It was about 3:30 on Monday afternoon. I had completed my other tasks for the day and decided to sit down with the lectionary texts for the week to see if God was speaking through any particular scripture passage in a way that might get the gears working for today’s sermon. So I sat on the floor in the living room, books strewn around me, and my Bible in my lap. I flipped from Jeremiah to Romans to Matthew, back to Jeremiah. A few ideas were beginning to form, but nothing that really stood out; that really held my attention.
So, being in the living room and not yet having a concrete idea about what I might run with, I absent-mindedly flipped on the television. This action had no real purpose behind it. It was just there. So maybe the background noise would provide good company or I’d connect something I’d see while flipping channels to one of the scripture passages. I decided to begin with the news, so I flipped over to CNN.
Now in case you don’t remember what was going on at about 3:30 on Monday afternoon on CNN, we were just in the early stages of anticipating the verdict to Michael Jackson’s trial. The reporters were gearing up for the afternoon’s events. Wolf Blitzer had a half dozen bodiless voices to analyze the situation. The camera shots switched from the courthouse to Jackson’s motorcade to the studio. The analysts went to work: ‘What if this happened?’ ‘What might affect the decision?’ ‘What about this?’ ‘What about this?’ ‘What happens next?’
Before I knew it an hour had passed. Like so many others, I was sucked in. Like so many others I let myself become glued to my television to watch this latest piece of celebrity melodrama play itself out. Later on I’d wonder why or how.
Well, it would be an understatement to say that Jeremiah is having a bad day in today’s reading. He’s been persecuted, made a laughingstock because of his words and his call. He cries out to God, saying, ‘You told me this was going to be easy! You told me you would take care of me when people do what they’re doing!’ Caught in the place where God’s Word meets a disobedient people, he was bound to face some of what he’s facing now: ridicule. They wish to put him away, to shut him up, to exact revenge on him for what he is saying.
Jeremiah is in pre-Babylonian days, yet telling of worse moments to come due to the people’s straying from what God wills for them. ‘We will make our own decisions,’ they say earlier in the book. ‘We have no need of God any more.’ And when Jeremiah tries to tell them different, the inevitable backlash to what he says comes upon him. ‘I wish,’ he says to God, ‘I wish you’d take this away from me. You’ve tricked me into doing this. They’re going to kill me, and you said you’d protect me from them. You said you’d prevail!’ So Jeremiah hatches a plan of his own. He’ll stop talking. No more prophesying. No more speaking God’s Word to the people. I’m going to stop doing this, and save my own life.
But when he tries stopping what God wants him to do, a curious thing happens. He can’t not deliver God’s Word. Jeremiah speaks of a fire shut up in his bones. ‘I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot.’ Jeremiah can’t stop talking. He can’t will himself to stop preaching, to stop carrying out what he’s been called to do. If he tries, it’s like he’ll explode. Imagine his wanting so terribly to stop doing what he’s doing to save his own life, but not being able to because of a deeper feeling within him that he NEEDS to speak. Imagine Jesus lying on the ground agonizing in Gethsemane praying for the cup of death to pass him by. ‘Yet not my will, but yours be done.’ Jeremiah can’t shut it in. God’s will is that he keep talking to a people who would rather see him dead.
What’s that about? Jeremiah was onto a great idea! He was about to save himself a lot more grief and pain, but he couldn’t follow through with it! It’s reminiscent of a song by All Star United that we listened to in confirmation: ‘All the saints and martyrs alike, they would’ve called a national strike. Demanded less pain, more personal gain, if only they’d known their rights.’ Jeremiah was demanding such things. He knows his rights! But he can’t bring himself to do it. The reason: he’s tuned in to God’s message and he can’t pull himself away. He has one channel on his spiritual television and there’s no switching.
The temptation for us is always there. Who wants to watch the God Channel all day long? And I don’t mean people with big hair and bigger pocketbooks, I mean the channel that shows us the world’s pain and suffering, longing for a word of hope and the world’s sin and destruction needing a word of accountability. It’s the channel that God switches us over to as we’re compelled to watch.
But who wants to watch that? The NBA Finals are on. The Travel Channel has some lovely places to visit. Reality TV tells me that I should focus on being beautiful and ruthless. The God Channel is about sacrifice, a sacrifice that Jeremiah knows all to well. He’d break his television if he could, but the Spirit is so strong within him that he can’t raise a finger to reach for his shoe.
But Jeremiah does this remarkable thing at the end of his lament. After mourning his call and carrying on about what he’d rather be doing, he gives praise to God. He gives praise? He says, ‘O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.’ After so much grief, Jeremiah returns to praise and trust for a moment. The essence of these verses is, ‘I don’t like what I’m doing. But you’ve called me to it. I will trust you because you are trustworthy.’
When I was growing up, getting set for school, my father would send the same phrase with me every morning. It would follow me out the door as I went to catch the school bus. It followed me up the walk to junior high and high school. It accompanied e-mails in college: ‘Concentrate and do your best.’ I was charged with that same phrase every day for seventeen years! ‘Concentrate and do your best.’
God’s call to Jeremiah and to us is to concentrate, to channel that one thing, the Word that God sets aside especially to us. Concentrate on what my world needs from you as my representative. Concentrate on the skills I’ve given you to build houses or to speak a word to those who have become too comfortable. Concentrate on the mission project that might strain your pocketbook but will be a blessing for others. Concentrate on your neighbor who needs a comforting touch after disaster has struck. Concentrate on my kingdom, which holds good news for the poor and the weary. Do your best to answer this call despite its risk, despite its pain. To me you have committed your cause. And I will deliver you.
This is the one channel, the only channel, that in our choice to be disciples demands our attention. We are enticed and overpowered by it. The Word that God has for us can get in our bones and compel us to do that for which we are gifted and given to do. It is a powerful thing to be overtaken by the One who moves in us. How much more powerful when we allow ourselves to get sucked in and to begin living out that Word. Thanks be to God.