A Divine Calling (Jeremiah 1:4-10)

The Prophet Jeremiah by Marc Chagall, 1960

The Lord gave me this message:

“I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb.
    Before you were born I set you apart
    and appointed you as my prophet to the nations.”

“O Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I can’t speak for you! I’m too young!”

The Lord replied, “Don’t say, ‘I’m too young,’ for you must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you. And don’t be afraid of the people, for I will be with you and will protect you. I, the Lord, have spoken!” Then the Lord reached out and touched my mouth and said,

“Look, I have put my words in your mouth!

Today I appoint you to stand up
    against nations and kingdoms.
Some you must uproot and tear down,
    destroy and overthrow.
Others you must build up
    and plant.” (New Living Translation)

“Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity.”

St. Paul to St. Timothy (1 Timothy 4:12, NLT)

I write to you, young people,
    because you are strong
    and the word of God abides in you,
        and you have overcome the evil one. (1 John 2:14, NRSV)

Young Jeremiah had an unusual calling from the Lord. It wasn’t to reach thousands with a life-giving message of hope and encouragement; the call was to declare destruction to an unjust people who believed they were fine, thank you very much.

It was a calling that would have been a huge challenge for the most seasoned of veteran prophets. But God called the young Jeremiah. This was his first crack at being a prophet of the Lord; and it was a doozy of a call!

Yet, when it comes to God’s call, age really means nothing. That’s because the Lord equips whomever the Lord wants to empower. Young or old makes no difference. All that’s needed is a willingness to submit to the voice of divine calling.

And to Jeremiah’s credit, the lengthy prophecy bearing his name in the Bible is a testament to his sense of call and straightforward obedience to it.

There is, and always has been, a divine/human cooperative in the world. God, of course, could do everything without humanity’s assistance. But it’s never been that way. Throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture, the Lord calls and empowers people for service.

On the one hand, this may seem like some strange convergence which, on the surface, is sure to end in some screw-ups and failure. Yet, on the other hand, this cooperation between Creator and creature gives people, at the least, a sense of ownership in the world; and, at the most, a powerful opportunity to bless the world with divine gifts of speaking and service.

Although Jeremiah was called to (mostly) pronounce doom, it’s first and foremost a message of justice. The Lord is concerned for the common good of all persons, not just some. Yahweh is not about to be forever idle whenever certain segments of humanity go rogue and harm their fellow sisters and brothers with unjust ways.

The Prophet Jeremiah by Marc Chagall, 1968

What’s more, the Lord delights in using people whom society at large might deem less than usable.

Now remember what you were, my friends, when God called you. From the human point of view few of you were wise or powerful or of high social standing. God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and he chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful. He chose what the world looks down on and despises and thinks is nothing, in order to destroy what the world thinks is important. (1 Corinthians 1:26-28, GNT)

If God can use a donkey to communicate a message, then it’s likely that the Lord can enable any person on earth to speak words of justice – no matter if they’re young, uneducated, or underprivileged – and make the older, educated, and privileged look like jack asses. (Numbers 22:22-35)

For Christians everywhere, every believer has been called by God to proclaim the gospel of grace. The Word has come to us in Christ, in the flesh (John 1:14). Jesus is the primary and ultimate revelation of God’s Word to us.

God has also set the Church apart to serve as proclaimers of God’s Word to the nations. The Great Commission and the Great Commandment summarize our call to ministry. (Matthew 22:37-40; 28:19-20)

Yahweh’s intentional purpose was for Jeremiah to proclaim God’s word. That’s also God’s intentional purpose for the Church; the Lord puts God’s words in the church’s mouth. Christians proclaim the Word, which we know most fully and experience most personally in Jesus Christ.

With our words, perspectives, attitudes, relationships, and actions, God’s Word flows through us to the world. As believers, we know that gospel proclamation will accomplish God’s purposes.

We trust that God is empowering us to effectively proclaim God’s words with effectiveness so that all the earth may be renewed and blessed.

Most High God, you knew each of us before we were ever born. And so, you know us better than we know ourselves. Your divine power is already there, deep within us. As you call forth that power, enable us to respond with submission, obedience, and willingness to speak words of justice, love, and grace to a world in need of hope and betterment, through Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hope for the Grieving (Jeremiah 31:15-22)

Orthodox icon of Rachel weeping for the children

This is what the Lord says:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

This is what the Lord says:

“Restrain your voice from weeping
    and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,”
declares the Lord.
    “They will return from the land of the enemy.
So there is hope for your descendants,”
declares the Lord.
    “Your children will return to their own land.

“I have surely heard Ephraim’s moaning:
    ‘You disciplined me like an unruly calf,
    and I have been disciplined.
Restore me, and I will return,
    because you are the Lord my God.
After I strayed,
    I repented;
after I came to understand,
    I beat my breast.
I was ashamed and humiliated
    because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
Is not Ephraim my dear son,
    the child in whom I delight?
Though I often speak against him,
    I still remember him.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
    I have great compassion for him,”
declares the Lord.

“Set up road signs;
    put up guideposts.
Take note of the highway,
    the road that you take.
Return, Virgin Israel,
    return to your towns.
How long will you wander,
    unfaithful Daughter Israel?
The Lord will create a new thing on earth—
    the woman will return to the man.” (New International Version)

The bereavement of losing someone you care about is awful. A parent experiencing the death of a child is next level grief. There is no bereavement like it.

As a hospital chaplain, I occasionally attend to a grieving mother who just lost her baby. I have shown up for premature and stillborn deaths, full term births, then death, sudden infant death, and more. The grief is indescribable.

On some level, there is no comfort – and never will be. I know that, for me, providing grief support to mothers who are enduring the death of a baby or young child has profoundly changed me and forever impacted my soul. So, I can only imagine what it’s like for a mother.

Many Christians will recognize the verse of Rachel weeping for her children as part of the early story surrounding Jesus:

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”(Matthew 2:13-18, NIV)

It’s really hard to have hope when you’re in the throes of lamenting the death of children. We need hope. It’s necessary to life. We cannot survive, let alone thrive, without it.

It is possible to simultaneously experience hopelessness and hope. At the same time, we hold both despair and desire, anguish and anticipation, in our hearts. While we may never forget who we have lost, we make it through our days believing that another child can change the world for the better. We place our faith in the Christ child, in Jesus.

Wily old King Herod massacred innocent toddlers in order to ensure the destruction of Jesus. Behind his atrocity was the devil himself who knew that Jesus was the coming King who would one day bring salvation. But the old King’s sinister plan didn’t work. 

Reflecting on a vision of Christ’s birth, the Apostle John stated:

The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12:4-5, NIV)

Satan wars against God’s Son and God’s people, whose roots go all the way back to the first prophecy of Christ:

And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15, NIV)

There has been bad blood, ever since the Fall of humanity, between the serpent and the seed of the woman. The Old Testament Israelites were continually being threatened with extermination; they were constantly tempted to conform to pagan ways for handling their suffering and grief. 

Herod was just another in a long line of demonically animated men trying to perpetuate the kingdom of darkness. The devil knows that his time is short; and he uses twisted persons like Herod for his insidious schemes.

Many people experience hell on earth because Satan is on a rampage; mothers and their children are often the collateral damage.

The holiday season is a hard time of year for many people, filled with depression instead of joy, grieving over lost loved ones for whom you will not spend another Christmas with. And yet, there is a reunion coming, the hope of a bodily resurrection in which we will be with Jesus and God’s people forever.

Satan’s most powerful weapon, death, has lost its sting because of Jesus. Death does not have the last word; resurrection does. And this hope for the future helps us in the present to keep going and not give up.

The prophet Jeremiah was dealing with children lost in war to the invading Babylonians. His words are a lament in the context of the hope that captivity and exile will not be forever. 

Matthew wants us to see that the exile is over for us; Jesus has arrived, and the tears that were shed will shortly dry up. There may be a time of suffering that we must endure, but there is glory ahead.

Jesus is the Great Deliverer who brings us out of the grip of death, grief, and lament and into the promises of God. Christ is our hope. Amen, and amen.

Speaking Truth to Power (Jeremiah 26:1-15)

The prophet Jeremiah, 6th century mosaic, Ravenna, Italy

Early in the rule of Judah’s King Jehoiakim, Josiah’s son, this word came from the Lord: The Lord proclaims: Stand in the temple courtyard and speak to all the people of the towns of Judah who have come to the temple to worship. Tell them everything I command you; leave nothing out. Perhaps they will listen, and each will turn from their evil ways. If they do, I will relent and not carry out the harm I have in mind for them because of the wrong they have done. 

So tell them, The Lord proclaims: If you don’t listen to me or follow the Instruction I have set before you—if you don’t listen to the words of the prophets that I have sent to you time and again, though you haven’t listened, then I will make this temple a ruin like Shiloh, and this city I will make a curse before all nations on earth.

The priests, the prophets, and all the people heard Jeremiah declare these words in the Lord’s temple. And when Jeremiah finished saying everything the Lord told him to say, the priests and the prophets and all the people seized him and said, “You must die! Why do you prophesy in the Lord’s name that ‘this temple will become a ruin like Shiloh, and this city will be destroyed and left without inhabitant’?” Then all the people joined ranks against Jeremiah in the Lord’s temple.

When the officials of Judah heard these things, they went up from the royal palace to the Lord’s temple and took their places at the entrance of the New Gate of the Lord’s temple. The priests and the prophets said to the officials and all the people: “This man deserves to die for prophesying against this city as you have all heard firsthand.”

Jeremiah said to all the officials and to all the people, “The Lord sent me to prophesy to this temple and this city everything you have heard. So now transform your ways and actions. Obey the Lord your God, and the Lord may relent and not carry out the harm that he’s pronounced against you. 

But me? I’m in your hands. Do whatever you would like to me. Only know for certain that if you sentence me to death, you and the people of this city will be guilty of killing an innocent man. The Lord has in fact sent me to speak everything I have said to you.” (Common English Bible)

When it comes to the spiritual and religious life, on the one hand, we hold the joy and contentment of divine connection and peace; and, on the other hand, we hold the sadness that many turn their backs on divine realities. In Christian terms, Jesus is both the cornerstone of faith and the stone which causes people to stumble and fall. (1 Peter 2:8)

Frankly, the Lord is not okay with cruel injustice, hollow worship, and inattention to both the divine and human. There is a way to make things right. But not everyone wants that. Systemic evil persists because there are always those who benefit from the current structures of power – and they care little about how it impacts those on the underbelly of their control.

Things may be going well for a large chunk of people. And, conversely, things may not be going well at all, for an even larger group of folks. Therefore, it is necessary to acknowledge that the world is not only good, but also quite broken. We must speak truth to power. I understand that this is no easy task, because rarely are things simply black and white, all good or all bad.

Jeremiah preaches in the temple gate, a woodcut by Unknown artist, 1886

In the prophet Jeremiah’s day, it was not that his opponents were pure evil with no acknowledgment of God. Rather, the problem was that the power brokers in Judah tried to keep a strict separation of religion from everything else; they were perfectly fine with God, that is, if the Lord would stay in the temple where he belonged.

But Jeremiah would have none of this sort of mentality and behavior. Keeping Yahweh out of matters of social justice, geopolitics, and institutional governance led to severe humanitarian problems. Jeremiah became God’s voice to a generation of people who ignored the divine in everything but religious ritual.

Bifurcating worship and work disconnects daily life from divine resources. Without God infused in all of life, a lack of grace fills the empty places. What’s more, the sovereign Lord can neither be silenced nor dismissed; God will find a way to accomplish peace and justice for the common good of everyone, and not just the few.

The heart of Jeremiah’s message was for king and people to be obedient in all of life, to recenter themselves around God’s law – not just the religious bits but the social ones, as well. Jeremiah did not proclaim something new. He was calling those in places of power and authority to a proper Torah observance.

The true needs and interests of our communities can never be addressed and lifted-up in the narrow self-serving interests of persons in power who turn a blind eye to anyone unlike them.

The needs and interests of our world lie in becoming who we were designed to be from the beginning: A people belonging to God, tapping into the deep reservoir of light and spirituality within us. It is to acknowledge the image of God inside us all.

We are to follow in the way of grace and truth. There is to be no division between the sacred and the secular because, for the Christian, Jesus is Lord of all.

We are to continually use our voice for both praise and prophecy, for shouting celebration to God and for speaking truth to power.

Holy God, the gracious Sovereign of all, we give you praise for your steadfast love toward us, your people. Keep us grounded in humility, sensitive to sin, attentive to that which is just and right, merciful in all things, pure in worship, and peace-loving through Christ our Lord in the strength of the Spirit. Amen.

Listen to the Prophets (Jeremiah 25:1-14)

St. Nicholas Church fresco of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel by Leopold Bruckner, Prešov, Slovakia

This is the Message given to Jeremiah for all the people of Judah. It came in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah. It was the first year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.

Jeremiah the prophet delivered the Message to all the people of Judah and citizens of Jerusalem:

From the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah right up to the present day—twenty-three years it’s been!—God’s Word has come to me, and from early each morning to late every night I’ve passed it on to you. And you haven’t listened to a word of it!

Not only that but God also sent a steady stream of prophets to you who were just as persistent as me, and you never listened. They told you, “Turn back—right now, each one of you!—from your evil way of life and bad behavior and live in the land God gave you and your ancestors, the land he intended to give you forever. Don’t follow the god-fads of the day, taking up and worshiping these no-gods. Don’t make me angry with your god-businesses, making and selling gods—a dangerous business!

“You refused to listen to any of this, and now I am really angry. These god-making businesses of yours are your doom.”

The verdict of God-of-the-Angel-Armies on all this: “Because you have refused to listen to what I’ve said, I’m stepping in. I’m sending for the armies out of the north headed by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, my servant in this, and I’m setting them on this land and people and even the surrounding countries. I’m devoting the whole works to total destruction—a horror to top all the horrors in history. And I’ll banish every sound of joy—singing, laughter, marriage festivities, genial workmen, candlelit suppers. The whole landscape will be one vast wasteland. These countries will be in subjection to the king of Babylon for seventy years.

“Once the seventy years is up, I’ll punish the king of Babylon and the whole nation of Babylon for their sin. Then they’ll be the wasteland. Everything that I said I’d do to that country, I’ll do—everything that’s written in this book, everything Jeremiah preached against all the godless nations. Many nations and great kings will make slaves of the Babylonians, paying them back for everything they’ve done to others. They won’t get by with anything.” God’s Decree. (The Message)

An ancient rabbi once said that we have two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk. 

Listening with curious and focused attention is a forgotten skill and a lost art in Western society. 

Slick marketing, political punditry, and over-the-top speech all scream into the culture because there is such a dearth of listening. It seems many people are more concerned to make their opinions known than do any kind of deep listening to another.

No one seems to want to put in the work of discovering another’s true thoughts, feelings, and needs. Instead, we’d rather rant, play armchair quarterback, and make uninformed comments on things we don’t understand.

It’s really downright sad and tragic that we fail to listen to each other. And it is especially terrible when we do not listen to God. 

The Old Testament prophets exist because of a failure to listen. At the time of Jeremiah, not only did the people not hear; they refused to listen. They put their fingers in their ears and babbled “la-la-la-la-la.” So, it was only fitting that the Lord sent the people to Babylon.

This was not merely the inability to listen because they were overworked, too tired, or “hangry.” The problem was much deeper than that. For years, God kept up a steady stream of words, telling the people exactly what was expected. But they didn’t listen, on purpose. Like a parent speaking to an angsty teenager, it all went in one ear and out the other with nothing getting done.

God passionately desired the people to amend their evil ways. But they didn’t want to hear it. 

So, after years, even centuries of unfaithfulness, unrighteousness, and injustice, God’s patience came to its limit. Tragedy happened. The Babylonian Exile became a terrible and harsh reality.

If there is no deep listening to God and God’s Word to us, there will be deep repercussions. 

Listen, my friends: None of us can do the will of God if we don’t know what God wants. It takes listening. And listening takes focused attention. And focused attention requires a posture of humility. And humility requires being emptied of all pride and hubris. 

Apart from genuine listening with the intent to understand and alter actions accordingly, there will be no peace, no love, no grace. The space of inattention quickly fills with lazy ears, emotional heaviness, spiritual sickness, xenophobic suspicion, anxious fear, dark thoughts, angry rants, and a retreat into selfish caring for oneself. 

The beginning of wisdom and human flourishing starts with listening well. Paying attention through deep listening brings humility of heart, purification of pride, and love of God and neighbor.

Truly hearing the words of God leads to self-awareness, cries for God’s mercy, a knowledge of humanity, the study of Holy Scripture, and a familiarity with the Church’s long tradition of sound teaching.

Therefore, silence is vital for everyone. Prayer needs to be more about sitting still in solitude and silence in order to listen and much less about talking at God.

But if we insist on making more noise than a couple of skeletons dancing on a tin roof, we will eventually be those skeletons – without any substance and only good for the grave.

So, read the prophets. Listen to them. Pay attention to their message. And heed their warnings and exhortations. Your ears will be glad you did.

Holy Father and God of all, your speech goes out into all the earth. Your Word is there for us to hear if we will only but listen. 

Lord Jesus, let your words and your teachings penetrate so deeply into my soul that your loving ways come out of me in all I say and do.

Blessed Holy Spirit, help me to so listen to your inner voice that encouragement and forgiveness pours forth from the wellspring of a heart which is baptized in God’s Word. Amen.