Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17
Here Is My Servant
I’ve been thinking a lot about our Christian concept of call in the last couple of years. One of the most important things my mom taught me about faith was that God calls all of us. Being called by God isn’t something that’s just for pastors, for preachers. No, she reminded me often that everybody is called - it’s just a matter of figuring out what it is that you’re called to do. So, I was always on the lookout for my call from God. Mom never told us being called by God would look like any one thing, and indeed, my siblings and I took very different paths. But, as seems to be somewhat of the family way, I slowly realized I was called to pastoral ministry. And I went to seminary, and I pastored churches for 17 years. And during my years of pastoring, I’ve loved talking to other people about listening for and finding and answering their call from God. I love helping people discern what God is up to in their lives.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if the way we’ve talked about being called by God in the church has been too confusing, or too narrow, too limiting for people. Not everyone has had the same journey with “call” as I have had. My brother Tim, for example, really struggled to find a career path. These days, he works in international banking doing something I don’t understand at all. But I know he would never describe his work as a “call.” And with my other brothers working in higher education and in vocational rehabilitation, Tim sometimes feels like the odd one out. He’s never felt like God was calling him to a particular kind of work. I worry that we’ve tied “call” and “career” too closely together. “Careers” as we think of them today weren’t really a thing in the scripture, anyway. Nobody was picking college majors in Jesus’s day.
And then there’s me: I was pastoring in the local church, but I’m not anymore. I loved a lot about being a pastor, and the people I served were wonderful, but eventually some of the stresses and strains of pastoring started to outweigh the joys. I’m reminded of theologian Frederick Buechner’s words about vocation - words I bet my Uncle has shared with you at some point - that the “place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” (from Wishful Thinking.) I certainly wasn’t miserable in my life as a pastor. But neither was I finding my deep gladness any longer. Do calls from God end? Do they get replaced with a new one? When I decided to go back to school to work on my PhD, I wasn’t necessarily feeling called by God to that particular path. But I did think it might bring me some deep joy to be in school again. Is that “enough” to “count” as a call? Or is it only a call from God if we feel we are being pointed by God to take a very specific path?
As it would happen, a couple of the thinkers I’ve encountered in my PhD work have helped me think about how we’re called in some new ways. My focus is on Christianity and Animals. Dr. David Clough, a scholar in the field, writes that the although humans are more like nonhuman animals than we like to think, what sets human apart might be our vocation - our call. And for Clough, our call from God, our purpose, is laid out for us right in chapter 1 of Genesis: we’re made in God’s image - and being God’s image in the world is our purpose! (1) Imagine how your life would be shaped if you focused all your attention on trying to be the best reflection of God in the world you could be! It wouldn’t matter so much what career you chose, although there are certainly some careers that might make it easier for us than others to try to reflect God in our work. Instead, all aspects of our lives could be fulfilling our call from God. Dr. Christopher Carter is another scholar whose work I really admire. As he thinks about the relationship between humans and nonhuman animals, he says that our human task is to figure out what it means to be human and that doing that figuring out takes practice. We have to practice being the kinds of humans God means for us to be. (2) There’s something comforting to me about that idea - that we don’t always do a great job of being the humans-created-in-God’s-image we’re meant to be, but that we can practice, work at it, get better at it - better at loving, caring, growing, and reflecting God’s image. So - what if the biggest call from God that we need to hear (again and again) is the call to be God’s image in the world? And what if we spend our lives practicing and practicing this work until we can say that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, and really mean it. That’s a call that we won’t outgrow, a call that doesn’t fit for just one season of our lives.
And it is, in fact, the call of our baptism. Martin Luther, the 16th century excommunicated Catholic priest who was a leader in what we call the Protestant Reformation, taught an understanding of the scripture and the meaning of baptism that we still hold called “the priesthood of all believers.” Luther argued that Christians didn’t need to rely on a mediator, a priest, to go between them and God. Christians had direct access to God through their own faith life. And for Luther, it is baptism that provides the marker of our relationship with God - the entry point, in a sense. In baptism, we are all made “priests” of sorts, not because we will all be leaders of congregations and preside over the sacraments, but because, as 1 Peter 2:9 says, “we can show others the goodness of God.” God calls us to service and discipleship in the baptismal waters. In baptism, we’re reminded that we are created in God’s image. Baptism is a way of answering God’s call to a life of faith, and answering “yes” to God’s invitation of grace.
Today, we remember that Jesus was baptized too. Jesus’s baptism has always been kind of puzzling. If Jesus is God’s child, is God, is without sin, why does he need to be baptized? And Jesus never really explains to John why Jesus has to be baptized - we see that in our reading from Matthew today. His “it’s proper, it makes things right” doesn’t really answer all my questions anyway. In fact, even the gospel writers seem to me a little puzzled by the scene (hence their including John asking the question they and we are all asking: why does Jesus need to get baptized?), but they know it is really important. It marks the beginning of his ministry. It serves as the dividing line between his life before, which we know so little about, and his life after - his preaching, teaching, death, and resurrection. Can remembering Jesus’s baptism help us understand our own baptism? How can it help us as we ponder our purpose, our call?
I think of our reading today from the prophet Isaiah. In our passage, God is describing a servant, full of wisdom and justice, who will help Israel, God’s people, in a time of great need. This servant is upheld by God, chosen by God, one in whom God delights. The servant is full of God’s spirit. The servant works to bring forth justice, persists in the midst of struggles, and pursues justice even when things are challenging. God leads the servant, and sets them as a light to the people. The servant works to open the eyes that are blind, to bring prisoners out of dungeons and darkness. Through the servant, God does new things.
We tend to see passages like this as descriptions of Jesus - whether because Isaiah was predicting the future (even while he certainly believed he was just writing about his own context, and a hoped for earthly leader amidst the war and chaos of his time), or because we at least read back into these texts and see in Isaiah’s hope for a kind of ideal leader a description that only Jesus could fulfill so completely. But either way, I think when we read this description of God’s servant, by seeing this is clearly “about Jesus,” we miss how it is about us too. Because if this text is only describing Jesus, it can’t possibly be describing something we might need to fulfill through lives of discipleship. If only Jesus can be the kind of leader the prophets envisioned, then our discipleship isn’t so important - no one is depending on us.
Instead though, again and again in the gospels, Jesus asks us to follow him not from a distance, awed by his mighty deeds that we could never do; no, Jesus asks us to follow closely and learn how to do everything he does. Jesus shares power. Jesus says we can do what he does and more. Jesus wants us, calls us, to be like him. And I think that we can be like Jesus because Jesus is like us. I think Jesus is baptized because we are baptized. Jesus is God-with-us - that’s what we’ve just celebrated in Christmas. And being baptized with us is another way of being with us, joining us together in one purpose, one call. If Jesus is God incarnate, then we are God imaged. Jesus shows us God in the flesh and then asks us to do the same for one another. Jesus show us the goodness of God, and then we spend our lives showing the goodness of God to others.
I’m about halfway through my PhD program, and I’m still not sure what particular path I’m taking - if I’ll teach, or work for an organization, or even a church again, or somehow figure out a way to go back to school for an 89th time. But I still trust my mom’s advice. We’re all called. We’re called to follow Jesus and be as much like him as we can. We’re called to reflect God’s image to the world. We’re called to show God’s goodness to others. It will take practice. But that’s what being human is all about, and Jesus promises to join us in our work, being like us, so we can be like him. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Clough, On Animals Vol 1: Systematic Theology
Cite Carter, The Spirit of Soul Food