It was for, an October Spring day, a very wet and windy night in Cape Town, South Africa. A number of friends and I had decided that we would go to the famous St. George's Cathedral in the centre of the city in order to hear one of England's greatest preachers, an Anglican theologian named Colin Urquhart. We wanted to hear him because we had read a number of his books on healing and the call to ministry and ecclesiology. Some of us, particularly myself, went that night because it was the end of the academic year in South Africa and it was my final year at the University of Cape Town and I thought that any prayer help that I could get in my studies would be most gratefully appreciated. Whatever our motives were, we went to that service that night at St. George's Cathedral.
There was an air of expectation in the building that we were going to hear something prophetic and powerful. Unfortunately the sermon was a little anti-climactic. Oh, it was solid and inspirational, but it was not outstanding. We had expected this to be a man of fire and passion and he was rather laid back in his homiletical presentation until one moment in his sermon when certainly, as if a caveat, an aside, to everything else he was saying, he made this invitation: he said, “Tonight God is calling six people in this church to the ordained ministry. I would like all six of you to come and meet me on the foot of the steps of the Chancel after the Benediction.” Remember that this is a guest preacher from England; he knew nobody in the congregation. As the service went on and we sang a final rousing hymn (I think it was “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah”) I looked at my friends and as they were about to exit in the normal manner down the aisle, I felt this inner compulsion to stay. I went, a little uncertain and unclear, not knowing precisely why, and stood at the steps. For a few minutes I was all alone, a solitary figure. I thought, “Have I made the most awful mistake? Is this a ruse?” Within the next couple of minutes however, I was gradually joined, first by one, then by two, then by three, then by four, and finally by a fifth person. Four of us were white, two of us were black. Five of us were men and one was a woman. Colin Urquhart finally came after greeting the congregation and sat on the steps and said, “Lady and gentlemen, let's talk about the rest of your lives!”
To this very day, as far as I know, five of us who went forward are still in the active ministry. One who is not, unfortunately died an untimely death.
Many times I have thought back, for that was exactly twenty years ago tomorrow night. Many times I have wondered what on earth happened there? It's beyond my ability to comprehend. How did this man have a particular revelation that there were six of us who would be called and six show up? What mystery there is to this whole notion of call! Why would I be singled out? What inner compulsion within my heart led me to walk forward in a terrifying setting? Why is it now, twenty years later that I stand in a pulpit in another land to proclaim that gospel that Colin Urquhart invited us to follow? I will never know. It is a mystery.
Just as indeed there is a mysterious nature to the call of all the great characters even within the Bible. If you look at the passages within Scripture and look at the many calls in the Old Testament and in the New, at ordinary people and extraordinary people, there is a mysterious nature to it all. Yet there are, within these calls, some foundational ideas and concepts that all of us need to grasp. This morning I want to look at two individuals in particular. They are separated some 780 years from each other, very different in temperament and style and in the nature of their calls.
The first is probably the most famous call in the whole of the Old Testament. It is the call of the great Prophet Isaiah. We know little about Isaiah except that he was from a good family, but in the year that King Uzziah died, 742 BC, we read that this great Isaiah was called by God in a unique moment that is described in theological language as a theophany ? as a mysterious experience of the divine. It was a time of transition for Israel, for Israel had had a life of prosperity and wealth under King Uzziah, but now they were moving into a time of danger and the impending threat of the Assyrians. God calls this Isaiah to do something spectacular in the midst of this impending threat and the nature of the call is fascinating. We read that Isaiah was probably in the temple in Jerusalem, no doubt at the coronation ceremony of the new monarch. There he has a vision and a call from God. It is a magnificent vision, it is a vision that there are seraphim and angels, intermediaries, the likes of which you and I probably have never seen but that symbolize the presence and power of God. Ezekiel would describe these as the Heavenly Hosts. Daniel described these seraphim as the Living Creatures. These are the Heavenly Hosts and when Isaiah sees this he knows in this vision that he is seeing something unusual and life-changing. Three times they talk about God and say, “Holy, holy, holy.” A typical Jewish way of emphasizing things by repeating them. The Holiness of God is the presence into which Isaiah is brought. We see that there is smoke that fills the temple, probably the incense that is used for the purification of the new monarch. The earth begins to tremble and Isaiah realizes that at this moment there is a unique encounter with the power of the Holy God. He is terrified!
He says, “Woe unto me, for I am a man of unclean lips.” His mind no doubt, goes back to that great passage in Exodus 33 where it says of Moses that anyone who sees God dies. Isaiah's heart is probably pounding and he is fearful and now he is in the presence of God and his life is over. He looks at his iniquity and he compares and contrasts it with the glory of God and he is overwhelmed. Then there is a touch on his lips, a refining fire, a purifying grace. God asks Isaiah, “Whom shall I send?” And Isaiah finally realizes that it is not by his own initiative, but by the initiative of this God that he is to do what he is to do. So he lays himself before God and says, “Send me!”
Our second character is Ananias. We know little about Ananias except that he was called to do one of the most difficult and potentially dangerous things in the New Testament. The Lord comes to him and says that he must go to Straight Street, which is a street that runs east-west in Damascus and there he is to meet one of the most feared people in the Christian community. His name is Saul of Tarsus. This man who was probably there at the stoning of Stephan, the man who had authority from the chief priests to persecute people who were the followers of The Way and Ananias was called to lay hands on this man to restore his sight and let him know about his ministry to the gentile world. Ananias argues with God and says, “Oh God just a minute! Don't you know the reputation of this man? Don't you know how difficult it is?” He is terrified. God speaks to Ananias and says, “You must do this!” So Ananias receives courage that he couldn't find within his own heart. Paul arrives and lays hands on him and Paul was to become the great Apostle to the Gentile world.William Barclay said: “The Church owes Paul to the brotherliness of Ananias.” Had there not been the courage of Ananias to do what he did, then the nations of the world and you and I for that matter, would not probably have heard the glorious message of Jesus of Nazareth.
Now in both these cases there is no doubt of the uniqueness of their calls. I am not trying to gloss over that. This is probably not going to be repeated in our lifetimes and you and I will probably not see seraphim and have our tongues touched with coals, or maybe we might; who knows? But the fact is that while their call was unique and while they were given a specific task for the sake of God's purpose, they are not exclusive. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that all those who have faith have been called. All of us are by nature the Elect. Those who have been so called, says the Scriptures (I Peter), are called to be a Holy Nation and a Royal Priesthood. We are called to follow in the example of those who have been specifically called. That is why the Reformers that we celebrate today, use the term the Priesthood of All Believers. While Isaiah and Ananias had a specific and unique call, there is not one of us who has not in some manner or other been called by the grace of Jesus Christ to perform a ministry and a task within God's world.
I want to look at the call of these two in order that you and I might find inspiration for our call. We would be all the weaker if we do not grasp this vision for ourselves and then live it in the world.
The first thing we find in both these cases, is that they were called to a changed life and a new relationship. Both Isaiah and Ananias felt unable to perform the task. They were indeed brought to themselves by the call of God. They came to a realization that of their own ability or holiness or righteousness or power, they were not able to fulfill their calling within the world. “Woe to me for I have unclean lips.” “Oh, don't you know how bad this Paul really is?” One was terrified, the other was sinful. One feared that he could not perform the task, the other felt that he was not worthy even to be called. Yet in both cases they were called to enter into a new relationship with God, not on the basis of a prestablished righteousness that they had earned, but on the basis of God's initiative and call of grace. When they were unable to say the right things God stood there to give them instructions.
It reminds me of a story that I heard of a young clerk in a grocery store, who was confronted by a huge man who came up to him and said, “Young man, I would like to buy half a head of cabbage.” The clerk said, “I'm sorry, we don't sell half heads of cabbage; we sell only whole heads of cabbage.” The big man leaned over him and said, “Are you arguing with me? I only want half a head of cabbage.” The clerk was terrified and didn't know what he was going to do so he turned and said, “I will ask Al, the manager, and see what he can do.” So the young clerk runs into the back office, runs up to Al and says, “Al, there's a huge great idiot of a man out there who wants to buy half a head of cabbage.” Al is staring at him and gesticulating at him with all the motions he can, for the big man had followed the clerk into the back room. Realizing this, the young clerk turns around and says, “Oh, and by the way, this kind gentleman here would like to buy the other half.” Sometimes we're like the clerk and God is like Al. We say the inappropriate things and are not qualified; we're angry, frightened, we feel we're not up to the task and God, like Al, is giving us the words to say. God is renewing us and causing us to enter into a right relationship ? not on the basis of what we do but on the basis of the call of God. That is the nature of the call.
Many times I feel that I hear at this time of the year, as we have visitors going out who have been commissioned, that people feel unworthy and not righteous enough, they don't have a knowledge of the Scriptures that is sufficient, they're not holy enough to be able to perform the task that lies before them. But look at Isaiah; look at Ananias. You are not alone. It is by the grace of God alone that you receive the call to be a servant of Christ.
A second thing: the call is always on the base of gift and not qualification. Gift, not qualification. All the great figures of the Bible had some particular gifts and attributes and abilities that were natural but most of them, when they performed their tasks, were given gifts and powers that were super-natural. It was not on the basis of some established qualification, knowledge, or ability that God would use them. It was on the basis of what God would give them. It again was on the basis of grace. Many times those who have been called sometimes feel that they have to have some specific ability before they are able to fulfill the call of God in the world. It is not ability that is the key; it is availability. It is the courage of faith to step out and say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” That is what Isaiah was experiencing. That is what Ananias was experiencing. It wasn't on the basis of a great and rich background which Isaiah had, or a long standing tradition in the church which Ananias didn't have, it was on the basis of the power of God and you never know when God is going to use you.
This I realized by something I received last week. It is a story of a Scottish farmer called Fleming. He was from a very poor farm. One day there was a young boy on his land and the boy fell into a bog and started to drown. Fleming, seeing the distress of the boy, went over and grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out of the bog and saved his life. The next day, the father of the boy who was pulled out of the bog, came and visited Fleming. He was a nobleman and had arrived in a huge carriage. He said to Fleming, “Is there anything I can do for you for having saved my son's life?” Fleming said, “No, no. I don't need to be repaid.” As he was saying this, Fleming's own young son came running over and when the nobleman saw him he looked at the boy and at Fleming and said, “I'll tell you what I will do: because you have saved my son I will provide a first-class education for your boy. Let me take him and make him someone of whom you will be proud.” So the young boy went with the nobleman and received an excellent education and so great was it, that he graduated from St. Mary's University College in Medicine and became one of the great medical clinicians of our time. His name was Sir Alexander Fleming and he developed penicillin. A number of years later (this is a true story) the nobleman's son became very ill and contracted pneumonia. Had it not been for the recent discovery of the new drug penicillin this young man would have died. The nobleman in this story is Lord Randolf Churchill. The young son who developed pneumonia was Sir Winston Churchill.
You see, you never know how God might use you! You never know how one simple act of saving a life, a single gesture of kindness could lead to something great in the history of the world. You don't know this day how God is going to use you! The key is: are you available?
There is a third aspect of the call: that the call of God is always the call for others. The Apostle Paul in writing to the Romans said, “Those whom God called he justified and those he justified he also glorified.” In other words, those who have been called have been put in a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Those who have been called have been called to glorious living and to glorious eternal life. That is the heart of the Gospel. That's what our Reformers grasped and understood above all else. But having received the call we are then left to be disciples and as disciples we live not just for our own salvation, for that has been guaranteed in Christ, we then live for others. This is what happened in Isaiah. He laid everything down for the sake of proclaiming God's word, even to die in 680 BC as a martyr. Ananias was willing to lay everything down - his own security and unknowing who Paul was, for the sake of the mission to the Gentiles. In both their cases their call was not self-centred, it was centred on the glory of God.
So it should be with ourselves. This should be at the heart of our thinking and praying and life. I saw this a couple of years ago when I opened up the Ottawa Citizen Newspaper and saw a story of the court ruling about the opening of stores on Holidays, Easter, Christmas, Canada Day and Remembrance Day. In it everyone was applauding the fact that the stores could be open on those days. But there was one outstanding business person in Ottawa at that time, named Hans Bleeker, who owned a number of high-end audio stores, a very successful business person who refused to open on these days. I was inspired by what he said as quoted in the newspaper that he disapproved of opening on religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter and Remembrance Day. ”˜You'd have to carry me to the grave before I'd open up on Christmas and Easter Sunday. Is there nothing sacred in this world any more? What type of people would shop on Canada Day, or Christmas Day or Remembrance Day? Do I want them as clients? No, I think they're nuts!” Then he went on (Bleeker is a Christian) saying “What about my workers? What about a day of rest for them and their families, for their faith and for their health? I would give up all profits for their wellbeing.” Now that is discipleship for the sake of others. This is what we sometimes lose in all our discussions of faith. That is the courage of someone who is called and is willing to make sacrifices for what they believe to be right and what is well pleasing in God's sight and for the sake of other human beings.
The call is always the call for others. I pray this day that God in his unique way will touch all of you as he did Isaiah and Ananias, that you will realize it is by grace that you are called. It is not by qualification, but by availability and that you will be called to serve others in the world as Christ serves us. Then we will know, experience and believe the call of God. Amen.