“Humility, Reflection, and Call”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
4Now 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.”
6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
7But 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, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”
9Then 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. 10See, 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.” (NRSV)
It was September, 1986. I was 23 years old. Marianne and I had been married fourteen months. As I began my second year at Union Seminary in Richmond, VA, all I was learning was the fact that I did not belong in seminary. I sensed a call to ministry, but going to seminary and preparing for the ministry are not always synonymous. Very young and painfully naïve, I had gone to Union to avoidwhatever it was that would prepare me for ministry.
The following January, Marianne and I moved into a cookie-cutter apartment complex in Richmond and worked minimum-wage jobs. That June, we moved back to GA. Unemployed through all of June and July, it was early August when I backed into teaching middle school.
My failure at seminary, my exile as an under- then un-employed twenty-something college-graduate, and my six-year stint teaching public school proved to be transformational experiences. They became blessings not simply because they happened, but because, in time, I reflected on them. When I began the process of returning to seminary, Savannah Presbytery made me write my “story.” Repeatedly. Writing all that stuff down meant re-living it through a heart and mind that had learned important things no textbook can teach.
My experience really has more in common with Isaiah’s call story that Jeremiah’s. When God asks “Whom shall I send,” Isaiah jumps up and says, “Here I am, Lord.” God then touches Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal. As much as that might make our stomachs turn, it’s also a memorable metaphor for God tempering the ego of an over-eager prophet. In Richmond, I was less over-eager to do ministry than I was to escape adult responsibility, still, the slog of time between quitting and returning to seminary was one long kiss on a hot coal.
According to Jeremiah, when God called him, he began more humbly. Who me? I’m only a boy, Lord. I can’t be your spokesperson! And God simply touches Jeremiah’s lips, and says, There. Now you can. As we’ll see, that’s not the whole story.
Humility is, paradoxically, one of the most powerful spiritual gifts. Like Moses, Jeremiah is the right person for the job precisely because he questions his own capacity to do it. Without humility, there can be no real faith. Pride prevents us from recognizing that we need and are given help. Because it requires a person of faith to sit in open-handed trust before God, humility alone prepares the way for honest gratitude, selfless generosity, and authentic service to God and God’s people.
In the fourth chapter of Daniel, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, surveys his domain and takes absolute credit for all he sees. “Is this not magnificent Babylon,” he brags, “which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” (Dan. 4:30) Let’s remember, like Egypt, and like the United States, most of Babylon’s foundational “greatness” was built by slaves, conquered peoples who were forced into labor, people whose spirits were broken by being removed from their homelands and separated from their families. Oblivious to reality, Nebuchadnezzar claims a kind of equality with God, but he holds power through brutality and hubris, not by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
“While the words were still in the king’s mouth,” says Daniel, God’s “voice came from heaven: ‘O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: The kingdom has departed from you! You shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the animals of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen…until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he will.’” (Dan. 4:31-32) Humiliated, Nebuchadnezzar slinks off into the wilderness until he has learned that to declare oneself equal to God is a blasphemy that inevitably destroys communities and nations.
Even Jesus demonstrates this truth. “Though [Jesus] was in the form of God,” writes Paul, “he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8)
King Nebuchadnezzar eventually discovers this truth, but only through the long and humbling hot-coal-kiss of exile and reflection.
While Jeremiah’s call story reflects the prophet’s humility, his wider story reveals that Jeremiah has to learn the finer points of the gift the hard way. Preaching the ways and means of a creative, just, and loving God never endears prophets to people addicted to power. When Jeremiah faces resistance, he finds himself wanting to hang up his haircloth. “O Lord…I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me…For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” It only adds to Jeremiah’s angst to realize he can’t not prophecy. If I go silent, he says, ‘then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jer. 20:7-9) We can feel him kissing that hot coal, can’t we?
Jeremiah’s existential struggle is reflected in his call story, which is itself a reflection. “Do not be afraid of them,” says God, “for I am with you to deliver you.” Jeremiah has a challenging word for the people of Israel, people who have been seduced by the allure of Babylon’s violent power, her slave-generated wealth, and the glittering façade of her majesty. Jeremiah’s prophecy reminds them that they belong to Yahweh, who is known through humble, grateful, and generous love of God and of all Creation. Israel, God’s chosen people, is not a nation of wealth and might, but a global community of self-emptying testimony and service.
As Easter people, we share a call to Jeremiah’s work of plucking up, pulling down, destroying, and overthrowing, but only through means consistent with the example of Jesus, who never does anything violently or vindictively. He always approaches his work as someone who faced temptations to manipulate people with prideful celebrity and fear. Having prevailed over those temptations, Jesus lives in humble yet impassioned love for God, neighbor, and earth.
Jeremiah’s rhetoric was more fingernails-on-the-chalkboard than Jesus’ rhetoric, but he knew that he was a mere servant, and not The Chosen One, the Anointed, the Messiah, a label Jesus alone is worthy to claim. Through his experiences, through remaining faithful and humble, even when facing opposition, and through constant prayer and reflection, Jeremiah was able, when he finally sat down to tell his story, to begin with a bold faith claim, “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying…”
Such boldness comes, faithfully, not at the beginning, but at the end. It comes after looking back and recognizing that the difference he made came not when, like Nebuchadnezzar, the prophet railed out of hubris and fear, but when he listened and spoke out of humble faith and impassioned love for God and God’s Creation.
Late in Jeremiah’s ministry, he speaks for God when he says to Israel, “Surely I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not for your harm, to give you a future of hope. (Jer. 29:11) Untold billions of people never feel the energy and peace of that promise. And where such beloved bearers of the image of God live in pain and hopelessness, it is our calling “to pluck up…pull down…and overthrow” on their behalf in the humble and loving manner of Jesus, who, through the Holy Spirit, is our ever-present guide and strength. And in Jesus alone, through the power of Resurrection, is our everlasting hope.