Do you remember the children’s story book “The Little Engine That Could”? A train full of toys and good food is on its way to the children on the other side of the mountain, and the engine breaks down. The toys try to find another engine to take its place. First, they ask a shiny new engine. But it had just pulled a luxurious passenger train over the mountain, and it felt that a trainload of toys wasn’t elegant enough to pull, so it said no. Then they asked a big, powerful engine. But it had just pulled some important machinery over the mountain, and it felt that a load of toys wasn’t important enough to pull, so it said no. Then the toys asked a dingy, rusty, old train to help. But it said it was too tired to pull even a little train over the mountain, and it said no.
Just then, a little shuttle engine appears. The toys ask her to help. At first, she said, “I’m only a little train. I only switch trains in the yard. I’ve never been over the mountain.” But then, even though she didn’t think she was built for such a difficult task, she said yes. “I think I can, I think I can,” she said, and she did.
I was surprised to learn that this story was first published in the New-York Tribune in 1906, as part of a sermon by the Rev. Charles Wing, the pastor at a Methodist Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, New York. He used the story because the church had just paid off its mortgage after many years of debt. I’m sure they identified with the little engine getting over a big mountain.
But the story of “The Little Engine that Could” came to my mind as I thought about our passage for today because it has a lot in common with the stories about what happens when God calls. It challenges us to think about what answers we have given when God has called us, and what answers we might give when God calls us in the future.
Stories of people saying “no” to God are pretty common in the Bible. When God called Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, Moses repeatedly objected on the basis of his poor speaking skills. When God called Gideon to rescue Israel from the Midianites, Gideon claimed he didn’t have enough power: his family was the weakest clan in Manasseh’s tribe, and he was the least important member of his unimportant family. When God called Esther through her cousin Mordecai to save the Jews from destruction, she initially balked because her very life would be threatened. Jonah didn’t just say no when God called him to go to Nineveh and preach to a people he felt didn’t deserve God’s mercy; he took off in the opposite direction, hoping God wouldn’t find him. So, when Jeremiah objects to God’s call on the basis of his youth, he’s following in a long line of those who had resisted God’s call on their lives.
Jeremiah’s not a surprising choice on God’s part—given what we know about his family. He was the son of Hilkiah, a priest in Anathoth. Anathoth had some connection to the house of Eli, who was Samuel’s mentor. Coming from a priestly family, Jeremiah would have been familiar with the history and ancient traditions of Israel, and of its covenant with God.
God’s words should have sounded familiar to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you.” Perhaps, if he wasn’t too terrified to think straight, Jeremiah would have caught the strains of Psalm 139: “My frame was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed.” God’s words to Jeremiah were a reminder that no one knows us like God does.
God knows us in two ways. God knows who we are—our strengths and our weaknesses, our abilities and our disabilities, what makes us confident and what makes us fearful. God knows who we are in our true hearts. God knows who we are, but God also knows where we are. God knows the places we go and the paths we walk. And God knows where we are because God is there with us.
God knew Jeremiah in the same way. God knew who he was and where he was. God knew the task Jeremiah was called to do. God knew the paths Jeremiah would have to walk to do it, and what resources he would need along the way. So, it’s easy to understand why God would brush off Jeremiah’s objection—“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’”—and then go on to describe what Jeremiah would do—go to all to whom God sent him and speak whatever God commanded him.
I don’t imagine that Jeremiah felt any more confident after getting his marching orders. I imagine he thought about what it would take to be a prophet to the nations and started shaking in his sandals. I imagine he felt a lot like we do when we begin to understand that God has a job for us—a job that we feel totally inadequate to handle. A job that prompts us to respond, “Ah, Lord God! I’m only a boy—or girl; only a teenager, an old man, an old woman; only a mom, a dad, a teacher, a farmer, a student, a retiree. I’m only a regular person with no connections and no fortune and no special abilities. I’m only one person. Please, Lord, don’t send me over that mountain.”
We may be tempted to fall back on that response as a church. “Ah, Lord God! We’re only a small church. We’re only an old church. We’re only a church with limited resources. Whatever you have in mind, Lord, it’s probably more than we can handle. Please, Lord, don’t send us over that mountain.”
But, as someone once told me when I was arguing mightily with God about how inadequate I felt in the face of my own call, God doesn’t call the equipped. God equips the called. And that’s exactly what God did for Jeremiah. God knew Jeremiah’s needs and met them.
First, God knew that Jeremiah was afraid, without Jeremiah even saying it out loud. So, God equipped Jeremiah with an assurance. “Don’t be afraid of them—the people I’m sending you to—because I am with you to deliver you,” God said. We may well be afraid when God presents us with a need to be met, a task to take on, people who make us uncomfortable. God knows that and assures us repeatedly that when we go about doing the Lord’s business, we’re not doing it alone. We have no need to be afraid. God will be with us.
Jeremiah feared that his youth meant he wouldn’t know what to say. In this sense, he hadn’t fully understood his call. He thought it was all about him and his skills—that he would have to be an eloquent speaker with persuasive arguments and flowery phrases. But his job was to be a messenger, and God equipped him for that job. God literally put words into Jeremiah’s mouth. And those words would enable Jeremiah to accomplish what God had appointed him to do: to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant. All of this, through someone who heard his call when he was only a boy.
Like the little engine that was asked to pull a train over a mountain, God may call us to a task that seems too big for us—a mountain that seems too steep and high, a mountain we’ve never climbed before, a mountain we feel like we’re not built to tackle. God will equip us to get over that mountain. God equipped Jeremiah, and God promises to equip us. Jesus told his disciples, “Don’t worry about what you will say to the synagogues, rulers, and authorities. The Holy Spirit will teach you what to say.” Jesus promised that as we strive for the kingdom, we will be given what we need. Paul reminds us that we can do all things through him who strengthens us.
But the first mountain we have to get over is the mental mountain that makes us want to cry out, “But I’m only a….” We climb that mountain by remembering that God knows exactly who we are and what we are capable of, whether it’s individually or together. And, God knows where the tracks ahead of us will lead—where there will be sharp turns and debris and rough places, where there will be valleys and high points, where there will be lonely stretches and where we can stop and rest and be cared for. God knows what we need to carry out our appointed task, whether it’s strength or inspiration or persistence or vision or assurance, and God will give us what we need. God doesn’t call the equipped. God equips the called.
We’ve done a lot together in the past year or so—things we weren’t sure we could do. TAP dinners. Rock Painting. Recycling days. The changing station at Cherry Fest. And, there have been challenges in our personal lives which may have seemed insurmountable. This year, we may hear God calling us in ways we didn’t anticipate and don’t feel equipped to handle. But we can trust that God knows each of us as unique and beloved individuals, and has known us since before we were born. God knows who we are together—how the Spirit has gifted this congregation. And God will supply what we need to carry out whatever call God places on our lives.
We don’t know from Scripture how Jeremiah responded to God’s words except that he went on to do what God had appointed him to do. It’s likely that many years between the time Jeremiah and God had their conversation about Jeremiah’s call, and the time when Jeremiah began his prophetic ministry. Perhaps during that time, Jeremiah began to think, “I’m not only a boy. I’m a child of God, intimately known and loved and consecrated.” Perhaps during that time, Jeremiah pondered God’s words and began to say to himself, “I think I can. I think I can.” As we listen for God’s call to us, we would do well to make those words our own. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young