Monday, August 27, 2007

Since Before You Were Born

Since Before You Were Born
Jeremiah 1:4-10
August 26, 2007
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: God speaks to Jeremiah and calls him into service as a messenger of God to the nations of the world. Jeremiah is told, when speaking the words of God, that nations and kingdoms will fall. And yet, hope remains, because God will also speak words through Jeremiah that will build and plant.

Sermon Function: To teach listeners about call, prophecy, and ministry. What does God want us to do this day? How can we know? What should we do? We must ask these questions if we are to remain faithful to this text.

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Well, another journey, and another return. I’m happy to be back. So is Sara. This time, we were attending the wedding of a very close friend of mine who now lives in Seattle, Washington. I was asked to be a “reader” at his catholic marriage rite. It was a fulfilling experience, and very interesting, particularly since I was asked to read various selections from the book of Sirach. Sirach is an apocryphal book that is part of the Roman Catholic scripture canon, but is not accepted as such by any Reformed Protestant denomination, including ours. It was fun to be included, but it’s even more fun to be back home with you all.

Today’s sermon scripture passage is taken from the Old Testament. We’ll be reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. We’ll be reading about his call by God to be a prophet to the nations. How are we to interpret this today, in the midst of cultural strife when many who claim God’s mantle will seemingly extinguish thousands of lives without a second thought? We are challenged in this era to interpret this text in a way that is both genuine and somehow connective with our contemporary situation. That’s what we’ll begin exploring today and continuing on for the next several weeks.

Let’s listen now to God’s word.

[Read Scripture - Jeremiah 1:4-10]

Experiencing God’s Call

As many of you know, I’m still in the candidacy process in the Presbyterian Church (USA). This means that I’m on track for ordination, but must still pass some trials prior to being certified to receive a call.

Along this churchly path to ordained ministry, I’ve been asked hundreds of times, literally, to describe my “faith journey” and my “sense of call.” These terms are used interchangeably. When coming from friends and colleagues outside of the Church, these questions about “faith journey” and “sense of call” really boil down to something like “What happened to you? Is there something wrong with you?” Et cetera.

As you might imagine, when one gets asked the same questions repeatedly, stock responses are developed to ease the storytelling tasks. This is not without some precedent. After all, I am called, and you are called “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15 NRSV). For me, that hope is Jesus Christ, the one who for our sake was crucified and was resurrected by God.

In my case, I first came to understand that God was calling me to the ministry when I was a senior in high school. A women in our church, who didn’t know of my developing call, told me after one Sunday service that she had been watching me, and had been struck my the notion that I might one day consider becoming a pastor in the church. Then, after a short 17-year stint, God finally moved me to Austin, Texas for seminary, and to begin the church discernment process.

“The Call” wasn’t something I heard in my mind, but something clearly distinguishable in my soul. It bubbled up gradually, and took me through a career as a consultant prior to taking me to Austin and seminary and marriage. Now it has taken me here. Call is something tangible, but not something necessarily measurable. This is why many scientists cannot understand people of faith. You cannot measure out call using quantitative techniques. Similarly, as C.S. Lewis noticed, you cannot make claims about things like miracles that are, by definition, something not scientifically verifiable. Science depends on repeatability to define and defend theories of reality. And repeatability requires measurement. For experiences that don’t fit that narrow profile, we are left with the necessity of making philosophical and theological statements about our experience. This is why faith is not something empirically assessable, despite what legions of scientists and post-post modern atheists would prefer. Call is like that.

Many seminarians are familiar with a saying by Presbyterian Pastor Fredrick Buechner that is oft-repeated in school orientations and classrooms. Here it is: “[Call] is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I like that definition. The world of Israel certainly needed Jeremiah’s call to prophetic mission. Israel had, at the beginning of Jeremiah’s life, achieved a temporary liberation from the rule of the Assyrians. But another kingdom was on the rise, that of Babylon. Jeremiah’s call sets the stage for what is to follow in his book, which is among other things a recounting of life before, during, and after the destruction of Israel by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. The political life of Israel was at stake, and Jeremiah’s call to prophecy is recognized now as an important word of warning in the face of dominating political power from a foreign nation. But for Israel, more is at stake. For Israel, the political is invariably wrapped up with the religious, because the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, divided since of the time of King Solomon, only came into existence by virtue of the word God had previously spoke when he called Moses to lead his people from the slavery of Egypt. The forthcoming destruction of Israel was, therefore, much more than a political catastrophe. It represented a theological catastrophe as well.

These first few verses of Jeremiah’s call story say something to us, too. What is that? Let’s listen again:

“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘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’” (Jer 1:4-5 NRSV).

God knows us through eternity rather than through the boundaries of time as we understand time. God knows us first, and calls us into service according to our spiritual gifts. The verbs “knew,” “consecrated,” and “appointed” are all in the perfect tense. The perfect tense defines an action has being fully completed from the time of the action through the remainder of history. This means that God absolutely knew, consecrated, and appointed Jeremiah fully and completely, with lasting eternal effect. God’s knowledge of us is certain, full, and complete. In Jeremiah’s case, the call was so profound has to be articulated as speech. In the example I gave you from my own life, the call was subtler, bubbling up from within. God’s call, then, can come in a variety of ways.

Have there ever been times in your life when you might have sensed God’s call? Perhaps a nudge you felt to take on a particular task for the church, or to attend to a fellow Christian in need? Pay heed to these things, because they will tell you about how God is actively working in your life.

God Calls People

The next thing this passage tells us is that God calls people. This is self-evident in our text, but it bears repeating. The reason is this: That God would call God’s creatures into ministry is stunning.

I was recently listening to a sermon by another Presbyterian Pastor, Reverend Vic Pentz. He told he congregation about a book he was reading by Karl Barth, a famous and renowned theologian in the reformed, protestant tradition. Karl Barth’s theological magnum opus is entitled Church Dogmatics. You would need almost three feet of shelf space to accommodate the entire work. But Barth helpfully penned a much smaller compendium of lectures on his theology called Dogmatics in Outline (and I can commend the work to you as well). Pentz quotes Barth several times, but one thought in particular jumped out at me as I was preparing this sermon. We consider it fascinating, marvelous, and wonderful that we have a God that is so tremendous, all-knowing, and wise and full of love. But what is really fascinating, wonderful, and marvelous is that God sees fit to create us! God didn’t need to do that. But God did. And the beautiful truth contained in the story of Jeremiah’s call is that God called Jeremiah, and that God continues to call men and women into service in the kingdom of God, whose head is Jesus Christ.

And in fact, in Jesus Christ we also get the full picture of the type of people God calls. Jeremiah is a member of what was likely one of the priestly tribes of Judah. Jesus calls everyone: Fishermen, tax collectors, and the like. Some of the folks God calls would have struck the ancient listener as odd. For Jesus to call a tax collector during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem was very odd indeed – even scandalous. But God calls. God called the Virgin Mary to bear the Son of God. God called Joseph into a special kind of fatherhood. God calls people into every form of ministry, prophecy, and discipleship. God has called this congregation into existence. God calls us into new and exciting ministries of prayer and service. God calls visitors to this church to discipleship, and I’m excited to think that one or more of you might be being called by God this very moment into not just another phase of life, but to new baptized life in Jesus Christ. God continues to move in this church. God has ordained that the church begin searching for a new pastor. God is calling us to exercise good stewardship over this church and its resources, so that the call of the new pastor might be successfully realized.

God is calling, but what ought we to do in response? What do we do when we don’t feel like we’re the right choice? Or somehow unworthy? Or scared and fearful of what might happen next?

God Is With Us!

Jeremiah felt some of this, I think. Jeremiah’s initial response to God’s call is similar to that of Moses. He asserts that he is “only a boy” and that he “[does] not know how to speak.”

Our attempt to disqualify ourselves from God’s services says some interesting things about us. One the one hand, it suggests that our faith in God’s sovereignty is somehow insufficient. We convince ourselves that God is somehow mistaken if he calls us to do something. Believe me, I’ve made this amusing mistake multiple times. We try to set aside God’s will all the time, particularly if it looks like it might trump our best laid plans for living a successful life.

On the other hand, our attempts to disqualify ourselves from God’s service might also be a reflection of a keen awareness of unworthiness and sinfulness. But it might also be the result of an overwrought or even a sense of condemnation that is unwarranted. There are really, then, two significant ways we sin we attempt to dodge God when he calls us. In the first case, when we try to disqualify ourselves from God’s service because we think God might be mistaken, that’s the sin of pride is asserting itself on our life. In the second case, when we disqualify ourselves from God’s service because we feel completely valueless, we commit the sin of thinking too lowly of ourselves. We are created beings, as the writer of Genesis tell us, in the image of God. Therefore, we are creatures cared for by the One who, as he did with Jeremiah, forms us in the womb as a potter forms a beautiful vase. The potter knows his creation intimately. He knows every nook and cranny, and he knows what will become of the creation because he is the one who represents true creativity and has the imagination and the power to bring his vision into what we understand as reality.

The call from God really does come to people like you and me. As the Creator, God knows our limits. And by living lives of honest repentance, we are able to respond to God’s call because of the very assurance of God’s presence with us. God declares to Jeremiah:

“Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” (Jer 1:8 NRSV). Do not be afraid. We ought to trust God to put the words we need in our mouths, and to take the actions we need to move ahead and advance the cause of Jesus Christ.

Final Words

In the last two verses of our text today, Jeremiah finds that God’s very words have been put in his mouth, and that he is appointed “over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10 NRSV). Our own calls may not appear to be so profound as to impact the life of nations and kingdoms, but they can be critically important in the live of this congregation and its members and this community of Portland Texas. What injustices in our lives must be plucked up, pulled down, destroyed, and/or overthrown? A violent temper? Addiction to pornography? Abuse of drugs? Forgetting the lonely? Is there anything in your life that needs to be overthrown and tossed out? Hasty judgment, perhaps? Corrosive anger? Unconfessed sin? Broken family relationships?

The final words of Jeremiah are words of hope. What are you and I called to build and to plant? Is it to pray for others and for our enemies? Might God be calling you to join the prayer quilt ministry of the church? Perhaps God wants you to consider seminary education and ordained ministry? Perhaps God wants you to participate in reviving people through Mission 911 in Corpus Christi? Maybe you’re called to help educate the youth or the adults in our church? Or is God calling you to mend a broken relationship? Or perhaps God is moving in your heart right now to consider baptism and the commitments of faith in Jesus Christ and discipleship. God’s call is frequently something more than any of us could imagine. I think that’s very exciting, and I pray that you might experience this same excitement in your own life, for the sake of the Joy we have in Jesus Christ, to whom we give all glory and honor.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.