The problem with certain questions is that they tend to assume too much.
“When will you be starting a family of your own,” the well-meaning aunt asks the recently married couple, assuming first that these newlyweds will surely want to have children and second that their marriage to one another is somehow not already its own family. “Who was that lady I saw you with,” goes the old joke with its punch line, “that was no lady, that’s my wife.” And of course there is the question that seems to get asked almost as soon as we start walking. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
But who says a person wants to grow up. Lately as I look at our children I can see more and more the grown people they are becoming. So much so that I’m taken from time to time, when I just can’t stand it anymore, to exclaim out loud, “Okay that’s it, no more growing up, all of you.” As you might imagine, they will have none of it and insist that I cannot stop them from growing up. Go figure.
Some children might be quite happy to comply. I’ve known more than a few adults who like Peter Pan do all they can to avoid growing up. Not long ago, some friends and I were talking about how surprised we’ve been by our own adulthood. “I feel like Elaine on the TV show Seinfeld,” one of them said, “‘I am not an adult. This is not how a grown woman lives.'”
Nowadays, if people aren’t busy trying to connect with their inner-child then they’re getting lasered, injected, nipped and tucked, to eliminate the more visible signs of their adulthood; trying to deny the increasing body of evidence that all their efforts to the contrary. They are, whether they like it or not, a grown up.
As a child I can remember thinking how great things would be once I was a grown up, all the things I’d finally be able to do. It’s one of the great ironies of life that we spend most of our youth this way, playing dress-up and imagining what it will be like when our lives are our own to do with as we like. Then we reach adulthood and more often than not we spend the rest of our lives trying to reclaim our lost youth.
One of the reasons I think we resist adulthood is tied to that question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Because if we concede that we are in fact grown up, then that means it is time to come up with an answer to the question. Like the person who protests, “I can’t be overdrawn, I still have checks left.” We insist, “I can’t be a grown up, I still haven’t figured out what I want to be.” We can’t really do anything about the steady march of time that pulls us into adulthood, so the main problem with that age-old question is that it assumes a couple of things that sound fundamentally opposed to this Word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah. To ask someone what they want to be assumes first that what we want is of primary importance and second that we have it within us to be whatever we want.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that a person should be in any way denied the opportunity to pursue their interests or a dream. Every four years the Olympic coverage is chock full of fantastic stories about athletes and their families who have pursued such dreams all the way to the games. I grew up with the steady message that I could accomplish whatever I put my mind to. I’m grateful for the encouragement my parents gave me, and their words certainly instilled in me a confidence that has served me well. But the fact is that they weren’t entirely right. There are limits to what any of us is capable of. That is what it means to be human, to be finite.
We are, truth be told, capable of many things that we don’t often give ourselves credit for, but we are also ultimately only able to do so much. For instance, I have a minor congenital back condition that hardly ever gives me trouble, but it kept me from playing football past my sophomore year in high school. I took piano lessons for seven years, but slightly bent pinkies and a general lack of manual dexterity pretty much ensured that I would never be a concert pianist. There are, after all, limits to what we can will for ourselves.
Maybe the genuine curiosity that drives us to ask, “What do you want to be,” would be better served by asking instead, “What does God have in mind? What are God’s plans? What and where is God calling you to?” Because the Word of the Lord that comes to Jeremiah here in the first chapter states pretty clearly that God’s knowledge of us precedes the womb, God’s plans for us are taking shape even as we are, and before we ever see the light of day.
Jeremiah is told that he has been consecrated for his task from the womb. God has set him aside for a particular purpose. In this case that purpose is tied to the need for a prophetic voice amidst growing geopolitical unrest that would threaten and ultimately lead to the destruction of the temple, and the exile of his people to Babylon.
But this kind of special knowledge that God has of Jeremiah is not unique to prophets at times of international upheaval. This is the kind of knowledge the psalmist speaks of in Psalm 139 about how God knows us before we even know ourselves. That is why we baptize babies, because we are told that God’s purposes, God’s call on our lives, exists from the very beginning. It turns out we don’t have to wait until we’re older, until we’re grown up, to know that in God our lives are given their meaning and their purpose.
And that is why we place such importance on remembering our baptism, remembering that God has claimed our lives. It is a claim that often times calls us beyond those aspirations we may or may not have for ourselves. While the particular life that God is calling us to may not be anywhere near as dramatic as Jeremiah’s, it is no less terrifying to consider that the creator of a universe of such vast history and sheer size has us in mind; has called you and me into this world to fulfill God’s own purpose.
Considering the size of such a universe we might be tempted to downplay the worth of whatever small contribution we can make, limited as we are. Jeremiah himself wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know how to preach like a prophet, I’m still wet behind the ears.” But God will have none of it. God will have none of our excuses. It turns out that none of those human limits that we so often run up against are beyond the power of God to overcome. In fact, it is those very same limits that create the opportunity for God’s glory to be seen through us.
A preacher you may have heard of named Paul put it this way, “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” That is why it does not matter if you think that you don’t sing well enough to join the choir, what matters is that God has called you to sing God’s praise. Maybe you think you’re too old to teach our children in Sunday School, but God has called us to guide and nurture these children in their baptism so that they might discover how they have been called. Or maybe you’re afraid that you don’t know enough about the bible, or the church, to more fully participate in the life of this congregation. But friends, it is God who has called you to this place, and it is God who will equip you, like Jeremiah was equipped, for the purposes God calls you to.
And it isn’t just to churchy things that God calls us to, because unlike us God isn’t limited. God isn’t limited to the confines of these four walls. God is out in the world. Jeremiah’s call is over nations and kingdoms. He is sent out into the world, because while [church] is the place we come to discover the purpose God has for us, that purpose is ultimately out there in the world. And each of us has our part to play. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “There are no spectator seats for the drama of salvation. There is no “bench” for incompetent players.” The purposes of God touch every single aspect of our lives not just the so-called “spiritual” parts.
So what are your excuses this morning? I know I’ve got mine: not enough time, other things to do, my own personal preferences. Jeremiah’s call was to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow. Walter Brueggemann has observed that those are Friday verbs. Those are the things that must be done before we get to the last two, the Sunday verbs: to build and to plant. We can’t get to Sunday without going through Friday. We don’t get to the empty tomb and the promise of resurrection without enduring the pain of the cross.
In order to hear and follow God’s purpose for us we too must pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow all the excuses that keep us from building and planting and being who it is God has called us to be. Alleluia, amen.
The above text and audio is graciously provided by Rev. Matthew Miller. The sermon was given on August 25, 2013 at 1st Presbyterian Church, Sioux City IA. Reverend Miller currently serves as lead pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Albuquerque, NM.