Preached @ The Well UMC Wichita, KS
September 24, 2013
“But I don’t know how to speak, I’m only a boy.” Hardly the words of a prophet, don’t you think? Apparently Jeremiah isn’t too excited about the spotlight. He’s a member of a family of priests. A respected part of Israel’s society, but nothing glamorous, far from a king. Even the word of the Lord can’t convince him, at least not on the first try.
Our text begins, “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying.” In other words, God’s talking, listen up. The words are comforting, especially for a prophetic book, they could be directly from the Psalms: “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.” They sound a lot like the most-marketed verse in Jeremiah, the one you and I know by heart, the one embroidered into countless throw pillows, and emblazoned on graduation cards: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11).
Isn’t that nice? The words wrap around you like the warmth of the sun, pool side on a beautiful summer day. Jeremiah is either averse to the sun or pools because he protests against this holy word, “but I’m just a boy, I can’t even talk good.” The irony is rich. The Lord just told Jeremiah that his identity had been known and set apart since before he was formed in the womb. But Jeremiah thinks the Lord isn’t quite sure how well developed his public speaking skills are?
Unfortunately for Jeremiah, his excuse doesn’t hold water. The Lord is no more convinced of Jeremiah’s excuse than any mother would be by her child’s protests about how her brother really was hitting himself.
Don’t say that, Jeremiah. You’ll go where I tell you and you’ll say what I command you to say. But don’t be scared, I’ll be with you to take care of you.
The clouds roll in, blocking the sun’s warmth and a cool north breeze begins to blow; this summer day just turned into fall.
In my Bible, this passage is labeled “Jeremiah’s Call.” Given that description, we might expect to read all about Jeremiah’s role in said call. Instead we get one measly phrase, “I’m just a boy, who can’t talk too good.” God is the star here, Jeremiah’s got a bit role, at best.
Did you hear all the verbs describing God’s action? God formed, knew, appointed, consecrated, said, will send, will command, will be with, touched, and appoints again. We get no word of Jeremiah’s response, he never assents to the role of prophet, and frankly, why should he?
The role of prophet wasn’t prized or glamorous. Kids in Israel didn’t grow up hoping to be a prophet. Prophets were a kind of divine check-and-balance system for God’s chosen people, Israel; think more IRS worker, less movie star. God chose the descendants of Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. But this privileged position came with responsibility: living out their side of the covenant, not chasing after other gods and such. This didn’t get off to such a great start. While Moses met with Yahweh on Mt. Sinai, the people at the foot of the mountain were building a golden calf in honor of another god, Baal.
Later, judges were appointed to lead the people, priests served in the tabernacle or temple, offering sacrifices, and life went on. One day, it just wasn’t enough. The Israelites looked at their national neighbors and decided all these nations had one thing Israel didn’t—never mind that the Lord had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, led them to the land he promised them, and continued to dwell with them—they wanted a king.
So, God appointed a king. A vicious cycle began, a king would rule over Israel, following the covenant for a while, but then the nation would settle into a rhythm, leaving God on the backburner. Sacrifices would be made to false gods and the people would trust in their earthly king, rather than their heavenly father. So, God would send a prophet to remind the people of their identity as God’s children, inviting them back into the covenant and warning them of the consequences of living outside the covenant. The reform would last for a while, but before long the wheels would fall off. There were exceptions to this pattern, but they were just that.
Prophets were those figures who told the king and people what they didn’t want to hear. For example, if the people had gone after other gods, the prophet might speak a word from the Lord: “You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness” (Jer. 3:2). Or, because of their straying from the Lord, God will allow other nations to plunder Israel and take her people into captivity.
Prophets weren’t the life of the party, probably not great at small talk. But they didn’t do it just for kicks, they served an integral role in the story God was telling, calling Israel back to covenant adherence and life with God, their redeemer. The role of the prophet was not about the prophet, but about God and Israel, keeping the covenant alive and the story ongoing. Prophets directed kings and Israel back to the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt and promised to be faithful to them.
This is the life to which God calls Jeremiah. Perhaps this is the root of Jeremiah’s reticence. Instead of a life of priestly duty behind the scenes, he will be a very public thorn in the side of any who seek to turn away from the Lord.
But the Lord overcomes Jeremiah’s perceived inadequacy. The Lord knows Jeremiah. More importantly, the Lord will be with Jeremiah. The Lord touched Jeremiah’s mouth and placed there the word he was to speak. A word that would not be for just the people of Israel, but for nations and kingdoms, for plucking up and pulling down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.
This touch by the Lord this close encounter with the Divine is no passing detail. Jacob wrestled with the Lord at the Jabbok and wore a limp for the rest of his life as a testament to the event. The same word “touch” is used to describe the wind that blew down the house of Job’s children, leaving only death and destruction in its wake (Job 1:13-22).
This touch will leave a bitter and hopeful word in Jeremiah’s mouth. Israel will be plucked up, uprooted from the land God had promised them and taken captive by a foreign king in a distant land. For seventy years they must remember their unfaithfulness in a land not their own. They must plant new vineyards, build houses, and marry, for the time will not be short.
But this isn’t the last word. It’s only in this context that Jeremiah 29:11 makes sense. Jeremiah speaks this word to a people who have lost everything: their home, land, and with it their identity. But God promises good to them, a future with hope. God has prepared Jeremiah for this word from the beginning. And Jeremiah could only deliver this word because of God’s grace and call.
God promised not only to tear down and uproot, but to build and to plant. Nothing can deter God’s hope and plans for Israel’s good future, not Israel’s unfaithfulness or Jeremiah’s youth. God called Israel just as God called Jeremiah: “they will be my people and I will be their God” (Jer. 24:7). God will bring them out of exile and re-plant them in the land they were promised.
Just by our presence here tonight, we’re professing that God is still acting, still calling. God called us out of our homes, offices, and yards, gathering us into his body. God has invited us into the story begun with his people Israel.
A one-to-one reading between Jeremiah and our own wouldn’t exactly be fair, but to deny God’s call would be to deny God’s existence. Our whole lives are lived in a dramatic call and response of creator and creature. When the word of God encounters us we are faced with the choice to settle for our kings and status quo or to join the story we were created to be characters in. We can live into our true identity, the identity God gives to us, or we can settle for the false identity, the story we try to tell ourselves.
So what is your call story? What story do you tell yourself to get out of God’s story? I’m not smart enough, attractive enough, not gifted enough, not wealthy enough. What false god has wooed you away from the God who brought you out of slavery to sin and death? Success, money, fame, the promise of escape from the doldrums of daily life?
By virtue of our baptism, we have been called, appointed, and equipped to carry the good news of the kingdom of God to all who would listen, and some who won’t. It’s not always a glamorous calling, but it is ours. So, whether you’re just a boy, just a girl, just a businessperson, just a teacher, just unemployed, just getting by, you have been known and appointed by God to carry this word of hope to a world in shambles.
Sometime after Jeremiah, another boy was born, a boy who was destined to bring down the powerful from their thrones and to lift up the lowly; a boy who would feed the hungry and set prisoners free. The Word of the Lord encountered us. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us (John 1:14). And it is by this boy that we have been brought into the fold, called children of God. This boy spoke the word of the Lord to a world who couldn’t hear it. He proclaims a new kingdom, where the goodness of God breaks through the corrupt kingdoms of this world and everyone is offered a seat at the table. And though he spoke the word of God, he was crucified by the powers that couldn’t handle the truth of this other kingdom. But on the third day he was raised and now we too can be confident in proclaiming this word.
We may not be prophets in Jeremiah’s sense of the word. But we have been called and set apart. Prophets pointed people to God through their words and actions. Saint might be a term we can relate to. Saints are those who have been called by God to follow and set apart by God for the task. They respond to the call and live it out wherever they are. Saints don’t draw attention to themselves, they are witnesses to a power greater than their own. A force great enough to overcome all their inadequacies, even death. The power of the Word, the Lord, who was with Jeremiah and Israel, continues to be faithful today. This, saints, is your call, witness to this Word and identity wherever you are.
These are the kind of saints the church needs†:
“We need saints without cassocks, without veils – we need saints with jeans and tennis shoes. We need saints that go to the movies that listen to music, that hang out with their friends. We need saints that place God in first place ahead of succeeding in any career. We need saints that look for time to pray every day and who know how to be in love with purity, chastity and all good things. We need saints – saints for the 21st century with, a spirituality, appropriate to our new time. We need saints that have a commitment to helping the poor and to make the needed social change. We need saints to live in the world, to sanctify the world and to not be afraid of living in the world by their presence in it. We need saints that drink Coca-Cola, that eat hot dogs, that surf the internet and that listen to their iPods. We need saints that love the Eucharist, that are not afraid or embarrassed to eat a pizza or drink a beer with their friends. We need saints who love the movies, dance, sports, theatre. We need saints that are open, sociable, normal, happy companions. We need saints who are in this world and who know how to enjoy the best in this world without being callous or mundane. We need saints.”
Don’t say, “I’m just ______.” You are those saints.
My good friend Taylor also preached on this text this weekend. You can find his sermon for this week and most weeks at Think and Let Think.