A sermon preached by Hilary Pearson on 20th July 2022
Do you suffer from glossophobia? Do I hear you muttering “what on earth is that?” Is it fear of shiny surfaces? No, it is a very common affliction, the fear of speaking in public. “I couldn’t do that. I don’t know enough. I get tongue tied. People would laugh at me.”
Well, it seems Jeremiah felt the same way. However, his public speaking resulted in a lot more than just being laughed at, as we find out when we read the whole of the book of Jeremiah.
Some background will help. Jeremiah lived at a time of political instability and threat of war. About 200 years ago the country had split between north and south after a civil war caused by a self-centred and incompetent king. Then the northern part, Israel, was conquered by the superpower of the day, the Assyrian empire. The southern kingdom, Judah, held off the Assyrians for a while, mainly by paying huge taxes. The rival great power, Egypt, began to reassert itself, and the Assyrian empire started to crumble. This allowed the rise of a new empire, the Babylonians. Egypt attacked their new rival; the king of Judah supported the Egyptians – and picked the wrong side. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, defeated the Egyptians, conquered Jerusalem and sent most of its citizens into exile in Babylon. I’m sure you are hearing echoes of today’s geopolitics.
Jeremiah’s ministry as a prophet started at the time Judah was supporting Egypt. His repeated message to Judah is that it will meet the same fate as Israel if it does not renounce its worship of other gods and return to Yahweh. He repeatedly predicted the fall of Jerusalem in dramatic language and pronounced God’s judgement on all those who act greedily and unjustly, oppressing the powerless. It is not surprising that this made him very unpopular; threats were made to kill him, he was flogged and put in the stocks. Later he was put on trial; the religious authorities wanted the death penalty, but the civil leaders and people argued from lessons from the treatment of earlier prophets that Jeremiah should not be killed. He advised against the alliance with Egypt and continued to prophesy that Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians and the people taken into exile. While Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonians, he repeatedly prophesied in public that the city would fall. For this he was accused of treason and thrown into an empty cistern where he nearly died. He was rescued by a palace official and instead held in the palace guardhouse. He was released by Nebuchadnezzar after the city had been taken. Nebuchadnezzar took the king and nobles into captivity and appointed a governor of Jerusalem. Very soon this governor was assassinated, and the remaining city officials decided to flee to Egypt. Jeremiah opposed this, but was forced to flee with them, and the last we hear of him is in Egypt, prophesying its conquest by the Babylonians.
So, the call to Jeremiah we read of today was a tough assignment. However, it came with a promise: not to be afraid of threats from those he is called to speak the word of the Lord to because ‘I am with you to deliver you’. But Jeremiah was human: in chapter 20 we find him complaining to God about the treatment he was receiving for speaking God’s word: ‘You have duped me, Lord…all the day long I have been made a laughing stock, everyone ridicules me…’. Despite this, he still trusts in God: ‘…the Lord is on my side, a powerful champion.’ In his trials and imprisonment, Jeremiah could well have prayed today’s psalm.
Jeremiah accepted God’s vocation for him. As Andrew pointed out on Sunday morning, this week’s Collect is about vocation. Note that it prays for ALL God’s faithful people in their ‘vocation and ministry’. The clear expectation is that all Christians have a vocation and ministry to which God is calling them.
Many doubt they have a vocation: “God can’t be calling me – I haven’t studied theology, I’m not ordained, I’m just an ordinary person”. Just like Jeremiah! Or, they may hear God calling them to a specific vocation, but don’t think they can do it – or don’t want to. Think of Moses at the burning bush – he comes up with every excuse he can think of to get out of this divine calling to rescue the Israelites from Egypt. “Who am I to do this?”; “what if the Israelites don’t believe me?”; “I’m no good at speaking”. God answers all these questions, so Moses is desperate; his final attempt to get out of this calling is “Please, Lord, send someone else”. God gets cross with Moses as this point and tells him that his brother Aaron will help him. Moses gives in – and the rest is history.
Many ministries are needed for the Body of Christ, the Church, to function. Not just the ‘obvious’ ones, priests, preachers, readers, intercessors, servers, organist and choir. Just as important – flower arranging, making the coffee, cleaning the brass and silver, arranging the rotas. But how is doing those seemingly silent and ‘menial’ tasks proclaiming God’s word? By doing them for God, doing them in the spirit of love and humility with which Jesus washed his disciple’s feet. The reason I am standing here now is that the first time I came to this church three separate people stopped me on my way out after the service, and said “You are new here, come and have coffee and tell us about yourself”. That, my dear friends, is preaching the Gospel. Standing on a soap box in Cornmarket shouting words does not change lives; feeding the hungry and befriending the lonely in Christ’s name does. As St Francis said; ‘Preach the Gospel at all times; and, if you must, use words.’ May each of you hear and follow God’s calling for you, holding on to his promise to be with you whatever that calling may entail.