About a decade ago, the movie Evan Almighty came out. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a modern retelling of the Noah story, where a brand new congressman named Evan is asked to co-sponsor a bill that would allow development in national parks.
Before Evan has decided what to do, God—played by the one and only Morgan Freeman–steps in, and says, “oh hey. Evan. I’d like you to build an ark”.
And, at first it’s just a statement. Hey, this is the job I have for you. But Evan is a bit surprised, and like, I think, most of us would, thinks it might be a hoax and tries to carry on with his new suburban life.
But God doesn’t go away, and neither does this annoying commission to build an ark. Wood and tools arrive in his front yard, animals—two by two—begin to just show up. His hair and beard grow overnight, and he suddenly can’t wear anything other than what we might call prophet’s garb. And the more Evan tries to avoid God, the worse it gets.
When I read today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah, I hear something similar going on.
God tells Jeremiah that:
“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.”
What an intimidating job description! A “prophet to the nations”! It’s no wonder that Jeremiah says “you know what God? I’m too young for this whole prophet to the nations thing. I’m just a priest, I’m not ready for a promotion yet.”
But just like in Evan Almighty, God isn’t willing to accept this answer from Jeremiah.
“You must go
I am with you to deliver you
I have put my words in your mouth”
And we hear this refrain in scripture a lot—do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. I, God, am going to give you all the tools you need. We hear this again and again in the stories of Noah, and Abraham, and Jacob, and Moses, and Elijah, and Isaiah, and Peter, and Paul, and centuries of saints and martyrs. Don’t be afraid. I’m going to equip you for what I’m calling you to do.
In the case of Jeremiah, that’s really comforting… until you get to the very next lines, when God tells Jeremiah what his job actually entails.
Plucking up. Pulling down.
Building up. Planting.
And despite what some Biblical commentators might argue, I don’t think this is figurative language. Plucking up and pulling down means literally pulling an entire nation and people out of its self-serving, idolatrous ways. Destroying and overthrowing means that these people will literally go to captivity in Babylon for disobeying God. We know this from the first few verses of the chapter, which are not included in our lection today, where the editors tell us that in the fifth month, the people went into exile.
This isn’t a nice, cozy call to be a prophet to the nations. It’s not a relatively cushy job, like Jonah’s, where the people all repent, and all the difficulties he has to deal with are from his own personal issues. There’s no promised exodus for these individuals—a lot of them are going to die in captivity. Most will never see their homeland again. The building up and planting won’t actually apply to most of them. Jeremiah himself will never see the people of Israel restored to the land.
Reading Jeremiah’s call story should be inspiring. After all, God, despite all of Jeremiah’s objections about being too young and not good enough, says that he was still called, and still had a role to play in God’s work.
But I think we’re also being duly warned about what a call from God might require from us.
Scholar and pastor Robert Laha writes of the book of Jeremiah that “Re-creation and renewal requires the tearing down and dismantling of old and useless structures. This, of course, is a difficult and often unwelcome work because it means letting go of old hopes and dreams and trying to imagine something new that, as of yet, does not exist.”
God’s call could mean letting go of old hopes and dreams and to imagine something new that does not yet exist.
God’s words in our mouths are risky and life-altering.
For me, that has meant leaving behind other plans, ideas of what my future might hold, to go to seminary. And maybe your call—your vocation has required you to give up something that’s perceived as “successful” or lucrative… in order to do something else. Maybe your call has required you to take your successful career in a new direction, or spend your limited free time in the care of others, or give more time and money than you normally would to support God’s mission in the world.
God’s words in our mouths are dangerous and death-dealing.
They spell death for the things that distract us from God, the pursuit of idols, our focus on money over the lives of innocent human beings, our focus on short-term profit over the ecosystems that sustain life on this planet, our focus on the people who tout their own authority while crushing the poor under their feet.
God’s words in our mouths refocus our priorities on the kingdom of God, instead of our earthly kingdoms.
Suddenly, our gifts and talents that seem irrelevant become a part of our vocation. We move from being the authorities, critiquing Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, to seeking out the work of the kingdom, knowing that the care of others’ souls is more urgent than any ideology.
We move from destruction to building and planting, from exile to freedom, from idolatry to love.
For Jeremiah, and for each of us, we are being called to speak a dangerous truth about God’s love and compassion that must deal death to the evil of this world, so that there may be life anew.
It is for this life that Christ died and was raised.
And it is for this life that you, too, are being called.
What words is God putting in your mouth?
Where are you being called to dangerous, life-giving love?