One of the major themes that comes out in the Sunday readings for Epiphany season this year is that of calling, or vocation. In fact, it is the theme of the readings from the Hebrew Bible and Gospels both last week and this week. Because vocation is something I think about a lot, I thought it would be interesting to take some time today to look at all four of these calling stories together, rapid-fire style, to see what they might tell us about this intuitive and pervasive, yet somehow elusive and challenging aspect of the life of faith.
The first story is the calling of the boy Samuel to be a prophet, which we find in 1 Samuel 3. As a small child, Samuel is sent by his mother Hannah to live and work in the Temple at Shiloh under Eli. One night, as Samuel is trying to fall asleep, he hears a voice calling to him. Thinking it is Eli, he runs to his master’s chamber, but Eli knows nothing about it. The scene repeats itself until Eli realizes it could be the voice of God. He tells Samuel that if he hears it again, to say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” The voice returns, and Samuel responds as instructed. God then gives him a harsh prophecy to speak: a message of judgment against Eli and his sons. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, Samuel faithfully delivers the prophecy to Eli, and grows up to be one of the most important prophets in Israel’s history.
So what might we learn about calling from this story? Three things pop out to me: 1) Vocation is surprising — even someone sleeping next to the Ark of the Covenant can be taken by surprise by God’s voice; 2) Vocation is often uncomfortable and so requires integrity to live into it; and, 3) Vocation requires discernment, especially involving the help of others.
Moving on to this week’s text, we have the second calling of Jonah. You’ll likely remember that the first time God called Jonah, Jonah ran the other way because it was a message of grace to Israel’s enemies and Jonah wanted no part of it. This time, Jonah is still stubborn and reluctant to offer the message to Nineveh, but he has been chastened and follows God’s call. The Ninevites repent, and Jonah sulks.
What does this story tell us about calling? 1) Vocation is persistent: if we are truly called to do something, it won’t be a passing whim or something we can easily ‘escape’; and 2) Vocation is directed at others and ourselves: God didn’t choose Jonah to deliver the message of grace to Nineveh because he was the best person for the job, but because Jonah needed to hear that message of grace to Nineveh as much as they did.
Next comes last week’s Gospel reading, the call of Philip and Nathanael to be disciples, as recorded in the Gospel according to John. Read in context, it would seem that at least Philip and maybe Nathanael were followers of John the Baptist. John has just pointed to Jesus as the one for whom he’d been preparing the way, so when Jesus asks Philip to follow him, he doesn’t think twice. In his excitement, he tells his friend Nathanael to come and see Jesus for himself. Nathanael is, we might say, cautiously interested. He has strong doubts about this newcomer from Nazareth, but is open to being changed. And changed he is.
From this story, I see that 1) Vocation isn’t disconnected from our histories or personalities; we are called in ways fit our lives; and 2) There is room for doubt and questioning. While we rightly applaud those who, like Philip, accept the call with joy and without reservation, Nathanael’s slower journey is just as valid and offers its own, unique and beautiful rewards.
Finally we have today’s Gospel reading: the calling of the fishermen Peter and Andrew, James and John. As Mark tells the story, Jesus is walking past the Sea of Galilee when he sees these men fishing. (If John’s telling is any indication, they too had been followers of John the Baptist, and had already encountered Jesus.) He calls out to them with the famous line, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Like Philip, they jump at the opportunity, leaving their nets and families to follow Jesus.
If there is one thing this story teaches us about vocation it is that vocation expresses our interests and abilities to their their highest purpose. These fishermen were called to bring their work ethic, patience, and love of ‘the catch’ to this new work, seeking not to gather fish to sell but to gather men and women into God’s Kingdom.
This has been a bit of a whirlwind trip through four readings, but I hope it’s been a helpful exercise to look at these stories side-by-side. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the way God calls us, or to what God calls us to. And yet, we can say that vocation is a persistent sense of being drawn towards the highest, deepest, fullest expression of our purpose, values, and abilities (whether we like it or not). We may need help to hear it; we may need time to wrestle with it, we may not understand for a long time what its true expression will be, and we may even try to run away from it, but it will still be there, patiently waiting for us.
May we all listen with open minds and open hearts and discern what God is calling us to. Speak, LORD, your servants are listening.