A Prophet’s Call

Part 1 of “Major Lessons from Minor Prophets”

Text: Jeremiah 1:1-10

Minor Prophets LogoWe begin a new series this week on the Minor Prophets, which is a part of the Bible that many people, even preachers, tend to skip over. I mean, how many sermons have you heard on Haggai or Habakkuk, for example? They tend to be read little and understood less, given the poetic language and obscure references within that sound strange to modern ears.

But I want to argue today that the reason we tend to skip over the prophets is because we don’t really understand the nature of biblical prophecy itself. When we use that word, “prophet,” for example, we tend to think of someone who predicts the future. That’s not exactly the case. The biblical definition of a prophet is one who speaks for God—speaking God’s truth and its consequences for people in a particular time and place. Rather than just being soothsayers, the prophets act as God’s mouthpiece.

And that’s an important distinction, because there are plenty of people running around today claiming to be “prophetic,” which generally means that they hold up something new and novel and proclaim it to be the new truth. But the biblical prophets did not proclaim that which was new—they proclaimed the timeless truth of God and its implications for the world. The prophets only pointed forward by pointing backward—to God’s eternal character and what God had done in the past and would do in the future because of it.

We study these prophets, then, not only to discern what God was up to in the past, but also what God might be saying to us in the present and the future as a result. The prophets tended to emerge during times of Israel’s greatest crises—when the nation was going off track and needed to be brought back to God. We need to hear them again and what they have to say to us, particularly in a time of great distress. They have much to teach us.

In this introductory message, I want us to look at some of the traits of a biblical prophet and use them as a template for discerning the difference between someone who is speaking for God and someone who is only speaking for themselves. False prophets abounded in Israel’s day. Paul and Jesus both warned us about them. How can you spot the real thing?

To answer that, we’re going to look at this text from Jeremiah, one of the “major” prophets (major because of the volume of their writing and their relative place in Israel’s history). Here we have one of the most complete accounts of a prophet’s call and one that I think gives us the groundwork for discerning a true prophet of God.

PROPHETS EMERGE FROM A COMMUNITY OF FAITH

The first trait of a prophet is that they emerge from a community of faith. The superscription 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 that 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 poring over sacred texts to determine God’s will and way for their lives. The voice of God thus came to Jeremiah not out of the blue but out of 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 from one another, we need to remember that we’re best wired to hear God’s voice 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 a key to making sure that the voice we’re hearing is actually God’s and not simply an advertisement for our own desires.

PROPHETS ARE IN CONSTANT CONVERSATION WITH GOD

That leads us to the second trait of a prophet, and that is that they are in constant conversation with God. 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. Maybe he was getting ready for the prom!  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 told Jeremiah that he had appointed him to a prophetic mission before he was even born (v. 5) but, 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!” God knows Jeremiah, but Jeremiah also knows himself and what being “a prophet to the nations” will entail. By pushing back in conversation, Jeremiah can sort out whether his call is something coming from within himself, which could be easily dismissed or exploited, or whether this was coming from God — a call that could not be dismissed so easily.

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. Jeremiah’s response to God, “Ah, Lord God” is language that usually preceded a prayer in the form of lament or complaint. The Bible reveals a lot of these kinds of conversational prayers; the Psalms are full of them, as are the stories of biblical heroes including Jesus who has his own push back conversation with God in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Indeed, it seems like God invites this kind of conversation, even if God will always have the last word! We sometimes forget that prayer is a two-way street and that God doesn’t just give us a series of commands. Plenty of people have claimed to have been ordered by God to do something but failed to enter into a conversation with God to determine whose voice they were actually hearing (a list of despotic religious cult leaders comes to mind). Yes, God wants our obedience, but it seems that God desires that obedience to emerge out of a deep relationship rather than out of mere obligation.

Regular prayer is a running conversation with God that allows us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (I John 4:1). God invites us, both individually and collectively, to test the spirits in prayer and in fellowship with other Christians so that we can hear God’s voice clearly.

PROPHETS ARE GROUNDED IN THE SCRIPTURES

Testing the spirits also means testing the prophet’s word against God’s Word as revealed in Scripture. Notice what God says to Jeremiah in verse 7- “You shall speak whatever I command you” and in verse 9 – “See, I have put my words in your mouth.” God is unchanging, thus God would never tell a prophet to say something contradictory to his Word, both his revealed word in Scripture and in his embodied Word, Jesus Christ.

It always pains me when people will listen to a preacher or a television prophet without the Scriptures open in their laps. I always tell people, “Don’t take my word for it, take God’s Word for it!” Dialogue with the Scriptures, quibble with the interpretation, see if it passes the eye test. False prophets abound when God’s people are biblically illiterate.

That’s one of the reasons that this Fall we will be launching a new focus on biblical literacy at our church. I will be starting a pattern of preaching through the entire Bible using the narrative lectionary, which gives you the full sweep of the Bible over a four year period. We will do Old Testament each fall, one of the gospels from Advent to Easter, Acts and the letters of Paul from Easter to Pentecost, and series on different parts of the Bible during the summer, like Minor Prophets. The goal is to ground you in the whole biblical story and give you the ability to order your worldview around it. The more we are immersed in God’s Word, the more discerning we become about the world and the messages we receive from it.

PROPHETS SUFFER FOR GOD

For the prophet, however, carrying God’s Word comes with a cost. That’s why one of the major traits of a real prophet is that they tend to suffer a lot. God appointed Jeremiah “over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Whenever a prophet speaks God’s truth, it tends to go badly for them because those invested in the status quo will always respond vigorously. Jeremiah’s own life resonates with suffering. He will be ignored and then beaten, his letters to the king burned, his life threatened; he will be imprisoned in a cistern and left for dead. It’s no wonder that at one point he cries out to God (20:7-9):

JEREMIAH 20:7-9

Lord, you enticed me, and I was taken in.

    You were too strong for me, and you prevailed.

Now I’m laughed at all the time;

    everyone mocks me.

8 Every time I open my mouth, I cry out

    and say, “Violence and destruction!”

The Lord’s word has brought me

    nothing but insult and injury, constantly.

9 I thought, I’ll forget him;

    I’ll no longer speak in his name.

But there’s an intense fire in my heart,

    trapped in my bones.

    I’m drained trying to contain it;

        I’m unable to do it.

A prophet has the fire of God’s word shut up in his or her bones and can’t contain it or refrain from speaking it, no matter the cost. We see this again and again in Scripture. Hebrews 11 recounts what happens to them—torture, imprisonment, wandering in the desert, living in caves and holes in the ground; some were stoned or sawn in two. When God calls someone to be a prophet, he’s not doing them a favor! And yet there is a deep conviction that the word of God will not fail.

Indeed, that’s the promise God gives to the real prophet. God says to Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you.” Retired Methodist bishop Will Willimon is fond of saying that every time God says “I will be with you” in the Bible it’s hard to determine whether that’s a promise or a threat! God does not call the qualified but qualifies the called and stays with them until the task is completed, no matter where it leads.

This is such a different view of prophets than we have today. Our prophets tend to have large ministries and bank accounts, comfortable homes and lavish lifestyles. The biblical prophets sneer at their falsehood. The prophet’s work is never for his or her own benefit. Following God’s call costs something—indeed, it costs everything!

PROPHETS CONSIDER THE CALL

Jeremiah knew this, even as a young man. He had to consider the call carefully. A couple of weeks ago, we had a lunch with the five youth from our church who will be confirmed today, three of them being baptized. Confirmation was kind of an open conversation this year, and these young people asked great questions. It was fun to share stories. I told them about my own prom experience, for example, and how the girl ditched me at the door, leaving me to sit alone all night. A year or so later, as I stood in a foxhole at Ft. Jackson, SC in the middle of the night with rain pouring down my back, my first thought was, “This is still better than prom night!”

As we sat at the table, they asked questions—“When did you know you were called?” It took a community to discern it; it took a lot of wrestling, it has taken some long nights of the soul when I cried out to God like Jeremiah. But there is a fire shut up in my bones, I told them, and if you have that, you know you are called. It will be hard—it’s hard to follow God’s call. There will be nights of wrestling and pain. Days when it’s hard to feel God’s presence. But God is there, and when it gets hard, I think to myself—“This is still better than prom night!”

And I said to them, God is calling you. It may not be to a prophetic ministry, but you are called to something—something that if it is a true, authentic call of God will put you on a path you didn’t plan. As a follower of Christ, you will be called to stand up against a world that is pulling you into its orbit, that doesn’t want to hear the word of God. They will think you are weird and sometimes hate you because you are different. You will have the mark of baptism on you that doesn’t wash off. Never be swayed by any agenda that isn’t God’s. Give your life to something that matters for eternity. Don’t settle for the itchy ears of people who want their preachers and prophets to tell them what they want to hear. Be bold and courageous and spend your life in such a way that you have a fire shut up in your bones and you can’t hold it in.

Friends, there are some prophets in this group! God is still calling them. And he is still calling you as well. May we be a community of faith from which such prophets emerge! May we engage in constant, deep conversation with God. Let’s place our hands on young people and confirm God’s call in their lives. Let us learn to listen and to speak God’s word to the world. Let us encourage one another in suffering for the truth. In a world of darkness, God is looking for those who will hear his voice and go to all whom he sends them and speak whatever he commands.

That’s a prophet’s call. May we be a community in which it is heard. Amen.

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