I love stories like this, and by all indications this one is true, or at least I hope it is: apparently a few years back the Assembly of God Church in Bushnell, Florida actually received a notice in the mail from Publisher’s Clearing House which announced that God, of Bushnell, Florida, had in fact been chosen as a finalist for the 11 million dollar top prize in the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes! The letter began just like these mailings always do: “God, we’ve been searching for you! What an incredible fortune this would be for you, God! Just imagine the looks you’d get from your neighbors in Bushnell, Florida! So don’t just sit there, God – because to win, you’ve got to mail it in!” I never did read if God came forward to claim his prize, but it did say that the pastor of the Bushnell church offered to stay at the church that day to accept the check on God’s behalf!
Now, obviously, this letter was the product of some errant computer programming, but for me, not only does it make me laugh, it also serves as something of a parable! Because while most of us won’t employ mass mailing for such a purpose (!), nonetheless there many of us who can attest to having said pretty much the same thing at some point in our lives: “we’re searching for you, God!”
It’s true; ask people, for instance, why they’ve come to church this morning, and while they might give you any number of answers, I suspect that somewhere in there is a hope that they might find in the midst of worship and fellowship an experience of God’s presence! It’s really how we’re wired, I think; one of the things that we all have in common as human beings, this desire to seek out that which is greater than ourselves, something (or someone!) like God; it’s what the wonderful author and pastor Craig Barnes refers to as our deep “yearning to find holiness… [it is] living water for our parched souls.”
The interesting thing is, however, is that if we look at this biblically, it turns out that we’ve got it backwards! Because if we understand faith as it’s presented to us in scripture, what we discover is that ultimately, it’s not our search for God that matters, but God’s search for us! It’s all right there: in God’s coming to Abraham, of all people, sending him on a journey farm from home and kindred, so to make of him a great nation. We see it in God’s choice of Moses to lead his people Israel to a promised land; and we hear it in the prophets’ sharing of God’s own plea that this rebellious people should “even now, return to me with all your heart.” Even Jesus, gathered with his disciples on the night of betrayal and desertion, made this clear: “You did not choose me,” he tells them, “but I chose you.” (John 15:16)
It’s a fundamental misunderstanding, even as we say our prayers and make our pilgrimages of faith, all with the underlying intent of looking for and finding God; the truth that after all the searching it turned out that God was already there… and what’s more, God was looking for us all along! In fact, I would suggest to you that what brings many folks to church, whether they know it or not, is not so much that they are looking for God, but that somewhere in the deep recesses of heart, mind and soul, they’ve already heard the faint pleadings of a voice calling them by name; in the words of that old gospel hymn, calling “softly and tenderly” to come.
To be called, and moreover, to be called by name can be a powerful and life changing thing. I’m reminded of something that was said by one of my seminary classmates, Steve Burt, in an article about Bangor Seminary that appeared in Yankee magazine a number of years ago. The writer asked Steve, who was a student at Bangor at the time, about his call to ministry, and he answered that “it wasn’t so much that I heard the call out of the blue. It was just that I started paying attention to it, and stopped saying ‘No.’” Or, consider the story of one of my dear friends from back in my seminary days, Stuart Farnham, who had spent his whole life in the same tiny Vermont village; his wife had also spent her life in that same village, this is where they’d raised their large family, and it where he’d worked for over 20 years in the local school as a kindergarten teacher. And then one day, out of the blue, my friend went to his wife and asked how she would feel if he quit his job and they sold their home, and then move their entire family to Bangor, Maine, so he could attend seminary and pursue this call he’d been sensing to become a minister. And to this, his wife looked him square in the eye and simply replied, “Well, it’s about time.” You see, it was to stop saying “no” to God is what made all the difference!
And that’s the nature of our God, actively seeking us out in the very places where we dwell, and then gently but persistently calling us by name in the fervent hope that we might, finally, pay attention to the call! This is what’s at the heart of our reading from Isaiah this morning, as the Lord says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Friends, I have to tell you that this is one word of the Lord in which I take great comfort! Because in this one divine proclamation, the human mystery of who we are and what we’re doing here on this planet is solved; we have an identity, and it’s as children of this God who has created us, redeemed us, and even now continues to protect us. And so no matter the struggles that befall us over the course of a lifetime; no matter what kind of turbulent waters we’ll have to pass through as we go, we shall not be overwhelmed, because God will be with us. We are numbered among those of whom the Lord says, “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you;” you and I, persons who God himself has said, “I created for my glory.”
For my glory! Let that sink in for a moment, friends; because what this says is that everyone who is called by God’s name – and that includes you, me, and everyone here – is created by God’s own intent and designed specifically for God’s glory! I don’t know about you, but for me, to even say that aloud comes off sounding a bit “lofty,” if not downright arrogant! I mean, who am I, or any of us to make that kind of claim? It actually sounds perilously close to what we hear in the gospel reading this morning, when Jesus is baptized and the voice of God comes from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” To speak of being created for glory is fine for someone like Jesus, but it certainly doesn’t apply to you or me!
Or… does it?
Actually, when we considering the meaning of our baptism, yours and mine, isn’t it, in fact, the truth that we are claimed and named to the glory of God through Christ Jesus our Lord?
Indeed, whenever we baptize a child in this sanctuary, we’re not only celebrating the gift of a child into the world and the life of a family; but we are also dedicating that child’s life to the glory of God; we’re pledging ourselves (as parents, family and the church) to raise that child in a Christian manner so that the child’s life, however it unfolds, might be a reflection of that glory. Likewise, for us to be baptized, friends, means dedicating ourselves to living in joyous and faithful response to the God who loved us first; it means that what we do in this life, whatever we do in this life, is to be “for God’s glory.”
Or, if I might put this another way, by our baptism, you and I actually become… ministers!
That’s right; I said it, and it’s a profound truth of our Christian faith – that we are all ministers, lay and clergy, young and old, men and women (and children) alike. Our ministries take place in church sanctuaries, yes; but also around dinner tables, in board rooms and classrooms, on the football field and even at the food court of the shopping mall. Ministry is a gift of God that comes by the Holy Spirit, and it’s given to all who would accept God’s claim on their lives. And just as God is relentless in seeking us out as his own, God is equally determined for us to have a ministry!
You know, I get asked a lot why I chose to become a pastor, and I usually respond by saying that there was only one choice for me; from the time I was 15 years old, friends, I’ve always known that this where God has meant me to be. And I hope you know by now that I truly love what I do – honestly, I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life than what I’m doing right now! But that having been said; I also have to say that really, in the larger and spiritual sense, it was never my idea to be a pastor!
Now, understand that, certainly, I concur, and that I was never, ever forced into this line of work (!), but over the years I have come to realize that for reasons I will never be able to fathom, it was ever and always God’s idea that despite my weaknesses (which are many) and quirks (that are considerable) my life should be wrapped up in this vocation of pastoral ministry, even if that has created some challenges and a few struggles along the way! But mostly, thanks be to God, it’s been a grand, glorious and continuing adventure, as well as a great reminder that when we pay attention to what God’s idea happens to be for us in ministry, incredible things can happen – and I say this to you this morning, because I also know this same truth applies to you and your ministry as well!
I’ll say it again; you are a minister!
You were created for God’s glory, and even now, God is calling you by name with an idea, an inspiration, maybe even an inkling of a random thought that might just apply to your ministry. Maybe as you’ve sat here this morning that awareness has already hit you; it’s been tugging at your heart, and you’re wondering what to do about it. Perhaps you’re still figuring it all out; maybe you are one of those who’ve come here today because you heard something, you just don’t know what; or could be what you’re realizing is maybe if the Lord really is calling your name, maybe you ought to start paying better attention and listening a bit more closely!
Either way, it’s good that we’re here today. This is, after all, a place where we are refreshed and nourished by the experience of God’s presence in Christ Jesus, a time to be strengthened and renewed by God’s own Holy Spirit for the ministries he intends for each one of us. It may well be that our coming together here, worshiping the Lord in spirit and truth, is in fact next step in embracing the ministry that is ours by God’s graceful design, the beginning of something new and exciting, all for the sake of his kingdom!
So let us not be fearful, but bold enough to answer the call and to take the journey; for this same God who would not let the rivers overwhelm us nor allow the flames to consume us will most certainly see us through the next great adventure of faith – that we might truly be ministers in Christ’s name, giving glory to the one who calls us by name.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry