I'm sure we've all received envelopes from the Readers' Digest prize draw before now. You know the type - a largish envelope, covered in excited writing proclaiming that you could have already won a hundred thousand pounds or more, with more exclamation marks than you can shake a stick at. Inside, the message is no less dramatic - you have been especially chosen from the general population in order to receive this mail. Sometimes you may have made it through an elimination round or two before hearing about the draw in the first place. All you have to do is fill in the form and return it, and untold riches could be yours. There are even photos and captions of previous winners, who are presumably deliriously happy now they've been given money for essentially nothing. Not only that, but if you reply within the next five days, you could win a bonus prize. Who could possibly resist such an offer?
I very rarely bother opening the envelope.
Now, this may sound a million miles away from Simon, Andrew, James and John - but maybe it's not so far off how we'd expect them to feel when Jesus spoke to them. Here they were, four Jewish fishermen. They'd been told all their lives that they'd already got through the first elimination round by virtue of their birth - they were part of the Jewish race, the chosen people of God. Now Jesus was coming to them and saying that he was choosing them - they'd made it through the second elimination round as well. All they had to do was abandon their whole life to follow Jesus, and ... and what, exactly? And they'd be "fishers of men". This actually sounds worse than the Readers' Digest draw, to be honest. The cost is a lot higher and the reward is phrased pretty vaguely. Did they know he was the "great light" that Isaiah had talked about? I'm sure they'd have heard the prophecy and possibly learned it by heart - but it's one thing to know about a prophecy, and a completely different thing to recognise it in the person who's just approached you and called you to follow him.
Maybe there was more spoken than appears in the Bible - or maybe it was just the voice of Jesus, speaking straight into their hearts with authority. Either way, the Bible is quite clear about their response - they got up, left their work and followed Jesus immediately. How many of us can say the same thing about our response to God's call to us?
Are we more cautious than people were in New Testament times?
Are even the most faithful of us more willing to attribute events to coincidence than to God now, when they'd have been seen as signs long ago?
Are we so busy in the rest of our lives that God has to call us several times before we even hear?
Or do we feel we have more to lose, more responsibilities to other people, more pros and cons to weigh up before we make any radical moves?
I'm sure all of the above apply to me. To get personal for a moment, my own call to preach, assuming I heard it correctly, came as quite a surprise, more in terms of timing than anything else. Probably due to being a precocious limelight-lover and enjoying debating, I've being thinking about trying to become a local preacher for probably the last ten years or so. I always imagined it was something I'd probably do when I'd had kids and they were mostly grown up. What I hadn't thought about was that it wasn't really my decision whether or not I should be a preacher - or when. It was God's. Starting training now is a really silly thing to do when looked at with just reason and with only the information available to me now - I'm only eight months into being a church steward, my wife and I are hoping to start a family at some point in the not-so-distant future, and I've got drama and singing commitments on top of that. Several good friends have told me that my timing is really lousy. They'd be right, of course, if it were my timing. As it is, I believe it wasn't my timing at all, but God's. In fact, the way God called me was through services I probably wouldn't have even been at if I weren't a steward. Without the experiences of some of the things I'm doing which make the timing so lousy, I'm not sure God would have wanted me to preach anyway. In other words, when looked at from the point of view of faith, the timing makes perfect sense. It makes as much sense as it needs to if I believe that God knows better than I do - and, arrogant as I can be, I hope I don't often make the mistake of thinking I know more than God.
I did for a while though, in a sense. I heard God's call, and talked about it to a few people in a quiet way, saying that I thought maybe God did want me to preach - but maybe I'd wait until at least I wasn't a steward any more. Maybe wait until the kids had been born and had reached school age. Fortunately someone pointed out to me that that isn't how being called works. We can't decide to believe that God's calling us and ignore any less pleasant implications. We can reject the call, of course - God's gift of free will allows for that - but we shouldn't selectively hear only part of the call. If God wants us to act immediately, we should act immediately, just as the first disciples did.
This all sounds somewhat one-sided at the moment, though: why on earth would we want to accept a call which is so immediate, so definite? Two reasons spring to mind. The first is one I mentioned earlier - God knows best. It's very easy to doubt that sometimes, if things we can know and think about seem to suggest an entirely different course of action, but it doesn't stop it from being true. One of my cats was sitting in front of me as I wrote this sermon, and she's quite a large cat - a bit overweight. She would be even more overweight if we let her eat whenever she wants to. She only knows what her tummy is telling her - and that's that she's pretty much permanently hungry. As her owners, my wife and I know better - we know how much is good for her to eat, and what kind of things are good for her to eat. Now if I know better than my cat, who is at least comparable to me in some ways, how much more should I trust God to know better than me? God who is everywhere, who is everlasting, who gave the universe shape?
That sounds like a perfectly good reason, but it's one which appeals more intellectually than emotionally - at least to me. The second reason, however, is much more compelling on a second, somewhat selfish front: we should accept God's call because he has promised himself to us. He has promised to hear us when we call on him.
Listen to some of the words of the psalm again, this time taken from the New Revised Standard Version:
"One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock."
Later on the psalmist writes: "I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!"
The psalmist very clearly believes that God listens to him when he cries out to him. We have faith that God made the promises of the Old Testament into flesh in the form of Christ. This, then, is why it makes sense to answer God's call even if it's not worth replying to the Readers' Digest prize draw letter. God doesn't tell us that if we answer his call, we have a one in ten thousand chance of getting lots of money. He tells us that if we answer his call, however great or small it might be - and first and foremost to answer his call to let him into our hearts in the first place - we will receive the prize, and that prize is the greatest and most valuable prize; greater than we can possibly imagine.