Obedience when God calls

Bible Readings

  • Jeremiah 1:4-14
  • Jeremiah 20:7-18

Introduction

Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

There were times in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ when those who were elected as leaders saw themselves as somewhat elevated above the rest of the body of Christ.  It is still the case in some denominations.  The Pope is the pontiff, the supreme and sovereign leader, seen as the representative of Christ on earth.  Cardinals and Bishops are venerated.  Some live in luxurious mansions, and they mix with influential civic leaders, sharing dinners and titles with them. Even in the Presbyterian Church those men who achieved some ranking and importance in society were elected as elders as a form of recognition by the church community as notable people.

In Biblical times the High Priestly family, the Pharisees, Sadducees and others of the Jewish Council assigned to themselves positions of fame.   There was a time that there was hardly any separation between political and ecclesiastical power. These folk surrounded themselves with prophets who became the mouthpieces of the political authorities.

All of this can’t be further from the Biblical calling of people called by God to lead his people.  That’s why God had to call other men like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and all the others whose writings are now part of the Bible.

These men knew nothing about being elevated or venerated by the people.  If anything, they were despised, rejected, poorly treated, jailed and killed.

Jesus called his disciples and in his first sermon to them, He made this remark:  

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11–12, NIV)

Luke 6:26 is another warning:  

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:26, NIV)

Jeremiah, the inexperienced prophet

When God called Jeremiah, he was either too young to be recognised as a rabbi—custom wanted rabbis to be at least 30 years of age—or he was inexperienced.  He was not of any prophetic school or family, and he was surely not part of the establishment.  Jeremiah complained:

Alas, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am too young. (Jeremiah 1:6)

God’s arguments were stronger:  

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 1:5,8)

What God required of this young prophet was to go where God sent him, and say what God told him to say.  

“Do not say, ‘I am too young.’  You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. (Jeremiah 1:7, NIV)

The young man agreed.  What could go wrong!  

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. (Jeremiah 1:9)

Jeremiah was set:  God called him, appointed him, gave him the words he should speak, and assured him that He would be with Him all the way.  His task was, in essence, the reformation and restoration of the spiritual life of God’s people.  Through the ministry of Jeremiah, God would call his people to repentance, and to a restored relationship with Him as their major covenant partner.  If they refused and rebelled, God would send them into captivity to serve foreign kings in distant countries as slaves.

Jeremiah and the jar of clay

Last week we learned from the Word of God the lesson Jeremiah learned at the potter’s house.  God’s people are like clay in his hands.  He is moulding them, but the clay is spoiled and unfit.  They had to repent at the gracious call of God who said that He would relent from destroying them like pottery if they turn from their evil ways to follow him.  They chose otherwise. 

‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; we will all follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts.’ ” (Jeremiah 18:12, NIV)

God sent Jeremiah to warn the people:  

Like a wind from the east, I will scatter them before their enemies; I will show them my back and not my face in the day of their disaster.” (Jeremiah 18:17, NIV)

What was their reaction?  They plotted against Jeremiah and preferred to smooth talk of their own prophets:  

… for the teaching of the law by the priest will not cease, nor will counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophets. So come, let’s attack him with our tongues and pay no attention to anything he says.” (Jeremiah 18:18, NIV)

Forget Jeremiah!  Shout him out of existence.  This sounds pretty much like the world we live in, isn’t it?  Silly Christians, who can listen to their senseless babble; don’t argue with them, just shout them down!

Then the Lord commanded Jeremiah to buy a clay jar from the potter.  He had to take some elders and leaders of the priests to the valley of the Son of Hinnom, an open-air shrine, located most probably at a point outside the southern end of Jerusalem where the Hinnom Valley meets the Kidron Valley in the vicinity of Akeldama, the “Field of Blood” Jeremiah’s reference to the “valley of the dead bodies and the ashes” relates to the horrible practice of child sacrifice.  The place itself was probably a deep, wide pit containing a bonfire of blazing wood into which the doomed children were thrown. This place later became Gehenna.  It was also possible that all the rubbish of Jerusalem were burned in this place.  It was a place of never-ending fire.  In the New Testament, this became the description of hell, the place of eternal, fiery punishment for all who die without having exercised faith in Christ.

Some Jeremiah took the elders and the priests, still holding the clay jar in his hands.  There he proclaimed the word God gave him.  

“Then break the jar while those who go with you are watching, and say to them, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired. They will bury the dead in Topheth [Hinnom] until there is no more room. (Jeremiah 19:10–11, NIV)

 The prophet then went back into the city and right in the court of Temple, with the people could hear him, he proclaimed the Word fo God:  

I am going to bring on this city and all the villages around it every disaster I pronounced against them, because they were stiff-necked and would not listen to my words.’ ” (Jeremiah 19:15, NIV)

All hell broke loose over Jeremiah’s head.

Priest versus Prophet

The High Priest, the chief of the temple—the Pope of the day—couldn’t tolerate it and had Jeremiah beaten and put in stocks, and all this happened in one of the temple rooms.  He was released the next day, but Jeremiah, driven by the command of the Lord, did not stay quiet.  The High Priest for once heard the real Word of God, and it was not good news.  He would go into exile, and there he would die.  

But, being a mere human being, that night in the the blocks and stocks, the pin of the flogging, the constant jeering of the so-called prophets became almost too much for Jeremiah.  He took refuge in the Lord as he prayed.  But, at first, it was not a prayer of thanksgiving.  It was a prayer passing the dry mouth of someone who felt betrayed.  

You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. (Jeremiah 20:7)

When I signed up for service that day when You called me, You said You would be with me,  You promised to be with me, You said I should not be afraid.  But what about last night?  And so by the way, what about all the other times that I stood like a fool in public to say, “Thus saith the Lord!” and no-one listened.  Instead, they plotted against me.  I am the only one left.  I have no friends left. No-one trusts me. On every corner I am ridiculed, they mock me and scheme plans to kill me.  What you give me to say is all negative stuff, it’s about destruction and violence.  I’m a broken man, ready to give up.  Lord, where are You! 

There was probably a long, deep silence after this tirade.  Some commentators even think that Jeremiah never said these words, but there is no reason to think otherwise.  

Like with Elijah under the broom tree, sense and truth prevailed.  

But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced; their dishonor will never be forgotten. (Jeremiah 20:11, NIV)

Then he broke out in song, and later Paul and Silas also in blocks in prison, praised God:  

Sing to the Lord! Give praise to the Lord! He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked. (Jeremiah 20:13, NIV)

So, will Jeremiah stop proclaiming God’s word?  No, God held him captive!  

But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. (Jeremiah 20:9, NIV)

The prophet despises himself

When we get to the end of this chapter, we find the prophet in complete self-humiliation.  Commentators are divided about the meaning of verses 14-18.  Did Jeremiah reach a point in his ministry that he felt that it would be better if he were never born.  If he did, why?  Was he a failure?  Did he see himself as useless?  Did he reach the point where he even showed contempt for God?  Was he so depressed that he saw no point in him being alive? 

Let’s go to Job.  We know he had lost everything.  He was in a mess at the end of the discourses with his so-called friends.  Then in chapters 38-39, God revealed Himself in glory to Job.  And what was the reaction? 

 “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. (Job 40:4, NIV)

And God said:

“Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? (Job 40:8, NIV)

God kept on revealing Himself to Job, and he said this:  

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5–6)

Is this perhaps what Jeremiah experienced?  He thought he could hold God accountable for his misery.  Instead, God showed him his righteousness, power, and his faithfulness.  At that point, Jeremiah despised the day his was born.  How can a feeble, sinful man bring charges against God and live?  It is by grace that we are saved.  It is by grace that we are called to minister the Gospel of mercy, and it by grace that we are not consumed when we complain against God.  It is by grace that He takes us back from the depths of despair and depression to restore us to our mission in his service.

Conclusion

My dear brothers, new elders, you made vows today.  One of them reads:

Do you engage through Divine Grace to discharge with diligence and faithfulness the various duties of your office, watching over the flock showing yourself a pattern of good works … 

In some sense, you stood where inexperienced Jeremiah stood.  You heard the call of God, and you accepted.  In a certain sense, you will follow in the footsteps of Jeremiah.  You are not called to be honoured (however, faithful servants of the Lord are honoured, but only by faithful people of God), you are not stepping into a position of esteem in the eyes of people.  You are stepping into the footsteps of others whom God called to call his people to repentance and restoration.  You will encourage those who have become weary; you will seek the lost; but you could be labelled as always being negative, always nitpicking when it comes to slackness in the service of the Lord.  

Your voice against the evils of same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia, and Darwinistic evolution will be challenged—and maybe the biggest opposition will be from you own flock!  

Your voice against prayerlessness, the lack of the knowledge of the Scriptures, and your call to greater obedience to the Lord could become like the ridicule against Jeremiah.

But may the Word of God be like a fire in your heart.  May you never stop proclaiming it.  When you hear the whispers of those who might turn against you because of your undiminished love for Him who called to the watch over the flock, think of the Lord as your mighty warrior and commit your cause to him.  Always in your heart sing praises to the Lord.

Never think much of yourselves.  Remain humble at the feet of Christ.  

Then, when He returns, you will hear Him say, “Well done, faithful servant, come and share in your Master’s happiness.

And you, dear people of the Lord, be like Jeremiah.  Speak up in this crooked generation.  They might despise you for it, but they need to hear the warning and repent.  Jesus said:  I am with you, always!

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev. D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 13 October 2019

 

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