August 25, 2013
The opening words of the Book of Jeremiah look back on a call from God over 2,000 years ago to a boy in the hill country of Benjamin. A son from the priestly caste, Jeremiah grew up around Jewish law, tradition, and ritual. Devotion was part of his family heritage, yet that trajectory reached new heights–and depths–in the life of young Jeremiah, called by God to be a prophet to the nations.
This biblical account is a story written, interpreted, and described from a mature perspective, looking back. The book begins with the specific historical location of Jeremiah’s ministry, which spanned forty years and the reigns of three different kings. Watershed events would change the history of Israel forever. Society was hurtling toward the destruction of Jerusalem in 587/586 B.C.E., followed by the exile of the Jewish people. Conquering nations scattered their subjects as a way to dilute their identity and power, thus preventing pockets of unrest from becoming major rebellions.
Jeremiah lived and worked amid catastrophic times. Steve often repeats the phrase, “The work of the prophet is to contradict the present more than to predict the future.” Jeremiah consistently called an unfaithful, disinterested, and openly rebellious people to return to God. He was ridiculed and ignored. He was contradicted by the court prophets who parroted what the ruling powers wanted to hear. He was threatened, punished, and even jailed for his truth-telling. Does that sound familiar? Yet, Jeremiah continued on in dogged, often tormented, faithfulness. To see so clearly what others refuse to see is painful business, especially when coupled with love, compassion, and yearning for reconciliation between one’s beloved nation and God.
Jeremiah captures my heart for enduring the relentless challenges of such a calling. No one can study his story and say, “Jeremiah thrived.” There were no big bonus moments, no great “showers of blessings” stirring the prophet’s soul. Decade upon decade, Jeremiah saw no seemingly tangible earthly rewards for his efforts. Instead, we can say, “By the grace of God, working within the prophet’s own tormented faithfulness, Jeremiah survived.” That partnership merits a big “Amen.”
This means something to me. Few have such a difficult calling as that of Jeremiah, but all of us have moments when we feel ready to give up. The task is too huge; the outcomes too uncertain; the road too endless. The obstacles are too intractable; the major players in the story are too deaf.
Jeremiah also grabs my heart because his temperament makes it so much more difficult to fulfill his calling. I often cannot help but contrast my temperament to that of the cheerful, resilient Hammond family extroverts–my husband, Steve; our daughter, Rachel; and our granddaughter Sofia. They sail through obstacles like kites soaring in the sky; they turn every lemon life hands them into lemonade without even blinking. I would hardly think this is possible, were all three of them not so similar and such a large part of my life.
“What was God thinking?” Jeremiah wonders more than once, as he struggles with his calling and the specifics of both his life journey and historical location. He is a deeply emotional individual, caught up in genuine empathy toward both his wayward nation and his heartbroken God. Jeremiah is prone to question why he is chosen for this task. At critical points, he longs to turn back. One of my favorite passages is found in Chapter 20, where the prophet argues passionately with his own battered heart and comes out, once again, compelled to follow the Holy One who continues to call him onward.
The opening section of the Book of Jeremiah is recorded in the form of a classical call narrative. This includes an invitation–the call– from God, followed by resistance–the protest–by the one called. God then offers divine assurance, which traditionally comes in some form of the statement, “I will be with you.” The call narrative is completed by an anointing of, and charge to, the one called.
God rejects Jeremiah’s complaint that he is too young and inexperienced for God to use. Yahweh goes as far as to tell Jeremiah not even to say that again. In the Holy One’s eyes, Jeremiah’s youth will not prevent his fulfillment of God’s call.
God does not promise the prophet success, prosperity, joy, or human companionship. The Holy One promises Divine Accompaniment throughout the length, breadth, and depth of this difficult journey.
During Jeremiah’s anointing, God touches his mouth. The Hebrew employs the verb, ng, which bears the connotation of “strike” or “jolt.” This is no gentle touch of a soothing parent for a frightened child. This is the touch of holy passion and divine fervor. God will give Jeremiah the words to speak. Through this truth-telling, the prophet will be empowered to pull up and tear down, to dismantle and demolish. After the rubble settles, he will begin again, building and planting. God’s ultimate promise to Jeremiah is one of restoration and hope, but getting there is a very long journey.
I once heard a preacher say, “The intensity of God’s calling is in direct proportion to the difficulty of that call.” When you or I feel strongly about a personal calling, the challenges are likely to be numerous. Bob Thomas, a dear saint of this church, peacemaker, and community leader, passed away in 1993. While listening to stirring tributes by family members at Bob’s funeral, I felt a strong call to pick up Bob’s mantle of public service. A few months later, I ran for School Board, taking office in January 1994. Little did I know at the time that I would be diagnosed with cancer a few weeks after beginning my four-year term.
What was I to do? The “rational” solution was to resign for health reasons. Everyone would understand. But I had felt so called to this public service. What was that call, then, a mistake?
As I reflected on my dilemma, I came to a conclusion. If I had experienced such a strong call to run for public office, it was not unreasonable to expect an equally strong release from that call if it was best for me to resign. In the absence of such an “un-calling,” I would continue serving my term. The “un-calling” never came. I persevered–not easily–but faithfully.
My journey on School Board cannot really be compared to Jeremiah’s calling generations before me. Yet there is a commonality between the two of us. The same God calls us, hears our complaints, and equips us in the midst of our misgivings and frailties. The same God fulfills a Holy Purpose through our intensely human lives. There is nothing generic or boilerplate about an individual’s calling. God comes to each of us in unique ways, and each calling is priceless.
The times in which Jeremiah labored are not so different from our own. The prophets of our day, like Jeremiah, choose truth-telling over the seduction of national mythologies and the banality of entertainment news. The prophets of our day are often labeled “traitors” by those in power as they contradict the “official story,” exposing facts carefully concealed from public eyes. Jeremiah’s context offer striking parallels to the 21st century.
The ancient prophet invites us to “sit with him” in his difficult calling amid all its obstacles, even as we “sit with” our own callings and their unique challenges. He also invites us to “sit with” our collective calling as a people of faith living in a nation which blatantly functions around the world as empire. As we reflect, may we receive God’s promise anew, “I will be with you always. I will never forsake you.” Amen.