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Vocatio: Discovering The Work Of Your Soul In The Soul of Your Work
Part 7: Jesus’ Vocatio
Rev. Eric Elnes, Ph.D.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Rabbi Eliezer’s Story
My name is Rabbi Eliezer. Eliezer means “God is My Help” in Hebrew. I was the presiding rabbi of the synagogue in Nazareth in Jesus’ day. We’d heard a lot of great and wondrous things about our little boy since he left town. He’d had some sort of “spiritual experience” in the Jordan River with John the Baptist. Now he was preaching around the Galilee region – in every synagogue but our own – and sparking a lot of excitement. We heard rumors that he’d even healed people. So when Jesus came to Nazareth, I readily invited him into my home.
Over dinner he told me a little of his story – how he had awakened to a profound sense of God’s call, or vocatio as you call it. I asked Jesus what happened, and he grew quite still. He didn’t speak for several moments. You could tell he was reliving the experience in his mind. Then he looked right into my eyes and spoke from his heart:
“When I came up out of the Jordan River, it was as if the heavens parted. Suddenly there were wings flapping all around me, only I didn’t see them so much as feel them. They were flapping around me and inside me all at once. At first I was afraid, thinking I’d been possessed by a demon. But the longer the wings flapped, the more peaceful I became. It felt like the wings were clearing aside all the debris within me, revealing a vision of myself as God saw me, through the eyes of love, not judgment. What I saw was so beautiful! That’s when I heard the voice.”
“What kind of voice?” I asked.
“It wasn’t actually a voice, yet it spoke to me more clearly than you are now. It said, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
“When I heard that voice it seemed to know me so well that I let go of all resistance. Suddenly the purest, most radiant Love I had ever experienced just seemed to invade me. Soon I was so full of the love that I could no longer distinguish between myself and the Love. Love and I were one.”
Jesus told me how that experience had both delighted and shaken him. It drove him into the wilderness for forty days praying, trying to make sense of it all. He said he’d emerged with a sense of what it all meant.
“Tell me,” I said. “What did it mean?”
He said that’s what he had been preaching about in the synagogues. “I said, ‘Then why not preach it here, in your hometown?’” God help me! He graciously agreed.
You heard the story told already – how Jesus read from the Book of Isaiah announcing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. He said the meaning of the vision he’d received at the Jordan was that this was the time of fulfillment. This was the year of the Lord’s favor.
We were a little agitated over this brash claim because the scripture he’d read from was really about the Messiah – God’s Anointed. Surely Jesus wasn’t thinking he was the Messiah! Our people knew better. Too many of our congregation had taught Jesus in Sabbath School. He was no angel! So we figured Jesus was simply being naïve or clever, using that text as good rhetoric for announcing that he was dedicating his life to serving the less fortunate …
But just as we were taking up on offering to help Jesus in his ministry, his face, which had been so beautiful to behold, became stern and agitated. He lashed out at us for being thick in the head! Right in the middle of our offering! Jesus kept insisting that the poor, captive, and blind were not some sort of charity group but us! And not just us, but the world.
Someone in the crowd spoke up. “Just who do you think you are?” (testing to see if Jesus was sick in the head). ”Are you Jesus, the carpenter’s son, who once stole a yoke from old Abiathar’s stable, was caught reading Rabbi Eliezar’s Torah scroll in a tree, who gave Mary so many gray hairs with worry? Or are you claiming to be the Anointed of God?”
“Yes,” Jesus said, in answer to both questions at once. “God help me!” I cried. I’d just let a blasphemer preach in my synagogue!
Well, I’ll admit that things got a little out of hand at that point. The crowd took Jesus on a short walk to a steep cliff, but he broke free of their grasp. Just when someone went to grab him, he looked at us with such deep sadness and pity – like someone beholding a bird with a broken wing trying desperately to fly but failing to rise from the ground. No one could lift a finger. He walked straight out of town and never returned.
Luke 9:18-23 Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” 20 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” 21 He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” 23 Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
I am Peter, son of Jonah, brother of Andrew (another of Jesus’ disciples). My name wasn’t always Peter. My given name was Simon (Shimon in Hebrew) which is based on the Hebrew word “Shema`.” Shema` means “hear.” It is also the title of the most famous call to Israel in the entire Torah. The Shema` is so important it is affixed to this day to the doorway of every Jewish home inside a Mezuzah, for it speaks to Israel’s calling, or vocatio, as a people. The call starts in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear [Shema`], O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Well, anyone who knew me “back in the day” said my name should be changed from Shimon to Lo-Shimon (“Does Not Hear”) because I chased after a lot of other things besides “God alone.” I wasn’t exactly the person people pointed to as a shining example of what it means to love God with heart, mind and strength. Not many fishermen of my day were. And I certainly was not cut out for being one of Jesus’ twelve disciples!
Funny thing about Jesus. He had a curious way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. You could be the lowest sinner in the whole of Palestine, but if you weren’t all full of yourself and were honestly yearning for a better life, he was as gentle and inviting as could be. And oh, could he ever make you laugh! On the other hand, you could be the most Law-abiding citizen in the Kingdom, but the second you put yourself on a pedestal above others, Jesus was right there to knock it out from under you.
My fishing companions and I certainly suffered no illusions about our righteousness. We were lost souls and we knew it. We yearned for something more but had no idea what it was, where to get it, or how to find it. Jesus didn’t seem to mind who were (or who we weren’t). He treated us like we were his best friends from the start. Clearly, there was no one Jesus didn’t love. The amazing thing, though, was that in Jesus’ presence, there was no one you didn’t love either. When he asked us to leave everything behind and join him, we didn’t give it a second thought.
Incidentally, after following Jesus around a bit, my name finally did get changed – not to Lo-Shimon but to Peter, which means Rock. I think many of you are already familiar with that story – how Jesus renamed me Rock after sinking like a rock when I tried to walk on the Sea of Galilee.
You should have heard the cackling of the disciples over that one. “Yes” they cried, “that’s perfect!”
But then Jesus got serious, adding, “Upon this Rock I will build my church.”
Imagine Jesus building a community on a sinking rock. You modern church people think Jesus set out to build his church on a firm, unshakable foundation of righteousness. Joke’s on you! His community was only ever meant to be build upon the foundation of people who know they need help and reach out for it.
When Jesus asked us who we thought he was, some said the incarnation of John the Baptist, others guessed Elijah or another of the prophets. I thought this didn’t go far enough. I didn’t know the Scriptures well enough to know whether Jesus fit the precise mold of who the Savior of our people would be. All I knew was that anyone who would build his community from the likes of people like me was my Savior. So when Jesus turned to me I told him flat out, from my heart: “You are the Messiah. The Anointed of God.”
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?’ just say this, “The Lord needs it.’ “ 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
My name is Bikkurah, but my friends call me “Bikki.” In Hebrew they call a fig which is first to ripen a “Bikkurah.” My parents gave me this name because we lived on the outskirts of Bethphage, which means “House of Unripe Figs” in Hebrew. My parents were eternal optimists. They certainly were with respect to me. Let’s just say that I lived into the meaning of my name by “growing up early.”
I’m not mentioned in the Bible directly, though I did play a role. First off, I am a friend of Mary Magdalene’s – another girl who “grew up early.” We became friends several days ago when Jesus and his disciples were passing through the area. She and a number of other women accompany them, supporting Jesus’ ministry in various ways. Some people think it is scandalous that all these women are following the men around, but these are honest women – or, like Mary, became such. These women give “ordinary” support like cooking and washing, but they also give extraordinary support as well. When Jesus touches people’s lives, he doesn’t just touch them, he blows them wide open. He turns their world on its head! There is much to process and assimilate, but Jesus can’t help everyone do this – there are far too many. That’s where the disciples come in. They come alongside you and help you talk things out. They wipe away your tears and pray with you. But they can’t come alongside female converts since it is considered indecent for men to spend time privately with women unless they are married. That’s where Jesus’ band of women come in.
Mary Magdalene is the woman who came beside me in the wake of my experience of Jesus when I was at the market down the road in Bethany last week. I had an especially hard time dealing with the difference between what I just became awakened to and my everyday experience.
You see, I was privileged to meet Jesus face-to-face. I have no doubt that our encounter has changed my life. When Jesus looked at me, he really looked at me. He seemed to pierce through to my very soul – like he could see everything about me, the stuff I wanted him to see and the stuff I didn’t, and accepted it all without judgment. As he looked into my eyes, I felt something like wings start flapping all around me – and inside me. As they did so, this love beyond my wildest imagination swept over me. I wanted to live inside the experience forever! That’s when I heard something like a voice that seemed to speak without words, “This is my Daughter, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
I broke down. I couldn’t even say thank you as Mary Magdalene led me away and sat down with me beneath a tree and held me as I sobbed.
You see, the way I “grew up early” was I got involved with a boy, whom I later married, who seemed to be the only one in the world who loved me but turned out to be abusive. Throughout my marriage I’ve learned that if I ever have a thought of my own that is different from his, or if I ever find a source of affirmation that doesn’t come directly from him, I’ll have hell to pay. And pay I have. After years of abuse, I became convinced that I was fundamentally unlovable, and that the only way I could find “love” was once in a blue moon from my husband when I wasn’t “making trouble.” I could never stand or speak for myself, never display any talent or skill that might intimidate him, never do anything but speak when I was spoken to (and only ever in agreement). My worth was entirely dependent on pleasing my husband, and most of the time he’s not pleased. I guess I had come to believe that God was the same way.
Jesus introduced me to a much different world. Jesus taught me what it is like to discover yourself loved beyond your wildest imagination. Now Mary has been teaching me what it means to orient your whole life around this discovery.
The other day, Mary returned, asking if Jesus could borrow an unbroken colt in our stable to ride down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. When I looked confused, she said it had to do with the prophet Zechariah’s prediction. I pretended like I knew what she was talking about. Mary instructed me to leave the colt tied to our fence. A couple of the men would come and untie it early this morning. If I saw people untying it and wondered if they were the men Jesus sent, I could simply ask why they are untying it. She said they’d respond, ‘The Lord has need of it’ if they were the right men.
“Okay,” I said, not wanting to ask any questions. When Mary left, I went straight to the synagogue and asked the rabbi what the prophet Zechariah had to say about donkeys and the Mount of Olives.
The kind rabbi knew just where to look. (Apparently everyone but me knew about this prophecy!) He opened the scroll to a place where the prophet says, “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east … Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him” (Zech 14:4-5).
Then he turned to another place which read, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut of the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zech 9:9-10)
“What is the meaning of these prophesies?” I asked, trying to appear casual.
He said, “My child, they speak of a day when a New King will enter Jerusalem – the one we have been waiting for. They are prophesies of the Messiah.”
My heart pounded. My hands shook. “Thank you, honorable rabbi,” I said with a tremble in my voice and walked out as fast as I could.
My emotions were running so strong and violently that it took some time to sort them all out. On the one hand, as soon as the rabbi spoke the word “Messiah,” I could feel the wings flapping again around and within me, overwhelming me with joy and excitement. “I knew it!” I shouted to myself.
But another voice arose immediately: “Do you have any idea the trouble Jesus is about to make?!” it said. “Do you suppose for a moment that the established leaders in Jerusalem will tolerate any craziness like this for even a moment? All hell will break loose if Jesus rides into Jerusalem this way!”
Still another voice said, “Let the chips fall where they may. You’ve seen with your own eyes the True King and Messiah. Surely if Jesus is the Messiah, he knows exactly what he’s getting himself into. He must have his reasons.”
At this, a malevolent voice arose, much like my husband’s, warning, “Jesus may know what he’s getting himself into, but do you know what you’re getting yourself into? What will happen when the authorities trace the colt back to your stable, as they surely will? Will they take your treason lightly? And how will your husband respond when he finds out that you have been an accessory to revolution?”
That thought dropped me to my knees.
“Oh God, “ I prayed, “What kind of trouble have you gotten me into?”
Almost immediately, I could feel the presence of those wondrous wings within me. “It’s the trouble that I’m getting you out of that matters,” they seemed to assure me.
Then a line from Scripture came to mind, from the Book of Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
I realized that I had just experienced all this for myself! Through Jesus I experienced God’s favor. I discovered firsthand what it is like to be poor in spirit and made rich; to be a captive to the limited imagination of the world only to be freed by God’s vision of me. I found that I had been blinded by my husband’s abuse into believing that I was beyond love, only to behold a God who was more interested in relationship than righteousness. I was oppressed by powers that insisted that my only worth is in pleasing them and staying “in my place,” and now my bonds were broken.
“No,” I thought to myself. “There may be hell to pay for what I am about to do, but there is no way it can extinguish the heaven I’ve experienced.”
That’s when God spoke to me again, “Beloved, you may not emerge unscathed from what follows, but neither will you find yourself unaccompanied by my Presence or unblessed. Already you have begun to live into the true meaning of your name, Bikkurah. You have become the fig that was first to ripen in the town of Unripened Figs.”
Well, that pretty much brings us up to today. I have no idea what the events of the coming week will bring, and frankly, I don’t really care. I am no longer scared. I need not wonder if the authorities will trace the colt back to my home, for I’m going to join the revolution openly by laying my cloak before Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem. I have found my True King and that is all that matters. Have you found yours?