Sunday, February 1, 2004

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; I have appointed thee a prophet unto the nations.

Last week we heard about the conversion of St. Paul. It was a most dramatic event, a conversion from one extreme to another. Saul was a Jew's Jew, knowledgeable in the Law and the Scriptures, trained by the best. He was zealous for the traditions of his fathers and was more successful than his peers. One day he had a miraculous experience - he saw a bright light and heard a voice from heaven. He went blind and was then healed after three days of fasting. God called him and he followed obediently.

This week we hear of another calling, the calling of Jeremiah the prophet. This story is much different. We do not know how old he was at this point, but the same language is used of Solomon when he took the throne at age twenty. Jeremiah was young and inexperienced. He did not question from whom the word came, he knew it was the Sovereign Lord. He argued with the Lord, "Ah, Lord Jehovah! behold, I know not how to speak; for I am a child." He had two visions, but the calling was not accompanied by any great change in Jeremiah. He heard the word of God and obeyed. There was no miraculous blinding or healing. God called him and he followed obediently.

From these two stories we see that God calls different people in different ways to do different things. Paul went to share the Gospel with the Gentiles; Jeremiah went to warn Israel of her disobedience. Yet, God called both and they followed obediently. "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; I have appointed thee a prophet unto the nations." Last week we heard similar words from Paul. "But when it was the good pleasure of God, who separated me, even from my mother's womb, and called me through his grace…"

In the movie "Legally Blond," Elle Woods hands her instructor a pink sheet of scented paper that held her resume. The professor and his assistant considered this strange woman who was nothing like the typical Harvard student. "Do you think she just woke up one morning and thought 'I think I'll go to Harvard'?"

I wonder if it is the same for God. Perhaps one day He thought, "I think I'll create Jeremiah and make him a prophet." He knew Jeremiah before he was born - He conceived of the idea of the man who would become the prophet Jeremiah and made it happen. He is the Creator and can do such great and marvelous works of grace.

Jeremiah was not so sure about this calling. He argued with God about his age and inability. God addressed the real problem. "Be not afraid because of them; for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith Jehovah." It is not pleasant being a prophet of God. The people do not want to hear what you have to say, particularly when the message is one of warning and command. It is frightening to think about the persecution that comes from obedience to the Most High. God told Jeremiah not to be afraid. "I am with thee to deliver thee."

Jeremiah was chosen to do God's work in a world that would rather go another way. He would face persecution, this is certain. God did not promise that he would not suffer, only that He would rescue Jeremiah when the people rebelled against the message of doom he would carry to them. Though the story of Jeremiah is one of doom, there is also a promise of restoration. Jeremiah would suffer, but he would be saved. Israel would face doom, but they would be restored.

Like Paul and Jeremiah, the psalmist knew that God's hand has been part of his life from birth. "By thee have I been holden up from the womb; Thou art he that took me out of my mother's bowels: My praise shall be continually of thee." The Lord is our only hope; in Him alone can we trust. This is why the writer was confident to call to the Lord for help in the midst of his trouble. He cries out for deliverance, for salvation.

God does not do things willy-nilly. He has had a plan from the beginning of time, conceived of the very notion of you even before your ancestors walked the earth. He has prepared a place for you to be, a purpose for your life. We can easily look at the words of Paul and Jeremiah and think that it is meaningless to our own lives. We aren't apostles or prophets, but we are indeed called by God. We look to Him and trust in His Word, following obediently according to the grace of God.

We never do it alone. God is with us when we walk our journey of faith in this world. He knows our fears and our doubts. He knows about our suffering because He faced it, too. When Jesus read the scripture from Isaiah to the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, they were amazed at His teaching. They knew He was the carpenter's son, a local boy making it big. Perhaps they were expecting that Jesus would bring greater blessings to his hometown, showing them in greater measure what He had done in other places. After all, the people of Nazareth were His family and friends. Should they not have benefited from His gifts all the more?

Jesus spoke truthfully. They would not believe. The prophet is never accepted in his hometown. I don't know about you, but I have experienced such rejection. Those who know us best are less apt to believe or understand the changes we experience as we grow older. There are times when I think my family still sees me as an eleven year old with ponytails in my hair. It is hard for them to imagine me as an adult with my own children, to accept that I am a mature responsible adult. I have known pastors that have had difficulty returning to the place of their youth. The people who knew them as rowdy teens can hardly imagine them as men of God.

The truth of Jesus message went far beyond the small village of Nazareth, however. It was meant for the entire nation of Israel. The Jews would not accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, because He was not what they expected. He did not fulfill their vision of the Messiah. He would reach far beyond His own people to share the Kingdom of God. Elijah and Elisha shared the gifts of God with foreigners. So too, the love and mercy of God would go to the Gentiles.

Love is the key here. God's knowledge of His people goes far deeper than head knowledge or a blood relationship. He conceived of their existence and brought them into being out of love. He called them to service because of His love. He heard their cries for deliverance because His love is so deep. He reached far beyond a small group of people because He created all the nations; His love reaches to them as well. Love is the foundation of all His gifts.

Today's Epistle lesson is a continuation from last week's passage. It is the love chapter, often quoted as people join into deep and intimate relationships. Yet, there is more to the love found in this lesson that the romantic love connected with marriage and even close friendships. Corinth was in the midst of problems. There were divisions in the body of Christ - some felt they were greater because of their gifts or position. They were not unified in purpose, or even in confession. The lesser members were put down, some gifts were considered less significant. There was no love in the body of Christ, only boasting and pride.

God conceived of a perfect unit when He created the Church. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to follow the call of God obediently using their gifts as one body. None can do the work of the Church alone. All are necessary. Our two passages are bridge together with a short but important statement. "And now I will show you the most excellent way." The spiritual gifts are vital to the work of sharing the Gospel with the world, but they are useless unless they are done in love.

Paul describes the kind of love that comes from God. "Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." This is the love of God, that which never fails. In Christ we are called by God to love and serve according to His good and perfect will, no matter what the world has to offer.

Language without love is just noise. Prophecies will fail, tongues will fail, and knowledge will pass away. Jeremiah could not see ahead, he could only feel his fear and uncertainty when God called his name. We do not see clearly in this world, we see only a part of the truth. We are looking into a foggy mirror in this world, we will not see clearly until all God has promised has come to pass. There will be a time when the gifts of the Church will no longer be necessary, but love will last forever. But for now, we need one another, all vital members of the body of Christ and necessary for the Church to minister to the world as God has called us to live.

Once, before time began, God had a thought and He made it happen. He knew us before we were born, He appointed our lives according to His good and perfect will. Sometimes that means reaching beyond our comfort zone. Sometimes it means suffering the persecution of those who do not trust in God or know His mercy. Jesus paved the path, established the way by which we are called to live. God calls us to follow obediently, living in the love of Christ. But we need not do it alone. He has given us one another to work together in love. But most of all, He is always with us - our rock and our refuge in times of trouble, our salvation for all the days of our life. Thanks be to God.

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