All of the Scriptures today deal with the call. Isaiah’s message is simple. Before we were born, God has already called each of us to fulfill the purpose for which we were created. It is a passage that, for some people, challenges their concept of free choice.
Psalm 40 VU # 764
Psalm 40 expounds the virtue of patience, of waiting patiently for God.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
The opening words of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth are words of gratitude and blessing as he reminds them of the great blessing of faith in Christ and encourages then to never stop giving thanks for this blessing.
Our Gospel reading is John’s account of the calling of the two fishermen Andrew and his brother Simon Peter
Before I was Born
So where do you stand on Nature vs Nurture debate? Is our future programmed into our genes or is it determined by how we are raised, what we are taught, and the experiences we have along the way?
This is a debate that has been around for generations. Today most people seem to believe that it is a combination of the two and that both our DNA and our environment shape who we are and what we do. But there are still people on both sides of the argument who firmly believe either that everything we are and do is already determined before we are even born or that nothing is predetermined and that it is entirely the things we learn and experience that decides who we will become and what we will achieve in life.
At first glance, Isaiah seems to be firmly on the side of Nature, or perhaps to be more accurate, on the side of it all being controlled by God. “Before I was born, the Lord chose me and appointed me to be his servant.”
It was all there, all laid out before he was born, in his very make-up, his very DNA. It was God who had determined that Isaiah would be a prophet and it was God who had equipped, prepared, directed and protected Isaiah for this purpose. There was no question of saying “no” because God had already decided what was going to happen. It was already “written” in God’s book. God already knew everything that was going to happen and therefore it could not be changed.
But if this is actually the case, why does Isaiah complaining that “I have worked, but how hopeless it is! I have used up my strength, but have accomplished nothing.” If God was truly in control of every little detail, why was it that Isaiah, the one chosen before he was born, cannot seem to achieve the very thing God has called him to do?
Like Isaiah, Paul seems to believe that his call was God’s decision not his. He describes himself as being “called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus”. There seems to be no questions what-so-ever that once God had called Paul had any choice in whether or not to answer. Yet Paul constantly complained to God about the thorn in his side and said he could never understand why God did not remove it.
Even John the Baptist who appears in our gospel reading has traditionally been understood as being chosen before he was born. Luke tells us that before John was born his father Zechariah is confronted by an angel who tells him, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son. You are to name him John … From his very birth, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit … He will go ahead of the Lord, strong and mighty like the prophet Elijah … he will get the Lord’s people ready for him.”
Doesn’t really sound like John was given much choice, does it? So does that mean that if you (or perhaps your parents) have not seen an angel, met the risen Christ on the road or heard the voice of God speaking directly to you, you are off the hook and don’t have to worry about being “called”?
Well according to our gospel reading this morning, it is John the Baptist who initially “calls” Andrew to follow Jesus by naming Jesus as “the Lamb of God”. It is Andrew who, after spending one day in Jesus’ presence, calls Simon Peter. That kind of makes the call of Peter third-hand! So does that mean that Peter was not called by God? I don’t think anyone would argue that!
But if Peter’s call came through a human being, how does that relate to Isaiah’s idea of being called “before I was born”? Does it still apply? And what about that other disciple of John the Baptist? Did he stay with Jesus or did he return to John? For many years tradition has held that the second disciple was “the beloved disciple” generally assumed to be John, the son of Zebedee. But we really have no way of knowing. What if that disciple was not John? What if he decided not to follow Jesus? He received the same call as Peter, so if he did not respond does that mean the call wasn’t real?
So is God’s call “Nature”, something that is programmed into our DNA before we were born, or is it “Nurture”, something we are led to by how we are raised and/or by the experiences that lead us here? Or is it perhaps, a combination of both?
Well as I said before, this is a debate that has been going on for generations. But when we think about it in relation to our faith, it does offer us some interesting challenges. If our faith is predestined “before we are born” does that mean we don’t have to work at it? If we do have doubts and frustrations and questions, does that mean our faith is not real?
These are not simple questions with straight forward answers. And the answers that work for me are not necessarily the answers that work for anyone else. I do believe that within each of us “before we are born” there is a spark of the Divine. But how that spark is expressed, how it is lived out in our lives, depends on how it is recognized, how it is nurtured, how much value we place upon it, and how much time and effort we are willing to commit to developing it.
Today I often laugh when I described myself as a bit of a wordsmith. I love words, the way they sound, the way they flow when they seem to fit together perfectly, the mental pictures that they can evoke. I love words, but I guess I would have to say they have not always loved me. I have struggled all my life with being able to read and to write. When I was young, undiagnosed dyslexia caused me huge problems with spelling and meant that I read very slowly. I was fortunate that instead of being dismissed as stupid I was pushed to do better, although it was assumed that the reason I was so slow was that I wasn’t trying!
I still struggle with spelling and with the speed at which I can read. But despite this, with the encouragement and support of many people in my life I have learned to adapt. But if God gave me the gift of words, why would God also give me dyslexia? If I was meant to use my words as I am today, standing up here, why would God place such a roadblock in my way? Perhaps it is all part of some great cosmic plan, but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had decided not to follow the plan.
I believe that my love for words and whatever small ability I may have to work with words is a gift that is part of my makeup, something that in some way or other was there “before I was born”. But I raised in a family where books and reading were given great value and even when it was hard for me I was always encouraged to at least try and to do my best. When I did write stories or essays and did well on them despite the marks I lost for spelling, I was complimented rather than being berated for my inability to spell. If I had not received this encouragement would I be where I am today?
I don’t have answers for all those questions, but I believe that we all have gifts, talents, and abilities that are part of our makeup, part of our DNA, part of us even before we are born. And I also believe that we have a responsibility to use these gifts for the benefit of others. But personally, I do believe that it is not already preordained how we will use them. We have a choice. In fact, we have many choices.
What we choose to do with the gifts we have been given is up to us. Now I know some people will say, “God has already decided what I will do, so why should I worry about it?” For me, that just feels like a bit of an excuse. I believe that God gives us gifts and also gives us opportunities to use those gifts, but we are the ones that have to make the decision to actually do something.
So what happens if we say no? Well, I believe that God simply gives us another chance, another opportunity. And I believe that if we listen and if we are open, we will know what the right choice is.
So what gifts, skills or talents have God given you? What opportunities has God placed before you to use what you have been given? And perhaps most telling of all, what have you done about it? Are there things you are being nudged towards that you have avoided? Are there things you would like to try but don’t feel confident enough to take on? Are there talents or skills that you have hidden away?
Isaiah said, “Before I was born, the Lord chose me and appointed me to be his servant.” Paul said he “was called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus”. Andrew said, “We have found the Messiah.” All three willingly answered the call and chose to follow. We have the same choice. Amen