The Vision of Jeremiah
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.’ …
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. 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.’
In a New Mexico desert is a city—code-named “CITE,” the Centre for Innovation, Testing, and Evaluation—where a team of researchers are testing new technologies. It is a prototype and test site for smart technologies meant to change how we inhabit our increasingly urban world. The city is brimming with technology, but it is empty of people. CITE tests smart-city technologies on an uninhabited desert before application to cities with people. Smart cities employ new technologies to collect data on every aspect of urban life. Advanced methods and algorithms then turn data into useful information. Technicians and policy makers hope to use this information to make cities more prosperous and more sustainable, chiefly by making them more efficient. Smart technologies are touted as new symbols of utopian hopes, promising to save the world from itself.” (Noah Toly, Who’s Reprogramming your city?, Comment, summer 2016).
Is hope for our world to be found in technology advances?
In May of this year Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave the commencement address at UC Berkley. You can watch her full address below:
Ms. Sandberg said, "I am not here to tell you all the things I've learned in life. Today I will try to tell you what I learned in death." In 2015 Sheryl's husband Dave died suddenly and unexpectedly. "For many months afterward, and at many times since," she continued, "I was swallowed up in the deep fog of grief—what I think of as the void—an emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even to breathe." But she goes on "I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void—or in the face of any challenge—you can choose joy and meaning."
Is hope found in human ability to choose joy and meaning?
1. Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling includes depictions of the Old Testament prophets. Jeremiah is a touching figure among the prophets especially when compared to the purposefulness of Ezekiel and the focus of Joel. Michelangelo’s Jeremiah reveals weakness, weariness and despair—his posture betrays inner suffering. This is a powerful psychological portrait that epitomizes the anguish and emotional pain of witnessing the consequences of the sack of Jerusalem.
To establish the general mood Michelangelo makes various objects in the scene point down, as if symbolically echoing Jeremiah’s torment and “down” feelings; the man himself hangs his head, his gaze is downcast, his right shoulder is drooping. His beard, unmoved by wind (the artists makes the hair flutter in other prophets) points directly downwards, as do the edges of his toga and the fingers of his left hand.
Michelangelo correctly depicts Jeremiah’s broken heart at the destruction of Jerusalem. Even so, would it surprise you to know that one of the greatest words of hope found in the whole of scripture was uttered by the prophet Jeremiah? The poignancy of his statement about hope may arise from our knowledge of the miseries he lived through. “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!” writes Jeremiah, “ My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” (Lamentations 3:2)
That we might touch on the poignancy of this word of hope, come with me to a moment in Jeremiah’s life when his collected sermons are being read in the court of Judah’s King Jehoiakim in Jerusalem. God had instructed Jeremiah to write on a scroll “all the words I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations” in the hopes that the house of Judah “may turn from their evil ways.” By this point Jeremiah was so despised by the leadership that he was barred from speaking in the temple so he sends his secretary Baruch to go to the temple and read this scroll.
Upon hearing this read some of the temple leadership were convicted and said the king needs to hear God’s offer to forgive their iniquity; thinking he might listen. The king sends for the scroll and has it read. Scripture tells us that when three or four columns were read, “the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the palace fireplace, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire.” (Jeremiah 36:22-23) Such was this king’s disdain for Jeremiah and indifference for God.
Jeremiah had been warning the people of the ascendency of the power of the Babylonians; that God was going to use them to put an end to Judah’s corrupt leadership. The King and his court were leading headlong into idolatry. As is the case in many places, the political leadership was insulated from what was obvious to others. King Jehoiakim had many court prophets telling him what he wanted to hear—don’t worry the Babylonians will never be able to touch you. It was not long after this that Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem deported the leading citizens and then in a return visit destroyed the city, razing the temple and palace and leaving only poor people in the land. I do not have to tell you that many people were killed during these invasions.
As for Jeremiah, he was imprisoned by these final Judean kings before being left by the Babylonians among the very weak and poor so they would never threaten Babylon’s power again. Jeremiah was born a priest and was called to be a prophet. He witnessed the destruction of that temple he loved and its worship he had dedicated his life to serve. He saw the wickedness of Babylon’s treatment of his fellow citizens. He endured persecution by his own people, the cruelty of a long imprisonment, and the horrors of a protracted siege. Yet he would say: The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’
When we read, as we did this morning, of Jeremiah’s call and commission it is good to keep in mind that Jeremiah is reflecting back after these many years of preaching. Our tendency is to read this text as the word of a young man with a great vision for the life before him. Jeremiah has written this on the scroll that was read before this hard-hearted king. He is looking back. Note where he finds hope, or more to the point, in whom he finds hope. Note his emphasis on the action God was taking.
“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.’ … ‘ Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’ ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms.”
2. Hope, for Christians, is a future certainty grounded in a present reality. The present reality is the faithfulness of God. In faith we recognize the landmarks that identify God’s faithfulness to his people. One such landmark is Israel’s release from slavery in Egypt and her passage through the Red Sea and the stamp at Sinai, the gift and claim of the Ten Words, wherewith God stamped his people indelibly as surely as circumcision is indelible.
Another landmark is Joshua’s leading the same people into the promised land. Another is God’s preservation of his people in Babylon; captivity did not render them outside God’s care. It was Jeremiah who wrote to the exiles telling them to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile … for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7) Another landmark is God’s bringing his people back from exile in Babylon and his joining with them in the celebration of their homecoming. Again it was Jeremiah who gave that great word of hope that they would return to the land. (Jeremiah 29:10-14)
The most noteworthy landmark of God’s faithfulness to his people, however, and the one that towers over all others, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Here God fulfilled his promise to his Son. And the promise now fulfilled to the Son continues to spill over onto all whom the Son summons, over onto all who cling to the Son in faith. God has promised to renew the entire cosmos in Christ. The raising of the Nazarene from the dead is the first instalment of this and its guarantee as well. Therefore the raising of Jesus Christ is the crowning landmark of God’s faithfulness.
But how is it that we believers affirm this when others do not? So many people look out upon the world with its turbulence and treachery, pains and suffering; they see only a world which, if it isn’t getting any worse, is certainly getting no better.
None of us would ever say that the world, of itself, is improving; of itself it isn’t getting better. Still, all of us at worship this morning are convinced that our hope isn’t misplaced. God has raised his Son from the dead, the climax of his many landmark acts of faithfulness. God will bring to completion that good work which he has begun in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:8) He will restore to its created goodness that creation which now sits evil-ridden and haemorrhaging from innumerable wounds.
This hope is crucial because without hope, without confidence in the coming transformation, our faith collapses. We like to say we believe in God. In what kind of God? We believe in the God whose “search and rescue” mission in his Son is going to restore us to the uttermost. When are we going to be restored to the uttermost? When we stand before God on The Great Day and his love, only his love, yet burning as hot as it has to, burns out of us whatever dross and impurities remain in us. In the meantime we are glad that God has already begun his work of renovation within us. He began it the day we were “clothed” with Christ in faith. Still, we’d never pretend that God has finished his work within us.
3. According to a 2016 American survey of 18 to 24-year-olds, 86% of these young people say that making decisions in line with their purpose makes them an adult; the great disconnect is that only 30% of them say they know why they are here. There is this confidence that if I only knew my purpose, life would be what it should be.
A great word of hope spoken to Jeremiah helps us by reframing how we think about this matter of purpose. God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” A parallel declaration is found in Psalm 139. “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made … Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” (Psalm 139:13-16)
It is a relationship with the One who knows you completely that guides life. Knowing ourselves is limiting; self-knowledge will take only so far; trusting ourselves to the One who can say “before I formed you I knew you” is life without end. It is true that some, like Jeremiah or like Mary, are called to specific tasks but even they were guided by faith in God for life, not by knowing their task—as if the task were everything.
Faith in Jesus Christ won’t tell us whether we should be accountant or teacher or nurse; i.e., it won’t settle the matter of career. But it will settle the matter of vocation. Career is how we happen to earn a living; an important good of our creaturely life. Vocation is our summons to reflect the discernment, compassion, and triumph of our risen Lord wherever we happen to earn a living.
4. Jeremiah’s prophetic work is grounded in hope; hope because even God’s judgement on his people comes because God has a great future in mind for them. The word God put in Jeremiah’s mouth over kingdom’s “to pluck up and to pull down” was in service of God’s purpose “to build and to plant.” God comes among us in Jesus Christ announcing God’s judgement on our captivity to sin just because of God’s purpose not to leave us in this captivity.
Hope keeps faith from collapsing; hope keeps us from giving up in our kingdom-work; hope keeps the world from being abandoned. Hope is God’s gift. He presses upon us a future certainty (his creation transformed) grounded in a present reality (his Son raised and his love flooding our hearts.) Knowing all this, we are eager to say with Jeremiah, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will hope in him