The Calling: Jeremiah 1

Jeremiah by James Tissot

Jeremiah by James Tissot

Jeremiah 1

   The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, 2 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. 3 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.
 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.”
     11 The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see a branch of an almond tree.” 12 Then the LORD said to me, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.” 13 The word of the LORD came to me a second time, saying, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see a boiling pot, tilted away from the north.”
    14 Then the LORD said to me: Out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land.15 For now I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north, says the LORD; and they shall come and all of them shall set their thrones at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its surrounding walls and against all the cities of Judah. 16 And I will utter my judgments against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands. 17 But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. 18 And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land– against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. 19 They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you.

Why would anyone want to be a prophet? I know, I’ve heard the young rebels I know who want to ‘speak truth to power’ but the reality is that the prophet is not an easy role. To use Richard Lischer’s words, “The prophet’s voice is usually about an octave too high for the rest of society.” (Lischer 2005, 23) And while there may be moments of anger for the prophet they are caught between God and a people and often they feel abused by both sides. They are the messengers of God at a time when it is all to common to shoot the messenger, they are the bearers of the news that nobody wants to hear. They love their people dearly even when they are abused by them, and while there may be moments of anger, that is not their dominant emotion. Following Lischer again: “…the emotion most characteristic of the prophet is not anger but sorrow. He tells the truth but rarely in bitterness of spirit and never with contempt for the Other. His truth-telling is pervaded by a sense of tragedy.” (Lischer 2005, 161) As we journey with Jeremiah we will experience that tragedy, the sorrow, the frustration and the honest emotions he feels as he is caught between God and the people of God.

Let us begin with his calling: Jeremiah starts out as a priest, one of the literate elite in the time leading up to crisis. He will serve for a prophet as a long time, and will suffer much and it is not a life he chose, but rather a life that was chosen for him:

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.”

God is the actor, Jeremiah is acted upon. God makes the choice, God has made Jeremiah who he is for this role, to be  a mouthpiece. Jeremiah doesn’t ask for this, doesn’t want this and like every other prophet I can think of tries to talk God out of this: I don’t know how to speak, for I am only a boy. Like Moses who didn’t know how to speak, and he is not the type of youth who thinks he knows it all but rather is all too aware of his unworthiness and weaknesses-and yet he is chosen and he begins the road that is laid out before him.

Back in the 1980s one of my favorite bands was a heavy metal group, Queensrÿche, and one of their songs The Road to Madness is perhaps helpful at this point:

Most of this is memory now
I’ve gone too far to turn back now
I’m not quite what I thought I was but
Then again I’m maybe more
The blood-words promised, I’ve spoken
Releasing the names from the circle
Maybe I can leave here now and, o
Transcend the boundaries

For now I’m standing here
I’m awaiting this grand transition
The future is but past forgotten
On the road to madness

Times measure rusts as it crawls
I see its face in the looking glass – stop
This screaming laughter hides, the pain of its reality
Black, the door was locked I opened
And now I’ve paid that price ten-fold over
Knowledge – was it worth such torment, oh
To see the far side of shadow

And still I’m standing here
I’m awaiting this grand transition
I’m a fool in search of wisdom
And I’m on the road to madness
Yes, I’m on the road to madness

I’m awaiting endlessly
Pounding rhythms echo me
Won’t you take me somewhere far beyond the void

And still I’m standing here
I’m awaiting this grand transition
Maybe one day, oh I’ll meet you, and we’ll
Walk the roads to madness
Yes, we’re on the road to madness

Oh, I think they’ve come to take me
I hear the voice, but there’s no-one to see
I can’t scream, too late it’s time

As with this song, the actual meaning of the words may not be as important as what they convey-the sense of having and seeing things in a way that everyone else sees them opens the one seeing to a whole new world of pain, it is almost like Plato’s famous story in the Republic of the Cave where the person who has seen the world in a new way and returns home only to be apprehended and killed by those who are still in darkness.  Being God’s mouthpiece is going to come at a high personal price for Jeremiah.

God has chosen, the prophet will pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow, build and plant. The prophet will bear the news that nobody wants to hear and he doesn’t have the choice to throw up his hands and give up. In the words of the song, the door that is locked is opened (and not by the prophet but from the other side, from God) and the prophet will pay the price ten fold over. Who the prophet is, why he was chosen is based on who God formed him to be—God has chosen his instrument for a difficult task and will continue to be with Jeremiah, but Jeremiah never has the ability to give up for it is either withstand priests and princes or be crushed by God?
But who is this God who puts prophets in such a difficult circumstance? Why make the chosen ones suffer so? And yet it is the way of the elect. A person is set aside not for their own benefit but for the benefit of others. The way we naturally want to think of election is that it is what makes a person separate and perhaps able to look down their righteous noses at others, election makes me or us special…but in scripture election, setting apart is always for the sake of the other. Israel is set apart to be a blessing to the nations (the world), the prophets are set apart to be a witness to either the covenant people or those outside the covenant. They are a part of what God is doing and the world, and it is not always easy. The suffer and grieve for those who will not or can not hear, they bear the weight of seeing all that is wrong even when they may not be able to fix it. They may indeed be close to the road to madness, and yet they are there not for their own sake, not for some secret knowledge…they are there because ultimately God loves God’s people (and by extension the world) so much that God will not let go and so God allows those who are drawn closest to suffer on their behalf so that they might see, know and return.

The world of Jeremiah, like our world is not as it should be. Most people accommodate and make their way as best they can with little reference to God or any other source of meaning outside what benefits themselves. The prophets, like Jeremiah, are drawn into the relationship with God and into God’s desire to re-establish the relationship and the idea of shalom (God’s peace or harmony in the world). They are drawn to the dream and they see the nightmare that most of the rest of us have grown accustomed to. It is like us watching a dystopic movie, like The Hunger Games for example, where reality is so dark and yet when we are honest we can see parts of our own society mirrored in that experience. In a very real sense, when everyone else sees things as running along OK the prophet will see through a dystopic lense of all the things that are really wrong and it is only in the midst of crisis that the prophetic hope of what a utopia might look like emerges and gives light and hope for the hard work of building that society of shalom and reconciliation. We are journeying towards the light, but we have a long way to go before the dawn and the road ahead will get darker on the prophet’s road.

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4 thoughts on “The Calling: Jeremiah 1

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