Go, Build, Plant

planting

Reflections on Jeremiah 1:1-9

1 The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. The word of the Lord came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.
The word of the Lord came to me, saying,
5“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.” “Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ 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.
Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

In beautiful, poetic language God tells Jeremiah even before he ever existed, God knew him and called him.  Which, at first, seems pretty strange.  It really seems to throw a loop in the question of when exactly human life begins right?…because Jeremiah’s life, or at least God’s knowledge of Jeremiah, seems to begin not only long before birth, but also, long before pregnancy…even long before conception.

Somehow before sperm and egg combine, before DNA start replicating at light speed, before the raw data of chemicals and chromosomes are jumbled and re-ordered and re-made into the person Jeremiah would become…somehow before even that – God knows Jeremiah and has called him to be a prophet.


 

My mother is an amazing piano teacher. She was born in South Texas, about a five minute drive from Mexico, and Spanish was her first language.  She remembers not being allowed to speak Spanish in school.  She remembers a teacher who gave her a B, despite the fact that she was the smartest person in her class, because she was hispanic.  She remembers feeling trapped in a small South Texas town – feeling too smart for her surroundings, painfully aware of the lack of opportunities for her, feeling isolated and alone in her small Texas town.  And so she turned to music.  She would spend hours in a practice room after school at the piano.  It was a place she court retreat to.  With small town life as seemingly inescapable as the Texas heat outside, she could lose herself in the swirl of sound in her tiny practice room.  She could let her fingers glide and dance on the cool white ivory keys.  She would play for hours.  Eventually she went to college at the University of Texas, and she was the first generation in her family to do so.  She majored in piano performance.  Her love of music and playing then led her to Michigan State for a masters degree, and back to the University of Texas for a doctorate in Piano Performance.  After her doctorate she would move to a small state school – Sam Houston State University in Texas – as an adjunct piano professor.  It was there that she met my father.

My dad was raised in upstate New York.  His dad was a brilliant but eccentric engineer who fell in love with HAM radio…so much so that he knocked out a 4 foot wide hole in the roof of their house and stuck a 15 foot antenna through it so he could talk to people all around the world by morse code. He never sealed the hole either, and snow would drift straight in to the attic during the harsh NY winters.  Needless to say, my grandfather had a very strained relationship with my grandmother. My own father needed a place to escape from his parents tense home life, and he would find that escape at the piano.  In his need to express himself he soon began to compose music…and when he graduated from high school he was accepted into the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.  A long way from home for a rural upstate New Yorker to travel back then.  My father would have some trouble in college at first, changing schools 4 times in the first year and changing majors just as many times before, years later, eventually getting a PhD in Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas.  It was there that he would meet my mother.

And now, somehow, over 30 years later, I find myself 4 blocks from Indiana University leading worship and playing music.  Before I was born.  Before I was “conceived”.  Before the sperm slipped into the egg, before the wedding ring was slipped onto my mothers finger, life was already in motion…and God was already at work in the midst of it.  As I look back, writing about lives that were lived years before I was born, I can see the sign posts lighting up the years, and pointing me – guiding me – shaping me – to be who I am, today.


 

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.”
“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”

Jeremiah begins with what seems to be a profession of faith, calling God ‘Sovereign LORD’.  Perhaps he learned to address God that way from his own father, who we learn in verse one was named Hilkiah, and was a priest.  Perhaps Hilkia would lead the family prayers at the dinner table each evening…would break the bread and give thanks to the Sovereign LORD for the meal he was about to share with his family, thanking the Sovereign LORD for the blessings that life, food, and family are.  Perhaps every night Hilkiah would tuck young Jeremiah into bed and tell him stories.  Stories about the Sovereign LORD who would flood the earth but give humanity a second chance.  Stories about the Sovereign LORD who called Abraham to leave his homeland or called Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.  Stories about people that the Sovereign LORD led to do great, difficult, miraculous things not just for themselves but for all of God’s people.  Perhaps Jeremiah had been raised his whole life hearing about this Sovereign LORD – this LORD who is author and ruler of creation, who has all authority and all supremacy.  And Yes, as they say in every evangelical testimony worth its salt, he had heard about the Sovereign LORD, but perhaps he did not know the Sovereign LORD.

And so Jeremiah responds with “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”

You can hear in those two statements, the deep questions they attempt to hide, can’t you?  The questions about Jeremiah’s abilities as a speaker, and as a prophet.  Questions about Jeremiah’s ability to have the courage to stand up to people older than him, people crueler than him…people that he will have to stand up to if he wants to lead God’s people like the stories he grew up on.  Jeremiah knows his wounds and his weaknesses…and so it makes sense that he has these doubts…

But then there are other questions just beneath those questions, aren’t there?  Questions that Jeremiah is afraid to ask aloud, the questions he’s hinting at but doesn’t want to come out and say…

What if I try and I fail?

What if I give it my best shot and it isn’t good enough?

What if everyone around me knows that I am not cut out for this, and they’re all just sitting by quietly, politely, just waiting for me to screw up?

What if I let my father down?

What if I let You, Sovereign LORD, down?

And then there are the questions that are the ground of those questions…questions that are so far beneath the question Jeremiah is asking we wonder whether he is even aware of them himself…

Is the Sovereign LORD really at work in the midst of our lives right now?

Was the Sovereign LORD really at work in history, lighting up sign-posts to bring me here?

Was the Sovereign LORD at work when he used a stutterer to lead his people out of Egypt? When he called a broken old man to leave his homeland?

Is the Soverign LORD truly powerful enough to use someone like me?

And then, if we push even further, we find ourselves at the deepest question.  The one that undergirds it all.  The one that is perhaps the foundation of all our questions…

Is the Sovereign LORD really Sovereign? 


 

But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ 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.
Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

And then, in the midst of Jeremiah’s doubts and uncertainties, as his questions stack one on top of another higher and higher until the whole faith thing threatens to come toppling down…God responds.

To the question of age, God does not say ‘yes, you’re old enough’…he says, ‘Do not say ‘I am too young’…for I am with you’.  It’s like God is saying, “Actually Jeremiah, it’s not about your age, or your intelligence, or your experience,or your looks…

it’s about me, The Sovereign LORD, and what I can accomplish.

You will never feel old enough, wise enough, charismatic enough.

But it’s not about your deficits, it’s about my ability as God to use you.

And to the fear that Jeremiah does not know how to speak…God says He has put the words into Jeremiah’s mouth. Not in a distant manipulative way like Jeremiah is some two-bit ventriloquist dummy.  No, God reached out, or drew close, and touched Jeremiah…and put the words in his mouth.  The God who is creator of the vast universe itself has come so close, can be found so close to Jeremiah that he is inside the very words that he speaks.  God is inside his mouth, inside the movements of the muscles that form sounds, inside the tongue as it presses against his teeth, inside the air as it’s drawn into his chest and lungs, and inside the diaphragm and lungs and vocal chords and tongue and teeth and lips as they work together to breathe, to speak, and to sing. It is that intimate God that tells Jeremiah ‘I am with you’…more than you will ever know…more than you will ever be able to even comprehend…I am with you.

And then God sends Jeremiah out.  Out to do what he was always made to do.

10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

God says ‘Now go.  Go knowing that I have been at work since the beginning.  At work in the lives of your father and your mother.  At work in the lives of your grandparents, and their parents and their parents…at work since the beginning of humanity to find us at this moment, in this place, to build and to plant.  Go knowing that you could not go by yourself even if you wanted to, because I am as close to you as your breath.  As close to you as your very teeth and tongue.  Let us go, and build, and plant’

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