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Jeremiah 1:4-10


Humorist Garrison Keillor once told the story of how God called him to become a prophet. Keillor explains that once when he was a boy, it snowed on the fourth of July and God wanted him to tell people about it because many in his town offered alternative explanations for the event. He writes,

A snow flurry hit Lake Wobegon on the Fourth of July when I was a boy, but if you talk to anybody, including my family who was at the Volunteer Fire Department Bean Feed that day in 1951 on the Fourth of July, they will tell you that was fluff from the cottonwood trees that came down.[1]

Before we wrestle with Jeremiah’s prophetic call it is worth retracing our steps over this season of Epiphanies. We have faithfully picked up the clues that the have been laid down for us. Our eyes have been opened, to the truth that the child born in Bethlehem in such a modest estate is really God’s only begotten Son. “The gospel stories of this season describe various events that manifest the divinity of Jesus.”[2] The kingmakers from the east have come bearing gifts. The heavens have opened at Jesus baptism with a voice declaring him to be God’s beloved Son. The water has been miraculously changed to wine at the wedding feast of Cana. The prophecy of Isaiah promising release to captives and the Lord’s favor has been fulfilled in the hearing of those in Jesus hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Epiphany has lulled us into believing that divine manifestations in Jesus mean gifts given, sacred affirmation, miracles done, and divine favor well received. As happens so often when we become enamored with the wonder and goodness of God, troubles that test our resolve and trials that confront the true state of our souls are right around the corner.

Called from a family of priests to the role of prophet during the reign of King Josiah, Jeremiah serves the Lord by speaking through the reign of King Jehoiakim until the captivity of Jerusalem. Jeremiah spoke the Lord’s words to good king Josiah who heard the words of the law and then cleansed the temple and land of Ba’al worship. As the power of Assyria began to give way to the rising power of Babylon, so the resolve for the reforms of Josiah faded under the pragmatic rule of Jehoiakim. Renewed covenants were abandoned by hardened hearts due to increasing political pressures and foolish alliances.

Will Willamon reminds us that God’s divine manifestations not only rescue us from trouble, often they cause trouble. He writes, “God reaches out to those in need and in their time of trouble. Jeremiah 1 reminds us that another common biblical theme is that God also reaches out, calls, commissions people to do God’s work and thereby God puts people in trouble.”[3]

God calls Jeremiah saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” God knows Jeremiah fully. God’s plan for Jeremiah has been in place before Jeremiah was even around to wonder about his purpose. Jeremiah is known, consecrated and appointed to be God’s mouthpiece to the nations; foretelling and forthtelling, comforting and warning.

Such an appointment might sound prestigious, but Jeremiah knows better. He knows that the nations are in complete turmoil. Jeremiah no doubt knew of the way in which Assyria had held the towns of the northern kingdom of Israel in siege.[4] He knew of the ways in which Assyria had led God’s people into captivity. Jeremiah had likely received the news that Nineveh, the capital of Assyria had fallen to the armies of Babylon. He knew that Egypt was rising up to confront Babylon and that Judah could become a battleground. To be appointed as God’s messenger to nations who had a tendency to shoot the messenger if they didn’t like the news, was not at all appealing. Jeremiah’s was a troubling appointment.

Jeremiah answers this holy summons with a kind of fear driven modesty which he hopes will dissuade God from his plans. “Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Like his family before him, Jeremiah prefers to be a priest for the people, sticking close to the temple. An appointment to speak God’s will and ways to kings is far too fraught with dangers. Jeremiah tries to convince God that preparing sacrifices is his skill set, not speaking to nations. Besides, Jeremiah is far to young, ignorant and rash for such important work; after all he is only a boy.

God is not buying Jeremiah’s attempts to dodge the troubling work of the prophet. God responds, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” God won’t take no for an answer. God tells the reluctant Jeremiah that he will go where God sends him and say what God tells him. God identifies the fear that underlies Jeremiahs weak refusal. Notice that God does not alleviate Jeremiah’s fear by telling him he has nothing to worry about. God seems to promise that when troubling things happen to Jeremiah, God will remain present, and one way or another deliver him. Though God’s presence and deliverance are sure, so are the struggles, pain and trouble that will require the very comforts of the divine presence.

God then reaches out and touches Jeremiah’s mouth, giving him God’s words to speak in God’s time. Only now with God’s word within him does God get more specific about the nature of Jeremiah’s appointment. “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.”

Jerome writes regarding the work Jeremiah is to take up, “It is important to observe there that two joys succeed four sorrows. The good cannot be built up unless the evil is destroyed, nor can the best be planted unless the worst is eradicated.”[5] The plucking up and pulling down, the destroying and the overthrowing all refer to what God’s words through Jeremiah will do to the nations. Lest we believe that the word of God is somehow benign, we are confronted here with cataclysmic words from the Lord that will affect the course of nations.

We often prefer divine manifestations that soothe and sedate us. The calling of Jeremiah reminds us that God’s word spoken through God’s people at God’s command means trouble. We prefer the planting work of God’s word to the plucking up and pulling down that happen when our sin is confronted. We prefer words from God that build us up, rather than words that leave us destroyed and overthrown. Garrison Keillor explains this tendency as he describes why he turned down his own prophetic calling.

To stand and to tell people the truth that they have been successfully avoiding is not a pleasant business. People hurt prophets. They throw sharp things at them. They rip the clothes off them and they make them sit for long periods of time in uncomfortable positions on top of sharp objects that are extremely flammable. That’s what they do to prophets. I don’t want that. I don’t want any pain whatsoever. I don’t ever want to experience any pain. Minor dentistry is more than enough for me. So, no thank you. I don’t want to be a prophet and tell the truth. [6]

On this fourth Sunday of Epiphany let’s embrace our divine calling to the sanctified misbehavior of telling the truth no matter the cost. With Jeremiah, let remember that the ruckus precedes the reboot. The exile precedes the rescue. God tends to unsettle before he offers us rest. What true word from the Lord would you rather not speak because of the trouble it will cause? What troubling call and command from the Lord have you attempted to deflect? The Lord has put out his hand and touched you, putting his words in your mouth. Go cause some trouble. [1] Garrison Keillor, The Prophet, [2] Epiphany Definition, [3] Will Willamon, The Hardest Question, [4] Michael Fox, Closer Look At Jeremiah 1:10 With Implications for Reading Jeremiah 1, Didaskalia, 22 Fall 2011, pg. 61-84. [5] Dean O. Wenthe ed. & Thoman Oden ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Jeremiah, Lamentations. IVP Academic, Downers Grove, Illinois. 2014, pg. 8. [6] Ibid. Garrison Keillor.