Sermon audio here.
The doctrine of vocation is a wonderful and most comforting teaching of God’s Word. Through our vocations, God provides for us through physical means, as He does in the Sacraments.
And yet, God’s provision in vocation and Sacraments takes place through different means and for different purposes. In the Sacraments, Christ provides for our spiritual needs, giving us salvation and the forgiveness of sins though the physical means of water, bread, and wine.
In vocation, Christ provides for our physical and emotional needs, giving us food, clothing, shelter, friendship, and the like by means of your neighbor. God could nurse babies himself if He wanted to, but instead He does this through mothers. God provides for the baby through the vocation of parent.
In this way, we see that God’s love is always Incarnate, whether it’s in the Bread and Flesh of Christ in the Sacrament, or in the mother’s love for her child. Christian spirituality is profoundly tangible, as we see in the Sacraments and in vocation.
Granted, most people wouldn’t consider cleaning up their child’s barf at 3am a spiritual experience, but you’d be hard pressed to find a holier work in God’s eyes. Our vocational duties aren’t always pleasant, but we can nevertheless rejoice that Christ uses them to provide for His creation.
This is what gives our work true significance. Vocation isn’t really about what we do, but about what God does, both for us through our neighbor and for our neighbor through us. Work that seems to be mundane, non-spiritual, and even unpleasant, is the holy work of God.
Imagine how unpleasant it would be to lay your baby in an animal’s feeding trough. That’s not something the Blessed Virgin or our Lord had to imagine. God gets His hands dirty when He does His work, even as He did when He formed Adam from the dust of the earth.[i]
And this is why the account of the patriarchs is filled with what, at first glance, might seem like inconsequential detail. We see Isaac planting seed, Lot’s wife milking the cows, and servants carrying hay.
Though these works don’t seem particularly holy, God nevertheless praises them. It wasn’t beneath His dignity to have these seemingly unimportant details recorded in His book. They are, in fact, a picture of the life of faith.[ii]
The vocations to which God calls us are good, but we often find ourselves dissatisfied with them. I wasn’t particularly fond of my vocation as student in junior high, and I’m pretty sure at least part of my pastoral formation took place in the very bowels of hell.
But that’s okay, because like gold, Christians are refined as through fire. The worst temptation is no temptation.[iii] Take a life of ease and prosperity, add a little pride, and you’ve got yourself a perfect recipe for atheism.
Scripture constantly maintains this point, that even suffering is a gift from God. Faith, like the body, is strengthened through testing. After a particularly difficult struggle, God told St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And so the apostle concluded,
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.[iv]
The widow in today’s Holy Gospel was no stranger to suffering. First her husband died, and then her only child, a son. If she didn’t welcome the vocation of widowhood, she certainly didn’t welcome the vocation of childless mother.
But God never messes up and accidentally calls you to the wrong vocation. The will of God is always best, even if it’s not always pleasant. Who wants the vocation of Sacrificial Lamb? And yet, it’s a vocation that Christ fulfilled joyfully, Who, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame.[v]
But even those vocations we resist, when seen through the eyes of faith, can be a wonderful comfort. They represent the new ways God is providing for you and using you to serve your neighbor. Everyone has the ability to serve their neighbor, regardless of age or health—from cradle to the grave, from the infant to the person on life support.
Vocation isn’t always about doing. Sometimes the holiest thing you can do is let someone serve you. This is the service babies provide their parents, the elderly provide to their children, and the hospital patient provides to their doctors and family. And if you’re able to pray for someone, what better help could you give them?[vi] Even the mightiest ruler with all the kingdoms of the world couldn’t provide a greater, godlier service.
And what’s more, letting God serve you is what the Divine Service is all about. There is no higher form of worship, no greater good work, than to passively receive God’s gifts. If the dead can sit up when Jesus speaks, certainly anyone with a pulse can benefit from the Divine Service.
Vocation is about God providing. It’s His work, even though He uses us and others to do it. We get into trouble when we focus less on the God providing part and more on our role in the process. This is what happens when we forget that even our lives belong to God.
You have been purchased, which means you do not belong to yourself. Nothing you have is your own to do with as you wish. You are Christ’s blood-bought Bride; you are His. And what a blessed thing that is!
So we should keep a few things in mind: 1) everything belongs to God. 2) we don’t deserve any of it. He gave us paradise and not even that was good enough for us; and 3) He loves us, redeems us, and provides for us anyway, even though what we deserve is temporal and eternal punishment.
Now God would’ve continued to provide for the widow of Nain had He not chosen to raise her son from the dead and He would’ve still given her the opportunity to serve others.
But when things change so dramatically and life is turned upside-down like hers was for a time, we worry and despair. We want to serve particular people in particular ways. Undoubtedly, this widow wanted to serve her husband and son by being a faithful wife and mother, and now she was looking at a life of poverty.
It would be easy to blame this woman’s troubles on her new vocation or financial status, but that would be a cop-out. The problem is always unbelief. When we worry, it’s because we don’t trust that God will provide for our needs. It’s not that God doesn’t provide; it’s that He doesn’t always provide what we want in the way we want it.
What God does or doesn’t give would never be a problem if only we had faith. Then, no matter what, we could say with Job, the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away: blessed be the Name of the Lord.[vii] How remarkable that Job was able to speak those words not only after losing all of his possessions—which would have been bad enough—but after the tragic death of all his children!
Faith receives everything from God’s hand with thanksgiving. Faith rejoices in the fact that God continues to give life, even if it’s not the life we wanted. Faith rejoices in the fact that while our loved ones may no longer be with us, they are with Christ in Paradise. This is why the Psalm says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”[viii]
Death is our enemy, but it’s also gain.[ix] Not a single tear ever shed at a Christian funeral has ever been for the deceased. We are right to mourn, but those tears represent our pain, not that of the faithful departed. Theirs is no more and never will be again. We can take comfort and even rejoice in the fact that they are with Christ in Paradise, where, one day, we will join them.
If anyone has the right to mourn at funerals, it’s Christ. Our loved ones were His long before they we ever ours. And as much as we love them, Jesus loves them even more. He not only made them, He suffered and died to redeem them.
We get into trouble when we start getting possessive, forgetting that our vocations are an undeserved gift and that our loved ones belong, first of all, to our Father in heaven.
Sin makes us a possessive people. Instead of rejoice in what God gives, however much or little, we resent not being given more. This is to forget that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and that we are but managers.[x] Instead of thank God for the relationships He gives, we resent not being able to hold onto them longer, even though it’s gain for those He’s called to Paradise.
Like the widow, our Heavenly Father knows what like to lose a Son. And as terrible as the cross was, it is the reason we can rejoice, even in the midst of terrible things like death. Christ is risen. Death has lost its sting.[xi]
This is why St. John can write, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”[xii] As the gateway to eternal life, there is no more blessed vocation in the Christian life than death.
Now it’s true that our Lord raised up the widow’s son and gave him back to his mother. But to focus on the fact that she got him back is to miss the point. Sometimes we get so caught up in the miracle we completely miss its meaning.
I’ve been guilty of this. I can remember looking at this text from Luke 7 in my undergrad days at Concordia, River Forest. I remember sitting there, resenting my parents for not being Palestinian and giving birth to me 2,000 years ago. Then I would have been alive at the time of Jesus and He could have done awesome miracles for me, too.
I was, of course, completely missing the point. I was so caught up in the miracle I couldn’t see its meaning. And that is, of course, that Jesus is the First and the Last, the Living One who died but now lives forever, who holds in His hand the keys of Death and Hades.
If we believe this, we will not worry or despair, resenting Christ for what He does or doesn’t give, but rejoice in all of the good things He does give, whether it’s the blessed vocations into which He calls us now, the temporal gifts He gives us to manage, or the gift of eternal life with Him in Paradise.
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] Luke 2:16; Genesis 2:7
[ii] Luther (AE 2:349–350). See further Alms, “Sacraments and Vocation in Luther,” (CTQ Vol. 80, No. 1–2, 14).
[iii] Cf. AE 51:24.
[iv] Romans 5:3; 2 Corinthians 12:9
[v] Hebrews 12:2
[vi] Cf. Giertz, To Live with Christ, 612.
[vii] Job 1:21
[viii] Psalm 116:15
[ix] Philippians 1:21
[x] Psalm 24:1
[xi] 1 Corinthians 15:20; 55
[xii] Revelation 14:12