God calls us

Epiphany II (January 15, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
I Sam. 3:1-10; Ps. 89:1-29; I Cor. 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

This week we received the exciting news that our son Jeremy is engaged to Lyndsay Adams. They have been dating for several years now and we are excited to see how God has led them to a life together! They are planning for a summer 2012 wedding.

Jeremy Byler and Lyndsay Adams

In Jordan, we had opportunity to visit two inspiring organizations who are working with young adults with physical or mental disabilities. At Beit Saleem — a ministry of the Jofeh Community Rehabilitation Center in the Jordan Valley — young adults receive vocational training in sewing, weaving, woodworking and paper recycling. In Salt, the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf provides educational and vocational resources for young adults who are deaf and, in some cases, also blind. At both organizations we witnessed a powerful sense of community.

Mohammad with Brent Stutzman and Brother Andrew at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf

In the region this week:

Below is the sermon that Daryl delivered, January 14, at the International Anglican Church of Amman.

This congregation is filled with talented people. Perhaps no one will win a Nobel Peace Prize, or become the president of a country, or become a world-famous writer, or be the next Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela; but, nevertheless, many in this congregation are doing some incredible things.

All of us want our lives to make a positive difference. We want to contribute to a better world. We want our lives to matter. We want our lives to count for something bigger than ourselves. There is good news. In God’s economy, our work does not need to be high profile in order to be high impact.

Recycled paper is turned into beautiful greeting cards at the Jofeh Center

This week, we had the privilege of visiting the Jofeh Community Rehabilitation Center in the Jordan Valley. The director of the Center is Yousef Rizik, who used to be in the hotel management business. These days Yousef finds his joy and meaning from operating a vocational training center for young men and women who are physically or mentally challenged. The service sheets from our congregation become beautiful greeting cards as part of the Center’s recycling and papermaking project. It is inspiring to witness the community of love and hope that God has created at the Jofeh Center – as young adults who otherwise would be stuck at home, are now finding ways to enjoy each other’s company, while using their gifts to earn a modest wage. This Center would not be possible without Yousef’s leadership and love for what he is doing.

The Lectionary readings for this second week of Epiphany remind us that God makes it possible for each of us to make a difference in the world. God calls each one of us to be part of God’s amazing work. The Lectionary readings provide clues about how we are to understand God’s calling upon our lives. By aligning ourselves with God’s calling, we can be assured that our lives will count for something; they will not be lived in vain. Specifically, the Lectionary readings offer four principles regarding God’s calling.

God’s calling is for us to follow Jesus and to invite others to do the same. This is God’s calling to each one of us in its most basic form. In the reading from John’s gospel, Jesus goes to Galilee, finds Philip and invites him: “Follow me.”(Jn. 1:44) Jesus doesn’t ask Philip to sign an employment contract, or to abide by a set of religious rules, or to agree to a certain political philosophy. He simply invites Philip to a relationship: “Follow me.”

Later, Philip goes out and finds Nathanael, who is clearly skeptical about this Jesus. Like Jesus, Philip doesn’t try to force a new way of thinking on Nathanael. He simply invites him to “Come and see.”(v.46). When Nathaniel heeds Philip’s challenge, he quickly sees that Jesus is more than an ordinary teacher. Based on a very short conversation with Jesus, Nathaniel declares: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (v.49) Even Jesus seems surprised by Nathaniel’s response. Jesus responds with the modern equivalent of, “You haven’t seen anything yet!”

Some might say, “Well this is all fine and good, but Jesus isn’t exactly walking the streets of Amman so how do we follow him today?” Following Jesus might have been fine for the first disciples 2000 years ago, but what about today?

We follow Jesus as we receive the grace that he extends to each of us, as we pay attention to what he taught, as we imitate how he lived and loved. In a practical way, we follow Jesus as we are connected to the church – which is the body of Christ.

In its most basic form, God’s calling is for us to follow Jesus and to invite others to do the same. As we follow Jesus, we fulfill God’s calling upon our lives.

Young women doing embroidery at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf

God’s calling is persistent. This is the point of the Old Testament reading. You remember the story of Samuel. His mother Hannah is not able to have children. She pleads with God to give her a child and promises to consecrate her child to God’s service if God will answer her plea. God grants Hannah her heart’s desire and she gives birth to a son. True to her promise, Hannah offers her son Samuel to God’s service when he is still a boy. She takes Samuel to the temple where he assists the aging priest Eli.

One night God audibly speaks to Samuel and the young boy immediately assumes that it must be Eli calling him. So he runs to Eli and says, “Here I am, for you called me.” (I Sam. 3:5) But Eli says, “I did not call; lie down again.” (v.5b) This happens two more times with the same result. After the third time Eli finally realizes what is going on. “Go, lie down,” Eli tells Samuel, “and if God calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’” (v.9). Samuel obeys and God speaks to him about an important matter.

Like the boy Samuel, it may take us some time to understand that it is God speaking to us. But, if we are listening, we won’t miss it. God is persistent in calling. We can’t be too hard on the young Samuel because the writer says: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” (v.1)

It takes practice to learn to hear God’s voice. That is why it is important for us to spend time in silence and prayer and worship and fellowship – settings where we place ourselves in a posture of listening. The elderly priest Eli helps Samuel realize that it is God talking to him. Indeed, God often speaks to us through others. Sometimes God speaks through an insightful question from a friend or even from our children; sometimes through a wise word of counsel.

God’s calling is persistent. We see this principle not only in the story of Samuel but in the lives of Moses and the prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Jonah. If we live in a posture of listening, we need not worry that we will miss out when God calls us.

A young man learns weaving at the Jofeh Center

God’s calling comes with accompaniment. When God calls us to something, God is faithful to remain with us, to guide us, to strengthen us and to protect us. In other words, God doesn’t call us to things and then abandon us. Instead, God provides all that we need to fulfill our calling. God accompanies us as we carry out our calling. This is the message from Psalm 89, which describes God’s promise to David – a message which prefigures God’s promise to Christ.

I often think of accompaniment as a word associated with the Palestinian context. Today, internationals from all across the world come to the West Bank to accompany Palestinians — to monitor their treatment at checkpoints or to walk with children on their way to school so that they will not be attacked by settlers. These accompaniers provide an international presence that is intended to reduce the potential for violence and human rights abuses.

This is the image of Psalm 89. When God calls us, God accompanies us in that calling. Listen again to these words that describe God’s calling and accompaniment in David’s life:

“I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
‘I will establish your descendants for ever,
and build your throne for all generations. . . .’
“I have exalted one chosen from the people.
I have found my servant David;
with my holy oil I have anointed him;
my hand shall always remain with him;
my arm also shall strengthen him.
The enemy shall not outwit him.
The wicked shall not humble him.
I will crush his foes before him
and strike down those who hate him.
My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him;
and in my name his horn shall be exalted. …
I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth.
Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him,
and my covenant with him will stand firm.
I will establish his line forever,
and his throne as long as the heavens endure.”
(Ps. 89:3-4, 19b-24, 27-29)

That is serious accompaniment. David is not out on a limb by himself. God calls David. Then God anoints, equips, strengthens and protects him. The same is true for each one of us. This is reassuring!

Amman doesn’t have that many traffic lights, but when we lived in Washington, D.C. one of my fantasies was that someone would invent a remote control that would change traffic lights with the push of my finger – and of course I would be the only one who had one of these gadgets. That’s almost how the psalmist makes it sound in describing how well God prepares the way for those whom God calls. Of course, it is not quite that easy. Even though God calls us, we still face many hardships and challenges as we live out that calling. But the point is that, when God calls us, God accompanies us.

A young woman at the Jofeh Center does embroidery that will become part of recycled greeting cards

God’s calling comes with strings attached. The Epistle reading offers a word of caution about our calling. While God gives us gifts and gives us freedom in exercising those gifts, we are called to use all that we have been given to glorify God – not to pursue selfish desires.

Corinth was a city where sexual promiscuity was rampant. So in his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul specifically warns against engaging in sexual immorality, since it will diminish their witness in their context. But he could have just as well warned about other behaviors that are an abuse of our freedom and therefore diminish our witness in the world.

Paul’s point is that we are not independent. We belong to Christ.

  • “Your bodies are members of Christ.” (v.15)
  • “Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (v.17)
  • “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (v.19)
  • “For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” (v.20)

We have freedom in our calling, but we also are accountable. God calls us to represent the values of God’s kingdom. In this sense, we are all diplomats. Indeed, in another of his letters to the church at Corinth, Paul says that we are “ambassadors for Christ.” (II Cor. 5:20)

There are times when God has a very specific plan for us. But most of the time there are a range of possibilities that are acceptable to God.

We recently had to make a decision about whether or not to extend our term of service with MCC in Amman. We prayed. We sought counsel. We even put out a few fleeces. But there were no flashing lights. There were no clear signs or dreams. In fact we received contradictory counsel from friends. Still, the majority of factors seemed to point towards staying another year, so that is what we decided to do.

If we are listening and if God has a specific direction in mind, we can trust that God will show us. When a decision must be made and there is no clear sign from God, then it is safe to assume that we have the freedom to choose the option that makes the most sense in light of all the circumstances.

As we seek to align ourselves with God’s calling upon our lives, let us remember these principles from this week’s Lectionary readings:

God’s calling is for us to follow Jesus and to invite others to do the same. Keep this big picture in mind. There are many ways to live out this basic calling.

God’s calling is persistent.  Be attentive to all the ways that God speaks to us. Keep listening for God’s voice. If we are listening, we won’t miss God’s call.

God’s calling comes with accompaniment. God calls some of us to very challenging roles. Thankfully, we are not alone. We can be confident that God accompanies us as we fulfill our calling.

God’s calling comes with strings attached. In using the gifts and resources that God has provided us to fulfill our calling, we should be careful not to abuse our freedom in ways that diminish our witness. For we have been bought with a price. We are to glorify God in all that we do.

May this be true for each one of us as we seek to faithfully live out God’s calling.

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