Today’s lesson is the first of nine readings from the book of Jeremiah, spanning from this Sunday through the remainder of year C. Seven of these readings occur continuously from week to week, without interruption. These continuous readings provide an opportunity for sermon series on Jeremiah for the preacher who is willing to embrace the prose and poetry of the weeping prophet.
This week’s brief passage, the call of Jeremiah, contains a preview for what will happen throughout the rest of the book. The preacher who decides to use this first lesson as the beginning of a sermon series on the book might consider using this opportunity to provide introductory material to the book as a whole. With so few pastors preaching regularly from the prophetic literature and such a small fraction of the prophetic literature even appearing in the lectionary, a teaching sermon may be necessary to set the stage for what has happened leading up to this point.
Even if the preacher is not using this first lesson as the beginning of a series on the Jeremiah, some context is necessary to understand these six verses and the content of God’s instructions. God calls Jeremiah to do this work and life in a particular time and place. Kathleen O’Connor describes the historical context:
In 597, Judah revolted against Babylon and provoked the first of three invasions and deportations (the others occurred in 587 and 582). After a long siege, the Capitol city of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 687. During the invasion, the Babylonians broke down the city walls, killed many people, leveled the king’s palace, and destroyed the temple. The invasion of the country and the physical destruction of the city also shattered ordinary domestic, social, and economic life. Above all, the nation’s collapse put into question Judah’s relationship with its God.
After the preacher retells the context using contemporary political language (i.e. prisoner of war or refugees), the particular context in which God calls Jeremiah surfaces, adding great depth to what it is God is calling Jeremiah to do. God commands, “Do not be afraid of them”—”them” who are armed Babylonians and/or terrified Israelites. Similarly, how much more intense is God’s instructions to Jeremiah to “pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow, build and plant” when spoken to a man in a city under siege?
The preacher could also approach a sermon on this text by exploring one of three focal points from the Scripture.
1. “Do not be afraid.”
The refrain “do not be afraid” is repeated throughout God’s story, from Abraham’s covenant, to the shepherd’s tending their flocks; from Jesus’ calming the storm to Paul comforting the jailer after the gates to his prison cell miraculously opened. A thoughtful sermon could root this refrain in Jeremiah’s story and connect it with the numerous times it’s used as God ushers God’s people into uncharted territories. “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Notice that God doesn’t say to Jeremiah, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” In fact, there’s a lot to fear. But you do not have to fear, since “I am with you.”
2. “I am too young.” (CEB)
Most of us have a list of excuses for why we are not the right person to do whatever it is God is asking of us. We are in good company—Moses, Samuel, and Jeremiah are no different. Jeremiah’s excuses consist of him not knowing how to speak and being “only a boy.” A preacher exploring these excuses could take this opportunity to give witness to the ways God has and does use young people to do Kingdom work. Telling stories from your own congregation can affirm to the whole church ways young people are following God’s calling and empower others to join.
3. “…to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
A sermon using verse 10 could look ahead to the coming themes of the book, especially if preaching only on this lesson as opposed to a series on Jeremiah. God calls Jeremiah to deliver unpopular news of judgment, providing explanations for the chaos the people are experiencing at the hand of Babylon. At the same time, this story is a story of hope, looking ahead to building and planting the city. Even the weeping prophet holds these two in tension—pulling down and building up. An imaginative sermon might consider what it is that has to be pulled down or destroyed, in order that we might build and plant. Is it the literal pulling down of an old structure or a parking lot, to make room for a garden and space for people to gather together in your congregation? Is it the figurative pulling down or overthrowing of the ways that “things have always been done” in order to make room to plant new seeds of change? These questions draw upon the particularity of each congregation and context, just as God calls Jeremiah to this work of destroying and building in his particular time and place.
 Kathleen O’Connor. The New Interpreter’s Bible: Jeremiah. New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Abington Press, 2003), 1051.