One of the remarkable things about posting sermons online every week, is the fact that I can look at the statistics of which sermons receive the most attention. For instance: Over the last year my sermon titled, “What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?” is easily in the top three as well as a recent reflection on the Pledge of Allegiance.
But ever since I started posting sermons, there is one that has dominated in popularity. In August of 2013, in my second month as a pastor, I preach a sermon on Jeremiah 1.4-10 and I titled it, “The Power of Words.” Over the last three years thousands of people have come to the blog for this one particular sermon and yet there were only 80 people in church the day that I preached it.
Here is what I said…
“Now 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.”
The Power of Words
Words are powerful. The perfectly timed phrase or expression can carry more meaning and accomplish more than just about anything else. From the pulpit they carry even greater value because they are so connected with the Word of the Lord. At their best words can be used in a fruitful way, demonstrating the kind of building-up that the bible often refers to, in order than we can affirm one another in love. At their worst, words can be used in a destructive way, hurting those around us, and ignoring the truth of God’s role in the world.
On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany. This was the beginning of the Third Reich. Germany, the land that had produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler was known for using his words in public propaganda for destructive purposes. Some of you here this morning can remember how the world shuddered when this began to take place.
Two days after Hitler was elected, a twenty-six year old theologian name Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address throughout the German nation. The speech was titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” Though the talk was itself highly philosophical, it constructively argued against the type of leadership that Hitler would use for the next twelve years, inevitably leading a nation and half the world into a nightmare of violence and misery.
Bonhoeffer spent a significant portion of his speech discussing the differences between a true leader, and the Fuhrer. He used his words in a calm and collected way, appreciating the power they held: A true leader must know the limitations of his/her authority. The good leader serves others and leads others to maturity. He puts them above himself, as a good parent does with a child, wishing to lead that child to someday be a worthy parent. Another word for this type of leadership is discipleship. “Only when we see that leadership is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, has the real situation been reached. The individual is responsible before God.”
Before Bonhoeffer could finish, the speech was cut off. Only two days after Hitler’s election, the Nazis were suppressing this young man who spoke out against the type of leadership that would come to define Germany over the coming decade.
What we find in the first chapter of Jeremiah is an encounter between the human and the divine. We discover how powerful words can be through God’s call. As the divine Word, God is a genuine and invisible otherness when compared to Jeremiah. During this particular encounter the word of the Lordcame to Jeremiah and the prophet meets in faith the God who meets him through the Word.
“Jeremiah! Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you, and before you were born Iconsecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord God! You cannot expect me to speak! I am only a boy.” But the Lord responded, “Do not say ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all 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.”
In his Word, God does not deliver a course of lectures on dogmatic theology, He does not submit the content of a creed of a confession of faith, and he does not even produce a perfectly prepared three-point sermon. Instead He makes himself accessible to us. An exchange takes place here in scripture that is beyond any analogy in the sphere of rational thinking. Instead, we have here a simple encounter, just like one between any two people, where God makes Himself available and known through relationship.
Jeremiah’s experience guides him into boundary, toward his own finitude, being reminded of his humanity, as over and against God. Jeremiah’s encounter is a reminder for us that we are not God. God is wholly other when compared with his creation. When Jeremiah meets God, his personality sinks away into the background; he feels his words being replaced by the Word of God. When we truly encounter the depth and beauty of the triune God, everything about us begins to sink away as well.
It is no wonder therefore why Jeremiah evades the commission of God. “Surely you can’t use me God, for I am only a boy.” Jeremiah protests because he is overwhelmed and intimidated by the call to set aside priests, princes, and people to become a prophet to the nations. He was afraid to proclaim the Word of God, which would go beyond the comprehension of his time.
This isn’t in scripture, but I can imagine God’s full response to Jeremiah’s evasion: “have you not seen and have you not heard what I have done with mere people? Have you forgotten the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What about Moses and Joshua? David was but a boy when I had him defeat the Philistines. Solomon became the wisest king to rule the nation All of the prophets, the judges, the priests? This isn’t about you Jeremiah, this is about what I am going to do through you.”
Recoiling from a divine appointment is common throughout scripture. It only takes a moment to remember Moses standing in the heat of the burning bush and then turning his face away because he was afraid to look at God.
The theologian Paul Tillich once said: “we always desire to escape God… People of all kinds, prophets and reformers, saints and atheists, believers and unbelievers, have the same experience.” It is safe to say that a person who has never tried to flee God has never experienced the truth of who God is.
God dismisses Jeremiah’s excuse; Young or old, learned or uninformed, handsome or ugly, none of things matter to God because they all pertain to our own self-centeredness: my powers, my status, mydesire to have reality on my terms. Because of the power in God’s Word Jeremiah does not react in silence, nor does he step aside to let someone else take his place, instead he steps into the situation, which has in a way stepped into him. He responds to the encounter of God, feels the Word of the Lord placed on his lips, and is prepared to do God’s work.
From this point forward Jeremiah will not go forth on his own terms; God will send him, and he will move according to God’s will. It is because of God working in and through Jeremiah that he will be able to speak and act in the specific situations as they arise. The encounter has changed Jeremiah so that he will be able to narrate God’s plucking up and planting again. Jeremiah will speak the truth of the Word of God regardless of whether or not they are agreeable to his youth, ambitions, moods, or self-examination.
It is only when it is made plainly clear to Jeremiah that the point at issue has nothing to do with his own abilities or the extent of his talents that the truth of God’s reign is made abundant and it becomes possible for Jeremiah to become a messenger.
Like Jeremiah, the young German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt the call of God to proclaim the Word. Things became very difficult for Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As the German nation descended into Fuhrer worship with the German church emphasizing politics more than theology, he struggled with how to be authentic to the Word of God as a pastor and a theologian. He trained young pastors through an underground seminary at Finkenwalde and preached about remaining faithful and obedient to God before anything else. As it became harder and harder for him to proclaim the good news in Germany, Bonhoeffer learned that war imminent and was frightened about being conscripted into the army.
Bonhoeffer was a committed pacifist and was adamantly opposed to the Nazi regime, therefore he would never swear an oath to Hitler nor fight in his army. However, to refuse this would be a capital offense. It was at this time that Bonhoeffer accepted a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York. While in the United States Bonhoeffer had somewhat of a Jeremiah experience, because even though he had the freedom to run away from his calling in Germany, Bonhoeffer realized that his responsibility was to God with the German people. Just as God would pluck up and replant the Israelites in Jeremiah’s time, Bonhoeffer knew that the German nation would have to be destroyed in order for it to be fruitful once again. And so Bonhoeffer returned to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic before the war.
Upon arriving back in Germany, Bonhoeffer’s desire to speak powerful words against the Third Reich resulted in him being forbidden to speak publically starting in 1940 and he had to regularly report his activities to the police. Within a year he was forbidden to print or publish. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after making his radio address, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks and involvement with the Abwehr’s plot to undermine Hitler’s regime.
He remained in prison for two years, able to write letters and theology that were smuggled out by sympathetic guards.
Though he remained hopeful for the end of the war and his eventual release, he was condemned to death in April of 1945. He was killed by hanging just two weeks before the United States liberated the camp where he was being held. Before his execution, Bonhoeffer was led away as he was concluding his final Sunday service and said to one of his fellow prisoners: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”
I fear that whenever we hear stories of people like Jeremiah or Bonhoeffer we regard them as a special kind of people, set apart for the work God ordained for them. And to be quite honest, it is very unlikely that anyone of us in this room will ever be imprisoned, or suffer, for our Christian identity. But we are all called to be Jeremiahs and Bonhoeffers in our commitment to following Jesus Christ. Just like those two prophets God has formed us, consecrated us, and placed the Word on our lips.
There is a power in words that we regularly underestimate. The way that we often talk about other behind their backs carries with it a great destructive energy. When we ignore the truth of our interconnected as the body of Christ in this place by speaking poorly of one another does a disservice to the God who formed you from the womb. Our words are powerful, use them wisely.
So too, there is a power in the words that we use to affirm and address one another in love; By caring for and reaching out to those around us we continue to live out the kind of fruitful lives that God has always envisioned for us. This church is called to be a place where we understand the power of our Words and use them appropriately.
Do not be afraid of this power that God has given to you. Jeremiah and Bonhoeffer did not go in their own strength and neither do you. They did not speak on their own authority and neither do you.God is our strength and our authority. “I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” The thoughts of our selfish lives can be cast away to the side so that we can assume the proper posture as messengers of God. As Paul wrote to the Galatians “Yet not I, but Christ working in me” (Gal. 2.20).
Throughout their lives both Jeremiah and Bonhoeffer saw the collision of powers in the world. What defined them was their ability to see God’s decisive acts in history, remembering that God is the true authority over all things in spite of the powers that dominated their cultures. Jeremiah and Bonhoeffer were ordinary people. They were just like us. They were living their lives, expecting everything to be fine when God put something on their lips to say. Hearing and responding to the Word of God is a difficult thing, but God is always speaking and our response to that Word will define us as a people of faith, hope, and love.
Do not be afraid to speak the truth, for the Lord is with you.