Jeremiah 1:4-10

Ordained ministry is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling vocations imaginable.  As a pastor, I am given to share with others both the ache and the awe of human experience—to sit with others in their darkest hour, to share with them in their greatest joys, and to walk with them through all those seemingly ordinary moments in between.  It is a gift.  Along that journey, it’s my calling to utter the good news of Jesus Christ—that God is nearer than you may know; that God is more active in your life than you may suspect; that God’s love and care for you is deeper than you can possibly imagine, even in your failures, your grief, your trials; and that God is summoning you every day to become more than you are, to be perfected in love by his power and grace.

This is my calling, and it’s an amazing calling; but I do not believe that it’s any more important than your calling.  It’s often a very demanding and endless calling, but it’s not any more difficult than your calling.  Whether you spend your work day in the classroom or in the courtroom, in a hospital room or in a high rise office or a laboratory; whether you push a pen or change diapers or crunch numbers or preach sermons, God has given you a purpose for your life.  God has made you good for something.

One of the most important doctrines of the Protestant Reformation 500 hundred years ago was the concept of the “priesthood of all believers,” which claimed that whatever you do with your life, wherever you are in the world, you are an instrument of God, set apart for God’s purposes.  The Protestant Reformers argued that you do not need to be ordained to do ministry—that by virtue of your baptism you have become a minister, called by God to serve the world, to share the gospel of God’s love, to demonstrate in your daily life and work the goodness of God.

That means you can embrace God’s summons to live a faithful life as a minister or as a schoolteacher, or a nurse, or a lawyer, a laborer, a homemaker.  You can answer God’s call by being a parent, a volunteer, a Little League coach or a math tutor.  Answering God’s call will not always mean going to seminary and becoming a minister.  In fact, most of the time, it will not.  You can be an instrument of God wherever you are in life, wherever you are in the world.  What the priesthood of all believers says is this: God has made everyone good for something.

But anyone who has ever desired to be good for something in this world will inevitably experience second thoughts, doubts, even fears.

Presbyterian pastor, John Buchanan, tells the story of a priceless moment in worship one Sunday morning.  Some parents came forward and presented their two-year old son for baptism.  The child was fine with the whole deal, didn’t fuss or cry or resist.  Buchanan said the child seemed perfectly comfortable when he took him in his arms; didn’t flinch when he touched the boy’s head with water.  Buchanan said to the boy, “Christopher, you are a child of God, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever,” at which point the boy looked Buchanan square in the eye and said, clearly and articulately, “Uh-oh.”

I think he got it right.  “Uh-oh.”  When you belong to Christ, when God calls you, who knows what might happen?

Take Jeremiah, for example.  We heard the story this morning of his unlikely call to become a prophet, or a messenger, to Judah.  God speaks to Jeremiah one day.  God says, ““Before I shaped you in the womb, I knew all about you.  Before you saw the light of day, I had holy plans for you: a prophet to the nations—that’s what I had in mind for you.”

This is shocking news to Jeremiah.  He says, “Lord, there are three problems with your plan: I’m just a kid.  I don’t know anything.  And I’m afraid to speak in front of large crowds.”  Jeremiah believes he is unqualified, imperfect, inarticulate, and incapable of being a “prophet to the nations.”  And his sense of inadequacy didn’t derive from false modesty, or from a simple lack of work experience in the prophecy industry.  His sense of inadequacy was painfully real to him.  He felt like a failure.  He is described as “the weeping prophet.”  When you read the book of Jeremiah, you see that over the next forty years of his life as a prophet, Jeremiah struggled with God’s call on his life, with a sense of failure, with endless and often violent opposition from critics, and with deep discouragement.

Like Jeremiah, every one of us has a purpose in life, and like him, every one of us will encounter moments of doubt and feelings of inadequacy and imperfection as it relates to that purpose.  We may ask ourselves, “Am I doing the right thing?  Am I where the Lord would have me?  Am I the right person for the task?”

But I’ve come to believe that such questions are often the surest sign that you really have been called by God.

Sometimes we are fortunate enough to be called by God according to our giftedness, given work to do according to our talents and abilities and competencies.  Sometimes our best gifts match up with God’s biggest needs and we find ourselves in our sweet spot.  But sometimes God calls us according to our weakness, our imperfections, our deficiencies, in order that we might become stronger, more faithful people.

This is why the Apostle Paul, faced with his own failures and challenges, could say that God’s power was made perfect in own personal weakness.  “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Many years ago, George Bernanos wrote The Diary of a Country Priest, a novel about a young and earnest priest who struggles almost daily with his calling.  He is physically clumsy, socially awkward; he sometimes doubts the value of prayer, he agonizes over his loneliness and isolation, and he struggles often with a deep sense of total failure.

His elders gave him wise advice about perseverance: “Keep saying your [prayers].   Go on with your work.  Keep at the little daily things that need doing, til the rest comes.  Concentrate.  Think of a lad at his homework, trying so hard and his tongue sticking out.  That’s how our Lord would have us be when he gives us up to our own strength.  Little things — they don’t look like much, yet they bring peace.  Like wild flowers which seem to have no scent, till you get a field full of ’em.”

We may ask ourselves, “Am I doing the right thing?  Am I where the Lord would have me?  Am I the right person for the task?”

These questions are often the first clue that you really have been called by God, and they are often a summons to persevere even in our weakness for the sake of growing stronger.  God calls imperfect people for extraordinary tasks in order to perfect them in trust.

But there’s at least one other sign that you really have been called.  God not only calls imperfect people, but God calls imperfect people to imperfect work—the work you wouldn’t always choose for yourself, sometimes the work that nobody in their right mind would choose.

Did you hear the kind of work God called Jeremiah to perform: “Today,” says God, “I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms (and that part sounds good), to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow…”

It’s the worst kind of work, the hardest kind of work that Jeremiah is called to do.

Jeremiah knows that Jerusalem is a complete mess, that God’s people are spiritually bankrupt, that the temple is corrupt.  On the surface, things seem to be just fine.  Prosperous members of the community were growing more wealthy by the minute; everyone seemed to be doing their religious duty, giving to the temple, bringing sacrifices, obeying commandments.  On the surface, the people of Jerusalem seem to be doing everything right.

But things are not as they should be in Jerusalem.  The numbers of the poor and the jobless and homeless had swelled.  On the outskirts of the city, widows and orphans and day laborers were abandoned on the side of the road like old cars.  Wages are low, food is scarce, and the social safety net the temple was supposed to provide is neglected.

And God chooses Jeremiah to tell the people that it’s not OK, that God’s judgment is coming, and that everything they have—even Jerusalem and the temple itself—will be lost to the Babylonians.

He’s an imperfect person, given an imperfect task.  Sometimes God calls us out of our comfort zones and into the pain of others, into the pain of the world; and sometimes we will feel that pain ourselves.

In his mid-thirties, Phillip Simmons was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  He was a college professor, a man of faith, a father.  He wrote a book titled, Learning to Fall, about his experiences in life and in dying.  In the book, he recalls having just graduated from college and hitchhiking to Nevada where he spent a week in a religious commune.  He spent the week learning prayer and meditation and yoga.  At the end of the week he took a long hike high up into mountains.  He set out to find his purpose, the meaning of his life.  He ascended to over 13,000 feet, high up among the bristle-cone pines, more than five-thousand years old.  If there ever was a place of transcendence, he told himself, this was it.

At the top, at the end of his pilgrimage, he sat down, his back leaning up against an ancient bristle-cone pine.  And he prepared to meditate.  His legs crossed, his spine erect, the sun warm on his face, a gentle breeze lifting the hair on his forearms.  He closed his eyes, and waited for his vision.

He waited.  And waited some more.  And nothing came.

Except a little itch, low down on his back.  He couldn’t ignore it.  He tried to ignore it.  He practiced his breathing.  But the itch became a tickle, and it was climbing up his back, between his shoulder blades; it began to torment him.  He tried harder to meditate, to breathe, but finally he lost it.

It was an ant.  An ant had crawled up his shirt, stubborn and elusive; it had ruined his meditation.  He finally rose to his feet, tore off his shirt, and shook out the ant.

But by then, the mission had been foiled, the pilgrimage ruined.

But looking back on that experience, he said this: I had come all that way for a miracle, and what I got was an ant.  Only now, years later, have I come to understand that the ant was the miracle.

He said, it was the ant that returned me to the world, that called me to another way of worship, the way of all things ordinary and small, the way of all that is imperfect, the way of stubbornness and error.  The ant was my messenger, calling me back to the world.

God calls imperfect people into an imperfect world.  And God says to us, as he said to Jeremiah, “Do not make excuses, and do not be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you.”