I’ll bet that if I played a bunch of movie theme songs for you, you’d know right away which movies they were from and have an image from the movie in your head right away. “Stayin Alive” from “Saturday Night Fever”? John Travolta dancing under a disco ball. “When Time Goes By?” from “Casablanca”? Sam at the piano. “Let It Go” from “Frozen”? The snowy world of princesses. The sinister beat of the theme from “Jaws” or the stirring music of “Star Wars?” Menacing teeth and the leap to hyperspace.
Movie theme songs are intended to be memorable. I’ll bet there are other songs that have become memorable because they serve as theme songs for your own life. The one that was playing when you first danced with your high school crush. (For me, that’s “If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot, when I danced with Gregg Phillips in the 10th grade.) Or maybe it’s a song you sang to your children that made them giggle when they were little and roll their eyes when they were teenagers, and now they sing to their children. Maybe it’s one you associate with a special event like your wedding or some other milestone. (I’m flooded with memories of Peyton’s Sweet 16 birthday party every time I hear the song “Perfect Day” from the movie “Legally Blonde.”) Maybe it’s a song that isn’t connected with any particular time or event; it’s just one that makes you feel happy or hopeful or confident or energized whenever you hear it, whether it’s a hymn, or a pop song or a symphony.
Jeremiah may not have had his own theme song, but there are some themes that run throughout Jeremiah’s life and words of prophecy. These themes appear in the first chapter of Jeremiah, and they set the stage for what’s to come. Just as the movie theme song that repeats throughout a film, these themes tie all the scenes together.
The book of Jeremiah is fascinating, partly because of the amount of biographical information it gives us. We get a real look into Jeremiah’s life and ministry over more than fifty years during the reigns of five kings (both good and bad) and a governor appointed by Babylon. We overhear Jeremiah as he speaks directly with God, pouring his heart out. We listen in as he confesses his love for his people and his anguish over their present behavior and the future that awaits if they don’t change their ways. We witness his suffering that results from his steadfast proclamation of some very unpleasant and unpopular truths. We are confronted by Jeremiah as the people of Judah and Jerusalem were, sometimes in soaring words of poetry and sometimes in actions that are dramatic and strange, but always at God’s direction.
Jeremiah is also one of the most difficult books in the Bible to read and understand. It doesn’t follow a straight story line. Reading it is something like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, where the picture is on the lid of a different box. Jeremiah is speaking to specific groups of people in specific times and places, and the book makes more sense if you can match his words to the events he’s immersed in. But, the details of timelines and cast members are found in other books. But, that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and just skip over Jeremiah, though, because his words are also timeless and should be heeded by God’s people in every age. So, over the next few weeks, we’ll get to know the prophet Jeremiah, the times he lived in, and the wisdom his ancient words have for us today.
The book begins by framing the time period for Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry. It begins during the reign of King Josiah, in the 7th c. BCE. Josiah’s reign came after those of his evil and faithless grandfather Manasseh and father Amon. But Josiah took a different path and did what was right in the sight of the Lord, 2 Kings tells us. Josiah ruled during the time when the power of Assyria was eroding, so he had some freedom to throw off the pagan worship his forefathers had approved of. He ordered the restoration of the temple, and in the process, the Book of the Law was discovered. Seeing how far his people had fallen from their covenant with God, Josiah began an aggressive program of reform.
God knew Jeremiah before Jeremiah was born and, knowing him, consecrated him as a prophet. In the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign, around 626 BC, when Jeremiah was a young man, the time came for him to begin his work. The word of God came to Jeremiah—a word he was to announce not just to his own people but to all nations. Jeremiah resisted his call, which is a common response when God calls us. But, in spite of his reluctance, Jeremiah was obedient to God’s call on his life.
His ministry was not one he chose on his own. He knew what the life of a prophet entailed—the hardship, the animosity he’d face, even the possibility of martyrdom. He told God that he was too young, too inarticulate, to be a prophet. And yet, he was obedient when God called and continued to be obedient through the years when the words he faithfully spoke estranged him from his family and friends and endangered his very life. We get a hint of just how difficult Jeremiah’s work would be when God summarizes what Jeremiah’s being called to: “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
It seems that the results of King Josiah’s reforming work were short-lived. When Josiah tried to disrupt Egypt’s attempts to align itself with Assyria, he was killed in battle. Jeremiah wrote a lament for this good and faithful king. Josiah’s son Jehoahaz ascended to the throne and promptly reinstated the evil practices of the past. He reigned for just three months before the king of Egypt deposed him, carried him off, and made his brother Jehoiakim king in his place. Jehoiakim also did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and, in him, Jeremiah would find his greatest opponent.
In the face of political, social, and religious upheaval, Jeremiah is given a two-fold mission. First, he is to uproot the toxic growth that is choking out faithfulness to God and dismantle the political and social systems that destroy the goodness of God’s creation. Second, he is to build up a new society, a new culture—one that is faithful to God alone.
God makes it clear that destruction and construction go hand in hand. The destruction will be painful and heart-rending for Jeremiah. It will cause him great anguish to faithfully relay God’s words about the future which must come about if the people continue in their faithless ways. But, even in God’s darkest pronouncements, there is still hope. God’s desire is not for destruction, and God’s ultimate goal is the building up of a faithful people and the fruitful planting of God’s kingdom.
God reveals to Jeremiah that a powerful nation from the north—Babylon—will bring disaster to Judah and Jerusalem. God tells him that, as Jeremiah announces God’s word, he will be opposed from every side. He’ll feel weak and ineffective. He’ll be tempted to back down. But, God cautions him not to let the opposition break him, lest Jeremiah himself be broken by God. Jeremiah has a difficult task before him, but God assures Jeremiah that he will not be left defenseless. God promises to equip Jeremiah for his task—to make him “a fortified city, an iron pillar, a bronze wall” that will withstand not just the enemies without but the enemies from within—the people of Jeremiah’s own beloved land: its kings, princes, priests, and people. God promises to be with Jeremiah always: “I am with you,” God says, “to deliver you.”
We hear in these verses three themes for Jeremiah’s life and call. If they were songs, they might have these titles: “Called and Equipped,” “Destruction and Construction,” and “God Is with You.” Not only could they be theme songs for the book and life of Jeremiah, but they can also be theme songs for us as we strive to live as faithful disciples of Jesus.
Like Jeremiah, we are created and intimately known by God. We’re given gifts and talents—ones that may lie dormant for years until we are called to use them in the service of God’s kingdom. There may be times when we’re reluctant to use these gifts. We don’t feel that we have the right preparation or skills to yes to God’s call. We feel that they’re too humble, too ordinary, too mundane to offer to God. We want to stay in our comfort zones. We don’t want to take a chance on the possibility of failure or being embarrassed. Sometimes we’re afraid we’ll succeed, and that success will breed more demands and higher expectations.
But, as the old saying goes, “God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.” God answered Jeremiah’s concerns that he was too young and too inarticulate by touching Jeremiah’s mouth and placing God’s own words there. When we are willing to step out in faith, God will touch us, too. God may touch our mouths, or God might touch our hearts or our heads, our ears or our eyes, our hands or our feet.
God knows our gifts, and God knows our weaknesses. When we say yes to God’s call, in spite of our fear or insecurities, God will strengthen us. God will make us into fortified cities, iron pillars, bronze walls. Whatever gifts we have, we can trust God to equip us to use them. Like Jeremiah, we are called, and we will be equipped.
Like Jeremiah’s, the work we are called to requires both destruction and construction. Some of this work is internal. All of us have ways of thinking and acting that aren’t in keeping with the values of God’s kingdom. Under the fierce light of God’s righteousness (a light that shines brightly in Jeremiah), what we accept as right and reasonable is often shown to be simply convenient—habits that serve our own interests. These need to be plucked up and pulled down. The old prejudices and assumptions that govern our lives need to be overthrown. The Hebrew word for overthrow can also mean “to break away,” and maybe that’s a better way to think of it—that we need to break away from what binds us so that we can be free to build more faithful lives.
As we seek to pluck up and then to replant in our personal lives, we are also called to pluck up and rebuild in the world around us. We pledge this in our baptismal vows: we “accept the freedom and power that God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” This is not pie-in-the-sky idealism. The Bible is full of people like Jeremiah—people not so different from us—who stepped forward in faith and changed the world. The great anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”
We are called to do just that. We are called to make this world look more like God’s kingdom. The status quo today looks more like the world of Jeremiah than the kingdom of God. We are called to tear down the assumptions and the systems that keep so many poor and powerless, and to build up and plant the justice and compassion of God’s kingdom. Destruction and construction go hand in hand.
Finally, we never carry out this call alone. “I am with you,” God said to Jeremiah. “I am with you,” God will repeat, over and over again in the coming chapters. “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” Jesus said to the disciples as he commissioned them to answer their own call. “I am with you always,” he says to us today. We are all commissioned—as individuals, as a congregation, and as members of the Body of Christ—to be servants of God and followers of Jesus. We share in one mission, and we are gifted in unique ways to accomplish that mission together. But however difficult the path ahead or uncertain we are about our own abilities, we can be sure that God is with us.
Communications consultant Amy George wrote in “Inc. Magazine” that everyone should have a theme song. She says that they’re a way of talking to ourselves; they help focus and motivate us. They remind us that someone else knows how we feel. The themes of the first chapter of Jeremiah could have been theme songs for him. They can be theme songs for us, too. They can focus us on the work God calls us to and equips us for, and motivate us to carry it out. They can remind us that we are not alone.
“Called and Equipped.” “Destruction and Construction.” “God Is with You.” Let us keep Jeremiah’s theme songs in our hearts and make them our own as we answer God’s call. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young