The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, August 22, 2010.  The passage for this week’s sermon is Jeremiah 4:1-10.
Over the last few weeks, we have been looking at several passages that help us focus on the topic of living the Christian life.  What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ?  What should our lives look like in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus?  How are our lives different because of what God is doing?  These are the types of questions that we need to be asking so that we can grow closer to God in this journey of faith.
This week and next week, we are going to be looking at the prophet Jeremiah.  Today, we are going to be in the opening chapter of Jeremiah, and, more specifically, looking at his call into prophetic ministry.  Whether we want to be or not, and whether we think we are or not, when we decide to follow Jesus, we are responding to a call to ministry.  We are all called to ministry.  In Ephesians 4, the apostle Paul tells us that leaders in the church are called to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.”  When he is talking about “the saints,” he is talking about those who follow Christ.
Those who follow Christ are considered to be saints and are called to ministry.  Now, you may be thinking, “Well, I’m no saint.”  Maybe not in the way you’ve defined saint, but the Greek word for “saint” that is used in the New Testament is the same word that is used to describe something as “holy.”  Something is holy when it is consecrated, or set apart for a purpose.  Those who follow Christ are indeed saints because they have been set apart for a greater purpose.  In reality, the response that we have to our call to ministry may not be all that different from Jeremiah’s response.
Today’s passage begins with the word of the Lord coming to Jeremiah.  The word of the Lord is powerful.  If you read through the beginning of the Bible, the first book you come to is Genesis.  And in the opening chapters, God creates all the universe, and He does so using merely the spoken word.  The word of God has the power to create.  When God speaks, we should listen because His word is formative.  And He speaks to Jeremiah.
He says, “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.”  Before Jeremiah was ever even born, he was set apart for a particular ministry.  He had a purpose, a reason for being.  Jeremiah had a calling.
In his popular book, The Purpose Driven Life, Pastor Rick Warren begins with a completely counter-cultural statement.  His very first sentence is, “It’s not about you.”  He puts it in bold print just to make sure that we don’t miss what he is saying here.  He goes on in the opening paragraph to say that the purpose of our lives is not about personal fulfillment, our own peace of mind, or even our happiness.  If we want to know why we have been placed on this planet, then we have to start with God.  Warren says, “You were born by His purpose and for His purpose.”
What he is saying here is not all that different from what we see in Jeremiah 1, is it?  Before our birth, God knows us.  We may not come to know Him for a very long time, but we are not unknown to God, the one who created us.  We spend so much time in this life trying to figure out what it is that we are supposed to be doing, but all too often we forget that there is One who knows our purpose.
When God talks about knowing Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb, the language again points to God’s ability to create in the Genesis story.  There are two words that are important in this phrase, “form” and “know.”  The Hebrew word that is used for “to form” is the same word that is used in Genesis 2:7 when God forms man out of the dust.  In the creation story, humanity is the only thing that is created where we get the image of God getting down on his hands and knees to form it.  Then He breathes life into the form.  God’s creation of humanity reveals a level of care and concern that we don’t necessarily see with the rest of creation.
The second word, translated as “to know,” is the Hebrew word yada.  This word suggests an intimate type of knowledge.  It is the kind of knowledge that only those who are close to the individual are going to have.  It suggests knowing somebody down to the very core of their being.  God knows us better than any individual could ever know us.  Again, this deep knowledge comes from the fact that God created us, and this isn’t just a one time instance.  God’s knowledge of Jeremiah is the same kind of knowledge that He has for every person.
You can never come to God with more hidden in your life than you would like Him to know.  We cannot hide who we are from God.  A couple weeks ago, we talked a lot about what is going on in our hearts.  God knows what is going on in our hearts because He formed us and knows us down to the very core of our being.  What we see in this language of forming and knowing is that humanity has a special place, a special purpose in God’s plan.  For Jeremiah, that purpose is to be a prophet to the nations.
God tells Jeremiah that he has been consecrated, or set apart, to be a prophet to the nations.  This call that Jeremiah is getting from God is a very special type of calling.  Not everybody is called to be a prophet to the nations.  It is a difficult ministry that awaits Jeremiah.  He is going to speak out not just against his own people, but against the other nations as well.  He is not going to be a popular person.
Typically when we hear about the role of a prophet, we think of a person who tells the future.  But as we read about the prophets in the Old Testament, we see that speaking to the future is only a portion of their task.  The primary task of the prophet is to serve as the spokesman of God.  This does involve speaking of things to come, but it also involves a call to return to the Lord.  What we see in the prophets more than anything is a call to repent and return to the Lord.
We see messages that are designed specifically to warn the people of what will happen if they continue on their current path.  We see messages that are not given out of arrogance or a sense of superiority, but out of a sense of love.  I think there is a mistaken perception that in the Bible we get two different pictures of God.  In the Old Testament, there is a God of wrath and judgment.  In the New Testament, there is a God of love.  However, God doesn’t change as we read Scripture.  It’s not like He is hot-tempered in the beginning and, by the time the New Testament rolls around, He has chilled out a bit.  No, God’s judgment in the Old Testament comes as a result of the love that we see in the New Testament.  It was necessary correction for His people.
The people of Israel are called to be God’s people.  They are a chosen nation that is to be an example to the entire world, but they continually fail in that task.  As a result, because God’s name is soiled by their actions, judgment is brought upon them in order to get them back on the right track.  It was Jeremiah’s task, as a prophet, to let the people know what was going to happen if they didn’t return to the Lord.  This was not going to make him very popular amongst the people, but sometime following God’s call in life is not about popularity; it’s about doing what is right.  Doing what needs to be done can sometimes be difficult, and as a result, the first thing that we see from Jeremiah is an excuse.
In verse 6, Jeremiah says, “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.”  It is an excuse that is very similar to what Moses had to say at the burning bush.  To be sure, Moses was much more persistent in his objections, but both of them talked about their inability to speak for the Lord.  In Jeremiah’s case, his objection had a lot to do with his age.  Jeremiah was a young man at this point.  We don’t know exactly how young, but the Hebrew word for “youth” gives us the impression that he is still dependent on parental support.
In his culture, Jeremiah has yet to reach an age where the elders would take him seriously.  He would have been seen as just some kid who was speaking out of turn.  Yet, God still calls him, and doesn’t listen to his excuse.  Because, the simple fact of the matter is, when God calls us, God doesn’t make mistakes.  God calls us at just the right time.
When Jeremiah objected, God didn’t pause to double check His calendar.  He knew how old Jeremiah was.  He wasn’t surprised by that information.  We may feel unprepared for the task at hand, but that doesn’t mean we are unqualified for it.  God prepares those whom He sends, and He does just that for Jeremiah.
God overturns Jeremiah’s objection, and verse 9 tells us that the Lord put his hand on Jeremiah’s mouth and said, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.”  Jeremiah is not called to come up with clever messages that will change the hearts of the people.  He is simply called to relay the messages that God tells him to relay.
There seems to be a certain amount of fear involved when it comes to answering our call to ministry, and I think that fear just comes from the unknown.  We don’t know what God is going to ask us to do, and so we are afraid that He might ask us to move to Guam and live with the tribal people.  (Are there tribal people in Guam?  I don’t know; that’s not the point.)  Or, worse yet, He might ask us to completely change our lives and what it is that we have been doing with them up to this point.  And, some times, in some instances, God might ask you to move to Guam and be a missionary.  But more often than not, it’s going to be that second scenario.
God is going to call us to be faithful right where we are.  He is going to call us to be a witness right where we have been placed.  Jeremiah wasn’t sent to Jerusalem from some far off place.  That’s where he lived.  That’s where he grew up.  His father was a priest, and Jeremiah probably grew up around that aspect of his culture, and that was where he was called to do his ministry.  Sometimes that is a little scarier, though, isn’t it?
It’s hard to minister in a place where people remember you as the kid who used to play kickball in the sanctuary.  That’s why I hope I’m never appointed to my home church!  I wasn’t an awful child, but there are a few people there who knew me prior to my more mature days.  Think about the people that knew you as you were growing up.  If you told them the difference that God has made in your life, would they say, “Yeah, that makes sense,” or would they just laugh at the thought of you going to church?  But when God calls you to ministry, and remember, all people who follow Christ are called to ministry in one way or another, you can’t worry about what other people are going to say.  God can and will transform our lives in such powerful ways that we can’t help but be a witness for Him wherever we are.
Jeremiah’s call to ministry was not going to be an easy one.  He had a rough life, but in the end, he was faithful to the call to ministry that God had for him.  And that’s what is really important.  He trusted in the Lord just enough to get him through to the next day.  God never said that Jeremiah was going to have it easy.  In fact, He says, in verse 8, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”
Now, I have to be honest with you, if I was in Jeremiah’s shoes here, my first thought would have been, “Deliver me from what?  What are you getting me into, Lord?”  Jeremiah’s message wasn’t a popular one, and people lashed out against him because of it.  But he was assured from the very beginning that God was going to be with him and was going to deliver him.  That makes it a little easier to swallow, doesn’t it?  Because God is the same yesterday, today and forever, we can take a measure of comfort in the fact that God will be with us, even when He calls us to share His word in difficult circumstances.
In looking at Jeremiah’s call, we’ve been able to see a handful of things that are very important for us to remember as we try to live the Christian life.  First off, and this really comes from Paul, whether we think we are or not, we are saints who have been set apart for a special ministry.  Each person’s ministry is going to look a little different, but at its core is our trust and obedience to the one who calls us.
Secondly, when God calls us – when not if – He knows that we aren’t ready to fulfill that calling completely.  God knows us from before we were born, and God is not surprised by our inadequacies.  In fact, God thrives in our inadequacies.  God equips those whom He sends, and we are all sent to be His representatives – sometimes we may be called to go to distant places, but more often than not, we are called to be a witness right where we are.
Above all, it is important for us to remember that God doesn’t call us and leave us.  God is with us through even the most difficult parts of our ministries.  We are never alone.  God calls, equips and delivers.  It is up to us to stop making excuses and be faithful to that call.