(a sermon for January 31, 2016, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Jeremiah 1:4-10)
The prophet Jeremiah, of whom we read in scripture this morning, is widely held by Biblical scholars as being one of the most outspoken of all the Old Testament prophets. He lived during the latter part of the seventh century and the first part of the sixth century B.C. during the time of King Josiah, and spent some 40 years warning God’s people that catastrophe would fall upon the nation because of their idolatry and sin. Actually, to say that Jeremiah “warned” Israel about these things is putting mildly; in truth of fact, as Frederick Beuchner has put it, “There is nothing in need of denunciation that Jeremiah didn’t denounce.”
He denounced the king, and even though he himself was the son of a priest, he denounced the clergy, along with all the people who frequented the temple: denouncing their morality, their politics, and especially their faithless practice of religion. As Beuchner describes it, Jeremiah stood “right at the very gates of the Temple [and] told them that if they thought God was impressed by all the mumbo-jumbo that went on in there, they ought to have their heads examined.” Needless to say, that didn’t go over well with the rank and file of the Temple, and Jeremiah got thrown into a pit for his trouble. But that only led him to speak God’s Word all the louder; and of course, his prophecies ended up coming true with the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and Israel’s exile to Babylon. And even then, at a time when the life of God’s people was at its lowest ebb, Jeremiah kept right on preaching, admonishing Israel to essentially “shape up” so to be ready for God’s promise to return his people from exile and to have their nation restored.
Jeremiah was a bold spokesman for God; which makes it all the more interesting that as we read this story this morning, Jeremiah wasn’t at all sure that he wanted the job at all! You see, Jeremiah was also what you might call a “reluctant” prophet. We’re told that “the word of the LORD came to [him],” but for Jeremiah, it was never so much a case of answering God’s call by saying, “Here I am, Lord,” as much as it was casting eyes heavenward and pleading, “Why me, Lord?!” And understand it’s not that the job is all that unappealing; it’s just that he doesn’t feel like he has the goods to do it! First thing out of Jeremiah’s mouth is, “Ah, Lord GOD!” (or as The Message translates it, “Hold it, Master God!”) “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy!” See, that’s the other piece of this: when this is happening, Jeremiah’s probably only around 17 years old (!); some biblical scholars suggest he might even have been as young as thirteen! So there’s some legitimacy to Jeremiah answering God with a certain amount of skepticism: “Hold on, God… I’m too young for this! I don’t know anything! Trust me, I’m definitely not the person you’re looking for!”
And we can understand that! I mean, how many of us – whether it’s a question of age, or inexperience, or simply the result of circumstance – have found ourselves thrust into situations in which we feel completely unqualified and wholly inadequate? I have to tell you that over the years as a church pastor, I’ve heard about this time and time again; particularly as it relates to things like, for instance, getting people to teach Sunday School! So many people in the pews who, at least in my estimation, would be great in that capacity, who would really bring something special to the kids in the congregation; but they’re terrified they don’t possess the skills or biblical insight to do it well! They’ll ask me questions like, “What if we’re reading Genesis, and some eight-year-old asks me, ‘If Adam and Eve were the first two people on earth, where did their son Cain find his wife?’ Or what if some smart-aleck teenager asks me about the virgin birth; what am I supposed to say to that?” (Actually, years ago one teacher told me she’d come up with the perfect all-purpose answer: “That’s a good question,” she’d say, “Why don’t you go ask Reverend Lowry?” and then move on very quickly to arts and crafts!) The fact is, whether it’s church or elsewhere, we’ve all been where Jeremiah was at the moment of God’s call: suddenly facing the prospect of something way beyond our capacity to fulfill; and that’s terrifying! When you’re in that kind of a situation, it’s far easier to shrink from the call than rise to the occasion!
Well, such was the case for Jeremiah; but the good news here, and indeed, the good news for our lives that God doesn’t take “no” for an answer! In fact, what we discover in this passage is that God is downright insistent upon Jeremiah taking on this huge responsibility; and in fact, so confident is God that Jeremiah is the “man for the job,” so to speak, that God had already chosen Jeremiah for this task from the time before he was born!
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God says, “and before you were born I consecrated you” (or as it’s translated elsewhere, “I set you apart.”). I have chosen you; I have appointed you: I have given you over to be “a prophet of the nations.” That’s my plan for you, and that’s how it’s always been! God always had a purpose for Jeremiah’s life; and the fact that Jeremiah’s feeling too young or too tongue-tied to do the job is basically irrelevant to the big picture; because God’s plan is already in motion! So even as Jeremiah’s emphatically pleading otherwise, God’s answering: don’t say you’re only a boy; don’t worry about how you’ll speak, or what you’ll say; don’t be afraid, because I’ll send you where you need to go and I’ll give you the words. Don’t worry, God says, “for I am with you to deliver you.” And then, Jeremiah (who, you might have noticed, tells this story in the first person) says that “the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth,” and says to him again, “Today, I appoint you over nations and over kingdom, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
It’s still a big job; no less overwhelming that it had been a few moments before; but now it’s different. Because friends, it’s kind of difficult to dwell upon one’s weakness and inadequacy when the hand of God is upon you! What we have in this story is the glorious truth that the depth and scope of God’s call on our lives is matched only by the extent of his presence; the sure and certain promise that whatever limitations we might think will hold us back, God’s hand is ever upon us as we move forward, leading and guiding our every step.
It’s pretty interesting when you think about it: here’s Jeremiah, who likely at this point in his life assumed that he’d be following in the footsteps of his father and becoming a priest in the temple; and yet what’s clear is that from the very beginning God had other plans for him: difficult plans, plans that would eventually set him against the priests in the temple, plans that quite literally “rocked the world” around Jeremiah, and on more than one occasion caused Jeremiah to wonder aloud what God could possibly be thinking, where it would all end!
In other words, it wouldn’t be the last time that Jeremiah asked, “Why me?” Of course, wondering “why” God would call is not unusual in scripture. Consider Moses, who was looking after his father in law’s sheep when he got the call to go to Pharaoh; or Gideon, who, we’re told, was threshing wheat; or Amos, who was cultivating fig trees; or, for that matter, what about Peter, James and John, who were fishermen; or Matthew, who worked as a tax collector “before” Jesus came along; or Paul, who’d made his living persecuting Jesus’ followers! Who would ever call these, of all people, to a new life, a new identity, a new purpose?
God… that’s who!
For you see – and here’s what I would submit to you as a central and undeniable truth of our faith – ours is a God who calls ordinary people to extraordinary lives. So many of us proceed from the assumption that special things are done only by special people; that the rest of us sort of live our lives and go along for the ride. But God says otherwise: God says that each one of us is special; that each of us has been chosen, set apart and appointed for some task or some purpose in his sight; that it’s right there before us, and that most of the time it’s only blindness and fear that holds us back from fulfilling that life for which God has called us.
Like Jeremiah, we too need to be reminded that we are infinitely more than what we say we are; but further, that we never walk alone on the journey toward fulfilling that purpose in our lives. We are, individually and collectively, consecrated, blessed, and led: as the 1st Epistle of Peter puts it, we are “a chosen race… God’s own people, in order that [we] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” And the wondrous part of it is that you never know just what kind of form that proclamation is going to take; what kind of ministry you and I have been appointed to do in and through our lives.
No, not all of us are called to be a prophet like Jeremiah, any more than all of us are called to be pastors of churches. But you might be called to be a teacher, to impart the lessons and might I add, the example of faith to our children and our youth; or you might be called to be a caregiver, bringing something of the comfort and love of the Lord to those who are sick, or shut-in, or elderly, or dispossessed, just by virtue of a kind word or a visit; or maybe you’re being called to be the kind of parent, the kind of spouse, the kind of employee (or co-worker), the kind of citizen for whom faith and love are the top priorities of any decision made. Or maybe – and don’t dismiss this too quickly, friends (!) – it could be that you are called to be a visionary; perhaps God, right at this moment, is turning your sight beyond the here and now to that which God wants to have unfold in your life, and how that applies to home and work, family and friends, and yes, also to the world around you. Perhaps you’re meant to be a prophet after all; hopefully minus Jeremiah’s tone of denunciation, but who knows!
The point is – and I’ve said this to you before, but it bears repeating – it’s that there’s not one person in this sanctuary today, or any sanctuary, that has not in some way or fashion been called by God! We are known by God, beloved, and we have been set apart by God for extraordinary things. Remember that simply by virtue of our baptism, beloved, each one of us is called to be God’s voice speaking his word of comfort and grace; to be God’s ears in hearing the cries of those who are hurting; so that we might be God’s hands in demonstrating God’s love as we reach out in care to one another. We are called to be the disciples of God’s son Jesus Christ; and that touches just about every “everyday” matter that there is in this life; making even the most casual of what we say and do a witness of God’s love for all people everywhere.
How that actually unfolds for us in this life; well, the prospects of such a thing can feel overwhelming at times, to the point where we might well gaze heavenward and say with a sigh, “Why me, O Lord… why me, of all people!” But when we are bold enough to answer that seemingly improbable call, we do so knowing that God is with us every step along the way, giving us what we need for the journey ahead; and moreover, instilling us with the all joy in believing as we go.
Think of it; you and me – of all people – strengthened and empowered to live life in accordance with God’s will and plan for us and for all God’s people. It’s a high calling, to be sure, and yes, oftentimes, a tall order; but it’s our calling, and we know it is because God has called us by name.
So may we have the courage to answer that call, and to live out that call with faithful and willing hearts; always and ever giving…
…thanks to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c, 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry