TEXTS: Isaiah 49:1-7 and John 1:29-42
[The Lord] says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” (John 1:38-39a)
Did you notice that both of the Scriptures for today share a common theme? It’s the theme of “calling.” It’s the idea of being “called.”
The reading from Isaiah begins with words about being called—about being set apart by God. And that fits right in with the gospel lesson, where Jesus calls his first disciples. John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.”
On hearing this, two of John’s disciples decide to check out this Jesus guy—and they wind up abandoning John and going off with Jesus, instead.
But that seems to be the very thing John intended. Anyway, this call—the call of these first two disciples—is noteworthy. Here is a glimpse of what it’s usually like to be called by God.
Yes. “Called by God.” When we hear that phrase, we usually think about accountable ministers, don’t we? You know. Pastors. Priests. Diaconal ministers. Evangelists. Missionaries. We tend to conceive of someone being “called” in terms like those Isaiah used.
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (Isaiah 49:1b-3)
In other words, we think of a “called” person as being told by God to do some specific thing—and usually a rather significant thing! When we speak about someone being “called,” we generally mean some kind of special service—usually full-time and professional, and almost always within the institutional church.
And that’s a comfortable way of looking at things, because it shields us from any personal challenge when we hear the Bible talk about Christ calling people to follow him. We can listen to the gospel story and neatly separate what happened to them from what’s going on with us.
“After all, they were called! But we’re just ordinary folks.” So we’re safe from all that “call” business. It’s about somebody else.
However, this whole way of looking at—and looking for—a call from God as a summons to a specific job or task really sort of misses the point. Certainly, there is such a thing as a special call to a specific ministry or type of service. But that’s not usually what the Bible means when it talks about being called. That is not what’s going on in our gospel passage—and it is not what is usually going on with us, when God calls us.
Being ordained, or commissioned, or designated, or recognized—or being a missionary, or a monk, or something like that—is quite secondary to the real, central, call we each have from God. Those two followers of John the Baptist whom Jesus invited to “come and see” were called exactly as we are called. They were called to be disciples, just as we are called to be disciples. They were called to be disciples in their place and in their time—and for the sake of their generation.
Consider what this means. It means that Jesus’ call to Andrew and the other disciple is like the call of Christ to each of us—and to all of us.
In his first encounter with them, Jesus did not call them to carry out a particular task or to fill a particular role. Instead, he invited them into relationship. He did not say, “Do this.” He said, “Come and see.” Only later did he give specific content and direction to where that might lead.
There’s a big difference between a call to a task and an offer of relationship.
To respond to a call for relationship—for intimacy—is a very different thing from contracting to do a piece of work. It’s like the difference between falling in love and landing a job. Setting out to do a job requires some clarity about what is involved. Not only that, but terms of employment are negotiable. A job has its limits, and you usually know what the finished product is going to look like.
To be called into relationship, however … to be called in love … that is something else entirely. That is an invitation to enter into a mystery. It’s a summons to move out—blindly—into uncharted waters.
When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he is calling us first of all unto himself. Following Jesus means knowing him intimately and sharing his life. That’s the important thing. Everything else is left behind; everything else becomes secondary.
Now, if we look at Jesus’ call from the perspective of what’s left behind … Well, that is a call to repentance. But if we see that same call from the perspective of what comes next, then it’s a call to seek Jesus above all else. It’s an invitation to get to know him better, and to make our relationship with him the central focus of our lives.
When we are called—and we are called, each and every one of us—Jesus simply asks us to abide with him for a season: not going anywhere, not doing anything. It’s a call to find out where Jesus lives, and to spend some time living there. To be sure, eventually this will lead us somewhere. But we won’t know where, right away—and maybe not for a very long while.
This is why a sense of call can be as frightening and frustrating as it is inspiring and exciting. We might know something very important is going on—something that involves us. And that creates a sense of urgency. Immediately, we begin looking around for an assignment. We want some great thing to do! After all, if something is important, it has to produce … right?
But … instead of that … especially at the beginning, all we are asked to do is get to know Jesus a little bit better. It’s a call to listen, and it’s a call to wait. It’s a time to imitate the psalmist, a time to “listen to what the Lord God is saying” (Psalm 85:8). We need that first. We need that most.
That’s what those first disciples did. They stayed close to Jesus for a while. They learned what they could and came to know him better. Then—admittedly, long before they thought they were ready—then Jesus gave them things to do. For some, these tasks were dramatic. For others, the tasks were quite mundane.
Listen: the call of Christ will always, in one form or another, find expression in ministry. It is ministry in which we all must participate—but the call comes first. There can be no real, abiding, and sustaining ministry apart from a relationship with Jesus. To put it another way, there can be no Christian discipleship without Christ.
Each one of us is called to be a disciple. If we try to ignore that call, it will haunt us. That call will track us down. It will disrupt our sleep. It will whisper in our ears at the worst possible times. It will grow stronger, and weaker, and stronger again. It may seem to go away … but it always comes back. Because, finally, it is our Lord who calls us to himself. He calls us into life. He calls us into struggle and sacrifice. He calls us into joy—and into real and lasting peace.
It’s a call Jesus makes to each and every one of us. So, please … don’t let it go to voicemail. Pick up the phone!