Sermon Briefs: Jeremiah 1:4-10
Darrell Jodock, professor of religion at Muhlenberg College, shared a message concerning Jeremiah in his sermon, In Need of a Prophet.1 When Jeremiah protested to God that he was but a boy who did not know how to speak, God told Jeremiah not to be afraid, since he was prepared to place the necessary words in his mouth. Even so, the words from God still left the people of Judah content with surface reform, resistant to a deeper, more thorough repentance.
Jodock reminds us, "The people in seventh-century Judah…needed a prophet. They were ready for minor reforms, but they needed a prophet. [Today] there are voices urging us to reform our public lives and move away from the idolatries of the present age. But we need a prophet, someone who will call us to a fundamental reorientation of individual and national priorities. We, too, are content with external reforms and not ready to confront the darkness in our own character. We want a future based on familiar premises even if they are no longer working."
Dr. Jodock reminds us that in recent elections crime has become a hot topic, with many promises made to keep criminals off the street, to increase the use of the death penalty. All this occurs in the face of the fact that there is no corresponding decrease in crime. Jodock asks, "Where are the public voices to say that broken communities produce crime and that rebuilding a sense of allegiance to each other is a priority? Where is the prophet to insist that for a safer community we ourselves need to change?"
In his sermon on this passage, The Fear of Faces, Gary Stratman, pastor of First and Calvary Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri, took a different slant on the story of Jeremiah's call.2 He asks us to see Jeremiah not only as a prophet, but as a believer, called to be a witness. This involves seeking the purpose that God has for our lives.
God says to Jeremiah, "I formed you," using the same word used in Genesis 2:7 when God created humanity from the dust of the earth. It is just when we feel we are living a purposeless existence, Stratman says, that we should recall that we are formed by God, made in God's image.
As God appointed Jeremiah to announce a word on God's behalf, we should remember that all our lives announce something. What announcement is your life making?
Once, when speaking at commencement exercises at Princeton Theological Seminary, William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, chose the Jeremiah passage as one of his texts.3 Willimon began by asking his congregation of new preachers why some people, once having put their hand to the plow of ministry, quit. One theory is that there is frustration for some in realizing that there is no way to be in ministry and be neat.
Willimon reports that the biggest jolt he received in his first year out of seminary was when he recognized "the gap between my seminary-acquired categories of humanity and the rather haphazard way God had actually constructed people." He recalls in his first parish hearing a voice in the outer office shouting something about "...giving them a job digging ditches...and if they don't like it, let them starve." Willimon had prepared a sermon on Our Duty as Christians to Care for the Less Fortunate, and so he called the owner of the offending voice into his office for a stern lesson on Christian charity.
Before he could say anything, though, the man asked him if he was aware of the desperate food situation in Haiti—where he and his wife had spent their last two vacations helping build a clinic—because a swine epidemic was destroying all the pigs. He presented a check for $5,000 to help send breeder pigs to Haiti, and challenged the rest of the church to match that gift. "I didn't know that," said Willimon, "thinking of the beach where I had spent my last vacations." He decided not to pursue the man's previous words and took the check. Ministry, as Jeremiah came to learn, is messy business.
Maurice Boyd, former pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, once included the Jeremiah text as a passage for the day in his sermon, The Attractiveness of Failure. In similar fashion to the direction taken by Darrell Jodock, Boyd reminded the congregation of the necessity for more than a surface desire to change. In a three-part sermon he said people find failure attractive because it is easy, it confirms a poor self-opinion, and because so often the risks of action are more apparent than the risks of inaction.
Surely Jeremiah faced tremendous risk. As he said, he was only a boy, he didn't know how to speak. Boyd concluded that while it is easy not to become all that God has intended us to be, "You are better than that, aren't you?"
Rob Elder First Presbyterian Church Salem, OR
1. "Living by the Word," Christian Century, February 18, 1995, p. 45.2 2. Best Sermons 7, Harper Collins, 1994, pp. 41-43. 3. "The Messiness of Ministry," The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. 14, No. 1993, pp. 229-233.