Once in a while our students run into trouble explaining to friends exactly the kind of school they attend.
"It's Denver Seminary in Colorado."
What's the reaction? Sometimes people smile approvingly and exclaim, "Great! May God bless you in His service!" Sometimes they mutter, "How nice!" their attitude implying that, while they view the ministry as a respectable and genteel vocation, they consider it a bit peculiar, maybe something like being a mortician. Sometimes, with knotted brow, they ask, "Why have you decided to study in a cemetery?" (They are not playing with words; they honestly confuse seminary with cemetery.)
Preaching in midnight lands
If some of these persons are obviously interested, seminarians can ex plain that every believer is a minister, which simply means a "servant." They can also explain that every believer is ordained. But not every believer can testify, in the words of W. R H. Myers: "Mine to preach the Gospel in the mid night lands, Mine the mighty ordination of the nail-pierced Hands!"
Not every believer is ordained to preach the gospel in the midnight lands, but every believer is ordained with the mighty ordination of the nail-pierced hands. Seminarians likewise can explain that the overwhelming majority of believers carry on a tent-making ministry, supporting themselves by some secular vocation while avocationally they work and witness for their Lord. They can further explain that the Holy Spirit sovereignly endows gifts on certain believers and calls them into vocational Christian service, a calling that allows them to devote all their time and talent to propagandizing the gospel.
In addition, they can explain that, though they feel called into the vocational ministry, they do not regard themselves as belonging to a superior breed of believers. Perhaps they can quote Robert Browning, who said: "All service ranks the same with God." And they can explain, too, that God's sole demand is obedient faithfulness to His own sovereign will.
Today the woods are full of critics who view the vocational ministry just about as our children view a steam engine—a curious hangover from a bygone era. So l warn our students not to be surprised if they meet these self-appointed debunkers and find themselves undergoing a sharp cross-examination.
The critic may sneer, Why are you preparing for the vocational ministry? Of course you've got to do your own thing, but of all things, why this thing? You re mind me, they may continue, of what C. L. Sulzberger, who represented the New York Times around the globe, wrote in his autobiography A Long Row of Candles. "During my time a news paperman's life was splendid ... [but] today [it's] like becoming a blacksmith in 1919—still an honorable and skilled profession; but the horse is doomed." Don't you see, your self-appointed cross-examiner may go on, that you're literally betting on the wrong horse? Don't you realize that the institutional church is doomed? Aren't you aware that in the near future a religious professional will be like the blacksmith, a man with a training that has no market? And, the interrogator may persist, why qualify for a job that will soon be as archaic as buffalo hunting? In an urbanized society where the buffalo no longer roam, that's a strange way to make a living, and a rather useless way as well. But being a minister of Jesus Christ in a secularized world is just about as strange and just about as useful! Then why, this relent less critic may conclude, pour your life down an ecclesiastical rat hole?
Yes, I warn our students; one of these days, they may meet such a cynical debunker, which is why I caution them: Be braced to resist his attack, or else you, too, may be numbered among those spiritual casualties who have be come disobedient to the heavenly vision. In fact, for that reason, I keep emphasizing the greatness of vocational ministry. In my opinion, it is really the greatest job in the world. In spite of the critics and debunkers, I contend that, without any qualification, the vocational ministry is still the world's greatest job.
The greatest good
I am quite well aware that in so contending I expose myself to a sarcastic barrage from these very critics and debunkers of institutionalized Christianity. One critic comments: "Listen to this piece of Jesuitical pleading by an employee of a preacher-factory! "A second critic comments: "He's fighting hard to protect his own meal ticket." A third critic comments: "Maybe he's suffering from an inferiority complex; after all, in the mountain range of American higher education, a place like a theological seminary looms lower than a little hill of beans." Notwithstanding and nevertheless, it seems to me that every student engaged in preparation for Christian ministry has a right to appropriate personally Paul's boast in Romans 11:13, "I magnify mine office." Here, I submit, is a vocation that deserves to be magnified rather than diminished. Here is a calling that ought to fill those who get into it with gratitude and pride. Here is a task that cannot be overrated, the task of serving Jesus Christ vocationally, a task that is, I repeat, still the world's greatest job.
I am bigotedly of this opinion be cause, grounded in the greatest fact, the fact of Jesus Christ, the ministry of the gospel teaches the greatest truth, offers the greatest good, meets the greatest need, and holds out the greatest hope. What other job, then, can rival it?
What, for example, is the greatest truth? Is it the truth about fossil remains taught by the paleontologist? Is it the truth about urban problems taught by the sociologist? Is it the truth about human habits taught by the psychologist? No, valuable and vital as these truths may be, they are not the greatest truth of all. That truth, the greatest truth, is the truth taught by Scripture.
It is the truth set forth in two tremendous texts, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. And these texts are so tremendous that, if I had the authority, I would inscribe them on every library in our country, every laboratory, every legislative chamber, every lecture hall, and every living room. The Old Testament text comes from Jeremiah 9:23, 24: "Thus saith the Lord, let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise loving kindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD." The New Testament text comes from John 17:3: "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent."
Until we know this truth, the truth about God, we are ignorant indeed. Ignorant of this truth, we are ignorant about ourselves; we are ignorant about our own origin, purpose, identity, and destiny; we are ignorant about death; we are ignorant about eternity; we are ignorant about everything that finally matters.
When we are ignorant about God, we are in the predicament Paul laments, "Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:7). Without the truth about God, our haunting questions remain unanswered despite the knowledge explosion. Thus journalist Max Lerner, in his essay "The Revolutionary Frame of Our Time," wrote some years ago that young people are plagued and perplexed by all sorts of questions: "There is the question of emergence: What kind of personality can I shape, in what kind of possible society? There is the question of access: Am I helping give others a chance at life, chances equal to my own? There are questions of self-hood: Who am I? What are my threads of connection with my family, my community, my country, my fellow human beings? There are questions of transcendence: do I dare make the journey into the interior, which is the most dangerous journey of all? Do I dare face tragedy without being destroyed by it? There are questions of commitment: do I have work I care about? Am I capable of play, of giving and receiving love, of taking risks for goals I value? Can I explore the depths and heights of joyousness? Finally, there is the question of nexus: Does my society have in it the stuff of cohesiveness? Do I have a sense of human connection, in the sure knowledge that what happens to others happens thereby also to me?"
These are still profound questions. Yet in this long list Max Lerner never once raised the question without which no other basic question can be an swered—and that is the question about God. Does He exist? Is He for real? What is He like? Where do you find Him? How can I know Him? Any man who ignores these questions is hopelessly ignorant about himself and reality. No wonder, then, that Jesus declares "I am the truth."
But who teaches this truth, which saves every other truth from degenerating into fragmented nonsense? Who teaches it in season and out of season? The Christian who carries on the ministry of the gospel! That's why I magnify this calling and insist that it is still the world's greatest job.
Furthermore, the vocational ministry offers the greatest good. And what is really the greatest of all goods? Is it health? Is it contentment? Is it freedom? Is it justice? Is it culture? Is it beauty? Is it pleasure? Is it friendship? Is it success? Is it power? Beyond debate these are all great values, each in itself a prized and precious good. But the greatest good is to know God through Jesus Christ. The greatest good is to enjoy God's favor.
The greatest good is to experience God's forgiveness. The greatest good is to enter into God's fellowship. What a pauper a person will be forever and ever if she gains all the other goods under the sun and yet forfeits the supreme good of eternal life with God which comes alone by faith in Jesus Christ. And it is necessary for me to assert the question, Who offers this greatest good to poor, penniless paupers as well as to advantaged, affluent paupers? It is the Christian who, as missionary or pastor or educator or chaplain or evangelist, carries on the ministry of the gospel. And that is why I insist that this job is the greatest in the world.
Not only that: This job is still the world's greatest job because it meets the greatest need. All too obviously people everywhere have appalling needs, needs so desperate and urgent that they stagger our minds and ought to break our hearts. People are starving; they need bread. People are illiterate; they need education. People are oppressed; they need freedom. What inexpressibly great needs these are! But the greatest need of all is the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. For Jesus Christ alone can give pardon in place of guilt, comfort in place of sorrow, companionship in place of loneliness, love in place of hate, hope in place of despair, life in place of death, everlasting joy in place of eternal judgment. Jesus Christ does not give these blessings, however, by some kind of supernatural special-delivery. He meets human needs through the ministry of His disciples and, more often than not, through someone in ministry. That is why I insist it is the world's greatest job.
I have alluded to the hope that Jesus gives, for apart from His gospel, man's experience ends in bleakest pessimism and darkest gloom. Napoleon dreamed of global conquests and died in exile crying: "Great men are meteors that consume themselves to light the earth. This is my burnt-out hour." Goethe at 75 contemplated the honors that had been heaped upon him and re pined, "My existence has been nothing but pain and burden, the perpetual rolling of a stone that must be raised up again forever." The poet Byron, while Europe admired his genius, confessed:
My days are in the yellow leaf,
The flowers and fruits of love are gone,
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone.
Disraeli philosophized, "Youth is a blunder, manhood a struggle, old age a regret!" Captain Robert Scott found himself frustrated in his attempt to reach the South Pole and wrote in his diary, "Good-bye to our day-dreams." Malcolm Muggeridge, dean of British columnists, one-time editor of Punch, the famous humor magazine, sat back at age 66 and ridiculed his youthful idealism, denouncing "the liberal dream on which Western man has largely subsisted when he was not waging ferocious war—which was most of the time, during the half century or so that I, as a journalist, have been keeping watch, if not over him, then over the six or seven newspapers, the two or three periodicals, the radio and television channels that record his doings, attitudes, and intentions. To me, I confess, the dream is a nightmare. I can't believe in it, and like Cortez, stare with a wild surmise at those who do. If I project the dream into the future there seems no outcome; only an infinitely extended projection that at last disappears into gray nothingness— our economy expanding year by year, to double, treble, quadruple, and installment indebtedness rising correspondingly; color television, three-dimension, on a large screen, on a still larger screen; more and more motorcars; wider and wider roads; faster and faster airplanes, supersonic, super-supersonic, with louder and louder bangs; anti-missiles, anti-anti-missiles, anti-anti-anti-missiles, and so on ad infinitum."
The greatest job!
Hope in this world, then, where is it? Hope for this world, where is it? Hope beyond this world, where is it? The world's only hope is in Jesus Christ, and He is the greatest hope. The world's only hope is in Jesus Christ, our God who has promised to make a second personal appearance on the stage of history, bringing human tragedy to a glorious consummation. Our only hope is in Jesus Christ, who, as Clement of Alexandria so beautifully put it, "turns all our sunsets into dawns."
Consequently, the disciples who introduce people to their Master are engaged in the world's greatest job. They are bringing wanderers hopelessly lost in tangled jungles of a hapless world to the world's only hope, Jesus Christ.
That's why I'm bigotedly convinced that the vocational ministry of the gospel cannot be overrated. That's why I magnify the calling into which God has called myself and our students. That's why I never cease to marvel at the grace of our Lord and Savior, our Master who has entrusted us with the supreme mes sage and mission.
In Shakespeare's King Lear, the banished Duke of Kent returns in disguise and offers, no matter what the difficulty and danger, to follow the king. This dialogue then takes place:
Lear: What wouldest thou?
Lear: Whom wouldest thou serve?
Lear: Dost thou know me, fellow?
Kent: No, sir, but you have that in your countenance which I would fain call Master.
I constantly remind our students that we have seen the face of Jesus Christ and called Him Master. So my challenge to them is this: May we steadfastly refuse to step down from the high level of His service to take any lesser task. To all secular critics and callings may we respond as Nehemiah did to his tempting enemies, "I am doing a great work so that I cannot come down."