Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sermon for February 3, 2013: A fire in our bones, for the light of the world



Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
"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."

Then I said,
"Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."

But the Lord said to me,
"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
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.
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."


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So this week at Bible study, we read this text.  And then Barb Hansen turned to me and said, "So, does God have a plan for each of us?"  And I said, "Well--" and she said, laughing but serious, "Yes or no?!"

This week I've been surrounded by plans.  Normal plans, like the plan for the next semester of school, and plans for my summer, and plans for when I'll get around to doing my taxes.  And in the midst of all that there are plans for Pastor Hollie's arrival and for the next steps in calling a long-term pastor for Light of the World.  So I probably shouldn't have been surprised when Barb asked me "So.  Does God have a plan for each of us?"  And I can't blame her.  Because I'd like to know.  Is there something I was made for?  Does God have a plan for everyone, even before they're born?  Does God have a plan for Light of the World?

Well, yes.  And no.  But yes.  But also no.

I should back up.

Here’s the background on Jeremiah.  We don’t know how old Jeremiah was when he heard the voice of God.  Our guess is between thirteen and seventeen.  So it’s best if, when you think of Jeremiah, you visualize one of our confirmation kids.

So the word of God comes to the teenage Jeremiah and says, "You.  I chose you before you even knew how to breathe.  I made you to be a prophet to my people."  Jeremiah says, “I can’t, I’m too young; I don’t know how to speak for you.”  God says, “Don’t worry about this.  I’ll be with you.  Don’t be afraid.”

And then immediately follows that with:  “You are going to be a destroyer of nations.  You are going to pluck up and pull down; you will destroy and overthrow.”

Well, no wonder Jeremiah said no.

See, being called to be a prophet in Israel is not a good gig.  This is not a multi-million-dollar salary, tour-the-world, meet the President, go on CNN kind of deal.  Prophet is not a desired career path.  A prophet in Israel is the bringer of bad news.  A prophet is the one who stands up against religious leaders and kings, who says, “We’ve forgotten to trust God.  We’ve forgotten to take care of each other.  We’ve lost God’s protection, and we’ve lost the community.  We are in serious, serious danger.”

Sound familiar?  Isaiah was called to the same cry:  “Israel!  Stop.  Stop putting your trust in idols and false gods.  Stop oppressing the alien, and the orphan, and the widow.  Act justly with one another.  Remember what God has done for us.”

And this is painful.  Jeremiah preaches this message for almost forty years, and it's forty years full of pain.  His friends and family turn against him.  The whole nation of Israel sees him as a false prophet.  He is beaten by a priest.  Locked up in the temple stocks.  Threatened with death.  Tossed into a water-tank full of mud and left there to starve.  When he’s rescued, he watches the invading army of Babylon as they kill the king’s sons and destroy the holy city of Jerusalem.  Jeremiah is then taken, against his will, to Egypt, away from his home, away from the promised land, away from almost all the other Israelites.

Being called to be a prophet is painful.  And God knows this.  God’s promise is:  “Do not be afraid, for I am with you, to deliver you.”  Not like a letter in a mailbox but like when we ask, every time we pray:  "Deliver us from evil."  Be with us.  Keep us safe.  Get us through.  God knows that being a prophet is not an easy call.  So when God appears to this teenage boy in Israel and says, “I’ve planned for you to be a prophet for a long time,” it’s no surprise that Jeremiah says, “God, please not me.”

But God insists that Jeremiah is called.  When God says, “I consecrated you,” the root of “consecrate” is kadosh.  It means “set apart, to make holy.”  It’s the word for the seventh day of the week, in the story of creation:  So God blessed the seventh day and kadoshed it -- made it holy.”  It’s the same word when God calls to Moses from the burning bush:  “Take off your sandals, for the place where you stand is kadosh -- it’s holy ground.”  It’s set apart; it’s chosen.

And this is where the words of the Bible and the tradition of the Lutheran church can look like they’re butting heads.  See, Martin Luther was pretty insistent that everyone had a calling.  The Catholic Church, in the 16th century, only talked about a calling when they talked about priests and monks.  People who were “set apart” from the rest of the regular world.  But Luther thought that maybe, just maybe, talking about this Jesus thing isn’t just for Sundays, and maybe it isn't just for pastors.  Maybe it’s for every part of our lives.  This call to preach the word of God, to talk about forgiveness and grace and love -- maybe that is for everyone, all the time.

Which is a beautiful idea, until you get down into the details.  Maybe it’s too easy for Martin Luther, and for me, to stand up as pastors and say:  “Everyone’s called!  Go and preach!”  Martin Luther was a priest for the rest of his life.  I’m preparing to be a pastor.  The idea that our whole life is a calling doesn’t seem so strange.  But what about when you’re a teacher, or a nurse, or a consultant, or an HR rep, or a postal worker, or a stay-at-home mom, or a retiree?  See, Luther wanted to get away from the idea that the only time our lives are holy is when we’re doing something for the church.  But if we say “Everything’s a calling!” then this amazing idea that we’re all called, no matter what, can start to feel watered down.

So we go back to Jeremiah.  Because here is a guy who did not want to be called.  In chapter 20 he turns to God and says, “You know what?  I didn’t ask for this.  I didn’t want this.  You’re the one who got me into this mess.  I spend my days shouting ‘See the hatred!  See the violence and destruction!’  And everyone laughs at me and hates me.”

Jeremiah did not want everything he did to be a call.  He wanted out of this mess.

But then he says, “But if I say, ‘I will not mention God, or speak any more in the Lord’s name,’ then in me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.  I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”  Jeremiah says:  “I can’t not do this.  Trying to hold it in makes me feel like my heart and my blood are in flames.  It is physically painful to keep my mouth shut.”

Jeremiah’s life isn’t only about preaching the word of God.  It’s about doing what he’s called to do.  About being what he has been made to be.  About forgetting what is easy or simple or financially sound or cost-effective and doing what makes him feel alive.  It’s what fulfills him.  It’s what satisfies a need, what quenches a thirst.

And see what he is called to do:  to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.  This fire in his bones isn’t just for him.  What is going to fulfill his hunger is something that will change everyone else.  He’s called to stand up against religious and political powers, shouting, “Stop the oppression!  Stop the hatred!  Stop the confidence in yourselves!  Remember God, and remember one another.”  He is called to tear up everything that is already dead, to clear away the weeds in peoples’ hearts and minds that keep good seeds from growing.  He is called to say, over and over, “Don’t you see how this is killing you?” in the hope that the whole nation or even just one person might turn away from worshipping money and power and success, from pride in their own abilities or a hidden shame about their own failings, from everything that keeps us from love of God and love of neighbor.  Jeremiah’s heart burns because he sees the pain his people are in, and he wants to--he is made to tear it down and plant something new.

This is what he’s made for.  This has been God’s plan from the beginning of his life -- that Jeremiah is to be a prophet to the nations.  He can't not do it.  He's called to this, chosen for it, set apart to be holy.  But he's not called to something just for himself.  He's called and fulfilled and set on fire for something that is meant for all the people.

See, God has a plan for Jeremiah, but God also has a plan for Israel.  It's in chapter 29:  "I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord.  Plans to prosper you, and not to harm you; plans to give you a hope and a future.  Then when you call for me and come to me and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me.  And I will restore everything you've lost, and gather you from all the places you've been driven, and I will bring you home."

This is God's plan, not just for Jeremiah but for everyone.  Plans for growth, not for pain.  Plans for hope, for a future.  Plans to be known and heard and found and brought back home.  It’s not an itinerary, or a manual, or even a map.  It’s a promise.  It's a promise from the very mouth of God that no matter who we are or what has happened, God wants you.  God wants you home.  God wants you to feel that fire in our bones, that excitement, that passion.  God wants to give you something so deeply satisfying that it feeds all of your life.  God wants to call you, to give you purpose, to give you hope, to give you a future.  And not just you, not just Jeremiah, but every single one of God's beloved children.  God has a plan, but it's not a step-by-step guideline or a PowerPoint presentation.  It's a hope that someday everyone will have God's word written on their hearts, like a tattoo on every vein, so that each heartbeat is a cry for mercy and justice and love.

That's what Jeremiah longed for -- not for God's word but for a way to change people's lives.  And that's how you can know your call.  When your passion and hope becomes a gift to someone else.  When your story becomes a source for another's healing.  And that can happen anywhere, any time.  You don't have to be a prophet, or a pastor, or anything -- not anything except the light of Christ that God has lit up in you.  You will know your call when the fire in your bones becomes a light by which others can see.  That fire isn't just to keep you warm.  It's to light up the world.

And if you don’t have that -- let’s find it.  Let's talk it over.  Let's fight it out.  Let's pluck up and tear down everything that keeps you from joy.  Let's burn a fire in your bones till whatever holds you back is ashes and dust.  And then let's plant something new.  Something that will feed you, and then feed others.  Something that will give you purpose and strength and hope.  Let's be a community that does that for each other.

Because God wants nothing less for you than a fire in your bones that becomes a light to the world.

Amen.

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