preached at St. Augustine’s Oak Cliff on Sunday, August 21, 2016.
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” God tells Jeremiah as he winds up to bestow a difficult call. I hear psalm 139 in this passage, the prayer which extolls God’s intimate knowledge of each person, how fearfully and wonderfully each one of us is made. Indeed, God created Jeremiah to be a prophet even as little Jerry’s bones were still being knit together and made calcified. More than being a determinist proof-text to affirm that no one ever really makes any life decision, we hear here that God cares so deeply for each life created that he dreams up how that person might make the world into God’s kingdom and then plants little seeds of that work right in to our very marrow.
I wonder if it’s something like Michael Phelps.
There are myriad articles arguing that his wingspan does — or does not — make him an exceptional swimmer, that his double-jointedness means his feet are like flippers more than most any human being, that his ratio of torso to legs creates the perfect arc to slice through the water as if he is a hot knife through butter. All these physical aspects put together build him up to be an excellent swimmer, but clearly, he didn’t win all those medals just because of the way his body is shaped.
God’s call on Jeremiah’s life from the prophet’s very conception doesn’t mean that it was easy for Jeremiah to live out his work as the wailing prophet, it doesn’t mean that it took little effort on his part to march out and preach the unpopular message of repentance every day to an unreceptive people, it doesn’t mean that the prophet’s isolated lifestyle was somehow convenient for Jeremiah. But it does mean that Jeremiah was doing exactly the work that God had created him to accomplish.
To figure out where that inner drive came from — more for Jeremiah than for Michael Phelps — I was struck by another call narrative, one in the New Testament. Just like Jeremiah, just like Moses and most all the Old Testament calls, the recipient of this one balked at first when she heard what it was God meant for her to do. I’m talking about Mary, the mother of Jesus. As you’re probably familiar, the angel Gabriel comes to this young woman and tells her what God has in mind. Like Jeremiah, who says, “no way, I’m too young!” Mary says, “that’s impossible, I’m a virgin.”
Sometimes when the annunciation is preached, a lot is made of Mary saying “yes” to God, as opposed to Jeremiah’s and Moses’ “no way!”
Now as teenagers go, I was a pretty pious one, but I still can’t imagine saying, “sure, God, impregnate me. No problem. Glad to be available.” There’s clearly something else going on here, and I suspect it’s what academics diagnose as “prevenient grace.” That’s what Jeremiah and Mary and Moses and anybody who dares to say yes to God’s call all rely on. Sure, they’ve got the equipment sitting there, the equipment that God created them with, the flipper-feet or the ready reproductive system — these things they’ve got through no effort or work of their own. This “prevenient grace” — or, grace that goes before — is the same thing; God plants it in us so that we’re able to respond to him when he calls. It’s not our own strength that says on Mary’s lips, “Sure God, use my body” or in Jeremiah’s words, “Yes, absolutely, send me to your people who aren’t going to listen anyway.”
The strength and power to say “yes” is not something that we hold ourselves or that we make of our own volition. God gives us the “yes” that we can then choose to present back to him.
That’s right — we can choose how to use the grace and the equipment — or gifts — that he’s given us. He’s given us not only strong bodies, or wise minds, or hard-won experience, but he’s given us a choice, too. We can take all those gifts he’s given, and we can do whatever we want with them. We can say no.
Now here’s the thing. When we say “no” and perhaps like the prodigal son pack up our convertible with all our blessed belongings in it and drive off into the sunset, we’re leaving the fortress that our psalm talks about. We’re letting the castle of God’s protection fade distantly in our rearview mirrors. Not only is that clearly a selfish thing to do, but I wonder if at the root, that kind of running might be about fear.
You see, this fortress, this God who gives great gifts and gives us the grace to say yes and to keep going and to put in the effort to do good work for his kingdom, this God and fortress requires a lot of us, too.
The rain yesterday made me think about it this way; there’s another psalm that talks about God as a protective shield — kind of like an umbrella. Of course, as you may have experienced even yesterday, sometimes an umbrella doesn’t quite cover all of you, maybe your calves still get wet, or your back, or if you’re sharing the umbrella, your arm might still be drenched. In the same way, God doesn’t promise to shield everything that we might try to bring into the fortress with us; God promises to protect and defend and maintain our selves in the circle of his love, and having known us from before we were formed in the womb, who knows better what makes us us, and what things must be lain aside, or put even more bluntly, as Hebrews does today, burned up? God doesn’t promise to protect me from my laziness and sloth, he doesn’t say he’ll let me keep up my sinful habit that placates me like a pacifier. God says to each of us as he says to Jeremiah, “I am with you to deliver you.” And truly, only God knows who each one of us is, only God knows the bits that are essential, the bits that must be delivered.
This goes against most of the understandings that we’re fed about relationships; our culture teaches us to think about interactions with others as if we’re in a contract — you do your part, I do mine, and neither of us crosses any boundaries. Contracts ensure that no one has to change anything about themselves that they don’t want to; contracts protect all the little pieces of ourselves that we want protected, in a way, contracts demand something of us, but never more than we bargain for.
Our God and his kingdom don’t work that way. God makes covenants, not contracts; God calls, he doesn’t deliver documents via courier. We can’t say for sure at the outset what exactly we’ll have to give up or precisely what we’ll have to endure in order to follow God’s call and to be in relationship with him; we can’t make contracts with the Lord God Almighty.
So sometimes, like for Jeremiah, and I’m sure for Mary, it might feel like the commitment made, like the call that God has placed on our lives, demands so much as to destroy who we are. Like we want to be within the protective fortress of God’s presence, but we have to give up so much to get inside the gate that we have to leave a big pile of pacifiers and identities and assumptions and dearly-held possessions outside the wall. The gate is too small to let them all in with us, so we can easily see the draw of gathering up all those things in our shiny little convertible instead and high-tailing it the other direction.
But what happens if we say yes? What happens if we choose to use that grace and freedom and equipment that God has given us to say “yes” to him instead? Well, then we draw near to the consuming fire of the almighty God. We may find that all those things we left outside the gate aren’t the sum of the things we’ve got to let go of, the heat of our Lord’s presence may wrest from our hands even more of our sin and even more of our selves. Really, just more of what we thought was ourselves, but what God knows is really just holding us back from who he’s created us to be, from the work that he’s created us to accomplish.
So our only option, if we truly desire to do the work we were created to accomplish, and to be who it is we were made to be, our only choice is to say yes to God’s call, to accept the covenant that God offers through Jesus Christ, knowing that we will be safe in his fortress, knowing too that it will cost much, even to the edge of our of sanity and the cliff of our lives. But even those moments form us into the creation God made and intends; as God drew near to us even before our conception, full of hope that he might guide us into his glorious plans, may we use the grace he has given us to respond by saying yes, drawing near to his own presence, accepting him through the body and blood of his Son, to be transformed, to let the consuming fire of almighty God refine each of us as his own glorious creation.
In the Jeremiah passage this morning, in verse 9, God reaches out and touches Jeremiah’s mouth, saying, “there, now I’ve put my words in your mouth.” In the Gospel passage from Luke, Jesus reaches out and touches the crippled woman, saying, “There, woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Even when Mary is called, she’s somehow touched by God as the Holy Spirit comes upon her to create the body of Jesus in her womb.
When the divine touches human flesh, the reaction is transformative; the old passes away and the new is born. The sin falls away, is burned away, and the true self, the true creation of God is revealed.
Therefore may we approach the throne and altar with joy and trepidation, knowing that our nourishing encounters with God, life-giving as they are, also touch and burn us to the quick, all oriented to God’s unending love and to his great glory.
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.