Sunday, February 3, 2013

God's Hand is Upon My Shoulder

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Ordinary 4
February 3, 2013
William G. Carter

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Why are you here? That’s the question for today. Why are you here?

I don’t mean to interrogate your attendance. Who knows what you might say? “I’m here because I believe,” or “I’m here because I want to believe,” or “I’m here out of habit,” or “I’m here because my friends are here,” or “I’m here because I want something,” or because “I don’t know where else to go.” Oh, that’s not what I’m asking.

I’m not asking about your attendance in church, but rather your attendance on the planet: Why are you here? For what purpose are you alive? That’s the mystery behind these opening words from Jeremiah.

God speaks to a young boy and says, “I have something I want you to do.” These opening words of Jeremiah’s book bring us into the mystery of God’s calling upon our lives. At the beginning of a very long record of his life and work, a great prophet of Israel remembers how everything began. God had a hand on Jeremiah’s shoulder. God said, “I have something that I want you to do.”

Some people have a strong response to a story like that. Perhaps they say, “Jeremiah was lucky. God had a direct pipeline to his heart. The message got through.” Or others may say, “I’m glad that didn’t happen to me. I have no intention of thinking my orders come from heaven. I want to do what I want to do.” Or maybe they confess, “I don’t want God to make me into a prophet. I’ve seen enough history to know how poorly that usually turns out.”

But the story that we have is both brief and realistic. We do not know God got through with the message. Nobody can say if it was a dream, direct speech in a vision, or simply a growing awareness that Jeremiah had a greater purpose for his life, that a heavenly casting director selected him to play a role. As for realism, Jeremiah did push back; “I’m only a youth,” he said, “and I don’t know what to say.” God promises to stay after him for years to come, to give him the words when the time is right, and to put him in the places where he needed to make a difference. God’s hand will lead him – and God’s fingers will touch his lips.

We don’t need to let this be a spooky story. Actually it offer a dramatization of a deep and important question for every single person: why am I here? What purpose for my life does God set me before me?

I have asked those questions in seasons of my life; I imagine you have asked them on occasion. The issue is always more than a job. It’s a matter of purpose. Anybody can get a job. Look at the want ads: there is no shortage of jobs. But as all of us know, so many of those jobs have no purpose. Who declares, “The reason that I was put on this planet was to dry off cars when they come through the car wash?” Or who says, “God gave me this life on earth so I can sell nutritional drinks at the local gym?” Perhaps there are a few fortunate ones for whom this is true, but for most workers, it is merely a job, an unnecessary job if it weren’t for the money. As the bumper sticker announced, “I owe, I owe, it’s off to work to go.”

But what would you do if money were not the issue? How would you spend your time? What difference do you believe you could make in the time that God still sets before you?

The truth is, if we have any abilities at all, there is no perfect job anywhere that we can use all our skills. In fact, there are jobs where the employer does not want you to do some of the things that you are able to do. To survive, you put some of abilities on the shelf and focus where you need to focus. Or you find other ways to utilize those gifts that God has given and you have cultivated.

And late at night, when nobody but God is around, perhaps the holy voice will say, “I have work that I appoint you to do.” The appointment is there, regardless of how the people at your job feel about it, or whatever they think they are paying you to do.

There is a distinction between a job and a vocation. A job is where somebody pays you to do what they need you to do. Vocation is literally a “calling,” God’s calling, God’s invitation for you to do what God put you on the planet to do. Sometimes job and vocation overlap, sometimes they don’t. But one thing I know for certain: life flourishes when it intersects with our life’s work.

If you have not heard any holy voices lately to give you an assignment, there is a simple test that you might try. It comes from frequently quoted advice from writer Frederick Buechner, who spells out the word “vocation.” Vocation, he says,

. . . comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a [person] is called to by God. There are all difference kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.

If you get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a), but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. Neither the hair shirt not the soft berth will do.

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.[1]

God knows us intimately. God made us the way we are. What strikes us as interests and inclinations can be holy invitations to find our calling --- or for our calling to find us. The challenge is to not think too highly of ourselves – nor to think too lowly – but to sink into the daily tasks that give life both to us and to God’s world. For that is where God calls us to be.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper and Row)

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