Sunday closest to September 21 Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37
Jeremiah was young when he was called by God to be a prophet to speak God’s word to God’s people. In fact he was called before he was even born, and God speaks to him 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.”
The young Jeremiah protests.
“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.”
But God insists that Jeremiah is the one who is truly suited to this ministry.
“Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’;
for to all to whom I send you, you shall go,
and whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
declares the Lord.”
The young Jeremiah is called by God to be a prophet, not by his own talent or choice but rather by God’s word and God’s power. And God assures him that in his ministry he will be delivered from all his opponents and all who would harm him.
Jeremiah even as a young man at least had the insight to know that a calling to be a prophet was a calling to live dangerously. In his day it was clear that the way the people of God were living was in clear abandonment of the covenant they had made with God when he saved them from slavery in Egypt. If God is going to speak to such a people, whose idolatry, evil, and faithlessness are so apparent even to a young person, then it can be reasonably assumed that these words which the Prophet will be asked to speak will not be easy or light ones. Jeremiah understandably protests the calling which is deep within him, because he anticipates the great cost it will incur.
But God has purposed that God would be known on earth, and he chooses to do this by being a king and shepherd to the small tribes of Israel. Left to themselves human beings seem to seek after the divine, they may seek after their own wellbeing and maybe once in a while they may seek after the flourishing of their neighbors and those who cannot care for themselves. Yet the self-made attempts of human beings to fulfil the divine desires within them seem often to go so deeply wrong. In Jeremiah’s time that yearning to connect with the divine, to somehow honor the mark of a Creator, to transcend the limits of their finitude became corrupted by ever more extravagant and esoteric rituals, the most repulsive of which included the blood offering of children. The desire to seek the wellbeing of their neighbors often became a violent rejection of the needs of people outside their tribe. And when the gods must be appeased by the giving up of the flesh of children, and the needs of the tribe must be met at the whims of deities so miserly; to bear the infirmities of the weak, the poor, the disabled, or the disturbed becomes impossible to imagine.
But God has purposed that he will be known on earth, for there is no other way for human beings to be what we are made to be without God’s merciful and gracious help.
Jeremiah then prophesies to the people of God, calling them away from their sins not because of some nationalistic identity or ethnic superiority, but rather because without this people to bear witness to God, the world cannot know God and will not be saved. Unfortunately God’s people do not grasp the significance of their calling nor the purpose of God in calling them, and therefore they viciously and mercilessly oppose Jeremiah. The young prophet was the son of a Priest from a place called Anaroth, but it seems even the respect commanded by such a noble upbringing does not prevent the people of Anaroth from plotting his murder. Our lesson from Jeremiah today records his prayer at this time:
The Lord made it known to me and I knew;
then you showed me their deeds.
But I was like a gentle lamb
led to the slaughter.
I did not know it was against me
they devised schemes
The Prophet, this son of the Priest who has faithfully served his community, has so enraged his own people that they will not only not stand by him, but they devise violence against him.
If the world were just and right, perhaps we would expect that the pure Word of God spoken to God’s people would result in their humble repentance and perhaps even a thanksgiving for the Prophet’s ministry, because Jeremiah would have helped to deliver them from the terrible tragedy which was to come. Yet the world is not so, it seems, and Jeremiah must suffer the ultimate humiliation of the rejection of those who have known he and his family for generations.
To whom does he turn? He trusts in God, who has promised to deliver him from all those who would plot evil against him,
Behold, God is my helper; (says the Psalmist, the great Prayer Book of the Bible)
the Lord is the upholder of my life.
He will return the evil to my enemies;
in your faithfulness put an end to them.
I suppose it takes some kind of real intimacy with God for God’s deliverance to be sufficient to endure the rejection of your own tribe. What kind of intimacy might be implied from our Lord Jesus Christ’s own acceptance of the trajectory of his mission?
Our Gospel today makes plain to us that it is crystal clear to Jesus that his ministry will result in his death. Perhaps he foreknew it by some supernatural revelation. But with the witness of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Elijah, and, John the Baptist all before him it is abundantly plain that delivering God’s word to God’s obstinate places those who speak such words in deep peril. The calling to be a prophet is a calling to live dangerously. The very life of Jesus Christ who is the Word of God, the fullness of God communicated into God’s creation, cannot proceed without his suffering and death because God’s Word has always been rejected and his Prophets, abused.
Yet the promise with which Jesus comforts his disciples is not that he will be spared death, as many of the Prophets were spared death, but rather he continually reminds them of the promise that he will be raised to life again. Jeremiah must be spared from death so that he can continue to deliver God’s word. Jesus cannot remain in the grave because he is God’s Word and God has intended and purposed to be known on earth and in all nations and amongst all people.
But the Disciples did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
Instead they took Jesus’ assurance that he would be vindicated and interpreted this as a kind of justification for their base desires. Somewhere on the way from Galilee to Capernaum they had argued who was the greatest among them, because without witnessing Jesus rise from the dead they still assumed that the world worked by might and guile and violence. Yet Jesus looking toward his own suffering and his own rising from the dead knows that the true way of the world, the way the world was meant to be, does not work in this way. Those who want to be first, which is to say whoever wants to be without need, well resourced, to fulfill the possibility of their very being, to respond to the divine imprint in their souls, those who want to be great, will surely and only do so by taking the lowliest place and being a servant of all. This, this is greatness, not the size of their following, but how many people they have served. And the Lord Jesus Christ will serve all humanity, indeed all of creation by dying for their sins and rising again to usher in God’s kingdom on earth.
It can be tempting to think that greatness consists of meeting the important and becoming and influencer of influencers. There are those who devote their lives to finding their way into board rooms and cocktail parties at governors homes yet Jesus presents a different way of assessing whether his disciples are living according to the fullest expression of their talent and potential: Can you receive a child for me? Can you hold an infant in my name? I am not sending you to the highest level of office. I am asking you to embrace the weakest on my behalf, not influence the strong to perhaps think a little bit about maybe obeying some of my teachings. Like Jeremiah’s assurance, Jesus also gives an assurance to his disciples that when they walk in obedience to him, they will truly behold God.
I suppose such a reward may only make sense to someone a little unsual, because who would turn down power and wealth to behold the face of God but the insane, the zealot, or the believer?
Within God’s Church have often been those who seem destined for greatness. Within the Church of England most Bishops are over 6 foot tall and have Oxbridge educations. So often we amongst God’s people look to those who are conventionally qualified to be leaders, and I have been in ministry long enough to know many who presume that their success in business should equate to having a louder voice in a local church. This is to our shame, because we so often assume that the way of God’s kingdom is analogous to education or politics or business, which is to say its extension is accomplished by our hard work and at the expense of the wellbeing of others. Saint James calls this kind of thinking earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. If the same kind of back-biting, viciousness, careerism, prejudice, and pretension, exist within God’s Church as they do in the world we can only expect the same kinds of excesses and abuses as can be found in our workplaces and schools. But this cannot be the case for us not only because these things are miserable to live with, but also because we have been called apart to be a witness to God’s everlasting kingdom inaugurated by the resurrection of Christ, who was raised not by his strength, piety, intelligence, or wealth, but by the will and power of God the Father.
If this can be understood even a little, perhaps it can be possible to let go of the earthly wisdom which so often rejects God’s word and does violence to those who speak it, and embrace a better wisdom. There is indeed a better wisdom, the wisdom which comes from knowing God and the wisdom which has always been available to those who seek it, because this divine wisdom dwells with God and is obtained by those who seek him. It is pure and peaceable. It is gentle and open to reason. This wisdom is merciful and produces lasting good in the world. It is impartial and sincere. And to follow this path given by divine wisdom, the wisdom which comes from the comprehension of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and all who follow him, will lead us into righteousness and peace and not into the constant and frantic pursuit of security and provision which so often is mistaken for success and flourishing.
I know that I myself come from a relative strength. Indeed I am in graduate school and I am reasonably well-spoken. I often boast of these things, and as James says, it produces disorder in my soul and in my life. James also helps us see that these disordered desires produce the violence we see and experience. He calls us to find peace today in our surrender back to God. Jeremiah I suppose offered the same, and look how that ended up for him. Yet we have the assurance of Jesus’ rising from the dead to give us a sign of our vindication, and a pledge that we will not be abandoned by him.
I think I desire the life God offers with him, more than I desire to pursue my own passions to climb atop my shaking self-made tower of achievement. And I know that whenever I desire the latter more than the former, I am surrounded by a great community of fellow-witnesses who will remind me of the folly of such pride, and will pray with me until my desires become a desire to know and please God in Christ through the perfecting grace of the Holy Spirit.
Living gently within the wisdom of Christ’s cross and resurrection doesn’t seem very dangerous, yet as we comprehend the face of our Lord amongst those who cannot offer us anything in return, nor even the satisfaction of being admired for our service, it may well be the case that we will show a world of vicious division and ambition that there is a God who loves them.