The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

February 3, 2013

Summary

I recently received an e-mail containing nothing except a short quote from George Burns. “The secret of a good sermon”, it said, “is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.” I notice that the message was also sent to several of my colleagues, so I didn’t feel that the sender was picking on me alone.

What would George Burns have made of the preaching of Jeremiah? I think he would award him two out of three. Although I fear the point Jeremiah drops might be the most crucial one. Jeremiah’s preaching has a good beginning – a great beginning. And it has an even better ending. The trouble is, by no stretch of the imagination are they close together. The point is, I think you can view the whole book of Jeremiah as a single sermon, and this book is 52 chapters long, by the way. Much of the book consists of the messages Jeremiah was to deliver. So the whole career of the prophet delivers one great message. And it is as Lutheran as they come – law and Gospel. But really thorough law, and so equally comprehensive Gospel. No stone is left unturned in exposing the sins of God’s chosen people, of Israel and Judah, nor of their neighbours. There are calls to repentance, sadly unheeded. And the judgement of God, the divine verdict is uttered against them. And the sentence for their wrongdoing is declared, to be exacted by Israel and Judah’s godless neighbours. But there are also messages of hope; there are promises of deliverance and restoration. And there is the good news of a new thing that God is doing, a new covenant he is making with his people. So much of the book consists of the messages Jeremiah was to deliver, building into a great sermon, a tour de force of law and gospel, so long as you are prepared to take the whole book as one huge message. And that, of course, is where George Burns would have problems – with just how far apart the good beginning is from the good ending. And between those parts are passages telling of the events unfolding during his eventful life – big, big events. Some of them are great events of the world: the great siege of Jerusalem, and the capture of the city, the exile of the people, and the burning of the temple. And some of them much more personal events, ones affecting Jeremiah himself, and these also not for the good: ridicule, persecution, imprisonment. No wonder Jeremiah had a reputation for gloom. He shares his lot with that lone lorn creetur in Dickens’ David Copperfield, Mrs Gummidge, who might almost have taken the words from Jeremiah’s mouth when she said, “I an’t what I wish I could be. Far from it. I know what I am. My troubles has made me contrary. I feel my troubles, and they make me contrary. I wish I didn’t feel ‘em, but I do.” Jeremiah might well wish that he was someone else, or somewhere else. But troubles were his lot.

Now today, Mr. Burns would be relieved to hear, we will not really read all 52 chapters of Jeremiah. In fact we have nothing more than the beginning of that very good beginning. We have the call of Jeremiah, when he first heard that he was appointed by God for this long and very challenging ministry as the mouthpiece of the Almighty.

And at the beginning of such a marathon, life-long task of preaching an unpopular message to unappreciative ears, what does this very young Jeremiah hear? He hears a message of enormous strength, which would sustain him through all his days.

For one thing, Jeremiah was told, he was not just the one who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was not lumbered with his almost unbearable task for want of another volunteer, as if everyone else had taken one step backwards. To be sure, he didn’t want the job, and he was certainly not volunteering. “Ah, Lord GOD!” he explained, “Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” There’s no proper way to say to God, “I think there’s been some mistake…”, but this was his way. And here he stands in a great tradition. Moses had tried the same trick. When sent on the dangerous mission to argue with Pharaoh, he too hinted that God had the wrong man, for he was unable to speak eloquently. Isaiah, as we shall see next week, complained of his unworthiness because he was a man of unclean lips. Jonah was less subtle, and simply ran away. And perhaps this is part of why God chose them, because they saw no glory for themselves in their task. I would be very wary of someone offering themselves for the ministry if they were too eager for it, or believed that they were well-equipped for it, God’s gift to some lucky congregation. But the error of Jeremiah, and Moses, and Jonah was this – they thought what God was doing depended on their abilities.

So God sets his chosen prophet straight. No, you are not just the chance victim of being in the wrong place when I need someone. On the contrary, “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.” So, not a spur of the moment decision on the Lord’s part, but it wouldn’t be going too far to say that it is the very thing that Jeremiah was born for. That is what he was for. He was made to be a prophet to the nations.

I know that there are those in our midst who are particularly conscious of the miracle that takes place within a mother’s womb. Even when the ultrasound scanner peaks at the secret within, it does nothing to shatter the sense of mystery we must feel. Surely no one can contemplate it without wonder. But Jeremiah hears that while the amazing development of a unique individual, namely him, was taking place, he was not only being formed as a person but as a person with a calling. Before he was born he was a prophet to the nations. Perhaps in the years to come, as he faced the contempt of his fellows and the self-destruction of his people, he might have thought about that. To speak the oracles of God is what he was for. It is what he does.

So, none of this nonsense about being unworthy, or unqualified, or unwilling, or too young, “to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak”. And if, already on Jeremiah’s lips was forming the objection, “but they’re not going to like it; they’re going to kill me”, such doubts had no opportunity to surface. Because God went on: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” Again, a promise that would often be put to the test, but never found wanting.

And then something remarkable and profound happens. The hand of God stretched out to touch the prophet’s mouth. There could be no doubt now about his mission. He was tooled for the job. “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth”. His youth was irrelevant. The word of God is the word of God, whether it comes from the mouth of a youth or the mouth of Balaam’s donkey. But this word of God had to do with great things, even by the world’s standards. “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.” People may mock and strike out as they like, but the word that rules the destiny of nations was in his mouth. For this was the word that says “let there be” and there is. “Pluck up”, God would say to the Babylonians, and they would uproot Israel. “Build and plant”, he would say to another power as yet not emerged, and Israel would again be restored.

So Jeremiah was an important man in the 6th century BC. He was born for it.

But, in fact he was born for something greater than that. The message that was written in the events of the ancient Near East is itself a prophecy, telling the ways of God. The word of God remains living and active, and the voice of God’s judgment sounds clearly still. We can see its authenticity because it is every bit as unpopular now as it was in the 6th Century BC. Gloomy Jeremiah, whose troubles make him contrary, still speaks a message no one wants to hear. But hear it they must. It is the word that plucks up and breaks down, it destroys and overthrows. It is the word that says the events of the world, the rising and falling of nations, are not unrelated to the purposes of God. But it is also the word that builds and plants and brings new hope and new life.

At the climax of the life of Jeremiah, and of his book, is the promise of a new covenant. “”Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Today we cannot hear this without thinking of God’s new covenant, or New Testament. In fact we shall hear that very word of Jeremiah in a few minutes. “In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The new covenant is in the blood of Jesus. It is the word placed in the priest’s mouth by the hand of God. And it says, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Amen.

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Bible References

  • Jeremiah 1:4 - 10