Opening The Old Testament
God's Odd Choices: Reflections on Jeremiah 1:4-10
And, precisely as at the bush, God will have none of Jeremiah's resistance. "Do not say, 'I am only a boy;' you will 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" (Jer. 1:7-8). God will have God's way, no matter our attempts to weasel out, wimp out, or wash out. Jeremiah's deep convictions of calling trump his unwillingness to carry that calling out. Like Moses, Jeremiah finally went at the call of YHWH.
But perhaps if they both had listened more closely to all that YHWH had in mind for them, they would have argued harder against the call. Though YHWH promises Jeremiah that he will never be alone in his work, that he will always be delivered by his God, that later proves not to be so certain. Jeremiah again and again finds himself alone and afraid in his ministry, calling for God to help him but receiving only silence (so Jer. 20) or demands to keep at the terrible task that has been assigned (so Jer. 15:19-21). Here is how Jeremiah summarizes what YHWH has called him to do. "Then YHWH put out his hand and touched my mouth: 'Now I have put my words in your mouth. This very day I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and plant'" (Jer. 1:10).
Note the order of YHWH's demands. First, Jeremiah is to announce destruction in four verbs, and only second is he to announce restoration with two. The course of his prophetic life is set and is to follow a pattern of harsh words and only later followed by words of hope. It is a hard task that YHWH has set, and Jeremiah very nearly buckles under the strain of it, as his five so-called confessions make all too clear. The final confession (Jer. 20) majors in prophetic whining (20:7-18) and ends in divine silence. Finally, however, Jeremiah's attempt to escape the call of YHWH with his claims to extreme youth do no good at all. His forty-year prophetic ministry proceeds as this passage proclaims: loud proclamations of doom (e.g. 1-6), followed by softer announcements of hope (e.g. 29, 32).
As I look back on my own call to ministry, effected primarily through the call of my wife, my ministry of pastorate and teaching has been a full and a rich one. When I heard my wife call me to ministry, I, too, was only a boy, and at the time only heard a call to a wonderful relationship, one that has become even more wonderful as the years have passed. I admit that I did not hear God in that first call, but I am now convinced that God was speaking through my wife's words as surely as God spoke to Jeremiah in his little village. Our contexts are wildly different, as are our ministries. But God was with us both, helping and guiding us in the ways we are to go. How odd of God to choose the two of us for God's work! And how odd of God to choose the very different work we were called to do. When you look at the events that have brought you to where you are now, one thing is certain: God was there and indeed God is here now.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.