Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, February 3, 2013
Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13, Luke 4:21-30
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A pastor preached a moving sermon on the gifts of the Spirit. After church, as people were shaking the pastor’s hand on the way out the door, one of the members of the church stopped to chat for a bit. Now, this member had been on the fringes of the congregation for some time. He attended worship sporadically, and he didn’t participate in any event or ministry of the church besides Sunday morning worship. “Pastor,” he said, “that was a great sermon. Thank you so much for preaching about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and how people should figure out what gifts God has given them so they can use them in ministry. I could name a couple of people in this congregation who really needed to hear that!” And off the man went, whistling, secure in the knowledge that while other people had gifts they should be using, he didn’t need to think about it.
No, that hasn’t happened to me, despite preaching on the gifts of the Spirit two weeks running, but many of my friends have a story like that. It seems to be very easy to assume that God only gifts other people, that God only calls other people, so we can go on with our comfortable lives. Even when we do accept that God is calling us, too often we try to argue with God, and claim we couldn’t possibly do whatever it is we’ve been called to do. “Who, me?” seems to be the most common response, followed by a list of excuses.
I know I did. When God started nudging me in the direction of ministry, I didn’t even believe God actually intervened in daily life. I believed in God, sure, I just didn’t think he was doing anything in the world these days. I didn’t believe he could possibly be calling me to ministry, and I sure didn’t want to be a pastor. I wanted to be a science fiction author, or maybe an editor at a publishing house. I could also see myself as a historian or an English professor. I tried to ignore that sense of call as long as I could, but eventually I had to give up, and so I went to seminary.
What a relief it was to hear all the stories of how my classmates got there—I wasn’t the only one who’d tried to get out of a call to ministry! We sat around in a circle and heard story after story about arguing with God, story after story filled with doubts and plans that got derailed. Then, in class, as we studied the Bible and the history of Christianity, I noticed more stories about people who were called to a ministry they didn’t want to do and didn’t feel qualified for. Yet God called them despite their objections, and gave them the gifts and support needed to perform the ministry to which they were called.
Jeremiah was one of them. Like Moses before him, Jeremiah’s response to being called as a prophet was to say he couldn’t possibly do it. He was too young. He wasn’t a good enough speaker. Who would listen to him, anyway? Yet God had an answer to every one of Jeremiah’s objections. “Don’t say you’re too young,” God said, “just go where I tell you. I’ll give you the words you need, and I’ll take care of what needs to be done.” God dismisses Jeremiah’s objections, because in the end, it isn’t really about Jeremiah at all. It’s about God, and what God is doing through Jeremiah. The words aren’t Jeremiah’s: they belong to God, just as Jeremiah himself does. Jeremiah may be young and untried, but God will give him the gifts he needs to do the work God has called him to do.
Prophets and pastors aren’t the only ones who don’t expect God’s call and try to avoid it when it comes. I’ve only been working in ministry full time for a few years, but in that time I’ve seen many cases of ordinary church-goers who’d been given gifts, but didn’t even realize it. I’ve seen ordinary people sitting in pews just like you are today, who think God may be calling them to something, but dismissed it out of hand. They were too young, too old, too rich, too poor, too busy, too proud, too humble, not good enough, not eloquent enough, not brave enough, not big enough. Who were they to think that God might have a job for them to do? Besides, if God really wanted something done, why hadn’t he asked someone else to do it?
The thing is, though, nobody is good enough, on their own, to do God’s work. Nobody, on their own, has enough gifts. Nobody, on their own, knows what really needs to be done. Nobody, on their own, has all the right words. Everything that we have, everything that we are, comes from God. Our Lord created us, formed us in our mothers’ womb. He was with us every step of our lives and he is still with us, today. And God has lots of plans for each and every one of us, and gifts to give. The question is, how will we respond? Will we hear that call, and will we use those gifts for the work God has given us? Or will we say, “No, I couldn’t possibly do that, God must be wrong”?
I don’t know what God is calling each individual person here to do. I don’t know what gifts God has given to members of this congregation. I don’t even know what God is calling this congregation to—after all, I just got here myself. But this I can tell you: God is calling us to minister to one another, to our community, and to the larger world, and God is giving us the gifts we need to do so.
Have you ever felt a pull you couldn’t explain? Have you ever seen a problem and thought, “Somebody really should do something about that”? Have you ever had people around you say, “you know, I think you could be great at that!” Those might be signs that God is calling you. It might be something big, or it could be something as small as sending a card to someone who is sick.
So how do we know whether or not we’re being called? And how does God give us the gifts for ministry? The first step is always prayer. Prayer for guidance, for strength, for wisdom, for courage. Prayer should be the first thing we do when we wake up in the morning and the last thing we do at night. And in that prayer, we should leave room for God to speak to us.
The second step is looking around and seeing what resources God has given us. Part of the way God equips us for ministry is through the church around us. Regular worship attendance is a large part of it; regular worship strengthens our faith and deepens our connection both to God and to the body of Christ which is the church. Worship helps nourish our souls just as food nourishes our bodies.
But besides worship, God has given us many things to prepare us for God’s ministry that we don’t always take advantage of. Bible study, particularly in groups, can help deepen our understanding of God’s Word. (Augustana will be having an evening Bible study on the first Monday of the month at 7 PM, starting tomorrow. Birka’s will be the third Sunday at 6:30.) When we read God’s Word and discuss it, we learn more about how God is active in the world around us and in our lives. Camp is one place where our faith can be strengthened and our skill at talking about our faith can be helped. The Synod has regular events to help people learn and grow in their faith. For example, there will be a Global and Local mission event in Bismarck on February 22nd and 23rd. And the GIFTS program has regular sessions to help people’s understanding of Scripture and worship grow.
These are only a few of the things God uses to equip us for the ministries God has called us to. Yes, our lives are busy. Yes, God’s call is sometimes daunting. But God has provided all that we need to answer that call, and will continue to provide.