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That would not be a bad picture. It would be fairly representative...but only "fairly" so because there is a very different picture in scripture of one of the best-known prophets of all - Jeremiah. To be sure, he may well have looked like that by the time his career was drawing to a close, but he was nothing like that at the beginning. You see, at the start of his ministry, Jeremiah was just a kid.
To be totally accurate, Jeremiah's service as a prophet got it's start even BEFORE he was a kid. Listen to the words of the lesson again: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart." The word of the Most High God to Jeremiah letting him know that the call to service was neither an accident nor an afterthought. It had been planned in the reaches of eternity.
The Biblical record shows that he came on the scene in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah in Israel; that would make it around 626 BC. Josiah had already begun to make a name for himself as one of his nation's best rulers. The Bible says, "He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left."(1) In 621 BC, Josiah began the work of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, that glorious structure that Solomon had given the people some three hundred years before. It had fallen into disuse and disrepair as the people of Israel had gone chasing after other gods, but now times had changed with the rule of a Godly king.
Incredible as it might seem, during those years of ignoring the Temple, the nation had lost the scripture...literally. In those days before printing presses and Xerox machines, copies of the Book of the Law were few and far between. There were no beautifully-bound editions in Israelite homes to be dusted off when the rabbi came to call. All they had were a few fragile scrolls that were kept in the Temple for use in public worship. Those scrolls got lost. Some faithful priest had apparently hidden them away to protect them and then failed to tell anybody where they were. The result: no scriptures.
But now, Josiah had called for a restoration of the Temple, and in the course of the work, the lost scrolls were found. Suddenly, the nation had God's Word again...the book of Deuteronomy - God's teaching for living in the community of faith. It gave King Josiah the instructions he needed to make proper religious reform. The places for worship of pagan gods were desecrated and destroyed. The priests of the Baals were put to death. A new era had begun for the nation of Israel. And all this was witnessed by a youngster growing up not far from Jerusalem, born into a priestly family in Anathoth, just two or three miles north of the Holy City.
Nothing is known for certain about those early years, but Jeremiah obviously was aware of the king's religious reforms. No doubt he heard conversations among the men of the town with his own father about how the changes in worship practice would affect them. No doubt he also heard some of the inevitable grumbling that comes whenever anyone dares to institute change. Perhaps he was perceptive enough to realize what would take place as soon as Josiah would leave the scene: a reversion to old habits, old practices, old sins.
Sure enough, Josiah was soon gone - killed in battle with the Egyptians in 609 BC. He was succeeded by his son Jehoahaz, but his reign lasted only three months before the Pharaoh took him as a prisoner back to Egypt and installed another of Josiah's sons, Jehoiakim, on the throne as leader of a vassal state. With that, Jeremiah's ministry was to begin in earnest.
But Jeremiah had been prepared. He had been schooled in God's Word after the scrolls were found. He knew what the Lord expected of the chosen people. He had been raised just close enough to Jerusalem to be familiar with it and just far enough away not to be overly awed by it. Yes, he was destined to be a prophet of God, but he was not set to the task unprepared.
It is the same in every age. If the Lord calls people to specific tasks, the Lord makes sure they are ready to handle them. God called Moses to lead the people out of the land of Egypt...but not before Moses had already been trained in the ways of the court of the Pharaohs and not before he had spent forty years in the desert learning what would be required of him as a leader of Israel. God called Paul to be the apostle who would proclaim freedom from the law...but not before Paul had learned that law in every intricate detail, and not before he had learned that something more than law would be necessary to make people right with God. In our own day, God continues to call men and women to service...and God still prepares them for whatever task they are to perform. If God wants someone to be a minister, God sees that they are adequately schooled. If God wants someone to serve as an Elder in the church, God prepares that individual through years of experience. If God wants someone to sing in the choir, God gives that person a voice.
If you want to know what God expects of you tomorrow, just take a look at what God has done with your yesterdays. Scholars tell us that this account of Jeremiah's call was probably written as much as twenty years after the actual experience,(2) but, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the prophet could share what he had come to understand. God prepares Jeremiahs...all of them, even you and me...for whatever service we are to perform.
There is an old story that has gone the rounds many times but it is most apt. A young farmer one day saw a vision while out in his field. Up in the bright blue Sky he saw the fluffy white summer clouds form the letters "P C." He was convinced that this was God's way of telling him to become an evangelist: "P C" - Preach Christ. So off he went. After a few months of a notable lack of success, he came back to his own home church to talk with his pastor, a sympathetic man who realized that the farmer was simply not suited for the task he had set for himself. "But what about the vision?" the farmer asked. And the pastor replied, "In this case, P C did not mean preach Christ; it meant Plow Corn." God prepares!
But adequate preparation is not the whole story. Jeremiah had been prepared. So saying, we note that he did not exactly jump at the chance. "Ah, Sovereign LORD," I said, "I do not know how to speak; I am only a child." Sounds a little like Moses when he was told to go to the Pharaoh, doesn't it (at least the part about not being able to speak)?(3) Or Gideon's claims of coming from the weakest tribe and being the youngest in the family.(4) Or Jeremiah's predecessor Amos objecting that he was only a farmer and herdsman, not a prophet.(5) With Jeremiah, the objection was handled directly: "Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, 'Now, I have put my words in your mouth.'" Jeremiah could not possibly object to that.
Of course, it was just an excuse. Scholars feel that Jeremiah was probably in his late teens or early twenties at this point, that time of life when we are convinced that we can do anything. Too young to do something? Die, maybe, but nothing else. At any rate, it was just an excuse and God said, "Do not worry about it."
The age excuse has proven durable over the years, but generally to the other extreme. "Too old" is used far more often than "too young." "Gee, Pastor, it really would be better to get somebody younger to teach Sunday School, wouldn't it?" or "I'm too old serve as an officer again; let the young ones do it - it's their turn." Excuses.
This week I received a phone call from a former parishioner, Wayne Reveal, that followed a cryptic e-mail he had sent me shortly before alluding to an interesting turn of events soon to come in his life. Successful businessman, husband, father, grandfather, active leader in the life of the church. In September he is starting seminary. In his early 50's. He said that when he told his wife, Kay, a strange look came on her face, then a broad grin and the response, "Well, it's about time!" God is calling; Wayne is answering.
Moses was eighty when he was sent to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Noah was 600 when he was told to build the ark. Josiah was only eight when he became king of Israel and only twenty-six by the time he had completely reformed the nation's worship. The point is simply this: age is no excuse when God proposes a task for which we have been prepared.
But why would we make excuses anyway? Perhaps for the same reason Jeremiah did: he did not like what he was being called to do. Not an infrequent occurrence. Listen to the commentators:
There is little sign that the prophets of Israel enjoyed the task. If there is not some hesitation at being the spokesperson for the divine word, at directing the light of God's word in all its brightness - and sometimes that light is harsh - on the human scene, on the affairs of God's people, then maybe the spokesperson is not truly the messenger of God's word.(6)When the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, the word was disaster. Jeremiah was just like anyone else: he loved his country; he loved his people. He had no desire to preach judgment and destruction on them. I promise you that no preacher worth his or her salt ever does. But when we see things around us that we know are wrong, we are frankly STUCK. Then, when we dare to mention it, we get in trouble. In light of that, any excuse would have been better than none.
Do you remember what happened with Jesus? He came back to Nazareth after his baptism and "Commissioning Service" in the Jordan and his retreat and reflection in the desert. He joined his neighbors at worship in the synagogue, noted that prophets do not always receive the warmest of welcomes, and especially in their hometowns, then, having noted some uncomfortable scriptures during worship, had to high-tail it out of town to escape with his life. No surprise that someone might be reluctant to pursue the prophetic call.
Now Jeremiah's commission was clear. He was shown two visions: the branch of an almond tree and a pot boiling, tilted from the north, both symbolic of the judgment about to befall the nation. No wonder the man has been called "the weeping prophet." As a true patriot, as one who cared what happened to his land, he had reason to weep. He would have loved being given another task, but such was not to be.
Scary business...and Jeremiah knew it. After all, if you upset people too much they are liable to turn on you. He knew that if he began preaching about the nation's failings, the injustice that was rampant in the land, the destruction that God had told him was coming, that there would be some who might try to silence him...permanently. He was scared. Who wouldn't be?
But then the Lord told him not to worry. "They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you," declares the LORD.(7) God had prepared him for a task; God proposed the task to him; and now God promises to preserve him as the task was being carried out. But note one thing: the promise was not that there would be no trouble; the promise was that the trouble would not win.
To be sure, Jeremiah did see his share of trouble. He was hated by his family and friends; he was forbidden to preach in the temple; he was arrested and placed in stocks; he was threatened with death; he was beaten and imprisoned; he was dropped down into a cistern that had nothing in it but gooey muck; finally, he was carried off into exile in Egypt against his will. Eventually, he died there. But God had been true to the promise. Jeremiah's life WAS preserved and his ministry came to span a half-century, even one of the most difficult half-centuries in the history of the nation of Israel.
Is God still true to that promise in our day? Will God preserve those who faithfully follow through on the task God proposes and for which they have been prepared? You know it!
What is it that God is calling you to do this morning? As I said earlier, if you want to know what God expects of your tomorrows, look at what God has done with your yesterdays. What has God prepared you for? What have you been taught to do? What is your training? What are your physical abilities? What are your talents? God may be leading you to teach Sunday School, to sing in the choir, to serve on a board or committee, to visit shut-ins, to be a scout leader, to call on prospective members, to serve meals at the Sharing Place, to fry chicken or cook hot dogs or wash dishes for church socials, or, like Wayne Reveal, even to full-time Christian ministry. All that is for you to decide as you prayerfully seek the Lord's guidance.
One word of advice: once you have seen what your preparation should lead to, do not make excuses. No "too youngs" or "too olds" or "can't speaks" are acceptable. They were not for Jeremiah; they are not for anyone else.
At the beginning of this I asked you to think about taking pencil and paper and sketching a portrait of a prophet - a Charleton Heston look-alike probably. But, who knows, the reality might remarkably look just like someone you know. Hmm.
God grant us eyes to see how we have been prepared, ears to hear the task that is proposed, and then the faith to realize that God will preserve us for the completion of that task. May God give us each one a little of Jeremiah.
1. II Kings 22:2
2. Interpretation Commentary, James L. Mayes, Gen. Ed., CD-ROM edition, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2007)
3. Exodus 3-4
4. Judges 6:15
5. Amos 7:14-15
6. "The Book of Jeremiah," Patrick Miller, The New Interpreter's Bible, CD-ROM edition, (Nashville : Abingdon, 2002)
7. Jeremiah 1:19