My wife mentions this semi-often. For her, it’s a combination of envy and consternation. The issue is vocation, “calling,” and it crops up in conversation between the two of us whenever someone asks me once again to tell my “call story” to be a minister or in case some other preacher—in the course of a sermon perhaps—tells her call story. “Must be nice to know for sure what God wants you to do in life,” she’ll say. “How come other people don’t get ‘called’ the way ministers do?” I always try to assure her that people are called—all people. Everyone who calls him- or herself a Christian should be able to tell a call story of some kind no matter what line of work they are in.
Fact is, though: in the church we don’t ask lawyers or mechanics or bus drivers to tell their call stories. We just ask clergy types.
That’s probably spiritually myopic on our parts but on the other hand, the Bible itself does tend to make a big deal out of call narratives. This Lectionary passage is by no means the only one in the Bible that conveys this same message but Jeremiah 1 is a lyric example of providence and the divine call in action. And it is a reminder to all Christians—and not just pastors or those called to high profile jobs in the church—that our God is a never-ending blur of activity who is constantly preparing people for various calls and, simultaneously but unbeknownst to the people involved, God is constantly equipping people for the call that will come.
How often isn’t it true that people end up getting called into a line of work they never before considered, that they never in their wildest dreams ever thought they would do, only to engage in that work and discover that God had been equipping them for years for a task they were not even aiming at! Most of the time in our lives providence is best recognized in retrospect. True, there are dramatic “Ah-Ha” moments that we all experience now and then, but in the ordinary run of our lives God’s work is quiet, behind the scenes, and unrecognized by us at the time as being the very work of God. “Ohhhh . . . now I understand why such-and-such happened to me fifteen years ago!” Or, “Now I understand why God had for so long made me so interested in Topic X in life: as it turns out, God was preparing me for this job all along!”
Such was Jeremiah’s surprise as this prophetic books opens. God calls to Jeremiah to tell him that the divine eye has been upon him not just from the very beginning of his life but from a time even before he was himself that proverbial gleam in his mother’s eye. God saw Jeremiah coming a long ways off. And God appointed him to be a prophet. This, of course, came as startling news to Jeremiah who, apparently, had not had any previous inkling that this could be his life’s work. Maybe it did not even sound that good to him, either. In any event, he starts to do what any number of divinely appointed figures in the Bible have done: he resists the call. He makes up an excuse.
“I’m too young. I’m not a public speaker. What could a child like me have to say anyway, and who’d listen even if I tried? No, no, Sovereign God, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
But God will have none of it. If you look closely at this text, however, what God then goes on to say could not have re-assured Jeremiah one bit. At first God says what you pretty much expect he would say: “You must go. You can’t disobey me. I will give you the words to say. I will be with you.” That all sounds fine. But then God adds one other phrase that must surely have caused Jeremiah’s heart to skip a beat even as a flutter went through his stomach: “I will rescue you.”
Um . . . God will rescue him . . . from what exactly? Rescue implies peril, danger. Needing to be rescued implies falling into an unpleasant situation. So if Jeremiah is going to need rescues as part of whatever it is God is calling him to, then this job proffer just got a lot worse!
God then goes on to say a bit more that may explain why rescue is going to be needed now and again: God has appointed Jeremiah to, among other things, “uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow.” Yes, yes, God then goes on to say he will get to “build and plant” as well but all this talk about uprooting and such occupies a lot more space in these words and appears to point forward to a prophetic ministry that is going to be as unpleasant for the people who hear God’s words through Jeremiah as it may prove to be for Jeremiah himself.
Yet this, apparently, is the ministry for which God had been equipping Jeremiah all along, whether Jeremiah knew it or not. This was the call God put on his life, and as with all whom God calls, Jeremiah would know no peace until he gave in and let God have his way with him.
Then again, as the rest of this book shows, giving in to this divine vocation did not give Jeremiah much peace, either! The course of his life and ministry would be every bit as harsh and difficult as God’s darker words in Jeremiah 1 intimate. All Jeremiah can do is what all of us who are called by God can do; viz., go forward in the firm belief that you have indeed been called by God and equipped by God for the work at hand and that God will stay true to his promise—made here to Jeremiah but made equally surely for all of us—“I am with you.” God promises to stay with his servants even across the hard times, even (or perhaps especially) through the hardships that come precisely because you are faithful to the calling God issued and the claims God made on your life.
Providence is, as noted above, often best recognized in retrospect. Only in looking back do we see how things fit together and then we are, often, astounded at how much work God was doing even when we were so very unaware of it. But we need to carry that sense of astonishment forward as well in the sense of knowing that even when our vocation lands us in situations from which we need rescue, even when the prophetic words we speak have the effect of uprooting and tearing down certain things (to the anger of some of our hearers) and so land us in hot water, the God who was so busy preparing us for this work when we were unawares has not stopped performing all that busy work even when the hard times come (as they most assuredly do for us all). In the throes of a crisis, we may be as unable to detect all of what God is up to as we were years earlier when God was quietly prepping us for the work to which he was planning to call us. But recalling that God is always at work in just such sure and steady ways can be a comfort in crisis: we are not alone. Rescue will come (one way or another). God is faithful and he will not let us go.
Such sentiments can too easily be made into the stuff of saccharine piety or overly sunny pronouncements that do not take due note of the genuine pain people are going through. Still, being assured of God’s ongoing presence and work in our lives as we exercise the work to which he called us is no small comfort. It sustained Jeremiah through all that came his way. And it can sustain us all.
Some while ago in the New York Times there was an article that was filled with a lot of eye-rolling sentiments about the glut of autobiographies that have flooded the market. Mostly these were the life stories of Hollywood celebrities and yet sometimes they were autobiographies of people who were not yet 17 years old. Or they were written by people who were in their 30s but whose only accomplishment so far in life is that they had married some famous billionaire or won first place in “America’s Got Talent.” Grand narratives like “The Life of Mahatma Gandhi” such books are not. The author of this critical article also noted that in a recent survey, something like 70% of the people who were asked thought their own life story was worth telling. To this author that statistic was still more evidence that modern people are altogether too full of themselves.
A week later, though, there was a highly insightful “Letter to the Editor” that picked up on this to say “This article claimed that 70% of people think their life story is worth telling. So that means that 30% think they have no story worth telling. How sad.”
This flipped the argument on its head, of course. And whether any or most of us should publish autobiographies, the fact is that every life, every person, every story is precious. God really does attend to every one of us. And in God’s eternal memory, the story of each person really does matter and is preserved.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 31, 2016
Jeremiah 1:4-10 Commentary