14th Sunday After Pentecost
August 21, 2016
Commentary on the Texts
This reading comprises the first half of what is know as Jeremiah's "call narrative" recounting the prophet's commissioning by God into his prophetic vocation. Since prophets were primarily concerned with interpreting historical events in light of God's purposes in that history, most prophetic passages need to be placed within a historical context to be understood adequately. This is especially true of the Isaiah and Jeremiah collections. However, there are instances, such as here, where the literary form and structure of a particular passage is developed in such a way that the literary dimension of the text carries the message apart from a specific historical context.
Almost all the Jeremiah material must be seen in the context of the impending Babylonian invasion and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (ca. 609-586 BC). Even in this narrative, there are overtones of that historical context (1:14-16). Yet, this passage is more literary than historical. It follows a form (genre) or pattern of writing known as a prophetic call narrative or commissioning narrative (see the Prophetic "Call" Narrative: Commissioning into Service). This simply means that the structure of the narrative, as well as typical or stereotypical elements, is as much a part of the message and the theology of the passage as the content of what is said or the historical setting.
In many traditional treatments of this passage, there is a tendency to psychologize the narrative as if it were the report of a personal, mystical, encounter with God. Since the narrative begins in the first person with God speaking there is also a tendency to assume that we are here privy to the otherwise hidden agenda of God himself who chooses and predestines people even before they are born, indeed even before they are conceived, to fulfill certain roles in his divine purpose. While such approaches may make for some spectacular sermons, or lend themselves to certain ethical arguments (e.g., the abortion debate) they say far more about the assumptions people bring to this text than they tell us about the text itself.
As suggested above, rather than interpret this text either from the perspective of Jeremiah's own personal experience, state of mind, or spirituality, or from the perspective of systematic theological affirmations about God, we would hear the text better by listening to it as a communal confession of faith. That is, its importance is not what it tells us of Jeremiah's personal struggle with God, but what it tells us of the Israelite understanding of God's actions in the world as seen through the traditions about the prophet Jeremiah. This shifts us from the man Jeremiah to the book of Jeremiah, to a canonical and theological perspective that will have more significance to us as we hear this book as Scripture. So even though the figure is Jeremiah here, the narrative is told from his perspective, and the message anchored in that historical reality, the use of this stereotypical literary structure suggests a wider outlook. This will lead us to reflect on the role of leaders in the community of faith, how God works with them, and the integrity of faith and character that is willing to depend on God for sustenance and strength in the face of opposition and personal inadequacy.
This text is the fuller form of the commissioning narrative, echoing those of Moses (Ex 3:7-4:17) and Gideon (Judg 6:11-24), that includes the objections of the prophet and God's response of assurance. This will have more specific application to the ministry of Jeremiah given the nature of the task facing him and the message he would bring to the people. The signs that serve to confirm Jeremiah's commissioning, given in the form of a play on words and a vision report (1:11-16), are not included as part of the reading although they need to be seen as the continuation of the narrative. In fact, the final assurance in the formulaic "I will be with you" that occurs at the end of the chapter (v. 19) is a crucial part of the theology of the entire call narrative, balancing the first assurance (v. 8). This simply means that the whole narrative of 1:5-19 should be considered in any interpretation of this abbreviated Lectionary reading.
The five elements of a commissioning narrative provide the structural framework for this passage.
1) a crisis in which God confronts the person (implied in v. 3, "captivity of Jerusalem")
2) the commissioning of the person for some action or message (1:4-5)
3) objections raised by the person in the form of inadequacy for the task (1:6)
4) assurance of God's help, often in the formula "I will be with you" (1:7-10, 17-19)
5) a sign to confirm the commission, often with the content of the commission (1:11-16)
Note that the "assurance of God's help" is emphatically reiterated (vv. 17-19) to address the opposition that Jeremiah later faced from temple priests and Johoiakim (e.g., 20:1-6, 26:6-19, 36:1-32). In fact, the metaphor of the "bronze wall" is taken directly from God's reassurance to Jeremiah following one of the prophet's complaints to God in which he bemoaned the fact that he was ostracized and ridiculed for God's message that he brought to the king and people (15:20-21). This dimension also shows up in the assurance "do not be afraid" (v. 8), the emphasis on the reliability of the word of God that Jeremiah is to bring to the people (v. 12), and the promise that his enemies will not prevail (v. 19). This reassurance to Jeremiah of the validity and truth of his message as God's word to the people in spite of their unwillingness to accept it is a recurring feature of the entire book (e.g., 11:18-12:6, 15:10-21, 20:7-13, 28).
Even though this passage follows the structure of the commissioning narrative very closely, verse five has generated a lot of discussion, most often on topics that have little or nothing to do with this passage. Part of our difficulty in hearing this verse is that we tend to assume that the primary category of biblical books is "history" and therefore that the organizational scheme is chronological. So it is natural that when we read of God choosing Jeremiah before he was in the womb, and when his response is from the perspective of a young man, and when this passage opens the book, that we assume this is in chronological sequence. This leads us, then, to assume that we are dealing with just the "facts," from which we can make our own theological applications.
However, as suggested above, none of these assumptions are likely at work in this text. This is not just the reporting of facts that are then left to us to apply; the text itself is already a carefully worked out theological application drawn from the Jeremiah tradition. The organization of the book, like most other prophetic collections, is not chronological but theological. This fact is more clearly evident in Isaiah where his commissioning narrative does not come until six chapters into the book. It is also confirmed by the jumbled chronology in both Isaiah and Jeremiah (the Greek version of Jeremiah is even arranged differently than the Hebrew version).
From the introduction to the book (vv. 1-4), we learn that Jeremiah's prophetic career spanned a period of about 40 years, from the 13th year of the reign of Josiah (627 BC; Josiah reigned from 640-609) until the "captivity of Jerusalem," which came with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC (see Israelite Kings Date Chart and Israelite Prophets Date Chart). It is equally clear even from the introduction that the book itself is compiled from the perspective of the end process of that entire sequence. In fact, given the bitter opposition that Jeremiah and his message faced, it is natural to assume that he would not have been accorded enough of a hearing to collect together his prophecies to preserve until after his message had been proven by history to be the true word of God to his people.
If we then take seriously the comment that Jeremiah entered his prophetic vocation as a young man, we have a frame of reference for understanding the confession of verse five. This is not the reporting of an event from the young man Jeremiah just beginning his career. This is the witness of a seasoned prophet, and the community that had finally come to value his message, summarizing his ministry as the speaker of God's word.
Jeremiah's work as a prophet was anything but stellar. For forty years he had incessantly hammered away at a single message from God, a message that the country would be destroyed and everything that the people held dear would be gone. Not exactly the way to win friends and influence people! He held out hope for a restoration, but not until the horrible catastrophe had unfolded. So very few people had listened or heeded the message, certainly not the king or the religious leaders. In fact, they had tried on more than one occasion to kill him for his efforts. Even Jeremiah himself had more than once fallen into despair, not only at the rejection and ridicule heaped upon him, but simply under the grinding weight of the message he carried. Yet, even from the midst of some of the most pathos filled passages in Scripture (e.g., 8:22-9:3, 20:14-18), Jeremiah remained resolute in his message.
These verses are not the testimony of a youth looking at future ministry; they are the witness of a mature, battle scarred veteran looking back over a long and tortuous journey. This veteran knows who he is because he has been tested in the fire and stood firm. He had experienced the strength and empowerment of God in the most adverse circumstances imaginable. He had come to know who he is because he had come to know who God is in his faithfulness! This community also knew who Jeremiah is because they had seen his opponents pass into oblivion as their false messages evaporated into the fires of history. Jeremiah is a prophet! He is God's prophet! He had been commissioned to bring God's word to the people, and he had done so faithfully. He had never been anything but a prophet! He could never have been anything but a prophet! That is simply who he is, and who he always had been. It is in this sense that the testimony of verse five has its greatest impact.
The objections raised from Jeremiah concerning his youth (v. 5) are typical expressions of inadequacy found in various forms throughout Scripture, but especially in the commissioning narratives (see The Prophetic "Call" Narrative: Commissioning into Service). The emphasis on youth may, in fact, point not only to a lack of experience, but in the Mid Eastern culture to a lack of wisdom and discernment that would be expected to come with age. If this is the case, the youthfulness is a sign that there can be no dependence on human ability, since the young age would exclude most personal ability and lead to a dependence on God. Since this confession of inadequacy is a standard feature of commissioning narratives, it points to an understanding of human response to God that is based on the recognition that God's purposes require God's strength and presence, not human skill and wisdom.
This simply says that the issue here is not so much Jeremiah's physical age as it is the theological point of dependence on God. It is a simple confession that human ability, wisdom, strength, or power are not the means by which God works his purposes in the world, but rather through the power of God at work with inadequate people. As Paul would later say in 2 Corinthians (4:7), "we have this treasure in clay jars ["earthen vessels"], so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us." (see Underdogs and Earthen Vessels: Sermon on Deuteronomy 8:11-18).
God's response here is also typical to the point of being formulaic. The phrase "I will be with you" in various forms occurs dozens of times in Scripture. It is most often in the context of a circumstance or situation in which a person (or people) does not have the resources to respond, and yet God gives assurance of his presence that will enable the person to meet the situation (e.g., Gen 28:15, Ex 3:12, Deut 7:21, Josh 1:5, Isa 43:5, Hag 2:5, Matt 28:20, etc.). This dual conviction of God's sufficiency in the face of human insufficiency is a foundational theological idea undergirding relationship with God throughout Scripture.
There are two other aspects worthy of note in God's response of assurance to Jeremiah. There is particular attention paid to the content of the message ("you shall speak whatever I command you," v. 7). The issue of the reliability of the prophetic word is a common theme in Scripture. It comes especially to the foreground in situations like this where the message from this prophet runs counter to all "orthodox" theology of his time, as well as to other prophets who claimed equal authority to speak an opposite message (e.g., Hananiah, ch. 28). In fact, there is some sense that throughout Jeremiah's ministry there was nothing tangible to distinguish the true prophet from the false prophet. That could only be judged by the abiding validity of the message (note Jer 28:17).
Yet, there is the conviction that God would vindicate the message of the true prophet, even though the prophet himself might not survive (cf. 26:20-23). This does not imply a predestinarian outlook, but really comes at the issue from a different direction. The true prophets who proclaim the message of God have stood in the council of God, have received the word of the Lord (vv. 4, 9). That word is God's word, not just the prophet's acceptance of tradition on the one hand, or his own ideas about God on the other. In fact, some of the people defended Jeremiah at one point by pointing out that most true prophets, such as Micah a century and a half earlier, were at odds with established religious orthodoxy (26:16).
In other words, even though the form of the message might be unique to the prophet or different than expected, or even different than God's message to another people at another time, the message, the truth about God that the prophet proclaimed, was not his but God's. And while the people might not have the ability or willingness for various reasons to discern at the time the difference between a self-serving prophet and God's prophet, God would watch over his word to accomplish it (v. 12; cf. Isa 55:11). History would vindicate the truth of the prophet who stood in the council of God (cf. Deut 18, esp. v. 22, which contrary to what many suppose, is not about a strict correlation between prediction and fulfillment, but an affirmation of this same truth; for a discussion of this issue, see Ezekiel and the Oracles Against Tyre).
This raises another dimension that is in the background of this text, but is an important theological point here. We live in such an instant society that we expect the validity of something to be demonstrated immediately, and become impatient if results are not soon forthcoming. Yet, not only did Jeremiah work for 40 years on this single message, during his lifetime in made little impact on the people. It was only later, as his message was vindicated by history, that Jeremiah's faithfulness became the foundation for understanding the "new covenant" after the exile and for rebuilding a new understanding of the meaning of being God's people.
Jeremiah's message, God's word, was not only for the immediate present, although that was clearly its purpose. It was also simple truth about how God works in the world, a truth that the people would not realize until they had the frame of reference necessary to realize that Jeremiah was the one who stood in God's council and not Hananiah. Jeremiah's faithfulness, encouraged by God's promise of faithfulness to him, was for the long haul. He was willing to be faithful to the word of God even though he would not live to see the impact it made in the lives of people not yet born. It is only from this long range perspective and trust that the prophet can have the courage to "speak whatever I command you."
A second aspect of God's assurance to the prophet is the promise of deliverance with the formulaic "Do not fear." Jeremiah's fear was not just an insecurity or personal struggle, but a very real physical threat of death. Not all prophets would receive such a promise, as the story recounted in 26:20-23 demonstrates. But the emphasis here on God's protection of Jeremiah serves to shift the focus to the importance of the message itself. The issue was not really whether Jeremiah personally survived; the issue was whether God's word would be heard, whether God in his faithfulness to his people would reveal himself to them in ways that they could comprehend. This text is a powerful answer that God's word will prevail, that God will be faithful to his purposes in the world. Not that all prophets, that all people who proclaim the counsel of God or live lives faithfully as God's people will be spared persecution or even death, but that finally in the most horrific of personal circumstances, "I am watching over my word to perform it" (v. 12). The messenger is important, but only because the message is more important!
This reading concludes (although the commissioning narrative continues) with the summary of Jeremiah's message in three paired metaphors that become symbolic of Jeremiah's career as a prophet as well as the times in which he lived: pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow, build and plant. These terms show up throughout the book as themes around which Jeremiah's message has been remembered and preserved (18:7-10, 24:6, 29:5, 28, 31:28, 42:10). Some have characterized this as 2/3 doom and 1/3 hope. While that is perhaps a little too simplistic, Jeremiah's message did contain more warnings of consequences and judgment on the sinful nations for their failure to remain faithful to God. And yet, amid all the weeping and doom that we usually associate with Jeremiah, we should not forget that the building and planting was as much the word of God to these people as was the negative dimensions. It is not too overstated to say that Jeremiah's preaching laid the theological foundation upon which the post-exilic community could rebuild.
As such, these metaphors serve to illustrate a profound theological truth of Scripture: God's actions in the world do not end with plucking up and overthrowing, but in building and planting. In fact, it is not too strong to say that the purpose of the plucking up is to plant, and of the pulling down is to build. It is this mixture of judgment and hope that not only characterizes the book of Jeremiah, but is a feature of human existence under God. Without the balance of both, ending in hope of building and planting, we do not have the whole counsel of God.
In preaching this text, we should begin with a caution to avoid too easily equating the prophet with Christians or preachers or other ministers today. In a real sense, there can be no more prophets like Jeremiah in the church (see Prophets Today?). That does not mean that we have no application for this text, only that we are working with analogies here. And that always requires special care that we do not make the text say what we want it to say or more than it can say.
With that caution, however, the two pronged emphasis of this text provides profitable Preaching Paths. On the one hand there has emerged from this reading the contrast between human insufficiency and God's sufficiency. On the other hand, there is clearly an emphasis on the importance and reliability of God's word to his people as the means of working out his purposes in the world (note that "word" cannot be read as "Scripture;" "word" in this context is the message, no matter what form the "words" take in communication). Taken together, these theological affirmations open up possibilities to address not only the mission of the church and God's people in the world, but the more practical issue of how we can accomplish that in a world that is increasingly hostile to the message of the Gospel.
Again, we must remind ourselves that we are dealing with analogies to the Christian faith here. Jeremiah's message was to God's prophet sent to God's people, while the mission of the church is not to God's people but to the world. Yet the same principles are at work in both aspects.
As the article Underdogs and Earthen Vessels presents from a different passage of Scripture, there is always the danger of self-sufficiency. The risk is that we will assume, sometimes even in subtle ways, that because we are "called" into a special ministry, or have certain gifts that lead to success, or are part of a chosen people or God's family, that we can handle who we are on our own. This can manifest itself in many ways, from pastors who constantly rail at their whole congregation for not living up to their own expectations of what they should do or be, to young people who think they understand everything they need to know about the world. In fact, the temptation to self-sufficiency may adequately be considered the "original" sin.
Yet, the positive dimension is the thrust of the text and may have special application in some aspects of our culture. For various reasons, there are many people today who feel inadequate. There is a great deal of emphasis from so many directions on superstars and spectacular success stories. Production, growth, achievement, and skill, as well as glamour, image, and upward mobility all too often take center stage. And it is not hard to find the same factors at work in the church, both on the level of ministers as well as lay people. The fallout from this is that some people who do not see themselves as fitting into any of those categories, or who are actually told by others that they do not have what it takes to "succeed," are pushed to the sidelines. And it does not take much for them to begin believing that they are second class Christians with nothing to offer the community of faith. Yet this text tells us that God's presence makes the most inadequate person adequate for service.
I recall the decision of a religion department in a church university to screen ministerial students by administering a test designed to determine if they possessed suitable skills and temperament for entering the ministry. There may be a valid reason on some level to match people's skills with tasks that need done. Yet, in the final analysis, skill and temperament are not the most important aspects. I suspect that if Jeremiah had taken a temperament test, or undergone a modern psychological analysis, or even a spiritual gifts test, he would probably not have been approved by very many to be a prophet. But God chose him, and then equipped him for the task. We need to take seriously God's response to the objection, "I am just a youth."
This text does not tell us that everyone who claims a special calling or gift actually possess it. But it does tell us that the determining factor in success in the Kingdom as God's people is God, and not ourselves. It tells us that we do not have the strength ourselves to accomplish anything in the world. And yet, as God leads us to do his will in the world there is the promise, "I will be with you." It is not a promise of success by the standards of those movers and shakers of our culture, or of religious leaders, or of the people, or even of our own expectations of ourselves and what we think success might be. Nor is it a promise that the path to that success will be easy, or cheap, or that we will always be vindicated when we are misunderstood, despised, and rejected. It is simply the promise "I will be with you." But what a promise!
Such a promise turns our eyes from the magnitude of the task of serving God in whatever circumstance we face, and allows us to see beyond our own impossibility to the boundless resources of God. It does not have to be a call to special ministry. The same principle applies to all aspects of life under God. And it is not an isolated promise. It is one that runs like a golden thread throughout all of Scripture. Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit (Zech 4:6). The first shall be last, and the last first (Matt 19:30). When I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:10). I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Phil 4:13). This is more than an unrealistic carefree "Don't worry, be happy" approach to life. It does not eliminate hardship, or even death. But it is an assurance that no matter what the task we are called to do or the circumstance we face, God's presence is sufficient. As the Gaither song says, "even in losing we win."
Overarching all of this is the conviction that it is God's "word" in the world that is of ultimate significance. That is, all of life is subsumed to the importance of God's purposes in the world, to his word proclaimed. There are many ways in which this could be developed, from specific calls to ministry and actual proclamation in preaching or teaching, to aspects of ethical Christian living and how other people are treated that would speak volumes about God. In any direction this is taken, however, the main point is still that faithfulness to the message is of paramount importance. Even when it appears that there is no response to the message, however it is proclaimed in word or actions, the important matter is that the message is faithfully proclaimed. Even though no one responds at the time, the message is worth investing in. The promise here is that God will not let faithfulness to his message in the world go unfulfilled.
I have heard it said that it takes a lot of faith in the future to plant an acorn. Few people who plant acorns will ever see the mature oak that it produces. Much of what we do in ministry, or simply in being Christian does not have immediate, short-range results. Teachers of children understand this fact all too well. They pour their lives into youngsters who then grow up and will likely not even remember their names. But they learn from them, and incorporate that into who they become as adults. What the teacher does is invest in a future they will never see, and for which they will never get any credit. And yet it is a crucial task.
Jeremiah's call was to be faithful to the word of God that he had received. He was not called to succeed; he was only called to speak the word. The call is for us as people of God to simply live and be faithful to the word we have received, trusting God that he will take our inadequacy and use it in ways that we have not dreamed or could have imagined.
This Sunday in the Church Year
Color this Sunday:
Green or Church Colors
Reading also used:
Jer: Year C, Epiphany 4