Too Small a Thing?
“Too Small a Thing?”
True story: back in my college days - just like many of you - I had to write my share of papers… term papers, research papers, book summaries…
I remember working on one paper... I don’t remember the subject - it was a long time ago. But I do remember gathering my sources, and doing my research and typing much of my paper… using a brand new electronic word processor. Yes, you heard right… This was back before the days of home laptops and things like that.
Of course, I thought the word processor was high tech… I could copy and paste, it would even check my spelling before it ever typed out a single word! But it didn’t do everything… and I learned that the hard way. Because after most of the day typing and correcting and re-typing and re-correcting… I jumped up from my table to take a quick break… and I tripped over the power cord… unplugging the power. And in less time than it takes to cuss… I lost everything! All that work for nothing. I had to start over.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be anything as crazy as that. Maybe you spent an entire afternoon putting together some new toy… A bicycle, a gas grill… A baby bed! Just about done, when you realize you left some important part out… So you have to take the whole thing apart, and start over. There’s a terrible feeling of having done all that work, for nothing! We’ve all felt at some point, for some reason, that we’ve labored in vain.
Well Isaiah seems to have had a similar problem! Our scripture today speaks of Isaiah‘s call… the servants calling: “The Lord called me before I was born.” In fact that sounds an awful lot like Jeremiah‘s call, “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” The point being, Isaiah & Jeremiah… as servants of God… were called by God, equipped by God, and sent out by God. God basically said, “you are my servant… now get to work - no excuses - do what I’ve called you to do!”
But, at least from Isaiah‘s point of view, he’d fallen short. Listening to him, you might assume he’d been a miserable failure. After all there are few words more deflating than to hear some say, “I’ve labored in vain.”
Some people have the good fortune, of seeing the results of their labor. I have a friend who says that’s why he loves to do yard work - it’s instant gratification. It’s very satisfying!
Many people in our area worked in the mills… West Point Pepperell or Interface or something like that… and they could actually see... they could touch... they could feel the work of their hands. People today who work on assembly lines can witness their finished product… as new Kias are driven off the line. The same can be said a farmers. If you plant, you fertilize, you cultivate, your harvest… you get to see the results of your labor.
That’s not always the case. If you’re a schoolteacher… If you’re a Sunday school teacher… A youth leader… You may never know the results, the outcome… of your efforts.
But as individuals... as former students... you & I know personally... the impact that teachers (and others) have had on our lives.
I remember one teacher in particular (who will not named to protect the quilty!). She was strict... an imposing presence with a large voice... and she knew how to keep 4th graders in line. She was one of those teachers who frightened you into being good - you were afraid to act up. Of course, later on... you could still tell which students had this teacher, and which ones hadn’t. The ones who’d made their way through her class were better for it!
Ultimately, she made a difference in the lives of her students. And the impact of her life, and her discipline, can still be felt today. Yet, I wonder if she was ever aware of the impact she had?
It can be difficult, sometimes, to see where we’ve made a difference - or where our contributions have made the world different... but it’s easy to see our failures, or our supposed failures, anyway.
When I read these words from Isaiah... my thoughts latch-on to the despair in his cry: “I’ve labored in vain... to no purpose, I’ve spent my strength in vain and for nothing.”
How often have you and I felt the very same way?
A famous pastor (Will Willimon) tells of the best Sunday school teacher he ever had. He was a youth teacher... and he treated the teenagers like adults... he’d discuss all kinds of things with the youth, and listened to their opinions and treated them with respect. The pastor remembered loving this man’s class! So, later on in life, he had the chance to talk with this teacher, and mentioned his memories and how he’d loved the man’s teaching. But the man replied, “Yeah, I remember that class, too! It was the worst class I ever taught! Dull students with behavior problems - I told the Sunday school superintendent after two years, “don’t ask me again.” The whole thing was failure as far as I was concerned.”
The point is... sometimes our failures aren’t really failures at all. Pastors, and parents, and teachers, and care givers and social workers and musicians and youth leaders... coaches and neighbors - or anyone else who’s trying to follow Christ and make a positive impact on others - has to look for something greater than immediate - quantifiable results.
Isaiah cried out to the Lord that his labor had been for nothing. But God didn’t seem to see it that way. And Isaiah’s cries led to an affirmation from God… As Isaiah said, “surely my call is with the Lord, and my reward is with God.”
You see… Isaiah‘s failure wasn’t a failure at all. Not from God‘s point of view. The servants work isn’t the servants work… It’s Gods work! And the end… The outcome… the result of our labor… is not up to us. We’re only responsible for answering the call… And when we’re faithful… Instead of failure… God sees faithfulness.
Maybe God sees and knows something that you and I don’t! Maybe he believes in us more than we believe in ourselves! Maybe God‘s trying to get it through your thick skull‘s, that success doesn’t depend on the one chosen… But on the one who does the choosing.
God said to Isaiah, “it’s too small a thing that I’ve called you to be a light to my people… I’m calling you to more, much more than that! I’m calling you to be a light to the nations… To the whole world!“
The fact is, a larger sense of “calling”… God‘s calling… is often missing in so much of what we see around us. We divide ourselves into groups, and denominations, into parties... and we focus most of our efforts inwardly. We see it everywhere... even in our homes, even in our families… as we focus on our four and no more.
But God is calling us to something greater… God is calling us beyond our own narrow, self-focused interests. God is calling us… you and me… to be “a light to the nations.” Like Isaiah, who felt like a failure… God‘s calling us to focus on what he’s called us to do, and not to worry so much about the results.
Of course, I can’t help but wonder… as Jesus hung on the cross, crying out in pain… I wonder if he felt like a failure? He quoted Psalm 22, “my God my God why have you forsaken me?“ I was kind of sounds like words of failure. I wonder if the thought crossed his mind that his labor had been for nothing… that it was in vain?
It must’ve seemed that way to his disciples. All of the effort… all of the ministry… all of the miracles… three years of hard work, down the tubes.
But it was certainly no failure! Jesus won for you and me the greatest victory of all. Christ became the faithful servant… And God glorified him because of his faithfulness. And now, God has entrusted you and me… and people just like us… the world over… with the task of simply being faithful.
God’s calling you, and me, to more. More than we are… more than we ever believed we could possibly be! And our labor, our efforts, our ministry… is never in vain. He’s calling us to be a light to the nations… A light that makes our world different.
And God is in the business of reminding us, time and again... that our success does not depend on us, the chosen. Our success depends on him, the One who does the choosing. Amen.