Jonah 3:15, 10; Psalm 62:614; Mark 1:1420
If you’re of a certain age you will remember that wonderful movie Chariots of Fire, which was based on the true story of a world-class Scottish sprinter named Eric Liddell and the 1924 Olympic Games. Liddell was the son of a minister and a theological student at the University of Edinburgh, where he was training to be a missionary.
In the film is a scene that has lodged itself in the minds of a lot of people I know. You see, Liddell can run, but in order to keep up with the training demands for the Olympics he will have to stop his theological studies. It’s a painful decision for Liddell, and he and his sister go for a walk in the craggy hills outside Edinburgh to discuss it. She argues that he ought to let go of the running and stay with God’s call to the mission field. But Liddell says, “I believe God made me for a purpose; but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt; to win is to honor him.”
Well, Liddell does decide to run and, later, has to make a hard decision about whether he can go against the teachings of his church about not working on the sabbath. Eventually he finds a way, and sets a world record in the 400-yard dash which would last for more than a decade. (Later he became a missionary and spent many years in China, ultimately dying in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.)
“I believe God made me for a purpose; but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.” Those words get at what are maybe the most important questions you and I ever face: What is the purpose of my life? What is my calling? What do I want to do with my life? Am I doing the right thing now? Those can also be some of the most frustrating questions we face, because often there aren’t clear answers.
“Most of my friends are in law school or business school,” a young college graduate says. “None of that seems right for me. The problem is, I don’t really know what I want to be doing.”
“I don’t like my job,” someone else says, “but it puts food on the table. My boss is a jerk, the pressure is terrible. But then, what choice do I have especially in an economy like this?”
“I’m feeling burned out,” a woman says. “I’ve taken on too much, between managing my kids’ lives and keeping up at work. It’s all so exhausting, the long hours, the second shift when I get home. But I don’t see any choice.”
“I’m sixty-eight now, and it’s time to retire. Now I have a whole new life ahead of me. But what will it be?”
It’s one of Christianity’s deepest insights—that God calls us. We have been called into being and given gifts and abilities entirely our own, and out of these we are meant to shape a good, even godly, life. In other words, we all have a “vocation.” The word comes from the Latin “vocare,” which means to call. We have a mission, a calling.
Some 2,000 years ago, a wandering teacher came across some tough, hardworking fishermen—Simon, Andrew, James, and John—and said to them, simply, “Follow me.” And according to the story we just heard, they did. “Immediately,” it says, “they left their nets to follow him.”
It’s an inspiring story of faith and commitment. Some would say they were fools to turn over their lives on the spur of the moment, but they must have already been restless, and maybe they saw something in the way that stranger spoke to them that gave them a glimpse of a new sense of being alive. Who knows? But from then on their lives were changed.
You can’t miss the fact that most of the call stories in the Bible are pretty daunting. A voice comes out of a burning bush or down from heaven, or echoing out of the rafters of the Temple. God speaks, and a heroic prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah begins to proclaim with authority. If those stories are our models for God calling us, though, chances are we are going to feel pretty left out.
Thank God, then, for Jonah, whose story we heard a part of in the Old Testament lesson today. There is nothing at all impressive about this back-pedaling, timid, complaining fellow. The last thing Jonah wants to be is a prophet. In fact, what he really wants is to be left alone. But unfortunately, God won’t do that.
The Book of Jonah is one of the best stories in the Bible. Jonah is called by God to go to the city of Nineveh to demand that they repent of their evil ways and turn to God. Instead, he gets on a boat headed as far in the opposite direction as he could go. Nineveh was the hated capital of the Assyrian Empire, now known as Iraq, and it was as hostile to Israel then as it is now. Jonah wasn’t about to help them escape doom.
So instead of saying yes to God, Jonah says no and runs in the opposite direction. Then comes a storm at sea that threatens to kill everyone on the boat. So the crew, after trying every strategy to survive, decide that God is punishing them for having Jonah on board and they toss him over when, of course, he lands inside the belly of a big fish for three days. (I told you this is a great story!) There he composes a beautiful prayer and is finally spewed out on dry land.
So then God tries again, and in the part of the story we heard today, God tells Jonah one more time to go to Nineveh. This time he goes, because he has no choice, and he delivers the message. And to the shock of everyone, and especially Jonah, the people of Nineveh from king on down actually do repent, and God forgives them. And the story ends with Jonah whining and unhappy because all of those terrible Assyrians have escaped the wrath of God.
Now how is that for hearing God’s call? Not so inspirational. No, Jonah is more like us. He’s not at all sure he wants to hear God calling, and doesn’t like what God has in mind when he does. In fact, he is spending his time fleeing from God. And in doing that he shows us something that cuts right to the depths of our souls: the very human reality that often we really don’t want God to call us, because we’re afraid of what God might ask us to do.
We want to have a sense of being close to God, but on the other hand, what if God asks us to deal with people we don’t like, to forgive when we don’t want to, to say hard things at work or at home when we’d rather not? What if God asks us what we ourselves are doing to help people who are struggling in our city or who face poverty in Haiti or Zambia? What if God asks us to make time in our oh so important, very overloaded lives to grow in our faith? There’s good reason to be cautious. Jonah is one of us.
To be called, you know, can be an elusive thing. It doesn’t mean we actually hear a voice, and it doesn’t usually mean there was a certain moment or an earthshaking experience. For most of us, hearing a call means listening to our lives, and sorting through our gifts and passions, talking to advisors and friends, and trying to imagine this possibility or that, and asking God to guide and inspire our seeking. Listening for God’s call means refusing to ask what I want for my life and to focus on what God wants from the life I have been given.
And so we look at our skills and abilities, we pay attention to our passions. And we watch for the ways that we can make our own contribution. Often it takes looking backward at our life to begin to trace the working of God’s call. That’s when we begin to see the connections, the hints, the surprising turns that have led us along our way.
Every now and then someone will ask me how I decided to go into the ministry. I often wince when I hear the question because I know how boring my answer will seem. They seem to expect a dramatic moment of decision or at least a clear, unambiguous sense of being nudged in a particular direction. And they are often surprised to learn that there was no single moment, no flash of lightning. There was just a persistent wondering and questioning, an exploring of other options, a looking for role models I admired, a listening to my own heart. Finally it was time to give it a try by going to seminary, and when I did, I was hooked. I knew I had found my calling.
I remember talking to Peter Gomes, Preacher at Harvard’s Memorial Church, some time back and he told his story of being called. “Well,” he said, “I didn’t like science or math. I liked going to church and had a loud voice, so being a teacher or minister seemed about right.” God has plenty of ways of getting through to us.
A recent New Yorker article describes the courageous work of a local Washingtonian, Gary Haugen, an evangelical Christian who now leads the International Justice Mission, which is committed to bringing legal services to the 4 billion people in the world who deal with abusive police, bribery, and mismanaged courts. He has been especially involved in trying to stop human trafficking and child prostitution.
The article traces the steps that brought Haugen to this calling, starting with his work in South Africa as part of the struggle to end apartheid.
I got to be with these Christians who had the most surprising absence of fear [they said]. They just did the right thing…. I came to believe that they lived that way because they actually believed that what Jesus said was true. And I found that, to the extent that I acted as if I believed what Jesus said was true, I lived without fear.
That step led him to law school, to the Department of Justice and then to creating his own independent agency. God was calling in every step along the way.
The issue isn’t whether we hear a clear call, it isn’t whether we are sure every day that we are doing exactly the right thing, it’s whether we sense that ours is a called life, a life that is accountable to God, a life that has a mission, even if we have a hard time articulating it.
We should bear in mind, though, that our calling is not our job. As writer Studs Terkel says, “Jobs are not big enough for people.” We are more than that. We are friends and spouses and parents and members of our neighborhoods and local organizations and churches. All of that is part of our vocation.
Some of us do not take jobs outside the home. Many of us have to take unrewarding jobs to pay the bills for our families. That too can be a noble calling. It’s striking that not one person in the whole New Testament is ever called by God into a moneymaking job. They are always doing other things to pay the bills, like tent-making or catching fish, while following Christ and being disciples.
What is your calling? What is the one irreplaceable gift you have to give the world, whether you are 18 today or 80?
The key to Jonah’s story is the fact that God never gave up on calling Jonah, even when he was running as hard as he could in the wrong direction. And God never gave up on those Assyrians either. That’s the kind of God we’re dealing with—one who won’t stop calling us, ever.
You remember the words of Francis Thompson’s old poem about aGod who is “The Hound of Heaven?”
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
Even if you didn’t realize it when you came in here this morning, God is seeking you out and calling you. You see, God wants you, all of you—because there are things to do today and tomorrow, right in the midst of your life and your world, that only you can do. Maybe a paycheck will be attached. Maybe the pay will be the work itself. Are you willing to say yes to God, to say to God, ‘I will follow, even when I don’t know the way. I will listen and learn and trust you to show me the way?’ What do you say? How about today? How about now?