Called: To the Ministry

I will never forget this one particular life changing conversation I had with George. I had known George since I was 16 when we met working in a mechanics shop in North Carolina. After multiple moves for both his family and mine, we wound up serving together both at FBC Dallas and Jacksonville for a time. It was in Jacksonville during one of our monthly one-on-one meetings when this conversation took place. I sat across the table from George talking about the projects I was working on when he interjected, “Trey, do you feel called to ministry?”

I grew up with a dad who was a pastor and I had people from the time I was born telling me that I would one day follow his steps into the ministry. I think that kind of pressure to be a pastor, oftentimes unspoken but perceived, made me want to run from ministry. Yes I had served on staff at FBC Dallas and at FBC Jacksonville, but it was always in a “behind the scenes” capacity. I loved the church, but avoided any thoughts about being “called to ministry,” that was until George sat across the table from me and pressed the issue.

I tried to dodge the question. I literally looked at George and said, “What do you think I am doing?” At this point in my ministry at FBC Jacksonville, I was over “special projects” and “local missions” and a few others that had equally ambiguous titles. I was doing ministry. I just was avoiding doing it the way the Bible says ministers are to go about doing ministry.

George so carefully and lovingly pressed me. “Trey, I’m not talking about what you do. I am talking about who you are. Are you called into ministry? I am asking you because I can look at you and tell that you are.”

That conversation led me on a journey. I asked a few other people for insight. I went through a process that pastors at FBC Jacksonville had created to not only help identify this call but to help them care for the called. I read books. I read more books with my wife. I prayed. I stood before a group of men who questioned me and prayed over me. I sat in front of a church and had men lay their hands on me. Most importantly, I was called.

Randall set this series up last week by pointing out that the Lord graciously calls all of us not only from death to life, but from self-centered living to self-sacrificial living – one that looks to do good works and glorify God. Every one of us who are called by God to be His children are called to live our lives in such a way that others can see His grace in action. We don’t save anyone but we share Jesus with everyone. We are called to worship God in all that we do.

Some of us, however, are called by God to lead His people and serve His church. This distinction is crucial because it seems today that so many are quick to make ministry the job description of any paid ministry worker. There is an equally dangerous tendency to say that there is no distinction and that anyone can and should lead. These are both errors that produce dangerous consequences. Pastors are called to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12-16). Pastors are also called to lead the church, which means they are a specific group of people identified and qualified (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4).

What the Call Means

What I want to consider today is what it means to be called to ministry. Exodus 24 gives us a pretty fascinating picture. The children of Israel are encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai and the Lord has come down upon the mountain. There are clouds, thunder, lightning, fire, smoke, the sound of a trumpet blasting, and the mountains shaking. This is such a great picture of the holiness of God. The people of Israel cowered at the base of the mountain and in Exodus 24:9-11 the Lord calls Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 elders to come up on the mountain to have a meal with Him. It’s easy to miss, but who are these 70 men? Why are they called up on the mountain? They are the men who had been called to lead.

Isaiah 6 has one of the clearest and distinct descriptions of a call to ministry. I would say that it’s rivaled only by the Apostle Paul’s call in Acts 9. There are a few things that I think we can discern about any call to ministry from this specific example, but first I think it will be important for us to read the text:

1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. 

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people…”

The Situations To Which You’re Called

First, the verse starts with a setting. Chronicles tells us that Amaziah was king before Uzziah. Amaziah followed the Lord but his heart was turned towards power and idolatry. We are told that he brought in the gods of Seir, set them up to be worshipped, and then led Judah into idolatry. Uzziah then sought the Lord, but due to his pride was given leprosy until he died.

Then came Jotham. The day Uzziah died, was the day Jotham became king even though he had been ruling for a while. Jotham, we are told, did not enter the temple. That defined his leadership, he didn’t serve God. Things get worse after Jotham. The point is that the nation of Judah was spiritually destitute. Things had been spiraling down for generations in Judah. The year Uzziah died was just another step in the direction of not honoring God or acknowledging Him. The setting of Isaiah’s call is into a broken situation. The Lord calls men to speak for Him, to lead His people, and to confront sin. If you are called, this is your calling. You are called into a situation to speak and lead for God. You are likely called into a difficult situation to do hard work, which ironically is a good thing.

Unbearable Holiness

Next, notice Isaiah’s call to God. He gets a view of the holiness of God. It’s not just the Lord, it’s an exalted throne, a robe, a temple, seraphim who are singing, smoke, a shaking foundation, and a voice. There are a few things to process here. Notice that in the year that Uzziah died, the throne Isaiah sees has no vacancy. The King of Kings is always on the throne. That throne is exalted because it is over all other thrones. He has a robe, which should remind us that He is clothed in righteousness. His throne is in the temple, a combining of the offices of priest and king which would have been distinctive to Isaiah, that He is the authority and the powerful one.

Then there’s the seraphim. The Hebrew word saraph literally means fiery serpent… I think Isaiah had no clue what he saw. I think a good translation for the word would be “fiery beings.” These six-winged fiery creatures were covering themselves and declaring the glory of God. There is so much to be processed here. These creatures are obviously sinless or they would not be in the presence of the Lord but notice that they still must cover their face and feet. I think from their posture and their song, the point is that God is holy. Isaiah is not only seeing this, but he is sensing it at the core of his being. He begins declaring God’s holiness by confessing his sinfulness. “I am lost. I am unclean. I live in uncleanness.” Isaiah has no excuse but cannot help but confess.

Here’s the point I think we have to see: the called are not unique. Pastors are not those who get it right. Pastors are not those who lead without need. Pastors are those who have seen the Lord in His holiness, who recognize their dependence on Him, and know they cannot live to do anything other than declare His glory.

If you are called, that doesn’t mean you are a capable leader, you are a good communicator, you are liked by people or know how to work a crowd, it means that you are marked by the holiness of God. There is a saying that we are all on level ground at the foot of the cross, but long before the cross Isaiah knew that no one stands before the holy God – we all bow. Pastors are men made to be lead servants, lead worshippers, leaders of being humbled, leaders of declaring the glory and grace of God. Pastors are aware of the holiness of God and lead others to see Him that way.

The Unescapable Feeling

Third, the called have been, called. They hear the Lord’s commission, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Who was there to hear the call? Outside of the Lord and the angelic host there was only one other person, Isaiah. This is why we call it a specific call. It was not the general call to the Lord. This was a specific mission for a specific person.

I remember when the Lord called me to Los Angeles. It burned inside me. I was burdened for a people I had never met. I knew that this was the one thing I had been made to do in that moment. I left a lot behind and I turned down several other opportunities because it was clear that this was what the Lord said to do. When I left Los Angeles it was completely different. It hurt. I was not as eager to leave where I was, but it was just as clear that the Lord’s hand was guiding me to a new place. The clarity of the call comes in different ways to different people at different times but it is always clear. I’ve heard my father counsel men before who wondered if they were called, “If you can do anything else, do it.” What’s interesting is that I’ve seen many men who came into that conversation confused leave with clarity. There isn’t anything else you can do if you are called. You stand up and say, “Here I am, send me.” Simply put, the called are called.

The Calling it To People

Lastly, the called are called to people. I think it is easy to miss this, especially in the busyness of ministry today and the multiple places and ways that we can serve in ministry. The Lord calls us to people. We are called to proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called us out of darkness and into a marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

I think this is important to Isaiah for a few reasons. People can be so difficult to lead and love. Isaiah wasn’t going to a people that were ready to throw him a welcome party. He was going to a people that would likely see him as an enemy. He was called to them because they needed his message if they were to have hope. The ministry can be a very difficult place, but the Lord is calling us to lead in the fight. Pastors are to be warriors. Pastors are to understand that our calling isn’t about us. We have this powerful God that we have clearly seen, he has clearly called us, and we go to a place that is clearly in need and therefore we need to be clear that it will be hard, but it is a noble work that we are called to.

Your greatest friends will likely come from your ministry. Your biggest supporters will come from the destination that you are called to lead in. You will also find your most vocal critics in that same place and the people who force you to stay on your knees begging God to do what only He can do. You are called to work, to battle, to plead and pray for grace. If you’re called, be sober about this and know that ministry is people.

I know that was a lot. It’s a lot more than I intended to write when I sat down to convey this, but I think it’s a great place to start if you think you may be called to the ministry. Take some time to pray. Find some men, especially your pastors, who affirm this calling on your life. Walk through this passage in Isaiah 6 as well as the qualifications in Titus, 1 Timothy, and 1 Peter. Do you meet those qualifications? Have you seen God like Isaiah? Can you do anything other than ministry? If this is it, are you prepared to engage in the battle?

Being called into the ministry is a noble thing, but remember that it’s not about us. We are just sinners, but God in His grace chooses to use some of us to give our lives to point others to Him. If you’re confused, keep praying, asking, and seeking. If you’re called, go.