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, with our heart pounding in our chest and a lump in our throat, we may just hear ourselves say: “Send me”. And then, we may hear a still, small voice saying in reply: “Thank heavens for that. What took you so long?”
25 years ago, two fresh-faced youngsters, who wished they’d known then what they’ve forgotten now, had their own “send me” confirmed at their licensing. Fortunately, the entry requirements have eased somewhat since then and they’ll take anyone now…
I dare say that many of us have our own version of Isaiah’s call and response. It may be locked in our heads or in our hearts, maybe shared in conversations or in sermons, rather than written as a page of scripture. But our own versions, nonetheless, of the call to share that: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’. That eternal life begins now, not some time in the future.
The word ‘vocation’, or ‘calling’, is most often used when we talk about those who yearn to be teachers or doctors or lawyers or priests. But it can be much broader than that. 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.
Frankly, most of our lives are full of all sorts of voices, 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, but less generous to others!
Some were doing exactly what I thought they would be doing. Their future seemingly unerringly 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?
Admittedly I didn’t check, but I can reasonably confidently say that none of us up the front today had exactly the same experience as Isaiah and his awesome, terrifying vision. With flying beasts and smoke and earthquakes.
For most of us, our call is less dramatic and comes from the quiet persistence of family and friends repeatedly tapping us on the shoulder. So, more of an exasperated ‘please stop faffing around and get on with it’ than a ‘calling.’ But there is a common thread with Isaiah. At some point in time, God’s plans intersected with our own sense of being and purpose.
And I believe that is true of all of us here today. At some stage, God’s plans have, or are, or will, intersect with our own sense of being and purpose. We just need to listen and to hear and to respond. To say: “send me”. 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.
Passions and talents
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.”
Words of truth
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 you and I speak them. There are deeds of compassion and courage that will never be done unless you and I do them.
To the questions: “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” none of us get to reply: “Not me, but ask her or him over there, Lord.” No, the reply should always be: “me, send me”.
Because there are common themes in Isaiah’s situation and ours. Isaiah lived in a time of political uncertainty, as do we. He lived amongst a people of unclean lips, as do we. We live in times where children can be bullied by their classmates online and people’s reputations tarnished by fake news on social media. The need for someone to ‘go’ is just as great.
The small print
And we could have ended our Isaiah reading at verse 8. We could have finished with the prophet volunteering for service with his “me, send me” – and that would have been a great place to stop. But it’s followed by verses 9 to 13. Much as we’d like to, we can’t ignore them. Those verses that follow are the small print, the terms & conditions. They raise important questions about what it means to minister.
The all-powerful, high and exalted God says to Isaiah: “thanks for volunteering, but in full transparency I need to tell you that the people that you’re delivering my message to won’t listen. You must proclaim the message anyway, even if they’re unwilling to hear it”. He doesn’t ask Isaiah to turn the world upside down. He asks him to tough it out.
So often we judge success by numbers. If we’re doing it ‘right’ then numbers increase. But maybe the lesson here is that faithful ministry might sometimes be despite the reaction and the response. Despite falling numbers. Faithful ministry might mean encountering the reaction of people like Nicodemus who didn’t seem to quite get it at the time, but maybe he did later, as well as the woman at the well, who got it straightaway.
So, yes, we need to consider how we put the message across. To make sure that the packaging doesn’t get in the way of the content. But verses like these from Isaiah imply that there might be the hard work needed of faithfulness and endurance. So, let’s pray for courage for all the frail human beings called to speak words of newness and peace and justice. For all who speak and act where God’s word and God’s love is desperately needed and deeply resisted. And that maybe upfront like this in a sermon – or it might be a quiet word at home with a friend over a coffee.
I’d also add that there’s a responsibility on the congregation too, each time a sermon is preached. The preacher will normally be up here praying that if at least one person gets something from the sermon, then it’s been worth it. I want to challenge you this morning to always be present to what’s being said. To always ask yourself if that one person is you. Is this sermon, as muddled and as confused as it might be, saying something to me? And if the answer is “no”, then ask yourself a second question: Did I really answer the first question correctly?…
I want to finish with this, by Walter Brueggemann. It’s called: ‘Your Word’.
Your word is a light to our feet and a lamp to our path.
And 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 (here this morning)
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. Amen
“Me. Send me” was delivered by Ian Banks at a celebration of Lay Ministry – but mostly to mark 25 years since Margery Spencer and Barbara Silvester were licensed as Readers. The service took place at Christ Church Walmersley, 25 September 2022. The sermon was based on Isaiah 6:1-13 and John 3:1-17.
- This sermon was initially adapted from Frederick Buechner’s “The Calling of Voices”, which can be found in his book: Secrets in the dark.
- It’s also a rework of a sermon previously given by Ian at St James Heywood: https://stjohnstmarkchurchbury.com/in-the-year-that-king-uzziah-died/
- For the poem – Brueggemann, W. (2003). Awed to heaven, Rooted in Earth. Fortress Press.
- For the John Milton quote, look up Sonnet 19.