4Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7But the Lordsaid to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 9Then 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. 10See, 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.”
Back to the Future
I’m holding a toad in my hand, and I realize it has wet itself on me. It’s the summer of 1972 and I’m out after dark with my new friends, walking around our subdivision which is still being built. The dozen or so of us almost junior high school students have been poking around the new construction sites of our planned community. What once was farmland, churned up by bulldozers, is now a brown moonscape. A bumper crop of toads has been displaced. With delight, I’ve broken away from the girls and joined the boys in catching as many as I can. But now, with toad wee on my hands and the stylish girls who invited me on this walk eyeing me suspiciously, I don’t know where to wipe my hands or how to act or what to say or who to be in this strange new world.
Until this summer, my whole life has been lived in Air Force base housing, but now my parents have bought their first home and I have friends, for the first time ever, who aren’t the children of my dad’s reconnaissance squadron. Our house has a split-level entrance, shag carpeting, and a fenced in yard. In a few days I’ll be walking with this new group of friends to William Jennings Bryan Junior High School and starting the seventh grade.
The toad isn’t my problem. I’ve been peed on by a toad before. It’s junior high girls that scare me. Kindergarten through sixth grade was bike riding, tree climbing, puddle excavating, fort making, salamander catching … you get the idea. I knew what to do and there wasn’t a lot to say about it. But the expression on Julie Zalinski’s face just now makes it clear that in junior high toad wee on your hands is not cool.
I don’t know it yet, but it’s not going to get easier in the next few months. The first day of school I’m going to have my bangs freshly cut by my mom, and my long hair tucked behind my ears when I pull on knee high white socks and a plaid jumper. When I meet up with the gang at Julie Zalinski’s house I’ll see that all the other girls are wearing bell-bottom hip-hugger jeans and halter tops. They’ll continue being polite to me for months, waiting for me every day before heading up the hill on our trek to the junior high school. They’re nice enough girls. But before winter comes, my grandmother will send money for a new coat. “Pick out whatever you want.” I’ll fall in love with a vibrant emerald green short coat of fake-fur with black leather toggle buttons that remind me of the little girl on the cover of my favorite book, Heidi. (I’ll wear my hair in twin braids.) When Julie Zalinski’s mom lets me into her house while the girls are still congregating in the kitchen, they won’t realize I’m there. I’ll hear them all laughing at my awful green coat from the Sears children’s department. While we’re walking together that day, I’ll finally notice that everyone else is wearing knee length wool coats, tied at the waist. I won’t be able to get a new coat again until ninth grade when my growth spurt finally comes. I’ll ask my mom to stop buying children’s clothes from Sears.
These neighborhood girls are all my age, but they seem wiser, more knowledgeable, more aware of the what is happening in the world around us than I have ever been. I am a frightened toad of a girl, caught up by something bigger than I’ve ever known. It’s not easy being green.
Jeremiah begins his career as a prophet as green as they come. Neither bullfrog nor toad, he is simply a boy who God reaches down to pluck from an ordinary life. God takes Jeremiah as he finds him, but he does not leave him that way. God puts the fire of prophecy in his belly. And the blazing truth of God’s own word touches his lips.
Jeremiah is … afraid. He’s just beginning to truly see the world around him, and he recognizes how messed up things are in Israel. Religious and political leaders only listen to what they want to hear, and false prophets on the government payroll stand ready to say whatever the anointed ruler wants to hear. God’s had enough of it with the fake clergy and so chooses a trembling boy with an honest heart to be God’s spokesperson. God stretches out a divine hand and touches Jeremiah’s mouth. “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 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.”
It’s a familiar story, this call of the prophet. It follows the pattern of many biblical leaders: God initiates the dialogue, the prophet objects and states why “this isn’t going to work,” God chastises then reassures the hesitant preacher, and the prophet is commissioned. It’s the pattern we see with Moses, Gideon, Saul, Isaiah and Ezekiel. And here with Jeremiah, the same drama unfolds.
Scripture reveals that God is passionately committed to speaking in every age. And the voice of revelation which God chooses is the human voice of a humble and obedient servant commissioned to bear the truth. This refusal dance, “Oh no, God, I’m not worthy” is a mark of authenticity. Those who brag and grab, the ones who boast, “I know the most about everything, no one’s better than me,” the arrogant ones, these con men are the ones truly unworthy of leadership.
True to form, Jeremiah objects to his call.
Moses objects because he is tongue-tied, an unskilled speaker. Ezekiel claims that he just didn’t know what to say. Isaiah says he’s unworthy of the office. Jeremiah insists he is too young and inexperienced. To all of them, God answers, “This isn’t really about you. It’s not about how inspiring or clever or intelligent or entertaining you think you are – this call is about willingness to see and speak up about what is really happening in this big world which God so loves.
Jeremiah doesn’t know it yet, but being a prophet isn’t going to get easier. Throughout most of the book bearing his name, we find Jeremiah plagued by inner struggles. He experiences pain and heartache as he reaches out to God’s people only to be rejected, as he speaks the truth to power and is despised for it, as he warns his own beloved of impending disaster and they repeatedly fail to heed his warnings. Much of what he has known in national and communal life is plucked up, pulled down, destroyed and overthrown. He witnesses exile and judgment. At times, he cannot see any possible hope for redemption, and God calls him to proclaim a coming revival anyway. Only God’s promise to sustain him makes the work bearable.
For years I’ve viewed this opening text in Jeremiah through the lenses of an ordained preacher. I understand the ambivalence about being anointed as a preacher of the word. But today I find myself seeing the text not as a word only for those who have chosen a path of ordained ministry. I see it as a message for every person who has felt like I did in seventh grade when faced with a whole new world I was still trying to understand. I believe God’s word to Jeremiah: “Don’t say you are too young … do not be afraid of them,” is addressed to everyone seeking to answer their call to use God-given gifts effectively in the world God so loves.
Preachers are not the only ones called by God to serve the world. What about engineers striving to make the world a safer and greener place? What about doctors, environmentalists and researchers striving to improve health both for human beings and the planet? What about teachers, social workers, psychiatrists and school counselors dedicated to nurturing children and families for the sake of the whole child?
Frederick Buechner said,
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
Our deep gladness is found when we discover our giftedness and release those gifts in the world for the sake of others. Those gifted to teach blossom when a classroom of students unlocks the potential which they didn’t even know they had. Those gifted to fix broken things beam when their efforts result in completed projects. Those gifted to solve problems, organize, and delegate feel deep satisfaction while engaged in sharing those skills with the world.
What are your gifts? How will you unlock them for the sake of the world?
Today the Quad will be crowded with thousands of students looking for ways to serve the world by participating in service organizations, getting involved in social justice causes, and volunteering with various campus groups. This week, the campus will hum with the sounds of tens of thousands of students traveling among their classes as they explore their choice of majors. The world remains hungry for justice, compassion and hope. And it takes a wide variety of differing gifts to bring God’s vision into being. How will you pursue matching your deep gladness to the world’s deep hunger this term?
I often feel lost and inadequate for the work I am called to do. But each morning I rise and head back into the world to match gladness with hunger. Again. And I recall a young prophet Jeremiah whose lips were touched by God’s own hand. As he grew older, his confidence in this calling grew. Years later, thinking about the people he served and reflecting on their shared past, he turned his attention back to the future and said:
I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
God of new things, we are grateful this morning for a new school term and new friends and new experiences waiting to be had. We are grateful for cooling weather and warming relationships. We are grateful for dedicated teachers and eager learners. We are grateful for pliant minds which will stretch and open to new ways of thinking in the coming months.
We pray this morning for a blessing… on all those who strive in this community for the sake of learning. Guide them to seek not only knowledge, but also wisdom — to care about not only grades but also graciousness. With our eyes open to see the needs of the world, fill our hearts with a burning passion to meet those needs with the very best of our selves. And now, as we gather in worship, bind us to one another and to you as we pray for the world. Amen