Jeremiah 1: 4-10
May 26, 2013
You pick up the phone late one Saturday afternoon and it’s your old college buddy on the other end of the line. A loved one has died. Your friend says he needs a favor, and he simply could not think of anyone better to share the eulogy at the funeral – tomorrow. For most people this would be an insurmountable task, but for you – the one to whom words come easily – it’s not a big deal. You sit down with pen and paper that evening and, in a half hour or so, have it done. After the funeral, your friend thanks you for words he says will remain with him for the rest of his life.
Ever longed to do that sort of thing – to know exactly what to say, and how to say it, in any given situation? At a first glance at our passage today, it appears that’s precisely what God does for young Jeremiah. God is calling Jeremiah to speak God’s word to the Hebrews and take on the thankless task of being a prophet.
It’s a familiar scenario in scripture that plays out over and over again. When God calls, as Jeremiah finds out, it’s really less about asking and more about telling. In fact, God goes so far as to even say that it’s been in the works all along:
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.
It’s beautiful poetry and sounds wonderful – unless your name happens to be Jeremiah! Then it’s downright scary; the idea of God dropping into his life and pretty much telling him his life is going to change in every possible way. So as Moses, Isaiah, and every other prophet before and after him, Jeremiah resists God’s calling, saying he is too young for the task.
God, of course, had heard it all before – there wasn’t an excuse in the book God didn’t know. Too young. Too old. Don’t know what to say. Someone else would be better. Never did any ever cause God to change God’s plans. And so God reminds Jeremiah of his calling, touching his mouth and saying, Now I have put my words in your mouth. Now, there’s no excuse – the prophetic words have been deposited in him.
And while it may seem odd, touching the mouth and instilling words is not a unique thing in prophetic circles. Take Isaiah, for instance. Feeling unworthy, Isaiah is touched on the lips by a burning coal that, oddly enough, cleanses him for service. Moses felt ill-prepared to go before Pharaoh on behalf of the Hebrew slaves and offers God any number of excuses. God, however, says not to worry; he’ll provide the words that need to be spoken. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how in both cases, as with pretty much every other prophet, God gives them what they need, whatever “it” was.
Now I am not a prophet. Sometimes preachers are called to be “prophetic,” but so far God has not asked me to do crazy prophet stuff. I’m hoping it stays that way. Even so, if I were Jeremiah, I think I’d feel a sense of comfort in all of this. Never in God long history had God ever asked someone to be a prophet who was not ready – and never did God fail to give them what they needed to get the job done. That means something, doesn’t it?
I mean, it hearkens back to that familiar Psalm we all know:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
That’s some comforting stuff, isn’t it? God knows us better than we know ourselves. That’s what the Psalmist is saying. God not only knows us in the here and now, but also in our past and in our future. All our thoughts, all our ways, even what we say before we say it.
That’s great, isn’t it!
But you know, it kind of isn’t, too…..
I don’t know. I just have to wonder if this intense “closeness” can sometimes be a double-edge sword, you know? Think about it: there is nothing you and I do or think or say that God doesn’t know about. And not only that, but God’s knowing is past, present and future. God knows us completely, inside and out.
Be honest – it’s a little overwhelming, isn’t it?
I mean, imagine it: One day, God comes to Jeremiah and says, “Guess what? You’re gonna be a prophet. Yeah, I know, you’re not crazy about it. I knew that’s what you’d think, by the way. But seriously, I don’t think you get it. I’ve known you forever, even before you were born. It’s always been in the cards that being a prophet is who you would be. There’s really nothing you can do about it.”
That’s the kind of closeness God talks about in his words to Jeremiah, in the words of the Psalmist. And the problem is, it flies right in the face of our Western, Puritan mindset that insists we design our own destiny, that we are the masters of our own fate. The idea that someone else has plans for us, and has had them before we were born – it borders on creepy, doesn’t it? At the very least it begs the question: did Jeremiah have a choice in how his life would unfold? Do any of us?
And so inevitably, you and I are forced to wrestle with this age-old dilemma in the form of a doctrine of faith we Presbyterians have been tagged with since the days of the Westminster Confession. We call it predestination.
Amazing how a lengthy term could feel so much like a four-letter word! I mean, who really understands predestination? And be honest – how many times, in the midst of conversation, have we been asked, when our Presbyterian-ness is revealed, what in the world that whole predestination thing is about?
It reminds me of a story about a man who dies and arrives at the gates of heaven. There he sees two lines, one labeled "Free Will" and the other "Predestined." Being a good Presbyterian, he gets in the "Predestined" line. When he finally makes his way to the front, an angel greets him. He checks his clipboard, page after page, and says he doesn’t see his name. “What brought you to the Predestined line?” the angel asks. The man replies, "Well, I saw the two signs and chose the Predestined line because I'm Presbyterian."
“Oh, that explains it,” the angel answers. “You’re in the wrong line.” The man looks stunned; asks him why that is. The angel replies, “Simple – you made a choice as to which line you would be in. If you were really predestined, you would just be here. So I’m afraid you’ll have to go to the Free Will line. Back of the line starts over there."
Confused and slightly agitated, the man turns around and heads to the back of the Free Will line. When he finally arrives at the front of the second line, he’s greeted by yet another angel. “Hello!” the angel gleefully says, “Welcome to the Free Will line, where it’s all about choice!” Exasperated, the man cries out, “Choice?? What choice? That other angel made me come here!"
Now I like this story because it’s funny, but also because it proves a very important point – that predestination, in its original form, is not about the absence of free will. You can take comfort, fellow Presbyterians, in knowing that you do not hold onto a belief that says you are robots and that everything is fixed. According to its classic definition, at its very heart, predestination is about God, not us. We are not in control. God is. We are not the masters of our own destiny. God is.
It’s not hard seeing why this might ruffle some feathers in our 21st century world. We are people who take great pride in our independence. We want to be able to do what we want to when we want to do it. We have our own cars that can take us anywhere we drive them. We turn on the TV and are greeted by an overwhelming selection of channels, from news networks to home improvement channels and everything in between. We earn college degrees through the internet, taking classes on our schedule and our timetable. It’s no wonder, then, that this whole idea of predestination may seem a bit archaic and constraining. Because, simply put, we don’t like anyone else telling us what to do.
And that’s where I think you and I, as people of faith, are called to stand against the “sign of the times” and be something different; be the unique people of God. Just as Jeremiah could not divorce himself from the calling God laid on him, we as the people of God cannot plot our own course. We cannot demand that everything happen according to what we want. That kind of faith always leads to disaster.
I mean, think what would’ve happened, for instance, if Noah had decided not to bother building the ark. Or if David had stayed in the fields and not come to receive Samuel’s blessing as king. Or if Mary had replied to God’s vision by saying, “Thanks for the suggestion, but I’ve got some other names in mind for the baby.” You and I, we are but small pieces in this huge puzzle of life; and there is so much more to that picture than what you and I typically get to see.
I wonder what things would be like if we began understanding predestination as theologian Shirley Guthrie understood it, when he talked about being the chosen people of God: And as a chosen people, Guthrie said,
we are chosen not instead of but for the sake of the world. We are chosen not to escape from a godless world . . . but to be sent into it and live for it. We are chosen not so we can congratulate ourselves because we live in the light while everyone else gropes in the darkness, but we are chosen to be a light that shines in their darkness. (Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Revised ed. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 140)
There is something unique and wonderful about being the chosen people of God. But there is nothing exclusive about it. That’s why we don’t have the luxury as Christians of focusing specifically on our own individual needs. Like the pastor who used to begin all his conversations with prospective members by telling them how glad he was that they were interested in the church, but he needed them to know that the purpose of the church was not to meet their needs. When the confused stares on their faces had subsided a bit, he told them that the purpose of the church was to meet God’s needs. And so it is.
Because when we focus on meeting God’s needs instead of our own, beautiful things happen. Roofs are replaced and courtyards are (well, someday will be) repaired. Sandwiches are shared on Saturday mornings. Cleanup buckets are sent to Oklahoma. Our children have adults who tell them about and show them Jesus. And all it takes, as Jeremiah found out, is allowing God to work in and through us, according to God’s ways, and not our own. Because God knows us so well. Even the words on our mouth, before we speak them. Take comfort in that, and let God lead the way. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.