The Call – Part I
by Jack Wald | September 9th, 2001

Jeremiah 1:1-19

A few years ago in the Alps of Italy the body of a caveman was discovered that had been frozen for seven or eight thousand years. Having been in that area this past summer I can tell you he lived in a beautiful world. He set out one day, dressed in fur, carrying a bow and arrow and then got into trouble and was hit by an arrow in his shoulder. Some enemy of his shot him but he was able to escape his attacker. However, the wound weakened him – he had severed an artery and slowly bled to death. He fell to the ground, was covered by a snowstorm and lay frozen under the snow and ice until the end of the twentieth century. What was he thinking as he was dying? Did he have a family? Did he have other responsibilities? Did he have plans for the future? Was he plotting revenge on the man who shot him?

This last day of his life his mind was very likely filled with thoughts of survival. But I’m confident that on an other day, perhaps summer in the Alps with an abundance of food and water and no enemy within sight, he asked himself these questions: Who am I? Why am I here? For what purpose was I born?

Abraham Maslow speaks of a hierarchy of needs, the most basic of which are food, clothing, shelter and security. It is after these needs are met that we begin to think of deeper needs. But even this primitive man had days when those needs were met and there were days to sit, look at the beauty of the world and speculate, reflect.

What does it mean to know who I am? I can tell you how tall I am, how much I weigh, where my parents and grandparents were born, who I married, the names of my children, what I do for a living. I can tell you what foods I like, the kind of music I prefer to listen to and what books I have enjoyed.

All these things tell someone who I am. But then there is still that question. After all that can be known about me is known, there remains the question: where did I come from? Where will I go? Am I simply a well-functioning set of chemicals with built in predispositions that govern my behavior, likes and dislikes?

These are questions that come from deep within ourselves. Some may ask themselves these questions more often than others, but we are created to ask those questions and to search for the answer to those questions.

This morning when we take a look at the call of Jeremiah, we will find that when God called Jeremiah, he addressed these questions. God called Jeremiah to a very difficult ministry and his words to Jeremiah reassure him at the deepest part of his being, as if he knows Jeremiah needs to be built up and reassured in order to carry out his call.

4 The word of the LORD came to me, saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

In these words, God did far more than tell Jeremiah what he would be doing for the next forty years. These are wonderfully affirming words and as we look at them this morning, we will peel back the layers of meaning one by one to reveal the power of this affirmation of Jeremiah.
Next week we will continue on to see Jeremiah’s response to God’s call, but this morning, the call of Jeremiah.

The first statement of Jeremiah’s call is this:
Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.

To be known is a wonderful thing. There is an old Frank Capra movie titled, It’s a Wonderful Life. This movie stars Jimmy Stewart and is a classic Christmas movie. I’ve watched it several times and never get tired of it. It is a story of a man who despairs of his life and decides to kill himself. An angel is sent to help him and to teach him a valuable lesson, he recreates the world as if Jimmy Stewart had never existed. In this second half of the movie, Jimmy Stewart walks around the town and all the people he knew and loved look at him as a stranger. He is not known and it slowly dawns on him that he does not exist, that he had never existed. The movie ends happily with Jimmy Stewart discovering that his life, no matter how discouraging, has been used for good in the lives of people around him.

To be known is to exist. To be known is to have significance. We are hungry for this affirmation in our lives. Given a choice between walking into a room full of strangers or to walk into a room filled with people we know, most of us would choose the latter.

People think the life of a salesman is a glorious one. You travel from city to city, sleep in hotels with room service, drive around in new rented cars, eat out at restaurants. But after the initial thrill of this, the routine sets in and it becomes very quickly tedious. It becomes just another hotel, another restaurant, another city where you are not known.

I lived this live for several years and my father lived this life as well. My father talks about those years and says that in an entire day, his conversation, other than the time meeting with a customer at his factory, consisted of, “Thank you.” “Coffee black please.” “A room for one night.” This is a lonely life which is why many salesmen get into trouble hanging around the hotel bar. It is hard to be unknown. The need for connection is an intense need.

We have a need to be known.

That’s the first layer of this call. Jeremiah is told that he is known. He exists. So let’s take a look at the next layer.

God’s statement to Jeremiah goes far beyond a simple recognition of his existence. It makes a difference who it is that knows us.

One of the curses of being famous is that everyone knows you. You go into a restaurant and people come up to your table wanting to talk and get an autograph. Charles Lindbergh who was the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean from the US to Europe, became an instant celebrity. He was known but what mattered to him was that the daughter of a diplomat, Anne Morrow, knew him.

The more important someone is to us, the more we desire to be known by that person. If you have fallen in love with someone, it is fine to be greeted by people you know but you most powerfully crave to be greeted by the person who has filled your heart and mind as Anne Morrow did for Charles Lindbergh.

If you work in an organization, it is good to be known by your coworkers, but it means a great deal more to be known by the head of the organization who is able to see your hard work and reward you for it.

In Jeremiah’s case, the person who said to him, “I knew you,” was the person whom Jeremiah had worshiped. When Jeremiah’s father made sacrifices to God for the people, he made sacrifices to the one who spoke to Jeremiah. Jeremiah received the affirmation of being known from the creator of the world, the one who had chosen Israel as his people, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the one who had formed him in the womb – his creator. Jeremiah is affirmed in this call by the most important person in his life and in the life of Israel.

Let’s peel off this layer and look a bit deeper.

To be known by someone is not always a positive experience. If someone is seeking to harm you, to be known by that person is a dangerous experience. I can know you and seek to do you harm. I can know you and ignore you. I can know you and despise you. It makes a huge difference how the person who knows me feels about me. In this case, God, who formed Jeremiah is one who passionately loved Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s nation. God gave these words to Jeremiah:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.”
“ For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Jeremiah received in this first part of his call the affirmation of being known, being known by the one who had created him and being known by one who is all powerful, all knowing, ever present and most importantly, all loving.

Let’s peel off one more layer and consider the fact that God’s knowledge of Jeremiah preceded the creation of Jeremiah. What difference does this make? This tells Jeremiah something significant, that his creation was not an accident, a surprise. Jeremiah did not pop onto the scene and God looked at him and decided he would do. The creation of Jeremiah was an act of premeditation. I thought about you. It was a good thought. So then I created you and now I’m letting you know this so you can be encouraged.

Be encouraged Jeremiah. Don’t ever feel like a misfit, an accident. Don’t ever feel that you do not belong. I created you for this time for this purpose. Stand on this solid foundation when things around you begin to feel shaky and be secure.

Is it presumptuous for us to take Jeremiah’s experience of God and extrapolate that to ourselves? Can we say that God also knew us before he formed us in the womb? I don’t think it is presumptuous at all. “For those God foreknew he also predestined,” Paul says in Romans 8. Because of Jeremiah’s call, God spoke to him differently than he does to us, but the truths in that call are truths that apply to us as they did to Jeremiah.

If you are a Christian. If you have given yourself to Christ by accepting his free gift of salvation, than be affirmed this morning that you are known. You are known by the one who created you. You are known by the one who is all powerful, ever present, all knowing and all loving. Be encouraged by the truth that before he formed you in the womb, he knew you. Whether or not your parents planned to have you, you were not God’s accident. He thought about you. It was a good thought and he set into motion your creation.

Your life is not accidental but purposeful. As with Jeremiah, when the events of your life cause you to feel shaky, stand on this foundation and be secure.

Now we come to the second statement in Jeremiah’s call.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;

“Not only did I know you before I created you in the womb,” God tells Jeremiah, but before you were born I set you apart.” The word for “set apart” is in some translations “consecrated”. It means to be set aside for God’s use. What does it mean to be set aside for God’s use? We see this in Exodus when God gave instructions to Moses.
“Take the other ram, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on its head.  20 Slaughter it, take some of its blood and put it on the lobes of the right ears of Aaron and his sons, on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet. Then sprinkle blood against the altar on all sides.  21 And take some of the blood on the altar and some of the anointing oil and sprinkle it on Aaron and his garments and on his sons and their garments. Then he and his sons and their garments will be consecrated.

Aaron and his sons and their garments were set aside for God’s use. They were to be God’s priests for Israel. They were made holy. To use the New Testament word, they were sanctified. In a similar way, this is what God told Jeremiah. “Before you were born Jeremiah, I set you apart for my use.” If Jeremiah was looking for meaning in life or God’s purpose for him, here was the answer. God had chosen him to be on his team. He had been chosen for a holy purpose.

What is God and his team doing? Let me quote Eugene Peterson:
He is saving; he is rescuing; he is blessing; he is providing; he is judging; he is healing; he is enlightening. There is a spiritual war in progress, an all-out moral battle. There is evil and cruelty, unhappiness and illness. There is superstition and ignorance, brutality and pain. God is in continuous and energetic battle against all of it. God is for life and against death. God is for love and against hate. God is for hope and against despair. God is for heaven and against hell. There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square foot of ground is contested.

Before Jeremiah was born, he was chosen to be on God’s team to be a part of this work, this struggle. He was set aside for God’s use. As Peterson says, Jeremiah was not given the choice of being a spectator. Jeremiah did not have the luxury of looking around and trying to find himself. God came to him, revealed himself to Jeremiah and called him to this holy calling.

Those who follow Jesus are called in the New Testament, saints. This word, “saints” is taken from the same word as consecrated and saints are those who have been set aside for God’s use. As one of God’s saints, you have been consecrated, set aside for God’s use. You do not have the option of being a spectator in the cosmic battle taking place. You can either choose to be part of the team to which you have been called, or be a traitor who refuses and joins the other side. As Bob Dylan sang, “It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord but your gonna have to serve somebody.”

You ask what is your purpose in life? You wonder why you are here? As one of God’s saints, you have been chosen to be on God’s team, to be a part of this spiritual battle that is taking place. We will see that God goes on to give Jeremiah a specific assignment, but this is his purpose and this is our purpose: to be on his team. It doesn’t matter so much whether you are a prophet, plumber, pastor or pasta maker. What matters is that you have been chosen to be on God’s team and in whatever you specifically do, you serve as a member of his team.

This too is part of the affirmative nature of Jeremiah’s call. Before he was born, he had been chosen by God to be on his team. He was wanted. He was designed to be part of God’s team.

Now to the third statement of Jeremiah’s call. God told Jeremiah he knew him before he created him in the womb, he chose him to be on his side before he was born and third, God told Jeremiah, “I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

The word appointed literally means gave. God gave Jeremiah as a prophet to the nations. Does this mean Jeremiah had no choice in the matter? Jeremiah did have a choice but it was the choice of Jonah. God told Jonah to preach repentance to Ninevah and Jonah refused. He fled in the opposite direction and suffered the consequences of running from God’s will. Jeremiah had that same choice. Does that seem fair?

What about free will? What about choice? Was it fair for God to give Jeremiah as a prophet to the nations? This hits the issue of fairness right between the eyes. Is it fair that one person has an easier life than another? Is it fair that one person lives a long life in good health and prosperity and enjoys his or her children and grandchildren and another person never marries and struggles to make ends meet? Jeremiah never married, never had children or grandchildren. He was mistreated and abused. Was it fair for God to give him to Judah?

Asking these questions of fairness is as fruitless as asking why things don’t fall up rather than down. Like the law of gravity, God’s giving of us for his purposes is unalterable. This is simply the way the world works. This is the nature of God who gives of himself. God humbled himself, limited himself and was born as a man. God suffered and died for us, he died the death we were to die so we could live eternally.

To be chosen is to be given and ultimately, we have to trust in God’s love for us. Jeremiah was not sent into his calling as a prophet to the nations callously, indifferently, uncaringly. God who loved Jeremiah more than any of us could ever hope to love somebody, gave Jeremiah to the nations.

To what has God called us? In what way have we been given? We may be living an easy life or we may be living a difficult life. Either way, we have been given to the world, to the work God is doing.

This is the cost for being chosen.
We will talk more about this next week, but we are not born into this life to get. We are born into this life to give. As part of God’s team, God gives us to our family, our friends, our neighbors, to the world. We can refuse to give and seek to get but this is one of the dead ends of life. Getting is the way of death but giving is the way of life.

To the questions: Who am I? Why am I here? For what purpose was I born? God answers. You are mine. I created you. I chose you to be on my side in this conflict in the world. I have a purpose for you to fulfill. I give you to the world.

As you seek God, he will increasingly reveal his will to you. As you grow in your understanding of God’s love and grace in your life, you will increasingly experience what it means to be known by God. This morning is a step in that direction. As a Christian you are God’s child. You have been chosen. You have been selected. Before you were conceived in the womb, you were on God’s mind. He knew you then and your birth was planned. You were not an accident. You are wanted by the person most important in your life.

Just because you are living a hard life does not mean necessarily that what I have just said is untrue. The call of God is not always to an easy life. We may be called to a difficult life, a life in which we are deprived of what most of us expect in this world. Jeremiah never married. He never had children or grandchildren. His message was understood but not appreciated. But this was still the life to which God called him.

It all gets back to that image from Jeremiah 12 in which God challenges Jeremiah to run with the horses. The challenge to us is to live better, not seek to live easier. Will you, like Jeremiah, run with the horses? Or will you shuffle along with the crowd?

Will you join with God to work on his team or will you be a traitor to the other side?

Run with the horses!