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The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 31, 2016
The Old Testament: Jeremiah 1:4-10
Sermon: "Who's Calling?"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
The Old Testament:
The word of the Lord came to me saying,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Then I said, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the Lord said to me,
"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord."
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant."
Do you remember when it became socially acceptable for boys to play with dolls? If you do, then like me, you are of a certain age. Of course, boys dolls were packaged as “Action Figures”, like G.I. Joe, and never referred to as dolls, like Barbie; which were still just for girls. Some G.I. Joe’s and Barbie’s came at that time with the ability to talk. Usually that involved pulling a ring with a string attached that activated one of a half dozen pre-recorded random sentences. If you’re too young to have experienced this marvel of primitive technology, just think Woody in Toy Story.
Only rarely did these sentences have anything to do with the scenario we were pretending to act out, however. A sister, or the girl next door, may have "borrowed" G.I. Joe a time or two to have tea with Barbie. The conversation would go something like this:
Barbie: "Would you like to go shopping?" Joe: "We must hold this position. Dig in!"
These days, however, the talking toys our kids or grandkids found under the tree about a month ago are a lot more sophisticated. In fact, the same speech recognition technology that enables us to have a conversation with our smart phones is now being used to turn dolls, sorry, “Action Figures”, into a high-tech version of Chatty Cathy. And, if you remember her, you are also of a “certain age”.
A 21st-century iteration of the classic Barbie doll, for example, has been in the news lately. Instead of a string, Hello Barbie uses a Wi-Fi connection and speech recognition technology to have what seems like real conversations with kids. Last year, a reporter from CNBC "interviewed" Barbie at a Toy Fair. Barbie performed so well that onlookers were convinced there had to be someone behind a curtain with a microphone answering the questions.
The bottom line, however, is that, as speech recognition technology gets more and more complex, it's going to get harder to tell whether we're having a "real" conversation or a computer-generated one. The movie Her, for example, explored the pitfalls of those blurred lines as a man falls in love with the voice on his phone. If we all are getting more and more wrapped up in speaking with disembodied voices, we have to wonder if there might be a potential problem here: a problem, as in, how to know Who’s Calling.
Discerning Who’s calling is not a new problem. It was an issue long before we had smartphones and talking dolls. The Bible is full of stories where people, including kids, heard a voice, and had to decide whether to respond.
Abram was hanging out in Haran when he heard a voice saying to him, "Go west, young man!" The actual citation is, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). Moses was tending sheep in the middle of a wilderness when he heard a voice coming from a burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15). Samuel was a small boy sleeping in the temple when he heard a voice calling his name (1 Samuel 3:1-18). Isaiah was in the temple when he heard the Lord say, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" (Isaiah 6:8). Elijah was in the cleft of a mountain when he heard the "still small voice" (KJV), of God call to him. (1 Kings 19:12-13).
And then there's this week's Old Testament lesson from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. Here, the boy, Jeremiah, hears a voice and decides to get interactive with it. The voice, of course, is the voice of God. But we have to wonder how each of these biblical heroes heard it and, perhaps even more importantly, what made them answer. A 21st-century kid might have an increasingly tough time differentiating between a real voice and a computer-generated one, but Kid Jeremiah knew right away that the voice he was hearing was the Lord's. How did he know who was calling? How do we know when we're hearing the voice of God? Jeremiah's story offers some clues.
And, the first clue is this: God's voice is best heard within a community of faith (vv. 1-3). The opening of the book of Jeremiah tells us that he was the son of a priest named Hilkiah from Anathoth, a town just north of Jerusalem. Anathoth was one of the cities assigned to the priestly class of Levites (Joshua 21:18). Growing up within a priestly community, Jeremiah would have known the stories about Abraham, Moses, Samuel and so many others who had heard God's call. He would have been schooled in regular prayer, and would have witnessed the people of his village pouring over sacred texts to determine God's will and way for their lives. Thus, the voice of God came to Jeremiah, not out of the blue, but in the context of a community devoted to God; a community where people discerned God's voice together.
In a world where technology tends to isolate people, and where a kid can have hours of conversations with a doll instead of with friends or family, we are to remember that we're wired to hear God's voice best within community. It's in community that we can check the inner stirrings of our hearts with others who can help us discern the voice of God through Scripture, worship and prayer. Regular connection to Christian community is key to making sure that the voice we're hearing is actually God's, and not simply an advertisement for our own desires.
It’s in our faith community that we can test the message and authenticity of the voice. Does the message square with the teachings of Jesus in Scripture; with his call to love, sacrifice, and serve? Or does it suggest that faith is all about me, myself, and I, ahead of all else? Does the message lead us deeper into positive relationships with others, where we constantly seek their best good and benefit? Or does it lead us to use others to our own desires and end? Does it square with our faith community’s tradition of social justice for all, especially the poor and the oppressed? Or does it let us off any sense of responsibility for the welfare of everyone, especially the weak and the vulnerable? Just here is the big difference between the voice that speaks to saints and prophets, and the voice that directs religious demagogues, cult leaders, murderous zealots, and charlatans.
This morning we are going to be celebrating a baptism among us. Here’s the thing I hope we all capture in that experience. Baptism is about community, not just a new life’s personal faith. It’s about a faith community taking responsibility, either for itself or on behalf of another faith community, to see to it that the newly baptized is raised to know that difference. That’s the first clue offered in Jeremiah’s experience this morning; Community, where we discern Who’s calling.
Here’s the other clue from Jeremiah’s experience: God's voice is best heard in conversation with God (vv. 4-8). We don't know exactly how God's call "came" to Jeremiah (v. 4). Perhaps it was a dream. Perhaps it was an inner voice or maybe it was during a time of prayer. But, like Moses and Samuel before him, Jeremiah decides to test the voice by entering into conversation with it, even pushing back against it.
God tells Jeremiah he’d been appointed to a prophetic mission before he was even born (v. 5). Having been schooled in the story of Moses, Jeremiah raises a conversational objection. "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy!" By pushing back in conversation, Jeremiah can sort out whether his call is something coming from within himself, which could be easily dismissed, or whether this is coming from God; a call that cannot be discounted quite so fast.
It's an interesting pattern in the Bible: those who are the most powerfully used by God are those who take the time to test God's call with a conversation. Indeed, it seems God invites this kind of conversation. God allows us to bring our fears and feelings to the table. Yes, God wants our obedience, but it seems that God desires that obedience to emerge out of a deep relationship rather than out of obligation or fear. Regular prayer is a running conversation with God that allows us to, as St. John puts it, "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1). God invites us, both individually and collectively, to test a voice, or a directing thought, or a leading intuition. We test such voices , in prayer with God, and in community with other Christians. That ‘s how we come to hear clearly, Who’s calling.
So what about our own callings? God does lead us and call us, each and every one of us, to serve him. How do we know it’s God we’re hearing? When God speaks with us, our conversations lead us to honesty about ourselves. This is yet another difference between what God’s voice, and the voices of the world, or of our imaginations do to us. Other voices flatter and puff up our pride. God’s voice humbles us, and leads us to confession. Just like Jeremiah, we have shortcomings. But, also just like Jeremiah our shortcomings are not barriers to God’s work through us. In fact, it seems that God doesn’t always call the qualified. But, God will always qualify the called. Remember God’s word to the Apostle Paul’s complaint of weakness? “My strength is made perfect in your weakness!” (II Cor. 12:9)
You and I need have no fear to answer the call of God’s voice in our lives. We can know his voice. We can answer his call. We can do all he asks, whatever our weaknesses. Some of the most powerful words in the Bible are repeated at the end of our passage this morning : God promises, "I am with you" (v. 19). The God who calls us will always be in conversation with us, and will always lead us, through discernment in community, and humility in conversation. And, that’s how we can know Who’s Calling!