January 25th, 2015 – Conversion of Paul
Both of tonight’s readings describe the calling of men to speak the word of God – a calling that God makes in two VERY different ways. For Saul, it’s a sudden calling of breath-taking drama – Jesus appears to him, he is blinded for three days, doesn’t eat or drink and has a total reversal of heart; this passionate man of God, loyal to his Jewish faith, becomes the bringer of the Word to the gentiles. We have the phrase ‘a Damascene conversion’ in the English language today to describe a sudden and dramatic change of heart and mind.
For Jeremiah – well, for Jeremiah it’s all rather different – rather than the direct and almost violent call of Saul, Jeremiah is persuaded by God who shares the reasons why He wants Jeremiah. And it’s Jeremiah I want to focus on this evening.
Some years ago I took a phone call that changed my life. A dear friend of mine rang me up with the excellent news that she was expecting a baby and asked me if I would be the baby’s Godfather. I was over the moon about the offer – and now, as Godfather to Annie and her brother, I regard that phone call, taken whilst sitting on our stairs, as one of the pivotal points in my life.
I was told not long after the call that the baby was going to be a little girl, and not long after that I sat down and wrote the unborn baby – who we called ‘Lulu’ – a letter that I will one day give her. One thing I say in there is “I felt I knew you before you were even a bump”.
In tonight’s reading, God, as always, goes several steps better than I ever could. He says to Jeremiah:
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart, I appointed you as a prophet to the nations”
It’s very clear to Jeremiah that God has something planned for him…
Jeremiah was a prophet in what can only be called ‘interesting times’. He started preaching in 626 BC, and finished his ministry in 586BC, at the age of 70 – quite how he died is not totally known but tradition has him being stoned to death in Egypt. His time of prophecy covered one of the great turning points in Middle Eastern history, the defeat of the Egyptians in 605 BC by the Babylonian leader Nebuchanezzar – and the fall of Jerusalem and the taking of Daniel in to captivity – the exile.
Jeremiah started his ministry during the reign of King Josiah, and that king carried out numerous reforms that started putting Judah back on the road to a good relationship with God, but after Josiah died in 609 BC, the bad habits of the people of Judah returned and they slipped back in to idolatory and worshipping the gods of surrounding nations. Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry was to reveal the sins of the people at this time, and warn of the consequences.
Jeremiah is traditionally credited with writing Jeremiah, 1 Kings, 2 Kings and Lamentations, and is often called ‘the weeping prophet’. Indeed, you can still hear someone being referred to as a ‘Jeremiah’ if they’re a bit miserable all the time. The illustration of him on the Sistine Chapel ceiling shows a thoughtful, sad looking man – although it could be argued that it’s hardly surprising given the times in which he lived and preached! His personal attributes didn’t help, either – he avoids feasts, doesn’t attend weddings or funerals, on God’s instructions he doesn’t marry and doesn’t have kids, and doesn’t pass time with merry-makers.
God comes to Jeremiah with deliberate intent. This isn’t God needing a prophet for the times, casting his eye around and saying ‘Jeremiah, have I got an opportunity for you!’ God states very clearly to Jeremiah that He had a role in mind for Jeremiah from before Jeremiah was even conceived, let alone a ‘bump’!
The phrase ‘I knew you’ can be translated as ‘I chose you’ – God has chosen Jeremiah, who He has already formed, to take on this role. God has set him apart from other men to become a prophet ‘to the nations’ – not just to Judah, but to the surrounding nations as well. Jeremiah is to take the word of God to those who do not believe, as well as warning his own people of the consequence of their behaviour.
Jeremiah is not a ‘gung ho’ sort of prophet like Isaiah. I think Jeremiah is like most of us would be in the same circumstances – reluctant to take on what’s going to be a tough and dangerous job.
He’s not at all keen, and attempts to convince God of his unsuitability for the role by calling upon God to recognise that he’s only a lad – “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”
One thing that is so important to bear in mind about this reading is that it shows that whilst God in divine fore-thought planned Jeremiah to be the man for this time, God didn’t sit down and also put in to Jeremiah the desire to just say ‘Lord, I’ve been waiting all my life for this moment; let’s do this thing.’
He left that hole; that gap; that space in to which Jeremiah’s personality, personal awareness, character and free will could work. All of those things that Jeremiah himself ‘brings to the party’ – his experiences, the skills he develops on the back of God’s given gifts and talents.
What if Jeremiah had said ‘No!’ and run for the hills? We don’t know – we can imagine that God would have carried on persuading him, or acted directly, as he does with Jonah – but we will never know.
Jeremiah argues that he is unsuited for the job that God wishes him to do because he is unfit for it; he says “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child”. Now Jeremiah was laying it on a bit thick here. At the time of his calling he, was almost certainly under 25 – some have suggested that he might have been as young as 17 – but given that childhood was marked as ending around 14 years old he would have been regarded as a young man in his society, but so was Isaiah when he ‘got the job’. Jeremiah is here suggesting that he’s not capable of prophesying, with all the eloquence and oratorical skills needed, rather than actually physically being mute.
In fact, Jeremiah isn’t saying ‘No’ to God – he’s actually exhibiting humility and awareness of his own limitations as he sees them. God speaks to Jeremiah about his concern, saying:
“Do not say, I am only a child. You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.”
Youth and inexperience are no handicap to spreading the word of God. God is also open with Jeremiah about the risks involved; he’s not saying that the job will be without risk; there will be danger, but Jeremiah shouldn’t be scared as God will be with him, and will rescue him from harm as he goes about the Lord’s work. Yes, it will be hard, there will be risks, there will be possible danger – but you will be alright, because I am with you and will rescue you if needed. You’re delivering the word of God to the nations who need to hear it – don’t fear mere men.
I don’t know about you but if I were Jeremiah I’d be slightly more confident at this stage. There’s a question often asked of people wanting to ‘spread their wings’ “If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you try and do?” and I think that’s what we’re seeing here. Jeremiah is aware of his limitations, but he shouldn’t necessarily draw back from prophesying the word of God when God calls him to do so. The importance of the word of God lies not with the messenger who delivers it, but with the divinity of he who speaks the words.
And God then gives Jeremiah a sign; he touches Jeremiah’s lips and says ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’ It’s unclear in the reading whether God does this in a prophetic vision, or whether Jeremiah experiences the physical presence of God – but the effect is the same. God has anointed Jeremiah to prophesy – he has supplied Jeremiah with the skills and gifts of oratorical speech and eloquence that Jeremiah himself feels that he lacks. Henceforth Jeremiah will be speaking the living word of God when he preaches and prophesies.
And what words he will be speaking.
God tells him that he is appointed to “uproot and tear down, destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” Jeremiah will be bringing a two fold message – that of destruction and catastrophe brought about by God’s people ignoring God’s word, and ‘building and planting’ – a message of hope for the future.
What do we learn from tonight’s reading about God and his dealings with his chosen prophets? And what does this tell us about ourselves?
God will not be rushed in to selecting people for the job; before conception God knows what he has in mind for us. He provides us with the basis of what we will need for the role he has in mind for us.
We are the children of God from the very beginning – even when we’re still a foetus; God knows us even then, and even then we are His children.
And God knows us before we know God.
God doesn’t program us as automatons; Jeremiah is aware of his own limitations to ask God ‘Am I the man for the job?’. God could have totally pre-destined Jeremiah to accept the role without question. He didn’t – there is that gap for our own personality and free will.
And at that moment of decision, God strengthens us with his promise of protection. God acknowledges that there will be risks and danger, but we will not be harmed in His service.
And then he provides us with the rest of the tools we need for the job in hand. Jeremiah is blessed by God touching his mouth so that he will be able to speak the word of God with confidence and authority.
And what about us?
The prophets of the Old Testament told the people of God when their relationship with God was flawed; when they were going away from the Law; when they were behaving in a way that was less than pleasing to the Lord. They told the people of the consequences that would come from their acts; they also gave words of hope.
Each of us today is in a position to minister to those around us – to be lights of hope in a darkening world.
How often do we feel that we’re not equipped to be those lights?
When we feel the need to speak the word of God, we can remember the experience of Jeremiah – be aware of our weaknesses, be humble, but remember that THIS might be one of those moments in which YOU are the one God intends for the job, and have faith that God won’t let you do it without the right tools for the job.