Sunday 25 August 2019
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 21C
About a generation and a half ago, seminaries taught new pastors a preaching method called the three-point sermon, so called because the preacher would try to make three distinct points about the text. Not the most creative name, but it get’s the point across. In any case, this method has fallen out of favor over the years in favor of techniques that emphasize just one point. Three points are just too hard to remember.
Now, even though the passage from Jeremiah today is short, it packs in a lot of material. So today, you’re going to get a blast from the past: the three-point sermon. Point one: God loves you. Point two: God is calling you, but it may be something you don’t want to do. Point three: in order to heed God’s call to bring something new into the world, we sometimes have to tear down some of the old things in order to make way.
First, God loves you. Many of us have an easy enough time believing that God loves the world. It makes sense that God as the Creator of everything would care about what happens in creation. We can understand how God might be bothered by wars or climate change or poverty or disease or oppression or prejudice or violence. And we understand how God would want the best for humanity.
But while it might be easy to believe that God loves the world, it might be harder to believe that God loves me, personally. After all, there are seven and a half billion people in the world, and I’m just one of them. And there are somewhere around 8.7 million species on earth, and humans are only one of them. Earth itself is just one planet circling the sun, and the sun is one of as many as 400 billion stars in our galaxy. The Milky Way galaxy is just one of at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. When we think of God’s domain in these terms, it seems almost incomprehensible that God could spare any attention whatsoever for a tiny, insignificant person like me.
Nevertheless, we are faced with the words from today’s Hebrew Bible lesson. God reveals Godself to Jeremiah, and says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” Out of all the things that God had to worry about, God took an interest in little Jeremiah, the son of a backwater priest. And God didn’t just think about Jeremiah when something needed to be done. No, God cared for Jeremiah before he was even formed in the womb.
It is truly a mystery, how the God of the Universe, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, is also the one who cares about you personally, who knows your heart, who has loved you before you were formed in the womb, and who has a plan for your life. God cares about all of God’s people, and that means that God cares about you and everything that is going on in your life. We don’t know why. We don’t know how. But it is true, nonetheless. God loves you.
Which leads us inevitably to our second point: God is calling you. If God, the sovereign of the whole universe, cares about you as an individual, takes special interest in your life, knows your personal joy and pain, doesn’t it stand to reason that God would also have something in mind for what you should do with your life? In our baptismal covenant, we affirm that each and every one of us is a Christian Minister, called by God to service in the world. If God knows us individually, then we know that God must have a particular plan and calling for each of us. If God is attentive enough to know our personal wants and needs, to love us as individuals, then God is also attentive enough to have particular wishes and dreams for each of us. God doesn’t call everyone to be a prophet. Which is a good thing, because a world full of prophets would be awfully noisy and everyone would go hungry. No, God calls us to a variety of different ministries. God calls us to do Godly work, often right in the midst of our ordinary lives. But whether it’s being a prophet or a parent, a teacher or a technician, an engineer or an entrepreneur, God has something special in mind for you.
God had something special in mind for Jeremiah, a peculiar mission and calling. God makes a special appearance to call him, to let him know what it is he has to do. But Jeremiah isn’t too sure that he wants the job. Like so many of those who are called by God, Jeremiah tries to get out of it. He claims that he isn’t a good enough public speaker, that he is too young and too inexperienced to be a prophet. “I’m only a boy,” he says.
Well, that seems like a pretty good reason, but it isn’t enough to stop God. God realizes that this isn’t the real reason that Jeremiah is hesitant. You can see it right in the text. Jeremiah claims lack of skill as an excuse. But God answers by promising to be with Jeremiah and deliver him when he is speaking God’s words to people who don’t want to listen. Jeremiah wasn’t scared of being a prophet because he lacked skill. It was because he did not want to go and say unpopular things to powerful people. He didn’t want to be the one who pointed out other people’s sin, who stirred things up and made people angry.
That’s often the case when God calls. It’s often something that we are a bit scared to do. It might mean making other people angry. It might entail some hardship. We might have to endure frustration, loneliness, or even scorn in order to follow God’s individual path for us. It may not be an easy road. But good things rarely are easy.
But we don’t have to go it alone. God promises to be with us and to deliver us. I don’t know exactly where it is that God is calling you right now, but I do know that if God calls, God will walk with you. God will see the task through, even if it is challenging, even if it takes time, even if it is draining. God is calling. It may not be somewhere you want to go, it may not be something that is easy to do, but God will be with you. God loves you. God will stay with you in your calling.
That’s good news for Jeremiah, because he has a particularly difficult and unpopular job to do. God says, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” That’s bound to be a pretty unpopular agenda. Nations and kingdoms don’t take too kindly to being plucked up, pulled down, destroyed, and overthrown. What an utterly horrible job. To preach death and doom to people who aren’t even going to do anything to try to change. And what is the point of all this destruction, anyway?
The answer, again, is there in the text. I left off the end of Jeremiah’s call. God says, “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.” Jeremiah’s calling isn’t just destructive. It isn’t only about tearing things down. It is also about building up and planting. But in order to make a space for the new building, in order to prepare the ground for the new planting, first some of the old things need to be swept away.
Those are hard words for us to hear. Churches have a habit of clinging to the past long after the past has become irrelevant, outmoded, or even distracting to the true work of God. That’s not to say that everything needs to be torn down, that everything about the past is simply outdated. That is not the case. But it is still true that sometimes, in order to prepare the way for God’s continued action, we have to get rid of things that are getting in the way. We have to set aside things that are distracting. We have to let go of the things that we hold so tightly, so that our arms are free to embrace God, and our hands are free to do God’s work.
Now, let’s see how well I did. Point number one is… God loves you. That means, “God loves me.” And point number two is… God is calling me. It might be a challenge, but God will be with you. And point three… sometimes things need to be torn down in order to make way for God’s new building.
May God remind us that we are loved, make clear the paths that we need to walk, and grant us the wisdom and the courage to know when things need to be brought down in order for God’s new things to be raised up. Amen.