Are you called? Jeremiah 1:4-10

Dad, when I grow up I want to be a bin-man.

Ok son. Er, why would you like to be a bin man?

Because I’ve only seen them work once a week.

Mind you, I suppose you could say the same about Vicars. Not as bad though as the lady who asked her daughter: ‘What would you like to do when you’re big like Mummy?’ To which the child replied ‘Go on a diet’.

Seriously, what hopes do we have for our children? Grandchildren? Or ourselves? Having a good job? Being happy whatever they do? Growing up to be a parent themselves? Having a living faith in God? What are the things we pray for, for our children, grandchildren and ourselves?

The wonderful thing is that God has a plan for each one of us. Our loving heavenly Father knows us better even than we know ourselves. He loves us more than the best parent could ever love their child. And he calls us to fulfil our destiny in relationship with him. To return to him through Jesus.

Our reading from Jeremiah makes this very clear. It comes from the beginning of the book, where God calls the Old Testament prophet. He says to him ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you’.

Imagine God saying that to you: before you were born I knew you. God knows our foibles, our interests, our triumphs and disasters. For example: Isn’t it amazing how different each child is – even from the same parents? The same genes go into the mix, but two siblings can be completely different, and it’s remarkable how early personality appears. As a parent you see that little person develop– but God knows them from the very beginning.

He knows everything about us. He sees through our outward fronts into our inner secrets, he loves us as we are yet loves us too much to allow us to remain the same.

God says to Jeremiah ‘Before you were born I set you apart’. He called him to a particular role.

Interestingly, verse 5 says that God has appointed Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations. Not just Judah – although we very much associate Jeremiah as the prophet of Jerusalem’s last days. He spoke so much about the judgement coming on Judah that we can forget he gave messages to the nations too, and these are all grouped together at the end of his book.

Jeremiah had a unique, totally one off call. Does that mean then that those words about God knowing destiny, setting apart for a task only apply to the particular case of Jeremiah? I don’t think so. For the words in verse 5 and 6 are all based on the principle that God formed Jeremiah in the womb. If he did so for Jeremiah, he did so for us. Which is not to deny biological facts – simply that God works through human biology for his own purpose.

If God could know Jeremiah’s future, then surely he knows ours? And if he could consecrate Jeremiah for a great task, how much more can he appoint us for the things he wants us to do and the people he wants us to be?

Many people think that this idea of having a vocation means working for the church. Not so. Each one of us has a vocation, called to do particular things – the world needs joiners and accountants just as much as it needs prophets. Each of us is called to be the person God wants us to be. Only Sam can be Sebastian’s Mum and Alexander his Dad. And most of all, God calls us to be in relationship with himself, for it’s there that we find our true selves and the real meaning of life.

It comes in a clear priority order. You’re called to be yourself with God first – that’s the primary vocation. Then to be in relationship with your family and friends. After that comes work. Our society often gets that order upside down: we define ourselves by our work, which is particularly tough if you’re unemployed; after work we try and carve out time for family; and God might fit in for those who have a special interest in that kind of thing. It’s not healthy – much better to follow God’s priority order.

You’ll find that identity and call develops over time. It may evolve with the changing circumstances of life. Sometimes we may feel that we’re treading water – in which case pray and seek God for a renewed sense of direction. Don’t give up. Maybe we feel we’ve missed opportunities or not fulfilled our role – because following our call demands a lot of work from us. If so, be humble, turn back to God, and start again. Calling develops through life, and what we did at one point may not be right for us at a later stage. But God always has a plan

I find that wonderfully reassuring. Especially as a parent. You can find yourself watching your children and worrying: he’s good at English but rubbish at Maths, how’s he ever going to get a GCSE? We fret over education, agonise over choice of school, how many clubs should they go to? And then you get the helicopter parents who are still hovering over their offspring throughout university.

You know what? God has a plan. He loves each child. He has a purpose and a path for them. As a father myself I find that such a release because it doesn’t all depend on me. Parents bring a new life into the world, and at first that new life depends on older people for nourishment and protection. But that new life has its own existence, its own seeds of independence, its own destiny. All older generations can do is make the decisions for that child as best we can, and trust in God.

The idea that God has a plan for our lives can be a bit scary. It certainly involves stepping out in faith. Jeremiah seems very uncertain. He replies ‘But Lord, I do not know how to speak, I am only a boy’.

Perhaps this is a humble exaggeration. Perhaps Jeremiah means that he feels very young and not at all qualified. After all, the Hebrew word here can be used to mean young man – perhaps even as old as twenty something.

 But I don’t find that explanation convincing. Surely all the references to womb and birth make most sense about someone who is very young? And God’s response takes Jeremiah’s comment at face value – he doesn’t correct his perception of his age. We know that Jeremiah prophesied during the reign of five kings over more than 40 years – if he was in his twenties when he started that would make him very old by the standards of the time. 

But why not use a child? God spoke through the boy Samuel. Sometimes children can hear God more clearly, be less inhibited about the reactions their words will cause. Children can see injustice straightforwardly without the shades of grey which muddy the water for adults. Today we can learn to hear the voices of children and take them seriously. We can value the spiritual gifts children bring – prophesy, prayer, tongues and the healing ministry are not just for adults.

Children can bless us immensely. God reassures Jeremiah that he will be with him. God will give Jeremiah the skills and the courage that he needs. God’s word through Jeremiah will be effective, building up nations and pulling them down. Jeremiah can be confident in his work because he knows that God has called him. Whatever our calling, whatever we are called to be and do, let us pursue it enthusiastically, confident that our loving God has a plan.

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Warnings

Religion – is it a comfort? Is it comforting to be religious? Or does faith, as someone once said about art ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable?’

I suppose it depends on what you mean by comfort. If I experienced the occasional strange heartbeat or fluttering sensation in my chest, I could no doubt look up any number of reassuring articles on the internet, Medonline.com would comfort me by saying it was due to coffee, or stress or even mealtimes. That would be comforting – as long as it’s true.

Or I could go and see the doctor. Problem with a doctor is, he might say, there’s a problem but we can address it with a pacemaker. Maybe that’s not such good news. But if it’s true, surely it’s better to take it seriously and get a problem fixed.

So comfort can be a superficial sort of thing where you hope for the best. Or comfort can be based on reality – when a genuine problem has been addressed. That sort of comfort can come as the result of hard words, or difficult decisions, but it is much more true. And it is the sort of comfort Jeremiah talks about in today’s reading.

It’s about 600 BC. Almost 150 years after the reading from Isaiah we heard last week. A lot has happened in that time. The small kingdom of Judah miraculously survived when its more powerful Northern neighbour Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. But now Judah has struggled on for a century, always under threat. Invasion is imminent.

God called Jeremiah to speak to his people. In Jeremiah’s prophecy he calls them to turn back to God, to do what’s right, and make peace with the Babylonians while there is time.

How do you think they reacted? The message was not appreciated. The people liked their country independent.  They wanted to keep their religious options open – just in case. And no-one likes to be told their behaviour isn’t up to scratch. So they made fun of Jeremiah, the people of Judah said he was trying to frighten them. At various times they got bored of him, ignored him, or locked him up. Still the prophet continued to speak, warning them that unless they changed, their society was doomed.

No-one likes the nay-sayer. But if I drive up to a Give Way sign, I don’t think to myself ‘Pedantic, bossy council’. I give way – because the juggernauts coming past won’t be stopping. If I see a sign saying ‘Danger  -electric fence’ I don’t think to myself ‘oh, the farmer’s just trying to frighten me’. I give it a wide berth.

We may wonder why so much of the Old Testament is full of warnings. But a parent who saw their toddler wandering into the sea and didn’t call them back would be a parent who lacked love, or responsibility, or both. In the Old Testament we see the Father heart of God who constantly warns his people about the consequences of their actions. He knows what is good for us, his laws are not arbitrary diktats, but the Maker’s instructions, the blueprint for life. Warning comes from love. We might note too that this is not just an Old Testament thing – in our Gospel reading Jesus told people to read the warnings around them.

One of the challenges of being a parent is knowing how much freedom to give. Do you give way to your seven year old who desperately wants to grate her own parmesan? Or do you refuse because you’re sure she’ll end up grating her fingers too? And how important is it that she finds out for herself? Are there times when you have to allow her to experience consequences so that she learns your advice is reliable?

God allows us a great deal of freedom because maturity cannot be forced. And love is not love if it is not given freely. But God does warn, a great deal. All the warnings in the Bible are there so that we can be protected if we choose to heed them. And if we do not, the warnings invite us to repent: to seek God’s forgiveness and turn back to him.

That’s why in v.29 of our reading, Jeremiah says that the Word of the Lord is like fire and a hammer breaking a rock in pieces. God’s Word has the intensity and power of fire. It is dangerous if not treated with respect, but when used as intended it warns, comforts and protects. It is like a hammer breaking rocks, smashing apart obstacles on the path and clearing a way so that people can move about in safety. God speaks to us so that we can know what is best for us, so we can find life in all its fullness as he designed it, so we can recognise wrong and turn from it, so we can find forgiveness when we have sinned.

Accepting that can be tough. The people of Judah wanted to go their own way, and they had plenty of other prophets who were only too happy to support them. These are the people God criticises in verse 25 – those who prophesy lies in His name. They are harking back to the glory days; dreaming that past influence will one day be restored; based on their own wishful thinking they promise that God will deliver them. This is God’s country, they say, we are his people. His temple is here, how could he possibly let it fall? You Jeremiah are prophesying dire things but God won’t actually let them come to pass.

Do they have faith? I suppose you could say they have a faith of sorts. It is a warm fuzzy optimism, don’t worry be happy, hang on to your faith and God will look after you, be true to yourself and everything will be ok. It is a religion of the plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of my car, a tame and domesticated God. A dream that appeals to many today. But am I a God nearby, says the Lord in v.23, and not a God far off too?

Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? I know what you’re thinking. I can see what you’re doing. The false prophets had massively underestimated God.

Firstly, although they believed that God could deliver his people, they didn’t realise how different God’s plans could be. We can glean their message from the rest of Jeremiah. They said there would be no sword, nor famine, nor destruction of the temple. They taught that God would deliver everyone from danger.

But Jeremiah said: if you turn back to God, he will deliver you through all these dangers. Not from, but through. Troubles will come, that is the world we live in. Things will be very tough and you will pass through great hardship, but God will carry you.

I wonder, do you have an idea of how you’d like the future to be? Do you have a plan for your life, a dream of what would be good to happen? It’s good to have hopes and a vision – as long as we remember that anything can happen and that God can weave the surprises and accidents into the tapestry of our lives. God does not promise to protect us from the challenges of life – but he does promise that he will be with us through them. And he will ultimately deliver us too.

The second way the false prophets underestimated God is they didn’t realise how much he cares. They said to themselves: God is on our side, we are his people. The implication was ‘No matter what we do’. The result in verse 27 was that people were comfortable worshipping idols alongside God, that immoral practises did not get challenged.

Jeremiah said: God is a God of love. That means he loves passionately, he cares for all his people, especially those who are vulnerable. Love means God is holy and righteous. So if you oppress the poor, if you make slaves of your fellow countrymen, if you cheat and lie, why would you think God is on your side? He can see everything that goes on. He is not indifferent to what you do. God offers a universal invitation, he calls everyone into his kingdom, but we have to respond and show it with changed lives.

I wonder what this means for us? It calls me to remember that worship, prayer and sacrament are essential to living a Christian life, and so are care for the poor, service, and simple kindness. It challenges me to remember that religious duties do not substitute for compassion nor vice versa. That my whole life needs to be suffused with the grace of Christ, not just parts of it.

I sometimes imagine my life being like the rooms of a house. Some parts, like the hall and sitting room are kept reasonably well, presentable for visitors. Others, like the spare room and garage don’t get seen much – which is just as well as they’re full of rubbish. But if we’re going to spring clean, we’ve got to spring clean the whole lot. We can’t have parts of our lives where God is welcome, like church and home, and parts where he isn’t, like work or when you get together with certain friends. The joy and true life of Christianity needs to be incorporated into my whole life with transparent integrity.

Jeremiah urges us not to be like the false prophets and underestimate God. Not to think of God as a benign but distant force, uninterested in our daily activities. God is not a tribal deity, to be invoked by those whose ancestors have always served him. Nor is he a plastic Jesus, a good luck totem to carry me through life. God is far more loving, far closer than we can imagine – and that means that what we do matters to him.  He is passionate, involved, guiding and warning us. He wants what is best for us and longs that we may clearly hear his voice.