A sermon for August 21 on Jeremiah 1:4-10
It happens time and again in the biblical story. A claim is placed on someone’s life, a calling is heard, and the first response is protest. Who me? Moses says he’s not much good as a public speaker, so how could he possibly go and speak to Pharaoh? Isaiah says his lips are unclean, and Ezekiel just falls flat on his face. In Luke’s telling, when Simon Peter first encounters Jesus, all he can say is “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And here in this evening’s reading we watch as Jeremiah responds to his prophetic calling by saying “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
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It is all quite understandable, of course, because heeding those callings meant taking up a life and vocation—whether as prophet, leader, or disciple—that was anything but a walk in the park. The call to do this thing was also a call to risk all. For Moses it meant going back and confronting the royal household in which he’d been raised. For prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, it meant speaking some very hard words into the life of their own people, their own community. For Ezekiel it meant having to deal with wild dreams and visions of a sort that in our day would get him locked up under a psychiatric order. As for Peter, he’d not only have to walk with his friend and teacher into the very jaws of death, but would himself pay for his discipleship with his life.
So they are understandable, these protests. I suppose, too, that I’d be a little nervous about someone who leapt too confidently in response to a call. “Sure me! I’m up to it, just watch me… thanks for the promotion Lord.” It is sometimes said when it is time for a diocese to elect a new bishop that the people most eager to be elected to that office are often the ones you least want in the job, while those who push against even being nominated could well be the best candidates of all. That might be a sweeping generalization, but do I think there’s some real truth in it.
So listen again to what Jeremiah is facing.
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
Before I formed you in the womb, before you were born—now that is a seriously deep call. “Jeremiah,” God is essentially saying, “I’m not making this up as I go. I’ve placed a claim on you, and you need to come on board.” And that claim is to be a prophet, to be one who tells forth some very hard and challenging words on God’s behalf. Prophets like Jeremiah are raised up to play a crucial role in the shaping of the nation’s life. Remember, we’re talking about a nation in which temple and palace—church and state, so to speak—shared a common mother tongue. The king was welcome in the temple, and the priests in the royal household. They told the same stories, shared the same religious practices, stood for the same faith… or at least they were supposed to. But time and again the royal household would become corrupt or one of the monarchs would begin to dabble in the religions of other nations. Sometimes, too, the temple and its priestly leaders had become merely a “religion” as opposed to a living covenantal faith intended to shape the nation in a path of justice, equity, and compassion for the outsider and the underdog. When palace or temple or both began to derail, the prophet was raised up to go and tell them the truth. No easy vocation, because kings and governments and religious institutions don’t much like being publically called out and upbraided.
“Ah, Lord God!” Jeremiah says, “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Can you blame him? I’m just a young man, this isn’t something I can possibly do. And in the three verses that come right before our reading—verses that basically just set the context of when this was all happening and who was king and so forth—Jeremiah is identified as “son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin.” He’s a clergy kid, in other words, and he stands in a priestly family. In all likelihood that meant he would in time inherit the priestly role, which was a heck of a lot safer and more comfortable than this business of being a prophet.
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Rather uncompromising, right? But then come those words that ring through so much of the bible.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.’
Do not be afraid. I am with you. And then Jeremiah has what can only be imagined as a mystical experience of God reaching out and touching his mouth, commissioning him “to pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow,” and only then “to build and to plant.” He’ll do all of that with words. He doesn’t pick up a sword, he doesn’t muster an army. He just insistently tells the people—tells the king and the priestly hierarchy and the average person on the street—that their world was rotting from the inside out, and that it was coming down. And then on the other side of Jerusalem’s destruction he will write to the exiles in Babylon, and sing to them imaginative and resilient songs of hope and new beginning; of planting and building.
It wasn’t easy for him, this work of speaking the truth into a society that preferred to clutch to its illusions. But Jeremiah had heard those words—Do not be afraid. I am with you—and he trusted them.
A few years ago in a sermon I told the story of my own calling into this priestly ministry, which was marked by a fairly extended period of “who me?” In all honesty it actually verged on “not me”, because I thought I already knew what my life’s work was going to be about. Not that my ministry has come with anything even close to the challenges and hardship of Jeremiah’s work, but I do understand that deep and fearful reticence. I also understand those crucial words: Do not be afraid. I am with you. Maybe now more than ever before.
Claims and callings are not, of course, limited to these properly “religious” things like ordained ministry or mission work. In fact, most times callings are embedded in the day to day of life. You look and you recognize that there’s something you should do, a need you should respond to or words that you think you should say, but to do it will pull you out of your comfort zone. It is the right thing to buy that homeless woman a bit of lunch. It’s the right thing to extend some hospitality to that neighbour who is looking so sad. It’s the right thing to take that foster child into your home. It’s the right thing to speak up when a work colleague keeps tossing off racist remarks. It’s the right thing to leave a job that’s killing you, even if the pension plan and benefits package makes it tempting to stay. You know it in your heart of hearts, but… “Ah, Lord God, truly I do not know how do it, for I am only a…” What? I’m too young, too old, too cautious, too busy, too settled, too fearful?
Then listen, and hear again those words spoken to Jeremiah and to so many others in the biblical story: Do not be afraid, I am with you. Trust those words, and heed the call.