Do not say, “I am only a boy.” For you shall go to all who I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord. (Jer. 1:6-8)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
A few weeks ago, a number of new mothers from our church got together for brunch. They stayed at the table much longer than they meant to, and shared joys and fears they hadn’t quite expected to voice with each other, and they left so energized by the connection they’d made that two of them texted me immediately to tell me how wonderful the companionship had been.
One of the members of the new group told me later that the best advice she had been given as a soon-to-be mother of a newborn was that new babies were made specifically for new parents. This was a great comfort to her, and it sounds like just what God told Jeremiah in the passage we read together this morning.
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy.’” God admonishes his newly-minted prophet. God does not care whether you have taken all the new-parent classes at the YMCA, or whether you have stocked your nursery with the appropriate number of zero-to-three month and three-to-six-month onesies. God is not limited by what you bring to the table—perhaps you are facing a child going off to college shortly, and you’re not sure how the family is going to stay glued together without him or her around. The good news is that God is the best OR nurse that we can imagine—he anticipates our needs and knows exactly which tool we’ll need next to face the problems in front of us.
Take Queen Esther in the Old Testament—she hadn’t attended courses in negotiation before being chosen for the king’s harem. She’d only been trained in making herself beautiful, but God decided to use her to save his people from extinction. Her beauty was one tool that God used to help his people, but God also gave Esther encouragement through her relatives and he gave her courage as she asked for help. Like Esther, Jeremiah did not start out gifted and equipped to be a prophet, but God made sure that Jeremiah knew what to say when the time came for him to speak on God’s behalf.
Maybe that’s a comfort—God says to Jeremiah, “you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” It’s not about what Jeremiah is prepared for, or what he has decided he should do; what God wants is going to happen. Of course, the bad news is that we may have to try and try again until we figure out what it is that God is planning, and align ourselves with his will.
Growing up, my favorite stories were Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. Both Anne Shirley and Jo March—the heroines of these stories—were imaginative writers who struggled to fit in amongst their ordinary rural communities. They both found an out as teachers, and while they were gifted at the task, their hearts were always saved for their stories, which they wrote on the side and were constantly fighting to get published. In each of their stories, a friend suggested early on in their career that they try to write about their own lives, the exploits of young girls in small-town Massachusetts or Canada. They both eschewed the suggestion, hungry for the sort of literary recognition that great gory epics and dramatic love stories garnered in the contemporary magazines. As many of you know, eventually, Anne and Jo returned to their roots and wrote about their young lives—they wrote out of their experience and ostensibly encouraged future generations of young women from small towns. In seeking greatness in their fields, they thought they knew the best path to take—they took the well-trodden path they’d seen other writers walk. But, one could argue, God had something different in mind for each of these inspiring young women, and it took their humility and their failing to realize how they were meant to write and to influence their world.
Jonah is an oft-cited biblical example on this front—he had been told very clearly exactly what God expected of him, but he decided not to follow along the path laid out. His attitude earned him a spot inside a big fish—the ultimate time-out, perhaps—and he realized that God’s plan was happening whether or not Jonah was personally on board, so in the interest of self-preservation, he might as well go along with God’s story.
Part of Jonah’s resistance, I suspect, was something that Jeremiah struggled with too, and that is fear. Our perfect OR nurse, God, whose way is happening whether or not we’re ready for it, has spoken on the problem of fear, too. “Do not be afraid of them,” God tells Jeremiah—God tells us!—“for I am with you to deliver you.” What is it that we were singing just over a month ago, “Emmanuel, ‘God with us.’”—We hold in our hands the promise that God made to Jeremiah and Jonah and Esther. We have God-with-us, it’s Jesus! And Jesus indeed delivers us from the only thing that is really scary—that death could be the end of us. Because of Jesus, we know that this life is not all there is. And because of Jesus, we need not fear.
I learned this lesson best from a friend of mine named Jim Markwood. He and his wife were good friends of my parents when I was growing up, he had nieces who were my age, and he went to our church. By trade, he was a lawyer, but he also loved basketball and coached it at the high school I attended. When my parents took an overnight trip, us kids were shuttled to the Markwood household. Jim and Lois were like our uncle and aunt; Jim was like an uncle to a lot of young people in Toledo. During the summer after my freshman year of high school, he died of cancer. Jim had fought cancer for much of the time I remembered him, first it was in his colon, and then in his lungs and eventually it got everywhere, and I remember that my mom described his funeral as like that of a rockstar—there were no parking places left at the big church in the suburbs, there were no seats left in a nave that hosted our yearly high school graduation. He had coached so many students in basketball, he had spent time with so many youth at church and at our school—he had poured his whole life into his family and his friends. Jim was only one man, who went to the University of Toledo and raised his daughters in Northwest Ohio, but he touched hundreds of people—so much so that more than ten years after he’s died, people like me are still talking about him.
Jim didn’t start a new, world-renowned basketball-coaching method, or save the Hebrew people from annihilation. Jim was an ordinary guy, “only a boy,” you might say. He was willing to commit himself completely to whatever need presented itself, and to waste all kinds of time teaching kids to play basketball and to babysit for other couples with his wife.
Jesus came to be God with us so that people like this ordinary man named Jim didn’t have to be afraid, because he’d already been delivered from death.