I Am With You
Jeremiah sat down under the almond tree, drawing his knees beneath his chin and curling his feet into the soil. He was glad to have his parents off his back. While the gumdrop sun melted in the west, he looked at the branches above his head and pretended they were the rafters of a house, a place of his own where there were no demands. The rose twilight filtered through the pink-white blossoms, so that the canopy of flowers blended with the soft shining of heaven.
The details of feet in the soil, blossoms, and evening light are to help the listeners feel how God's word comes to flesh-and-blood people like themselves. The materiality of the language engages the whole image of God.
Jeremiah's eyes traced the tender leaves, oblong and veined like the wings of the cherubim that decorated the Temple in Jerusalem. For a moment Jeremiah felt free from lessons, free from chores, free from time.
The vocal inflection of the prophet's name--an elongated crescendo and decrescendo--will become an integrating theme in the sermon. It will draw on the listeners' childhood memories, their relationship to their human parents and the heavenly parent.
Mom, he thought, was calling him home for supper. Jeremiah pressed his spine against the trunk and his feet into the soil, wedging himself into his private world. The memory of adult voices gusted through his mind, and he found himself back in his parents' house at the supper table. His uncle was ripping the air with angry words: "I'm telling you the Assyrians are going to get theirs now. Babylon is rising up, and that is what we've got to deal with. If it means an alliance with Egypt, so be it. But we cannot have a do-nothing foreign policy. Let's make Israel great again."
I give the historical setting through an angry supper conversation in order to set off contemporary political reverberations.
Jeremiah's father responded in the same fiery tone: "I still say the best foreign policy is security at home. Ever since Manasseh things have been rotten in Jerusalem. I don't want us to put all that money into the defense establishment. It's time for reform in the capital. We've got to get our national priorities straight. Josiah is open to that; we've got to give him a chance."
I have lifted some of the language about politics out of presidential campaigns in order to connect with listeners' political sensibilities. Without telling the congregation how to vote, I am affirming that God's call comes to Jeremiah, comes to them, in a time of political turmoil.
Jeremiah stared at a single almond blossom, trying to still the angry voices within him by concentrating on the sepals and petals of the flower. He noted they looked like the cups on the candelabra in the Temple and remembered the priest quoting Moses' directions for the menorah: "Three cups made like almonds, each with capital and flower, on one branch."
Jeremiah's association of the leaves and the Temple candelabra is an imaginative development of John Bright's claim that we can assume Jeremiah was brought up in a home of traditional piety. This may help the congregation see how religious education has a role in opening us to the mystery of God's call.
A wind swept across the fields, and Jeremiah twisted his face around, because he thought he heard someone climbing up into the tree. Or was it down into the tree? The oblong leaves began to flutter, and the air was filled with cherubim, their wings humming holiness into the atmosphere. The trunk of the tree became the central shaft of a menorah and the branches became the side stems. The blossoms turned darker red until they were tongues of flame.
Again the voice, like his mother's, yet not his mother's, came from beyond him, yet inside him. Words expanded inside Jeremiah like the unfurling of an embryo in time-lapsed photography, each syllable increasing the body of truth that was developing within him:
The image of the embryo is a modern scientific one, unknown to Jeremiah, but it has the same spirit of wonder that the biblical verse conveys. The cinematographic updating of the ancient words is an attempt to show the congregation how God is calling through the wonders that science reveals to them.
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.
I read the words of the text very slowly, and gently extend my hands and arms outward, as though I am the embryo that is uncoiling. The rhythm of the words, the body language, and the metaphor become an integrated expression of Jeremiah's dawning awareness.
The humming of holiness pressed against Jeremiah's eardrums in waves of increasing intensity. Jeremiah turned his head to survey the galaxy of flame and cherubim that gleamed and fluttered above him. He found himself in God's heavenly council. Out of Jeremiah's throat came a voice that was his but did not sound like himself:
"Ahhhh, Lord GOD!"
Then the boy paused, the same pause he used with his parents when they asked him to do an errand, and he did not want to. Two of God's words, brittle and sharp like almond shells, rattled against each other inside Jeremiah:
I highlight the words to evoke in listeners chains of associations in the subconscious: womb--warmth--escape; nations--violence--fear. The unspoken connotations can increase the intuitive identification with Jeremiah's struggle.
He wanted the shell of the womb to shatter the shell of the nations.
Jeremiah closed his eyes and pretended the tree was only a tree and the blossoms were only blossoms and the leaves were only leaves. He pretended he was curled beneath a leafy green tree in paradise and the sun was shining pink and white and warm. But when he opened his eyes the cherubim were still there, and they beat their wings even harder, and the pulsations of air carried God's words to Jeremiah over and over.
I appointed you a prophet to the nations. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.
The double reversal--Jeremiah's pretending the tree is only a tree--is an attempt to help listeners release their choking grip on the world of appearances, to unclog the filters of their secular consciousness. It is a way of stressing the reality of Jeremiah's encounter with God.
The air cracked, like the snap of a nutshell between two rocks, and the only word whose point scratched the air was: Nations, nations, nations.
Jeremiah leaped up and grabbed the lowest stem of the candelabra. "Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth. My uncle and father do not even listen to me. The world will never hear me!" Then Jeremiah shook the menorah with all his might, trying to overturn it and burn God's palace down.
The scene provides an opportunity for the listeners to own their rebellion against God. Unless this is acknowledged, the decision to obey God may come from the mouth but not from the heart. (Cf. Mt 21:28-32)
Jeremiah collapsed, sobbing on the earth.
When Jeremiah looked up he saw again the canopy of leaves and blossoms above him. The evening air was growing colder, but inside his body he felt a strange warmth: The flames that had leaped from the candlestand were not burning inside his bones. Once more Jeremiah heard the voice, but this time it was much closer, as if his mother had come to stand over his bed after they had had an argument. She was not going to give in, but she was going to speak closely and tenderly, explaining how Jeremiah could do what he thought he could not.
The shift between God in heaven and God like his mother over his bed is an expression of Jeremiah's theology that God is both "at hand" and "afar off." (Cf. Jer 23:23ff)
Do not say, `I am only a youth'; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
The word hooked a favorite memory inside of Jeremiah and he found himself again at the supper table with his uncle and father, but this time there were no angry voices. His father and uncle were full and mellow and telling favorite stories.
Jeremiah's uncle was playing the role of Saul, and Jeremiah's father was David, explaining to the king why he would fight Goliath: "The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.'"
Here again, I try to take seriously the influence of Jeremiah's religious background. I want the congregation to pull on their own memories of first hearing the Bible stories so that they can appreciate how God has been shaping them through scripture and tradition for many years.
Jeremiah imagined himself as David and jumped to his feet, picking up a stone that lay next to him and pretending it was the rock he would sling to kill the giant. Leaves from the lowest branch of the almond tree brushed across his face. Their touch startled him, and he stood still. A single oblong leaf flapped gently against his lips, like a finger tapping a message in code.
I stop speaking and tap my right index finger against my lips for several seconds. The silence and the gesture communicate the nonverbal mystery of God's coming to us without gabbing about it.
Jeremiah pushed the branch to the side and stepped away from the tree. When he let go of the branch it whipped back into position, and in the swishing of the leaves Jeremiah heard once more the same tender but implacable voice:
Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.
Jeremiah gulped. Again he heard his uncle and father talking. This time his father was quoting Deuteronomy: "I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him."
Jeremiah reached his hand back over his shoulder and hurled the rock across his father's fields.
I hurl an imaginary stone out of the pulpit through a glass window and wait for it to land in the town streets outside. This gesture of high physical energy is a way of saying that God has empowered Jeremiah without using that cliche. I stare out of the window--the stone has been hurled from 627 B.C. into November 1980. I notice that some congregation members look to see where it has landed: In the streets of the village where they live. This is exactly what I am after, bringing the story of Jeremiah's call to life in their own place and time.
He watched for where it landed, but by now it was too dark to see anything but the hills silhouetted against the last lingering of light. He pursued their outline of angles and slopes, and they seemed to him like city walls, battered and broken. Jeremiah stood surveying the destroyed city until the blackness of the ruins and the blackness of the night were one.
Jeremiah took a deep breath of the cool air and stepped toward home. He knew the way well, but it seemed as though the world were rearranged beneath his feet, and every four steps pushed up these words from the earth:
I AM WITH YOU. I AM WITH you. I AM with you. I am with you.
I start the first sentence in a loud voice but decrescendo to a pianissimo by the last repeat. This creates the illusion of Jeremiah's walking away and also echoes the many different ways God calls people: From a shout to a whisper.
While Jeremiah walks home to the beat of God's promise, sit beneath your own almond tree and listen for the voice that calls you.
The shift to the present tense maintains the simultaneity of ancient and contemporary time.
Both names are inflected the same as "Jeremiah" was earlier. The vocal similarity draws on the experience of Jeremiah's call so that the listeners can appropriate his story to illumine their own lives.
From here on I follow the dialogue pattern of the prophet's call. The parallelism is meant to pull the congregation into conversation with God.
However, I deliberately do not raise up illustrations of modern prophets. I do not want to overwhelm the listeners with heroic examples that seem beyond their reach. I believe that God calls each of them in some way and that if I can help them hear that call through an imaginative engagement with Jeremiah's experience I shall have accomplished my major goal.
We have heard this voice. We have heard it like Jeremiah. We were retreating into our private world when a voice--a prompting of the heart, an ache in the conscience, a call from within yet beyond--unsettled our daydream world of no demands.
And how have we responded? Like Jeremiah! The first words out of our mouth were:
I am too young. Or I am too old. Or I am middle-aged, caring for the old and raising the young. Or I am just a solitary individual. What difference can I make?
But God says to us what God said to Jeremiah: "Do not say, I am too young or too old or too middle-aged or too solitary.' I am with you to deliver you. I am with you in your words. I am with you in your actions. I am with you whenever you take a stand for what is good and true and right and just."
Rather than persuade people to serve God, I depend on God and God's promise. If through the drama of Jeremiah's call, they feel God with them, that single fact will make more difference than hours of argument for why they should get involved.
We may all be tongue-tied prophets, but we serve an eloquent God. That is what Jeremiah discovered. He would have been glad to sit under that almond tree, to retreat into his private little world. And sometimes in his ministry he did retreat. He would decide not to say another word about God. But then he would discover:
There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
Jeremiah blazed with a truth greater than his private world. And if you've ever known a word of love that you had to speak, if you've ever tasted a word of justice that you had to do, if you've ever danced with a word of joy that you had to share, then you, too, have blazed with a truth greater than your private world. It is the truth that burns like fire in your bones, the truth that makes the same promise to you that was made to Jeremiah:
Again I eschew argument for an attempt to help people draw the experiential connection between the prophet's call and their own lives. I assume God is already at work with them, and they need help in identifying the hidden motions of the Spirit.
I AM WITH YOU. I AM WITH you. I AM with you. I am with you.
I end the congregation's call the same way I ended Jeremiah's: By repeating God's promise from a shout to a whisper. That promise sustained Jeremiah through his ministry, and it will do the same for the new pastor and her congregation.
The entire sermon has been an effort not just to tell people the truth but to help them feel it brushing against the inside walls of their hearts.8
Thomas H. Troeger
Originally published in Lectionary Homiletics, February, 1992.
1. Preaching Biblically, Donald M. Wardlaw, ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), pp. 164-173.