Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it.” (Jon 1:2)
Now the word of the Lord came to Simon and Andrew, and James and John, as they were casting their nets in the sea, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matt 4:19)
When Jonah heard the Lord’s voice calling him, he immediately got up and hightailed off in the opposite direction!
When Simon, Andrew, James and John heard the Lord’s voice, they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus.
Two very different responses to the call of God. And as I was reading the two stories set in today’s scripture readings, I was reflecting on the mystery of vocation – of how God is always calling us to larger life, and our very mixed, and not always very impressive or heroic responses!
And actually, in Scripture, it seems that most people whom God calls, don’t immediately leave their nets and follow. Most of them, including me, are more like Jonah. Or like Moses. He tries to wiggle out of it. When God calls him to confront Pharaoh – “Oh, Lord, I’ve never been eloquent: I’m slow of speech and tongue.” (Ex 4:10)
Poor Jeremiah. “O Lord, truly I don’t know how to speak, for I’m only a boy.” (Jer 1:6)
Or poor Isaiah, in the midst of a stunning vision of heaven – “O Lord, woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.” (Isa 6:5) But after the Lord cleanses him, he does manage to say, “Here am I Lord – send me.” (Isa 6:8) We used to joke that he was probably feeling, “Here am I Lord, send HIM!”
I wonder about your experience? Can you think of an occasion in your life when you sensed deeply that God was calling to you? Perhaps a niggling voice that would simply not go away. An inner conviction that the way that you were living your life was not right, or no longer giving you life? A kind of prompting to maybe make a radical change. It is very often not very welcome. “O Lord, leave me alone! I could never do that. I’ve got comfortable where I am, comfortable with who I am.”
But generally, God does not stop calling us, prompting us, convicting us. Jonah tried to escape to the ends of the earth, but God’s voice followed him.
What is often the thing which we most resist, is the idea of renunciation. What needs to go! When God calls a person in Scripture, the call is nearly always accompanied by the need to renounce something. To let something go. To say goodbye to a part of our life which is no longer life-giving.
Simon and Andrew were in the middle of casting their nets in the sea when Jesus called them. And we read, “They immediately left their nets, and followed him.” (Matt 4:20)
James and John were in their boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, when they were called, and we read, “immediately they left their boat, and left their father and followed him.” (Matt 4:22)
But the renunciation which so often accompanies God’s call is not some negative mortification – it is the giving up of something, the willingness to let go of something, to offer something dear, as a prelude to receiving something even better. The renunciation is always accompanied by a promise, which is related to what has been given up. It’s as if, if we don’t relinquish something there’s simply no room for what God longs to give us.
So, when Abram is called by God to leave his country and his kindred, and his father’s house – a terrible renunciation – to go on a long journey to a strange land, it is accompanied by a promise, a promise related to the renunciation. “I will make you the father of an even greater family – you will be the father of a nation.”
And when Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John to leave their fishing and their families behind to follow him, their renunciation was accompanied by a promise related to their renunciation. They would no longer be fishing in the sea, but would now be fishing for people. And by leaving their family behind they would go on to become fathers of a new family – the church of God.
When God calls us, disturbs us, invites us, it is a call not to become a totally different person, but to become more fully the unique person God created us to be. When God calls us, it is always to larger life.
To a life more expansive, more abundant than we can possibly imagine. But to inhabit that larger life, we usually have to let go of some of the outward forms which constrain our lives. They are simply too small, too constricting. We’ve outgrown them. It’s rather like Jesus’ image of putting new wine into old wineskins – the wine will burst the skins and the wine will be lost.
When Jesus calls us to larger life, it’s like he’s filling us with new wine, and suddenly our life has to change. What we’re grown familiar with is simply too narrow, too constraining – and we need to let it go.
An image that comes to mind is that of the lobster. The lobster is completely encased in a very hard shell. It protects the lobster, but it also prevents it from growing. And so, it seems to me, with great courage, the lobster breaks out of its familiar and protective shell, and makes itself incredibly vulnerable, because it so longs to grow. It takes the considerable risk of renouncing its shell – for the sake of larger life.
Tonight I am flying to England to see my family. Whenever I cross the Atlantic I think back to that day 15 years ago when I left England, my homeland, my family and my job to come to a “strange land”! I felt pretty scared, and wondered, as the plane came closer to these shores, whether I’d made a terrible mistake. But, I did feel an undeniable conviction that by taking this step I would be freeing myself, opening myself, to larger life. And 15 years later I give thanks to God for all that I have received both from this land – which is now not so strange – and from my brothers in the community.
I suspect all of us have known something of this experience. Taking the risk of stepping out into a new job, or a new relationship. Leaving the familiar and comfortable behind. Renouncing a part of your life which was once life-giving and which is now limiting, constraining.
We are right at the beginning of a new year. A good time to look with searching honesty at our lives. What is there in your life right now that is restricting your growth into that larger life to which God is calling you? Perhaps certain habits, compulsions, attitudes, behaviors which have become familiar and comfortable, but which have hardened into a kind of shell, stopping you from growing. Perhaps God is inviting you to break that shell, to take some risks, be vulnerable, and open to new growth. What might that look like for you?
It might mean giving something up, renouncing something. But with every renunciation, like the fishermen leaving their nets behind, there is always a promise: a promise of a more abundant life beyond our wildest dreams!
So come to the altar and bring your dreams and your hopes with you. Take the chalice and drink the new wine of Jesus’ blood. And return to your seat hearing again Jesus’ call to come, follow me – and step out into that larger life for which you were so lovingly created.
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