Whenever Scripture tells a story of someone being called by God I tend to become both excited and yet a little - or a lot - apprehensive. (Second Sunday after Epiphany. John 1:29-42; Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-14; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9.) The topic of being called by God can be exciting and daunting, encouraging and discouraging, sometimes inviting but often excluding those of us who don’t readily identify with those characters who clearly hear their names being called and respond with an immediate and resounding Yes!
When I was newly ordained I thought that at last this business of being called by God was resolved: I had eventually discerned, and others with me and about me, that I was called by God to serve in holy orders as an ordained priest. Surely that was it! But as time has gone by and I have had to discern being called into parishes, and then out of them and on to other parishes, into retirement and then out of it, into writing for an invisible audience, and of continuing to grow even as I slow with age, I have to confess that this business of being called is as mysterious and perennial as ever.
I am comforted by a prayer that Thomas Merton wrote: "God, we have no idea where we are going. We do not see the road ahead of us. We cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do we really know ourselves, and the fact that we think we are following your will does not mean that we are actually doing so. But we believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And we hope we have that desire in all that we are doing... Therefore, we will trust you always though we may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. We will not fear, for you are ever with us, and you will never leave us to face our perils alone."
At the heart of it all I suspect that God is always calling us home into loving union with God, into our truest and eternal selves, and the whole of creation. God’s call is always, I believe, in the first instance and at the deepest level, to be creatures – beloved sons and daughters - who know their loving Creator. The call of God is therefore universal in this respect – all living creatures are called. The call of God throbs through all creation and is inbuilt into the nature of all things. As the mystics tell us we are restless for God until we rest in God. This makes the call of God intensely personal at an almost cellular level. In the language of Isaiah and the psalmist we have been called since before our birth, we have been named and formed in the womb by God. Being called is integral to simply being who we are. God knows our true name and our true nature and calls us by this.
Often those we read about in Scripture or hear witness also have a sense of what they are called to do. They seem to be called not only into relationship but also to specific tasks and job descriptions – into a particular vocation. Isaiah was called to be a prophet, to have a mouth like a sharp sword. Andrew and Simon Peter were called to be disciples of Jesus. But what about those who don’t have that sense of being called to a particular vocation – or even when you do still find much about life that is a riddle, a maze of possibilities for both wondrous and deadening choices?
To recognise and respond to a sense of being called is to become a seeker and a follower, to risk becoming lost before – if ever – becoming found. Responding to a sense of call is to risk giving up everything before knowing what will be gained. To discern being called somewhere is not always a permanent destination but an initiation into journeying, growing and surrendering, entering into a process rather than arriving at any certainty.
In the account of the call of the first two disciples in John’s gospel there is some delightful detail that suggests that even for those who knew Jesus in human person it was not straightforward. The first two disciples mentioned in this week's text were John the Baptist’s disciples at the time they sighted Jesus! Did they wonder if they had got it wrong? They had seen and heard John the Baptist and decided that this is where God wanted them to be. And then along comes Jesus and they leave John and follow Jesus. What was that like for the disciples? And what was that like for John? Does their later decision make their first decision invalid? Not necessarily.
Like those two disciples of John I have followed other spiritual paths and been deeply informed by the wisdom of other traditions only to see Jesus walk by, or to hear him speak, and to pick up and follow where I would not have expected to go. As individuals we should trust God’s call as it unfolds in our lives. And as church we should be more trusting of those who have had different paths to this place than ourselves and have places to continue onto. As many these days find that sometimes following the call means following the call of Jesus out of the churches we were raised in. At the very least following Jesus has meant for many of us following his footsteps in directions that some of our fellow neighbours don’t understand and don’t approve of.
Even Isaiah who was sure of the call of God didn’t find it easy or comfortable. He was called to be a prophet, one with a mouth as sharp as a sword which probably didn’t win him a lot of popularity contests. Isaiah is led to say “I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Do you ever feel like that? Do you look around the church and admit to feeling like all those years of fundraising, busy bees, personal giving, brass polishing, baking, studying, praying have been in vain? That the commitment of a life time has earnt nothing but irrelevance and struggle, for what? For a world that doesn’t value your beliefs or practices! But Isaiah is able to say: “yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward is with my God?”
And God answers him in the most surprising way: “It is too light, too easy, a thing to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore, the survivors of Israel” - this is after years of captivity and yearning and despair – it is too light a thing?? “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth!” You might think that a compassionate God would say “there, there, Isaiah, you have had a hard job, sit down and have a rest.” No, God says I have something even more amazingly wonderful and demanding and impossible in store for you. Your weariness comes not from aiming too high but too small! The cure for your despair is not to give up but to desire more.
Is God a workaholic? Does God want us to work until we drop! I don’t think so for after all God created Sabbath and rest and originally placed us in a garden of plenty and play rather than a field of work and achievement. The Old Testament is full of guidelines for the keeping of the Sabbath and Jubilee – cycles of rest and restoration.
God’s antidote for our fear and malaise and weariness is to challenge our hearts and minds to catch on fire with what can be. The cure for despair and weariness is to desire more, to aim higher. The call of God to be ethical good citizens of the kingdom awakens our desire for a world of justice and mercy that will reign down on the least and the lost and on us all. The call of God to be generous awakens our desire to give until all are fed at the great feast of the divine and until our seemingly unquenchable thirst is sated with love and hope. The call of God to be faithful servants awakens our desire to be companions and lovers of the Beloved.
So if you are uncertain, or bored, or weary, take heart and allow the call of God to awaken you and to guide you home. Hear your true name being uttered in the night. See your true vocation dance before your imagination. And know that there is room enough in God’s heart for you, as you are and as you might yet be.
Even so, come Lord Jesus call us deeper into life and love.