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.