As the prophet Jeremiah struggles to accept his appointment as a prophet over the nations the Lord says to him, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. 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 has every reason to struggle with this new appointment. First of all, he says that he is only a boy. Several things can be assumed from this statement. One being that Jeremiah didn’t have any particular standing in the community. He is a nobody.
One might also assume that since Jeremiah is only a boy he won’t dare challenge the established government, a government, no doubt, run by his elders who have always done it a particular way. Who is he to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant? Even if Jeremiah is taken seriously, the leaders of these enemy nations might easily figure out a way to shut him up.
Even more, there is no evidence that Jeremiah has the credentials to even do the job God asks him to perform. No seminary training. No study in the art of public speaking. Just a boy who is fearful of his life. But none of these things that seemingly disqualify Jeremiah from this task matter to God. God chooses Jeremiah for this work, and God puts his words in the mouth of this young prophet.
It is tempting to look at this passage and simply reduce this call story to a history lesson. It is tempting to look at this story and say, “I’m no prophet. I’m just a regular person trying to get by in this world.” It is tempting to say, “I’m really glad God chose Jeremiah and not me and just go on with our lives like we always have.”
You might be right in assuming that God has not called you to be a prophet. As we learn in St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians, only some are called to be prophets. I certainly don’t presume to be a prophet. However, we must take seriously what happens to our lives when God puts his words into our mouths.
Look at what happens to Jesus when God puts his words in his mouth. He speaks to a crowd gathered in the synagogue, a crowd that is initially excited to see their homegrown hero. But the excitement turns to anger after Jesus gives his sermon. What did he say in his sermon to make people so upset?
Jesus’ words remember how God used the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Elijah and Elisha, like most prophets, were also unpopular at least unpopular in the eyes of their own people. Through Elijah and Elisha God healed those outside the nation of Israel.
While widows in Israel were suffering, God called Elijah to heal a widow outside the boundaries of Israel. While many lepers suffered in the land of Israel, God called Elisha to heal the leper Naaman who was the leader of the enemy army. And through his sermon Jesus also says he will carry on the truth of God’s Word and give “release to the captives, sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.”
Like the prophecies of Jeremiah, the words of Jesus will upset the establishment. Jesus’ words will call into question the false assumptions of his people, assumptions that believe because they are chosen of God then they are the only ones who deserve God’s favor and goodness, assumptions that mistake Divine favor for license to consider everybody else as less than worthy.
But in reality, Jesus’ words are no different than the original calling God gave to the people of Israel—to be a light to the nations, to be a light to the enemy, to lead all people into the land of light and life. And Jesus continues this message throughout his ministry, a message that is crystallized when he says, “If any want to become great in my kingdom, they must become servant to all.”
In case you haven’t picked up on it, the truth of God’s Word is most concerned with freeing the poor, the oppressed, and the lonely. As the old saying goes, we are only as strong as our weakest link. Even more, God’s truth tells us that the weak become our masters in the kingdom of heaven. In other words, if we intend to live in the kingdom of heaven, like we promise to do in baptism, then we must take seriously that the oppressed and the outcast and the poor are those whom we spend our lives in service to.
I want to remember another servant of God whose life was inspired because God put his words in his mouth. While this man does appear in a few history books, his life and witness isn’t canonized in any official way. After all, he only died a few weeks ago. His name is Miller Childers.
Before Miller was elected district judge, he served as a young lawyer during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. After witnessing first-hand the lengths that some would go to just to ensure that blacks couldn’t vote, Miller was convicted to live the faith given to him through the Word of God.
If one were to call Miller a prophet, he would go down as one of the most unassuming. He didn’t stand on podiums giving passionate speeches inspiring thousands. He didn’t write letters to the editor. He didn’t put himself in the middle of the public square. Instead, he worked quietly behind closed doors to witness to the truth of God’s Word in this church, in the courtroom, and in the community.
And in the process, he lost his standing as a lawyer at least in the established community. Members of his family were targets of discrimination. But you never heard Miller speak words of ill-will towards anybody. He didn’t vilify anybody because he saw the child of God in every heart. He knew that God’s great love can transform every heart because God’s love transformed Miller’s heart. Miller knew that the truth of God’s Word would set both oppressed and oppressor free.
In ways that he might not have imagined, Miller was a force God used to “pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” The Word of God working through Miller did, in part, destroy and overthrow a system corrupted by power and fear. And because of this God had the opportunity to build up and plant the kingdom of heaven at St. Paul’s and in Selma.
Brothers and sisters, children of God, the Word of the Lord has been put in our mouths this day. The Word of God is written on your hearts and transforming you into a people who are called to serve not simply the members of this church but even more, the poor, the outcast, those with no voice.
We, too, once were a people who did not how to speak, but God has given us words to speak. Through the life of Jesus Christ, God gives us words to say that the only way forward as a people, the only way to experience the kingdom of heaven on earth is through death, death to the old way of living, death to systems and intuitions that corrupt and destroy the creatures, death to pride, and death to fear.
Scripture tells us 365 times, “Do not be afraid.” For every day of the year, God says, “do not be afraid.” God says, “do not be afraid” because God is making all things new. In Christ, God has created a new world where all have been set free, a world we are free to live in right now. And God has given a way for us to live in this world now by following Jesus Christ.
Do not be afraid if the crowd tries to hurl you off the cliff for speaking God’s Word. More likely, do not be afraid if people talk about you behind your back, do not be afraid if you are hated because of Jesus’ name, do not be afraid if the Word of God comes between you and a friend, or co-worker, or family member for we know that God’s Word is the path to salvation. Today’s scripture says that Jesus escapes and makes his way through the angry crowd and goes on his way.
Jesus made a way for the Hebrew people through the waters of the Red Sea. Jesus made a way for the people to get to the Promised Land by calling the walls of Jericho down. Jesus made a way for all God’s children through the waters of baptism. Jesus made a permanent way through death and resurrection.
People like the prophets Jeremiah and Elisha and Elijah, people like St. Paul, and people like beloved Miller have followed the way Jesus paved by passing through seemingly insurmountable odds and by following the way God’s glory has been revealed through them. And Jesus makes the same way for us and has given us the words to use on our way, words of hope, words of righteousness, words of love for all people.
May we have the grace to follow the way of Jesus so that the glory of God may shine upon the face of all people in every time and place. Amen.