Sema for Quakers

The third verse of the whole Bible begins “God said…” One of the truly great things about our God is that our God speaks. And when God speaks wondrous things happen – like creation.   In the sixth chapter of the Bible we read that God called Noah to build an ark and at the end of the chapter we are told that Noah did exactly as God had commanded.   The twelfth chapter begins “And the Lord said to Abram, ‘Leave your own country… and go to a country that I will show you’.” And then it tells us that Abram set out as the Lord had bidden him. The whole of salvation history is about people, like Moses, David, Micah, Peter and Paul who experienced God’s call on their lives and their efforts to live in obedience to that call.


 

 

Shema for Quakers

 

The third verse of the whole Bible begins “God said…” One of the truly great things about our God is that our God speaks. And when God speaks wondrous things happen – like creation.   In the sixth chapter of the Bible we read that God called Noah to build an ark and at the end of the chapter we are told that Noah did exactly as God had commanded.   The twelfth chapter begins “And the Lord said to Abram, ‘Leave your own country… and go to a country that I will show you’.” And then it tells us that Abram set out as the Lord had bidden him. The whole of salvation history is about people, like Moses, David, Micah, Peter and Paul who experienced God’s call on their lives and their efforts to live in obedience to that call.

 

Wedged between the Prophets Obadiah and Micah is the fascinating tale of Jonah and his determination to avoid God’s call. It comes as a reminder that God seems to delight in calling people who are already busy doing something else, people who are unwilling and almost always inadequate for service in the Kingdom. The story of Jonah tells of God’s call on him to travel far to the east to pronounce impending doom on the wicked city of Nineveh and in response Jonah signed onto a voyage to Tarshish, as far to the west as was imaginable. He thought he’d be “out of the reach of the Lord.”

 

II Kings tells us that the prophet Jonah was from a small town two miles from Nazareth. Even today it is known as the location of the tomb of Jonah. Growing up within two miles of both the birthplace and tomb of the Prophet Jonah had to have had an impact on Jesus. Jesus understood what it meant to be called. He also understood the gravity and the futility of trying to evade that call. The story of Jonah is also a stark reminder that God can be just as determined as we can be in our reluctance.

 

One thing that sets the Gospels apart from the other books of the Bible is that the call of God comes through the mouth of a very human Jesus. Matthew 4 declares “From that day Jesus began to proclaim the message: ‘Repent; for the kingdom of Heaven is upon you’.” And of course you recognize that as the exact same proclamation of Jesus’ forerunner John the Baptist. You can almost imagine John and then Jesus wearing sandwich boards declaring the end of the world. There can be no doubt about it, Matthew is adamant that both John and then Jesus are continuing the work of the Old Testament Prophets.

 

But here is the interesting thing, well, interesting to me anyway. While those words of this doomsday prediction is still ringing in the air Jesus says to Simon and Andrew “Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They were out fishing – it was their profession. They hadn’t heard Jesus’ call to repentance – at least not until later – when they followed him into the synagogues of Galilee, not until they also saw Jesus curing whatever illness or infirmity there was among the people. The first call of Jesus wasn’t to loyalty to the covenant, holiness of life or even to repentance. It was simply a call to follow him.

 

And you’re right that when we take Matthew’s story seriously, just following Jesus wouldn’t be the whole story for those earliest fishermen.   Being in Jesus’ presence, being witnesses to his ministry, being subject to hearing Jesus’ message of repentance – again and again – and not running away meant that their lives were changed. It does seem important to me that that change didn’t precede the call they felt on their lives. And I don’t think that we are so different. Like them we too are fully employed with things that seem terribly important to us. You have more than enough demands made on you as it is – how could you possibly be expected to respond to the call of Christ on your life. And yet the call comes “Come with me”.   “Accompany me” Jesus calls. Be witnesses to God’s love breaking in on a broken and desperate world – it’ll change your life. It will change your life!

 

We know that at times Jesus taught in local synagogues as well as the Temple in Jerusalem. There is little in the Bible that tells us much of what he taught in those settings. For reasons at which we can only guess most of the teachings of Jesus recorded in the New Testament were spoken from hillsides, boats, and people’s homes. Matthew tells us of the great crowds of inquisitive people gathered where-ever Jesus was involved in ministry. They followed Jesus from Galilee and Decapolis, from Jerusalem, Judea and from the whole of the region from Syria to Egypt.

 

There seems to be a qualitative difference however between the experience of the crowds and the experience of those who are known to us as disciples. There are a few places where Jesus gathers his disciples around him to share words for their ears only. They weren’t groupies who traveled around delighted in seeing the show-they were called by Jesus to learn to live the way Jesus’ lived. They were called to learn to minister the way Jesus did ministry. They were called to learn to love the way Jesus loved. And they learned that Jesus loved the world because Jesus’ understanding of God as that of a loving father.

 

After the drama of Jesus’ trial, after the horror of his crucifixion, after the excitement of his resurrection, when Jesus was physically gone from this earth we are told that his Spirit resumed his work of teaching, leading, guiding, directing, comforting, convicting and calling.   The technical name for the church is the ecclesia. Anyone want to take a stab at where that word came from? It is Greek for ‘to summon forth’ or ‘to call out an assembly of people’. The church consists of those who respond to Christ’s call, the called out ones.

Most of us are kind of put off by the whole idea of obedience. Yet, on behalf of all Israel, Moses, in Exodus 24, proclaims that “All that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will be obedient.” From Deuteronomy 6:4 we have what is the central affirmation of what it means to be a Jewish person. Taking its name from the first word of the passage, it is The Shema. It is “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” The Shema is repeated throughout the prayer services. It is said in the morning blessings, on the Sabbath and holidays, when the Torah is taken out of the Ark on the Sabbath, it is said as a bedtime prayer, as part of the deathbed confessional. That word “hear” doesn’t have the western connotation of “well, I’ll decide later whether I want to obey or not”.   It’s not just about hearing Christ’s call – the concept is “Hear and Obey”. In chapter 50:5 Isaiah speaks of his mission, his call. He says: “The Lord God opened my hears and I did not disobey or turn back in defiance.

Christ calls. It is ours to hear and obey. In the book of James we are told to “be doers of the word and not hearers only.” In the Gospel of Luke Jesus reminds his followers “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

A lot of Christianity today thinks that the age of prophecy came to an end in New Testament times. Quakers since our earliest times declare the exact opposite. Our experience is that God is faithful and purposeful rather than vindictive and capricious. God still speaks to us directly. Prophecy isn’t about predicting the future, it isn’t about denouncing someone. It is speaking God’s truth about the world in which we live. How could anyone characterize John Woolman carrying the message of the truth of slavery as anything but a prophet. A prophetic message presupposes that there is a humanly discernable divine intent for every part of creation, including you and me. God calls us to the task of accomplishing God’s intent on earth. God calls us to put into service the gifts and talents entrusted to each of us. A prophet is nothing more than a person living in obedience to God’s call on their life.

Three quarters of a century ago Thomas Kelly said Friends had become as mildly and as conventionally religious as were the church folk of three centuries before his time, the very people against whose mildness and mediocrity and passion-less-ness early Friends flung themselves. It is not the way we should be. We have a way open to us and it begins now, where you are. In this present moment utter your openness and submission. While you listen outwardly, deep within you are all alone with God, a loving God as Jesus declared to us. We pray, “open Thou my life, Guide my thoughts to where I dare not let them go”. Pray with Jesus, if you dare, “Thy will be done…”

Don’t take yourself too seriously – what I’m suggesting is an immensely hard thing to do. It is akin to Jacob wrestling all night long with the divine. So be gentle with yourself. If this new way of being falls apart and you forget God and assert your proud self and rely upon your own cleverness—don’t spend to much time in anguish, just begin again, right where you are. And don’t grit your teeth, clench your fists and say “I will!” This is where you need to take your hands off, turn loose and relax. The notion of “I will!” and holy obedience are quite the opposites. 

 

   

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