Jeremiah 1:4-10, CEB
4 The Lord’s word came to me:
5 “Before I created you in the womb I knew you;
before you were born I set you apart;
I made you a prophet to the nations.”
6 “Ah, Lord God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak
because I’m only a child.”
7 The Lord responded,
“Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’
Where I send you, you must go;
what I tell you, you must say.
8 Don’t be afraid of them,
because I’m with you to rescue you,”
declares the Lord.
9 Then the Lord stretched out his hand,
touched my mouth, and said to me,
“I’m putting my words in your mouth.
10 This very day I appoint you over nations and empires,
to dig up and pull down,
to destroy and demolish,
to build and plant.”
The Word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Jeremiah’s call narrative—this story of God appointing a little boy as a prophet of Israel—is extremely popular in children’s ministry for pretty obvious reasons, right? It’s a story about God empowering a child to preach and teach and serve with all that they are from exactly where they are in life, a story about learning from the mouths of babes. So maybe it’s not surprising that I would be drawn to this reading from today’s lectionary given that many of my favorite people are still learning how to tie their shoes. It’s true, I love the decidedly pro-kid message here, but unlike most weeks, I’m not giving a children’s sermon today. Joe already did an awesome job of that. Grown-ups, today Jeremiah and I are talking to you.
Jeremiah’s childhood was not particularly picturesque. He came of age in an unstable community under constant threat and ultimately watched his hometown of Jerusalem crumble along with the Temple, the centerpiece of his people’s religious identity. The place where he celebrated holidays, where he learned the stories of God’s love and sovereignty, where he played with other children, where he bonded with an extended family of faith, where he ate at the potluck following sacrifices—the one place on earth that embodied God’s presence with humanity more than any other for the Israelite people—that place would ultimately be decimated before Jeremiah’s eyes. Then Jeremiah and his family and friends would be forcibly removed from their home, separated, and scattered throughout Babylon. With all of this chaos surrounding him, God taps this young boy on the shoulder and says, “Hey buddy. I have a job for you. I’ve decided that you’re the one who is going to help everybody make sense of all this. Right now there are just rumblings of danger but I’d like you to make it abundantly clear exactly how much everyone is going to suffer but let them know I’m not going anywhere, ok?”
Rabbinic tradition notes that Jeremiah has a lot in common with Moses in his response to this kind of calling to be God’s mouthpiece for an entire nation. “Wow, I’m flattered really, but I couldn’t possibly. Thanks for thinking of me, but why don’t we find someone else?” Both Jeremiah and Moses felt totally ill-equipped to deal with this. They both have very good reasons for their hesitation, explaining to God why this is never going to work. For Moses’ part, he knows a bunch of Israelites are not going to listen to the guy they know was raised in Pharaoh’s palace. He’s not exactly a man of the people. He can’t even speak their language quite right. And Jeremiah points out that he’s clearly too young for a job like this, but I’m sure with enough time and education, he could be up to it. Just give him a decade or so and let’s revisit the conversation. God remains unconvinced, and both men end up serving as prophets for God’s people for forty years, Moses leading them to their entrance into the Promised Land and Jeremiah walking with them in their exile out of it.
God does not call Jeremiah to an easy task, but one that his community desperately needs. Basically, despite all the doom and gloom that Jeremiah is going to have to warn the people is coming, Jeremiah is meant to be the torchbearer of hope, the promise that God is still sovereign, still working out God’s plan, still madly in love with God’s children in Israel and throughout the world. Jeremiah’s job is to help the people prepare for rock bottom while keeping a vision of their restoration, because all evidence to the contrary, restoration is coming. God has called Jeremiah as the keeper of the vision God’s people will desperately need to survive their 70 years in exile before God calls them back home to rebuild and re-settle in their beloved Promised Land. Remember, Jeremiah is the one God uses to reassure them, “I know the plans I have for you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.”
Imagine the cost, then, if Jeremiah had been so self-conscious he’d flat out refused. God has not selected Jeremiah for some special prize here, pulling Jeremiah up onto a pedestal to draw recognition and power for himself. God isn’t patting him on the back; God is putting him to work. God even tells Jeremiah, “You did nothing to earn this, son. I chose you from before you were even born. I have been equipping you for this role from the very beginning.” Still, what comes off as Jeremiah’s feeble attempts to explain why his age should disqualify him from the position can be read as legitimate concerns about whether or not he can do this. I truly don’t think Jeremiah is doubting God here. I think he’s doubting himself, not wanting to let down his God or his people. There is no precedent for a prophet this young, no roadmap for how he’s supposed to get people to take him seriously and to get them to believe what he’s saying. Without the benefit of an example, it’s hard to imagine how this is going to work, if it’s even possible.
“I can’t do this, God,” Jeremiah says. “I’m a child. Just a kid.”
God doesn’t argue with him there. Yes, Jeremiah is a child. This is not news to the God who knit him together in his mother’s womb. God doesn’t deny Jeremiah’s identity as a child, but God tells him, “Don’t say, I can’t do it because I’m a child. You can and you will. We’ll do it together.” This distinction is crucial to the story, because here is where it pivots from being a story about Jeremiah to being a story about all of us. When Jeremiah uses a part of his identity as an excuse to disqualify himself from participating in God’s work in the world, he’s not just cheating himself. Intentionally or unintentionally, he is telling everyone else with that identity, “God can’t use you either. You’re of no use to our Creator or our community.”
And that’s a lie God will not abide.
In a society where children were drastically undervalued as individuals and certainly given no rights because of the strong likelihood that they would not survive into adulthood anyway, Jeremiah had internalize the false message that because he seemed to be worth little in his society he was also worth little to God’s kingdom. How often do we internalize this very same message with identities of our own, whether our genders, ages, sexual orientation, race, education level…? We content ourselves with a limited view of God and the church when we should know better. After all, the Church was born in an explosion of languages and cultures celebrating the diverse identities of all those gathered when the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples at Pentecost. Yet we were content for women to be excluded from ordained ministry in our own church up until 60 years ago. We were content to turn away black brothers and sisters from these very doors only 50 years ago when they tried to reflect the Revelation vision of a diverse church worshipping God as one. We have been content for many years to ignore our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in the church and are only now bringing to light the ways we have denied one another’s callings and identities rather than entrusting them to God. We as a church have a history of internalizing our society’s definition of who matters and who doesn’t, of deciding who God uses and who God doesn’t. And without examples to the contrary, it can be incredibly difficult to change that within our own minds much less as a broader community.
Like many of us, my friend Adam has been watching the Olympics with his family. His youngest daughter in particular was mesmerized by the U.S. women’s swim team. She saw Simone Manuel became the first African American to win an individual Olympic medal in swimming. In her poolside interview after winning gold, Simone gave glory to God and dedicated her win to all the people who came before her and inspired her, and to all those after her who believe they can’t. Children who believe they are are “just’s” and “only’s” and somehow not enough. The next day, Adam’s three girls watched 19 year old Katie Ledecky dominate the 800m freestyle race to the point that her nearest competitor wasn’t even visible on the screen when she touched the edge of the pool to win the gold. As his three-year-old watched Katie cutting through the water, she asked wide-eyed,
“Daddy, can my arms do that?”
How do you think he answered her? “Oh no, baby, you’re only a child.”
Of course not! That child’s spirit soared at the sight of others living into their God given gifts and calling and gave her the insane idea that maybe, just maybe, God could use her precious little arms for great things, too. Do you see why God insisted that Jeremiah not use his youth as an excuse, then? God says, “I know exactly who you are, child. I’m the one who created you! I know you, and I’m not calling you in spite of who I have made you. I created you just as you are for this exact job at this exact moment in this exact place with these exact people….” Jeremiah is a revelation, a flesh and blood reminder that God made us different on purpose with the intention of more fully reflecting our multi-faceted Creator. We need children. We need black swimmers. We need big bald men and little brunette women preaching on Sunday mornings. We need native Spanish-speakers and English speakers who never learned more than how to count to 10 in high school Spanish. We need those who’ve sung hymns from the same pew for 40 years and those who are singing along from prison cells and hospital beds. We need gay brothers and lesbian sisters and transgender siblings all together at Christ’s open table. And we need each beloved child of God who is feeling fiercely uncomfortable I just said all that from the pulpit. We need each other because God chose to need us, to give us to one another as signs of God’s great love for us.
“Without higher quality material to work with,” says Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber in her book, Accidental Saints. “God resorts to working through us for others and upon us through others. Those are some weirdly restorative, disconcerting shenanigans to be caught up in: God forcing God’s people to see themselves as God sees them, to do stuff they know they are incapable of doing, so that God might make use of them, and make them to be both humble recipients and generous givers of grace, so that they may be part of God’s big project on earth, so that they themselves might find unexpected joy through surprising situations.”
If we’re looking for a quick summary of the book of Jeremiah, I think “weirdly restorative, disconcerting shenanigans” pretty well covers it. By deciding to submit to God’s call Jeremiah is going to be delivering a whole lot of weird and disconcerting news to his neighbors, but only as the pathway to restoration. He isn’t given the authority to dig up and pull down and destroy and demolish as he pleases. Those things are only done in service to the larger goal, to build and to plant. But it’s true that first he has to dismantle some barriers within himself and his community if God’s fruits are going to have room to grow. This is true for us, too.
What is it that we are holding onto, maybe without even realizing it, that keeps us from believing God truly loves us? What is it that gives us misgivings about where God is calling us, how God might want to use the gifts and experiences we have? What are the assumptions blinding us to the ways God is working in those around us?
Where in your life have you bought the lie that you can’t be a disciple because you’re only ___fill-in-the-blank___ ?
God answers, “Don’t say I’m only a child. You’re my child. And I will be with you every step of the way.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.