Preaching: Jeremiah 1:4-10
This text from Jeremiah may be familiar to many in the congregation as an example of "a call passage." For preachers as well this may have been one of the most frequently encountered scriptures throughout their own exploration of call to ministry. It is this and much more. It is a passage of reassurance of God's unwavering guidance in challenging situations and a passage for "the prophet" when they find that bringing in the kingdom of God may mean not only "building up" but the less popular "tearing down" as well, with the latter often being one of the most unwelcomed aspects of ministry.
It can be helpful in the sermon preparation process to identify those strategies that stimulate one's creative juices. For me, catchy titles do this, even though they are often not the ones I choose to go with in the Sunday bulletin. Such a title drives and pulls me forward during the conceptual and writing phases, keeping me centered on the theme. This passage from Jeremiah seems to be a particularly fertile one for such "captivating" titles.
Calling All Christians is perhaps the most "expected" theme to surface from this passage. One's theology of vocation surfaces in dealing with this scripture, and it offers the preacher the opportunity to remind all Christians of what it means to be called and of their call to ministry. (I have seen bulletins in several churches that list "Ministers: All Members of the Church.") A strong element in this passage is that God does the calling, and our actions are a response to God's prior action. Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you. What beautiful language, surpassed only by the awesomeness of the content! God has known us "before we were." "Since always" we have been called and consecrated as God's own. This action only awaits our compliance to come to fruition, our free choosing to walk in this way with a God who acts first in our lives seeking, calling and blessing us. These are words that cannot be heard too often by the people of God, both as a reminder of God's grace in their lives and as a reminder to those who often speak of their search for God, as if God were hiding from them.
No Excuses! is an integral part of the theme of call and response. In Jeremiah's case, "no excuses" were accepted: too young? afraid? without the right words? "No problem—you are not the key player anyway!" How many times do pastors hear people say they are not ready for a particular task or ministry: "One more course, another retreat…maybe then I'll be ready!" is how one writer put it. God is the one who will strengthen and empower us for the ministry to which God calls us. It is only by God's grace and God's touch in our lives that we serve. While there is always a need for discernment of call, there are also those people who need affirmation of their call. It may be helpful for some Christians to know that even as great a worker for God as Jeremiah, he was hesitant to take on his call without some coaxing (which reminds us of the greatest waverer of all—Moses!). While Jeremiah's "excuse" comes at the lower end of the age range ("I am only a boy"), in some settings it may be appropriate to discuss the insignificance of age to God, whether young or older. "No excuses" are the order of the day because it is God who will do the equipping. You're Never Too Old could serve as a guide to working on such a theme, or Only By the Grace of God.
The final verse of this passage is somewhat foreboding. After all the reassurance comes a hint that the road ahead may not always be smooth: 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. The poetic language of this verse calls to mind the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. If one is also reading the Gospel passage for the day from Luke, it provides a concrete example of this statement. The crowd in Nazareth was receptive to Jesus as long as his words were pleasing to hear, but they turned on him quickly enough when there was a hint of judgment. Building Up May Mean Tearing Down! could set one off on this homiletical path.
While this passage deals most ostensibly with call, there was a time in my life when the eighth verse was very important to me, a life saver in some respects: Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord. I memorized these words and carried them with me daily into my work setting where I found I was a minority voice in what I would describe as a fight for honesty and integrity in the workplace. No Fear could serve as a guiding title for work along these lines.
Barbara Ann Hedin
Pineville Presbyterian Church
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