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Calls and Visions

February 1, 2016

“Calls and Visions” Jeremiah 1:1-19, Luke 4:21-30 © 1.31.16 Ordinary 4C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Imagine being assigned a task you wouldn’t freely choose, for which you feel totally unprepared, which is bewildering in its complexity and promises little hope of success and satisfaction, but which you must complete for the sake of yourself and others. You may say there’s no imagination necessary, Tom. You’ve just described life.

True. But this morning I’ve got something else in mind, a task that belongs particularly to us and all the baptized, past, present, and future. I’m talking about our calling from God, the same summons to faithful action received by Jeremiah and Jesus.

We don’t hear that call in a vacuum, but in the midst of life. The editors of the book of Jeremiah take a good bit of time establishing the setting of the prophet’s work. He was a young man whose priestly family three centuries before had been in conflict with the king over the religious life of the nation. Now, in what would be the last century of its life, Judah was first under Egyptian, then Babylonian control. The crucial event that started the march toward disaster was the defeat of the good king Josiah at the Battle of Megiddo. The final blow was a two-stage removal to Babylon of the upper classes and the best and brightest in the early sixth century BC, an event known as the Exile.

Through all of this, the prophet often must have reflected on the meaning of the call that came to him in Josiah’s reign. Even as he matured in his vocation, Jeremiah must have felt those same fears, protested in the same way about inexperience, that we find in the account of his commission by Yahweh. There were times his heart ached at what he had to say to his own people. There were other occasions when he rejoiced to proclaim a word of hope. Over and over, his sense of the rightness of what he was doing, his decision to answer God’s call was tested.

We might say the same for Jesus. He stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth, with all his hometown friends looking on. His boyhood playmates were there. His neighbors. His family. Here was the hometown boy made good; he was famous. But the acceptance turned to anger and rejection when he confronted the people in Nazareth with the truth they had either overlooked or intentionally ignored in their own tradition, when he dared to suggest that God’s purpose was broader than the narrow confines of Israel, though it certainly included the children of Abraham and Sarah. That was not what they wanted to hear. Jesus’ commitment to be a servant Messiah was tested that day, as in a rage, the people rose up as one to hurl him off a cliff.

Just as the prophet and our Lord did, when we consider our call we ask when and where we live, who our parents and ancestors are and were, what experiences with God and spirituality we have had, what our gifts and talents are. All those are factors that support, shape or suppress our faithful answer to the call of God. Our witness has to take into account the common beliefs and viewpoints of our culture and how those were and are passed on to us by word and example. We ask about who holds formal and informal power, and how those people and institutions influence global, national, and local life. We wonder how communication technology and social media available to us help with the sharing of the gospel or hinder it. We discern what kinds of questions people are asking, where their broken places are, what they hunger for spiritually and materially.

But there are a couple of other questions we need to ask, and maybe they’re the most important. We have to wonder what it is that God is saying today, and if we can figure that out, we then have to decide if we’re willing and able to proclaim it. I’m not at all surprised that Jeremiah and so many other prophets in the Bible wanted to make excuses and escape the preaching of God’s Word, whether because it was too harsh or in the case of Jonah, because it was too loving and accepting. Jeremiah’s problem was the former. Only near the end did his preaching contain some hope. He had authority from God to say to every nation, including his own, that God’s purpose was “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” In other words, there wasn’t a structure made by human hands that could withstand what God intended to do. That included ways of looking at the world and living in it. It encompassed the self-assured policies and rhetoric of monarchs, generals, and businesspeople who believed that their decisions and actions guided history. That awesome message promised that religious doctrines and rituals were at risk and not the hardened shells around the reality of God they were imagined to be. Indeed, even buildings in the beloved city of Jerusalem could not withstand the onslaught when the Lord brought judgment at the hands of the Babylonians.

Names and places change, but not the human heart. Bureaucrats, politicians, officials, media pundits, and corporate moguls still believe that their opinions and decisions drive and change history. The forces of economics, population shifts, weather, war, national and global policies and alliances—these, we are told and believe, are what make the difference in the ongoing and unfolding life of humanity. Churches of whatever sort keep insisting that their spin on the truth of the Bible or the gospel or theology is the way it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. And all of us continue building and reinforcing walls, cocoons, storm shelters to keep out any newness or difference or doubt and keep secure our rather fragile intellectual and spiritual worlds.

Jeremiah and the Bible in general certainly don’t deny the power of political and military forces or the value of governments and systems of various sorts. In fact, just the opposite. Nor is it the case that the work of theologizing and developing doctrines and rituals is inherently corrupt. The creativity and intellectual and spiritual discipline that go into such a task are holy endeavors. But one of the great themes of Scripture is the insistence that the decisions and actions of human beings are not the ultimate driving force of history, that there is Another whose word will be reckoned with because he will see to it. There is Another whose purpose moves forward. Sometimes he acts excruciatingly slowly and in the shadows where we cannot see any clue or results and thus hardly believe there is a God at all. At other times, this Sovereign One moves quickly and for all to see, but always, always, always, is he guiding and shaping human history—yours, mine, that of the world—toward the goal of God. It’s the word of this God which we have to proclaim.

But if we preach the Word of this sovereign, free God to our neighbors, so also do we come under its scrutiny. That may mean that we will find our carefully constructed world being pulled down, the viewpoints we have rooted and watered, plucked up. The formerly mainline churches got too dependent on being propped up by the culture, and we were disestablished (by the grace of God, some say), so we are now a minority voice, standing on our best days against the anger and hatred and judgmental attitudes of so many who claim to name the name of Christ. In our personal lives, our way of reading the Bible may be challenged or we may be shaken to our core by some hard life experience that calls into question everything we ever believed or had been taught. And we’re left there standing in the rubble or, to use a different image, surrounded by deep, impenetrable darkness.

But can we see such experiences as our friends, as gifts? Barbara Brown Taylor in her amazing book Learning to Walk in the Dark observes that even when we can’t see where we’re going and no one answers when we call, this is not sufficient proof that we’re alone. Instead, “there is a divine presence that transcends all [our] ideas about it, along with all [our] language for calling it to [our] aid, which is not above using darkness as the wrecking ball that brings all [our] false gods down…” (16).

It is in such willingness to let our categories and our very selves be broken open that there comes a new perception of God and God’s purpose. We begin to see things with new eyes, to be given a fresh vision. Jeremiah’s preaching even broke open the old assurance of his tradition that God did not suffer and replaced it with a picture of a God of deep pathos, who yearns for relationship with Israel. It is a pathos, a suffering, which is finally seen in the cross of Christ, the God who suffers with us and for us, to build and to plant, to bring the new creation, the resurrection.

When things are going badly in the culture or in our own lives, we hear such talk of new life as preposterous, silly, stupid. There is only despair and death and destruction, not building and planting and living. But the audacity to believe in the purposes of God is a common feature of those who proclaim the Word of God with power and conviction and live it out in their lives. It enables them to endure hardship, rejection, disagreement, and face even death for the sake of seeing the will of God done.

Jeremiah, for example, was thrown into prison and initially left to starve for warning the king not to revolt against his Babylonian overlords. When centuries had passed, and WWII was raging, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to Germany from a safe place in America, despite the risk to his life. He said: “I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people . . . . Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thus destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make this choice in security.” (The Cost of Discipleship, "Memoir," p. 17).

About twenty years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., said “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed…. 

“This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born”  (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance_en.html).

Jesus endured rejection in his hometown for the sake of the proclamation of God’s favor on all people, as God chose, not just those who fancied themselves privileged and deserving. And he went to the cross, suffering its shame and pain, so that the world might be made whole again, a new creation born in the “creative turmoil” King spoke of. It was Jesus’ faith, his endurance, his action that inspired and encouraged countless disciples through the ages, some whose names we know, and many we don’t. It can give us the courage to face uncertainty, to act, to proclaim the Word, whether it is rejected or welcome, whether it’s harsh or pleasant.

In a sermon last Sunday in California, Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson told of going to see the current “Star Wars” movie with his daughter. Their seats were on the front row in an IMAX theater, and the movie was in 3-D. So, of course, they felt as if they had to duck when guns were fired or objects thrown, and their eyes followed a person walking across a room in the film. They were in the movie.

He compared living our mission to such an experience. He wondered if we are going to be people who watch the movie from the safe seats in the back row or those who are in the movie, right at the front. Are we merely observers or are we actors? He reminded his listeners: “God doesn’t need any more observers; God doesn’t need any more admirers. What God wants are fellow players in [his] drama.” Jesus,” he concluded, “wants you in [the movie].” (“Act As If…,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ttMLXcTuiA)

What is promised to those who proclaim the word like Jeremiah or Jesus or you or me as we live out our baptismal calling, who dare to be actors and not merely observers? Only this: “I will be with you.” Walter Brueggemann calls such a promise a “thin and precarious” assurance. But in the end it’s enough, for the promise comes from the God who will accomplish his purpose.

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