When God Comes Calling
September 9, 2001
Jeremiah 1:1-10 The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder
I invite you to find the Scripture reading in the bulletin, to follow along as together we meet this strange and wonderful, this powerful and reluctant prophet this courageous and creative preacher who dared to speak the truth to a generation who did not want to hear it, this man of God whose ancient words still inspire and rebuke us today. All through this fall we will be learning about this Jeremiah, to hear what he had to say in his time, and to hear what his words have to say for our time. This is how the book of Jeremiah, in the Hebrew Scriptures, begins:
The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin . . . . Our friend Jeremiah is not a mythical figure, made up to make a good story. Jeremiah was an ordinary enough man living in the town of Anathoth, in the area of Palestine known as the land of Benjamin, not far from Jerusalem. His father is Hilkiah. And his is a family of priests: they are the religious leaders, and would have raised young Jeremiah amidst strict reverence for and practice of the Torah, the law of God. A "preacher's kid," this Jeremiah not always a good start in life!
. . . to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.
Sounds like a history lesson! Why all these references to kings and years and even months? Whoever put this book of Jeremiah together in its final form wanted us to know that the pronouncements of this Jeremiah happened at a certain time and place. Specifically, these references mean that Jeremiah's ministry began around 622 BCE and went on past the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 -- about forty years. 2600 years ago is a long time. But again the point is that Jeremiah is no ivory-tower theologian, a theoretician spinning out oracles apart from the harsh realities of the real world of kings and their courts, enemies and invasions, the struggle of common people. Jeremiah is rooted in his world, part of the "warp and woof of history" [New Interpreter's Bible, p. 576]. As we read his sermons and prophecies this fall we will be trying to understand his world, and how that world and ours connect. Let's go on:
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, "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." Then I said, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the Lord said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord." Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."
Do you have a "calling" in life? Do you have a sense of what it is you are to be about, what sort of person you are "called" to be? If you have a calling, who was the "caller?" If you have that internal, persistent urging, that sense of what you are to be doing in the world, what sort of person you are to be, where does that sense come from?
We have just heard the story of Jeremiah's call. And quite a story it is! A Voice from heaven, appointing him to speak to kings and nations . . . a call that was his in the womb! But Jeremiah's calling is not very typical, is it? Or am I the only one in the room who has never heard the voice of God spoken right out loud to me? No, Jeremiah's call is different from others' in three ways. First, there is this heavenly voice business. However it happened, Jeremiah's call was very clear, and clearly from God. For most of us distinguishing that Voice from among all the other tugs and pulls and calls that surround us is a daunting task, a continuous struggle to discern; such a struggle, in fact, that perhaps some of us have given up trying to "hear" that divine Voice and its call to us.
Then too, most of us don't have such a lofty calling as to be a "prophet to the nations." There have been those throughout history who have had such a call. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to mind. And Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi . . . prophets to their nations in our own day. But their callings, and Jeremiah's are not typical. Your call, and mine, is probably to a ministry on a more local scale, BUT no less a call of God.
And then lastly, Jeremiah's call is unique because he received it so early in the womb, he says. Some people are fortunate enough to sense a calling almost from the start. But for the rest of us discerning God's leading is far more gradual, and far less certain. For us the call comes by much listening and experimenting, by trial and error, through resisting the call and then obeying it, and resisting again, obeying again.
But even though our calling may not come so early, nor sound so clear, nor be as grandiose as Jeremiah's our call is no less real, no less important, and no less exciting. For I believe that each one of us can have a sense of divine calling in our lives. By that I mean an inner sense of knowing . . . of knowing what our gifts are, and how they can be used by God's Spirit in the growth of God's Kingdom. A sense that God has made each one of us unique in all the universe, given us this life to fulfill a divine purpose. And I believe too that part of growing toward maturity in Christ is to be always listening for the leading of God to find and find again, and to refine that call, sensing the gentle leading of God toward new ways of fulfilling that call, and using our gifts in shared ministry in the world.
Today we stand at the start of a new church year. Our Vision for these months ahead is once again Generation to Generation: Sharing God's Blessings. It is a Vision by which we try to be ministers to and with people of all ages, but especially our children and young people. And as we today begin a year of living out that Vision, we must ask ourselves: What is God calling us to do this year? What ministries can we carry out? How can we be of service to our young people, and how can we receive their gifts more fully and joyfully? As a community of faith it is up to all of us to be listening for God's calling, so that calling can shape what we do this year.
But even more important than the question, "What is God calling First Congregational Church to DO?" is the question, "What is God calling First Congregational Church to BE?"
"Doing" and "being" are very different things. We Americans are good at "doing" in fact we are good at doing too much, filling our lives to overflowing with this activity and that, this event, that obligation . . . schedules into which we cram more than we could possibly achieve, thinking that in all that doing we will find happiness. And our children's lives mimic our own, to their detriment. We are, many of us, overloaded people, and later this fall I will be addressing that idea more fully. The point I want to make today is that we can become so busy "doing" that we neglect nurturing who we are inside. And in our faith life we can so focus on finding out what God wants us to do that we forget to ask God what we are to be -- what sort of people God has called us to be.
That happens as individuals, and it happens as churches. A church our church can be so busy on the outside that it neglects to nurture its spiritual life, on the inside. We can become so busy with activities, all of them good and helpful and noble, that we don't have time for remembering who we are at our core, just why it is we are a church in the first place.
Knowing this, God has planted at the center of our life together this Table this sacrament of the Lord's Supper. It is here to remind us who we are; it is here to remind us of Jesus the Christ who invites us to the Table, making us one, enveloping us in the grace of God. Here at this Table we are not asked to do anything. We are simply asked to be who we are, to receive the love of God.
Here at this Table we find our calling. For here we are all called to be children of God; called to acknowledge and embrace and celebrate the fact that by our birth and baptism we are offspring of God. And here we are called to welcome one another, for all are accepted here, celebrated here; all of us with our foibles and failures, crazy opinions and quirks of personality are welcome here. For we are part of each other, not because we have done the right things, been busy enough, or virtuous enough, or selfless enough. This sacrament of grace announces that we are here not because of what we DO, but what we ARE: children of God called to be like Jesus in the world.
Jeremiah's call was pretty spectacular, and his life as we will learn was no ordinary life. But in the eyes of God our calling is no less spectacular. In the eyes of God there is no ordinary life, and no ordinary church. May we today, rejoicing at the Table of the Lord, catch a new vision of who we are, that we might serve God in our time. Amen.