Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 21, 2016
Jeremiah 1:4-10 Commentary
God doesn’t try to keep God’s truth to himself. God doesn’t make God’s adopted sons and daughters try to guess what God is thinking. God likes to speak. However, many of God’s experiences with speaking directly to people haven’t turned out very well.
The people at Sinai, for example, just couldn’t handle it. So when God spoke to Israel from Sinai a second time, God used Moses as God’s mouthpiece. Ever since, when God speaks, God generally speaks through very ordinary people.
Yet were I God, though I like teenagers a lot, I probably wouldn’t choose to speak through them. After all, when they talk, if they talk at all, it’s often about boys, girls, shopping, video games or cars. Teenagers like to say profound things like, “Dude.” Or “She’s hot” or “He’s cool.” Or “When do I have to be home?” Or “What’s for supper?”
The book of Jeremiah’s first spoken words, after its prequel, come not from a grizzled saint or a pimply teenager, but from God. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God tells Jeremiah in verse 5, “Before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.”
So God insists God didn’t just somehow form Jeremiah in his mother’s womb. Before there even was a Jeremiah, God also set him apart to be a prophet. While God told Jeremiah that God was calling him in about 637 BC, God insists that God actually “called” him long, long before then.
As a result, as one scholar notes, while we often call his prophecy the “Book of Jeremiah,” that may be a kind of misnomer. It isn’t, after all, a record of God’s prophet’s ideas. God begins this conversation. God’s words are also at the heart of this book. So we could call Jeremiah the “Book of God.”
Yet God doesn’t just give Jeremiah the gift of God’s words. God also gives him the job of speaking on God’s behalf to God’s people. That’s one reason why we, as one scholar notes, study the Scriptures so carefully. God’s people expect God to somehow speak to us through them, by the Holy Spirit. So you and I read the Bible lovingly and carefully because every verse of it is what Will Willimon calls “a potential summons from God.” We don’t just ask, “What do the Bible’s words mean?” but “What is God calling us to do through these words.”
Willimon compares our text to Genesis 1. He notes that, after all, where there was once nothing but darkness and chaos, God’s word somehow created something. In a similar way, where there is nothing but a young man, God creates a prophet. God, after all, loves to create light out of darkness, a world out of chaos and prophets out of people.
Yet when God’s prophet Jeremiah finally speaks, it’s a word of protest. In fact, when prophets speak, our first words are often protests. Yet while we may think they generally protest things like war and poverty, prophets’ protests are often first directed toward God.
“Ah, Sovereign,” Jeremiah responds to God’s call, “I do not know how to speak.” In fact, in verse 6 this one to whom God speaks refers to himself as a “child.” Yet the Hebrew word for it, naar, can refer to someone of any age between infancy and late adolescence. So Jeremiah could be anything from a kindergartner to a high school senior when God calls him to speak for the Lord.
So God could certainly find someone more naturally “qualified” to speak for the Lord. How could God expect a kindergartner, 7th grader or high school senior to speak eloquently on God’s behalf? For that matter, how could God call Moses to speak for God to the world’s most powerful ruler? He, after all, wasn’t good at public speaking.
But when you think about it, how could God call any of us to speak for the Lord? Some of the people whom we teach and to whom we preach haven’t even graduated from middle school yet. Even few adults consider themselves particularly good public speakers. And even if we’re able to speak in public, few of us would claim to enjoy it.
Yet even if we enjoy speaking well in public, how many of us know our Bibles well enough to speak authoritatively from and on it? You and I don’t understand everything about the God on whose behalf we speak. On top of that, our contemporaries treasure tolerance more than an authoritative word from anyone. “Ah, Sovereign Lord,” it all makes us want to say. “We aren’t very good at public speaking. Plus people will probably criticize us for speaking out. So please send someone else!”
Yet in the apostle Paul’s words, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong … so that no one may boast before him.” God almost always calls people who seem too young, too shy, too old, too immoral to speak for the Lord. Consider Samuel and David who were only boys when God called them. And consider the lowest of the low, Jesus of Nazareth on a cross.
Joe came home from Vietnam with just one leg and message: God had told him that the war was wrong. He added that God also told him that his church and town needed to change their minds about racial segregation. Since his church didn’t give him a chance to preach those messages, Joe communicated them in casual conversations. However, some of his fellow citizens assumed that they didn’t have to listen to Joe because the war gave him what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Our text reminds us that our calling to speak for God isn’t based on our suitability, mental or physical health, virtues or talents. It’s all about a God who’s willing to take a risk on us. It’s all about a God who not only calls us to speak and act, but also gives us everything we need to do so.
So in verse 7 God tells Jeremiah, “Say whatever I command you.” And in verse 8 God adds, “I am with you and will rescue you.” In other words, Jeremiah won’t have to work alone. God always stands by and equips those whom God calls to work for the Lord. What’s more, God doesn’t send Jeremiah to say what the prophet thinks about things. Only false prophets speak their own minds. God calls Jeremiah to say the words that God puts in the teenager’s mouth.
Yet that call can be very sobering. It may, after all, challenge us to speak about what’s happening in our world in very different terms than you and I usually assume. We, after all, generally think of world events in strictly political, military or economic terms.
But listen again to God’s call to Jeremiah in verse 10: “Today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and plant.” This radical message, of course, changes the whole history of the world. It suggests neither any kings nor any prophets can finally change what God announces.
Jeremiah’s message also means that God’s reign isn’t limited to Israel. God has authority over all the nations. So even countries that are hostile to the Lord are accountable to God for their actions. God will somehow move their history as God chooses. It’s God, after all, who finally uproots and tears down, who destroys and overthrows, who builds and plants. So no historical structure, national policy or defensive alliance can defend itself against God’s judgment.
What’s more, God also creates possibilities even when everything seems hopeless. God alone, God tells Jeremiah to tell the nations, has the power to somehow bring both endings and new beginnings in history. Postmodernity claims that human groups build and create reality by the language we use. Perhaps, then, in one sense, God is the ultimate post-modern, as Paul Raabe writes. God’s words, after all, genuinely create and build reality.
Thankfully, then, destruction isn’t God’s last word for Israel, you or me. In John 2:19 Jesus also uses the word “destroy” to refer to Jerusalem’s temple. However, we realize that Jesus is also referring to himself. He’s insisting that when people tear him down by crucifying him, God will “raise” him, build him again in three days.
In Lord’s Day 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed Christians profess that God has anointed God’s people to be “prophets.” God chose us, we profess there, to “confess his name.” God has singled us out to speak and act on God’s behalf.
How, then, is this story of God’s call to Jeremiah to be a prophet of both destruction and hope the story of those who start school again very soon? How does this story remind adults of our own call at home or work? What might God be calling you and me to speak out about in our neighborhoods, for or against?
A Texas high school track team had to postpone one of its meets to the following Saturday. That, however, was when one of its runners had planned to leave on a mission trip. When she told her coach about the conflict, he said, “Your teammates are counting on you. You can’t let them down.” When she went back to him the next day, he said, “You’re either here for the meet or you turn in your uniform.” So the athlete returned a third time, tearfully handed her coach her uniform and walked away.
Many of the other runners’ Christian parents supported the coach. So the former member of the track team stunned them when she told them, “This is about God.” But I wonder why they were so shocked.
One of their teenagers was choosing God and church over her track team. That’s the way her parents and church had raised her – to put God first in her life. Of course, she wasn’t standing up for racial justice or against a war. But, then, all prophets have to start somewhere.
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