New Hope Fellowship
August 25, 2019
The first time I felt a distinct and specific sense of calling from God to be a pastor was in the fall of my senior year of college. I was attending church at the church I grew up in, First Baptist Church, Richardson, and at some point during the service, I looked up at our pastor, Brian Harbour, and I had this sudden, very clear feeling, as I looked at him, that that was what I needed to be doing. Very unusual.
I was planning a wedding for the coming June, after I graduated. I was filling out law school applications. This was a very inconvenient time for a call from God. So inconvenient, in fact, that I decided to ignore it.
Senior year of college rolled along. I was accepted into the University of Texas law school in February. I sent in my deposit, committing to go there the next fall.
Easter Sunday. I was home for the holiday, and I was again going to church at FBC Richardson. At some point during the service, I looked up at my pastor, Dr. Harbour, sitting on the platform. Again, I had this very real sense that that was where I needed to be. It is very clear to me even today. I remember he was wearing a light blue suit.
And even though I didn’t respond immediately, it was that real sense of calling to ministry that led me down a path that led to me being a pastor for 21 years starting at age 23.
The Old Testament book of Jeremiah is the story of Jeremiah the prophet. Our text today recounts the call of Jeremiah, and I think naturally it turns our thoughts toward God’s call on our own lives.
I suspect that not many of us have had an experience like Jeremiah’s. I can tell you my story about how at two very specific moments I felt a real sense of God’s call for my life. And that’s pretty good. But my story seems weak compared to Jeremiah’s.
Jeremiah was one of the great Old Testament prophets, and he has a call worthy of a great prophet. Jeremiah’s story puts him in the same league with
Moses, who was called by God from a burning bush,
Isaiah, who had a vision of God in the Temple, and
Ezekiel, who was by the river Chebar when
the heavens were opened so that he saw visions of
Jeremiah’s call from God might lack some of the special effects found in these others. But he makes up for it in content.
Jeremiah is told that God claimed him before he was born. Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (v. 5). Jeremiah was known before he could know. God knew him. Before he could know anything about his life or what he might do with his life, Jeremiah was consecrated as a prophet to the nations.
You might think that a statement from God like this would settle the matter. But Jeremiah realized the gravity of what God was telling him. So Jeremiah pleads his case that he is unworthy. He says that he’s only a boy and that he can’t speak well.
Again, even in resisting God’s call on his life, Jeremiah is in good company. Moses resisted the call of God for his life and then was reassured. The same is true for Gideon and Isaiah.
I don’t think it was just a common personality trait that all of these servants of God had that caused them to initially resist God. I think it has more to do with the experience of standing in the presence of the Holy One and being called as God’s servant. It goes with the territory that any normal person would feel unworthy for such a task.
[Preaching through the Christian Year, Year C]
I’m certainly not putting myself in the same category with Jeremiah and Isaiah and Moses, but I had the same resistance that Jeremiah had. I didn’t think I could speak well enough to be a preacher.
As I thought through all of the issues as I was trying to decide what to do about my going to seminary instead of law school, I think I thought I could be a pastor, but I don’t think I really thought that I could do the preaching thing very well. I really didn’t have any experience speaking before groups of people. I didn’t even have a speech class in college, which is ironic considering I am married to someone who teaches speech in college. The only experience I had was working as a tour guide at the Armstrong-Browning Library at Baylor.
I’ll always remember that night before I preached the first sermon of my life at Cego Baptist Church in central Texas. I found a door unlocked at Miller Chapel on the campus of Baylor University. I went in, and I stood behind the pulpit and preached my sermon. The sermon got about as much response the next morning as it did in that empty chapel—there were only five more people in attendance the next morning for a total of 7.
This is what Jeremiah said to God when God told him that he had appointed him to be a prophet to the nations. Like Moses, he said, Truly I do not know how to speak.
But God reassures Jeremiah and promises that he will be with him always to deliver him. And finally, God reaches out and touches Jeremiah on the mouth and says to him:
Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, 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.
What an experience that would be to have a call from God like that. If you could experience something like that, would you want to?
I mean, if you had a call from God like that, you’d have a lot of confidence. You’d be tougher than any crowd or situation you might encounter. You’d carry some pretty strong guarantees from God.
[The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2001 Edition]
I don’t know. Would you want that?
This is quite a responsibility laid on Jeremiah here. Jeremiah is to be the voice of God during the last years of the Judean monarchy and on into a future that most could hardly imagine when the Babylonians would
invade the nation of Judah and its capital of
eventually destroy Jerusalem.
And Jeremiah’s purpose is to be God’s prophet, the one who speaks God’s words, at this crisis moment in the history of the Jewish people.
Think about the certainty you would have and the confidence you would have versus the fact that people won’t like you or might not believe you. Jeremiah is promised in v. 19, They will fight against you. These are his own people.
Is this what you want? The truth is God’s call is not all soft and fluffy. It has an edge to it.
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest in Georgia. In one of her books she writes autobiographically about her growing up years and her experiences with church.
When she was seven, she and her family attended a Methodist church out in the country in Ohio. They had a young pastor whom she loved. He taught her a lot about God and about how she could find God in her love for nature and all the animals out in the woods behind her house. He was her friend.
I was a willing student until the day I lost my teacher. At first all I knew was that something was wrong. Threat hung in the air as it had on those dark afternoons in Kansas, only this time it was not the weather. “Civil rights” had come to Ohio, a phrase that made adults talk loudly and lose their tempers.
They chose sides and defended them; they wanted my friend to choose sides too, and he did. The doors of the church were open, he said. He would stand there to make sure they remained open, he said, so that is where they hung him—in effigy—a grotesque stuffed figure that bore no resemblance to my friend, swaying in the heat as he packed and left town.
That was when I began to understand that God’s call was not only wonderful but also terrible, that the bright gleam I pursued through the woods and fields behind my house had another dimension I knew nothing about. It had sharp edges to it. It was capable of cutting deep, and those who reached out to grasp it had better be prepared to bleed.
[The Preaching Life, p. 15-6]
What do you say? Do you want to experience a call like Jeremiah?
You probably shouldn’t hold your breath for anything so dramatic. We don’t expect this kind of thing that Jeremiah experienced to happen to people, especially to ourselves.
In fact, you might be thinking, What does this have to do with me? I’ve talked about being called to be a pastor, and we’ve read about Jeremiah special calling from God to be a prophet to the nations at a crucial time in the history of the Jewish people.
Maybe you’re saying, What does this have to do with me?
What I think it has to do with you, and me for that matter, is that every Christian operates under a calling from God to be God’s person in the world.
I have wrestled with this myself the last few years. For all my adult life, since I was 23 years old, I worked in a church as a pastor Now, though, I don’t work in the church. I have an office downtown, and I park in a parking garage and walk to my office carrying my briefcase like all the other “business people.” I have to wear a suit, which I do under protest.
For the first time in my adult life I am having to figure out how to live out my calling outside the work of the church. It’s harder than I thought it would be.
So now for us that calling to be God’s person in the world probably won’t mean that you are going to be
a prophet to the nations or
even a pastor of a church,
that doesn’t mean that you and I aren’t like Jeremiah in that we all have a calling from God. We just exercise it
in different ways and
in different places and
with different people.
About 500 years ago a German monk named Martin Luther wrestled with the problem of people thinking that God’s calling to ministry rested only on a small, special group of people. In that day, clergy ruled the church like princes, selling salvation and getting rich off gifts supposedly for the poor.
They got away with it because they claimed to have a special relationship with God. They said that their calling was superior to everybody else’s, and that the ministry belonged to them.
So all that was left for everybody else was to attend Mass as they might attend the theater, watching silently as the clergy performed the rites—with their backs to the people—and consumed the communion all by themselves. And then the people paid their dues on the way out the door.
Martin Luther challenged all this, of course. Luther said that there is a difference between a Christian’s office and a Christian’s vocation. Luther said that our offices are what we do for a living—
pastor—and that none of these is any dearer to the heart of God than another. Your office is your job.
Whatever our individual offices in the world, our vocation is to serve God through them—to be God’s person in the world. That’s the vocation that all of us share, and we live out our vocation through our individual offices.
This is what Luther wrote 500 years ago:
Only look at your tools, your needle, your thimble, your beer barrel, your articles of trade, your scales, your measures, and you will find this saying written on them. You will not be able to look anywhere where it does not strike your eyes.
None of the things with which you deal daily are too trifling to tell you this incessantly, if you are but willing to hear it; and there is no lack of such preaching, for you have as many preachers as there are transactions, commodities, tools, and other implements in your house and estate, and they shout this to your face:
“My dear, use me toward your neighbor as you would want him to act toward you with that which is his.”
See, my office is downtown now. It’s leading a partnership of people trying to figure out how all kids in Fort Worth can have access to a high-quality education, no matter what neighborhood they live in. That’s where I do what I do and how I make my living. And that makes me different from you because you make your living in different places. Your office is as
a homemaker or
community volunteer or
whatever it is that you do.
My office is education work, but my vocation is to be God’s person in the world, and in that sense we all share the same vocation, the same calling.
[Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, p. 28-30]
If you are a Christian, then you have been set apart for ministry. You have been called by God to be God’s person in the world.
Every one of us Christians is called and ordained by God to be God’s person in the world—
not to withdraw from the world,
not to be the world’s critics or judges,
not hoping we will escape the world as soon as
possible so that others are “left behind” to face
Every one of us who is a Christian is called by God to
be in the world and
engage with the world for the sake of Christ,
to love our neighbors,
doers of good works,
speakers of truth,
friends to sinners,
just like Jesus.
Sometimes maybe we get the impression that the only people who have a call from God and who have responded even when it cost them are people like
Jeremiah—prophet to the nations,
Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and
some missionaries who had their feet frozen off
in the tundra of Alaska or were almost killed by a
lion in Africa.
You almost think to yourself, Well, you can’t really respond to God’s call in Fort Worth. Nobody’s persecuting or
You look for a little drama, a little danger in responding to God’s call. I picture myself against a gray wall and some enemy soldier saying, One more chance to deny Christ and live. I confess my faith, and they say, Ready, aim, fire. My body slumps,
the flags are at half-mast,
the widows are weeping in black.
Later a monument is built, and people come with their cameras. Johnny, you stand over there where Brent gave his life. Let’s get your picture.
But for most of us, that’s not the way it works.
If you want to give yourself to God’s call, you’re probably not going to be able to write one big check. If you’re going to give yourself to God’s call on your life—to be God’s person in this world—it’s going to mean years and years of little checks:
a dollar three cents.
[Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 155]
Every day. Wherever you do what you do.
There is something wonderful about responding to God’s call, but there is also a price to be paid. Not all at once, usually. But every day,
in the office and
on the street and
in the house.
God’s person in the world.
Every one. Every day. Little by little.
We are all called by God to specific tasks, regardless of our circumstance, regardless of our job. Your vocation is no less real just because it’s not as dramatic as Jeremiah’s. It is special because it is yours.
Just like Jeremiah, God says to you, Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. I anointed you for something. You were known before you could know. How many of us have wasted so much time struggling against the identity that God has had for us from even before our birth?
In his autobiographical novel, Report to Creco, Nikos Kanzantzakis tells of an earnest young man who visited a saintly old monk on a remote island and asked him, Do you still wrestle with the devil, Father?
The old man answered, Not any longer, my child. I have grown old, and he has grown old with me. He no longer has the strength… now I wrestle with God.
With God! exclaimed the young man wide-eyed. Do you hope to win?
Oh, no, my son, came the answer, I hope to lose.
Maybe it’s time for you to give up, and surrender to what God has always wanted you to be.
2 thoughts on “The Wonderful and Terrible Call of God”
First, now I realize why I didn’t know you at Cliff Temple. Your mother moved you to First, Richardson, to grow up there. I later was a member there and saw her in the choir. I don’t know how young you were, starting out in R’son. But maybe Sylvia DeLoach was your children’s minister. She is my sister. Perhaps you knew Elisabeth and Elliott, my beloved niece and nephew.
Anyway, I experienced God’s call on my life at six, when I distinctly felt he said to me, “Follow me.” That call has taken me from varied levels of teaching, to denominational life as GA director for Texas WMU, back to earn Ph.D. and continue teaching from K through graduate school as a professor. I even wrote for missions materials over 30 years. Later, I was ordained to the ministry for work with the mentally ill. At 81, I have retired in Tyler and am at First Baptist. This is my first time to experience the pain and struggle of ministry. Most Baptists here do not see the needs of people in general for God – that is, beyond being “won to the Lord”, walking the aisle, and coming to every meeting the FBC has. I am often pricked, even by friends, for my “liberal” or “left wing” Christianity.
I am so happy you passed through your recent valley and now find yourself serving God in the broader city of Fort Worth. I don’t get to speak any more, though I love to talk about God’s leadership in my life. But I am so glad He still gives you opportunity! Keep on preaching – and sharing encouragement with folk like me! Claudia Swain.
Thank you so much, Claudia. Yes Sylvia was my children’s minister, and what a good one she was. And I knew Elliott and Elisabeth. They were both a little bit older than I was.