Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 25, 2019
Jeremiah 1:4-10 Commentary
Sometimes it feels as though the Lectionary has a mild case of Alzheimer’s, because it seems to forget that we just talked about a certain text, just a few months ago. Now here it is again in the cycle of readings.
That’s the case on this Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, deep in the heart of Ordinary Time. Exactly 8 months ago on January 28, Jeremiah 1:4-10 was the reading for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany. In my comments on this text then, I focused on the parallels between Jeremiah and Jesus in order to make the Epiphany connection. I refer you to those comments, which still seem legitimate and helpful.
The only new thing that I can offer today is my effort to connect this famous text to Ordinary Time. Thus, I will focus less on Jesus’ Epiphany and more on the Christian’s walk with Christ in ordinary time. The overall message is that walking with Christ can sometimes be very challenging, as it was for Jeremiah.
In fact, my preaching angle into this text is to suggest that we put ourselves in the place of Jeremiah. What God says to Jeremiah here is exactly what God says to us as we walk with Christ. I mean that, like Jeremiah, we are all called to be prophets (as well as priests and kings). I’m referring, of course, to the famous three fold office of the believer that is so central to my theological tradition.
I was raised on the Heidelberg Catechism, which explains that the title “Christ” refers to the fact that Jesus was anointed into and fulfilled the Old Testament offices of prophet, priest and king. Then the Catechism asks, “Why are you called a Christian?” Here’s the answer. “Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus a partaker of his anointing, that I may confess his Name, present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him, and with a free and good conscience fight against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with him eternally over all creatures.” (Q and A 31 and 32) Like Christ, we are called to be prophets, priests, and kings.
As we struggle with our calling to be prophets and confess his name in the church and the world, God’s words to Jeremiah are a deep encouragement for prophets living through troubled times. The superscription of Jeremiah is not part of our reading, but it is crucial to understanding the whole book. Jeremiah had to prophesy through the last 40 years of the kingdom of Judah, a time with an ever-changing political scene, a declining spiritual and moral climate, and an increasingly challenging international environment.
Are we in the last days of our own country? It depends on which country you live in and where you stand on the political spectrum in your country. In America, you will probably answer yes to that question if you are a left wing Democrat. If you are a right wing Republican, you will probably answer that our country is only “getting great again.” But no matter how red or blue you are, everyone agrees that we live in troubled times that desperately need to hear a word from the Lord.
In our text we hear the word of the Lord for a troubled, reluctant, intimidated prophet. God’s first word to him and us immediately introduces us to the eternal plan of God that transcends our troubled times. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart. I appointed you as a prophet….” That is election language. The word “knew” really means “chose,” as in Amos 3:2. God chose and appointed Jeremiah to his work of prophecy before he was born, indeed, before he existed in any form.
Now, a careful reading of this text reveals that God is talking about election not unto salvation, but unto service, in the same way that Jesus spoke to his disciples in John 15:16. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit….” In other texts, of course, we do hear about election unto salvation (Ephesians 1:4-7). But don’t use this text to argue about the fine points of election.
Use it, as God does here, to bolster and reassure his prophet. The message is that the rock group Kansas was wrong when they sang, “All we are is dust in the wind.” No, we are God’s beloved children firmly anchored in his sovereign love. And we are not masters of our own fate who have to make our own way in the world; we are messengers on a mission from the eternal God. We belong to him from all eternity and to all eternity, and that makes us victors in hard times, not victims of hard times.
But often we feel helpless, like victims. So we say with Jeremiah, I’m not up to the task being a prophet. “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” God replies that it’s not about us; it’s about God. From Abraham and Sarah to the Virgin Mary and the Apostle Paul, God’s people have always found, to their surprise, that with God nothing is impossible.
So to a verbally challenged priest (verse 1) called to be a prophet, God reinforces the call to speak. “You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you to say.” And I will give you the words to say. “Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’”
Further, to a timid youth, an awkward teenager who couldn’t imagine speaking for God to his elders and superiors, God says what he always says to his overwhelmed people. “Do not be afraid.” Then he adds what is perhaps the quintessential covenant promise, a promise that contains all other divine promises. “I am with you.” It’s the very promise that Jesus gave his disciples when he commanded them to go into all the world to make disciples of all nations. “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” So, do not be intimidated into silence by opposition from the left or the right, from atheists or Muslims, from family and enemies.
That Great Commission reminds us that, like Jeremiah, we are called to be prophets “to the nations.” The prophecy of Jeremiah is addressed first of all to his own nation, which at least formally acknowledged the sovereignty of Yahweh. But it also includes the nations around Israel, including the very one that would take Judah into exile. The word of God is not only for those who believe in the one true God. It is also and, in these New Testament times, specifically for those who do not believe.
But what a message Jeremiah had to bring. Christian prophets are commissioned to speak “everything [Jesus] commanded you.” Everything—not just the good news of salvation, but also the bad news of judgment. That’s exactly what Jeremiah was commanded to speak. God sent him to the nations, beginning with his own, with the command to “uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” No wonder Jeremiah was seen as an unnecessarily pessimistic prophet by the smiling, upbeat prophets of his time.
Is that part of our prophetic task as well? Are we really called to speak to the nations? Most Christians take the Great Commission as more individually oriented. To make disciples of “all nations” mean to convert the individual members of nations, not to speak God’s judgment to the nations themselves as political entities. Aren’t we are supposed to call sinners to be saved? Are we really supposed to announce to nations that they are doomed? That was certainly Jeremiah’s commission. Is this text a reminder to Christians that our calling as prophets has a larger, corporate dimension?
But that raises questions about negativity. In a day when Christians are already dismissed because we seem to be against so many things, do we undercut the message of the Gospel if we speak words of judgment on the policies and practices of a nation, as Jeremiah did? Was Jeremiah’s calling unique to him in that particular time and place? In this New Testament time, living in nations that are not theocracies, should we limit our prophetic work to speaking only the Good News of Jesus death and resurrection only to individuals? Should we ignore the divine command to “uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow,” and focus only on building and planting?
I suspect that folks on all side of the political spectrum and in all theological camps would answer my last question with a firm “no.” On the right, people feel compelled by God’s truth to oppose things like abortion and gay marriage. On the left, people feel equally compelled by God’s truth to oppose discrimination against people on the basis of race or gender. Liberals feel they must, for God’s sake, protest the policies of President Trump, while conservatives think his defense of some Christian causes calls for support of the President.
Jeremiah’s call to prophesy to the nations includes an important corrective to our prophetic work. We must be very sure that our prophetic words are actually the words of God, not just our own party line or theological leaning. “Now I have put my words in your mouth,” said God to Jeremiah. Only those words will do God’s work of uprooting and overthrowing that will lead to building and planting. Otherwise, we will tear down and destroy for the sake of our own ideology.
That leads me to point out one more corrective in God’s call of Jeremiah. Note that God’s final words to Jeremiah in our text are “to build and to plant.” There is a place for uprooting and tearing down, but God ultimate purpose is to build and plant. He sent an utterly recalcitrant Israel into Exile, uprooting and destroying just as he threatened. But he also brought a considerably chastened, though still sinful Israel back to the Promised Land. The last word of God is not death but life, not punishment, but salvation, not judgment, but Jesus. Now, we must be careful not to become prophets who only say “what their itching ears want to hear (II Timothy 4:3 and 4).” But we must always conclude any words of condemnation and judgment with words of consolation and grace.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:16, 17).”
For years I have been blessed to be in a book group with ministers whose theological leanings might not always be my own. Recently, we read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards, which presents a “spirituality for the two halves of life.” He says that the second half of life, the mature phase of life, is more open, accepting, affirming than the first, in which we necessarily build boundaries in order to establish a firm identity.
That led to a discussion in which some ministers spoke passionately about people who have left the church because “the church seems only to be against things.” To formerly evangelical college students and to disappointed feminists and to wounded gays and to incarcerated black men, it seems that the church is only negative. Such folks, suggested some of my friends, might find Rohr’s version of a broader, more inclusive Christianity to be exactly what they need.
Maybe so, said others, but we do need to remember that salvation is only in Christ (John 3:16). And, as God said to Jeremiah, sometimes there must be some uprooting and destroying before there can be any building and planting.
Complicated, isn’t it? No wonder God said to Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid of them (whoever they may be), for I am with you and will rescue you.”
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