"COURAGEOUS" - I Corinthians 13:1-8a; Jeremiah 1:4-10

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Texts: I Corinthians 13:1-8a; Jeremiah 1:4-10

“COURAGEOUS”

            On Wednesday of this past week, we had our regular luncheon of interfaith clergy. This group – made up of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders in RVA – called the “Faith Forum” - meets on the last Wednesday of the month to share a simple meal, to enjoy conversation, and to deepen connections and friendship.

            At this past week’s gathering of the Faith Forum, as we were enjoying our lunch, the host invited us to introduce ourselves (because many of us are still getting to know each other), and then asked us to share an answer to this question: “what in your life is going on in these days where COURAGE is requested/demanded/invited from you?” Or put more simply: how and where in our lives are we being called to be more COURAGEOUS?

            So, after a pause, . . . and some thoughtfulness, . . . we took turns with each of us sharing something from our lives where we are striving to be COURAGEOUS. Some of the answers were deeply personal, generating tears from the individual who was speaking. Some of the answers related to the challenges of living and serving in faith communities with difficult people, or struggling finances, or challenging and shifting circumstances. Some of the sharing touched on politics and even the President. It was a moving and meaningful exercise.

            How would you answer that question? What is happening in your life in these days where you are asked to be, needing to be, especially COURAGEOUS?

Maybe nothing, or very little, is asking you to be COURAGEOUS. If that is true, maybe it is a good time to re-think what you are doing and how you are living? God calls us to be faithful and live with COURAGE.

Perhaps you are facing a new diagnosis for yourself, or a loved one, and, though you wish things were different, sincere COURAGE is being summoned from you.

Perhaps you are concerned about a child, or the difficulties of raising children in these crazy times, . . . . . or a dealing with declining parent, . . . . or struggling in a relationship, . . . and God is giving you COURAGE to be present, to be helpful, to bring about change.

Maybe you find yourself in a new chapter of life – expected or unexpected - with grief, fears, anxiety, even turmoil – and you are not in control because you have to wait, and be patient, and trust God – AND you have to be COURAGEOUS.

            We have a passage from Scripture today that is especially pertinent and always helpful. It comes from Jeremiah 1. Listen:

4Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5“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.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7But 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, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 9Then 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. 10See, 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.” 

This is the Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

So, . . . . a schoolboy sat at his desk right next to the kitchen in his home; he was working on a report for school. At a loss for an appropriate introduction for his report, he laid down his pen and sought out his mother who was in the kitchen. Without warning, he asked, “Mother, how was I born?” The mother was well aware that this question of human reproduction would come up one day, but she was not about to deal with it while she was cooking dinner. So she responded with a loving but unhelpful tale: “The stork brought you to us, dear.” . . . . The boy nodded and moved to the living room where his grandmother was knitting. Again, without warning, he asked, “Grandma, how was my mother born?” Being a product of another era, this good lady was not about to touch that one. “My dear child,” she said, “the stork brought your mother.” . . . .“Grandma,” the boy persisted, “how were you born?” “The stork brought me too,” she insisted. . . . He thanked her and returned to his desk. Picking up his pen, he began his report with these words: “There has not been a normal birth in our family for three generations.” J

Well, according to the prophet Jeremiah’s call from God, there hasn’t ever been a normal birth in the human family, if by normal you mean humanly conceived, humanly derived. Jeremiah’s birth, and all of life, are part of God’s grand plan and purposes, in the loving and faithful service of God. (thanks to my friend, Todd Jones, for this story)

“4Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5“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.” 

There was nothing normal about Jeremiah’s birth. It was not the stork who brought him. It was God. And the same is true for our lives. Before ever you were formed in the womb, before you arrived in the world, God knew you, just a surely as God knew Jeremiah. This is a major, important theological concept.

This is what we affirm: whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God. No matter what is going on, or how difficult and complex life becomes, we belong to God. God knows us. God knows what we are dealing with. And this word in this passage – the Hebrew word for “know” is interchangeable with the word “chosen.” Before I formed you, I knew you. Before I formed you, I chose you. Before you thought of yourself, I thought of you – God says – with specific intentions, with specific work to do. Jeremiah would be a prophet to the nations. All of us are formed and known, formed and chosen, to work with and for God on the healing and the hope of the world.

The context for these words, the context for this promise, is especially important – formed and known by God, known and chosen by God – with specific purposes related to and for God. You remember that God called Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12) to become God’s people in the world. They, along with their descendants would find life and hope, blessings and purpose with God – in covenant, in a critical relationship: God would be their God, and the people would worship and serve God. That is the foundational theme, underlying everything in the Bible. We belong to God. We seek to worship and serve God with our lives.

By the time we get to Jeremiah, we are 1500 years into the story of God and God’s people: lots of generations, lots of ups and downs, successes and failures of life with and for God. By the time we get to Jeremiah – around 600BC – God’s people have emerged from a wandering, struggling, uncertain people, . . . and have become well-established. They have land, they have a temple, they have a king, they have prosperity, even credibility in the Middle Eastern world.

But also around 600BC – the time of Jeremiah – a CRISIS with a ‘capital C’ is emerging. The Babylonian empire, under the governance of Nebuchadnezzar, was a threatening force in the region. The region of Judah held by God’s beloved people, the cherished temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem, the king seemingly forever safe because of God’s covenant and promises, were ALL under extreme duress and threat. The Babylonian king and empire were about to obliterate the land, sack the temple, defeat the king, and destroy any semblance of that covenant with God.

So Jeremiah is called by God, as a prophet, filled with God’s Spirit, to speak on behalf of God, to help, to imagine, to articulate a different world, a better world, a hopeful world aligned with God and God’s purposes. God, throughout the Bible, uses prophets to move the people and the world to a better realm – a realm of faithfulness and justice, a realm of peace and hope, a realm of light and possibility.

This is what God says to Jeremiah: “before I formed you, I knew you; before you were born, I consecrated you – a prophet to the nations.”

Can you sense, then, the COURAGE that might be required from Jeremiah? This is a season of intense urgency for God’s people. This is a time when everything familiar was going to fall apart. The Babylonians were moving with power and fear into the region. The land, given by God through all the generations, had become a place of selfish gain – those who had more were gaining more; those who had less were losing. It was not a place – as God intended – of justice and joy. The king, established and set apart for faithful leadership, embodied mostly corruption. The temple, built for faithfulness and worship, had become a place of mockery. The city of God – Jerusalem – no longer looked like a city on a hill that honored God. Everything was on the verge of collapse.

Jeremiah is the chosen voice for truth and destruction, for honesty and hope. Can you imagine the COURAGE he might need? He even cried out to God: “Ah, Lord, God! Truly, I do not know how to speak; I am only a boy;” he tried to get out of this calling, dodge this commission in those difficult, disastrous times. “But the Lord said, . . . do not be afraid. . . . I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” And God says, “I appoint you over the nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Jeremiah’s mission is, finally, to show the people of God the way back to God, to imagine a new life for God’s people free from the corruptions, back to loving God and loving neighbor as God calls all of us to do.

Isn’t that the challenge for all of us? How much does our city, our life, our nation, need COURAGEOUS people of God to work for justice and hope? We keep wanting to discover the new life with God, loving God, loving neighbors, moving our lives closer to the way God intends the world: peace, wholeness, light, justice, joy everywhere, for everyone. This is the singular mission of life – for all of us - work with and for God to make the world a place of hope and light, love and peace.

Jeremiah’s calling was to be a prophet in troubled times to help God’s people find life with God, and life for God in worship and in faithful service. Jeremiah’s calling was – in the face of great challenge and calamity - to be open to God’s fresh possibilities for a people about to be destroyed.

Where are you being called in these days, in your life, to be COURAGEOUS?

Remember what God says to Jeremiah who was up against the total destruction of life as he knew it for him and his people. God says “before I formed you, I knew you; before you were born I consecrated you.” Our lives are rooted deeply in the love and connection to God. That abiding love “bears all things, believes all things, endures all things,” as the first lesson reminds us. Then, finally and foremost, God says, “do not fear – I am with you to deliver you.”

Where are you – where are we being called in these days to be COURAGEOUS? We got turmoil in our hearts, in our city, in the Governor’s mansion, in our nation. We are called to be COURAGEOUS in spreading God’s light and peace, hope and possibility.

The prophet Jeremiah wants always to move us to new ways of experiencing God, of trusting God, no matter what we are dealing with. Jeremiah is a companion – formed and known, known and chosen by God – an authentic, struggling companion for us – especially for the worst of times. No matter how bad it got for Jeremiah and for the people of that time, God never deserted them: in chapter 29, God says this: “for surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Even with Jerusalem falling into the hands of Babylon, total despair coming over all life, Jeremiah keeps focused on God, and God’s presence, and God’s promises, and affirms that God never leaves us. Life belongs to God.

This intends to generate COURAGEOUS lives from us – in these days, in these times. We have work to do. COURAGEOUS! May it be so.

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, we believe; help our unbelief. And show us the way toward healing and hope, love and life following Jesus. Amen

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on February 3, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.

 

Virginia Evans