Responding to God’s Call
I had a great aunt who used to say, “Many are called but few get up”. It was a rather irreverent take on the words of St Matthew’s Gospel “Many are called but few are chosen” (Matthew 22. 14) but perceptive. Despite the apparent irreverence, she was a profoundly strong woman of faith who lived out her faith in Christ in many challenging ways, not least of which was protecting the lives of British soldiers in Nazi occupied Greece by hiding them in her flat.
What did she mean by saying this? I think it was a shrewd observation based on those she had encountered who claimed to be Christian or perhaps who were on the threshold of faith but who never made the leap of trying to live out that life in practice. It was as if they spent their lives planning to go on a great journey – buying all the maps, getting the kit, going to the briefing meeting, packing but then never actually setting foot outside the comfort of their homes.
Today, the theme of all our Bible readings is the call of God, how those who were thus called responded and what questions that raises for us. At this early point of the New Year, it is a good time for us to think about our own lives. Are we aware of God’s call to us? Is God prompting us to explore something new or perhaps to take up a new role and are there things He is calling us to lay down? How far we may be responding or not responding to God’s call to us both in our individual lives and also in our life together as a community at Holy Trinity Church? Why does it matter so much that we are both attentive to and responsive to God’s call? These are the questions we’ll explore today, starting by looking at how those whom we’ve heard about in our readings from scripture today themselves answered that call.
The prophet Isaiah was aware that he had been called by God for a particular purpose and saw that calling as something which had taken place even before he was born. The passage we’ve heard today is one of what are known as the ‘servant songs’ in the book of Isaiah. The prophet identifies his role as that of a servant – a servant who has a prophetic role to bring God’s people back to him including those driven into exile. His role is to respond faithfully to God’s call, trusting in Him even when at times it feels that he is labouring in vain. God shows him that he is being called to a deeper ministry:
“I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth’ (Isaiah 49.7)
Then in our Gospel today, we encounter John the Baptist who too is aware of his calling by God and also is learning to understand how his role must change. As he sees Jesus coming towards him and the group of his disciples, he cried out, “Behold the Lamb of God”. It’s a term which has two major connotations in the Bible. The first is that this is the offering which God himself offers to us, just as he provided the ram stuck in the thicket to take the place of Isaac for the sacrifice. But the term ‘Lamb of God’ also shows us that God himself in Christ is the sacrificial victim – He is the one who will offer himself for us to save us.
John the Baptist had recognised his calling by God as the one who will prepare the way for the coming of God’s Messiah by calling the people to repentance and forgiveness in baptism. But today we see how he recognises that his role is changing. For as he proclaims the words, “Behold the Lamb of God”, two of his disciples, Andrew and another who was probably John the Evangelist, the Beloved Disciple, leave him then and there as they take the decision to follow Jesus and to find out more about him. By letting them go, John enables them to start their lives as disciples of Jesus and those who in time, will become those who witness closely about Jesus.
And today we encounter Jesus, who after his Baptism by John, has undergone a severe period of testing and discernment in the wilderness, as he explores his awareness of his calling by God – those words which were proclaimed by the Spirit at his baptism. “This is my Son, the beloved – listen to Him”. Today we see him starting his journey of response to that calling, perhaps still discerning exactly what it will mean. Yet the proclamation of John the Baptist – “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ – points to his role as Messiah – the one who will inaugurate the Kingdom of God.
St Paul also witnesses at the start of his letter to the Christian community in Corinth of his awareness of his calling by God to be an Apostle of Christ and how he has responded. He reminds the community at Corinth that they are a community of believers bound together by their faith in Christ who also have been called by God. They are strengthened in Christ and Christ gives them all the spiritual gifts they need to love, to serve and to witness to Christ. They are called to be holy community rooted on God who is faithful and because of that, they too can seek to be holy and faithful.
We’ve therefore seen in our readings today how the prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist, Jesus himself and some of his disciples, together with the young Christian community in Corinth, heard and responded to God’s call.
Today, near the beginning of this new year, it’s a good time for us to consider our lives and where we may be discerning God’s call to us. It’s very easy to get swept up into the busyness of our daily lives and indeed often to use this busyness as a convenient way of escaping or putting off any searching questions about what we are doing or might do. Yet when we do let our guard down and let ourselves be quiet, we may be aware of that voice or nudge within us, prompting us to consider taking a different path or perhaps take up something which we’d never dared to contemplate before.
It’s a time also, as a Christian community here in Geneva for us to ask these questions as well. We are at a time of transition as a church as we can look forward to the first phase of our Building Tomorrow project being finished later this spring and we start to think about phase 2 in earnest. As we move from the time of all the problems and restrictions caused by the Covid pandemic, coupled with a time of vacancy and change of Chaplain, where do we believe God is calling us to serve and to minister in the future?
As we do this, it’s worth remembering that the God who is calling us, is asking us to play our part in making His Kingdom visible and a reality here in Geneva. That is our raison d’être as a church – to make Christ visible through our faithful witness just as the God whom we trust and serve is constantly faithful to us. But how we fulfil that call – requires us to bring all our powers of imagination, of vision, and all our skills. God does not force a blueprint upon us. Rather He invites us to develop our vision how to do this within the overall framework of His call, using the freedom and gifts which He has given to each one of us.
Often we may feel that we are inadequate for this and may have no special gifts we can offer. We look at those who we may see as the giants of our Christian faith and think – “Well it’s marvellous that they have done that” or “it’s great that so and so is doing that now but what can I possibly do? So we hold back, reluctant to stick out our neck or to have a go, even when we feel deep down that this is something to which we feel drawn. But when we feel daunted in this way, it’s good to reflect on the roles played both by John the Baptist and also by his disciple, Andrew.
For John the Baptist as he proclaims, on seeing Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God”, makes it clear to his disciples that he is the one for whom his ministry has been a preparation – Jesus is the one who gives it ultimate meaning. However, close they have been to him as his disciples and whatever he has taught them, John recognises that this is the moment to let them go – to follow the one “the sandal of whose shoe he describes himself as unworthy to untie”.
And Andrew’s role is profoundly important as well. For as we’ve heard today, once Andrew has spoken to Jesus and made that first exploratory visit to the place where Jesus was staying, he immediately goes to find his brother, Simon and tells him, “We have found the Messiah”. It’s unlikely at that stage that Andrew grasped the full significance of Jesus’ identity as Messiah – this would come latter. But what was critical is that he recognised Jesus as the one to whom he could entrust his life and he not only takes the decision to follow him but also seeks out his brother and brings him to Jesus.
The conclusion we can draw from this is that whatever may seek minor to us, may be of the uttermost importance because of what it may enable to happen. By bringing Simon to Jesus, Andrew sets in motion the process of his brother’s journey as a disciple of Jesus and one of the greatest future leaders of the church in the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Archbishop William Temple remarked, “We shall never know who is doing the greatest work for the Lord” (Commentary on St John’s Gospel P28).
We also know through St Paul’s words of encouragement to the developing community of Christians in Corinth that God is faithful and that, through Christ, He gives us all the spiritual gifts which we need to fulfil his call. The important thing is that rather than just hear the call – we actually respond!
So today, let’s ask God for grace and discernment to see where He is calling us to be and what He is calling us to do as his disciples at this stage. This will involve searching and use of our imaginations.
And we need to make decisions and not to procrastinate otherwise there is a danger that we end up doing nothing and opportunities come and then they go. Bishop John Pritchard the former Bishop of Oxford, tells the fable of the donkey which had two piles of hay to eat from. He died because he couldn’t decide which one to eat from.
I’d like to end with a story which illustrates how our actions, through the choices we make, can make a major difference in God’ s mission, even though we may not see the significance at the time. Archbishop John Sentamu, the former Archbishop of York, was brought up in Uganda, one of thirteen children. Although he did well at primary school, he found it a real challenge to continue at secondary school because it was over a ten mile walk each day to the nearest secondary school. A missionary heard of his plight and gave him a bicycle. That gift was transformational, enabling him to get to secondary school, obtain the vital qualification and then train so that he eventually qualified, at a young age as a High Court Judge in Uganda. When forced to leave because of Idi Amin, he was to training as a priest in the UK before becoming first a parish priest, then Bishop of Stepney, Birmingham and finally Archbishop of York. It’s humbling to remember how much of this might not have happened without the gift of that bicycle.
So remember that our response to God’s call whether it feels something big or apparently small and insignificant, may be transformational.