YEAR C: EPIPHANY 4
(Sunday between January 28 and February 3)
It is appropriate that the Old Testament reading for this week speaks of the ‘call’ of the well-known prophet, Jeremiah. The Gospel reading for today continues the story of Luke 4 where Jesus begins to preach in Nazareth, his home town.
The ‘dialogue’ between God and Jeremiah in Jer 1:4-10 has distinct resonance with other call narratives, for example Isaiah (Isa 6:1-13) and further back, Moses (Exod 3:1-15). In each case the call takes place in a conversation and in each case the person called protests in some way – that they are too young, unclean or inarticulate. In Jeremiah’s case God reassures him that ‘now I have put my words in your mouth’ (v. 9). From that moment on, Jeremiah is single minded in his implementation of God’s call. So much so, that he becomes the quintessential ‘outsider’ in his own society.
The passage describing Jeremiah’s ‘call’ to prophesy contains strong indications that he would be at odds with many of those to whom he will prophesy (v. 10). It will require courage in the performance of his prophetic duty, particularly when called on to speak to the leaders of nations (especially his own nation of Judah). His ‘outsider’ status will be reinforced by his strong criticism of other prophets (e.g. Jer 6:14) and leaders of the temple (7:1-5). His own prophetic word will cause great resentment, and he will spend much of his time outside the social world of his own people (16:8). He does not marry and have children of his own (16:2). His call to warn the people of their fate (the coming Exile) and to condemn their idolatry even places him at odds with his own family (12:6). In effect, the words God puts in Jeremiah’s mouth place him under a curse. He is rejected by his own people – the very people he longs to save. This is the effect of that part of his message which is concerned with plucking up, pulling down, destroying and overthrowing (1:10).
Jeremiah’s call to prophesy follows the superscription to the book (1:1-3) which identifies the historical setting of his story. Most scholars date his birth during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BCE). Josiah tried to implement religious reform following the rediscovery of the Torah scroll in the temple while the latter was under repair (see 2 Kgs 22:3-13). His reform did not survive him, however, as he was followed by the oppressive and corrupt Jehoiakim. On Jehoiakim’s death his son Jehoiachin took the throne but lasted only three months before he surrendered to the Babylonians. Jeremiah’s warnings about following God’s law had fallen on deaf ears. The people were taken into captivity. In spite of this Jeremiah remained true to his calling, even through the pain and anguish so clearly portrayed in the book of Jeremiah. He suffered to the point where he wished he had never been born (Jer 15:10; 20:14-18).
Yet like so many of the prophets, Jeremiah’s task had more than just one aim. Certainly he called the people to account, and continued to remind them of their duty to God even when they were subservient to Babylon. But alongside his task of plucking up and pulling down, he was also called to ‘build and plant’ (1:10). He understood that it is God’s will that the people be restored to their own place and to purity of worship. This gave him the long-term commitment to suffer for his people. This was possible because even in the midst of his despair Jeremiah was also told that God was with him to ensure that his prophetic mission would be completed (v. 8). As he stood firm and uttered the word of God to the people, he was not destroyed by those who opposed him. God’s promise to ‘deliver’ him (v. 8) remained good. This is made clear in the passage by the fact that the word of God was really the subject of the text, not Jeremiah. It was the word that came to him (vv. 4 and 11). He was to speak whatever God commanded (v. 7) and it was the word which God put into his mouth that spoke of plucking up etc. (v. 9).
We can’t help but note the similarities between Jeremiah’s experience and Luke’s story of Jesus’ reception in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:21-30). The people listen to Jesus at first, then turn hostile when he begins to condemn their unwillingness to accept him as God’s representative. Jesus is commissioned to speak difficult words to his people. He knows that if they listen to those words and carry them out, they will have cause to rejoice. No doubt Jesus, like Jeremiah, is disappointed when they reject him. Like Jeremiah, he becomes the ‘outsider’. Also like Jeremiah, that does not stop Jesus following his calling. He seems resigned to the fact that the word he carries will bring its own difficulties; ‘no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town’ (4:24). Jesus’ speech to the people of Nazareth stands him in the long line of prophets.
Jeremiah and Jesus both attest to the truth that the most difficult ministry for anyone is among his or her own people. Jeremiah’s call was to pull down those things which did not lead to life as well as to build up those which did, and much of what belonged to what depended on the social and historical circumstances of the time. So too with Jesus. The fact that the crowd were ready to throw him from a cliff indicates that his message, what was fulfilled in their hearing (v. 21), was not simply the message of healing they wanted to hear (v. 23). This one, attested as the one who fulfilled the hopes of the people, was not what they had expected. Neither was Jeremiah called to be a prophet who simply gave the people the hopeful words they desired to hear. Epiphany is a time when we not only celebrate the presence of God with us in Jesus Christ, but also a time when we discover both sides of the message our saviour brings to us. Christ is here not only to build up, but to pull down as well so that he may build.
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