The Ultimate Call

From “The Humility of God:
Christian Meditations"
by John Macquarrie, 1919-2007

The theme of God's standing with his people and sharing with them the adventures of history finds expression in a whole series of incidents in the Bible, in which God calls men and women to some task or mission. The pattern of calling, hearing and responding recurs again and again. God does not govern the world from outside or by arbitrary decree. He seeks the service and co-operation of men and women and makes them his agents. Again, his activity in the world is not just of a general or abstract kind. He calls particular men and women and works through particular situations. According to the Bible, he chose a particular people to attain to the knowledge of himself, and within that people, he chose particular individuals to be leaders and interpreters. Some people have difficulty with this “scandal of particularity,” as it has sometimes been called. But history is compounded of the universal and the particular, and it seems to be in particular individuals that the decisive initiatives are taken.

Abraham is the first great figure to receive the divine call. He is summoned to turn his back on the settled life of the affluent cities of Mesopotamia and to go out into the unformed wilderness to build up there a new nation. At a later time, Moses was called to go down into Egypt and to undertake the apparently impossible task of liberating the tribes and leading them out to a new life. Many other heroes and prophets of Israel received their calls. These calls came in various ways. With Abraham, the call seems to have been some inner constraint. With Moses, it was a vision of a burning bush and the hearing of a voice. With Isaiah, it was a vision in the Temple. Sometimes the person receiving the call was moved at first to resist it, for such a call upsets the whole pattern of life and leads into ways that are unknown and that may well be filled with suffering.

How can we try to understand this calling of God? Were these men and women not just deluding themselves when they supposed that God was calling them? When, how, where does God speak to us? How could we ever be sure that it is God who is calling, and that we are not just deceiving ourselves into thinking that our own prejudices are in fact God’s will?

Some people would brush away all these stories about the calling of God, and would say it is just so much superstition; God, if indeed there is a God, does not speak to men or call them. There do seem to be times when God is silent, and perhaps our time is one of them. God seems to be absent. But there have been times like this in the past too. The story of how Samuel heard God calling him in the sanctuary at Shiloh begins by saying that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (I Sam. 3.1). But even at any time, there is an elusiveness about the voice of God. It is a still small voice, even a humble voice, not a loud and strident one.

Because the voice of God is a quiet and elusive one, we do right to be hesitant when either we ourselves or others think that the voice has been heard. We must be suspicious of those who are too forward in claiming to know what God is saying to our times or what he is doing in the world today. Churchmen and, even more, statesmen, who claim to be familiar with the counsels of God and with his plan of action in the world, are a dangerous breed. In these matters, a measure of reticence and even agnosticism is always in order.

And the reason for counselling this caution is, that when God speaks, there must always be a measure of ambiguity. His communication is not direct, but indirect. He does not speak to us with an unmistakable, audible voice, as our friends do. When Samuel heard the voice in the sanctuary, he thought at first that it was the old priest Eli who was calling him.

Three times he ran to the old man and said, “You called me!”

After the third time, Eli said, “No, it must be God.”

Was God’s voice then different from Eli’s voice? Was it not through Eli‘s teaching that Samuel had learned about God so that in a very real sense God had called him through Eli? When he heard God's voice, it sounded just like Eli's voice, just as when Bernadette saw the vision of the Blessed Virgin, she looked just like the statue in the local church. These things could not happen in any other way. We hear God’s voice in and through human voices. He speaks to us through them, and in turn, he is calling us so that he may work through us.

Why then do we say it is the voice of God? Is not this supposed perception of faith a mere superstition? Is it not enough to recognise a human voice, a human conscience, a human experience? Why bring God into it?

We say that this is God who is calling in order to express the ultimacy of such moments. I call these moments “ultimate” because in them persons are addressed in the very depth of their being, at a level that seems to lie beyond that of our everyday experiences. It is a matter of life and death, of the making or breaking of the person addressed, a question of to be or not to be. To be sure, it is my heart, my conscience, my neighbour that speaks. Yet in and through and with that human address there can be heard the note of ultimacy, the claim of the holy and we know that here we have to deal with that which is most real, most binding, most compelling; in brief, with the mystery of God.

As we think of all those callings in the history of Israel, we see how they build up and form a coherent pattern, so that we can say that through them God is calling the human race to the destiny he has prepared for it. Yet this universal call has its origin in highly particular calls, calls directed to individuals who were usually very obscure persons but who through their calling became men and women of destiny.

We can understand what Paul meant when he wrote to the Christians of Corinth: “Consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (I Cor. 1.26—29)

The humility of God is seen not least in the fact that he sought the co-operation of these obscure individuals to give voice to his universal call, the scandal of particularity, indeed!

The call came at last to an obscure maiden of Nazareth. This time, according to the tradition, it came in the form of an angelic vision. The spark of original righteousness that had been preserved and nursed in Israel was ready to burst into flame. The common grace that had never failed had done its work of sanctification. The successive callings had brought Israel in the person of Mary to a new level of responsiveness. It was the fullness of the time when mankind was ready to receive the gift of God's presence in a new way.

And the response was not lacking: “Be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1.38).

But although God bestowed his presence in a new way through Jesus Christ, whom we call the incarnate Lord, this was also a confirmation that he continues to speak through the human reality. The elusive voice of God which men and women had heard fitfully and ambiguously in the voice of the neighbour or the voice of conscience or in visions or in some other way has found a new and fuller expression in a human life, the life of Jesus Christ the living word of God.

Of course, the ambiguity is still not wholly removed, and it never can be in our earthly existence where God’s self-communication is of necessity indirect and mediated. Many people saw and heard Jesus Christ, but were far from believing that he came from God. Even those who were waiting for a word from God had their doubts.

“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1.46).

Surely, if God were going to speak a word, especially a word that would sum up and universalise the many fragmentary callings of the past, he would not choose an obscure man from Nazareth, an obscure town in an obscure province. Yet this is how God always had uttered his call, using the foolish, the weak, the low and despised, to confound the wise and the powerful. If some saw in Jesus only another prophet or rabbi, there were others who found in him an ultimacy that they found nowhere else. I have used the word “ultimate” to designate that which we meet in human experience, yet that which has a depth stretching beyond our grasp and speaking to us of what is finally real and binding, the holy mystery that we call God. The life of Jesus Christ was a life lived in this world, as you and I have to live, but a life in which we meet ultimate freedom, ultimate creativity, ultimate love, ultimate moral authority, so that with the first disciples we confess that in him we have beheld the glory of the Father.

Jesus Christ is the word made flesh, and it is in and through hint that we hear most clearly the voice of God calling us. That voice has never been silent. It was calling men and women in the ages before Christ and is still calling today. But now as then, the voice does not call in any dramatic, shattering way, but quietly, hidden in and with the human realities of daily life, Modern life is so hurried and frequently so superficial that one can easily miss the overtones of God’s calling. But his voice is still addressing and summoning us.

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