Rev. Ed Searcy
University Hill United Church : Sun, January 28, 2007
On Wednesday I asked the ‘Text to Sermon’ gathering for help. The problem is that all of the scripture set to be read by the common lectionary is so strong, so rich and so thick with vitality. After we had chewed on the texts from Jeremiah and Luke and 1 Corinthians, just as we were about to leave, I asked which one would best be given a voice in the sermon. “I think it is Jeremiah” said Margaret. Then Janet said, “I think it must be Jeremiah.” Betty and Bernice agreed. I am not sure that I know why they settled on Jeremiah. I am not sure that they know why. But I trust their hearing and hosting and intuition. The book of Jeremiah begins with a call. Jeremiah is like a candidate for ordination coming before the Education and Students Committee of Conference or like a minister being interviewed for a call by a congregation. He says “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’.” Jeremiah describes an overwhelming vocation. His life was not meant for a career. A career is a road race. That’s the root word of ‘career’ - a cart race. A career is something that you can succeed at or fail at. A vocation is different. A vocation is not something that can ever be called a success or a failure. A vocation is a calling. It is an unavoidable, inexplicable, irresistible purpose and destiny that is inextricably linked with one’s very being. The word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah. He doesn’t say that he hears it. He says that it comes to him. Does it dawn on him as slowly and surely as the sunrise? Does it keep knocking on the door of his heart and mind and soul until he finally lets it in? One way or the other the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah. When it speaks the word says that God has been intimately acquainted with Jeremiah even before his conception. It is inconceivable. Yet the word says that it is true. Jeremiah’s consecration as a minister of God occurs before his birth, his appointment as a prophet to the nations happens in utero. Jeremiah’s life is not his own. It comes from God and is lived in service to God. Those who are quick thinkers will note that this makes proving Jeremiah’s credentials highly problematic. What witnesses can there be to a consecration and appointment that occurs before birth? It is not a new problem. By definition prophets are daring figures who claim to bring an unsettling new word from God. The prophetic message is so strange, so disturbing, so unexpected, so disquieting that no credentials will ever be enough to prove that this hard word is assuredly the inspired word of God. Biblical prophets are not future tellers. Nor are they social justice ideologues running for office. They are poetic visionaries who relentlessly see things through the lens of God’s steadfast love and a life of obedience to God. Jeremiah receives the troubling news that his life has been set aside for the arduous mission of speaking hard truths that his contemporaries do not want to hear. No one chooses to be a prophet. It is not one of the options offered to students on career day because there is no such career as prophet. Prophets only come to be because of an irresistible, inexorable voice that will not be silenced. It is akin to the voice of Jesus that will not leave the church alone. It is the voice of Christ that says to the church: “Before you were formed in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” This is an impossible appointment. There has surely been a mistake. God has not paid attention to Jeremiah’s immaturity. Jeremiah says: “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Resistance. It is what a prophet always says in response to the impossible call. The true prophet has no ambitions to speak for God because the true prophet has no desire to be rejected or ridiculed as either shrill, obscene or insane (which, according to Northrop Frye, are the three things that contemporaries inevitably say of a true prophet). Moses stutters and so cannot believe that he has the makings of a prophet. Isaiah is a person of unclean lips and so is certain he cannot speak a clean word from God. Jonah does everything and anything to escape the call. He ends up caught in the belly of a fish before he finally gives in to God’s persistence. And the church? How does the church deal with the impossible calling to speak God’s truth? So often congregations act as though the reason for their existence is to make a success of a religious career. So often the church imagines that it doesn’t have what it takes to speak a hard truth, opting instead for the smooth, soft language of escape and contentment. So often we like the idea of being prophetic so long as our version of prophecy is considered a good thing by the opinion makers whose admiration and approval we seek. But being a prophetic church is no easy thing if the new word from God is not something that the surrounding culture - or even the church itself - expects or wants to hear. Prophecy is not something we choose when it requires speaking a hard word of judgment to a self-satisfied community in denial about the catastrophe that looms on the horizon. Prophecy is equally challenging when the new word from God is a daring hope that appears utterly impossible to the friend in deep depression and inconsolable grief. Truthful prophetic speech is necessary if we are to turn from denial and from despair in order to receive God’s new future. When a word of judgment must be spoken to awaken a people to the crisis at hand then someone has to speak. When a word of promise must be spoken to find lost souls who are imprisoned in their personal hell then someone has to speak. That prophet responds: “Who me? Hell, no!” It is true with Jeremiah. It is still true. But YHWH does not stop calling simply because the call is rejected or ignored. The Lord tells Jeremiah: “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.” Jeremiah does not have a good excuse. God chooses stutterers like Moses and unclean speakers like Isaiah and flight risks like Jonah and youth who are wet behind the ears like Jeremiah. It is a pattern. When calling prophets YHWH regularly overlooks the golden tongued and the spotlessly pure. The word of the Lord will commonly be voiced by the last and the least likely voices. And these unexpected voices are not free to select a friendly audience. They do not get to preach to the choir. God sends Jeremiah - Jesus sends the church - and there is no negotiation concerning the destination. University Hill Congregation is sent to UBC. It has no option. Ministry to the university is our common calling. We may try to ignore it or to escape the call but we cannot. More than that, on Sunday we are called out to a multitude of workplaces and dispersed to a variety of neighbourhoods. The commissioning is the final word that sends you to speak a word from God. Fortunately you do not need to make it up. A prophet is not free to say anything other than what the Lord commands. This is a problem. How can the prophet ever know that the word on her lips, the speech in his mouth, is a word from God and not just the very human bias that is an inevitable part of the human condition? The text does not provide a simple answer. There is no simple answer. We wait upon the Lord. We host scripture. We pray. We listen to our neighbour’s ache. We speak the truth as best we can. It may be prophetic speech. It may not. In the end, the truth of the words are judged over time. When it comes to prophecy, time will tell. In the meantime, Jeremiah dares to speak because: “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’.” The consecration and appointment of Jeremiah to prophesy occurrs in utero. His commissioning is the laying on of a hand ex utero - the hand of the Lord touches Jeremiah’s mouth. Jeremiah’s power is his speech. This is how God changes the world. Prophets speak. Their words transform. The word of the Lord is potent. It has divine potent-ial. This electric word has the voltage to rouse us when we are comatose in our apathy to the suffering of others. This living word can smash the impenetrable tomb of grief that keeps you captive to despair. The church too easily forgets that it is first a people with a word to speak, not an organization with programs to run or a building with a history to conserve or a denomination with a reputation to uphold. This is the reason that Martin Luther claims that a true church exists in a congregation even when there is no Christian fellowship, no pastoral care, no teaching, no service, no authentic worship but only the Word of God read, heard and proclaimed. Luther knows that God’s Word can not return empty, that it has extraordinary power beyond our limited imagination. Yes, there are five marks of a living church, not one. These marks are the pattern of our life together: liturgia - worship; koinonia - community; didache - training; diakonia - service; kerygma - proclamation. But the primal mark, the starting place, the origin of the church is always the proclamation - the kerygma - of God’s odd word that offends as it consoles, a gospel that we regularly resist and reject even as we desperately long to hear it and to believe. The church is formed - and re-formed - by prophets who speak God’s surprising word. The church does not only have a prophetic calling. The church is also the object of God’s prophetic message. “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.”. Of the six verbs that describe Jeremiah’s prophetic activity, only two speak of creating anew. The three day figure that shapes our life together shares this prophetic pattern: “Pluck up and pull down” - the Good Friday ending; “destroy and overthrow” - the long wait of Holy Saturday; “build and plant” - Easter Sunday’s incredible news of life from death. This threefold gospel journey is the prophetic message at the heart of the gospel. Before the new can take shape there is an ending, a deconstruction, a taking apart, a full stop. We are tempted to imagine that the ending of the ways that we once knew in the church in North America is the handiwork of forces that are antithetical to God. We blame secularism and consumerism and individualism. It may be, however, that the plucking up and pulling down of the church in North America is the judgment of God. Could it be that the loss of buildings and properties, of status and numbers is God’s necessary ending? Might the church’s loss of influence be the result of divine forces, not satanic ones? Jeremiah says yes. It is the word that he is commanded to speak. It is the word of intervention that the addict cannot stand to hear but that must be told. It is the intervention of God that the church regularly masks with the tame sound of upbeat music and the false comfort of chicken soup for the soul sermonettes. The prophetic word detoxifies the narcotic that numbs us to the reality of God and the pain of our neighbour. The prophetic word opens a closed life, a closed church, a closed time into the promised future with God that we long to know. And the most astounding prophetic word of all is that the God we long to know is not asleep at the switch. The God met in Jesus Christ is active to save the dying earth and to redeem lives that have been labeled as worthless and to reconcile irreconcilable nations and households. It is the gospel truth. The Lord is calling, consecrating and appointing prophets now. Some are here, in our midst. Some are not yet born. But they are already known. And they will yet speak a transforming word from God. Hear the word of the Lord.