Trinity 13 - God's call to us

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Margaret Houston, 25 August 2013

Before you were formed in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.

In our children’s programmes, we explore stories through “wondering questions.”  These are questions with no right or wrong answer, designed to help us make meaning out of the events and symbols of the stories of the Bible.  Today, I’m going to begin with a few wondering questions about the story of Jeremiah – you can contemplate them silently, or share your thoughts with the person sitting next to you.  If you want to be very brave and say something out loud, that’s fine, but thoughtful silence is also all right.

I wonder what the most important part of the story is.

I wonder why God chose Jeremiah.

Unlike most of the prophets, Jeremiah’s story is very personal.  In the first chapter – where Isaiah and Ezekiel have long descriptions of visions – Jeremiah includes an autobiographical story, the story of his call to prophesy.  It begins with an assurance of God’s intimate knowledge of him, and God’s plan for his ministry.

Before you were formed in the womb, I knew you.  Later, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid, as God knows every hair on their head.  Before all the danger and conflict of Jeremiah’s life, there is that simple fact – God knows him, personally, intimately, from before he was born.  Very few people in our lives know us that well.  Parents may dote over every detail of their newborn baby, couples who have been together for years may know every scar and birthmark on their partner’s body, but to most people we encounter, particularly in as large and bustling a place as London, we are anonymous.  But God knows us before we were formed in the womb – whatever hard things he calls us to, whatever dangers and struggles we encounter, God knew us and loved us before we even came into being, and nothing can change that.

Before you were born, I consecrated you.  God has a plan for Jeremiah.  It’s a difficult plan – he is called, over and over, to speak out against what Walter Bruegemann calls “the ostentatious self-indulgence of the Davidic house in its trajectory of economic-military autonomy.”  In other words, he was called to speak unwelcome truth to power.  But if this purpose was chosen for him before he was born, why do we have today’s story?  Why did God appear to him and tell him about it?  Surely being chosen should be enough.  The fact that God appeared to Jeremiah to tell him about his plan for him – and engaged in dialogue with him about it – suggests that God’s plan for us is a living thing, for us to discern through a relationship with him, a relationship that can begin, as Jeremiah’s did, even in childhood.  The commentator Matthew Henry says of this passage that though the Lord “knows for what particular services and purposes he intended us,” for us to grow into that call, he still must “sanctify us by his new-creating Spirit.”  So our life’s plan is not a card God is holding close to his chest, waiting for us to figure it out – it is a process, grounded in relationship.

I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.  The first chapter of Isaiah is a lengthy diatribe against the wickedness of Israel, but here in the first chapter of Jeremiah, it is made clear that he is to be a prophet to the nations.  Plural.  Many preachers have pointed out that this is fulfilled in his later writings – his work is filled with visions of the downfall not just of Israel, but of Egypt, Gaza, Moab, Babylon, and many more.  God is involved not just with the Jewish people, but with the whole world, and Jeremiah’s call is not just as a prophet to Israel, but as a prophet to the nations.

Jeremiah responds:  Truly, Lord, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.  Time and time again, God calls on the young to speak or act for him – Miriam, David, Samuel, Jesus at age twelve in the temple – and many more.  Jesus comes out and says it, explicitly – to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you must become as a little child.  This can mean many things.  Children tend to be more imaginative than adults, they tend to have a very strict sense of what’s fair and what’s not, and they have a capacity for awe and wonder that brings them very close to God.  But the aspect of childhood that is on display here in Jeremiah is an awareness of weakness.  Even the safest, healthiest, most cared-for child is, compared to an adult, weak and powerless.  For God to so often prefer the weak and powerless, this aspect of childhood must have some importance to him.  Perhaps it is that awareness of weakness means awareness of what we cannot control, which in turn brings compassion.  If we’re all weak, then we’re all in this together, and we all need God, and we all need to help each other out when we can.  Jeremiah’s awareness of his own limitations is no bad thing, despite modern pop culture that tells us we all have to be the best and the trendiest and the most attractive and the coolest and the richest and the strongest.

God’s reply to Jeremiah is both reassuring and disturbing.

Do not be afraid, he says, for I am with you to deliver you.  He puts his hand on Jeremiah’s mouth and says, “now I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’”

Alphonetta Wines, a Methodist pastor in Texas, points out that four of those verbs are destructive. Pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow.  The last two, the restorative verbs, building and planting, come at the end.  Jeremiah’s call is to challenge the sins and excesses of the Kings and people who disobey God’s commandments, trampling the poor, cheating, stealing, killing, and worshiping status and riches over justice and mercy.  The destruction of this status quo – pulling it up, destroying it, overthrowing it – is, therefore, not necessarily a terrible warning, but a prophetic promise.  There will be destruction, but it is not wanton destruction – it is destruction that clears the land for the restoration of building and planting.  It is a creative destruction, and while it is painful, it is like the removal of a diseased organ – it heals the body as a whole.  There have been times in my own life like this – I won’t pretend I’m glad they happened, in fact, I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy – but as the preacher Leslie Weatherhead says, “I have learned more in the darkness of fear and failure than I ever have in the light.  There are such things as the treasures of darkness.”

So the story of God’s call to Jeremiah begins and ends with a promise – God knows and loves us intimately, and there will, at the end, be the new life of building and planting.  In between is Jeremiah’s awareness of his weakness, God’s difficult call to him, and terrible destruction.

I wonder what the most important part of the story is.

I wonder where you are in the story.

Holland Park Benefice