A reticent prophet: called, equipped, and sustained (Jeremiah 1; Pentecost 11C)

This is a sermon that I wrote and presented for Project Reconnect for this coming Sunday, Pentecost 11. The video of the sermon is at https://projectreconnect.com.au/2022/07/21/21st-august-2022-pentecost-9-the-prophet-jeremiah

Project Reconnect is a worship resource that is published weekly to help congregations with their worship service. It includes a PDF information sheet with video messages, music resources and discussion starters. (The website notes, “downloads are free but we would appreciate your donations to help continue our work”; see https://projectreconnect.com.au)

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Prophets. Not profits as in financial gain, the difference between the amount earned and the amount spent in buying, operating, or producing something. But prophets, as in the chosen messengers of God, empowered by the Spirit, equipped to declare the word of the Lord to the people of God.

If your mind goes to prophets, perhaps you might think of Amos: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”; or Micah: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”. Perhaps you think of Elijah: “the Lord was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire; but in the sound of sheer silence.” Or is it Isaiah who comes to your recollection: “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

I’m not surprised if one of those famous prophets was the person you immediately thought of. We have heard from some of them in the Old Testament readings in previous weeks, so they may be fresh in your mind.

But in today’s reading, we hear about the call that God placed on another person, a somewhat reluctant prophet: Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was not itching to respond to God, when he received the call to become a prophet. He was not very old; some commentators consider him to be in his early 20s, others note that the distinctive Hebrew word used in this passage indicates he was in his teens. We might have sympathy for Jeremiah on this account; he was young, hardly at an age that we would recognise as qualified and equipped to be a public spokesperson for God!

So when he heard God declare to him, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations”, the NRSV translation says that the young man replied, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Actually, when they say he replied, “Ah”, he was using a Hebrew word that actually means, “alas” or “woe is me”. Strong’s Concordance says this is “a primitive word expressing pain”—so, more like “ouch!!!” So perhaps it’s better to think of his response as more like “oh no, oh no, oh nooooo—I couldn’t possibly do that! no way at all!!”. Jeremiah just did not want this gig at all.

Maybe you might know how he feels: when we are asked to do something difficult, something demanding, something challenging, that is beyond what we feel that we are able to achieve. For you, that might be the challenge of running a marathon, or being invited to speak in public to a large crowd, or learning a new language. Big challenges, lots of hard work, too much to consider. For me, I can think of a few challenges that really freak me out: climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge (I don’t handle heights very well at all), letting a snake coil around me (that’s a petrifying thought), touching a spider (we just aren’t going to go there in any way!)

Jeremiah was incredibly reticent; like Moses, he was not going to take up this invitation in any way. Moses declined the offer of becoming the spokesperson for God: “who am I, to go to Pharaoh? what could I say to him?” but God persisted, and Moses relented. Likewise, with Jeremiah; initially, he says, “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy”, but God persists: he will support the young man Jeremiah, just as he supported the young man Moses.

But I think that we have this story from the opening chapter of this book, in our reading today, not because it shows us that God will help us overcome our fears about challenges set before us. It think that it is not Jeremiah’s words that we are to focus on. It is, rather, the words that God speaks to Jeremiah which should ring in our ears.

It is the encouragement for the task that God promises—and later delivers—that must stand out for us. “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’”, the voice declares; “for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” God gives the right words for the appropriate time. That is remembered when Jesus later tells his disciples that the spirit would enable them to speak, even in the midst of difficulties (Luke 21:13–15).

And then, we hear the words: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” In typical style, the first word of God to the human being chosen for a specific task is, “do not be afraid”. When God appears to human beings—in a vision, as an angel, in a voice from the heavens, in a response to prayer, as a niggling, unsettling feeling, in words of advice or guidance from a friend—however God might appear to us, it can be an experience that evokes fear, awe, anxiety. Who is this, speaking to me? How am I to respond?

“Do not be afraid”, said the Lord, to Abraham, in a vision (Gen 15). “Do not be afraid”, he said, to Isaac, at Beersheba (Gen 26). “Do not be afraid”, to Moses, in the wilderness (Num 21), to Joshua, facing the combined might of a great army (Josh 11), to Elijah, also facing a great army (2 Kings 1); “do not be afraid”, Isaiah says, on behalf of the Lord, to king Hezekiah (Isa 37); “do not be afraid”, the voice of God says to the prophet Ezekiel, when he was called to his role (Ezek 2), and to Zechariah (Zech 8). It is a common refrain throughout the stories of the people of Israel.

And we hear the same phrase repeated in New Testament stories, when God speaks to Zechariah, “do not be afraid” (Luke 1), to Mary, “do not be afraid” (Luke 1), to Joseph (Matt 1), to Simon Peter (Luke 5), to Paul, Silas, and Timothy, in Corinth (Acts 18), and to the ageing prophet John in exile on Patmos: “do not be afraid” (Rev 1). It is God’s consistent and encouraging word to those who encounter the intensity of divine presence, the enormity of divine challenge, the inescapable call to follow, to believe, to declare the word of the Lord: “do not be afraid”. It is God’s word to each of us.

So the word of God to Jeremiah is clear: “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” And Jeremiah is willing to respond; to accept the challenge, to take up the call, to stretch himself and step into a new experience.

What Jeremiah would encounter in the decades that followed, was pretty heavy stuff. He didn’t know that at the time that he accepted the call to be God’s spokesperson. He persisted, held strong, remained faithful throughout all the difficulties that ensued for the people of Israel, as they were attacked, besieged, defeated, and then sent into exile, away from their homeland, off into a strange, foreign country. Jeremiah held fast; he remained faithful to the call that God had placed upon him through all of this.

And God held fast to him through all these tragic events. Jeremiah received the support, the guidance, and the encouragement from God through this all, as the people of God were taken from their beloved land, and sent far away into exile. God remained faithful.

So we give thanks to God, for God holds fast, God remains faithful, God does not let go, no matter what. That gracious, faithful commitment to us is the heart of the good news that we know, that we proclaim, that we live in our lives: the ever-faithful God who is with us, the ever-present God who is for us.

For this, we say: thanks be to God!

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1. What do you think about the idea that a teenager could be the chosen voice of God?

2. How do you deal with difficulties on your walk of faith? How do you listen for what God might be saying to you at such a time?

3. Think of a challenge that faces your congregation or faith community. How might you work together to discern what God is calling you to do?

4. Jeremiah was called to speak to all the people—the whole community—in the public arena. How do you make your voice heard in the public discussion of important issues today?

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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