Jeremiah 1:4-10 "Unqualified"

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.”

            I don’t think I’ve ever started a sentence with, “the word of the Lord came to me saying…” My experiences of God’s calling on my life have always been much less dramatic and, to my great frustration, much less clear. I’m pretty sure of the call from God on my life but I don’t have exciting stories like Jeremiah. My stories are of lectio divina, reading scripture in a group and hearing words I’d heard countless times before take on new meaning. When I heard in Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel her naming the Lord as “the God of Knowledge” I knew I wanted that knowledge and that meant going to seminary to becoming a pastor. It’s an important story in my life, but it was far from a clear, audible voice of God. 

            I can only imagine what Jeremiah would have felt when he heard God’s voice. He would go on to prophesy and preach to the nation of Judah about their impending judgment for all his life, but at this moment, he was just a boy. He was just old enough to know that there is no way he is old enough for this job.

            God’s opening words to Jeremiah are simultaneously vast and intimate. This creator seems to exist outside time itself. Throughout God’s conversation with Jeremiah, God speaks as though God is in the future, the present, and the past. God knewhim before he even existed. Jeremiah is known not for what he has achieved or who he is related to but just for who he is. And he is not only known, he is called.This language of being “consecrated for this task even before birth” sounds a bit like the uncomfortable doctrine of predestination. Did Jeremiah have free will or did God chart out the plans for his life? The answer, I believe, is yes. Yes, he has free will and yes, God created and called him for a purpose.

            Even after being told that he is known and called for a purpose, Jeremiah’s first response is of reluctance, “ah Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” It turns out, even a direct word from God isn’t enough to make one immediately stop feeling unqualified. Jeremiah is a reluctant leader. It’s a feeling I honestly can’t relate to.

I have never been a reluctant leader. I would never have been the biblical character to say, “God, how could you ever use me?” Instead, I shamefully would have probably said, “it took you long enough to ask!” I have wanted to be a leader since around the time I first learned what the word meant. I usually have a hard time relating to the call stories of the often-reluctant prophets because I have spent most of my life working very hard to be qualified to lead. However, this week I couldn’t help but find it a bit ironic that the lectionary passage is of God calling someone to serve who feels too young to do the job.

            I have rarely felt too young to do my job, but this week, as I struggled and struggled to discern what God was saying to us today, I found myself unironically weeping and saying, “I do not know how to speak! I am not qualified for this job!” I felt for a moment what perhaps what Jeremiah felt like. “God, shouldn’t you have called someone else to do this? I know I said I wanted it, but I cannot possibly be the best person to do this!”

            But as I read and re-read this passage, I noticed that God doesn’t tell Jeremiah, “of course you’re old enough and qualified enough.” God merely says, “you will do this job.” There’s something about that response that doesn’t diminish his fears but also doesn’t concede to them either. God seems wholly uninterested in the age of God’s servants and prophets. God routinely uses people who are all the wrong in our understanding of leadership—too old to have a child, too young to be taken seriously, of the wrong gender or religion or tribe. God never plays on our terms. God doesn’t call people based on who is the most likely messenger to get God’s plans accomplished. In other words, God is wholly unconcerned with the notion of electability.  God doesn’t concede that a young person might be less qualified or less likely to be listened to. Instead, God gives reassurance that Jeremiah will never be alone. God is with him, there is no need to be afraid. 

            The language of “calling” can sometimes be so Christian-ized that people think that are only a few people who are “called.” Martin Luther King Jr. was called to his work of prophetic justiceMissionaries are called to share the gospel with those who have never heard itPastors are called to care for and to serve the church

But this passage isn’t about me and this sermon isn’t just for me. It’s for everyone who God has called—those of you who are reluctant leaders or those who are ready and willing. The category of “people God has known, and loved, and called” includes everyone inside this room. From the children who are “too young to lead” to the elderly members mistakenly believed to have “nothing left to offer.”

            Each and every one of us are called by God, both as the corporate church and individually for a lifetime. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1:9 “God…saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to God’s own purpose and grace.” Our calling is to love God and neighbor with all that we are and in all that we do.

            You have also been called by God just as uniquely as Jeremiah was, even if you’ve never audibly heard God’s voice calling you to be a prophet. Following God’s call on your life can be a winding road and it might not alwayslook the way you thought you would. It certainly doesn’t look the way other people think it should. You can follow your calling in any vocation, job, or season of life. You can be following God’s call as a stay-at-home-mom, a lawyer, or a barista. You can stray far from who God has called you to be as an elder or social worker, or even a pastor. As God reminded the prophet Samuel at the anointing of the scrawny youngest son who would go on to become the great King David, “humans look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

            So, of course, the question we are all asking, “What is God calling me to?” Wouldn’t it be great if I had the answer for you? Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, having easy to answers to hard questions isn’t in my job description and you’re going to have to take that one up with the personnel team!

            So no, I can’t answer that question for you individually, but I can join you in your journey. Listening for and learning to follow our calling can be done in many ways, but it rarely can be done without intentionality because God rarely calls to easy things. This world is hard, and God calls us to do hard things. But do not be afraid of that calling for God will be with you.

            If you are you wondering where to start; wondering what God might calling you to, pay attention to what God called Jeremiah to:

To pluck up and pull down

To destroy and overthrow

To build up and to plant.

Some of those sound a bit violent and possibly even unpatriotic but I think we must interpret it with creativity and care. 

Are you called to pluck up the weeds of racism that if left untended will choke out true relationships?

Are you called to pull down the walls that we think we built to keep us safe but were really built to make us afraid?

Are you called to destroy your pride and envy and hated?

Are you called to build up a friend’s confidence when they are down?

Are you called to plant trees that capture carbon from our atmosphere or seeds of peace?

Are you called to build up homes for tornado victims? 

            I can’t answer that for you, and I can’t tell you if you are “qualified” for the job or not. It’s often said that “God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called” which is both comforting and frustrating after having worked so hard to be “qualified.” But Jeremiah’s response to God’s call and my own feeling of inadequacy this week reminded me that we are all “unqualified.” Not one of us has what it takes to follow God on our own. But doing it on our own was never the idea. God reminds Jeremiah and reminds us, “do not be afraid.” These words are found 365 times in the words of scripture, one for each day, which I would find cheesy if I didn’t find it so reassuring. We live in a time when there are lots of reasons to be afraid. I am reminded of every time I drive by a sign that says #DaytonStrong, as if strength is the only way to overcome fear.

            Do not let that which unqualifies you keep you from following where God is calling you. Perhaps most importantly, do not let anyone tell you that you are unqualified for your calling. You are not too young, too old, too inexperienced, or with too little formal education to be used by God. The great contradiction of being human is that we are both absolutely unqualified and the exact right person for the calling that God has placed on our lives. You are qualified because God is with you. The world is desperate need of people who are living into the fullness of their calling. The great theologian Frederick Beuchner calls it the place where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Let your joy lead you to the place God has called you and God will meet you there.