Holy Troublemakers: Jeremiah
We’ve been spending the last few weeks of this summer taking a closer look at some holy troublemakers, Hebrew prophets who lived and worked during a time in Israel’s history when the people of Israel were at serious risk of forgetting about the God who had called and led them out of slavery in Egypt. They’d settled in their Promised Land and gotten a little too used to comfort and prestige; they’d forgotten their holy calling to be Yahweh’s people. The prophets had the unenviable task of reminding the people who they were, of telling them they were getting off track, of warning that lives lived without consideration for each other and for God are lives headed for disaster.
You might imagine that folks with messages like that are not always elected homecoming queen, if you know what I mean. It’s hard to be a prophet, as many of the prophets we’ve met these weeks would attest. And the nature of their work as prophets, holy troublemakers, meant that many of the prophets paid dearly to follow their callings and preach the message they felt called to preach. Lest we ever begin to believe that being a sold out follower of God is ever easy or without sacrifice, the Hebrew prophets will quickly remind us otherwise.
Today we’re spending another week with one of the most prolific and long-tenured Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah. Leah introduced us to Jeremiah, “the Weeping Prophet” last week. We don’t know all that much about the personal lives of many of Israel’s prophets, but today’s holy troublemaker, Jeremiah, fills us in on quite a bit of the personal price he paid to follow his calling from God. Remember that Jeremiah lived and worked as a prophet in Israel over the span of 40 years—a marathon career, as ministry careers go (makes me tired just thinking about it!). His work as a prophet spanned a period before the initial Assyrian invasion of Jerusalem, when the Hebrew people had one king after another who either tried to call them back to Yahweh or took them further away into idol worship and assimilation with the cultures around them. Then the Babylonian invasion happened. Jerusalem was captured; the temple—the place where the people understood Yahweh to live—was destroyed; a series of exiles began, where the Hebrew people were carted off to Babylon and the land that they’d called the Promised Land became desolate and empty of hope.
No wonder Jeremiah was weeping.
The lectionary offers us a passage today from the first chapter of Jeremiah, a passage commonly referred to as “Jeremiah’s call story.” We were assigned a passage later in the book last week, but today we come back to the beginning. It seemed a little out of order to me, so with this curiosity in mind, I plunged in this week to read again the beautiful passage that Jeremiah wrote at the very beginning of his memoirs about life as a prophet of Yahweh. You’ll want to turn in your Bibles to this passage (p. 609) to take a look at it with me for a few moments now, because I’d like to show you that Jeremiah employs here a very formulaic approach to telling us how he got his gig in the first place.
I don’t know about your experience, but in my fourth grade class, Mrs. Roth taught all of us how to write a letter. I strongly suspect this skill may be a thing of the past, but I’ll never forget the rules: date up in the right hand corner. Salutation. Body of the letter. Valediction. Signature. Then, the envelope—return address in the upper left hand corner, etc. Mrs. Roth would be happy to know that I still remember this, and, frankly, would be a little scared to write a letter without following the formula she taught us.
Think of that when you think of how the Hebrew prophets talked about their work. They almost always started with a “call story”–a recounting of how they got into this line of work in the first place. And there’s a formula for a call story, which you can easily see here in Jeremiah’s textbook account. First, there’s the commissioning of the prophet by God. You can see that piece of Jeremiah’s account in verses four and five. This is a particularly important way to preface the bad news you’ve got to tell the people because, I’ve found anyway, that it helps to say “this is from God—not me!”
The second part of the call formula is the objection of the prophet. Any prophet worth her salt will have at least a little understanding that, while God’s confidence and commissioning are very flattering, the job of a prophet is not the cushiest job one might ever be offered. In fact, upon receiving a job offer like this, anybody in their right mind would say, “Uh, I prefer another line of work, thanks.” Jeremiah’s objection was a pretty good one, I thought—he told God he was far too young to take on a job like the one God had in mind. Not enough experience, couldn’t do the job justice, etc. Alas, God was having none of that.
So part three of the prophetic call formula comes next: God’s reassurance. In verses seven and eight, you can see, God tells Jeremiah that his excuse won’t cut it—that there’s nothing to worry about because God’s got his back.
And then, part four: a sign. Just in case God’s verbal reassurance isn’t enough, God usually offers something a little more tangible. In Jeremiah’s case it was a touch: God reached out his hand and touched Jeremiah’s mouth and said, “There you go. I’ll put my words in your mouth and that will take care of that!” Sounds really nice, doesn’t it? This is a great time to know biblical Hebrew, however, because when you do you will know that while the Hebrew word here, va ya ga, can mean, “touch,” it also can mean “strike,” “hit,” or even, “harm.” All that to say, we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that this experience was a nice, sweet spiritual moment for Jeremiah. In fact, it’s probably better to imagine this at least as a jolt or a shock, as one commentator says, and we might even ask whether it hurt. No matter what the details, there’s no doubt Jeremiah’s life changed forever because of the sign God gave him.
And that’s Jeremiah’s call story. As we look more closely at it this morning, we should remember that many of the other Hebrew prophets also tell their call stories using the same formula (do you think they learned it in fourth grade?). Remember there was Isaiah, whose call came while he was sitting in church . . . and Amos, who was just going about his business watching his sheep when the call came to him. Ezekiel heard the call as an adult, while living among the people far away from Jerusalem in exile. And so Jeremiah tells us that it happened in his case long before he was even born.
All of that is to say, as we take a close look at what this text might offer us and before we take Jeremiah’s experience and name it the standard of call stories, we might want to be cautious . . . there are lots of different ways to read this passage and claim it as a devotional focus.
For example, we might say that this passage tells us God had plans for our lives long before we’re even conceived. Anybody in our Wednesday night theology class last fall can tell you that folks who believe in predestination just love this passage.
Or we might say that this passage is a commentary on the biological nature of the soul, helping us identify exactly when it is that human beings become real people, and when this spiritual part of us gets miraculously implanted—lots of folks like this interpretation.
But I am going to make the suggestion this morning that maybe—perhaps—this call story of Jeremiah’s is not really about any of those things. For one thing, it’s probably not about us at all. And maybe . . . it’s not even really about Jeremiah. Like most accounts of God’s work in this world, this passage is more like—really—about God.
You knew you were going to have to hear stories about my trip to France, so just steel yourselves. As many of you who have heard all about our adventures will know, we pretty much walked the entire city of Paris and, honestly, my legs are still a little sore two weeks later. The challenge was to rank the things we wanted to see so we got the most in in the short amount of time we had, but of course there was no way we could do everything in five days. One of the sites on our definite to do list was Sainte Chapelle, a church from the 1200s that is now located near the main courthouse and is no longer used as a church. The reason Sainte Chapelleis such a draw is because it has these legendary stained glass windows, breath-taking windows, more beautiful than any others in the city. They rise up the sides of what once was the sanctuary and span the whole perimeter of the room. Each window has hundreds of panels with little story boards telling the Biblical story and then the story of the first church and the early martyrs of the faith. It’s almost overwhelming.
But when you come into Sainte Chapelle you have to come into the basement. The basement, underneath the sanctuary room, was once a little chapel for servants to worship—the king and all his friends got to go upstairs to the room with the beautiful windows.
After I paid my 8 Euros and went in expecting beauty and grace, I was disappointed to see that the plaster was peeling in that basement. There were some beautiful frescoes painted on the walls, but they had obviously seen better days. There were piles of boxes in one corner, blocking the area where the altar was, and next to all of that was a stand selling postcards.
I went upstairs after I entered, and looked for a long time at those amazingly beautiful windows, and when we were done we came back down, out through the basement chapel again. I stopped before we left, though. I asked my French friend Alexis to explain to me why this basement chapel would be in such appalling disrepair just underneath those absolutely breathtaking stained glass windows? (And also with all these people visiting and paying 8 Euros each!) I left the experience feeling rather frustrated with whomever is in charge of Sainte Chapelle, and worried about those unprotected, crumbling frescoes in the basement.
Later I realized that I had been having a moment where the job I do everyday at another old church with beautiful stained glass windows had elbowed its way into my vacation. I realized that, while I’d gone for the stained glass windows, I’d instead spent most of my visit to that beautiful church not looking up as the light streamed through the colored glass and told the story of thousands of years of God’s engagement with the world, but rather the peeling paint and piles of junk and dusty postcard stands instead. To my credit, those were the sights that were right in front of me on the walls surrounding me—to see the windows I had to crane my neck and sometimes that got sore. And just the thought of how a church might repair and maintain thousand-year-old frescoes was enough to make me hyperventilate, so I guess it’s not surprising that this was the impression of Sainte Chapellethat stuck with me.
That experience reminded me this week of Jeremiah, and the call story he told as he began recounting forty years of working as a holy troublemaker. His story is not a prescription for what should happen in your life and mine when we decide to live our lives as sold-out followers of God.
His call story is just a starting place for his experiences with God.
The real story is what follows, the forty years he begged and pleaded, preached and encouraged, worried and, yes, wept for the people who could not or would not turn their hearts back to Yahweh. To take Jeremiah’s call story and make it prescriptive for our lives can sidetrack us from the very message he, along with many, many others, came to preach. And this was his message: that God is ever and always engaged in the healing of this world, and that we are called, over and over and over again, repeatedly and relentlessly, to turn our hearts and our lives back to join the grand story of faith that God is ever unfolding.
It’s true that Jeremiah felt he was chosen by God to do this difficult, difficult work. But that’s not the point. The point is that there was work to be done, and Jeremiah the holy troublemaker was just one voice along the way, calling the people back to God.
What’s your call story? Would you say, like Jeremiah, that this faith you hold was meant to be in your life before you were ever born? Or do you think you’re more like Amos, who was perfectly happy trying to keep track of his sheep when God invited him to join his life to God’s grand plan of redemption and healing for the world? Talk to each other this week and tell your call story—how it is that you came to be in this place at this time, offering your life in the service of God. I’ll challenge you then to condense it to one sentence and post it on Facebook. Like Jeremiah, tell us how you got to this place. You need to remember . . . we all need to remember the first time we felt God tug at our hearts and start us on a journey that would change our lives.
But as we recount our call stories to each other, we must be very, very careful not to do what I did when I visited Sainte Chappelle. Yes, our call stories are important; they are what we see in the present and evidence of how we experience God in our lives. But our call stories—your story and mine—are not the main point. Our individual experiences with God are not the focus of this community, nor the driving force of what we do in this place. No, no! Why, if they were, what a short-sighted approach to faith that would be, wouldn’t it?
Because we know, as did Jeremiah and all the other holy troublemakers, that God is busy in the grand work of reconciling the world to him; that our lives and our community and this moment in time are just little parts of a grand, beautiful, and breathtaking story of what God intends. To that end, it’s our obligation and opportunity today to remember that our work and investment in our individual lives of faith and our communal life as Calvary Baptist Church should not dominate our energy or encompass our whole view of life and faith.
Like Jeremiah, when we tell our call stories, our individual experiences with God, we must remember that there are miles to go before we sleep. The investment we make right now paints just another little panel of the story and, as Jeremiah would attest, sometimes it’s not a sweet, serene, ultra-spiritual experience.
In fact, sometimes it takes FOREVER.
Sometimes it hurts.
Sometimes it’s frustrating.
A lot of times it’s discouraging.
But still we begin. We tell each other our call stories; we remember the moments when we felt God’s presence and nurture most strongly and tangibly; we make room for those among us who are hearing God’s call in their lives even as we speak.
And then we look up. We look up and take the long view, toward the world-changing process God is undertaking, toward the big picture that, one day, will contain a little panel with our own investment and involvement and love and commitment that will make a space for whatever God has in mind next.
Hear the call story of Jeremiah today, and remember your own call to be a radical follower of Jesus Christ. But don’t get stuck there. Instead, get on with the faithful commitment of loving God and loving each other that will change your hearts, and change our world. For the gift of joining holy troublemakers like Jeremiah, and Amparo, and so many others, to usher in God’s hope for this world, we give thanks.