There’s a word that we don’t hear much anymore. It’s defined as a lament, often filled with harsh invective, against the state of society. It’s a moralistic text that denounces a society for its wickedness, and prophesies its downfall. Although we don’t hear the word jeremiad very often, we do hear those kinds of speeches on a fairly regular basis, whether it is someone saying that the nation is falling apart because of the political leadership, or that the younger generation is lazy and immoral, or that religious institutions are hypocritical because they have not done enough for or against [you fill in the blank]. If such a speech is full of melodramatic, doom and gloom language, it’s a jeremiad.
The word comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who was noted for bring God’s word to the people who had forgotten what a good relationship with the Lord was supposed to look like. His laments are both poetic and horrific, because he wants the people to understand how unhappy God is with them. Suffice to say that the Book of Jeremiah is a hard and sometimes frightening read.
It is in stark contrast to the story of Jeremiah’s beginnings as a prophet, the story we heard in our Old Testament reading today. Jeremiah is, by his own description, just a boy. God tells him that there is work to do. God has known that Jeremiah will be a prophet since before his birth. He has known him in his mother’s womb, as he was formed into the person he would become.
Imagine being a ten or twelve year old boy and hearing God’s voice, saying “I’ve been planning for you to be a prophet for me since before you were born.” A little intimidating, right? Predictably, Jeremiah says, “Who, me? I don’t think I can do that. I haven’t got the skills.” And God says, “Don’t say that. I’ll give you the words.” And God touched his mouth, and the words were there, and would continue to be there, through the difficult times when Jeremiah had to deliver a tough message that the people needed to hear.
Jeremiah was tapped on the shoulder by God at the age that we confirm most of our young people. We haven’t seen any signs that any of them are prophets in the vein of Jeremiah quite yet, but you never know. Jeremiah didn’t really start stirring things up until he was grown, after all.
But it certainly raises the question “If God has known me since I was still in my mother’s womb, what did he see me becoming?” A prophet? A teacher? A caregiver? A healer? A fighter for justice? A calming influence in troubled situations?
Who did God envision me to be?
Sometimes we only discover it over time.
Isabella Baumfree was born in the late 1700s in upstate New York, a Dutch-speaking slave. She was sold, along with a flock of sheep, in the slave market at the age of nine. Her new master was a cruel one, beating her daily. She was resold several times. Although the state of New York abolished slavery in the early 1820s, she was not set free by her master. She escaped with her infant daughter in 1826 and stayed with a kind white family until the new emancipation law took effect. During this time she became a devout Christian. She learned that her son Peter had been sold illegally to an owner in Alabama, and she successfully sued for her son’s freedom. This was the first time that a black woman won a case in court against a white man.
In the 1840s, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth, abandoning a name that reminded her of her enslavement and taking on a new one, saying “The Spirit calls me and I must go.” She was a Methodist missionary and an abolitionist. As time progressed, she also focused on women’s rights, and spoke powerfully of the fact that women had worked just as men had, and that women held a particular place of power and influence because they bore children, in the famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.
In later years she became an Adventist and continued to fight through her powerful voice for equal rights for people of color and for women. And she, like Jeremiah, may have often felt like she didn’t have the words. One time, she came to a speaking engagement exhausted by her travels, and she is said to have announced “Children, I have come here like the rest of you, to hear what I have to say.” She knew that more often than not, it was God’s words coming through her, not words of her own invention. That’s the thing about prophets. Their job is to speak God’s message, to call the people to attention, to fix broken relationships.
As she stood on the slave block at the age of nine, speaking only Dutch, did she have an inkling of God’s plan for her? I doubt it. She would have been frightened, leaving her parents and the only home she had known, not knowing who would buy her or what he would expect of her. She would have wondered if he paid the $100 for the sheep and she was just a little extra something thrown into the bargain. What would have happened if she had heard God’s voice saying, “You will be a prophet?” Her reply most likely would be a variant of Jeremiah’s : “who, me?” And yet she became a prophet, and how she prophesied! Jeremiads, to be sure!
It was a process of discovery of her call over time that led Sojourner Truth to be a prophet.
Sometimes it feels like God is keeping who we are called to be a big secret, and we’ve got to experiment and guess until we figure it out.
But even in the midst of that process, we remember God’s words: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you."
At some point, it becomes clear what God has in mind for us. It is usually something of a surprise – God does have a sense of humor, it seems – but when we share the revelation with others, they usually respond with “Well, of course! Didn’t you know that?” Even if we say “Who, me?” when God reveals his plans for us, others have already recognized the gifts within us.
So who are you? What is God calling you to do? Is there something that tugs at your heart, that urges you to some unknown thing, that demands your attention? It may be God, saying “this is my word to you.”
Go ahead. Say “Who, me?” Then say “Help me, Lord.” Then do it. God’s put what you need within you already. Do it.