[Occasionally, I get to preach at my church and this past Sunday I was blessed to have the opportunity to preach from the first chapter of Jeremiah. This is my manuscript for that sermon. You can listen to the audio here.]
Our text this morning will be the first lesson, so turn with me in your Bibles to Jeremiah chapter 1 and we’ll look at verses 4-10. If you don’t have a Bible, you will find the text printed in your bulletin under the first lesson.
This passage usually receives a lot of attention among Christians because of its pro-life implications – verse 5 in particular because it is clear from this verse that God recognized the personhood of Jeremiah while he was in his mother’s womb. This is absolutely true, but the main point of this text is the call of God on Jeremiah’s life to do and say very difficult things in very difficult times. In order for us to fully understand the weight of this passage about God’s call on Jeremiah, we need to do a little background work to set the context.
Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet in the year 626 BC during the reign of King Josiah – the last godly king of Judah. He was probably born somewhere around 645 BC and lived in very turbulent times of sweeping political revolution and spiritual decline. His prophetic ministry lasted around 40 years and he lived through the reign of 5 different kings and saw no less than 6 major events beginning with the destruction of Nineveh in 612 BC, the subsequent fall of the Assyrian Empire, the decline of Egypt as a world power, the beginning of the Babylonian captivity in 605 BC, and in 586 BC, he was eyewitness to the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple – all at the hands of the Babylonian Empire which by this time had become an undisputed world power.
Jeremiah spent his ministry preaching against the spiritual decay that was so widespread in the land. He ministered to a people who were religious, but their religion was merely an outward form, a dry ritual that did not affect their hearts. Their worship had degenerated into ritualism and dead formalism. They were just going through the motions. The vast majority of Jeremiah’s preaching was directed at the covenant people of God – it was God’s people who were in such spiritual decline that he told them “unless you repent, judgment will come.” In fact, Jeremiah tells the people to “turn around” or “repent” over 100 times.
Jeremiah 26:2 says:
“Thus says the Lord: Stand in the court of the Lord’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the Lord all the words that I command you to speak to them; do not hold back a word. 3 It may be they will listen, and every one turn from his evil way, that I may relent of the disaster that I intend to do to them because of their evil deeds.”
God held out His hand of grace repeatedly to His own people, but they would not have it.
Jeremiah 5:3 says:
“O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent.”
That sounds a lot like where we are at today – political upheaval all over the world, spiritual decline everywhere, and an iron clad refusal to repent – especially here in the American church.
So this is the context in which Jeremiah lived. He is often called the “weeping prophet” because he wore his heart on his sleeve and was brutally open about the anguish he felt because of the spiritual rebellion of his people.
Jeremiah 8:18-21 says:
“My joy is gone; grief is upon me; my heart is sick within me. 19 Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people from the length and breadth of the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” “Why have they provoked me to anger with their carved images and with their foreign idols?” 20 “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” 21 For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded; I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.”
Jeremiah preached for 40 years and the Bible only records two converts – two people who responded positively to his message: Baruch (his scribe) and Ebed-Melech (an Ethiopian gentile) who rescued Jeremiah out of a muddy well that he had been thrown into and left for dead. Can you imagine that? Over 4 decades of ministry and only two converts. Jeremiah should have been fired long ago by today’s church growth standards.
But God called him to be faithful in very hard dark times. But what is the key to staying faithful? How did Jeremiah do it? How do we do it today? We find the answer to that question in our passage today.
The first thing we see is that…
Faithfulness is Fueled by Sovereign Grace (v.5)
“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.”
Look at the three predestining actions listed in this verse: God knew Jeremiah, He consecrated him, and He appointed him – all before Jeremiah was conceived and born. His call to be a prophet was determined by God in eternity. The emphasis here is on God’s divine initiative and sovereign choice. This is not the only time in Scripture we see God’s sovereign choice in the calling of a prophet or apostle – Isaiah was also called before he was born.
Isaiah 49:1, 5 says
“Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him…”
Two NT examples are John the Baptist and Paul.
Luke 1:15 says of John:
“he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.”
Now, how can you be filled with the Holy Spirit from your mother’s womb unless you have been predestined to be so?
Galatians 1:15 says about Paul:
“He who had set me apart before I was born, and called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”
So, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John and Paul were all chosen and appointed according to God’s purpose long before they were born. God did wait to consult them on whether or not they wanted to answer His call. He called, and they could do nothing else but obey.
Some people get all discombobulated when the subject of predestination comes up. There is no reason for us to get worked up over predestination and there’s no point trying to wrap your head around it and understand every minuscule detail of it or you’ll end up in some heresy that either cripples the sovereign freedom of God or denies the responsibility of man. It seems for the most part that we are more interested in preserving the freedom of man than we are in recognizing the sovereignty of God over that freedom, so be careful here to simply accept what the Scriptures actually teach and leave the mystery of it to God.
God’s sovereign choice is not something to be afraid of and certainly not something to be denied. Instead it is the driver behind our lives and callings. It’s how we stay faithful when we’re ready to throw in the towel.
Philippians 1:6 says:
“He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
That’s a guarantee. God will finish what He started in us. I promise you that Jeremiah felt like walking away from his calling and giving up – but he couldn’t. There was something inside that compelled him to keeping pushing. In fact he gives us a very vivid picture of this in chapter 20.
“O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. 8 For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. 9 If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
Jeremiah has been preaching, preaching, preaching, and nobody is repenting. For years and years he goes about his ministry in the face of constant rejection. He feels betrayed by God, his people are laughing at him and at times even trying to kill him. Absolutely he gets discouraged and wants to quit. But he can’t. Every time he slides into despair, a fire sparks up inside him that he cannot contain – that fire is the word of God that was deposited into his heart when God sovereignly called him.
So, our faithfulness is fueled by God’s sovereign grace.
The next thing we see in this passage is…
Faithfulness is Grounded In God’s Presence and Power, Not Our Inadequacies (vv.6-8)
“Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” 7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.”
Jeremiah’s response to God’s call is “Lord, I’m too young and and can’t speak eloquently.” He was most likely about 20 years old and still financially dependent on his parents when he received God’s call. He believed he lacked the necessary verbal skills to be a prophet – a job which obviously required a lot of public speaking.
This kind of reluctance to obey God’s call is common in Scripture because God rarely asks us to do easy things. In fact, more often than not, God calls us to do things we think we are not qualified to do. I want to give you three examples other than Jeremiah of individuals who obeyed the call of God on their lives in spite of their inadequacies. The one probably most familiar is Moses - like Jeremiah, he also was reluctant to obey because of his inability to speak well.
Exodus 4:10 says:
Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”
Another example you may be surprised to learn struggled with his inadequacies was the apostle Paul. In three separate places in the his letters to the Corinthians, we see hints that indicate Paul lacked the oratory skill that was expected of great public speakers in Greek culture.
He said in 1 Corinthians 1:17 that his message did not come “eloquent words of wisdom.”
In 2 Corinthians 11:6 he says:
I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. 6 Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.
In 2 Corinthians 10:10 Paul’s opponents said his “speech was of no account.”
One last example from the NT is Timothy, the young pastor at Ephesus. There are a few passages that suggest Timothy may have struggled with self-confidence and was timid.
In 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul says to Timothy:
God gave us a spirit not of fear (NIV: “timidity”) but of power and love and self-control.
In 1 Corinthians 16:10, Paul tells the Corinthians that he was sending Timothy to them and they were to “set him at ease.” And in 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul tells Timothy to drink a little bit of wine to help settle his stomach. He probably suffered from a nervous stomach.
So, in all these men, there was some deficiency, some sort of inadequacy that would seem to make them unqualified for their callings. So what made the difference for them? Look back in Jeremiah 1:7-8:
the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.”
God wanted Jeremiah to ground himself in the assurance of his presence and power. He said in verse 8: I am with you (God’s presence) to deliver you (God’s power). God didn’t promise Jeremiah that his ministry would be easy and that people would flock to hear him preach, but he did promise that He would be with him and would take care of him through it all.
The same is true for us – we can be faithful in spite of our inadequacies because we are grounded in the presence and power of God.
The last thing we see in this passage is…
Faithfulness is Empowered by the Word of God (vv. 9-10)
the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
As we’ve already seen, there was nothing special about Jeremiah that made him God’s choice as a prophet. He was young, inexperienced and afraid of what was ahead. The only thing he had to rely on was the sovereign call of God on his life and the promise that God would be with him every step of the way. Beyond that, there were no guarantees. So, what transformed Jeremiah from a youthful, timid son of a priest to a powerful prophet that spoke to nations was the empowerment of the word of God on his lips.
Verse 9 says that God put his words in Jeremiah’s mouth. He literally became God’s mouthpiece to the nations.
Jeremiah 5:14 says:
Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts: “Because you have spoken this word, behold, I am making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall consume them.
The strength of his message was that it was the very word of God and that word was powerful to accomplish what it was sent to do.
Isaiah 55:11 says:
my word that goes out from my mouth; shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
If you look in verse 10 you’ll see the content of Jeremiah’s message:
See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
This doesn’t look like Jeremiah’s message is going to be very positive. There are 6 verbs in verse 10 that describe his message: pluck up, break down, destroy, overthrow, build, and plant. Four out of the 6 express the destructive element of Jeremiah’s message and only two express restoration. He literally was a preacher of “doom and gloom.”
The message he preached was one that no one wanted to hear. They rejected it because every time Jeremiah warned of the coming judgment, he would have 15 false priests come behind him and tell the people “relax, everything is ok.” His people hated his message because they thought their outward forms of religion would keep them safe. Turn to Jeremiah 7 and lets look at a passage that describes the spiritual condition of the people he was preaching to and that is super relevant for us today:
Jeremiah 7:1-4, 8-10
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.‘ 8 you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?
Jeremiah was preaching to a people who were living in sin, committing social injustice, and going after false gods, but they were still going to church! And they thought that made everything OK. Their priests were telling them that God loved them just the way they were, that they weren’t committing any sin and that He wasn’t angry at them. Meanwhile Jeremiah is standing at the gates of the temple saying “this place can’t protect you when God’s just wrath against your rebellion comes.” These verses precisely describe the church in the 21st century.
Preaching a non-stop message like this will make you weary, it’ll make you want to quit when the only response you get is rejection – but the power behind our calling is the word of God. It is a fire that burns within us that empowers us stay faithful, to press on and keep pushing when we feel like checking out.
So, what does all this mean for us? It means that God often calls us to do things we feel unqualified to do. It means that if we are obedient to His call and true to His word, we will encounter resistance – mostly from the religious community and those who claim to be Christians. You will feel pressure from inside the church to back off and take a less “offensive” stance on things. Stay strong – anchor yourselves in this word and it will empower you to stay the course. We have to cling to the power, authority, and sufficiency of God’s word as we speak to our world around us.
We must be obedient and faithful, knowing that our faithfulness to God’s call is fueled by sovereign grace, grounded in the presence & power of God, not our inadequacies, and is empowered by the word of God. Amen.