One of my memories as a teenager in church was what might be described as recruitment events. From time to time, we were encouraged to consider if God had placed a calling on our lives. Like many others, I felt excited about following God, sharing my faith, and being obedient to God’s call. I ended up enrolling in Barclay College, and have tried to be obedient to a sense of calling.
Unfortunately, when I started I had no sense of how difficult vocation can be. Obeying God’s calling is taking a rather serious risk. As much as I would daydream of what a successful ministry might look like, looking at the examples of people who did great things, I did not give much thought to how frustrating obedience can be.
One of the passages that we read when looking at what it meant to be called is the first part of Isaiah’s calling in Isaiah 6, where an angel appears to Isaiah and purified his lips with a live coal from the holy of holies. The message we were given is that God gives the people God calls what they need. We need to put aside the reasons we can’t and trust God to qualify us.
At that time, however, I missed what Isaiah was told in verses 11-13. He was called to preach God’s message to a people who would not listen. The angel let Isaiah know that there would be no result at all to his hard work. Isaiah preached, but no one would hear while the cities of Judah stood. Isaiah preached, but nobody would hear until an enemy came, and depopulated the land. Isaiah preached, but nobody would hear while he still lived.
Isaiah enjoyed no success, and the reward for his obedience was imprisonment. Tradition suggests that he was killed for delivering God’s message. His ministry was, by any of our measures a complete failure. He went into it not only risking failure, but with full knowledge that failure was the only possibility.
Answering God’s call is a huge risk. Those who choose to go to Seminary or seek a life of professional ministry take the risk that church attendance and giving are down in the United States. Those who seek to plant churches pour their lives into the church plant, and risk the fact that it might never be financially self sustaining. Church planters also risk having their support cut if the plant does not look like the vision of the supervising board. Those who would speak prophetically risk speaking without being heard.
Those who answer a call to preach the gospel risk having the message of the gospel rejected. Too many people want to use God and scripture to support their political agenda – but, have little care of allowing Christ to change their lives and communities. It is a risk to prefer the gospel to an agenda, and some who have taken this risk have faced conflict from those heavily invested in these agendas.
Perhaps the biggest risk is that in order to be honest, we have to change our narrative. For the majority, God’s call is not glamorous or exciting. Most of us are not called to do great things, nor are we offered great rewards. The earliest rewards for obedience included persecution and death. Current rewards are often difficult financial choices. Sometimes we risk a situation where it seems that God does not provide what we need.
What would it look like if we risked being more honest about God’s calling? What if we pointed out that Isaiah was called to fail, and eventually to die? What if we pointed out that God values obedience, wherever it takes us even to prison, to poverty or to death.
The new narrative would not ask what we accomplish for God’s kingdom, but how we are obedient. It would no longer promise that if we are faithful, God will bless us and our ministries – but would confess that even when people are completely faithful, churches close.
The new narrative would confess that for many who are obedient to God’s calling failure, poverty, prison and death are what are visible from the outside. Yet in all of this, the writer of Hebrews offers us this one promise: “I will never leave you, I will never abandon you, so we can say with confidence ‘the Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid.’” (Hebrews 13:5-6 NET)