Sermon preached at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church August 25, 2013. Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10
The prophet Jeremiah lived at an interesting time in history. Following several generations of relative prosperity and comfort, he found himself in the midst of a society being pulled apart by competing political factions, controversial religious reforms, and debates about how best to respond to what seemed to be inevitable, ongoing conflict across the Near East, from Egypt to Babylon. Jeremiah rallied the people in the streets and market places, marched out to the far-flung rural quarters on the borders of his country, and occasionally had an audience with the rulers in the halls of power. With precious few exceptions, his message of justice for the poor and his unwavering convictions on the complete futility of war were ignored.
Perhaps you can relate?
Or perhaps not. The prophet Jeremiah was an odd fellow, to be sure. The kind we would, I’m certain, welcome into fellowship at Pullen, but probably wouldn’t nominate to the deacon board or Coordinating Council. And Jeremiah’s time, while it can speak powerfully into our own lives if we listen hard, was unlike anything most, if any, of us have experienced.
Jeremiah lived and worked and struggled at the crux of one of the two crucial events that have formed the identity of the people of Israel. The first event, which you probably know well, is the exodus story. Set nearly 700 years before Jeremiah comes on the scene, the exodus from Egypt is already a distant memory, though an important one. It is the story we know so well and don’t mind telling our children because it speaks of God’s promise to protect and care for those in difficult situations, and God’s triumph over the powers of empire, greed and military might. The exodus story would have been ingrained into Jeremiah’s worldview as the foundational revelation of God’s character, but it is not the story of Jeremiah’s life.
The prophet lived in the midst of the second great event in Israel’s collective memory — the Babylonian exile, accompanied by the complete and total destruction of Jerusalem. By the end of Jeremiah’s 40-year ministry, the grand temple of Solomon, a marvel of the ancient world, was raided and leveled. Children were left orphaned. Families were broken up as individuals were taken into slavery. The king of Israel was blinded and led away in fetters, having watched his children die before him. The prophet’s warnings to the people, sadly, bore rotten fruit. It is this period of unprecedented loss and grief that spurs the formation of what eventually becomes the Hebrew scriptures. While any claim to biblical authorship involves speculation, more than one scholar has proposed that Jeremiah — or his friend and scribe, Baruch — are ultimately responsible for the editing and compilation of the Torah and prophetic books of the Old Testament.1
Jeremiah was a radical character born during extreme times. His bold words and prophetic actions put him at odds with religious leaders and court officials. His life was often in danger. He was frequently imprisoned. Mocked by his own family and ostracized by nearly everyone, the prophet’s legacy stretches across the reign of four kings and an appointed Babylonian governor.
Jeremiah had a tendency to take things just a bit too far. When his anti-war protest efforts were at their height, the prophet could be seen walking through the streets of Jerusalem wearing a heavy wooden yoke built for an ox. In the synagogue and in the palace courtyards, Jeremiah would wear his yoke as he shouted his message that the survival of the nation lay not in military strength, but in remaining faithful to God’s covenant, caring for the poor and ensuring justice prevailed in the markets and the courts. The yoke did double duty as a sermon illustration, standing as a metaphor for how the people should be obedient to God’s instructions, and also showing the heavy weight that would be laid upon their shoulders as a consequence of war.
When a rival prophet with a message that was more favorable to the king attacked Jeremiah and shattered the wooden yoke that had become his hallmark, Jeremiah slunk away as the crowd laughed him down. The next morning, though, as the dawn light broke over the skyline of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was back on the temple steps with the same old sermon, but wearing a new yoke — this time forged with iron. Such was the spirit and calling of this indomitable truth teller.
And it all begins with our text from this morning. As translated by Eugene Peterson:
The Message of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah of the family of priests who lived in Anathoth…God’s Message began to come to him during the thirteenth year that Josiah son of Amos reigned over Judah…And it continued to come to him clear down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of the reign of Zedekiah…the year that Jerusalem was taken into exile. This is what God said:
“Before I shaped you in the womb, I knew all about you. Before you saw the light of day, I had holy plans for you: A prophet to the nations—that’s what I had in mind for you.”
But I said, “Hold it, Master God! Look at me. I don’t know anything. I’m only a boy!”
God told me, “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a boy.’ I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there. I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it. Don’t be afraid of a soul. I’ll be right there, looking after you.”
God reached out, touched my mouth, and said, “Look! I’ve just put my words in your mouth—hand-delivered! See what I’ve done? I’ve given you a job to do among nations and governments—a red-letter day! Your job is to pull up and tear down, take apart and demolish, and then start over, building and planting.”
Jeremiah’s ministry begins with a call from God. The text says the word of God came to Jeremiah, but this word isn’t a simple whispering in the ear that can be written down in a book and passed on to future generations. The word of God is never something static to be recorded. It is something that happens. It is something that must be lived out and experienced before it begins to make sense. Speaking of Jeremiah, one commentator says, “God’s word has been spoken to a particular person and into this particular moment in history. This word of God is an embodied word; it has taken up residence in a chosen individual at a particular time and place.”2 As we face the challenge of listening for and embodying the word of God for our own time and place, there are three lessons from the call of Jeremiah that are worth paying attention to: Have courage, God goes with us, and judgment is never the final word.
Have courage – even when the odds are stacked against you. Jeremiah’s first response to his prophetic call is measured resistance. “I’m sorry, God, but I might as well be a child. I don’t have enough experience for this job. You’ll need to find someone else.” He’s being realistic. The task at hand is great. Jeremiah is charged with speaking to the laborers in the fields, and with King Zedekiah in the palace, convincing them all of the need to turn around, to change their position and behavior and begin to embody God’s justice and grace — to begin caring for their neighbors at least as much as they care about their own wealth and accomplishments. It seems an impossible task. This dialogue between the prophet and God at the beginning of the book sums up the apparent futility of the situation: (Jeremiah 5:1-3)
Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem,
look around and take note!
Search its squares and see
if you can find one person
who acts justly
and seeks truth—
so that I may pardon Jerusalem.
Although they say, “As the LORD lives,”
yet they swear falsely.
And Jeremiah answers:
O GOD, do your eyes not look for truth?
You have struck them,
but they felt no anguish;
you have consumed them,
but they refused to take correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
they have refused to turn back.
This is the reality of the situation into which Jeremiah is called. The prophet and God both hope for positive results, but Jeremiah’s work is not driven by expected outcomes—it is driven by a desire to live faithfully and to speak truthfully. Jeremiah spends his life waiting for his words to take root. His story ends as he is carried away to Egypt—a captive prophet caught up in a reverse exodus. Jeremiah didn’t see success in his lifetime, yet a long view of history shows that faithfulness to the call is success enough. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” as our 20th Century prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr., said fifty years ago.
Have courage. Remain faithful to the call. The world may say you aren’t enough, you don’t have enough, you can’t be enough — but God says, “you’re exactly who I need you to be. And I am with you.”
“I am with you and will keep you safe.” Jeremiah is told that God will be with him, wherever he may go. This affirmation recalls Moses’ revelation at the burning bush, when The One Who Is Becoming said, “I have heard my people cry, and indeed, I know their suffering.” God journeys with the prophet, just as God suffers alongside those who are stuck under the bondage of poverty and oppression. God will be with Jeremiah, and stay with Jeremiah, because God has been waiting for Jeremiah.
In Journey to the Common Good, our first book in this year’s summer reading series at Pullen, Walter Brueggemann charts the rise of Israel from a loose-knit band of liberated slaves into a kingdom that eventually comes to represent the very sins of empire, ill-gotten wealth and power it had been forged against. This corruption reached its peak under King Solomon, but even Solomon had prophets who dared to speak against him. Abiathar was one. Because Solomon couldn’t kill a priest, he cast Abiathar out of Jersualem and banished him to the village of Anathoth. Brueggemann writes:
“Abiathar went to Anathoth, defrocked from Jerusalem, still a rural priest acting as a village pastor. He had [children]…They were, like him, priests…Every day, for four-hundred years they looked to the southern horizon of the village. They could see traces of Jerusalem and they heard the reports. They heard reports of forced labor and armaments and political marriages and exploitation and foolishness of a hundred kinds — mantras that mingled exclusive religion and patriotic exceptionalism…and abusive labor policy and despair and anxiety and self-sufficiency and amnesia…At the end of four-hundred years — many generations later — this son of exiles from Jerusalem, this Jeremiah, showed up in Jerusalem yet again. He showed up there with words.”3
God was waiting with Jeremiah’s family—the exiles in Anathoth—just as God suffered with the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, just as God stood with Palestinian peasants pushed down by Roman rule in the First Century and just as God can be found among the hurting, hungry and homeless in our fair city today.
God was with Jeremiah, and God promises to go with us, so we must push forward.
And we get to the crux of Jeremiah’s call: “I give you authority over nations and over kingdoms, to pull down and to uproot, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.’”
Grand words, indeed. Pulling down and uprooting, destroying and demolishing, building and planting. It sounds like the beginning of an architect’s vision for a new city. It’s almost as though God is setting Jeremiah up to take charge of the way things are going wrong in Jerusalem. Perhaps the poet from Anathoth, instead of marching through the streets preaching peace and justice, should have been seeking to wield the power of the empire for new purposes, to punish the false prophets and pass new laws that embody God’s vision of the way things should be. That would be a start! Wouldn’t that be enough?
But I don’t think so.
God gave Jeremiah authority over nations, and tasked him with uprooting systems of injustice and planting seeds of hope. Jeremiah was many things, but most of all he was a truth teller. He held conferences with the king. He advocated among the power brokers of Jerusalem. But his real work was among the people. His real authority came from the way he refused to allow the prevailing winds of society to dictate the way he lived out his call. Jeremiah spoke of a day when God’s laws would no longer be written on stone tablets or paper scrolls, but on the hearts of the people. Jeremiah’s primary tools for building and planting weren’t legislative agendas or royal edicts, but a poet’s vision to see the ordinary in new ways, and a life strung together with simple, everyday actions that embodied God’s dream.
When faced with a hostile crowd that wanted his head, Jeremiah offered grace and words of comfort. When the king mocks Jeremiah in the public square, and then begs for the prophet’s help in a private consultation, Jeremiah offers what he can. When family members who had scorned Jeremiah for his extreme behavior and radical views show up in need of refuge, Jeremiah opens his doors. When an enemy army is threatening the city with imminent destruction and people are in a panic, Jeremiah makes a show of buying a parcel of land—keeping hope alive that one day, despite the grief of the present, crops will be planted again, homes will be built, daughters and sons will marry, grandchildren will be born, and life will be filled with blessing.
Jeremiah’s hope is not a naive sentimentalism. The prophet knows suffering, and has been hit personally with bone-shattering grief. But he has courage. He knows that God is with him, and God is still at work for the good of the people.
This Spirit that enabled Jeremiah to live life governed not by legislative decisions or social customs, but by faithfulness to the vision God gave him is what I think of when I consider the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fifty years ago this Wednesday, King led the historic March on Washington and shared his dream of a day when opportunity would not be portioned out on the basis of whether one was black or white or brown, but on the basis of the inherit worth each person carries as a beloved child of God. But like Jeremiah before him, King knew that Washington wasn’t where the real struggle was. He charged those gathered to go back to Alabama, to go back to Mississippi, to come home to Raleigh, and carry that dream back into the neighborhood.
In an article published last week, Durham pastor and activist Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove describes the spiritual journey that prompted King to take a detour from his initial career path of personal success and comfort towards a vision so great it could not be realized in his lifetime alone:
King followed Jesus from Montgomery to Washington, and the dream he shared with America…was certainly as rooted in the Gospel as it was in the U.S. Constitution. But because King was following Jesus, he could not stop with his triumphal entry into Washington. He could not rest when the crowds were cheering or when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. He heard the voice of Jesus calling still to press on, so he challenged the militarism of America that was destroying innocent lives in Vietnam. He listened to the voice of the prophet Amos, so he took up the Poor People’s Campaign. Already a national hero, he moved his family into one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods to walk with poor people in their struggle.
All the while, King knew he was marked for death. Not only did he continue to receive death threats, he became increasingly aware of the unspeakable powers that defend the status quo with violence. To challenge those powers is to take up your cross, King knew. He did it—and he did it with love—because his life had been claimed by Jesus. This is the legacy we remember…4
There may be bleak days ahead, and at times, the obstacles seem impossible. But have courage. God goes with us. And the last word is surely a word of blessing.
“A prophet to the nations—that’s what I had in mind for you…Don’t be afraid of a soul. I’ll be right there, looking after you.” That’s God’s decree.
- Richard Elliott Freidman. Who Wrote the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 1987) 149.
- Terence E. Fretheim. “Jeremiah” in Smyth &Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2002) 46.
- Walter Brueggemann. Journey to the Common Good (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 57-58.
- Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Remebering Dr. King: Turning Dreams into Deeds Then and Now, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jonathanwilsonhartgrove/2013/08/remebering-dr-king-turning-dreams-into-deeds-then-and-now/ [Accessed August 22, 2013]