EQUIPPED FOR THE
We left off last week with a ringing phone, and I want you to remember that. Everybody has a phone that is ringing off the hook...God is calling you and wanting to be in relationship with you. The notion of calling is not about ordained ministry, work in the church, or even any kind of work or vocation at all. Calling is first and foremost about relationship. God wants to be in relationship with you, and that is the primary offer that comes with that ringing phone. That was point number one.
Once we have accepted God's offer of relationship, our next conversation will be about equipment and training. When we know that, we can better hear God’s voice because we are listening for the right things. We know just from day to day experience that we hear and understand things better when we have a basic idea of what someone is talking about. When I walk by someone and say, "Hi, how are you?" I expect to hear some version of "Fine, thanks, and you?" If they respond "Siberian tigers are almost extinct," I'm going to say, "What?" I don't hear because it's not what I'm expecting.
One way to hear God is to realize that once we sense God is calling, the next thing we are going to hear about will have to do with our preparation, not the details of our assignment. That's frustrating, because when we know God is calling us, we want to get on with it. But learning patience is part of our training. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had gone straight from my sense of call to ministry at age 14 into the pulpit. I would have been a menace to the Gospel. The calling was certain, but it wasn't time yet for me to be sent out to do the work. I needed a lot more schooling, and I needed a lot more of life before I would be ready for that job. Now, I was not idle in the meantime. God had many smaller jobs for me to do. But I was 35 before I formally became a minister.
Which brings us to a second point, which is related. God will begin your training, whether or not you answer the phone. Your phone has been ringing since birth, which is one of the beliefs behind our practice of infant baptism. God is there first, before we know it, calling us, and that relationship can begin before we can even speak, just as parents begin a relationship with a child before the child even knows what is happening. The call for relationship always comes first before our training.
But that doesn't mean we always answer the call before our training begins. By the time we answer the phone, we might have a lot of our training under our belt, even though we don't yet recognize that we have been prepared for anything. My parents saw no future in my German and English major in college and just shook their heads when I studied Latin, Hebrew, Greek and Biblical archaeology. “She’s unemployable,” they moaned. But it was perfect preparation for ministry, even though seminary would be another 14 years down the road.
We can see these lessons all through the Bible. Samuel is just a child when he answers God's call. He's had a tiny bit of preparation...about six years or so of living in the temple...but he has a lot still to learn before he can really be deployed as the great prophet God has chosen him to be. Moses, on the other hand is an adult with wife and kids before he picks up the phone, and most of his training is already behind him. Their first real conversation, though, is still about equipment and training with Moses insisting that he doesn't have any, and God trying to prove that he does.
In the New Testament, we see Jesus calling the Disciples. They need to travel with Jesus for three years, they need His teaching, they need the experience of His death and resurrection, and they need the power of the Holy Spirit before they are ready to be sent out. During that three years they get excited about things. They learn to perform miracles. They discover that Jesus is the Messiah. But Jesus refuses to turn them loose yet. No, he says. Don't go anywhere yet, except on short little missions when I send you. No, he says. Don't tell people I'm the Messiah, yet. You don't understand yet what that means.
Paul has this amazing conversion experience on the road to Damascus. He is struck blind by a great light of God and hears God's call audibly...a great voice from heaven telling him to go into the city and get his instructions. Another man comes to him and tells him exactly what God wants him to do. God has anointed Saul to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Paul preaches a few days...enough to prove his conversion from a persecutor of the church to an adherent of the faith, and then God essentially puts duct tape over his mouth and sends him back to his home town of Tarsus for the next 14 years. His call was real. His call was great. But he needed more training before he could be truly effective. God is calling you...has been from the day of your birth. When you answer the phone, your first conversation is going to be related to equipment and training, some of which is already in place.
OK, so how do I know what equipment and training I have or what I still need? What does that look like? In the Scripture passage I read this morning, Paul tells us about the way that God equips us. God gives us spiritual gifts and natural talents. Every single ability we have, whether it is a natural aptitude for music or math or teaching, or a spiritual gift of discernment, healing, or prophecy...they are all given to us to use in service for God. Our gifts can be traps for us and even prisons, if we think that we are given these gifts and talents for ourselves. Our gifts and talents are our equipment for God's work.
If I took our Sunday morning offering and went out and bought a car with it, you would be upset. That's not what you gave it for...you gave it for the work of God's kingdom not for my personal gain. It's the same with God's gifts. We are given them to use for God, not for us to earn a lot of fame or money or whatever. When we realize that this is how God operates, that God gives us gifts to equip us for the work God wants us to do, we can clean up some of the static on the phone line and hear God more clearly.
Do you want clues about what God has in mind for you? Look at what you're good at. Look at what you have a real passion for doing. When I got to a point of questioning my own call to ministry, I made a list of the things people told me I was good at and the things that I loved doing. Each thing independently could have led to a different career. But the only direction that fit all of them together was ministry. That wasn't the only part of the answer, but it was an important part.
I still remember the incredible sense of freedom I had when I realized that God would actually call me to something that I loved doing. For some reason I had it in my head that God's call was always to a snake-infested swamp somewhere and that answering God's call always meant some form of determined, noble suffering. God is always asking in Scripture why we expect much more terrible things of God than we would expect from human beings, and my attitude was one more example of that.
Any job has its aspects that are unpleasant, but in general a good boss puts employees doing things they both enjoy doing and have a talent for. It just makes good business sense. People will stay longer, be more productive, etc. If you want clues about the work God has for you...look at your gifts. Ask those who know you well to help you identify what you're good at. Ask yourself what you love doing if you had no restraints on you whatsoever. Those conversations and realizations are part of the way God speaks.
Our gifts and talents are the equipment God gives us, and the daily experiences of our lives are our training. God might be saying that you need to recognize some gifts you have been given or that you need to practice and hone some of the talents you have. Or, all the equipment might be in place, but there still might need to be some life training. Jesus had all the gifts and equipment he needed when he began his ministry at age 30. But still, the first place God took him was into the wilderness, where he fasted for 40 days and was tempted and tested by Satan.
Remember, the Bible says it was the Spirit of God that led Jesus into the wilderness. The devil didn't take him there. God led Jesus to where the devil was. There was still one bit of refinement that was needed before Jesus would be ready to really begin. Often it is that way with us, too. I was a talented and gifted kid. Most of my gifts and talents were pretty well developed by the time I was 20 years old. But I hadn't yet been to the wilderness, and there were lessons there that I needed to learn. God may simply be saying, you just need to stay in class for awhile and keep doing your homework. That is your work for now...to continue the training.
"But, Anne, I'm 85. I'm retired from my career and there's not a whole lot of time left for training." And, "Anne, I'm 12. Nobody will let me go to work yet. I guess I can't do anything for God until I'm older." If you're feeling those things, I refer you back to last week. God's calling is first and foremost to relationship with God. God knows how old you are, and God has meaningful work for you as long as you continue to draw breath. God has a purpose for every stage of your life...something that exactly fits your age and health and current ability. You can't be in an age or condition where you are of no use to God. Just a simple prayer can move mountains.
God is love. All of Paul's talk of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 is only the preface to his eloquent discussion of the greatest gift in 1 Corinthians 13. The greatest gift from God is the gift of love, and until we learn to give and receive love, all our other amazing talents are merely a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
It's the voice of Love on the other end of the phone. The call is an offer of love and contains instructions about how to pass that love on to others. If you're listening for the harsh word, for the word of judgment, for the invitation to the snake-infested swamp, it will all sound like static. But if you listen for the loving word, the word of encouragement, the word of hope, then you just might find that the static clears some. You just might feel free enough to see the gifts you have already been given and hopeful enough to accept your trials as part of your training for the great work of God. God...the God whose very nature is love...is calling. Pick up the phone.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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