This morning I was in Isaiah and arrived at chapter 6 where Isaiah describes his call and ordination. The call begins with this vision of the Lord he was granted:
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.
Isaiah’s vision then turns to the Lord’s holiness and glory:
And one called out 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 trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke.
What is Isaiah’s response?
Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”
In reformed churches, we believe a man should not simply take up the work of a pastor because he once had a pastor he liked and he’s come to think pastoral ministry might be a good gig. Such a desire may be sufficient to get into seminary and get an MDiv, but in our churches, the union card doesn’t grant ordination. Following his formal training and the granting of any degrees he may have, we examine the man, seeking to hear his “personal Christian experience” and “sense of call.”
In these first verses of Isaiah 6 above, we have a good picture of a crucial part of Isaiah’s personal experience. He has seen the Lord as He Is—not as lost men think of Him. He has seen the Lord enthroned in holiness and glory, His temple shaking to its foundations and filling with smoke. He has heard the angels of the Lord call out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts!”
Then, we also see recorded Isaiah’s personal response, and those of us reading find his response so reassuring. We find our hearts crying out with Isaiah, “Yes, that’s it exactly! Woe am I! I’m ruined! I, too, am a man of unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips. I know my just judgment and sentence after seeing the King of Kings and Lord of Hosts.”
When we read or listen to a man describing God’s glory and holiness, and his own despair in light of that glory and holiness, we find some comfort for our own hearts which so often feel so alone in recognizing all the time, even in our sleep, how unclean our own lips are, and that we live among others of unclean lips, also. It is a burden we can’t bear normally, but that burden explodes in weight when God grants us a vision of His terrible holiness and awful glory. We are ruined and we know it. We tremble. We cry out for mercy.
The beginning of pastors and elders testing a man seeking ordination is listening to his account of his own experience of God’s holiness, his sin, and then something else. What is that something else?
He also must have experienced, personally, God’s gift of mercy. We listen for whether or not God has granted the man forgiveness of his sins, and here Isaiah speaks for each of us once more. After confessing his own sin, Isaiah describes how God forgave him:
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.”
What precious words! “Your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.”
If Isaiah were standing before a presbytery and had just given this account of his own personal Christian experience, he would be asked, now, to move on to his “sense of call.” No one would be left unresolved on the matter of his saving faith, but now, has God called him?
Isaiah moves on to his sense of God’s call to be a prophet, a preacher:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?”
Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
He said, “Go, and tell this people…
That command, “Go.” It is God Who has given the command, and Isaiah testifies he received that command. Then what?
God describes the nature of this calling He is giving to Isaiah, and here is where things get difficult.
Go, and tell this people: “Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand. Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.”
Really? This is what I’m to preach? Seriously?
Remember how Jesus taught? He used parables, and when He was asked “Why the parables?, He answered:
Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, “You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; for the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes, otherwise they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them.”
What we must understand about Isaiah and Jesus is that God has called men to a difficult work. Why difficult?
Because their work will yield no fruit. When they preach and give pastoral care, those they preach to and care for will not see, will not hear, will not understand because their hearts have become dull. Because they have closed their eyes. Thus they will not return to the God Who made them, and He will not heal them.
Now undoubtedly, there will be many who can’t see or hear or perceive this truth about preaching, starting with pastors themselves. There will be many pastors who are unwilling to receive such a call.
What? Seriously? You want me to have a small church? No church at all? But I’m a church planter! What sense is there in doing work that yields no fruit? Would any orchard-man plant fruit trees he knew beforehand would be fruitless? Would any dairy farmer breed cows he knew would cast their calves? Would any painter bid contracts he knew he would never win? Would any woman give herself to marriage and a husband if she knew beforehand she would never get pregnant and give birth to a child?
We all work for fruit. All of us. It’s indisputable.
So what’s with a call to pastoral ministry that promises no fruit?
Pastors who fear God, tremble at His Word, and are observant know this is the condition of those calling themselves the people of God today.
Most won’t want to see it, but it’s not hard to show why Gentle and Lowly is such a best-seller and is pulling in such royalties for Dane Ortlund right now given the state of the church in the West. God has not truly said His Son is more essentially gentle and lowly than holy and just, and that this passes the approval of Don Carson and the long list of usual suspects tells us more than we want to know about ourselves, our children, our congregations, and all the others we live among.
Yet we too have been called by God and the mission many of us have been given is more like than unlike Isaiah’s mission back in the year of King Uzziah’s death.
Really, it’s hard to know what to say further. It’s enough to observe that this Christian experience and call and ordination of the prophet Isaiah is as pertinent today as it was in the time of our Lord and the time of Isaiah. We know we have been forgiven, justified by God. We know He has called us to preach and shepherd; to pasture the flock. But have we fully acknowledged the relative fruitlessness of our preaching, let alone that it is God Who determines the fruit, and thus it is God Who has determined to render our ministries so often fruitless?
Does fruitlessness render a call illegitimate?
No, many of us have watched our people act as the Sons of Israel in the wilderness with Moses, and have known we were called to preach to them to despite their acting like the Sons of Israel in the wilderness with Moses. Our call and commissioning or ordination were clearly revealed and carried out by God, so we worked on knowing we were doing as God commanded.
Are there times when fruitlessness indicates the call is over?
No question, yes. We ask God for wisdom, not doubting, and He provides it without finding fault. This we can depend upon.
But we must not give ourselves to becoming bounders, opportunists, trimmers, climbers.
Mary Lee and I have been talking about life trajectories, recently. We’re old enough now. One trajectory we have seen often, and lamented, is those whose goal in pastoral ministry has been to climb the ladder of success. They’ve started small and then taken time off to get the doctorate requisite for climbing in the presbyterian world. Then they’ve taken to the ladder and used whatever means they could to get ahead.
One Gordon-Conwell fellow alum I was quite close to during seminary put it this way. In a difficult call as an associate pastor a few years out of seminary, he said to me on the phone one day that he’d activated his dossier, explaining that an older pastor had given him the advice, “When a good ship passes, jump.” He chuckled after recounting the man’s advice.
By way of contrast, when Dad talked to me shortly after my ordination in my first call to a yoked parish in rural dairyland, he said, “Tim, don’t use Pardeeville as a stepping stone.”
We men called and set apart by God to shepherd His sheep have never been granted permission to jump when a good ship passes. We are not mercenaries. We have a flock that, by God’s direction, has called us to care for them, and that is our duty station, keeping watch over them and feeding them. And that station is no less of a legitimate calling when the work is bleak and beset with conflict with the sheep of unclean lips refusing to hear, see, or repent.
Not at all to brag, because it is not my doing, but God has been very kind through His Holy Spirit to grant those of us called and ordained to be shepherds of our flock at Trinity Reformed Church to see fruit that has lasted, for decades now. This is not to say we haven’t, and don’t continue to have, terrible difficulties. Also, there have always been a group of other pastors and former church members who despise us and make life difficult for us, and this is painful.
Nevertheless, God has made our work sweet in many ways, so as I look at leaving in a couple months, it is bittersweet, with an emphasis on sweet. Bitter in some ways to have arrived at the time to say “goodbye” and turn the work over to most-excellent younger men, but so very sweet to have seen God raise up those younger men and know what a tender and receptive flock they will work among, providing them much fruit from their work for God.
But as with all of us, I’ve had my own fruitlessness, not just personally, but in my calling, and we all must recognize that it’s not us, but God Whose Holy Spirit Who provides or withholds fruit. So when we go through difficult times and see our failures to produce fruit, we must not quit or jump ship, but stay faithful to the calling He has given us. If He’s given us the call, is He not permitted to determine the nature of that call—particularly the relative fruitfulness or fruitlessness of it?
Part of my call has been to speak to pastors and elders outside our own congregation, and that part of the work has been relatively fruitless. In that connection, as I listen to Romans cutting the lawn each week, when I come to Romans 10, I am always strengthened.
I hope it strengthens you too, dear brother. May God give you the humility to labor on in the knowledge that success is often continuing to preach, teach, counsel, and love those who refuse to see, listen, or repent.
God didn’t call Isaiah to success. He called him to preach, and the preacher who has heard and knows the call of God never depends on fruit to keep preaching.
And Isaiah is very bold and says, “I was found by those who did not seek me, I became manifest to those who did not ask for me.” But as for Israel He says, “All the day long I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” (Romans 10:21)