We like to think of God calling us as something intimate, as something gentle, as something comforting. We have all seen the Hallmark cards with God’s words to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” We long for these words of consolation to be spoken by God to us. We hear God’s words as hopeful words, as loving words. But Jeremiah knows otherwise. These words are completely terrifying. Words he wishes God never would have uttered. Jeremiah may be young, but he is wise enough to know that when God shows up, pain, suffering and hell usually follow.
Verse 9 helps us understand the jolt which Jeremiah felt throughout his entire body during this call. Most of your Bibles probably read something close to the following: “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.” This is quite the domesticated translation, for the word “touch” is elsewhere translated in the Bible as strike or harm. It is probably more accurate to imagine God figuratively socking Jeremiah in the mouth. The one other time in Scripture where we read of God sending forth’s God’s hand and touching is found in the prologue to the book of Job, where Satan challenges God to test Job’s faithfulness by taking away everything Job has. There is nothing gentle about the wind that subsequently touches the house where Job’s children are feasting, leaving every one of them dead beneath its roof.
God’s calling, while incredibly intimate, is far from comforting. It is something which completely disrupts, even destroys Jeremiah’s life. It is so traumatic that Jeremiah, like Job before him, will even curse the day of his birth, the day of his consecration, wishing that he had never been born. Referring back to Jeff’s sermon last week, Jeremiah is a Joban prophet. One who doesn’t experience blessings when embodying God’s reconciling work. One who instead experiences a God who strikes him with a lighting bolt to his body. We would even be justified in asking whether being touched by God left a visible wound or scar on Jeremiah’s body. For God placing words in Jeremiah’s mouth has changed him forever.
If you have ever felt called by God for anything, whether it be your job, a type of service work, a specific ministry, then maybe you know what it feels like to be called by God to do something you never wanted to do. I’ve always had a special affinity for Jeremiah. Of all the prophets, he’s my favorite. The one I most closely relate too. The one who frequently guides me and inspires me in my ministry.
And while I’ve never cursed the day of my birth, like Jeremiah, I did, for a time, resent God for uprooting my life and placing me on this journey of pastoral ministry. And if I’m honest, I must admit that there are still seasons, where I dream what it would be like to have pursued baseball statistics full-time or become a collegiate professor.
I don’t know if I ever have talked about my time serving as a youth pastor at a baptist church in Barberton, Ohio. The story is too long to tell in full. But basically I was hired to start a youth ministry program at an old, dying church in an extremely poor neighborhood. And it didn’t end well. The ministry went up in flames, literally.
That experience is full of horror stories including the time that a mother choked and knocked her daughter unconscious in the church right after she picked her up from youth group. I wish I could say that that was the worst of it. But one night, after youth group, after dropping off a full carload of kids at their homes, I remember setting off to meet the pastor of the church for mentoring and dinner. On my way, I noticed that a kid had left their hat in the back seat of my car, on the rear dash. Little did I know, that he had set something on fire under that hat right before he left. I remember driving on the highway, nearing the exit for the restaurant, smelling something that wasn’t quite right. I gazed back in my rearview mirror, only to see flames blazing on the rear dash. For whatever reason, I didn’t pull over immediately. I had no idea how fast the car would completely catch on fire. I got off at the next exit, I leisurely found an empty parking lot, I even answered my cell phone, hysterically telling my friend that my car was on fire. They had no idea what I was saying. By the time I parked my car, the wiring system had caught on fire and the flames had traveled along the sides of the car.
I had some really expensive school books, my tennis racquets and a few other things in the back seat that I wasn’t going to let go up in flames. I remember just chucking as much as I could out of my car as frantically as possible. I still have a frisbee golf disc with a hole in the middle to remember that night. Amazingly, I didn’t experience any serious burns. Only the sides of my hair, which was much longer then than now, were scorched. Within three or four minutes, the flames were at least eight feet high and my car was completely devoured by the time the firetruck arrived. I’m still in disbelief that that night happened.
For all practical purposes, that night was the end of my ministry at that church. The pastor encouraged me to start applying for graduate programs and let me know that the church would not be continuing their experiment of starting a youth ministry program. After this, for a long time, I was angry. I was angry at the kid for setting my car on fire. I was angry that the church would so easily and quickly give up on them. And I was also very angry with God for calling me to be part of such a mess. For leading me down this path. For giving me such a passion for theology, for people and faith when there were so many other things I could have been doing with my life.
When I went to Duke Divinity, becoming a pastor wasn’t on my radar at the time. In fact, you can say that I went to Duke to run away from the possibility of pastoral ministry. At the time, I wasn’t sure of my denominational affiliation. However, I was absolutely positive that I would never want to be a Methodist pastor. All I knew is that I belonged to the peace church tradition. I hoped that Duke would allow me to exist on the periphery, to study peace theology and theory, and just get my Master of Theological Studies degree so that I’d be more prepared for advanced coursework. Of course, God had other plans. Within a few weeks, God had sent me to Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship and they wouldn’t let me continue on my own path much longer. When God strikes you, it is hard to get away.
I’m not sure if anyone else can relate to my story or to Jeremiah’s, but I believe we are all called by God, at times, to situations which we would rather not be in. To places we would rather not go. To ministries of which we want no part. And Jeremiah reminds us that it is OK to occasionally be angry with God, to bicker with God, and to wish that circumstances were different.
However, just in case you can’t relate to this part of Jeremiah’s story, I would like to spend the rest of the sermon outlining the contours of Jeremiah’s ministry. To the work which God called him to be part. I’ve spent the last week thinking again about ministry. And as I mentioned earlier, I’ve always found Jeremiah to be a great guide on my journey. So I’d like to share some other ways Jeremiah helps me process my calling; I hope they help you as well.
Our text this morning excludes the second half of Jeremiah’s call. But immediately after being struck by God, God tests Jeremiah. Now usually when we think of ministry, when we think of our callings, we tend to think of speaking or doing. Jeremiah seems to have thought this way as well for when he was first called by God, he protested: “I do not know how to speak.” But when God tests Jeremiah, twice God asks him: “What do you see, Jeremiah?” “What are you watching?” The first thing that God has Jeremiah watch is something incredibly ordinary. “I see the branch of an almond tree,” Jeremiah replies. God wants to know if Jeremiah can take the time to see the ordinary, everyday aspects of life right in front of him.
In the second test, Jeremiah must correctly observe a pot that is boiling, that is tilting from the north. Here God tests Jeremiah’s ability to perceive the signs around him, to put all the puzzle pieces together and make sense of his world. Here Jeremiah must be willing to see history as it is really unfolding. The configurations of international power are shifting. And Jeremiah correctly sees that Babylon is a hot threat which soon will burn up the land of Judah.
Here Jeremiah reminds me that ministry starts not primarily with speaking or doing, it is shaped around the phenomenon of vision. We, as God’s people, are called to see things others do not see, to make connections which others missed. We are called to gaze upon our world, to observe it, to watch it patiently, even stubbornly, so that we can begin to piece together the shape and flow of how God is invading the reality around us. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the call of Moses also begins with watching, with seeing. Moses’ test was, of course, the burning bush. I’ve always been amazed that Moses noticed that the bush would not burn up. How long do you think Moses had to stand there, had to watch the bush before he noticed that it was on fire and yet was not being destroyed. How many times did Moses second guess himself, did he rub his eyes in disbelief before he allowed himself to see the burning bush for what it really was. Much like Jeremiah, that was Moses’ test. To watch, to observe what was really in front of him.
There is not much more difficult than seeing the world as it actually is. To observe it and not look away. To resist the temptation to view the world through rose colored glasses. We are trained to imagine that things are better than they actually are. I call this conventional seeing, which is not seeing but rather overlooking, ignoring the things that should cause us to change our mind and our ways. And if we don’t succumb to this temptation, then it is even harder not to be overrun by despair. To resist giving in to the pessimistic attitude pervading our society. It is painful to see clearly.
I believe the entirety of Jeremiah’s ministry is born out of his uncanny ability to see the world as it actually is. I’m amazed by his courage to witness to horror and never look away. In verse 10, God tells Jeremiah that he has appointed him to uproot, to tear down, to destroy and overthrow. How Jeremiah is able to devote himself to this task for his entire life and not succumb to depression is an impressive feat.
As I mentioned earlier, Jeremiah is the Joban voice among the prophets. Poem after poem dwells on and in the totality of loss, even to the point of tedium, so that we ourselves feel the immobilizing grind of misery. Jeremiah tears down illusion after illusion entrapping the Israelites by descending again and again into hell. Each time he grips us and forces us down with him so that we too can see the massive loss in all its dimensions. He experiences intense loneliness, passionate anger, constant frustration, imprisonment and suffering all in hopes of overthrowing the injustices around him. And through it all, he reminds us of the importance of lamentation within our lives and our ministry. Jeremiah shows us that lament is not aimless whining. It is a search for meaning and direction. It is how he comes to terms with his increasingly hopeless situation. Chris Rice and Emmanuel Katongole insightfully help us see the importance of lamentation of which Jeremiah attests:
“To lament is to see, stand in, describe, and tell the truthful story about the brokenness around us and in us. To lament is to learn to refuse to be consoled by easy explanations or false hopes. Lament is bringing our analysis into conversation with God and learning to pray with urgency. Lament is a journey into seeing what God sees and feeling what God feels.”
However, it isn’t enough for us to painfully see the world as it really is. It is not enough for us to inhibit the different hells which populate our world so that we can uproot the false lies which hold us captive. As hard of a task that might be, God calls Jeremiah and all of us to an even harder task – to be agents of hope amid our broken world. For after God gives Jeremiah the task to uproot and overthrow, God calls him to build and plant.
The contemporary rural prophet, Wes Jackson, once said: “Pessimism and optimism are both forms of arrogance. We have no right to stop hoping.” Here Wes Jackson isn’t speaking of a cheap hope, but the difficult and yet realistic hope that is born of a full reckoning with the dimensions of infidelity and disaster which surround us. This is the hope which Jeremiah envisions again and again throughout his ministry. It is a hope which only emerges when we risk living so close to the border of death and despair.
One of my favorite examples of Jeremiah’s radical hope is found in Jeremiah 32. It is a lengthy, detailed narrative which I challenge you to read this week. It is a story where Jeremiah acquires a field in his village of Anathoth on behalf of his cousin Hanamel who has evidently fallen into straights and been forced to sell some portion of his family land as collateral for debt. At the time, Jeremiah is imprisoned. He knows that Babylon is on the march, about to conquer Israel. He has foreseen that the king of Judah will not escape the hand of the Chaldeans. Practically speaking, it is foolish to acquire a field in the north, the direction in which Nebuchadnezzar’s army is encamped. He knows that tomorrow this land will be worthless, it will belong to foreign hands. Nonetheless, Jeremiah draws up a legal document, summons witnesses, weighs out the silver to acquire land that is worth to him as an individual, and has the deed of purchase put in a sealed container. And in this act, Jeremiah becomes a redeemer – one who restores arable land to the family unit that depends on it for survival. In this deed, he acts for the sake of the future. By purchasing this worthless land, Jeremiah gives the future a concrete hope, he gives it a location which the people can hold onto amid their deportation and time in exile. This is a poetic act which points to God’s future. One which proclaims that the destruction will not last forever.
I don’t know where you are today. Perhaps, you like Jeremiah, currently find yourself amid an impossible situation which you want no part. Perhaps you are angry with God, perhaps you are completely disenfranchised. Or perhaps you are in a place full of joy and hope.
However, no matter where you are, Jeremiah reminds us that we are called to a ministry of seeing. We are called to see as God sees. We are called to observe, to stand in, describe and tell the truthful story about the brokenness around us and in us. No matter how painful, no matter how much we might be tempted otherwise, no matter how much we long to run away, God is calling us to live so close to despair that we can find hope. To inhibit hell, to keep one’s eyes focused directly upon it, so that we can find a hope that reckons with the infidelity and disaster all around us. This is the ministry of Jeremiah. Staretz Silouan, the great Russian monk, must have been contemplating Jeremiah when he famous proclaimed: “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.”