Series: Vocation, Gratitude, and Joy

Sermon #1: Building a Vocation Framework

By: Donnell Wyche

What I’m supposed to do with my life?
Many of us spend our entire lives wrestling with these central questions of life. When I first started out in ministry, the single most challenging question from a student was, “What should I do with my life?” This question was packed with subtext and meaning, with a dash of fear. As a youth pastor, I usually got this question in the spring of a student’s senior year. At first, I was afraid of this question thinking, “What if I get it wrong and steer this person in the wrong direction?” As I confronted my fears and theirs, I started to develop a response to this question that has matured over time. Initially, I would direct students to Romans 12, where Paul talks about the process of renewing our minds, which would allow us to discern God’s will. Because the subtext of this question was, “What does God want me to do with my life?” This question was posed as if the student didn’t have a say at all. And the fear was, “What if God calls me do something I don’t want to?” All of this goes back to the distorted picture of God that we live with, the picture of God as the angry boss – doling out punishments for our mistakes and rewarding our faithfulness. Behind all of this too is the assumption that God only calls us into ministry as a vocation. As if, God isn’t interested in any of us with interests in homemaking, business, design, politics, finance, engineering, art service, health, parenting, management, and so on.

As I became more comfortable with this question, I started to ask my own question in response, “Well, what are you interested in?” And I remember when the first student responded with, “What does it matter what I’m interested in, if it isn’t God’s will for me, what will it matter?” Floored by this reply, I asked another question, “Do you think God loves you?” And this was where my student, paused, and looked at me sideways, wondering if I was asking a trick question.

As I’ve discovered my own vocation, which is helping people reach their potential and destiny and solving problems, I’ve also learned that many of us will discover our vocation at the intersection of our interests and activity (doing). I now tell people that they will discover this vocation and calling when they discover what they are good at.

Let your Life Speak
I want to return that the Quaker concept of “letting your life speak” that I introduced last week. The Quakers believe that as your life speaks, your task is to listen and discover and find out what you’re made for.

To be human is to grow, learn, and develop; a human is a being in progress. To know anything as a human being is to come to know it, over time. We gather information, and experiences over time, making connections – one moment of insight makes way for another. It’s a process, a discovery.

And it is here that we can turn to Jesus to see how he discovered his vocation. Many of us falsely assume that Jesus was born with an automatic, magical understand of his vocation and calling. And like an actor on a stage having memorized all of his lines, we imagine his every step, act, and spoken word were ordered, expected, and ordained.

This cartoonish view of Christianity takes Jesus out of the running as a role model for us: However, in reality if Jesus did anything, he walked in our shoes. He tasted human experience to very last drop. If he can’t model for us how we come to know what we’re for, what good is the incarnation!?

It was NT Wright who helped me understand how Jesus discovered his vocation:

“As part of his human vocation, grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, he believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to Scripture only YHWH himself could do and be.” N.T. Wright

And when we consider what Wright asserts, we turn to the Gospels for confirmation and find our insight into Jesus’ growing sense of his vocation in Luke’s testimony:

  • Starts with the call announced to Mary, before Jesus is conceived

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:31-33)

  • Affirmed by Simenon, and Prophet Anna at his dedication in the Temple

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

There was also a prophet, Anna. She was very old. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)

  • Confirmed by Mary’s testimony

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

    By age 12

, Jesus has an early awareness of his vocation, we see this in his response to his mother about why he stayed behind in Jerusalem after attending the Passover festival:

“When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. (Luke 2:48-50)

    By age 30

at his baptism, Jesus hears a voice declaring:

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

Let’s pause and consider the scene: Jesus has been baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist, and afterward, the heavens open, a dove descends and Jesus hears a voice, his father’s, declaring something he’s felt internally.

    Finally, by the launch of his public ministry

, Jesus speak with conviction:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
 to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
 and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)

As a physician, Luke understands and uses human development to help us come to grips with Jesus’ growing vocational awareness. This is so helpful to me, personally, it helps me understand that vocational discovery takes times. It takes asking, discerning, questioning, listening, and waiting.

Building a Framework for Vocational Discovery
In this series, we want to help build a framework for understanding, discovering, and pursuing our vocations. I have two immediate insights from the early life of Jesus in Luke:

  1. God knows what we’re for.
  2. We discover our vocation in a community.

God knows what we’re for.
Vocation is something we discover, not something we invent. It’s there, for us, before us.

When we live without awareness of God, everything, including vocation is up for grabs. We have a tendency to think we are all alone, forcing us to believe we have to make it up from scratch. How would that even work? Even artists don’t invent beauty. They see it, hear it, capture it. Art is discovery, not invention.

Vocation must be understood as a calling that originates from an understanding of God, who creates you, loves you, takes joy in you, and desires good things for you. So vocation is never about a blueprint that you have to get right or you ruin your whole life. Vocation is never a list of specific tasks you have to complete and if you miss one, you have irrevocably ruined the plans. Vocation, meaning, and worth, are not taken away from you if you feel you have disappointed, struggled, or missed the mark. We miss the meaning of vocation if we do not understand that it is the place where our deep joy or gladness meets the world’s deep need.

Knowledge is power. When we don’t know what we’re for, we feel powerless. But we are not alone! Our vocation doesn’t begin and end with us. Vocation begins and ends with God. He holds onto it before we do. And if we don’t perceive it yet–don’t worry, it’s not lost, he’s got it; holding it for you, safe and secure.

The way forward starts with trust. All great discoveries begin with the same patter: trust-faith-risk. A hopeful probing in the dark. We move from the unknown to the known and we do that step by step. We don’t start the process knowing; we start the process trusting…

Secondly, We discover our vocation in a community.
Jesus wasn’t born into a vacuum; he was planted in a community. And out of this community he came to understand his vocation. Luke emphasizes the role of elders surrounding him: Mary & Joseph; Elizabeth & Zechariah; Anna, and Simeon in temple who have prophetic senses about Jesus.

From Luke’s account of Jesus in the Temple, what do we encounter?

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:41-47)

We see Jesus:

  • Sitting
  • Listening
  • Asking

Not pretend questions, real ones. He’s pursuing insight. No one in the temple hands him a blueprint, or a script for his life. The community that Luke finds Jesus in is diverse: prophets, women, elders, each contributing a unique voice and perspective – speaking together contributing their part of a larger tapestry.

The simple word “meet” in Buechner’s definition helps us to unpack the theological substance of the definition, since vocation is not merely about self-actualization. Our deep gladness or joy “meets” the world’s deep need. We are not called, without service as a fundamental part of the call. Of course, service takes on many different forms. The deep joy of cooking might show up in teaching immigrants how to cook with American groceries in American kitchens, or it might show up in taking dinners and desserts to those who are ill or in mourning, or it might show up in the work of a James Beard award-winning chef who through trial and error dreams up new recipes, resulting in sensational dishes that delight diners night after night. Service is a vital element here, but service does not mean that vocation is a denial of self. Vocation is an affirmation of self, and furthermore, it is an affirmation of self that is possible because it is founded not on your own self-assessment, but on God. Your life needs to be lived. Not the life others want you to live, and not necessarily the life you are trying to live. In the words of Parker Palmer, you have to let your life speak. Only if you lean into your deep gladness and joy can you meet the world’s deep need.