When God calls us to his service, we never know exactly what’s involved in the call. It’s almost always the case that we end up feeling like we have bitten off more than we can chew; that we are in over our heads. There’s more involved than we knew when we first said “yes.” God seldom provides a reliable itinerary for our progress, and never issues a crystal ball for us to peek ahead. The only guarantee is that there will be surprises.
Actually, God’s call is a little bit like life itself. We’re presented with occasions and situations that we did not count on, and which demand our best. We didn’t know what we were getting into, but there we are. The truth is that we are all called by God. Our life itself is a gift from God: it’s our “calling” as they say. You might say that it’s not that life resembles the call of God: it is the call of God. We live out that calling, discovering what God wants us to do while we are doing it.
Calling isn’t restricted to Fr. Bill or to Deacon Rebecca or just to those who are ordained: we’re all called by God to his service, which means each of us has a call because each of us has a life. Each of us must struggle in our Christian life with tasks that are more than a match for our abilities and our gifts. Each of us discovers in due course that we’re in over our heads. That’s the good news, because in the process, we learn to rely on God and not on ourselves.
Our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, contains the call of the Servant of God, the mysterious figure designated by God who will establish his justice on the earth. “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Is. 42:1). The Servant judges and commands, like a king, but his mode of operation is quite different. “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Is. 42:2-3). In other words, unlike earthly kings, he will not rule by decree, nor will he make things happen by breaking heads and taking names.
In the call of the Servant, we can see the foreshadowing of God’s own work at Jesus’ baptism. Here too the Spirit is at work, as God designates Jesus as his beloved Son. It’s the beginning of his call; of his public ministry. “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Matt. 3:16-17).
Like the Servant, Jesus judges and commands, but in a different way. He listens for the voice of God, as he does in our Gospel today, so that he can be obedient to the call. He follows the way of love and the way of sacrifice, willing to give his life for others. It all begins with his baptism. Jesus, like the Servant in Isaiah, makes things happen, not by breaking heads and taking names, but by giving himself. His way of love leads him to crucifixion. Jesus is the Servant of God, the one who (strangely enough) casts the shadow we see reflected in the reading from Isaiah.
The call that God addresses to each of us reflects Jesus’ own ministry. We too are called to the service of others. Of course, Jesus is the Savior, and we’re not; but we are called to imitate Christ’s life in our own lives. Easier said than done! That’s why God gives us his grace, his power and presence in our lives. This begins with our own baptism: as St. Paul writes to the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). In baptism, God calls us anew and gives us grace for the life of faith.
One of the characteristics of the call of the Servant in Isaiah is that it takes place in front of witnesses. In this way, it’s different from the call of the prophets, which is typically not a public event. “Here is my servant” (Is. 42:1), God says in our reading: “here” because the Servant is presented to the world. On this Feast of the Baptism of Christ, we recall his baptism, and our own role as witnesses. God is calling us in righteousness, to build up God’s world in our several callings, and to share good news with a world that is in desperate need of it.