“God’s Grace in the Life of Jeremiah”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 9, 2017
5th Sunday after Pentecost
The book of Jeremiah opens with a conversation between God and Jeremiah. It appears that God needs a prophet—one who will be a messenger called to share God’s word with God’s people. And what might the message be? Through prophets in the Old Testament, God often speaks out against following after false gods, the sins of society and the crimes of brother against brother. God’s word often includes a call for repentance—something God’s people resist. So the work of a prophet isn’t easy. It isn’t safe either. In Israel’s history prophets are mistreated, arrested, imprisoned, thrown into cisterns, beaten or worse.
So is it any wonder that when God comes knocking on Jeremiah’s door, Jeremiah answers with an excuse: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” As excuses go, this one sounds pretty good, for Jeremiah is probably around 12 or 13 years of age. Nevertheless, God calls him. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” God says, “Before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah offers an excuse—but have you ever noticed that God isn’t one for accepting excuses.
In his book, Teacher Man, Frank McCort tells of his years as an English teacher trying to connect with his students; trying to get them interested in creative writing—but to no avail. One day, however, while the students are taking a test, Mr. McCort pulls out a stack of “excuse notes” he has accumulated in a desk drawer. Notes that he only glanced at before, he begins reading with real interest. He makes two stacks: one for genuine notes written by parents and the other for forgeries. The second is by far the larger stack with writing that ranges from imaginative to just plain crazy. Then Mr. McCort has an epiphany. Students who resist any kind of writing assignment are capable of the finest prose when writing excuse notes:
- The stove caught fire and the wallpaper went up and the fire department kept us out of the house all night long, it was incredible…
- Arnold doesn’t have his homework today because he was getting off the train yesterday and the door closed on his school bag and the train took it away—something should be done…
Obviously, these students do not know that honest excuse notes from parent are usually too dull to merit a place in the trash bin…something like, “Peter was late because the alarm clock didn’t go off.” So one day, Mr. McCort types up a dozen notes with the names omitted to protect the guilty. “What’s this? What’s this?” his students ask. “This is the first class in the world to ever study the art of the excuse note, the first class, ever, to practice writing them…” They smile—eager to write their first assigned excuse note.[i]
Jeremiah is at a critical moment in his life. God is calling him for a service for which he feels inadequate. What’s that in your hand, Jeremiah? “My excuse note: Oh, Lord God, I can’t. I am only a boy.”
It may surprise you that as a minister I, too, have a few excuse notes. Today, I’ll share only one. (If you want to hear more, you’ll have to make an appointment). This particular excuse note was submitted before I began seminary. I was working as a Laboratory Manager but my heart wasn’t in it. Instead, with each passing day, I became more passionate about my work in the church. I taught classes, worked with the children, led spiritual retreats.
In my heart, I wrestled with the feeling that God was calling me to full-time vocational ministry—nudging me toward seminary. The struggle continued until one morning I went out for a walk. The sun was rising, blessing a new day, but I hardly noticed. I walked and I fussed. I walked and I fumed. What’s that in your hand, Glenda? “My excuse note.” I told God, “I’m a woman,” and I imagine God laughed and said, “Really?” I said, “God, I’m the mother of 4 children,” and I imagine God said, “Yes, they were my gift to you.” Then, I played what I thought was my trump card, “Well, you know I’m a Baptist.” And I think God laughed and whispered, “Not for long.”
Finally I quit offering God excuses and in the silence, God gave me a gentle response through the words to a poem—a poem that gets at the heart of all my excuses. I have entitled it: “The Not Enoughs.”
There is a Land called the Not Enoughs.
A place where some come to visit.
A place where others stay a life time.
And in this place you will hear the voices of darkness.
In this place you will hear:
You’re not pretty enough.
You’re not smart enough.
You’re not old enough.
You’re not young enough.
You’re not strong enough.
You’re not well-read enough.
You’re not well-spoken enough.
You’re not patient enough.
You’re not loving enough.
You’re not loved enough.
But, dear child, when Jesus died on the cross and said, “It is finished.”
He was also proclaiming, “I AM enough!”
Excuses! We all have them. But isn’t it amazing how God works in us and through us nevertheless? God worked in and through Jeremiah, responding, “Do not say I am only a boy, for you shall go to whom I shall send you and you shall speak whatever I command you.” And then God gets right to the point. “Do not be afraid…I am with you…” God knows that Jeremiah’s excuse comes from a place of fear.
It seems to be the case for many of us. Whatever our excuse for not serving in a capacity for which God has gifted us, for not making a wrong right, for not sharing the love of God with the stranger—isn’t it so often rooted in fear? Yet God says, “Do not fear; I am with you.” Whatever God calls us to do, God calls us to do it through God—not alone—never alone. And if we feel inadequate—great! God has an endearing love for folks who feel inadequate.
Although Jeremiah certainly feels he is too young for God to use, ultimately he serves as God’s mouthpiece to God’s people for some 40 years. Jeremiah stands alone, declaring God’s message, announcing the new covenant while his words fall on deaf ears. And Jeremiah weeps for the assured fate of his beloved country. By the world’s standards, Jeremiah is a failure. But in the eyes of God, Jeremiah is obedient. Jeremiah is faithful. Jeremiah is a success. He, who meets God’s call with excuse note in hand, comes to know the power of God’s grace in his life and becomes a man of faith and courage.
How about you? Have you given an excuse note to God? Maybe you’re thinking: “Really Glenda, I’ve been called to be neither a prophet nor a preacher.” Sorry but that excuse note doesn’t merit a place in the trash bin. Not for us. Not for a tradition that upholds 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Yes, we are a priesthood of all believers. Each one of us has been given gifts for service. Each one of us has been called for something.
Today, I offer you your very own blank excuse note. (You will find it in your bulletin.) Because I’ve been called to be your preacher and teacher, and because you love me, I hope you’ll allow me the privilege of giving you an assignment. Take your excuse note home. And this week, meditate on the life of Jeremiah and the work to which God called him and equipped him. Then pray about your place in the priesthood of all believers. What gift has the Holy Spirit given you for service? Are you called to be a teacher, a leader, an encourager, a preacher? Do you have the gift of hospitality, the gift of faith, the gift of wisdom or knowledge, mercy or helps? Pray on these things and then, if something is holding you back, write down your excuse.
Perhaps you offered God your excuse long ago and you and God have worked it out. Still take some time to write out what happened. Reflect on God’s grace in your life. And then give God the glory and praise for whatever you’ve been able to accomplish in God’s name. You’ll be glad to know that this assignment is given on the honor system—I won’t be asking you to turn it in. This is a matter between you and God.
And don’t be afraid. It’s not like God hasn’t heard it all before: What’s that in your hand, Sarah? “My excuse note: Now that I am old, shall I indeed bear a child…” What’s that in your hand, Moses? “My excuse note: Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now…” What’s that in your hand, Isaiah? “My excuse note: Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips…” What’s that in your hand, Jeremiah? “My excuse note: Ah, Lord God, I can’t. I’m only a boy.”
Offering God an excuse is not dreadful in the sight of God. Offering God an excuse is merely a place to start. It’s a place for God to get our attention and remind us of our calling to be God’s people and share God’s love. It’s a place for God to get our attention and remind us of his promise: “Do not fear; I am with you.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Teacher Man, McCort, 83-90
Cover Art “A New Covenant” © Jan Richardson Images; Used by subscription.