|God Touches Jeremiah’s Mouth – Winchester Bible (12th century)
4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
5 “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.”
6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7 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.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
9 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.
10 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.”
I was ordained some thirty-four years ago, the day after I received my M.Div. degree. Even though hands were laid on me that day in June and I received the marks of the profession, I never expected to serve as a full-time pastor. I thought my call to ministry would lead elsewhere. I might not have envisioned the way things turned out, but you never know for sure where a calling will take you. Even if we sense a call to ministry, how do we know if it’s the correct course?
Should we expect to hear God speak to us verbally? Will there be other signs that will confirm the call? I wrote a book on spiritual gifts
because I believe we are all gifted by God for service in God’s realm. Such service might entail ordained ministry, but more likely than not, it won’t. While these gifts might be rooted in our very being, I’m convinced that they can be used in a variety of ways both inside and outside the church. So how do you know where, when, and how gifts might be used in service to God’s realm?
There are examples of rather dramatic calls to ministry to be found in Scripture. Moses sees a burning bush and Paul is knocked off a horse. Sometimes prophetic calls come in the midst of dreams and visions. Some, like Isaiah’s, are rather vivid.
Others, like Jeremiah’s, are equally powerful, but may not be as visually dramatic. In most prophetic calls, the one called will resist. Moses did and so did Isaiah. The same is true of Jeremiah, as we see here in Jeremiah 1. In the verses preceding our text (Jeremiah 1:1-3), the narrator tells us something about the one whose call we read about in this passage. We learn that Jeremiah is a PK (a priest’s kid) who first heard the word of the Lord during the reign of King Josiah, Judah’s last great king. The Word of the Lord would continue to speak through him during the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah (both sons of Josiah) and continue on until Judah and Jerusalem went into exile. Jeremiah ministered to the people as they fell from glory into despair.
This is the context in which Jeremiah heard the call to prophetic ministry. While he resisted, he would, in the end, embrace it.
The Word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah in the days of Josiah revealed to the young son of the priest Hilkiah, serving at Anathoth in Benjamin, begins with the declaration that Jeremiah was born—while he was still in the womb—God selected him for this job. The word that came to Jeremiah declared: “Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.” A passage like this is powerful. How can you say no if God intended that you follow this path even before birth? At the same time, it can lead to problematic conclusions. If we take this too far, we will have to understand the trajectories of our lives to be predetermined. If God intended for Jeremiah to follow this path, could he have done something else with his life? That leads to the question of whether I could have taken a different path in life. Do I have a choice in the direction my life takes? Because I have embraced an open and relational understanding of God, I do believe we have choices. While God issues calls, we can choose how to answer that call. In Protestant circles, the idea of cooperation with God often has been deemed heretical. I’ve come to see things in a different light, so how might we read this passage in a non-deterministic fashion?
I think we can start with Jeremiah’s word of resistance. Jeremiah wanted to make sure he was hearing God correctly. Besides, like Moses before him, he complains he’s not much of a speaker. He’s not been to seminary or taken homiletics. He doesn’t know if he’s a deductive or an inductive preacher. He’s not read Tom Long or Fred Craddock. He’s just a boy. While there have been lots of boy preachers down through the ages, who take homiletics before they took up their calling, I’m not sure that’s the point. Jeremiah wasn’t sure what to make of this calling. He wanted to make sure this fit with who he was.
Jeremiah might not have unclean lips (that was Isaiah’s defense), but he was young. Nevertheless, God was undeterred. He had chosen Jeremiah for this work, and God wouldn’t take no for an answer. God said to Jeremiah, don’t say to me “I’m just a boy.” I’ve got work for you to do. You’re the one I want to do this, so go and do it. Don’t be afraid of your audience, for I am with you. There is a passage in the New Testament that seems to echo this word. In the first letter to Timothy we hear this word of advice given by an older mentor to a protégé:
12 Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. [1 Timothy 4:12-14].
It is a common complaint by young pastors that their abilities are discounted due to their “youth.” Timothy is told to ignore the complaints and instead tend to the work set before him. Jeremiah is given the same word of advice, though here it’s God and not a mentor.
Having issued the call and answered Jeremiah’s questions, God provides the message. In Jeremiah 1:9, we watch as God puts a hand on Jeremiah’s mouth and says to Jeremiah: “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” Don’t worry about what you’re going to say, for the words will be provided. Once again, we need to be careful about how we read this. If you’re a preacher, does this mean that you can simply stand in the pulpit and without any preparation start talking? Does this mean that three years of seminary training are not needed or are irrelevant? I hope that’s not the case! At the same time, the word here is simply a reminder that Jeremiah won’t be going out on his own. God will be with him by the Spirit.
As Jeremiah goes out into the world, with the Spirit guiding and encouraging him, he has a job to do. God appoints him over nations and kingdoms. Jeremiah will pluck up and pull down. He will destroy and overthrow. He will also build and plant. There is both deconstruction and reconstruction. As a prophet he’s not only called to denounce or condemn the ruling authorities, he’s also called to provide an alternative.
So, how should we hear this passage?
Going back to the beginning, where we read of the call that occurs in the womb, might we see this as an affirmation of our own uniqueness as individuals? Might we not see this as a reminder that we are all unique, that is, we’ve been formed by God with a sense of purpose? It’s not that there is some kind of “purpose-driven life” that we must discern lest we take the wrong road in life. Instead, I would like to read this as a reminder that we are all gifted and called to be witnesses to God’s grace in the world. We’re gifted and called to speak of justice in the world. That may involve speaking truth to power. The other word we hear is that God provides the message. We might find it present in scripture or maybe somewhere else. What hear in this passage is that Spirit will lead us in bearing witness to God’s realm. As for those of us who are called to preach, it is wise not to hear this as permission to avoid doing your homework before you preach. It’s good to do your biblical and theological study before you preach. You might take a look at what’s happening in the world around you. What word might God have us hear as we traverse a world torn apart by violent acts and rhetoric? The way we respond to the call may depend on our place in life, but the responsibility remains the same.
When the call comes, will we respond by singing the following?
“Here I am Lord. Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” [“Here I Am, Lord,” by Daniel Schutte].