Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 21, 2022
Jeremiah 1:4-10 Commentary
It sometimes seems as though Jeremiah 1 means more to preachers than to average church-goers. There is something about this pre-natal call to ministry—not to mention the lyric image of God’s filling the prophet’s mouth with his Word—that strikes a chord for lots of us who preach. But since the church long ago began to recognize what is sometimes called “the priesthood of all believers,” teaching that we are all indwelt by the Holy Spirit and so we can all be authorized as witnesses to the gospel in fulfillment of the Great Commission, this is actually a passage for everyone in the church.
Because to a certain extent everyone can identify with the reticence that we see again and again in Scripture when it comes to being a herald of God’s Word. For Isaiah it was a claim of unclean lips. For Moses it was a claim of stuttering lips. For Jeremiah it was a claim of being but a callow youth, too young to be taken seriously or to be given such a large task. Again and again the people whom God taps for witness in the Bible express doubts as to their ability to do it. And again and again God tells them that such claims are beside the point in that God does not in any event typically tell these people that they had been chosen on account of their stellar native abilities to preach, teach, or prophesize.
It is as though one biblical figure after the next says, “I’m not qualified,” to which God then replies, “Who ever said you were!? I am well aware of your inability to do this work. It all depends on me in the first place and if I give you what you need, then you are going to be clean out of excuses for not doing what I myself am empowering you to do. The power is mine, the message is mine, and the instructions you receive all along the way will be mine. So let’s stop talking about you and start focusing on Me and then we’ll go from there!”
This God-centered focus is vital for everyone in the church to keep in mind (starting with pastors who can sometimes become altogether too enamored of their own abilities, gifts, etc.). But, of course, it is finally a profoundly good and hope-filled truth that it is all about God. Because even though those outside the church and the faith will not believe it or recognize it, we who are God’s servants and messengers can be so very glad that the messages we have to declare come from outside the narrow horizons and shrunken boundaries of this world.
Far too many people lead cramped lives, stuck with being satisfied with short-term goals and transient (at best) successes. If we limit our perceptions, hopes, and dreams to what seems possible within this fallen world, we’ll never get very far (and the odds of being disappointed even so are quite high). What we need is a message from beyond, a message from Someone who can see farther and realize possibilities that go well beyond what is typically feasible in a world where the rich rule, where people are vulnerable to shaky economies, and where might makes right as often as not.
We need a fresh Word from God, and that is just what God promises to give.
But we need also the power of God if we are to have any hope that the Word of the Lord will get through. Jeremiah’s commission was a particularly daunting one: his task would involve some building and planting but along the way it would involve first a whole lot of uprooting and tearing down and destroying. Whatever Good News Jeremiah would ultimately offer to those who listened to him would come only after lots and lots of bad news.
It’s really no different for us today. Resistance to God’s Word and to the truth of the gospel is everywhere. People who fancy themselves to be “self-made individuals” do not want to hear that they belong to God, that their much vaunted self-reliance and independence is a sham and a façade that covers over the fact that each creature is utterly dependent on God alone.
People who believe firmly and fiercely in the American Dream of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps don’t want to hear that salvation is a gift of sheer grace, the reception of which requires each person to acknowledge his or her total inability to get saving work done him- or herself. Jesus had to do it all because we could do nothing. People who believe that morality is whatever the majority agrees on and that even so each individual can to a large extent make up his or her own rules as he or she goes along don’t want to hear that there is such a thing as a created order with its own integrity and boundaries and that the human task is not to negotiate those boundaries but to accept them and then live lives of shalom within them.
God fills each of our mouths with his Word and with his truth, but our odds of getting all of that across to the world are not finally a whole lot better than they were for Jeremiah. Deep down we know that, we’re daunted by that, we’re frankly scared by that. And so we use it as an excuse to stay silent, to live and let live.
“I cannot do this” each of us is tempted to say. “I can’t challenge the powerful elites of this world, some of whom have a loud megaphone with which to proclaim counter gospels. I’ll never be successful in getting the attention of narcissistic Americans. The odds are too long. The task is too big. I’ll leave it to others. I am too small to make a difference for Christ.”
And so the Lord God comes to also us to say, as he did so long ago to Jeremiah, “Who ever said it was about you?”
Throughout much of her life actress Helen Hayes was regularly hailed as “The First Lady of the American Theater.” Clearly this was a lofty, flattering title. Ms. Hayes must have felt honored each time she heard it. Or maybe not. Because as it turns out, Ms. Hayes is the one who came up with that title for herself! She cooked it up, stuck it into a press release, and forever after journalists made use of this sobriquet (or nickname) whenever they wrote articles about Hayes. But really the same thing happens all the time. In our age of media hype it is not at all unusual for actors, athletes, and yes, even preachers to come up with their own sobriquets or designations.
Press releases from Christian publishing houses now regularly promote Rev. So-and-So by claiming he is “widely acclaimed as the most dramatic preacher of our times.” Or someone may be touted as “the most sought after speaker on today’s lecture circuit.” Years ago Newsweek magazine ran an article on contemporary preaching that included a list of the top twenty current American preachers. Within weeks you could not read the names of most of those twenty folks without immediately reading also the line “Recently named by Newsweek one of the most influential preachers in the country!”
But of course the sign of really having made it is not just having such a distinction attached to your name. No, the truly stratospheric are themselves the point of comparison. We used to hear that such-and-such a person was “The Michael Jordan of ________.” These days to make a name for yourself is seen by many as the equivalent of really making a life for yourself. It doesn’t get any better than making it big.
But Jeremiah 1 reminds us that for true heralds of God’s Word, for anyone who truly wishes to speak God’s truth to a world in desperate need of that truth, it’s not about making a name for yourself. It’s about moving yourself out of the way so that God may be all in all!
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!