Almost every Sunday, I stand from a pulpit and say something about the calling of God. I say things like, “God is calling us to use our gifts.” “God is calling us to this mission or that mission.” “God is calling us to catch fire and light up this city.” God is calling.
Oftentimes, I talk about this “calling” when I pray. “God, you have called us to this place.” “God, you call us to be your servants.” “God, you call us to live a self-denying life of discipleship.”
And on many Sundays we even sing about this calling. “Jesus is tenderly calling.” “I can hear my Savior calling.”
It is the kind of language that I use when my North Carolina beach loving friends ask me: “Why did you move from a place that is a little over an hour’s drive from the ocean to land-locked Oklahoma? Do you have family there? Do you have good friends there? Do you owe someone a favor there? Did you lose some kind of bet?”
“No, I am here because I believe God has called me here.” “God called me to go to seminary.” “God called me to be a pastor.” “God called me to serve with the Central Christian Church in Enid.” God called.
But what are we really saying when we speak of God this way? What is this call of God? Why does God call? How do we recognize God’s call? And more importantly, how do we answer God’s call?
I do not believe there is any better place to examine the nature of God’s “calling” than these first few verses of the book of Jeremiah:
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.’
It should be noted that the very first word of this prophetic book that we call Jeremiah belongs to God. The prophet’s words begin, not with the prophet having some word inside of him that needs to be expressed, but rather with God’s word coming to him. This is what Martin Luther referred to as “the external word,” a word that is not self-derived, but a word that comes as an intrusion, oftentimes a surprise, a gift from the outside, a word from a God who says: “I want to transform the world, and guess who I am calling to help me do it!”
Therefore, it is a misnomer when we speak of this book of the Bible as “The Book of Jeremiah,” as if this book were mostly about the words of one man. It is perhaps better entitled, “The Book of God,” for it is God who begins the conversation.
In the beginning, Jeremiah sets the record straight that the words, the mission, and the direction of Jeremiah’s life was God’s idea before it was Jeremiah’s idea. “I knew you before you knew you,” says the Lord.
I believe this is one of the most important theological concepts that the church needs to recover today. Our worship, our mission, our purpose as a church is not about us. This, what we are doing right here and now is not something that we created for ourselves. Central Christian Church was God’s idea before it was our idea.
William Willimon once put it this way: “[Church] is primarily about learning to suppress some of our self-concern and cultivate more God-concern.” Thus, Sunday worship is a blessed opportunity to look beyond ourselves, to get outside ourselves, to hear and to embrace and to follow the external Word.
But notice how Jeremiah responds to this external word. When he hears it, he has a hard time accepting it and even a more difficult time following it. For his very first words in response to the word of God are words of resistance:
Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.
Hmmm. If the external Word of God is anything like the way most preachers these days describe it, why in the world would Jeremiah resist it? For who in their right mind turns down some chicken soup for the soul? Who refuses to take a little pick-me-up-feel-good vitamin to help get you through the week? Who says “no” to words that meet needs and fulfill desires? Who rejects a God who is all about making us happy, healthy, comfortable and prosperous?
And Jeremiah is not alone. He’s not the only one in the Biblical witness who has trouble accepting this divine Word. Remember when God called Sarah? She spat out her coffee and laughed out loud: “Ah Lord God, I am much too old for such a calling!” Remember when God called Moses? “Ah, Lord, God, not me! I am not very good at public speaking.” Remember when God Mary: “Ah, Lord, God, not me! How can this be? I am much too young for such a calling!”
Why the resistance? Why do they all try to argue their way out of it?
Could it be that they all knew just enough about God to know that this word, this external Word, this divine Word was not about them, or even for them, thus it was bound to make their lives more difficult.
But notice that God not phased by Jeremiah’s resistance and continues calling, commanding Jeremiah to “go.” But promises that in spite of the persecution that he will no doubt receive for going out, for standing up and for speaking out, God would be there each time to rescue him.
Now, there is no way that I can go into all of the horrible things that happened to Jeremiah along the way and still keep this sermon under twenty minutes. He was scorned by community leaders. He was beaten and bullied by organized religion. He was physically assaulted by his own family. He was put in prison by the government. And he had his life threatened more than once.
And each time, God did come to his rescue. Well, sort of. For each time Jeremiah got knocked down, God came and picked him up, but only to immediately call out to him once more: “Go! Get up and go young Jeremiah, for:
Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.
No wonder Jeremiah is continually persecuted! Change is never painless. In order for something to be planted, something must be plucked up. The word that brings new life is also the word that destroys and overthrows. As we’ve learned earlier this month, oftentimes the Word of God comes as fire. Henri Nouwen once wrote that our God is one who is continually calling us to go into “unknown, undesirable and painful places.”
After all, this Word, this external Word, this divine call is not about us. This call is not about meeting our needs; for if it has anything at all to do with our needs, this Word is about rearranging our needs. This call is not about fulfilling our desires; for if it has anything at all to do with our desires, it is about transforming those desires. This call is about what God desires and what God needs from ordinary people like you and me to build God’s kingdom on this earth.
Thus, I believe the church must be very careful when we talk about our ministry and mission.
During our wonderful leadership retreat that Rev. Speidel facilitated a week ago, I heard many say that they desired to come up with some ministries that would bring in new people to Central and fill up this sanctuary.
I believe that is a very good desire. It is my desire. However, I wonder if we are ever going to fill this sanctuary again, one of the first things we might need to stop saying is that we desire to fill this sanctuary. After all, this thing called “church” is not about what we desire. It is first and foremost about being called by an external, divine Word.
Let’s have the very best, the most active and the most theologically sound ministry with children and youth in this city. But not because we want to attract and bring in new young families to our church who will come in and help make our church more exciting. Let’s all use our gifts, selflessly and sacrificially, to build a great ministry with our youth and children because we have been called to do so. Because we have heard an external word, saying that “unless one welcomes little children, they do not welcome me.”
Let us love and respect our neighbors who do not belong to a church, meet them where they are, build relationships with them, earn their trust, care for them, be their friends, rejoice with them, even suffer with them, not because they might start coming to church with us, take our place on some committee or begin putting dollars in the offering plate, but because we have been called to love them. We have heard an external Word to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”
Let us give the poor and the hungry a chicken sandwich, treat a stranger like family, give someone who is cold a new coat, offer assistance to those who have been imprisoned, not because they might pray with us, one day believe like us, worship like us, dress like us and act like us, not because they may one day help us or even help themselves, but because we have been called to do this. We have heard an external word to do it unto the least of these our sisters and brothers.
Let us go an visit residents in the nursing homes. Embrace them. Send cards to them. Visit them. Prepare meal for them. Not because cooking or going to the nursing home makes us happy. Not because being nice to someone in the nursing home might one day get us or the church a special gift, but because we have been called to be family to them. We have heard an external word to take care of widows and all who are lonely and destitute.
You want to bring more people into the church? Then maybe we need to stop saying or even thinking that we want to bring more people into the church.
And just go. Go and selflessly and sacrificially use the gifts God has given us to share the love and grace of Christ with others for no other reason except that is what we have been called to do.
Just go and love one another with a love that is so radical and with a grace that is so socially unacceptable that it will cause people to ridicule us asking:
“Why on earth are you treating them that way? Are they friends of yours? Are they family? Are you returning a favor? Did you lose a bet? Or do you expect them to reciprocate by doing something for you?”
And we respond: “No, we love them like that, because that is simply what we have been called to do. For each Sunday morning our church gives us this blessed opportunity to look beyond ourselves, to get outside ourselves, so we can hear and embrace and follow the divine, external Word.”
Well, I’ve preached long enough this morning. I realize that at this point this sermon seems to be unfinished. It seems to be lacking something. That’s because it is. This is a sermon that doesn’t have a conclusion—yet. That’s because we are going to write the conclusion. It’s a sermon that each of us who are being called today are going to have to finish ourselves.
I’ve walked you through the story of Jeremiah’s calling, a story that began with God. Our story also begins with God. God is here and God is calling. How will we respond?