Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Name the things that need overthrowing

tracks through field of yellow flowers
Photo by Another Day Xx on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

January 30, 2022

First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10

Jeremiah can join hands across the centuries with Malala and Greta as those who started early in their life’s mission. All three discerned the need before them; all three showed courage; all three understood the need for deconstruction as the place to begin. The two young contemporary women demonstrate the impact that young people can have. 

The tasks ahead of Jeremiah seemed daunting: the Babylonian siege, the first deportation of 597, an obtuse Jerusalem leadership, feel-good prophets telling the people what they wanted to hear, open hostility to his message. The Lord established the divine claim on Jeremiah before birth. When Jeremiah protested, the Lord declared the intention to send Jeremiah out and promised to accompany him. The divine words in verse 10 seem ironic, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms.” Jeremiah had the power of eloquence and the truth, but he spent much of his ministry at the mercy of political leaders. The last we hear from him, he has been carried to Egypt. The Lord’s charge to Jeremiah contains six verbs, four of which involve breaking down. Only after the way has cleared can he create and construct. 

Let me include here the general caution to take great care talking about oneself in the pulpit. Preachers can often make themselves the main character in their sermons. That practice can sometimes work effectively, but it carries many dangers. That statement prefaces the caution that we should take extra care if we decide to use this passage to talk about our own call story. One can never say never, but our own call story should see only limited pulpit use, and then only for good reason. The preacher should use this story to talk about the call of the church to do ministry in the world. Make the church identify with Jeremiah, don’t talk about how you identify with Jeremiah.

The preacher can use the claim of God on Jeremiah from before birth to emphasize God taking the initiative in the ministry of the church. God does not wait for the church to make the first move. God sees the needs of the world, the injustices, the anguish, the cruelty, and begins the process. One can hear the well-meaning but misguided idea that everything that happens is part of “God’s plan.” One might use this idea of God initiating the call of Jeremiah from zygote stage as a critique of “God’s plan.” God takes the initiative to minister in the midst of suffering, not to cause it or plan it. 

Did Jeremiah genuinely feel unqualified because of his youth to accept the divine call, or does he think that makes a plausible excuse? The narrator does not reveal the answer. We cannot read the adolescent mind of Jeremiah. We can, however, preach to those who go either way. Some church members do dismiss their own talents; others make excuses. This passage would work well at encouraging those who felt unqualified. It at least gives the preacher some material to use with those who make excuses. 

Without claiming to know more about Jeremiah than the narrator lets us know, we can talk in general about youth. Often youth respond enthusiastically to a call. Mission trips, youth-led services, volunteer work. Youth will respond. Parents can confirm, however, that teenagers do not show much energy when they don’t want to. Youth often display an enthusiasm for attacking problems. One can admire the passion they might pour into protesting, tutoring, or an environmental clean up project. That passion can dissipate once they marry, begin building careers, and raising children. 

Can we preachers use Jeremiah’s youth to tap into the long-forgotten passion? Can we recapture that passion that has faded with cynicism because nothing seems to change? Some people carry on the fight well into middle age and beyond. Can this passage appeal to the part of our congregations that continues to care?

Despite the powerful message of the text that grants the prophet authority over political entities, and despite the call to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow,” the church relies on the power of persuasion. Danger arises when the church tries to pluck up and tear down. The church can misuse power and it can become self-righteous. The church does its work of plucking and tearing by giving voice to the truth that exposes lies. The church confronts and makes the powerful uncomfortable. The church finds itself as vulnerable as Jeremiah did in the depths of his pit. The church can announce that racism, greed, misogyny, oppression, and exploitation need uprooting, but we cannot physically do those things. We can make changes, and we can influence, but the powers and principalities remain strong. This passage reminds the church of its mission to speak out, to name the things that need overthrowing. 

Do we need to wait until all of the overthrowing happens before we can build and plant? If so, we will never build or plant anything. Building, planting, creating, making beauty happen in spite of the things that need overthrowing. We build ministries, shelters, and art programs while we work to pluck up. We build people from within while we pull down. We build up the resources, the self-esteem, and the opportunities for those who need them. 

For some congregations, we preachers may need to assess our strategy. Some congregations will not take the lead in working for social justice. Can we use Jeremiah’s call to ask what we can accomplish? How can we empower and persuade our congregations to take the first step, to move against some form of injustice that deserves confrontation? Jeremiah’s experience later in the book reminds us that our ministry does not happen easily. We take risks, we endure the consequences. As Jeremiah’s experience also demonstrates, resisting the call leads to spiritual anguish. We accept the call, trusting in God’s presence.