming more generous to others, reaching out to them with love and joy. But do not be mistaken in thinking that dying to self is death of self. Self-denial is not self-rejection. God treasures our divinely created selves. He doesn’t want to obliterate the part of us that makes us uniquely us. God works within us and reshapes us into the person our renewed-in-Christ self is meant to be: not selfish with what we own, not concerned about how circumstances affect only us, and not crabby when others seem to get what we want. As we die to self, we no longer try to get our own way or try to get people to look up to us. We stop offering unasked-for advice, as if in self-importance we think we always know better than others. We let go of trying to make a good impression on others. We find freedom from the self-focused life, Evelyn Underhill in her book How do we spend our lives says: “We mostly spend [our] lives conjugating three verbs: to want, to have and to do. Craving, clutching and fussing, we are kept in perpetual unrest.” Quite simply, when we die to self, we’re no longer obsessed with self. We no longer focus on wanting, having and doing. In being called to new life in Christ our focus shifts to the verbs to be and to love. We are called to be like Christ. We are called to love like Christ. This is not a one time call. Daily we are called to die to self and called to witness God’s love. He calls us to witness to God’s love in our family, with our friends, our community, our world. He calls us to love as He loves. God loves us so much that he gave His only Son to die for us. Jesus loves us so much that He willingly sacrificed Himself for us. Now that is not to say we should die on a cross; what it tells us is that our God puts others first; we are that important to Him. That is how we are to love. How will we respond to that call? Mary responded with “do unto me according to your word.” Joseph responded by heeding the angel’s message. Paul responded by bringing the Good News to the Gentiles. How will you respond – with a no saying God asks too much; with a qualified I’ll see what I’m willing to do; or with a heart felt yes Lord, here I am.
As we await the birth of Jesus that we will celebrate in a few days, let us respond to Gods call to die to self and respond to God’s call to love with a loud Amen.