Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

“I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9).

January 31, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10

“I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9).

God sends forth God’s hand and “touches” Jeremiah’s mouth (cf. Isaiah 6:7; Daniel 10:16). Perhaps it sounds intimate, but we should not imagine that it was a gentle or comforting touch. The same verb, ng’, can also mean “strike” (e.g. Job 19:21) or harm (e.g. Psalm 105:15). The one other biblical verse that uses these same words to envision God’s “sending forth [God’s] hand and touching” is found in the prologue to the book of Job, where the Satan challenges God to test Job’s faithfulness by taking away everything Job has (Job 1:11). There is nothing gentle about the wind that subsequently “touches” the house where Job’s children are feasting, leaving every one of them dead beneath its roof (Job 1:19). When we picture the hand of God “touching” Jeremiah’s mouth, we might do better to imagine a jolt or a shock. We would be justified in asking whether it hurt, whether it left a wound or a scar (cf. Gen 32:26), whether having God’s words placed in his mouth changed Jeremiah forever.

Flash back six hundred years (give or take): Terrified by the sight of God’s fiery presence at Sinai and afraid they cannot survive the sound of God’s voice, the Israelites ask for prophets who will protect them and speak God’s word to them (Deuteronomy 18:16). Moses is such a prophet, and God promises to raise up another after him, saying “I will put my words in his mouth” (Deuteronomy 18:18). The prophet will speak in God’s name, and God will demand a reckoning from those who do not listen to the prophet’s voice (Deuteronomy 18:19). There is a reckoning for the prophet as well: if she attributes her own words to God or speaks on behalf of other gods, she pays with her own life (Deuteronomy 18:20). I do not envy the prophet like Moses. I do not envy Jeremiah.

Charged with such a task — to stand between a vulnerable and cowardly people and the dangerous presence of God, to surrender one’s life to the challenge of speaking the truth only God bids — it would be natural to protest. When God says, “I have made you a prophet” (Jeremiah 1:5), Jeremiah says, “But look, I don’t know how to speak — I am just a boy” (1:6). In Hebrew, the last word of this sentence is the emphatic personal pronoun “I.” First person pronouns appear repeatedly throughout this short passage, both in their more common suffixed forms (six times) and in their emphatic independent forms (three times). We meet the person of Jeremiah in dialogue with the person of God, and it is in this dialogue that the prophet’s own self-understanding is challenged and revised. God insists that Jeremiah’s self-perception as “just a boy” — immature, inadequate, or simply not ready — is either wrong or irrelevant, and forbids Jeremiah to repeat it (1:7). Instead, God answers with another emphatic “I” statement, the one that trumps and reshapes the prophet’s self-understanding: “I am with you to deliver you” (1:8). This assurance is so vital God repeats it to Jeremiah in 1:19 and 15:20.

God does not keep Jeremiah safe for Jeremiah’s own sake. The assurance is always proclaimed in the context of Jeremiah’s mission. God makes Jeremiah a prophet “for” or “to” the nations (Jeremiah 1:5). Though God “gives” Jeremiah (Hebrew ntn) for this purpose, God does not abandon him: God’s fortifying and saving presence with Jeremiah enables the prophet to carry out his mission to the nations.

The detail “to the nations” calls our attention to the international scope of Jeremiah’s mission. Although Jeremiah is the only prophet described with these words, many of Israel’s prophets were concerned with international affairs. Jeremiah’s predecessors, Amos and Isaiah, delivered oracles against the nations. Jonah is commissioned to travel to Assyria to pronounce judgment on the Ninevites, leading to their repentance. God’s prophets speak to and for the nations because the God whose words the prophet speaks is the God of all creation and all peoples and because no nation lives in isolation. The economic practices and well-being, wars and peace of one nation spell for others prosperity or poverty, destruction or subjugation or freedom. No prophet can ignore these relationships. No prophet speaks into a world so narrow that she does not also speak to and for the nations.

The international political dimension of Jeremiah’s charge is further emphasized in the final verse of the passage: “See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pull up and pull down; to destroy and overthrow; to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). These verbs image political powers in terms both organic and architectural.

The organic imagery, whether the positive image of planting or the harsher image of pulling vegetation up by its roots, calls to mind the dynamism of soil and sun and water, processes of growth and photosynthesis and the movement of sap, flowering, pollination, the ripening and rotting of fruit, the human labor of tilling, sowing, pruning, and harvesting, the dangers of disease, and the natural cycles of life and death. The architectural imagery calls attention to structures of power that give the appearance of fixity and permanence but in fact have their origin in time, through human effort. They give the appearance of protection but cannot defend against God’s just judgment (cf. Ezekiel 13:10-16). As surely as they are built up from the ground, they can be torn down by God’s word.

God’s words in Jeremiah’s mouth are powerful, dangerous, and life-giving. They destroy what must be destroyed, dealing death to death. They plant the seeds and build up the structures of life.

In a sermon on Jeremiah’s call, you have the opportunity to highlight the shock of God’s touch and God’s words, the burden of speaking truth to and for nations in God’s name, and the saving presence of God that renders every perceived inadequacy irrelevant. It’s a word for the preacher as well.