January 31, 2016
View a video of this sermon here.
I do not think it is a coincidence that the passage we are studying this week in our trek through The Story also happens to be the OT lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary for this fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. This coming together of two paths through scripture – the one we’ve been traveling since September, and the one we would have traditionally traveled had we not followed The Story this year – brings us to an important crossroads.
We find the nation of Israel torn apart, and the northern tribes have long ago been carried off into exile. In the southern kingdom, more evil kings have sat on the throne than good ones. Jeremiah is called into his prophetic ministry during the reign of Josiah – one of the good kings – but his work will continue through four more regimes, and he will see the last of Judah’s kings carried off to Babylon. Jeremiah will witness the destruction of the Temple, and the people of Judah being led into captivity.
His ministry is a long one, but Jeremiah is not what you might call a success story, at least not by human standards. No wonder he is reluctant to answer the call, much as Moses was reluctant to respond to his particular calling centuries before. Yet, “God is constantly equipping people for the call that will come.”
How often do people find themselves called into a line of work they had never considered, given work that they never in their wildest dreams ever thought they would do, only to discover that God had been equipping them for years for that specific task! I know that’s what happened to me. This is exactly what happened to Jeremiah. It must have come as a surprise to Jeremiah that God had been preparing him as a prophet. Jeremiah had good reason to feel confused.
The lower story of Israel’s rise and fall is sometimes confusing, but God’s upper story has always been clear. God simply wants his people to love him freely, as he loves them. Time and again, he has called his people to repentance and faithfulness. Even when they fail and turn away, he does not give up on the people he loves. Once again, he calls someone to speak his words into the ears and hearts of his people.
4 Now 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.” 6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7 But the Lord said 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. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 9 Then 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. 10 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.” – Jeremiah 1:4-10
Jeremiah may have been surprised to hear God’s call, but he answered it, however unwillingly. His work would be difficult, and he would suffer imprisonment, persecution, false accusations of treason, and forced exile to Egypt. He would be forbidden to marry or have children, he would see King Jehoiakim destroy his prophetic writing, and he would search for just one righteous person without finding any.
By all accounts, Jeremiah’s ministry would best be described as a failure. His calls to repentance would go unheeded, and his warnings would fall on deaf ears. Through the reign of five different kings, he would risk everything, even his own life, to proclaim God’s word. He wouldn’t do it happily – there’s a reason why his other book in the Old Testament is called “Lamentations.”
Even in this first conversation with God, we get the clear image of a difficult task. No wonder Jeremiah balked. He could see the risks to his personal safety – why else would God say, “Don’t be afraid of the people to whom I’m sending you. I will rescue you from them”? Those aren’t encouraging words, really. And even the announcement that Jeremiah would be appointed over nations and kingdoms doesn’t sound so enticing when the verbs God uses are more negative than positive: “build and plant” have a hard time standing up to “pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow.” These aren’t comforting words God gives to Jeremiah. They are challenging words, dangerous words.
In the gospel lesson we heard earlier (Luke 4:21-30), Jesus also issues some challenging and dangerous words to the people of Nazareth. What starts out as a “hometown boy makes good” story ends up with a riot, as the angry crowd drags Jesus to the edge of town, so they can throw him off “the brow of a hill” to stone him for blasphemy.
About a year ago, we were standing on that “brow of the hill” – or at least what is traditionally accepted as the spot. The modern city of Nazareth lies below the hill to the west, and Mt. Tabor can usually be seen off to the east, toward the Sea of Galilee. However, on the day we visited Mt. Precipice, it was rainy and cloudy. As the clouds rolled in over Nazareth, we had to use our imaginations to picture the vista below us. (You can see some photos in this blogpost.)
We could mostly make out Nazareth to the west, but the rich farmland to the south and the valley between us and Mt. Tabor to the east were completely obscured by clouds. I noticed that our little group of tourists reacted to this phenomenon in a surprising way. Keep in mind that we really couldn’t see anything – the view was completely obscured by clouds and rain.
But that didn’t stop us from lifting our phones and cameras. Even in the rain, we took as many pictures as we could. But do you notice something here? Everyone is looking in a different direction.
Here we are at the top of the very hill where Jesus was attacked by his own hometown, where his ministry might have ended before it had really begun…
And we are looking in every single direction, through the fog, for things we cannot see.
If we inch out to the edge of the path, we can look down the hillside and imagine a person being thrown down over those rocks. But the precipice itself is the only thing that is clearly visible, and it does not look too inviting.
Jesus knew his ministry was going to be rough. He knew he would ultimately “fail” just as Jeremiah’s had done. But here’s the thing: we don’t get to decide what failure looks like.
God did not call Jeremiah to convert the people of Judah, only to proclaim God’s word to them. If Jeremiah was expecting hundreds and thousands of people to repent and begin living according to God’s plan for them, he was deeply disappointed.
In the same way, Jesus failed to overthrow the Roman government as Messiah was expected to do. Instead, he died a horrible death, nailed to a cross. That looked like failure to many of the people who watched him die. But we don’t get to decide what failure looks like.
God’s idea of success can’t be measured in numbers of converts or military conquests. It can’t even be measured in Average Worship Attendance or Apportionments Paid, important as those things might be to our conference office.
God measures success in lives changed, in relationships restored. God measures success in every soul redeemed, in every person who turns away from death and sin, toward everlasting life. God measures success in the depth of love we show to people who are not like us, in the way our faith grows in maturity and richness, in the way our lives look more and more like the life of Jesus Christ, and less like the broken lives we leave behind when we choose to follow him.
I won’t sugar-coat this for you. We are about to enter a very challenging season, as we look at ways we must change what we do and how we think, if we are going to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Growing in faith means taking some risks. It means living into our call, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us.
Pastor Matt Kennedy writes, “ Experts who study organizational change say that groups basically have three phases of any transition they face: stability, de-stabilization, and new orientation. Every transition involves all three, and the most anxious moment in any change is going from stability to de-stabilization. This is what you see in the story of Israel in the Wilderness. When you enter that moment of destabilization, there is a strong gravitational pull back to the stable place, even if that stable place was being a slave in Egypt.” But for transitions to lead us into the new beginning God has in mind for us, we must be strong in faith, centered on Christ Jesus, depending completely on the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us through the anxiety of wilderness.
Because going through the wilderness is the only way to get to the promised land.
What does it mean for us to be centered and sent? Will we limit our view to a cloudy vision, constricted by a tiny lens in a viewfinder? Or will we open our eyes wide to the possibility God has in mind for us, and take in the broad vision of God’s call? It will not be easy. I assure you of that. But it can be fruitful, and we can experience spiritual renewal in ourselves that leads to a spiritual awakening in our community.
Following Jesus is very risky business, and we don’t get to decide what success looks like. Sometimes clouds of doubt obscure our vision, and we are unwilling to take a risk. Sometimes we are simply looking in the wrong direction, unaware that the broad vista behind us shows the magnitude of God’s grace. Sometimes we just have to step out on faith, depending on the Holy Spirit to guide us through the murkiness until we can see, in 20/20 hindsight, that every step of the way was part of God’s plan for us.
It may feel like we are teetering on the edge of a precipice, and the fog is obscuring our path. It may feel like we are entering the wilderness as we move through the changes we see necessary for our own growth and deepening discipleship. It may even feel, at times, like we are failing miserably. But God gives us his promise that He will be with us every step of the way. Let us claim that promise, and go with God. Amen.