As encouraging and upbeat as Nehemiah 8 was for preachers last week, Jeremiah 1 is more than a bit intimidating and negative. Nehemiah 8 depicted a preacher’s dream: a willing congregation that invited Ezra to open the Word of God, visibly demonstrated their ready hearts, listened intently to the Word and its interpretation, and responded with the kind of heartfelt sorrow and joy that the Gospel should always produce. Jeremiah’s call to ministry was a preacher’s nightmare. His divinely given message of gloom and doom would arouse hostility and opposition so great that he would need God’s special protection throughout his long ministry.
Who would want a preaching ministry like that? I have colleagues who have been called to serve dying churches. Their mission is to help the church die with dignity and grace. That is a difficult ministry to perform; my hat is off to those who can be gracious shepherds through the valley of the shadow of a congregation’s death.
Jeremiah’s ministry was even more difficult. He was instructed to proclaim the negative Word of the Lord. God sent him to the nations “to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow.” We’re not talking here about a poor preacher who inadvertently kills a congregation by his boorish ways and terrible sermons. We are talking about a ministry designed by God, blessed by God, and protected by God, precisely so that the Word given by God would do those negative things.
Why in the world would we preach on a text like this, and especially in this season of Epiphany, when we’re supposed to focus the church’s attention on the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The call of Jeremiah to his ministry of judgment is almost an anti-Epiphany, a dark event in a dark time. Why would the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary choose Jeremiah 1:4-10 for the Old Testament reading on this Fourth Sunday of Epiphany?
If we read the Gospel reading for today (Luke 4:21-30) and the reading from the Psalms (71:1-6), the choice of the RCL becomes pretty obvious. There are many parallels between Jeremiah 1 and Luke’s account of Jesus’ first sermon in his home town of Nazareth. Both Jeremiah and Jesus (and the writer of Psalm 71) had been chosen by God before their birth. Both Jeremiah and Jesus were specifically called by God for their ministry, appointed and anointed to speak God’s word to a nation in turmoil. Both were appointed not only as a prophet to their own nation, but also as a prophet to the nations. And when Jesus focused on the work of God among the nations (the widow of Zarephath and the Syrian General Naaman), the affirmation and awe of Jesus’ home church was instantly transformed into a murderous rage. When Jesus revealed himself as a prophet like Jeremiah, his townspeople wanted to kill him.
Now that we see the Epiphany connections, let’s think about how we can preach on Jeremiah’s call so that God’s people will be blessed. The context of Jeremiah’s call gives us an initial point of contact with our day. The opening three verses of Jeremiah 1 tell us that Jeremiah was called to preach during a very difficult time in Israel’s history. He ministered during the last tumultuous days of Judah’s slide into captivity—from the days of good King Josiah who tried to reform an apostate nation, through the short miserable reigns of Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin, and to the end of the nation under Zedekiah, when “the people of Jerusalem went into exile.” For 40 years he spoke the Word of the Lord to the powers and the people who were headed to national and personal disaster, but didn’t know it. “Let those who have ears, hear the Word of the Lord.”
A ministry like that must be deeply rooted in God’s word. We can’t take on the powers that be and an apostate nation unless we are sure that we are speaking God’s own word, rather than our own personal opinion. Jeremiah (and Jesus) were sure. Jeremiah was not making a career choice when he undertook this ministry of hard words. No, he says, “the Word of the Lord came to me.” Throughout his ministry, Jeremiah was opposed by false prophets who spoke their own words of comfort and cheer to a nation that needed a hard Word from God.
Not only did Jeremiah know that God had called him to this ministry; he also knew that God had given him the specific words to speak. When he protested that he wasn’t up to being God’s mouthpiece (“I do not know how to speak; I am only a child”), God not only promised him protection and rescue, but also gave him the very words to speak. “Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth, and said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’” Unless we are sure that we are similarly called by God and are speaking the very Word of God, we will not be able to preach the message of Jeremiah or Jesus. We will choose the smooth and easy words of false prophets with their bright smiles, their immaculately coiffed hair and their unfailingly positive messages.
To go against the grain as Jeremiah and Jesus did, we will need a deep conviction that our ministry is of God. Note how God drove that message home throughout our text. Did you notice all the “I’s” spoken by God. “I formed you, I set you apart, I appointed you, I send you, I command you, I am with you and will rescue you, I have put my words, I appoint you over nations.” From beginning to catastrophic end, the ministry of Jeremiah and Jesus was from God. That’s an important word when our best and faithful work seems to bear no fruit. Success in worldly terms is not necessarily what God calls us to.
In fact, God specifically called Jeremiah to a ministry of failure, at least in the short term. “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” That is a message of doom and judgment; there’s no question about it. To preach about the coming judgment is part of faithful ministry, because there are times when that is the precisely the word God’s people need. Without that hard word, people will not be ready to hear the gospel word. Jeremiah had to be God’s voice to a people who had been hardened in sin and soothed by false prophets. Before the genuine Good News could be heard, God’s Bad News had to be spoken. So it is today.
But God’s ultimate purpose was to build and plant. Yes, sinful Israel had to be uprooted and torn down, destroyed and overthrown, but that was only because Israel would not listen to God at all. Once he got their attention through the Babylonian Exile, they might be ready for God to build what he had torn down and plant what had been uprooted. God doesn’t take any pleasure in the death of the wicked and in the destruction of all they had built. He wants us to turn and live. Jeremiah’s mission was to hammer home that message, so that when the disaster happened, they would know why, and repent.
That Israel did not turn and repent even when God began to build and plant is a testimony to the depth of human depravity. And that, of course, is why God finally sent his only Son to preach Good News to the nations. He came to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
That must, finally, be our message to a tumultuous and apostate nation and to a slumbering and sinful church. Yes, speak the hard word; that is the Word of the Lord. But never leave people with that negative message. Here’s where my ancestral ministers went wrong. They dwelt on sin and judgment so hard and so long that people never caught the joy of the Gospel. As important as judgment is, it must never be the only or last Word from God.
It’s all so complicated, isn’t it? Who would dare to preach like Jeremiah? Only those who know they are called by God and are convinced that God has given them his own Word. Living in an age that is becoming increasingly furious about the message of the Gospel, we need to hear God’s word to Jeremiah. “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.”
So, how can we preach on all this? Here’s one suggestion. In our current climate of post-modern relativism, the claims of religion are seen as nothing more than a particular culture’s story. “We all tell stories to create reality by the language we use.” Thus, all the claims of the Christian faith are seen as no more than “just your opinion.”
The words of God to Jeremiah and the other biblical prophets counter that post-modern claim. The Word of God is precisely that—not the story told by the Jewish or Christian faith community, but the actual Word of the Lord. Of course, we cannot prove that, but we can boldly preach that the Bible makes that claim from beginning to end.
In a world that is deeply skeptical about truth claims, we must preach the Word of God. How do we know of God’s existence and God’s thoughts and God’s actions? Well, says Jeremiah 1:4-10 (and the rest of sacred Scripture), God has called and appointed and equipped prophets to speak his word. This all happened in space and time (as indicated in those first 3 verses of Jeremiah), not in the never land of timeless myth. This is why the story of Jesus is located by Luke in a particular time and place. Jeremiah and Jesus were as real as we are. And God placed his Word in their mouth, so that they could reveal the will and way of the true God.
Again, you will not be able to prove this to the cultured despisers, but you should certainly preach it to your flock of believers.
The mission given to Jeremiah seems harsh to modern ears. We want to hear positive words on Sunday morning. But we have all experienced the importance of tearing down and destroying. My last church was located in an area of urban blight, where nothing but homeless folks and tumbleweeds occupied the streets. While we faithfully preached the importance of caring for these needy people, we also knew that ultimately their welfare and the prosperity of our city depended on urban renewal. So nearly 30 years ago, the city and numerous construction companies began the long process of tearing down and destroying. That was necessary, in order to build a better city for all its residents. We could not build and plant until there was a good deal of uprooting and overthrowing. Now the city bustles with business, entertainment, hospitality and art. The tumbleweeds are gone, and the homeless have much better dwellings and care than they did before urban renewal began.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 3, 2019
Jeremiah 1:4-10 Commentary