In the Old and New Testament, there are many instances when God draws near and speaks to someone. And very often when God draws near to speak with someone, God does so in order to call that person to a particular task or activity. In the Old Testament, these stories are known as call narratives. Over the next five weeks of this summer we are going to look at 5 of these call narratives – these stories of God encountering and calling someone.
One of the reasons I’d like to explore these call narratives is because within our specific tradition of Christianity we have tended to hold God somewhat at a distance. In our tradition, we have been wary of a too-emotional experience of God. We have been wary of a too-personal spirituality. We have tended to look sideways at people who have an obvious and outer sense of intimacy with God – who talk freely about such encounters and intimacy.
For us, Christianity, rather, has often been about a few formal things we do – we may go to church on Sunday – we may offer a rote, or memorized prayers at mealtime or bedtime – when the census comes to our home, we probably tick off the box that says Christian, or perhaps Protestant. We try to be good in a way we think God might like us to be good.
In themselves, not necessarily bad things. But the truth is that if that’s all we have then we are missing the heart of things. If that’s all we have then it is possible and likely that we are holding God at a distance from ourselves. As we look at these 5 call narratives over the next few weeks, my hope is that these narratives might become a way for us to see, to perhaps even experience, what it is to encounter the living God.
Today we are beginning with Jeremiah, and with the call narrative we read in Jeremiah 1, verses 1 through 19. And in looking at this passage, we are actually going to begin smack dab in the middle of it, with verse 10. We’re beginning there because verse 10 helps us understand our connection to Jeremiah and his mission.
In that verse, God says to Jeremiah: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” As the Old Testament Walter Brueggemann puts it, this verse reveals that the prophet Jeremiah is called by God to shatter worlds and to build worlds, with his words.
In Jeremiah’s vocation as a prophet, in his speaking, there is an element of destruction or deconstruction – through his words, tearing down things that are not worthy of God or of God’s people. Shattering worlds. We’re not going to get into all the details of Jeremiah’s context and his message this morning. It’s enough to say that Jeremiah speaks out against idolatry – the people of Judah have been worshipping gods other than the one true God. Jeremiah also speaks out against social injustices he sees around him. And Jeremiah speaks out against the false prophets who are trying to soothe the people, offering them false comfort. In the light of all of this, in fact, Jeremiah declares that God’s judgment is coming in the form of an invading army, and in the form of exile. Destruction. Deconstruction. The shattering of worlds.
But in Jeremiah’s vocation as a prophet, in his speaking, there is also an element of construction or building – through his words, building up things that are worthy of God and of God’s people. Particularly in what is called ‘the book of comfort’, chapters 30-33 of his prophecy, Jeremiah speaks of the restoration, the renewal, the healing, that God will bring. The final word is not judgment. The final word is peace and forgiveness.
So with his words – with poetry, with sermons, with denunciations, with praise, with public words of prayer – with his words, the prophet shatters worlds and builds a new world. With his words he helps the people to see what is false and ugly and broken – and to see what is true and beautiful and holy. Coing so he is opening up for the people the possibility of a life with God that is true and beautiful and holy.
Now this morning we want to get to the call itself – we want to get to that specific moment when God very personally calls Jeremiah to this vocation of shattering and building. But before we get there, we need to take one more moment to make a link between the message of Jeremiah, and the message of the gospel. The link can be made in made this way. The gospel of Jesus Christ also has a twofold function – the gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel that shatters worlds, and a gospel that builds a world. In a similar way to the message of Jeremiah, the gospel of Jesus Christ tears down those things that are not worthy of God or of God’s people. The gospel of the crucified and risen one tears down pride and envy and selfishness – it tears down systems of social injustice – it tears down our illusions of power and control and self assurance. It is not saying too much at all, to say that the gospel shatters worlds that are not true to the human.
And the gospel of the crucified and risen one also builds a new world – a world of service and humility – a world of generosity and forgiveness – a world of reconciliation – a world of holiness and goodness and truth. Like the message of Jeremiah, the gospel shatters worlds and builds a new world.
When we are following Jesus – even if we are not great prophets of Judah – even if we are simple women and men – when we are following Jesus, we become participants in Jesus’ shattering and building of worlds. As a community of women and men following Jesus – as individuals at work or study or in relationships – we have become participants in his shattering and building of worlds.
Now, carrying out this prophetic vocation was no easy thing for Jeremiah. His was not an easy call. Jeremiah, in fact, was despised, Jeremiah was ridiculed, Jeremiah was hated for the things he declared – for what he prophesied. Alienated. In the same way it is possible, and it is indeed likely, that in following the way of the risen Jesus we will face challenges and hardship. In many ways it is hard to be a follower of Jesus in today’s world. Religious faith is mocked; religious communities are marginalized; more personally; we aren’t always sure in our faith that Jesus is new life for our world; sometimes following Jesus Christ sets us against the stream of the wider culture. To follow in this way with the one who shatters worlds and who is building a new world, inevitably takes us down a difficult path, day by day.
And this is where the call becomes vital – because when it gets difficult to follow Jesus – when there are questions or doubts – when there are hesitations or opposition – even when there is lethargy or boredom on our part – in these moments, remembering the call becomes vital.
So we come finally to the call itself – to those beautiful words of Jeremiah in verse 4: “Now the word of the Lord came to me 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.”
When you are raising or dealing with children, you sometimes run into a peculiar and interesting question. Sometimes Becky and I will be with our kids and we’ll be telling a story about something that happened in the past – perhaps telling a story from when Tabea was very young. “Do you remember when…” Very often, the event we are talking about happened before the other two were born. And in that situation, it’s not unusual for either Reuben or Esther to ask. “Where was I when that happened?” Where was I when that happened? And of course the obvious answer is, “Well, you weren’t born yet.” The subtext the answer being: “You weren’t anywhere.” You weren’t born yet.
But for Becky and me, there has always been something really unsatisfying about that answer. And so we have started offering a different answer to the question. Daddy, mommy, where was I when that happened? And now we answer with these words. Back then,
“You were in the mind of God.”
“Esther, you were in the mind of God when that happened.”
“Reuben, you were in the mind of God at that time.”
It’s simply not enough to say that Reuben didn’t exist. It’s not enough to say that Esther wasn’t anywhere. Rather, “You were in the mind of God.”
God said to Jeremiah: “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.”
In our world – in our society – so many of us live with such a narrow existence in the present moment. For so many us, it seems to me, it’s almost impossible to think outside of the demands and struggles and happiness of the present moment. We might have some thought for our childhood, but not much further back than that. We might have some thought for retirement, but not much beyond that into the future.
But throughout the scriptures, there is another idea that predominates – the idea that our lives and our being and our calling have always been in the mind and heart of God.
“Jeremiah, before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”
“Jeremiah, before you were born, I consecrated you.”
One Old Testament scholar points out that in the Old Testament this idea is a glorious commonplace. In the Old Testament it is a glorious commonplace that God knew us before we were conceived. In the Old Testament it is a glorious commonplace that God loved us before we were born. O that such knowledge might become a glorious commonplace for each of us – the knowledge that from outside of time and beyond space, the God of Jesus Christ has known us and held us and called us.
We said that Jeremiah’s years as a prophet were difficult – despised, hated, mistrusted. We’ve said that life following Jesus today is rarely easy. It is not easy to follow one who has come to shatter worlds and to build a new world. In our daily walk of life and faith
we may have doubts about our faith in the risen one,
we may encounter those who belittle us and our faith,
we may struggle to know how to follow Jesus in particular situations,
we may just find it hard to manifest the truth and goodness of Jesus.
In those moments remember: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” This life we share in the body of Christ – this life of holy friendship and service – our call to this life is more ancient, more longstanding than we could imagine. When the challenges of this present moment, and the challenges of discipleship take their toll, remember:
From beyond ancient times, God has held us in his care.
From beyond ancient times, God has equipped us for this life of holy friendship.
From beyond ancient times, God has blessed us through the hardship.
From beyond ancient times, God has loved you and loved me – has known us.
You always have been in the mind and heart of God – who from beyond the deepest recesses of time has known you and called you.
Paul puts it only slightly differently in his letter to the Ephesians: “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” In the scriptures, this vision of our lives and our calling as rooted in the ancient love of God – this vision is a glorious commonplace. Oh that this vision of our lives and our calling might become a glorious common place for us.
This glorious commonplace is a commonplace of intimacy and closeness. In the very moment we truly understand we are known and loved in this way, in that very moment we are drawn close to God.
How can we hold at a distance this God who has known us from beyond time?
How can we hold at a distance this God who has strengthened us for the way of Christ from beyond time?
This God invites us to intimacy in encounter – through prayer, through worship, through daily conversation. This God who has always know us.
In the first chapter of Jeremiah, this intimacy of encounter is expressed in a wonderful image. And with this image we will close things out this morning.
We read in verse 9: “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth’.” Here the intimacy between God and Jeremiah is expressed in the language, and perhaps reality of physical encounter.
Let me push this image just a little bit by way of appeal to the Song of Solomon, where intimacy can be read off every verse. In the opening words of the Song, the beloved declares: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” Encounter with God implies an intimacy that touches our whole being – it is intimacy at the emotional, the mental, and even the physical level.
The artist Marc Chagall expresses the encounter of Jeremiah and God through the image of an angel of God. It is a wonderful image of encounter and intimacy – an encounter to which we are invited with God. I’d like to leave you with this image this morning.
As we follow in the way of Christ our Lord – the call of Jeremiah comes to remind us that we cannot hold God at a distance. This is a God who has known us and loved us and called us from beyond deepest recesses of time. This is a God who draws near to embrace and touch us, as we walk in company with the risen Jesus. May we receive grace, by the Spirit, to reach out toward and encounter, this God.