Have you ever been assigned a task that you felt totally unprepared for? You might have felt this sense of both dread and anticipation when you entered a university classroom for the first time, when you started a new job or took a leadership position at your work, when you got married, or when you gave birth to your first child. It’s this sense of having a goal in mind, but also having no way to know exactly what that role entails until you try it out.
In today’s passage from Jeremiah 1, we meet a young prophet who not only was unprepared for what was to come, but also was given this opportunity without any warning. Usually when we take on a big task we have time to think about it and get ourselves ready. A woman carries a baby inside her for 9 months before giving birth, students study anywhere from 1 to 10 years at a college or university before receiving a job in their chosen field, a person generally courts a partner for a substantial amount of time before committing to them in an act of marriage, and a minister goes through a whole process to become ordained. Yet, in Jeremiah’s case, the calling came upon him suddenly and fiercely.
God came to Jeremiah when he was still very young. While there is no agreed upon age during the call, most commentators have settled on between the ages of 17-20 with some commentators suggesting as young as 10-12. God comes to Jeremiah and tells him that he will be a mouthpiece for the Divine sharing the messages he has been given.
Being a prophet was not an easy task back then, it often involved much hardship, ridicule, and scorn. Jeremiah came from a family line of priests and he knew what was involved in ministry work. It wasn’t just the daily grind of temple service that worried Jeremiah, though, Israel was also in a tumultuous time where there was hostility due to Israel being in exile. In other words, it wasn’t just ministry, but ministry in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar place.
The way that Jeremiah saw himself and the way God saw him were total polar opposites of each other. To Jeremiah he was ONLY a boy. He focused on his own shortcomings, his own lack of ability and his own inexperience. Yet, God looked at Jeremiah’s potential. God used the word “sanctified” which was a holy and special word at the time and it showed how much weight God really had placed in Jeremiah. God believed in the young prophet and he approved of him. There are many incredible call stories of prophets in the Bible and many of them were uncomfortable and tried to flee from the calling, but Jeremiah’s story is unique because it showed how God had a plan on the young prophet even before he was born.
We are all called by God to do something. Some of us might be called to lead or start a ministry, some of us might be called to become ministers, lay leaders, or diaconal leaders within the church, we might be called to serve the homeless, to raise interest on environmental issues, or to write a book. Yet, how easy is it for us to look at ourselves through a perfectionist lens, never truly satisfied with who we are? How easy is it to look at the areas we don’t like about ourselves and to critique them rather than to accept the compliments we so frequently give to others – even complete strangers?
Humanity is good at making excuses. We might think about going back to school and get excited about studying and pursuing a new career, then reality hits us and we start to think: I’m too old, I’m not good at math, I’m only the average person not someone extraordinary.
Or we add the word JUST to our identity in the same way that Jeremiah did. We say I’m JUST a kid, I’m JUST a single mother, I’m JUST someone with a learning disability, I’m JUST a B student. We don’t realize that if we were to give God permission God could help us achieve far more than we could ever ask or imagine.
It’s easy to get weighed down by the world and and its impossibilities, but when we allow God to choreograph our lives great things happen. Jeremiah’s youth scared him. He was no doubt afraid because he thought that as a young man people might not take him seriously or listen to him, yet imagine what would have happened if some of the greatest children we know decided not to speak up because they were afraid no one would care. Greta Thunberg was only 15 years old when she boldly approached the Swedish Parliament demanding stronger action on climate change. That was back in 2018, now 4 years later, she is an icon, an example to many young people, and has spoken around the world to major political leaders. She could have said “no, I’m too young” but she knew that she had a message to share and she wasn’t afraid of it.
Historically, there were some great female reformers who shaped the world despite being young and the “wrong” gender at a time when men more or less ruled. Joan of Arc was only 16 when she began her quest for freedom and by age 19 had already been martyred. Sophie Scholl was only 22 when she took a stance against Nazi Germany opposing their harmful ideologies at the risk of her own life and Samantha Smith was only 10 years old when she published a paper on why the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union were so tense.
I think as well of childhood heroes we know a little less about. Iqbal Masih was less than 12 years old when he campaigned against child labour in Pakistan, Nkosi Johnson was only 8 when he started raising awareness of HIV/AIDS a disease he was born with, and Emma Gonzalez was less than 18 when she became an American activist for gun control after experiencing a violent school shooting in Florida.
A quick Google search will bring up thousands of other examples of those who stood for change, activism, advocacy, and social justice despite factors which might have held them back. Imagine if any of these people would have said “no I’m too young” or “I’m just a girl” or “No one will listen to me, I’m not a good public speaker” how much less rich our world would be today. Our world becomes a better place exactly because of courage and bravery. This is why Paul told his young charge Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:12, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.”
Usually when someone is ready to take on a new role or identity, something is given to them as a symbol. For example, an engagement ring and later a wedding band is place on a person’s finger to show their new transition, a clergy collar or stole is given to a minister on their ordination, a black cap and an expensive piece of paper known as a degree is given to a student upon graduation, and a white lab coat is given to a doctor to signify that they have certain qualifications and credentials. In Jeremiah’s case, it was a little less glamorous – he was given a piece of live coal which touched his lips and with this was told that he would now be God’s mouthpiece. This is not the first time God or another angelic being has done this action for someone who otherwise feels unworthy. We see the similar things done to Isaiah, Ezekiel, and John the Revelator on the Island of Patmos. In our western culture this may seem rather odd, but in Ancient Israel such symbolism was not out of place for to them words were of utmost importance. Greta Thunberg often criticizes global leaders for their “empty words” but to the Israelities words led to actions which in turn produced results and ultimately brought consequences sometimes good and others bad. Words were about authorship and carried with them a sense of assurance, accountability, and authenticity. And it was with these words and this action that Jeremiah was appointed.
I wonder what holy mystery God might be calling us to? What divine delight we might be invited into. What magnificent mystery God will share with us in a quiet place only between us and the Spirit. What vibrant vocation awaits us if we are open to receiving it?
As we conclude our meditation for this morning, I want to share with you something my chaplaincy supervisor said to me this past week. In looking at my own unworthiness, my own flaws, and my own shortcomings, I began to feel down that I would never reach perfection. My supervisor then gave me these words, “how can we honor God and still attempt to abolish parts of ourselves? God’s creation? How do we rather embrace, with compassion, all parts of ourselves, without judgment – rather with an attitude of wonder and a theology of mystery?”
I pray that we will take those words to heart. That we will not see our disadvantages as weaknesses which must be abolished, but rather as invitations for us to offer grace to ourselves. That we will see our flaws as areas where Christ can pour the most beauty into, and that we will see our ordinariness as an outlet for God to do extraordinary things. May it be so. Amen.