Proper 16 C August 22, 2010We live in a youth culture, don’t we? A culture of instant gratification. A culture of let’s have it now or it’s not worth having. It’s all about the celebrity of the moment. How about that Jet Blue flight attendant who proclaimed that he’d had enough and he wasn’t going to take it anymore, before he grabbed two beers from the airplane galley and headed down the emergency landing chute? Instant celebrity – last week. This week, I haven’t heard anything about him. We live in a culture of NOW.
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6 Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
So when we read this passage from Jeremiah, about God calling him to be a prophet, we read it as, this must be happening to this young boy, now. This is the story of a young person’s call, about a young person’s life – a life blessed by this close relationship with God.
We are embarking on several weeks of reading passages from the Book of Jeremiah, and we will soon see that this book is not just about blessings of the young prophet’s life. It is a long, troubling book of prophecy, some of it angry, some of it full of the disappointments Jeremiah felt when his 40 years of preaching the Word of God seemed to fall on deaf ears – except when the people to whom he was sent to preach abused him and scorned what he was saying. The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, we shall see, is not the book of a young whippersnapper, but the account of “a seasoned prophet,” a “mature, battle-scarred veteran looking back over a long and tortuous journey.” Over the next few weeks, we “people of a certain age” can read this prophet, and perhaps read some of our own life experience in his words.
Jeremiah lived in the midst of the greatest crisis faced by the people of Israel – the crisis which has defined who they would become as God’s people. Their kingdom in Judah was caught between Egypt and Babylon, the superpowers of their day, and Babylon won. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people of Israel were marched off into captivity in Babylon. Everything they had worked, hoped, dreamed for, was shattered. Their very identity as the people of God was apparently gone. They were done for – now mere stateless slaves, weeping for their past in a foreign land. Why, why, why, did this happen to them? Did the glories of their past, and how much God loved them, then count for nothing? Where was God now?
In the midst of this horrible crisis of death, destruction and displacement, two great prophets arise: Isaiah and Jeremiah. They speak for God, and begin to tell the people of Israel how to make sense of this terrible calamity. Unfortunately, the people of Israel don’t want to hear the answers to their questions, “Why us? Why now?” As we read Jeremiah over the next few weeks, we’ll get a lot of those answers, and we’ll hear Jeremiah’s anger at not being listened to. But today, in this first chapter, we read of his call by God to this thankless job. What does this text say?
The first few verses we read are powerful and poignant. They affirm God’s care and faithfulness. God has known Jeremiah, and each of us, from the moment of creation. And in contrast to this mighty God, who would not feel utterly inadequate? Jeremiah is not inhabiting that celebrity culture that is so familiar to us, that “me first; I am great” culture of stars and success stories we know all too well from our tabloid press, the blogosphere, and talk radio and tv. Jeremiah does not have “self-esteem” issues that just have to be cleared up with a little positive thinking. Jeremiah and each of us ARE dwarfed in every way by the majesty of God.
And yet look what God says: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you.” And why? Not just because God loves Jeremiah, just as he loves us, but because God has given Jeremiah the Word of God to speak. Jeremiah is not just making it up as he goes along. “You shall speak whatever I command you,” God tells him. Who would not be inadequate to such a purpose? And of course, if God wants something to get done in this world, then God seems to have no choice but to work through the people God has created – people like us: thoroughly inadequate. Think about this impossible scenario: Jerusalem is shattered; the people are crushed and sent into exile far away, and God sends Jeremiah the Word to tell these people that what has happened to them is also, somehow, their fault. The people do not want to hear what Jeremiah has to say; who would be adequate to this task?
Look again at the text, where God sums up this Word that Jeremiah must deliver: pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow. What a shattering message. Can this really mean, the people of Israel think, that God sent this terrible thing to happen to us, that our kingdom, our city, our temple is destroyed? That what we were doing there all those years was somehow not what God wanted us to do? Why would God do such a thing?
Look again at the end of the passage. God appoints Jeremiah to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, but also to build and to plant. That is the key to understanding the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. The destruction of everything the people of Israel had worked so hard to create was necessary in order for the Word of God to build and to plant what God had in mind for them. God’s last Word is not the destruction that the people would see all around them, but new life. New hope. A renewed and re-created world.
Think about your own life and times. What in your life has been shattered and scattered? What destruction has happened to you out of the blue? And what Word did God send to you, to help you understand it? A Word that perhaps at the time you did not recognize or embrace? A messenger you dismissed as a crackpot or irrelevant? A stumbling block you thought was just an irritant in your smooth trajectory to success? Perhaps it is only now that you can look back and see what it meant, and that out of that experience in which you were shattered and overthrown, God was indeed beginning to build and to plant something new and wonderful inside of you.