Listening For Jesus’ Call

Delivered March 10, 2002 by Dr. Greg Ogden
for the Third Annual Christian Speaker’s series weekend.

Theme: Ephesians 4 ministry of the laity, essential discipleship.

How do you say Baltimore here, “Bawlmer?” Am I getting close? It’s good to be back under circumstances other than when I was here last time, which was obviously to be a candidate here, but God called us somewhere else; however, you got the right call in terms of the person who came and the ministry that has been going on here. It’s been a joy to be here this entire weekend. I feel as if I am here to be a cheerleader for the great things that are already happening at Central Presbyterian Church. My role is to say, “Yeah, keep going-you’re going in the right direction.” And to come in and be a part of that as I hear the whole issue of mobilization of God’s people in ministry here. This is a theme that is central to my own heart as well. And so this morning I want to consider with you listening for the call of God upon your heart. That really fits in. I get a chance when I go to speak at various places to speak those messages that are closest to my heart and there is nothing more fun for me than to share things that I love to talk about. The focus of my own life and ministry and sense of passion or call is to see the people of God released to the ministries that God has called you to have.

All of us are called to be ministers in all the different spheres of our life. Unfortunately, the church is not often taught that, for we have lived with some false premises in terms of our ministry. We have had a distorted understanding of ministry that has been restricted to a few that we pay to minister. Therefore, if our concept of ministry has been restricted, then our call has been restricted as well. And so we often refer to the call of God as being for those who go into “the ministry.” Ever heard that phrase? I hear pastors say all the time, “God called me into the ministry.” My immediate response is, “Well if God has called you into the ministry, what’s left for everybody else?” Do the rest of us have ministries if we are not paid to do ministry? Often times we have had this concept of a special calling of a group of people, a few that are set apart, to do ministry. I have often said that the church is really made up of three genders-there are men, women and pastors. There is sort of a separate category for pastors. And so we have ended up with a caste system that has made the distinction between clergy, and laity. This separation has actually created passivity on the part of the laity, because we think the role of the clergy is to minister to the laity. Then the laity is just seen as passive recipients of the clergies ministry, and that makes for a very distorted biblical understanding of what ministry and call is all about.

Let me take you back to an incident that occurred in my life a few years ago when I was speaking at a summer camp. A young man, probably in his early thirties, approached me at this camp. He was a reporter for a local television station but was considering a change of vocation. He had started taking some seminary courses in his area and was wondering whether he was called to the ordained ministry and whether he even needed to be ordained to have his call validated. We continued the conversation over lunch, we sat down at a table with about six or seven other people as you do at camps, and as he was describing his call and asking me, “Well how do I discern whether I was called to the ordained ministry or not, or whether I need ordination?” I felt this sort of energy arising within me and this emotion starting to build. Ever had one of those times when you have had this eruption of energy and words come out of your mouth that you wish you could grab and stick back in your throat? Well that’s what happened to me, because as he was talking, and I don’t even remember what triggered it, all of a sudden heard myself saying loudly, “ordination is evil!” And it startled me, and it certainly startled the young man that I was talking to and that was definitely an E.F. Hutton moment, because the entire table became silent, waiting for me to say something. And I had to ask myself the question. Where did that come from? Where did that deep sense of response come from? It came from a deep concern that the nature of ministry that we have described in the church today has made this distinction between clergy and laity, and reserved ministry for the handful and not for the whole people of God. So we have not made the call of God available to everybody, but only to a few people in the professional ministry.

Let me just give you three brief snapshots of what happens when we distort the whole area of ministry and call. The first, snapshot is that many of us probably don’t even have “listening for the call of God” on our prayer list. Because listening for the call of God is for people like pastors and missionaries, and maybe seminary professors (that’s kind of iffy). But for the rest of us we don’t even think, “do I have a call upon my life?” It doesn’t even make our prayer list. Thomas Gillespie who was the president of Princeton Seminary and a former pastor, made the following statement: “In our ordinary church parlance, the call of God is limited to those among us who bear ordination to professional ministry. I cannot ever remember ever hearing either an elder or a deacon saying that he or she serves because of the call of God. Neither have I heard a church member say that his or her life vocation is the result of a divine calling. It’s just not in the field of vision for many of us.

I will give you a second snapshot. Let me introduce you to Mike. Mike is a friend of mine from my former church, where we were involved in a discipling relationship. Mike is one of those big, bear hugging kind of guy who just loves you and is infusive about his love for you and for Christ. Well, he was growing in his love for Christ and loved nothing more than telling other people about the love of God, and he could do it in such a winsome fashion. At that time he was a commercial real estate developer who was moving to be a life insurance salesman, but since he so enjoyed telling other people about the love of God, he thought that maybe he was called to professional ministry. So he went and took some seminary courses, completed the seminary, and then tried to find a professional position on a staff where he could be paid to tell other people about the love of God. Now, why was he gravitating in that direction? In his mind there was sort of a hierarchy of call. If you really got excited about God, then the only option open to you was to go into the church and have a position.

The third snapshot deals with the relationship of call to the workplace. Do we think about ministry and the workplace? Well, a person who has been well known in that area is a man by the name of William Diehl who was a Bethlehem Steel executive and was very concerned about the integration of faith to ones work environment. He said, “In almost 30 years of my professional career, my church has never once suggested that there be any type of accounting of my on-the-job ministry to others. My church has never once offered to improve those skills, which could make me a better minister, nor has it ever asked if I needed any kind of support in what I am doing. There has never been an inquiry in to the types of ethical decisions I must face or whether I seek to communicate faith to my co-workers. I have never been in a congregation where there was any type of public affirmation of my ministry in my career. In short, I must conclude that my church doesn’t have the least interest whether or how I minister in my daily work.” Has ministry tended to be restricted to what we do within the walls of the church, and not in to all spheres of life? We have had this distorted understanding of ministry and call restricted to the sacred space and to only a few. I want you to understand that is not the biblical teaching. The bible teaches that we are all called to ministry, and therefore all of us have a call upon our life. And so really the burden of this morning, is to create a way for us to listen to that call of God upon our life.

Now I have to confess that being a teacher, I have to give you the big picture, so I can narrow in on the smaller issue that I want us to look at this morning. Teachers are just incapable of doing otherwise, so if you would just bear with me, I will lay this out for you. The big picture of the biblical understanding of call is that there are three kinds of calls. First, there is a primary call in scripture that is a call to Christ and community. Second, there is what I would call a secondary call, which is to take that primary call to Christ and community into all the different spheres of our life: family, church, workplace, community, relationships, etc. And then the third area, which is what I really want to focus on this morning in great detail, is that there is a unique heart or purpose call that God has for each one of us here. There is a design and purpose for your life.

Now lets go briefly over the elements of a primary call. One of the books that I would recommend to you is a book by Os Guinness, simply entitled “The Call”. In it he defines our primary calling like this, “Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, everything we have is invested with special devotion and dynamism, lived out as a response to his summons and service.” David McKim says it much more simply, “God’s call is to all who believe to be Christian.” Now there are three elements, as I see it, of primary call. The first element is that we are called to Christ, by Christ. A disciple is one who responds to the gracious call of Jesus Christ to follow him. And that’s what Jesus told us in Luke 9:23: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” In other words, there is a caller out there, friends, that is calling you and he says, “Come and follow me.” And to respond to the call of Christ is to put ourselves under the shaping influence of Jesus in our life. The second element of a primary call is we are called to community. As we are called to Christ, we are called into relationship with God’s people. To be called to Christ is to be called to his people. There was a bit of advice that was given to John Wesley as he was considering following Christ. He said, “Sir, do you wish to serve God and go to heaven? Remember you cannot serve him alone. You must therefore find companions or make them. The Bible knows no solitary religion.” In I Corinthians 12:13, Paul talks about the body of Christ, and he uses this image. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body…”

Last year on the Sunday after Easter, my wife and I went to a large well-known southern California church to visit. They reported that they had approximately 2,100 new conversions to Christ on Easter Sunday. That’s a lot of new people. So the Sunday after Easter the subject of the morning was a followup message, to help get these new believers grounded in the faith. The speaker that morning made a statement in the midst of his message that almost caused me to bolt out of my seat. He asked the question, “Is it necessary to be a part of a Christian community, a church, to be a Christian? I was waiting for his answer. He said, “no.” My wife saw me almost get up and she put her hand on my leg and said, “Don’t you dare.” This was because I wanted to get up and say, “It’s absolutely necessary to throw yourself into the people of God, to follow Christ.” Today we often times say, “Jesus–yes; Church–no. I will follow him, but forget about his people.” Well, that’s impossible biblically, because following Jesus is about forming a new society and new people. We are called to Christ and to community and then finally we are called to transformation in community. Paul says, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” We are called to holiness; we are called to transformation into Christ-likeness in the context of community. So that’s my brief summary of primary call.

We move from primary call to secondary call, and it’s simply that we apply our primary call, to the different spheres of our life. I will identify some of those spheres in a moment. But, really out of the context of the community of the church, we are sent as a base camp into all these different spheres of our life. That’s our secondary calling. So let’s define secondary calling like this. Our secondary calling is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live and act entirely for him. David McKim says it simply, “God’s call is to all who believe to be Christian in all we do.” So we could say in a sense that secondary calling has to do with being a homemaker or our workplace job. Now we don’t equate vocation and calling as if they are one in the same, but we live out our primary call in these various spheres. Let me just identify some of those spheres that I list in my book, “The New Reformation in Returning the Ministry to the People of God”. We have a calling to the church, the world, our ministry of work, our family, and the Sabbath. Each one of these spheres has it’s own internal requirements, you might say, of what it means to follow Jesus and be faithful, and they’re worthy of an entire sermon series by themselves.

Okay. Now you’ve got the big picture. Let’s move into the third kind of call, which is really where I want to have us focus our heart. It has to do with heart or purpose call. I think there is a unique purpose for which each one of us was created. It’s like that golden thread that runs through the fabric of our life. Or, if you compare it to a story, it’s that theme that runs through our life that we keep on coming back to. You know I have a theme that runs through my life, it just keeps coming back, and that’s my heart concern to see the people of God released to their potential. I have been given one thing to do while I am here on this planet and that is to try to help change the model of ministry that is going on in the life of the church. If that ever gets completed, I am ready to go. I will be done with what God has called me to do. Lloyd Ogilvie, a former pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian Church and now chaplain of the US Senate, asked a wonderful question, one that I hope will resonate in your spirit. “What difference would it make if you knew the purpose for which you were made?” Would it make any difference? Would you like to know that purpose for which you were made? And then one more quote from Oz Guinness this morning from his book, “The Call.” This one really speaks deeply to me. He says, “Deep in our hearts we all want to find and fulfill a purpose bigger than ourselves. Only such a larger purpose can inspire us to heights we know we can never reach on our own. For each of us the real purpose is personal and passionate, to know what we are here to do and why. Kierkegaard wrote in his journal: the thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.” I don’t know about you but that’s how I want to respond to that particular admonition.

For the last part of what I want to share with you this morning, I just want to set up a way for you to listen to the call of God upon your life, and look at four characteristics for purpose or heart call. And let these be a filter through which you can allow the spirit of God to work in your life.

First of all, a purpose or heart call is focused on a need that you care about. We don’t all care about the same things. There are huge amounts of needs out there, and we can’t care about all those needs. Only God can care about all those needs. Now let’s look at what you care about in light of a couple of different spheres. If your particular heart ministry and focus is the church in this particular season of your life, then I would urge you to respond to the following-just complete the blank statement. My greatest concern for this church is __________? How would you answer that? You don’t need to raise your hands this morning. But what comes to your mind? My greatest concern for this church is _______? If I were to take a microphone out this morning and put it in front of you and ask you to respond to that, we would get a lot of different answers. Some of you would say, “I want a greater freedom in worship.” Others would say, “I would like to be in a prayer ministry for the healing and wholeness of people’s lives.” Others would say, I would hope, “I love junior high kids.” There may even be some out here who do that. The answers would be various-why? Because God has made us uniquely to care for something different.

If your focus is on the world, the question changes a little bit. The question is, where does the compassion of Christ in you intersect the brokenness of the world? Let me tell you about Janet. Janet came to one of the workshops that I did in my previous church on finding your gifts and understanding your call. In a follow up interview I asked Janet, “If the fear of failure could be removed, what would you want to do for Christ?” Janet got very quiet. She put her head down. I could see something welling up inside of her and then the tears started to flow. I asked, “What’s going on?” She said, “If I could do something for Christ without the fear of failure I would work with at risk teenagers who are on the verge of committing suicide.” I said, “Tell me about that?” “My sister committed suicide when she was a teenager.” That pain had become her call. She went back to school, got the necessary skills and went into that line of work in ministry, as a result of the call of God upon her heart.

One of my favorite historical characters, and I always have to say this name slowly, is William Wilberforce. Can you say that fast a number of times? Now William Wilberforce was a well-known historical character, he was a Member of Parliament in Great Britain in the late 1700’s. He came from the aristocratic class, as you would have to to be a member of parliament back in those days. He came to faith in Christ after he became a member of parliament, and yet he said for the first number of years after he became a Christian, he didn’t do anything with it. In fact, he wrote in his journal, “My first years in parliament I did nothing, nothing that is to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object.” I like they way they wrote in those days. And then he began to ask God, “What’s my purpose? Now what is it that You have for me?” And so on October 28, 1787, he made this notation in his journal. “God has set before me two great objects. The suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of morals in England. The eradication of slavery from the British empire was his call. During the next 40 years he committed himself to follow that call. I will come back to him in a little bit. So the first characteristic of call is focused on a need that you care about. The second characteristic of the purpose or heart call is what I call a “positive burden.” Not a weight down burden, but a positive burden. A “well up within” kind of burden or a sense of inner oughtness or this I must do. I think the Apostle Paul gives us a feel for this when he writes of his own call. In I Corinthians, 9: 16-17, he says, “For if I preach the Gospel that gives me no grounds for boasting, for necessity is laid upon me. I am entrusted with a commission.” Basically Paul said that God chased him down, he gave him a job to do and it takes more energy for him to suppress communicating the gospel than it does just to go with that energy and make it happen.

Let me take you back a generation to a book that came out that many of you might have read. Have some of you come across a book called, “A Severe Mercy?” The story of that book is of Sheldon and Davy Van Alkin. They were Atheists at the beginning of the story. They had established what they call a “shining barrier” in the relationship that said that nothing is going to penetrate this relationship that we have. We are the most important things to each other. But they went off to England in the early fifties to explore graduate school at Oxford University. And, low and behold they started to become friends with Christians there. They admired and then fell under the spell of C.S. Lewis. I think that’s a name that many of us are aware of. He’s a great Christian writer and scholar. Well, Davy, the wife of the family, ended up having an incurable disease and dying of that disease, but before that happened, both of them came to faith in Chris. That shining barrier was broken. Well, C.S. Lewis ministered to them, but from the early Fifties to the mid Seventies, Sheldon wandered away from his relationship with Christ. Then he wrote another book called, Under the Mercy, where I read how he began to write Severe Mercy. He said that in 1976 he picked up the letters that C.S. Lewis had written to him to give him comfort and found his heart being stirred again back to his relationship with Christ. And then in his book Under the Mercy, he wrote these words, “At one moment nothing was further from my mind, thirty seconds later I was going to write a book that was named, A Severe Mercy. I recall no process of thought or decision, certainly no voice or presence. The intention, calm, clear, firm was simply there, and thirty seconds before it had not been.” God had something for him to do. Now when I read that I broke down in tears. I said, “Somebody else has had my experience.” I have had that experience. It happened when I was out jogging one day in 1983. I had been fussing with the whole area of discipling and being frustrated with it. And, all of a sudden, it felt as if I ran under an arrow out of the sky, sent from God, that crossed right through my body. Without any forethought I had this outline format of a discipling tool in my mind. This came with all the energy that said, this has got to be done. I have selected you, Greg, to do it. And it’s now called Discipleship’s Essentials put out by the InterVarsity Press. This is not a sales pitch for my book, just to illustrate God’s purpose call for me. Ever had that? Or been seeking that?

The third characteristic of heart call is that it is bigger than we can ever accomplish in our own resources. Anything worthy of the name of call causes us to question, “Who me, Lord? You’ve got to be kidding.” That’s what happened to Moses, wasn’t it? Moses is out there minding his own business in the desert for 40 years, probably thought that God had long since left him, been abandoned from his royal heritage. All of a sudden there is this burning bush and the Lord begins to speak to Moses. “Moses, I have heard the cries of my people in Egypt and I am going to release them. Oh, by the way, Moses, guess who is going to lead them out of captivity? You.” And what’s Moses’ response? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” Now I am really quite comforted by that response. I think we would have been a little suspicious of Moses if he had said, “No problem Lord, what took You so long? I’ve known this all along. Why did it take so long for You to show up?” No, he was a reluctant draftee and we are often time’s reluctant draftees.

Let me take you back to William Wilberforce. Talk about a call bigger than he could ever accomplish under his own resources. As soon as he began to fight against slavery, what happened? He was lampooned in the British press, the butt of political cartoons. In fact, the last letter that John Wesley wrote six days before he died was to William Wilberforce. And it was this, “My Dear Sir, unless the divine power has raised you up, I see not how you can go through with your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and of devils. But if God is with you, who can be against you?” For the next 40 years Wilberforce fought against it. In 1832 the Act of Emancipation was passed. The day that the British parliament passed the Act of Emancipation was the day that Wilberforce died. A friend of his wrote this, “It is a singular fact that on the very night in which we successfully engaged in passing the Act of Emancipation, this spirit of our friend left the world. The day, which was the termination of his labors was the termination of his life.” Now life is not always so tidy as that, as we know. But he followed his call. Bigger than we can ever accomplish in our own energy.

And then, finally, this morning, the last characteristic of a heart call is that it comes with energy and joy. Now it almost sounds like a contradiction to the last point, doesn’t it? The last point says it’s going to cost you something to follow your call. That’s external. With a call comes this internal energy and joy. In John 15 we read about Jesus saying, “I am the vine and you are the branches, stay connected.” And then he concludes that section with John 15:11. “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” What do you think the joy of Jesus was? My joy, Jesus says, “may be in you and your joy may be full.” What was the joy of Jesus? I think it was two things. First, it was to live under the pleasure and the love of his father. Nothing gave him greater joy than that. And second, it was to do the will of his father. To complete the task that he was given. If you go back to John, Chapter 4, remember the story of Jesus with the woman at the well: the disciples had gone into a nearby village to get some food. When they come back, Jesus hasn’t eaten all day, and so the disciples offer Jesus some food and Jesus says, “I don’t need any food. My food is to do the will of the Father and to complete his work.” That was Jesus’ joy. And then he says to us that “my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”

What’s our joy? The same thing. To complete the work that God has given us to do. I think it’s interesting that one of the words that Paul uses for spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12:6. “There are the varieties of workings” the root word there is _______ in Greek, which means “energizing.” When we are tapped into that particular call of God upon our life there is an energy that is released inside of us that says, “I was made for this. This is what I was born for.” Don’t you want to find that in your life? So this morning, listening for the call of God focuses on a need that you care about, a sense of inner oughtness, it’s bigger than you can accomplish on your own strength, and it comes with energy and joy. Let me conclude with this final quote from Gordon Cosby, pastor of the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. He says, “Vocation or calling has the elements of knowing that if you respond to the call, you are faithful to your own inner being and are enhanced by it. Your own awareness converses with some need out yonder and intersects with it in such a way that you have the sense that you were born for this.”

My prayer is that you would know what that is in your life. Would you pray with me? Let’s just take a few moments to allow the spirit of God to continue to speak to us as we recall these particular characteristics of call.

Holy Spirit, I ask that You will be very present here right now. I trust that You are speaking to some people here this morning. That there is a stirring, there is a racing of the heart. May there be a sense of getting in touch with what You would have them be and do. Lord, what’s that need that you call us to care about? Unwed mothers, the homeless, people lost on the edge of the church, the illiterate. What’s that need? Lord, what’s that sense of inner oughtness that You call us to, this task that You bring to us that says, “I’ve got this for you to do?” When we have said in the past, who me Lord, you’ve got to be kidding. It’s bigger than I could ever accomplish myself. May your divine energy, the geyser that rises up within us make us say, “Oh, I just love serving people in this way.” Confirm that Lord, in our spirits we pray this morning. In Jesus name, Amen.