Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10 (NIV).
The word of the Lord came to me, saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." "Ah, Sovereign Lord," I said, "I do not know how to speak; I am only a child." But the Lord said to me, "Do not say, `I am only a child.' You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you," declares the Lord.(1)

I am only Ö

Harry Lipsig was eighty-eight years old. He decided to leave the law firm he had spent most of 60 years building up. He decided to open a new firm. So at an age when many people have given up on life, Mr. Lipsig decided to try his first case in some time. Here was the situation.

A woman was suing a drunken police officer who had struck and killed her 71-year-old husband with his patrol car. She argued that the city had deprived her of her husband's future earnings potential. The lawyers for the police officer argued that at age 71, he had little earnings potential.

They thought they had a clever defense until they realized that this womanís argument about her husband's future earning power was being advanced by a vigorous 88-year-old attorney. Mr Lipsigís client was awarded $1.25 million. What if the 88 year-old Harry Lipsig had said, "I'm only a senior citizen, what can I do?"

We learn that a close friend or relative has met with tragedy. It's one of those calls that leaves us numb all over as we slowly hang up the receiver and then pass on the news to the rest of the family.

Our immediate reaction to the news we have just heard is a desire to reach out to that person. We want to be there with him or her. We want to say something, do something, anything that will help.

But then it hits us, and we say to ourselves: "What can I do? I have no special skills, no special training for dealing with this kind of situation. I am only a housewife, a labourer, an accountant, a teenager, a farmer, a retiree."

There are three words that have the possibility of stifling anything we consider too challenging or too demanding. We need to rid our vocabularies of those three deadly words. They were the words spoken by a young man long ago by the name of Jeremiah. God came to Jeremiah and said to him, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."

"But, Lord," Jeremiah said, "I donít know how to speak." Then Jeremiah spoke those 3 words, "I am only...." "I am only a youth."

Jeremiah would become one of Godís greatest spokespersons. Our text today gives us a description of Godís call to Jeremiah to be a messenger to the people of Israel, and we hear Jeremiahís reluctant reply. Before God could use Jeremiah he had to deal with those 3 deadly words, "I am only..." In fact, God must have known Jeremiah would use those 3 words even before he spoke them out loud. God knew Jeremiah better than Jeremiah knew himself.

God says to Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."

Prior to these words, Jeremiah thought of himself as the son of his father Hilkiah, but from now on, this was no longer to be the case. He could no longer say, "I am only the son of Hilkiah". Before he was born God had chosen him to be a special messenger to his people. The words God uses here indicate his deep commitment to Jeremiah in much the same way as the Bible describes the commitment between a husband and wife (Genesis 4:1) or the way God speaks of his commitment to the people of Israel (Amos 3:2).

Not only that, God says Jeremiah was "set apart", consecrated, blessed. In the dark days that lay ahead of Jeremiah, it was important for him to recall that it was God who had especially set him apart and appointed him to be his prophet.

Jeremiah joined the ranks of others, who considered themselves just ordinary people but were called from their everyday tasks by God to speak his Word.
Like Moses who was looking after his father-in-law's sheep;
and Gideon who was threshing wheat;
and Amos who was cultivating his fig trees;
and Peter, James and John, the fishermen,
young Jeremiah was chosen, set apart and appointed to be Godís messenger.

Just as God came in his grace to Jeremiah, and called him to be his prophet, he has come to us. Through his grace he has come to us and given us
a new identity,
a new life,
a new responsibility
at the moment of our baptism. Just as Jeremiah was given a new responsibility that day so also we have been given new responsibilities as his chosen people.
To be Godís voice to speak his Word of comfort and grace;
to be Godís ears to hear the cries of those who are hurting;
to be Godís hands to demonstrate Godís love through our care and love;
to be Godís feet to go and be his disciples in the every day matters of living in this world, to be a witness to Godís love for all people in our neighbourhood, our community, in fact, the whole world.
Peter said just this when he wrote reminding us, "You are the chosen race, ÖGod's own people, chosen to proclaim the wonderful acts of God, who called you out of darkness into his own marvellous light" (1 Peter 2:9).

It all sounds very nice to talk about Jeremiah and his call to be Godís messenger and seeing a parallel with Godís call to us to be his chosen people through holy Baptism. But when it comes down to it our response is very much like that of Jeremiahís. When that phone rings, and we hear of someone in distress, or grief, or pain, we're faced with the question of whether we can or cannot bring a word of grace and healing and comfort to that person.

No sooner had Jeremiah been told that he was chosen for a special job by God than the prophet-to-be blurts out, "I canít. I donít have the training. I am only a teenager." Jeremiah wasn't alone in his objection to Godís plans. Remember, when God spoke to Moses at the burning and how Moses tried to excuse himself from going to the Egyptian king by saying he was slow of speech. He adds: "I am nobody. How can I go to the king and bring the Israelites out of Egypt" (Exodus 3:11).
Gideon was told by God to lead an army to rid the land of an enemy. He complained: "How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest .... I am the least in my family" (Judges 6:15).

Likewise Jeremiah felt totally inadequate to be a messenger for God. "Iím only a lad. I know how godless society has become. I am nobody. The person who speaks against so much wickedness needs to be someone with special qualifications. No-one will listen to me." (We donít know exactly how old Jeremiah was but the text indicates that he was young Ė a child or adolescent. Young people did not speak unless they were invited to do so.)

There was once a little boy called Tom, born in mid 1800s. He started school at the age of seven - after spending 12 weeks in a one-room schoolhouse with 39 other students of all ages - Tom's overworked, short-tempered teacher lost his patience with the child's persistent questioning and disruptive behaviour. To all appearances, Tom was a very naughty boy, in fact, the school reported that Tom appeared to be mentally unstable.

If modern medicine had existed back then, it is possible that the genuinely hyperactive child would have been deemed a victim of attention deficit disorder.

This young boy unable to concentrate on anything went on to be one of the worldís greatest inventors Ė Thomas Alva Edison.

What if Edison had said, "I am onlyÖ"
I am only a hopeless Grade One drop out.
I am only a lad who couldnít get on with anyone at school.
I am only a no hoper whom everyone thinks is mentally unstable.

The words "I am only.." are words that we use to put ourselves down and offer as a reason why we canít do something. "I do not know how to speak; I am only a child." I donít have what is needed to be on a congregational committee, or visit the sick, or talk to a neighbour about Jesus and the Church, or help in the worship service, I am only a farmer, or a house wife, or a retiree, or a council worker. Our fear of failure is nothing unusual. When overwhelmed by the responsibility that we are facing, we suddenly face fears of inadequacy. We don't know what to do, what we will say, how we will cope in the situation. We feel we would much rather leave it to someone else and so we say "I am onlyÖ".

Like Jeremiah we need to be reminded that we are more than what we say we are. We have been chosen, set apart and appointed by God to be his people chosen to proclaim his wonderful deeds. Jeremiah records these words of God, "The Lord said to me, "Do not say, `I am only a child.' You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you," declares the Lord."

If God can do that for Jeremiah, and Gideon, and Moses and Peter; if he can overrule the objections of these men, he can do it for us as well. God challenges us to be his messenger. We can be sure he wonít challenge us with anything that he hasnít equipped us for. And you can be sure that he will help us in our times of hesitancy. Like Jeremiah we can be full of excuses and objections why we should be the one who has to be involved, why not someone else who is better at it than I am. That's what Moses said, and Gideon, and Jeremiah.

But the words of God ring in our ears this morning: "Do not be afraid.... I will be with you..." And so assured with those words we can take the risk and step out in reaching the person in pain, the friend who would appreciate some guidance and help.
Who are we to judge the effect that Godís Word has in the lives of other people even when it comes from our own lips?
Who are we to judge ourselves incompetent when God has not only made us but also called us to be his servants?

And remember we stand forgiven for those things that we lack, and we're assured that his grace will be with us even when all we can offer is an embrace, a halting prayer, a few simple words in the Lord's name. He is ready to forgive us when we say the wrong thing. No matter how inadequate you may feel, God has a marvellous way of using what you say and do to bring blessings to others.

When you hesitate and wonder what I possibly say and do, remember Jeremiah! Remember Jeremiah who said: "Ah, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child." Remember the words of God who reassured Jeremiah with the words: "Do not be afraid... I will be with you"


(1)  NIV Ė Holy Bible, New International Version © 1973, 1978 by International Bible Society, used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
28th January, 2001

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