When our celebration of Christmas ends, theologian and poet Howard Thurman tells us that the work of Christmas begins: “To find the lost, / To heal the broken, / To feed the hungry, / To release the prisoner, / To rebuild the nations, / To bring peace among brothers [and sisters], / To make music in the heart” – to take up our vocation, our calling, to do the work God began in Jesus and continues in the church.
That’s our vocation as Christians, to be God’s incarnation today. It’s a humbling and amazing call, and it’s a call for each of us. It takes a lifetime to learn what it means, and even then we don’t fully understand it. But here are a few things I’ve learned about it.
The first is that our call, our vocation in life, is not something we choose or deserve; it’s a pure gift from God. And like our DNA, our call from God is written into us from before our birth. What St. Paul understood about himself, that “it pleased God in his kindness to choose me and call me, even before I was born” (Gal. 1:15 NLT), is true of every one of us.
This kindness from God comes to us regardless of all the false steps and dumb mistakes we keep making. We can choose to ignore it, but we can never run away from it. I know because I’ve tried. Three times I tried to leave parish ministry for other work. Once, I consulted a life coach; another time I took a battery of psychological and personality inventories; a third time, I tried to walk away by retiring. Every attempt led me to recognize the unavoidable reality that I’m called to ministry.
Your story is not very different from mine except in the particulars. What God said to Jeremiah, God says to every one of you, “before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer. 1:5). You are set aside for a holy purpose, not to be a prophet like Jeremiah, perhaps, nor a church planter like Paul, nor a parish minister like me, but to play some role, your own role, in perfecting God’s creation. You have a vocation in life that’s a gift from God, part of your nature since before you were born.
The second thing I’ve learned is that my call, my purpose in life, is not about me; it’s about God. I used to get a catalog from Day-Timer with the message: It’s All About You. God never says that to me or to anyone, that it’s all about you. What God started in the Incarnation and continues in us is not about me or you. It’s about God and about God’s plan for the whole world.
The good news is that in Christ, God was restoring the whole world to its original integrity, healing a broken world so it would serve again as an inclusive and enduring home for all people – all people. You and I have been called to serve as ambassadors of that good news (2 Cor. 5:19-20).
Once in my previous career in publishing, when I was making a difficult job change, I made a commitment to listen to how and where God was leading me. The first big thing that happened was that God led me to a job that was exactly right for me in that moment. The second big thing that happened was that God led me to a church community where I could be nurtured as God’s call grew in me. And then God led me from there to seminary and parish ministry.
God’s call was not about my next job; it was about something I could not begin to see at the time but that God envisioned for me. It wasn’t about me and my plans; it was about God and God’s grace. And to fulfill God’s grace, I had to commit to following where God called without knowing the cost or where it would take me.
The third thing I’ve learned is that my mistakes don’t invalidate God’s call. In the same way God’s call is in my nature, it’s also in my nature to mess it up from time to time. St. Paul tells us that everyone sins and falls short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). We all make mistakes in doing what God has called us to do, and God uses us anyway. If you ever think you’ve messed up God’s grace in your life, think again; get over it, you’re not that powerful.
Chuck Colson knew about that. As an assistant to President Nixon, Colson was one of the most powerful men in the world. Then he got involved in the Watergate scandal and was sent to prison. That might have been the last we heard of him, but he became a follower of Christ and founded a prison ministry that today reaches into more than 150 countries and has blessed millions of people. Nothing Chuck Colson did wrong could invalidate God’s call for his life. No mistake of ours is so bad that it can invalidate God’s call for us. No fault of ours is fatal to God’s will for us.
Finally, I’ve learned that what God calls us to do, God equips us to do. Recently some of you completed a spiritual gifts inventory. You learned to identify the spiritual gifts that are part of your God-given nature. Without exception, I believe, those who completed the inventory found their spiritual gifts are a natural reflection of who they are and that using their gifts is something they do naturally. Your gifts are the equipment God provides so you can fulfill God’s call in your life. How will you choose to use them?
I don’t know where God is calling me, any more than I could have known that my job change was going to lead me to seminary. We may never know the final purpose to which God calls us or how God is using us for that purpose. But I believe clues to our purpose in life are found in the spiritual gifts God has given us. And I believe if we identify our best gifts and use them in the best way we know, we will be cooperating with God’s call, though we may know nothing of it. Do you believe that about yourself, and do you really trust it, trust it enough to stake your life on it?
“Live your lives in a way that God would consider worthy,” Paul urges. “For he called you into his Kingdom to share his glory” (1 Thess. 2:12 NLT). God calls us to live under the reign of God and to share God’s glory. It’s a call that’s for me, and it’s a call that’s for you.
Questions for reflection
- Do you think Jesus’ experience at his baptism was an outer phenomenon which others could see and hear, or an inner awareness or realization which only he experienced? What are some of the important differences between these two interpretations? (Compare Matthew’s account with the accounts in the other gospels.)
- How was Jesus different following his baptism? What might he have known about himself? What might he have not known? What new relationships might he have been open to after accepting John’s baptism – relationships with the people, with the ruling classes, with God?
- Immediately after his baptism, Jesus will be led (driven) by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted (tested). Why would such testing so closely follow Jesus’ receipt of God’s Spirit and his affirmation by God? Was his baptism in itself insufficient preparation for the beginning of his ministry? What would his testing have added?
- Describe a time when your faith was seriously tested. What was the result of such testing? How was your life different afterwards?