Prophetic Callings - Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4C (Jeremiah 1)

Jeremiah (South Portal, Moiaasic Abbey, France) 


Jeremiah 1:4-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

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.
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.
 

********************

                The prophet Jeremiah was born into the priestly caste. That he would a priest was a given. On the other hand, nothing about his birth suggested God would call him to be a prophet. Yet, that would be his calling. When the moment came for him to receive his prophetic calling, like other prophets, Jeremiah asks of God “Who? Me? Are you sure you got the right person?” That’s a bit of a paraphrase, but I think it captures Jeremiah’s initial response. He had no problem with the priestly calling, he was born to it. But the prophetic one was very different. It wasn’t something he expected, and if we read this literally, he was rather young when the call came. I’m not given to theologies that assume God predestines our lives in unchangeable ways, though I do believe the Spirit gifts us for ministry, perhaps from the womb. I do believe that even prophets, like Jeremiah, have the freedom to say no to God. On the other hand, it’s not easy saying no to God, especially when God says to you, this is what I created you for.  In the end, Jeremiah says yes to the call, though as is revealed in the book of Jeremiah his message didn’t make him popular with the governing authorities or the people. His counsel challenged the arrogance of the leadership. Indeed, just a few verses following this statement of call, the word of the Lord came to him, and he declared that “out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land.”  God tells Jeremiah that the people will fight against him, but they will not prevail (Jeremiah 1:14-19).

                As we continue the journey through Epiphany, reflecting on the ways in which God is made manifest in the world, shedding light into darkness, it is appropriate to take notice of a prophetic call. According to what we read here Jeremiah the call came to Jeremiah when he was only a child. He would be called upon to speak words of judgment on his own people, though he would also offer them words of hope. While called to speak to own nation, his ministry would have a wider berth. He would speak to the nations as well as Judah. His calling comes at a time when reform was underway in the land of Judah. This was the time of Josiah’s reign. Josiah was one of the righteous kings of Judah. They were few in number, but they arose from time to time. Things were looking up, at least for a while (2 Kings 23:1-27). Unfortunately for Judah, Josiah died in battle, fighting against Pharaoh Neco of Egypt (2 Kings 23:28-30). Things went from bad to worse after Josiah died. His son, Jehoahaz succeeded him, and as is often declared in these books of the Kings, the new king “did evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestors had done” (2 Kings 23:32). From there one son of Josiah took the throne until Nebuchadnezzar stepped in, leading to captivity.

The time frame for Jeremiah’s ministry is noted in the opening frame (verses 1-3), which tells us the Word of the Lord came to the prophet in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah (627 BCE) and would continue until the time of the exile that took place when Zedekiah was king (587 BCE). Jeremiah didn’t accompany the exiles to Babylon. Instead he was taken to Egypt, where we assume he died.  

                Taking just the text before us, what we have is a word concerning prophetic (and perhaps ministerial) callings. In light of the season of Epiphany, this calling would be a manifestation of God’s presence. Jeremiah is called and consecrated to this ministry from his conception—when God formed him in the womb. We often take note of the word concerning God forming Jeremiah and knowing him before birth, while neglecting the reference to his consecration. Prophets generally were not consecrated. They were called and empowered, but consecration was something that applied to priests (and kings). It has to do with anointing, and in Israel’s case heredity. Jeremiah didn’t choose to be a priest, he was born a priest. Apparently, he descended from the line that goes back to Abiathar, David’s priest, and from Abiathar back to Eli, mentor to Samuel who consecrated David as king. That Jeremiah comes from the town of Anathoth is important for understanding his prophetic ministry, which takes a rather anti-monarchical position. This is perhaps due in part to the fact that his priestly line was itself in exile. Abiathar, who had been priest during David’s reign was sent away by Solomon, who backed Zadok (who unlike Abiathar had backed Solomon’s claim over that of Adonijah – see 1 Kings 2:26).

                Even if Jeremiah’s family didn’t serve in the Temple, we can expect that he understood what it meant to be a priest. He was born to that. His father would have informed him early on. He might have heard stories of Samuel, who as a boy apprenticed in the Temple during the priesthood of their ancestor Eli. He would have also been taught the story of his people, going back to the Exodus. He understood the covenant God made with Israel. That background would have informed his ability to speak for God in times of crisis. Having that background informed his prophetic calling, but the prophetic call is different than the priestly one. You’re not generally born to it. It requires a separate, unique call. A priest can be a prophet, but you needn’t be a priest to be a prophet. I wonder how that reality might be understood today. What might it mean to be prophetic in our context? Nevertheless, as we move forward, it would seem that Jeremiah operates not as a priest, but as a prophet.

                God has a specific word for him to share with the world: 

“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.”
(Jer. 1:9-10).

Jeremiah was appointed by God with authority over the nations. He will pluck up and pull down. He will destroy and overthrow. That is, he will pronounce God’s judgement on the nations. However, he will also build and plant. This is Jeremiah’s message, throughout the book, which is often universal in scope. Yes, he will speak to Judah—rather strongly—but the message is much broader than simply the fate of Judah. This gives us a reminder that the God who speaks to and through Jeremiah is not a parochial god. This God is not limited by borders. After all, Jeremiah will end up in Egypt, while much of Israel’s elite will find themselves living in Babylon. In a letter to the exiles in Babylon, probably written from Egypt, he encourages them to settle down and make a life there, praying for the communities in which they find themselves. After all, they’re going to be there for a while (Jeremiah 29:1ff).

God may care a great deal about the covenant people, but God is also the God of the nations. God will deal with both as is appropriate. Jeremiah brings words of judgment, but also words of hope. After all there will be a new covenant, one written on the heart rather than stone (Jeremiah 31:31-34). It is this promise of a new covenant that Jesus takes up in his ministry. While Jeremiah likely has the aftermath of the exile in mind here, it found echoes in the ministry of Jesus, whose own calling is celebrated during this season of Epiphany. We see this calling of Jesus, one that spoke not only to Israel, but to the nations, in the visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-11) and in his baptism (Lk. 3:21-22). In the reading from the Gospel of Luke designated for this, the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Jesus speaks of his own calling in terms of an anointing of the Spirit. While Jesus draws from Isaiah rather than Jeremiah, there is a similarity in their visions.

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Lk 4:18-19).

And the Word of the Lord goes forth!

                As we hear this word, we who live millennia later might ask the question: to what is God calling us? What message do we have to share? The reading from 1Corinthians 13 invites us to inhabit the love God. Is this not our calling, at this moment in time?  Jeremiah doesn’t mention the love of God often, but this word is worth hearing as we consider Jeremiah’s calling and that of our own:
23 Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; 24 but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Jer. 9:23-24).

Picture attribution: Jeremiah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55363 [retrieved January 28, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moissac,_Jeremiah.JPG.

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