When I read a newspaper, often I feel helpless. Headlines speak in alarming tones of:
• Global warming
• Diminishing oil supplies
• Global terrorism
• Wars and rumors of wars
• Political scandals
• Corporate greed
• AIDS and the threats of pandemics.
When I look at the newspaper headlines, I see problems so large that I am overwhelmed. I would like to help, but what can one man do? What can this congregation do? What can the whole church do?
Isaiah felt much the same way. His nation had suffered a succession of evil kings, but King Uzziah had been a notable exception. He had been a good king, and the nation had prospered. Now he was dead, and Isaiah felt lost.
Isaiah entered the temple to pray and to pour out his sorrow. The loss of the king was overwhelming to him. What would happen to his nation now?
Then, while he was in the temple, Isaiah came face to face with the King of Kings “sitting on a throne, high and lifted up” (6:1). Again he was overwhelmed, this time with an awareness of his unholiness in the presence of the Holy.
“Woe is me! For I am undone,
because I am a man of unclean lips,
and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (6:5).
But an angel took a burning coal from the fire, and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, and said:
“Behold, this has touched your lips;
and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” (6:7).
And Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (6:8a).
And Isaiah responded, “Here I am. Send me!” (6:8b).
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Isaiah was no longer overwhelmed by the loss of his king, in the presence of the King of Kings. Isaiah no longer felt powerless, in the presence of the all- powerful. Isaiah’s cry was transformed from “Woe is me!” to “Here I am !” Isaiah was now able, because he had joined forces with the enabler.
Paul experienced the same partnership with God. He spoke of himself and Apollos as “God’s servants, working together” (1 Corinthians 3:9). God had called Paul to plant; God had called Apollos to water; but God had provided the increase. Note that Paul did two things in this passage:
• He gave God credit for the results.
• He acknowledged a partnership between himself, Apollos, and God. This was an important partnership.
You see, God works through people to change the world. Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth-century German mystic, stated this fact with unusual boldness:
“God can as little do without us,
as we without him.”
God could have chosen to work in lone splendor, but he has chosen to work in partnership with people:
• As a result, it became necessary for him to find an Abraham, who was willing to leave home and to take risks for God.
• It became necessary for him to find a Moses, who was educated in the ways of the palace as well as of the wilderness.
• The spread of the church outside Israel awaited the conversion of Paul, who was pre-eminently fitted to be the first great missionary.
• The emancipation of slaves in our nation awaited the sensitivities of a “Lincoln.”
There is an absurd fatalism that says, “If God wants something done, he can do it himself. He doesn’t need me.” But when a “bridge” is built, it is people cooperating with God and the laws of nature that get the job done. God has placed great storehouses of marble in the mountains of Greece, but he never built a Parthenon. God placed tons of iron ore in the mountains of Pennsylvania, but he never built an automobile. The partnership of people and God makes possible these accomplishments.
George Eliot expressed these thoughts eloquently when he had Antonio Stradivari speak in one of his poems:
“When any master holds `twixt chin and hand a violin of mine
he will be glad that Stradivari lived,
made violins, and made them of the best…
For while God gives them skill,
I give them instruments to play upon,
God choosing me to help him.
“If my hand slacked, I should rob God
since he is fullest good leaving a blank instead of violins.
…he could not make Antonio Stradivari’s violins without Antonio.”
But God accomplishes the most, not when we work for him, but when we become faithful and obedient enough for him to work through us. Our role is not that of surgeon, but is that of surgical nurse. The surgeon and nurse have to work together as a healing team. The surgeon calls for an instrument, and the nurse produces it, properly positioned. If the nurse were to say, “Not now, it’s my coffee-break,” the patient might die. Instead, the nurse works to be as responsive as possible to the surgeon’s needs. The result of this faithfulness and obedience is the miracle of renewed life.
So it is with us. God calls to us every day, providing opportunities to be a part of a miracle-working team. Each day, we find ourselves deciding whether to answer the call of that day. Too often, we decide that obedience will cost too much. It is not easy to be faithful, when God is asking for our time, our ability, and our money. It isn’t easy, when God asks us to love the unlovely. But great miracles take place when we step out in faith, trusting God and his faithfulness.
A friend of mine went to seminary in Kansas City during the Depression, and had very little money. He finally received an invitation to preach in a rural Missouri church with the chance that the church might hire him permanently. He struggled to get together the train fare to the little town where the church was located. Every dime was a struggle in those hard days, but he finally got enough for a round-trip ticket.
Just before he left, though, he discovered that a fellow student had been without food for several days. After a considerable struggle with his conscience, he kept enough money for a one-way ticket and gave the friend the rest of the money for food. This was a real act of faith, because the little church would pay him with the morning offering. If a heavy snow kept people away from church, the offering would be small and he would not have enough money for a return ticket. With a small prayer, he got on the train.
His worst fears were confirmed as the train inched its way through a Midwestern blizzard. As he looked out the window mile after mile, he saw the snow rising higher and higher, beginning to cover the fence posts. He felt betrayed by God, and prayed that the blizzard might stop but it just kept on.
That night, he stayed with a family that lived near the church. The next morning, they made their way through the deep snow to the little white-frame church, and he wondered if there would be enough people present even to have services. He tried to decide how to explain his predicament to the family that had housed him.
But when they arrived at the church, he was surprised to find the little building warm from the fire in the pot-bellied stove and full of men, women and children. He discovered that blizzards were nothing new to Missouri farmers. Whole families had walked three and four miles to come to church. They had a fine service, and the offering was plenty to take care of his needs.
The man told me, “I learned a lesson. When God calls us to service, he doesn’t abandon us. He works side by side with us.” And so he does.
God has called you to his service today. The call may be great or small. He might call you to sell all that you have and give it to the poor, or he might simply want you to share a kind word and a smile with a neighbor who is hurting. Listen for the call today. Read your Bible to see what it says to you. Pray. Keep the channels open to hear the call.
Once you have heard the call to service, be certain that it is not too small to be important. And be certain that it is too big for you and God to manage.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2006, Richard Niell Donovan