In the year that King Uzziah died. Or in the year that George VI died. Or JFK. Or Diana. Or in the year that someone you loved died.
Uzziah had been king for 52 years – and for Isaiah old certainties are now gone. The same can happen to you and me. Something stops us in our tracks and we ask questions about the future, what it may hold and our part in it. Maybe, like Princess Elizabeth 70 years ago, we’re on holiday in Kenya. Or perhaps like Isaiah, we’re in a temple… or a cathedral or a church. Or staring at a wall at home. Or into the distance from the top of a hill or out to sea.
And a voice says: “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?”
And if we’re not careful, if we don’t catch ourselves in time, we may hear ourselves say: “Send me”. And then we may just hear a voice in reply saying: “Great. Now go.”
The word ‘vocation’, or ‘calling’, is often used when we talk about those who yearn to be teachers or doctors or lawyers or priests. It’s a summons to spend our lives doing a particular something. And often those who feel led to do that ‘something’ feel as much that the vocation has chosen them as the other way round.
Most of our lives are full of all sorts of voices though, calling us, leading us, in all manner of directions. And the question is: which do we listen to?
A very long time ago I went to a school re-union. The years had been kind to some, who looked exactly as I remembered them. But less generous to others!
Some were doing exactly what I thought they would be doing. Their future seemingly inextricably mapped from birth. But there were surprises too. People that you’d have least expected, doing the most extraordinary things.
Whilst others, including some of the brightest and the best, who at school made you feel alive by just being around them, somehow had lost their way and were spending their lives doing work that was unfulfilling or making poor use of their gifts.
And you wonder if they had heard a voice but ignored it. Or did they follow other voices that called out salary and status – but not joy and gladness?
The voice said: Go
To Isaiah, the voice said “Go”. And for each of us we may hear many voices through our lifetime saying that word. And the question is: which do we follow, which do we obey with the way that we spend our lives?
As many of you know, I’m doing ongoing Reader training at the moment and my classmates include other Readers as well as those preparing for ordination. Some are older than me, some younger, but most of us are roughly of similar age. We know a little of each-others’ stories and for some this call to ministry has rather come out of the blue. Whilst others, you sense, have heard it for a long time and kept putting it off.
I can confidently say that none of us had the same experience as Isaiah and this awesome, terrifying vision. With flying beasts and smoke and earthquakes. The Lord so huge that just the hem of his robe filled the biggest building that they had. And thinking about the Gospel reading, I’m pretty sure that none of our group had been out fishing all night, without success, only for some woodworker in his 30’s to come along and almost sink our boat.
For most of us in training, our call was from the quiet persistence of family and friends repeatedly tapping us on the shoulder. So, more of a ‘nudging’ or ‘prodding’ than a ‘calling’! But there is a common thread with Isaiah and the disciples. At some point in time, God’s plans intersected with our own particular sense of being and purpose.
Being and purpose
And I believe that is true of all of you here too. At some stage, God’s plans have, or are, or will, intersect with your own sense of being and purpose. You just need to listen and to hear and to respond. For as Christians we all have a vocation or ministry – and that may well be out there in the world, or at home, rather than in or around a church building like this one.
I’ll take that a step further: I think we all have a vocation, whether we are Christian or not. It’s where our passions and talents coincide with the world’s need. Going somewhere with our lives where we most need to go and where we are most needed. That’s the voice that we should listen to.
Maybe it’s something creative like baking cakes, or painting pictures, or crafting a piece of furniture.
Or perhaps it’s making someone laugh, or helping people see things differently – or preaching sermons, or caring for the sick or the hungry or the dying…
Or it could be hopping on a bus and visiting those who are housebound or just getting into conversation with someone. If you struggle getting out yourself, then it might be quietly sitting at home and praying for people. As the poet John Milton said: ”They also serve, who only stand and wait.”
Do you hear a call? Are you getting a nudge? For as Christians we are all called, we each have a vocation, a ministry: to be the hands and feet, the heart and voice of Christ. There are words of truth and healing that will never be spoken unless we speak them. There are deeds of compassion and courage that will never be done unless we do them.
Perhaps, like the disciples in our Gospel reading, following your call, your nudge, is all a question of timing. God’s timing.
Our passage in Luke is the exception that proves the rule to that famous quote that: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.
They had fished all night and caught nothing. Dropping their nets again and again. Now they try one more time at Jesus’s request – and there are so many fish that they need help from another boat.
Maybe you’ve tried something before that you’ve always wanted to do, and it didn’t quite work out. It might just be time to try all over again.
But whatever you do, ‘be Christ’ with whatever joy and gladness that you have, in whatever place that you’re placed, among whomever you are called to be with. For that is our destiny, our vocation, our calling, our nudging. Amen
Your word – Walter Brueggemann
Your word is a light to our feet and a lamp to our path.
Your word is a glue of the universe wherein the whole creation coheres.
Your word is the address of promise and command by which we live.
Your word has come fleshed among us full of grace and truth.
We are creatures of your word and we give you thanks for it.
For all that we are more dazzled that your word
is carried, uttered, acted
by frail vulnerable human agents.
We ponder and give you thanks for those who this day
speak your word where it is desperately needed
and deeply resisted.
We ponder and give thanks for those who this day
act your word for newness and peace and justice.
We ponder with trepidation that among us
you will yet designate such carriers,
In our thanks for your word,
we pray for courage in the name of the one
who emptied himself.
‘The year that King Uzziah died’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St James’ Heywood, and earlier on-line, on Sunday February 6th, 2022. It was based on Isaiah 6:1-8 (press the link to hear it in Hebrew) and Luke 5:1-11.
- This sermon was inspired by Frederick Buechner’s “The Calling of Voices”, which can be found in his book: Secrets in the dark.
- Brueggemann, W. (2003). Awed to heaven, Rooted in Earth. Fortress Press.
- John Milton, Sonnet 19.