Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10
“Don’t judge me.” The first time I heard that phrase from my (then) 8-year-old daughter, I was a bit taken aback.
Where had she learned it? Not from me or my husband. Probably one of the Disney Channel shows of which she’s so fond, or perhaps one of her classmates in school.
“Don’t judge me.” It’s a harmless enough phrase, usually. People say it as they take a second piece of cake or binge-watch a favorite show on Netflix. Don’t judge my little lapse in discipline or my small indulgence of a bad habit.
But the phrase is problematic if used as a general rule of life. A life lived simply for the pursuit of pleasure has nothing honorable or admirable about it. In fact, such a life becomes increasingly vacuous and morally stunted (see the countless examples of celebrities whose petty conflicts and rivalries are fodder for entertainment magazines).
God calls Jeremiah to a life greater than that, a life of purpose and meaning: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Jeremiah’s life was about something bigger than himself, something bigger than his own desires; it was about God’s work, and God claimed him even before he was born, according to the text.
While we are not Jeremiah, the prophet’s call story can serve to illuminate our own vocations, our own calls to discipleship. This is a fruitful line of interpretation for a sermon on this text. God, who knows Jeremiah before he is born, calls him to a life lived for the sake of God’s mission in the world. As Eugene Peterson puts it in his discussion of this passage:
We are known before we know … We enter a world we didn’t create. We grow into a life already provided for us. We arrive in a complex of relationships with other wills and destinies that are already in full operation before we are introduced. If we are going to live appropriately, we must be aware that we are living in the middle of a story that was begun and will be concluded by another. And this other is God.
And what does this story entail for Jeremiah? Living during a time of political and religious upheaval, Jeremiah is called to speak an uncomfortable word, a dangerous word, a word that will call people to account. Jeremiah is given the vocation “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Judgment and mercy are the two sides of Jeremiah’s message, though the book called by his name seems to indicate that judgment is much more prominent in his preaching than mercy (as might be expected from the four verbs of destruction — “pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow” — compared to the two verbs of restoration — “build and plant”).
Jeremiah tries to get out of it. “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” He cannot see beyond the horizon of his own self-limitations. It is a common reaction from those called to be prophets — they feel inadequate and ill-prepared.
God’s response to Jeremiah’s protest is two-fold: 1) I am with you; and 2) I will give you the words to speak. “‘Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’ Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’”
Jeremiah is called to a task bigger than himself, but the good news is that it is not his task alone to complete. It is God’s mission, and God will provide him the words to speak. Even more to the point, God will be with him in the midst of the struggle.
Of course, that doesn’t make it any less of a struggle. Jeremiah’s message did not endear him to his people. He was put into stocks, thrown into a pit, mocked and derided. Many people called for his execution on charges of treason. He was deeply unpopular. When he passed by in the marketplace, people pointed at him and laughed.
That is why, many years into his ministry, Jeremiah tried to quit. He handed in his notice: “I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ but within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). This passage is a useful one to explore along with the one assigned for this week, as it describes where God’s initial call leads Jeremiah.
And this is where God’s call leads: In spite of the trouble he encounters, Jeremiah can’t quit. The call of God is so strong upon his life that to deny it is to be consumed by fire from the inside. No matter the cost, he must speak the word that God gives him to speak.
In this lament, Jeremiah speaks of a fearful part of life with God, a part we’d rather not think about — the fact that God’s call on our lives may cost us everything that we hold dear. Jesus speaks of the same uncomfortable truth: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).
But even at this low point, years into his ministry, Jeremiah realizes the truth of the promise God gave to him right at the beginning of that ministry. God will not abandon him; he is not alone. After Jeremiah calls God out for coercing him into this job, after Jeremiah laments bitterly to this God who will not let him off the hook, he says this: “The Lord is with me like a mighty warrior” (Jeremiah 20:11). God is with him. The God who will not let him off the hook is also the God who will not let him go.
Jeremiah’s call and his subsequent ministry illustrate the risk of discipleship. But they also testify to the joy of such discipleship. Jeremiah’s witness, and that of the saints through the ages, teaches us this: The life that we find when we give up our lives to follow God’s call, is, after all is said and done, the life most worth living. To become the people that God calls us to be, to become disciples of Jesus Christ, is to become really and truly human at last.
We see that witness in Jeremiah’s call and in his ministry, an example of what it means to live a life of purpose and meaning in a world where too many people settle for so much less.
- Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Second edition, InterVarsity Press, 2009), 39.