Sermon Ideas For Jeremiah 1:4-10 Part 6
"Ah! Lord God," I answered, "I do not know how to speak: I am only a child" (1:6, NEB).
It is not, however, the "child," or the young, defiant boy, which has captured the attention of artists. It is the sorrowful old man. Michelangelo's Isaiah is young; at least he is made young by his inspiration. Directly across the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Jeremiah is dejected, tired, aged. Even seated, he can hardly bear the weight upon him—his shoulders slump in weariness. All the lines in Isaiah point happily upward. All the lines in Jeremiah sweep dejectedly downward.
Rembrandt captures Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. For forty years, he has lived with the great city's impending doom, but his warnings have been almost completely ignored. If they have been heard at all, it is only so that they, and the prophet, may be mocked. But the end has come. As Richard Mühlberger points out, "in The Prophet Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt shows the discouraged old seer at the moment when his dire prophecy is coming true. Looking more tired than saddened, he rests himself against a pillar, while Jerusalem burns in the background."1 Actually, looking more than tired, the prophet cannot find rest at all, even the pillar's support.
Has the young man of the passage before us anticipated the sorrows that will destroy his nation and so exhaust him? Is that why he objects? If the young Jeremiah does not anticipate such emptiness and grief, it is still difficult to imagine this youth, as Wordsworth depicts his youth, with "earth all before (him)."
With a heart Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty, I look about; and should the chosen guide Be nothing better than a wandering cloud, I cannot miss my way… (The Prelude, Book I, ll. 14-17)
Seeing youth as a time of great freedom, and treasuring youth itself (in part for that freedom) may not have begun with the Romantics, but it does find clear expression in the way Wordsworth continually treasures feeling over thought. The "word" that guides the young poet is no word at all, but a sense beyond description (even by the poet).
This is not the case for Jeremiah. A dis tinct, definite word comes to him. It is not his heart that is touched, by a wandering cloud. It is his mouth that is touched by the great God Yahweh. He is not called to wander; he is called to speak—and to speak a powerful word, God's word that does not only sound, but acts:
To root up and to tear down, to destroy and demolish, to build and to plant. (1:10b (NEB))
Whatever his anticipations, this last does not often jibe with Jeremiah's experience. He feels constantly trapped between a people who will not listen to him and a God who does not seem to understand him. He is like the speaker in Gerard Manley Hopkins' famous sonnet, "Thou art indeed just, Lord." He acknowledges God's right to call him but must wonder then why the same God defeats his every project.
"…Oh the sots and thralls of lust / Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend, /Sir, life upon thy cause…" It is the same speaker who, in "I wake and feel the fell of dark," complains that his lament is "cries countless, cries like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away."
But it is wrong to focus any commentary on this passage solely on Jeremiah, to probe the prophet's objections without seeing how God overcomes those objections—and without considering the nature of the God who overcomes them. "Before I formed you in the womb (made you), I knew you for my own" (1:5, NEB). It is not God's knowledge that interests here—in this essay on "The Lesson and the Arts"—but God's artistry. For we are reminded that God is described as an artist elsewhere in Jeremiah (chapter 18), the potter who works and reworks his clay.
Prospero is the artist of Shakespeare's The Tempest. It is he who designs the action, who writes the play from within, as it were. Prospero has his prophets in Ariel, and to an extent, in Caliban. He puts words in their mouths, and those words have power, particularly to destroy. For destruction is what his enemies, particularly his wicked brother Antonio, deserve. But Prospero comes to discover, as the play comes to its end, that to be human in the best sense of the term—and much of The Tempest is about what it means to be human—is not to exact revenge, even when it is due, but to forgive. He marvels that he learns this from Ariel, who is "but air." Can the sprite be "kindlier moved" toward the human offenders than is Prospero, "one of their kind"?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick, Yet with my nobler reason `gainst my fury Do I take part: the rarer action is In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent, The sole drift of my purpose doth extend Not a frown further. Go release them… (Act V, Scene 1, ll. 24-30)
Prospero has at least begun to discover the "still more excellent way" described in 1 Corinthians 13. Love does not destroy; it builds. It may never become entirely clear to Jeremiah, but God's last word will not be vengeance. God may destroy, but only to build anew.
Richard S. Dietrich, Director Lay Institute of Faith and Life Columbia Theological Seminary Decatur, GA
1. The Bible in Art: the Old Testament. Portland House, 1991, p. 153.