Most of us considered at one point or another that everyone’s life serves a purpose. However, I find that it is easier to embrace the truth of this statement, and recognize this calling in others, than it is in oneself. Have you found your vocation? Were you compelled to look for it, or did it simply unfold through the series of doors opening and closing – or, are you still discerning? Perhaps, you know what you are called to be, but not yet what to do. These are universal questions, and so the scriptures are full of stories on the theme of calling and vocation. Today, we read about that of Jeremiah.
Scholars mostly agree that there was a historical person, Jeremiah, who lived c. 650 – 570 BC and wrote some portions of the book named after him, with the assistance of his disciple and scribe called Baruch. Other books attributed to him are the 1,2 Kings and Lamentations, though the authorship of those texts is less certain. Jeremiah’s activity began during the time of Josaiah, the 16th king of Judah (the southern portion of Israel once it split following Solomon’s death), and spanned the reigns of 4 other kings. He predicted, and then experienced, the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC, and endured hardships on account of his messaging of essentially “bad news”, opposition to political agendas supported by the false prophets, and sympathies with Samaria (the northern part of Israel, from which he descended). Attempts on his life were made even by his kin, and eventually he became imprisoned until the fall of Jerusalem. The Babylonians treated him kindly and released him. Finally, he was taken to Egypt by Johanan, who led some of the Judean population, including the king’s daughters, into the perceived safety of Egypt against Jeremiah’s advice. Appropriately named “Jehova throws”, Jeremiah thus spent 50 years “throwing” God’s messages to the people – mostly, as the “pearls to the swine”. When we survey the extent of tumult that Jeremiah endured, we appreciate Jesus’ references to the prophets not welcomed in their hometowns; and it might have been, perhaps, Jeremiah whom he most often had in mind.
Our OT reading tells us how it all began for Jeremiah; though it seems that the process is the same for all of us: God calls, waits for a response (usually, a reluctant one!), and shows us what we need to learn. God taught Jeremiah to pay attention to how the Spirit revealed herself in him, which was partly through mystical visions. The earliest one was of the almond tree – the first plant to bloom in the spring, and thus a symbol of change, and a promise of fruition. It is a play on words, in fact, as in Hebrew, an “almond tree” is shaqed, and “watching” is shaqad. Are we similarly watchful? What epiphanies and signs have we experienced? Or do we believe them to be for the OT characters alone?
Surely, there will be times when the words God gives us will burn in our mouths, as represented by the burning touch of God that Jeremiah felt on his lips, and even more strikingly, the coal that Isaiah felt on his. Like in Jer 1:10, there will be times when we will be called to uproot and tear down, as well as to build and plant, with our words - a difficult charge overall. But so is parenting, leadership, teaching, and the building of any genuine relationships in general – a charge common to us all, and often accomplished through choosing the right words. How will it unfold specifically in your life? Do you see something that needs to be uprooted, new initiative planted, or a new growth, tended? Do you have something you need to say to someone that is burning your mouth? And yet, might you be feeling as inexperienced and timid as a child – utterly unprepared to do so? If so, remember the very first thing that God tells Jeremiah here, also echoing the words of Psalm 139: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee”. We may trust God with choosing the purpose that suits us (when it begins to dawn on us what it may be, that is!).
Yes, God knows us from the start, but eventually, other people begin to know us as well, and as I said earlier, sometimes they recognize our vocations better than we do. We can help others find their calling, and we should be emboldened by the assurance of others regarding what they see in us. In the NT, the affirmation of apostles via the laying on of hands conveyed a similar notion. This was related to church ministry, of course, but any man or woman has a purpose, despite only a minority of us having a title or role that is explicitly “churchy”, and it is usually discovered and supported through the collaboration of the individual, God, and others. On the other hand, God did say to Jeremiah, “do not be afraid of people’s faces,” which is a good reminder that people are, indeed, going to have all kinds of faces in response to us. Some will uphold us and appreciate our work, and others will recoil from who we are, and resist what we do.
So, in the climate of today, when our opinions are greatly polarized on so many topics, including responding to COVID, it is as important as ever to guard our words in order to sustain our relationships, enrich the lives and uphold the dignity of others, and yet at the same time, preserve our own integrity. I see an example of striving for such balance in John Bell, the author of our today’s hymn, “Will you come and follow me?”. He chose to advocate openly for LGBTQ people, while himself remaining single, so as not to antagonize those in the church of Scotland who held opposing views. With regards to vocation, he experienced a few forks in the road, as many of us do, first, when choosing church ministry over a career in teaching music. But we can see that a true gift will eventually find its fulfillment, and in ways that might surprise us. So did John Bell continue to serve as both a minister and musician, and went on to compose hymns that he considered to fill the gaps related to contemporary social justice in the hymnals to date. Eventually, hel joined the community of Iona, which is, to me, itself a symbol: an ancient holy site that first flourished, then declined, then became lost during the Scottish reformation, and was renewed for today’s purposes – perhaps, not dissimilarly so to the ups and downs of our own vocations? God’s faithfulness to Jeremiah is the same to us, the prophets of today. He teaches us how to discern and receive his words, and how and when to speak them. He supplies the strength we need to succeed, and rescues us when things go really wrong. Indeed, our life is a gift; yet, we are not its sole recipients. Thanks be to God.