When God Calls


Jeremiah 1:4-10 NRSV

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?

Christmas for the Average Joe

st-joseph-infant-jesus-344x400Matthew 1:18-25 NRSV

This past week, I went to the post office to purchase some Christmas stamps for our Christmas cards.  And this year, like every year, I am asked the same question from the postal clerk that goes something like this:  “Do you want the gingerbread house, or do you want the religious stamps?”  Last year, it was either “the snowman or the religious stamps?”

Of course I want the religious stamps! It’s Christmas, and I’m a preacher, and I’m supposed to be religious!

“What kind of religious stamps to you have?” I asked.

And every year it’s always the same. In the Christmas religious category, you always have the same number of choices—one.  Said the clerk: “It’s the Madonna and child, you know, the portrait of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus.”

Have you ever wondered why there are no stamps of Joseph holding the baby Jesus?  In all of your born days, have you ever seen such a stamp?  Have you ever even heard of such a stamp?

Now, I understand that way back then, in a male dominated society, men probably didn’t do a lot of baby holding.  That was the woman’s job.  But why hasn’t there ever been a postage stamp of Jesus and Joseph hard at work in Joseph’s workshop building something together?  Why can’t we find a postage stamp of Jesus and his carpenter father building a new pew or a pulpit for the local synagogue?

And along the same lines, how many Christmas carols or a Christmas hymns have you ever heard that are about Joseph?  If you look through any traditional hymn book, you’ll find, “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child Lowly in a Manger;” “That Boy-Child of Mary.” “What Child is this, Who, Laid to Rest on Mary’s Lap;” “Child in the Manger, Infant of Mary.”  Then of course there’s “Silent night, Holy Night, All Is Calm All is Bright Round Yon Virgin Mother and Child!”  Why isn’t it “round yon father, mother and child?” Why is it never “Child in the Manger, Infant of Mary and Joseph?”  The truth is: you’ve got to look high and low, do a lot of googling, to even find one mention of Joseph’s name in any Christmas carol or Christian hymn!

Now, I realize that Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus.  Yet, without him there would be no nativity.  Have you ever seen a nativity scene without Joseph?  Even the very small ones, the ones without all of the animals and the shepherds and wise men, have Mary, the baby Jesus and Joseph!

His role in the Christmas story is so important that he, like Mary is also visited by an angel. He is told that his wife, Mary, is going to have a baby, but he is not the father. However, he must accept the baby as his own.  And then, although he is asked to claim the child, raise the child, and provide for the child, Joseph will not even have the privilege of naming him, as he is told by the angel call him “Jesus.”

He must shoulder the demands of fatherhood. He must support Mary in her awkward situation before the child is delivered. And then, when the child is delivered, he must be born in a barn! Then, soon after, he must be protected from the horrors of King Herod. He must save the child’s life by fleeing to Egypt until it is safe to come back home. But still, Joseph has no postage stamp, no hymn, no carol.

They belong to Mary. Maybe it is because the church has traditionally called Mary “the first disciple.”  And well we should, for she was the first one to be visited by an angel, the first one to hear the call of God on her life, and she is the first one to faithfully say: “yes!”  When the angel told her that she was going to have a baby, she replied with obedient, grateful confidence with the beautiful words: “Let it be to me according to your will.”

Amen, Sister Mary! That will preach!

But what is there about our brother Joseph that will preach? Yes, he does go through extraordinary lengths to care for and protect the baby Jesus. But, really, who wouldn’t? When it comes to innocent babies, no matter who they are, most of us have a soft spot.

So what is it about Joseph that preaches, that speaks to us, that reveals something about who God is, how God acts, and who God is calling us to be?

Mary was the first to receive the good news, the first to be called by God to participate in the movement of God, and Mary was the first to say “yes,” but Joseph is the second to the get the news:  The good news, the gospel, the word that God was pouring God’s self out, emptying God’s self and becoming flesh to save all people through a child to be named Jesus. Joseph is the second to be called by God, which kind of makes Joseph the second disciple. And, Joseph was the second to say “yes!” Maybe that is what preaches about Joseph!

Well, actually, typical of Joseph, he did not say anything, at least nothing that we know of.  In all of our encounters with Joseph in the gospel of Matthew, we do not hear him utter one word.  Did you know that?  Maybe that is the reason the postmaster told me that yet again this year, that if I did not want the Gingerbread House, and wanted something in the religious department, I only had one choice.

But you know something?  Most of us are a lot like Joseph, aren’t we?  No one is going to find a postage stamp with any of our faces on it either. Most of us are a lot like Joseph in that all the news we have about Jesus is really second-hand news. We were not the first to get it.  Mary’s first-hand news was dramatic, causing her to become involved in the movements of God in the world in the most profound of ways, literally with her body and soul.

It’s just not quite the same with Joseph, and it is not quite the same with us.

And, like Joseph, most of us are not big talkers. We are ordinary, quiet folks. When Mary was visited by the angel, she burst into song, singing one of the most beloved songs in all of scripture and the church: her lovely and powerful Magnificat. But Joseph, he never sang. And as far as we know, he never even said anything.  He was a simple man, a quiet man, a rather ordinary man, an average Joe.

Now, I’m a big talker, but you have to pay me to do it! Most of you would be very uncomfortable up here doing what I do in this pulpit this morning. You have faith, but you don’t like to make a big show of it. You believe in Christ wholeheartedly, and you have committed yourselves to follow Christ faithfully, but you don’t have a lot to say about it. You are a faithful disciple, but you are a quiet disciple.

You go about serving your Lord every day, faithfully answering his call, courageously following Christ wherever he leads, albeit quietly.

And like Joseph, sometimes the call of God leads you to do things that you do not want to do. Sometimes it calls you to go to places that you do not want to go. Sometimes it calls you to accept and love people that you would rather not accept and love.

And every ordinary Joe who strives to live as a disciple for the sake of others sacrifices and suffers.  And you do it because something or someone who is greater than yourself is constantly persuading you, encouraging you, leading you. And you follow. You persevere faithfully and courageously, albeit quietly and ordinarily.

You are just an average Joe, minding your own mundane, everyday business, when suddenly your life is caught up in the extraordinary purposes of God. You wake up one day realizing that you need to serve God more by serving others more selflessly—forgive those who have wronged you, care more earnestly, love more deeply, follow Christ more closely.

You wake up with a desire to bake cookies and deliver them to the oncology floor at the hospital on Christmas Day. You awake and feel led to make a donation to the food pantry, serve a meal in the soup kitchen, drive someone to a doctor’s appointment, and purchase a coat or a toy for a child.

And you don’t talk about it. You just very faithfully and quietly act.

The Bible is full of stories of average Joes minding his or her own business, and then, out of nowhere, comes a call. And usually the person being called is speechless.

Do you remember the call of Abraham?  When God called Abraham in the middle of the night, he was too dumbfounded to speak!  Do you remember the call of his wife Sarah?  When she was called, she could not talk either. All she could do was laugh!

When Moses was called, he spoke, but all he said was that he was not a very good speaker. We learn throughout the Bible, that this is simply the way God works. God specializes in calling ordinary people, average Joes, to become caught up in the unexpected and extraordinary movements of God in our world.

Therefore, we remember Joseph on this Sunday before Christmas.  And although we will not sing one carol this day about him, we thank God for him nonetheless. Because in Joseph we can see ourselves:  ordinary, average Joes.

Like him, we mind our own business. But then, into our ordinary lives, God intrudes. God comes to us, and God comes upon us. God calls us.  And even if we are not good with words, even we couldn’t burst into a hymn if we had to, even though we will never be on a postage stamp, if we will at least whisper, “yes,” then like Joseph, we will be faithful disciples, a people willing to follow the movements of God in Jesus Christ wherever it takes us.

And the good news is: that will preach!

PS: I found this poem after I wrote and delivered the sermon:

The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don’t you see? 

It is important,
crucially important,
that he stand there by that manger,
as he does,
In all his silent misery
Of doubt concern and fear.
If Joseph were not there
There might be no place for us,

Let us be there,
Simply be there just as Joseph was,
With nothing we can do now,
Nothing we can bring-
It’s far too late for that-
Nothing even to be said
Except, ‘Behold- be blessed,
Be silent, be at peace.

The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don’t you see?[1]

[1] Shepherd, J. Barrie. Faces at the Manger. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1992.

Everybody Needs Somebody with a Skin-Face

Annunciation_scene_detail_-_webAs appeared in the Farmville Enterprise

Annunciation—it’s the big word to describe the call of God on a person’s life.  It is when ordinary lives are caught up in the extraordinary purposes of God.

The Bible is full of such stories. Someone is minding his or her own business, and then, out of nowhere, comes this call. And usually the person being called is startled and even afraid to be called by God. This is why Gabriel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid.”  And then the person being called usually has a lot of questions.  Mary asks, “How can this be?”

And who could blame her for asking?  She is but a virgin engaged to be married to Joseph.  She was far too young for such an annunciation.

That’s the way it is with most all annunciations. Do you remember the annunciation of Abraham?  When God called Abraham in the middle of the night, he was too dumbfounded to speak—probably because he thought he was too old for such an annunciation.  Do you remember the annunciation of his wife Sarah?  When she was called, she laughed out loud!

We learn throughout the Bible, that this is simply the way God works. God is in the annunciation business. Ordinary people are called throughout scripture to become caught up in the extraordinary purposes of God. And guess what? God is still calling ordinary people today.

A little girl was having trouble going to sleep during a thunderstorm one night.  Her father went into her room where she lay frightened in her bed.  She said, “I’m scared daddy, I don’t want to sleep by myself. Can I sleep with you and Mommy?”

He said, “Darling, you are not by yourself, God is here with you. So you don’t need to be scared. Just know that God is here watching over you and go to sleep.”  She said, “I know that Daddy, but tonight, I think I need to sleep with someone who has a skin face!”

This is why God is in the annunciation business. This is what Christmas is all about!  This is why the Word became flesh. This is why God came to earth…with a skin face! The truth is: everybody needs somebody with a skin face. God realizes that, and God calls people like you and me with skin faces every day for God’s purposes.

This holiday season, I hope that you will say “yes” to that call!