Reading: Jeremiah 1
When I read how Jeremiah faces God, I cannot help but notice that when scripture tells us about God giving a message to share, very often the first word’s out of the person’s mouth is an excuse telling why he cannot bring this message. I imagine that everybody remembers when God met Moses in the burning bush: God called Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, and to face Pharaoh — and Moses says: “ I can’t, I’m a poor speaker, ask somebody else.” We also remember Gideon’s response — he wanted to make sure that he heard right, and put forward two impossible tests — he wanted to see soaking wet wool sitting on dry ground, and then the next day dry wool sitting on wet ground.
If we go forward, we see that when Samuel anointed Saul king, Saul protested that he was from the least important tribe (Benjamin), and that his family was the least important of the tribe. His first response to being anointed king was to hide in the luggage. We remember that Jonah ran away when God gave him a message, and Isaiah agreed — but the first thing he said is: “I am a man of unclean lips.”
One cannot read the Old Testament without noticing that whenever God calls somebody, the first response is either: “Are you sure?”, or “Somebody else would be better.” Some people take this at face value, and come up with the application: “God does not call the qualified, but qualifies the called.”
This quote goes along well with what I thought I learned as a kid. Whenever I heard the stories of people from the Old Testament, I thought that we were told the stories because we were supposed to be more like the heroes of the stories. I thought I was supposed to be like the hero of the story, whether it was Abraham, or David, or Joseph. I didn’t realize that when the Old Testament tells these stories, its characters, with very few exceptions are messy. Our heroes don’t always get it right, and very often got it spectacularly wrong.
Personally, I have a little problem with that little quote: I guess it sounds nice, but somehow I don’t think that is the lesson that God is trying to teach us. For one thing, such a conclusion excludes the qualified. I believe that God gives all of us good to do — and, I believe that it can’t hurt to be qualified. There is no doubt that God has given people the ability to do things that they could not normally do, but, I think often God gives people work that they are perfectly able to accomplish.
I think that it is more likely that people are unwilling to speak than that they are unable. Moses, for example, was likely the most qualified to approach the Egyptians. He was the only one of God’s people who grew up as part of the royal household — only he knew what it meant to speak to the court. Saul might have been from the smallest tribe, but it is not like his tribe was looking to conquer the others, and the others were looking for a king. It was enough that he was impressive to look at — and a little silly when you think of the tallest man in town trying to hide in the luggage.
If we move on to people such as Jonah, or even the experienced prophet Elijah, there is no secret — God gives them a message to bring and they don’t make excuses, they just tell God that they don’t want to do it. They don’t expect to be well received, and they don’t see why they should bring a message to people who won’t listen in the first place. The biggest thing is they don’t want to talk to the people God sent them to.
When God calls Jeremiah and Jeremiah says I’m just a boy, I don’t know how to speak; God tells him: “Do not say I am a boy… I have put my words in your mouth.” Now, I don’t know how old Jeremiah was when he began his ministry — I know he had a rather long ministry, just as Isaiah did, so it is likely that he was pretty young when he had this experience, but most commentators assume that he was an adult. When he seeks a reason God should find somebody else, his excuse proves to be weak.
Many of the heroes of the Old Testament were actively, and deliberately disobedient. Jeremiah was somebody we can look up to, he lived a faithful life, but at first, his obedience is reluctant — he would prefer it if somebody else were a prophet. To be completely fair, anyone who knows about how prophets are received would be searching for excuses too. I love that these human moments of human weakness are shown.
The lesson I get out of this is not that God qualifies those that God calls — but instead, God is patient with us human beings who make excuses. Personally, I think the excuses I read when God calls are often weak excuses. The people God called were qualified enough, they just really did want somebody else to do it. The biggest lesson that I get out of the Old Testament is not that I should be more like the heroes in the Old Testament — the more I read from the Old Testament the more I learn that was never the intended lesson. The Old Testament is about God’s faithfulness much more than it is about what kind of person that we should be.
This is good news for all of us who are perfectly aware that what good things are before our hands to do — we have no doubt that we should be doing this good thing, yet we look for ways not to do it. This is good news for every one of us who answers: “No, Lord.” from time to time. We can remember that God does not leave us there — God does not give up on us, just as God did not give up on those who came before us. The good news is that our heavenly Father still loves us, and gives us good even in those times when we are more childish than child-like.