"What does 'God's Calling' Mean?"

Feb.22, 2009 1Samuel 3:1-10 / various

More than Only One Call

It's a time of dramatic flux, as many Canadians find themselves losing their jobs. People are having to re-evaluate their choice of vocation. But what is 'vocation' beyond something that just earns money and pays the bills? How does faith-life relate to work-life? Ought our work-a-day world overlap somehow or be informed by our trust in God and sense of being His, or is that hoping for too much?

The word 'vocation' in the Concise Oxford Dictionary is defined as "Divine call to, sense of fitness for, a career or occupation..." The root is the Latin 'vocare' or 'call'. If I don't really feel fulfilled in my work - if it's not ideal for my talents or gifts - am I missing out on something vital for life? Or can this 'call' be discovered beyond my work? If I'm not ideally suited to my job, will I come to my deathbed haunted by a sense of regret that I never found my niche? But then again - who in their dying breath ever said, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office!"?

Questions of vocation and calling are complicated for Christians by the habit of higher-ups in the church over the past couple of hundred years to speak of "the call" as if there is only one - meaning, the call to pastoral ministry. "Sam Brown heard the call, quit his job at RIM and headed off to seminary." Spiritual giants like Charles Spurgeon could write, "The first sign of the heavenly calling is an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work.[any other callings must not be heavenly; is there only one form of 'the work'?] In order to be a true call to the ministry there must be an irresistible, overwhelming craving and raging thirst for telling others what God has done for our own souls." [note: 'the ministry' - is there only one?]

Oswald Chambers, another respected Christian sage, said, "The Call [capital C] is the inner motive of having been gripped by God - spoilt for every aim in life save that of discipling men to Jesus." Does that presume it has to be full-time? Can discipling only be done by pastors?

In our present day, this emphasis upon the call to ministry as if it is still "THE Call" is fostered by denominational officials, and even otherwise helpful para-church organizations such as Focus on the Family. HB London and Neil Wiseman in The Heart of a Great Pastor write, "A call combines supernatural and earthly dimensions. Those awesome words, 'a call to the ministry', often conjure up images of burning bushes and lightning strikes, but they also produce mental images of privilege and of being willing love slaves to the purposes of God."

Now, such talk is encouraging and bolsters those who are employed in full-time pastoral work. But whenever I hear it referred to as 'the Call' I cringe a bit. If we put that one form of spiritual vocation on a pedestal, is that not degrading to other Christians who are doing their best to be faithful to God while in other occupations? Is this singling-out and prioritizing of ordained ministry even Biblical?

The story of God calling Samuel is a classic, appealing to our imagination, that deep subliminal part of us where waking merges with the mysterious dream world. For young Samuel, it WAS the start of a lifelong ministry as judge and prophet, leading God's people. But as we search the Scriptures we find many other examples of God calling individuals. And "the Call" is far broader than just a sense of pull to full-time ministry within the church, valuable and necessary as that is. To the rebellious, God's call is a powerful challenge and warning. To the receptive, God's call is an invitation to amazing spiritual riches that are ours for the asking; and only secondarily a call that requires our response in specific tasks.

Ruin for the Rebellious

First, God's word is a call of POWER. God created the universe by His word, simply by speaking. The Israelites at Mount Sinai shuddered and were terrified to hear God speaking to them from the darkness and flames. The Bible teaches God's word is very powerful. To oppose such a formidable force is to risk ruin.

The Old Testament prophet Amos referred to God Almighty as "he who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns blackness into dawn and darkens day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land-- the LORD is his name..." (Am 5:8) In the New Testament, the most powerful 'call' of Jesus happened when He stood in front of the tomb of a man who'd been dead for 3 days: "Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"" (Joh 11:43) Now, just reflect on that - how much was Lazarus assisting in the effort there? Not at all - he was dead! God's call has amazing power.

Since it is THE force to be reckoned with, God's call provides the point of reference for our whole life. When the nation of Israel turned away from the Lord to idols, the prophets warned God's call orders humans to ACCOUNTABILITY. God spoke through Moses, "If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account." (De 18:19) Job asked, "What will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account?" (Job 31:14) And you don't normally think of Ecclesiastes as your usual street-corner preacher, but the philosopher said, "...God will call the past to account." (Ec 3:15)

Repeatedly God called to people, but His word was unheeded, REJECTED. As written in Isaiah, "When I called, why was there no one to answer? Was my arm too short to ransom you? Do I lack the strength to rescue you? By a mere rebuke I dry up the sea, I turn rivers into a desert; their fish rot for lack of water and die of thirst." [There's that 'power' again - not to be ignored.](Isa 50:2) (Isa 65:12; see also 66:4; Jer 7:13) Another prophet, Jeremiah, spoke for God some time later: "Listen! I am going to bring on Judah and on everyone living in Jerusalem every disaster I pronounced against them.I spoke to them, but they did not listen; I called to them, but they did not answer." (Jer 35:17; see also Zec 7:13) When God Almighty speaks and calls, He's not messing around; there are woeful consequences for those who ignore His call.

Many times in Scripture God's call is associated with JUDGMENT. Jeremiah - "You will not go unpunished, for I am calling down a sword upon all who live on the earth, declares the LORD Almighty.'" (Jer 25:29) Haggai - "I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine,...on men and cattle, and on the labor of your hands." (Hag 1:11) Lest we think that's only 'Old Testament' talk, we find God's call for judgment - a day of reckoning - in the New as well: Jesus said, "And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other." (Mt 24:31; see also 1Th 4:16) John in his Revelation heard "an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: "Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!"" (Re 8:13; see also 14:15,18) So, when unheeded and rejected, God's powerful sovereign call becomes a summons to account, and fearful judgment.

Are you taking time to listen for God's voice day by day - or does it somehow get drowned out by the TV or X-Box, by other voices that tell you only what you want to hear? Do you try to ignore God's call by amusements, pleasures, or just plain busy-ness? When that trumpet call comes, will the sound bring you joy - or cause you to panic at the thought of losing all that 'stuff' you've been working so hard to accumulate?

Riches - God's Blessings Bestowed

More positively - if you search through the more than 700 occurrences of various forms of the word 'call' in the Bible, you will discover that, for Christians - for those who are receptive - God's 'call' chiefly is to a whole basketful of blessings we don't have to do a thing about to earn. So don't get bent out of shape worrying that by your less-than-ideal job you may be missing out on God's 'calling'. His calling fundamentally is to a whole bundle of good things that are ours in Christ, by virtue of what He's done not what we do. It's more about 'being' in Him than 'doing'.

First off, God calls us to SALVATION - to not perish along with those who reject Him and trample His glory and truth. Peter preached at Pentecost, "The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off-- for all whom the Lord our God will call." (Ac 2:39) Paul wrote that God called us through the gospel "to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth." (2Th 2:13f) It's not automatic: one has to believe in Jesus to be saved. And, "those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified..." (Ro 8:30) Justified means believers are viewed as righteous and acceptable in the eyes of a holy God because Jesus' blood washes us, pays our penalty - the score is settled; the Father sees us covered with the righteousness of His sinless Son.

God's call is by His GRACE. "...think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth." (1Co 1:26) Salvation is "not by works but by Him who calls..." - by His sovereign choice (Ro 9:12). Paul says God "called you by the grace of Christ..." (Ga 1:6,15) And, "God...saved us and called us to a holy life-- not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time..." (2Ti 1:9; see also 2Pet 1:3) If it's by grace, the initial call did not depend on our actions or merits.

God's calling is also a NAMING, giving us an identity, distinguishing us; like Jacob being renamed Israel (Gen 35:10). God promises through Isaiah "you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow" (see also Rev 2:17, 3:12). Jesus "calls His own sheep by name and leads them out" (Jn 10:3). There's that sense He knows us intimately, we're not just a face in a crowd.

God is the one who initiates the call, it's His INVITATION TO A RELATIONSHIP. God calls to Adam in the garden even after He'd just sinned (Gen 3:9). God's angel calls to recently-expelled Hagar as her boy lies crying in the desert (Gen 21:17). God calls out to Abraham to prevent him from sacrificing his son (Gen 22:11). God called others - Moses; Samuel; Ananias to start feared Saul's transformation into Paul (Ex 3:4; 1Sam 3:4ff; Ac 9:10). Jesus called fishermen to leave their nets and family livelihood to catch people - so started a walk with the Master that would change them forever (Mt 4:21). In His last days He told those who'd stuck with Him, "I have called you friends" (Jn 15:15). Hebrews 2(11) says Jesus is not ashamed to call us 'brothers'. John's first letter - "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!" (1Jo 3:1) So God's call is invitation into closer and closer circles of relationship with Himself. Paul wrote, "God...has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord..." (1Co 1:9) A call to fellowship - not primarily to 'do'.

A big blessing is that God calls us to FREEDOM, out of bondage to sin and its destructive consequences. Paul says, "For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord's freedman..." (1Co 7:22) And, "You, my brothers, were called to be free.But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature..." (Ga 5:13) How has Jesus set you free from sin - maybe from old generational patterns, or fears, or shame of things you'd done? Tell someone how good that makes you feel, to be free! What a relief!

Surprisingly, God calls us to share His GLORY. This is a biggie we probably seldom think about, having become so acclimatized to these fallen shadows. Paul wrote, "...live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory." (1Th 2:12) "He called you...that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ." (2Th 2:14) Peter says "the God of all grace...called you to his eternal glory in Christ..." (1Pe 5:10)

And, number eight in this basket of blessings to which God calls us, is HEAVEN. Philippians 3(14), "...God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Paul tells Timothy "take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession..." (1Tim 6:12) Hebrews 3(1), "holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling..." How wonderful is it that we're not destined to share the fate of the rich man who ignored the beggar at his gate only to land in torment in hell, begging for someone to cool his tongue with some drops of water "because I am in agony in this fire"! (Lk 16:25) How much happier a prospect to look forward instead to what 'no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him"! (1Cor 2:9) Has that really dawned on you?

Response: Our Part

Ruin for the rebellious; but riches for those upon whom God's blessings are bestowed. Wouldn't you rather the latter? And it's so freely given! Compared to those 8 blessings, I found basically just 4 aspects of God's calling that expect action on our part. Again, God's calling is predominantly (as far as the Bible puts it) to be and receive, not to do. Yet such abundant goodness coming from Him does call forth response by us. Here's where we get to show our appreciation!

First, we are called to be HOLY. Paul addresses his first letter to the Corinthians "to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy..." (1Co 1:2) To the Thessalonians: "For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life." (1Th 4:7) And another apostle, Peter, adds: "But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do..." (1Pe 1:15) Holy people are different, we are 'set apart', dedicated to God's purposes. Would your neighbours guess you're a Christian from what they see of you, how you come across to them? Holiness starts with your attitude, consciously devoting yourself to God, asking Jesus to be in the driver's seat of your life. Are you so immersed in the things of this life that no light of heavenly glory can squint through the cracks?

Second, God calls us to PEACE. This isn't in some idyllic island of self-withdrawal, but the give-and-take of human relationships: can you get along with those who rub you the wrong way? In marital situations, for example, 1Corinthians 7:15, "God has called us to live in peace." And Colossians 3:15, "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace." How might God be calling you to take an active role as a peacemaker in some situation that's current at work - amongst your relatives? Can you bite your tongue and speak peace instead, words that soothe?

Third - perhaps most unexpected of the bunch - God calls us to SUFFER. Peter is clearest on this. When we suffer for doing good, we're to endure it: "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." (1Pe 2:21) All he's asking us to do is what Jesus did for us - endured the suffering targeted at Him that should have been ours. In the next chapter Peter adds, "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." (1Pe 3:9) Better to suffer the insult and endure it than seek revenge, which tends to escalate the damage.

This call to suffer may seem very strange, but God stands behind it in ways not always obvious. Tony Campolo tells of the time Martin Luther King Jr and other civil-rights demonstrators marched from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, where they were confronted at a bridge by deputy sheriffs and National Guardsmen determined to make them turn back. The demonstrators knelt and prayed, making themselves incredibly vulnerable. Campolo recalls, "On live television we all watched as the demonstrators were hit with billy clubs and stung with electric cattle prods. People were beaten and dogs were released on them. It was a wild attack on citizens. As I watched that scene in which peaceful demonstrators were battered and beaten, my soul cried out, 'They've won! Those civil rights demonstrators have won!'" That time of suffering is now considered the turning point in the Civil Rights movement.

Last, God calls us to SERVICE. There is a call to ministry - but it's not exclusively pastoral ministry; there are many ways to serve God. Martin Luther reportedly said, "God...hides himself in the ordinary social functions and stations of life, even the most humble.God himself is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid."

In Isaiah 41(2), a conquering invader has nations handed over to him by God, "calling him in righteousness to his service." Jesus called the Twelve together and sent them out in pairs to drive out evil spirits and heal disease (Mt 10:1). He commissioned them to a task. In Acts 13(2), the Holy Spirit speaks to the church at Antioch, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Later, Paul concluded after the vision of the man from Macedonia "that God had called us to preach the gospel to them."

The Lord calls us to specific tasks - some of which fit snugly with our gifts and talents, while other tasks stretch us beyond our current abilities. Frederick Buechner says, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deepest gladness and the world's deepest hungers meet."

The important aspect is not "MY ministry" or "MY calling" but God's Kingdom, doing His will, accomplishing His objectives. Whatever we do becomes our calling when we do it at the Lord's bidding and for His glory. Perhaps the best Biblical summary of this is Colossians 3:23f, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.It is the Lord Christ you are serving."

Not for a Million Dollars

A Christian businessman was travelling to various mission fields of the world. One day he found himself in northern India near a leprosarium. Outside of the walls of this leprosarium he saw an unusual sight: a lovely young missionary nurse who was attending the desperate needs of a filthy, wretched, leprous beggar. What could be more distressing to see? Yet she was serving the beggar tenderly as he prepared to be admitted to the leprosarium. The businessman had his camera strung around his neck, but he couldn't shoot any film. He paused at the sight, then withdrew a few feet. Tears filled his eyes, and he said to the nurse, "Young lady, I wouldn't do that for a million dollars." Quickly she turned to him and said, "Sir, neither would I."

Let's pray.