“Called Like Jeremiah”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 3, 2019

Jeremiah 1:4-10


If you have ever felt inadequate, Jeremiah’s story is for you.

The reading we just heard comes from the very beginning of the prophet’s story.  Those of you who have spent some time with your Bibles know that Jeremiah is a lengthy book, 52 chapters of prophetic oracles and vivid laments in which Jeremiah rails against the powers that be and calls for the people to return to the way of God.  He tells it like it is; he does not mince words.  He is not exactly shy, not exactly a shrinking violet.

But here, at the start, when the word of God comes to Jeremiah for the very first time, Jeremiah demurs.  I think you’ve got the wrong guy, God.  I’m not very good with words.  I’m not much for public speaking.  I’m too young, and I’m kind of scared…  Yeah, I’m definitely not the one for this job.

Jeremiah is pretty sure he does not have the necessary qualifications.  He hasn’t completed the requisite hours of training or earned the right merit badges.  He doesn’t look the part.  He is inexperienced and inarticulate; he feels insufficient, entirely inadequate for the task to which he is called.

But God knew differently about Jeremiah, and God knows differently about you.  Before you were a twinkle in your parents’ eyes, you were already known to God.  Before you did anything, before you achieved anything, before you learned anything, before you proved anything, before you had demonstrated experience in anything, you were already chosen, already consecrated for a purpose holy and high.  Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, says God, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

If you have ever felt inadequate, Jeremiah’s story is for you.  Though you may feel too small, too young, too tongue-tied, too timid, too anything else—the God who knows you better than you know yourself has other ideas.


If you have ever felt alone and afraid, Jeremiah’s story is for you.

After Jeremiah’s first attempt to dissuade God from the vocation God is presenting (or imposing), I imagine Jeremiah is feeling pretty scared.  A prophet to the nations…  The last person to be described in the same language that is used here with Jeremiah was Moses.  You know, Moses—who heard God speaking from a burning bush… who was sent off to Egypt without so much as the name of the one who sent him… who was instructed simply to tell one of the most powerful rulers in the known world to let a group of enslaved people go free, and expected to succeed.  Moses, who did succeed against all odds, then spent 40 years—40 years!—wandering in the wilderness, subsisting on manna and quails, contending with the quarreling and quibbling of the people, facing hunger and thirst, and every so often, climbing up the mountain to come face-to-face with God (which, by the way, was also supposed to be fatal to mere mortals).  Moses, who led the people faithfully for so long, who tried so hard, and yet who died on the very verge of the Promised Land.  The call to be like him had to be frightening.

When the word comes to Jeremiah, and he responds, essentially, with, “Who, me?” we know he is feeling scared, intimidated, anxious, trepidatious, because the next thing God says is, Do not be afraid.  And whenever that sentence is spoken, you can be sure that whoever God is talking to—they’re terrified.  Do not be afraid, says God to Jeremiah, for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.

If you have ever felt alone and afraid, Jeremiah’s story is for you.  When you are responding to God’s call, God will give you words to speak.  God will tell you where to go.  And whoever you will face as you speak the words given you—you will not face them alone.  Even if they are intimidating, even if they are fierce, even if they are bigger than you or stronger than you or older than you or wealthier than you or more powerful than you—you need not fear, for God will go with you to deliver you.


If you have ever felt like what you say does not matter, Jeremiah’s story is for you.

You know that old adage people teach to children, that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” (which is nonsense, by the way)… well, I’m pretty sure Jeremiah had never heard it, and God for sure debunked it.

We may say that something is “just talk,” or “empty words,” or “a lot of hot air,” but scripture teaches us that words are powerful, that the things we say matter a great deal.  Words have the power to create entire worlds—or to destroy them.  They have the power to hurt or to heal.  They have the power to name what is true, and what is not, and to lay bare the difference between the two.

Now I have put my words in your mouth, says God.  See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.

If you have ever felt like what you say does not matter, Jeremiah’s story is for you.  Because the words Jeremiah spoke did just that:  they mattered tremendously.  They pointed out falsity and called people back to the truth; they named hurts and brought about healing; they plucked up and pulled down that which needed to be destroyed, and they planted seeds and built up structures of new, restored, redeemed life.  And your words can do the same.


If you have ever thought that following God’s call should be easy, Jeremiah’s story is for you.

Although God overcame Jeremiah’s inadequacies… although God delivered on God’s promise to be with Jeremiah, never to leave him alone, to keep him safe so he could carry out the mission for which he was sent… although Jeremiah’s words mattered tremendously… Jeremiah’s call did not make his life simple, or straightforward, or comfortable.

Nations and kingdoms don’t generally respond well to being plucked up, pulled down, destroyed, and overthrown.  And anyone who has ever worked in construction or agriculture knows that building and planting are no easy tasks, either.  The words Jeremiah was given to speak were often hard words, and they often drew hard responses.  But though they were hard, they were also necessary.  The fact that sometimes his hearers did not appreciate the prophetic message Jeremiah brought did not mean his message was wrong—just that it was a difficult or uncomfortable one to hear, in spite of being spoken in a spirit of love.  It was hard work, the work of speaking God’s words to the nations.

And it was hard work receiving those words, too.  In our reading, Jeremiah says that the Lord put out a hand and touched my mouth.  It sounds innocuous enough—that is, until you learn that the same Hebrew word translated here as “touched” is used in other places with more violent connotations.  In the book of Job, the same word is used for a wind that “touched” a house and completely destroyed it.  In the book of Genesis, in the story in which Jacob wrestles with an angelic being all night long, the angel “touches” Jacob on the thigh, and all of a sudden, his hip is out of joint, and he is left with a limp when all is said and done.  So we would do well to wonder just what it felt like for Jeremiah when God touched his mouth.  Did it hurt?  Did it leave a mark, a scar?  Could he ever speak normally again, or did every word he spoke—like every step Jacob took—bear the traces of that touch?

If you have ever thought that following God’s call should be easy, Jeremiah’s story is for you.  Because when we humans come into contact with the divine, we do not leave that encounter unchanged.  The call to speak God’s word is not easy or simple or light.  It is powerful.  It is potent.  It is weighty.  It is sometimes dangerous.  And yet, it is also life-giving, both for our hearers and for our own souls, for it brings us into contact with the truest truth we know, the truth that will set us free.


The work of speaking God’s words is no easy task.  For God’s words are weighty words.  And words matter a great deal, especially in this time of rapid communication and social media, when people’s words—true or untrue, careful or careless—can reach all the way around the world without even trying.  And yet, in our call to speak God’s words, you—and we—are not alone, not ever.  We are accompanied by one another, and by our long-ago forebears in faith, and by God’s own Spirit, who gives us the words we need to speak and shows us where we need to go.  And even when we feel inadequate, God reminds us that we—that you—are gifted and graced beyond your understanding, and that with God’s help, all things are possible.

May we have the courage of Jeremiah:  the courage to hear God’s call, to answer it even when we are scared, to speak the truth in love, and to use every word we speak for the building-up of God’s realm.


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