In the first chapter of the book bearing his name, Jeremiah received his call to be a public servant specializing in words, a disruptor of false peace—a prophet of God.
“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.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
The majority of Israel had embraced idolatry and greed with its resulting oppression of the poor. The nation was on the brink of invasion by Babylon–God’s agent of judgment.
Jeremiah was God’s chosen spokesperson, what some have called a “covenant prosecutor.” He was summoned to the capital to argue the case that the nation had broken their bond with God, as soothing false prophets encouraged Israel’s exceptionalism.
Jeremiah’s initial reaction was not excitement but fear. When God informed him what he was uniquely shaped and authorized for the work he called him to, Jeremiah’s reaction was, “I do not know how to speak, for I’m only a youth” (1:6). “I can’t. It’s too hard.” Jeremiah’s response to God’s assurances that he’d prepared him amounted to “No, you didn’t. I don’t have skills.” Like us, he protested that he lacked expertise and experience. But God pushed back: “Do not say that.”
You may not think of your calling in the same terms as Jeremiah’s, but we have a lot in common with him. Whether you are a pastor, politician, laborer, cook, teacher, artist, medical professional, or businessperson, you have something to say with your life and have been uniquely shaped to say it. And like Jeremiah, you probably feel overwhelmed by God’s call in your life. And you will be tempted to tell yourself that your reluctance is just realism and humility.
Perhaps what you fear is not that you have no skills, but that certain people won’t like you. I often succumb to the fear of disapproval. Perhaps like me, you’d rather blend in than stand out. Putting your words out there is just too vulnerable. Sometimes when we say, “I don’t know how to speak,” we really mean, “I’m not an expert in philosophy or science. I don’t know how to argue.” But that’s ok. You don’t need to know everything.
Of course, God said more to Jeremiah’s fear than “do not say you can’t.” Let’s consider three broad ways that God counters fear in Jeremiah chapter 1.
God has given you something to say
While Jeremiah’s call was unique and specific to Israel’s situation at the time, God gives each of us something to say. Something to say with words and through our lives. Jeremiah was a prophet to a nation that had a unique constitution, where God was the monarch. His role as a “covenant prosecutor” was heavy on confrontational public speaking. But all believers are prophets in the sense that we are image-bearers of God with work to do and stories to tell. We work with words and live out words.
God has given all his people something to say—even a song to sing. We were created to praise God’s beauty before the nations, singing and displaying truth, goodness, and beauty (Psalm 96).
What you have to say may not be as direct or confrontational as Jeremiah’s message. It may be indirect—a story, a meal, a spirit of hospitality, a poem, or a painting. You might not tell your story in our nation’s capital or before a large audience. But your conversations and confessions, spoken in the presence of friends, family, or neighbors, are like seeds that God will water. Your unspoken works of mercy, kindness, and beauty will sound forth the glory of God.
God has “touched your mouth” with a melody of disruptive beauty.
God touched Jeremiah’s mouth, giving him words a tone, or melody for his words. God’s intent was for his prophet’s work was “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). His message was to disrupt in order to plant–to break up the ground and sow new seeds. He was to subvert reigning ideas, idols, and social arrangements.
The focus of Jeremiah’s message was God’s impending judgment on Israel through Babylon for their chronic covenant breaches. He was called to disrupt a false peace so that his people could turn to God and live under the beauty of his rule. His vision of beauty was not soft or escapist. It was a disruptive beauty that exposes brokenness.
You and I do not live in a nation that made a covenant with the God of the Bible. We are not prosecutors in the sense Jeremiah was. But we do have something to say that is disruptive good news—the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel of the kingdom begins with exposure of sin and self-rule but offers to unleash the mending beauty of shalom (peace) with God.
Of the popular false prophets of his day, Jeremiah said,
They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace. (6:14)
The gaping wound was “healed” superficially, suggesting the injury was minimized or denied. Like then, most people today do not acknowledge the depth of their brokenness before God. We’ll admit our hurts or our psychological “issues,” but rarely do we repent of our sin against God or our preference for idols. We opt for a false peace of escape into entertainment and numbing substances.
Though we could stand on a street corner and yell about sin, we are unlikely to be understood by most people. As a culture, we don’t have a shared set of values or even facts. So, to be heard, we have to be more conversational, more interactive. We have to describe and display more than declare.
A meaningful way to display disruptive beauty is honesty about our brokenness as Christians—to take a proactive stand against our heart’s natural self-righteousness. Beauty emerges in a “broken and contrite heart,” and “broken bones rejoice” (Psalm 51). Honest humility is beautiful. Saying something hopeful or joyful can disrupt cynicism—especially if you carry yourself with vulnerability.
Like Jesus’ parables, disruptive communication is subversive—not necessarily in the political sense, but in the way that it indirectly undermines hardened ideas, sensibilities, and conventions. You can be disruptive or subversive by putting forth a story or an image for people to consider. Disruptive communication does not need to be aggressive or always verbal.
True beauty can be disruptive—creating an awareness of our exiled state. One of Anne Porter’s poems described her tears when her mother played the piano:
Why it is that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation*
Her mother’s lovely music hurt because it triggered a faint memory of Paradise. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:
We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile. (The Letters of Tolkien)
Disruptive communication evokes shalom—the harmonious flourishing between God, his creatures, and his creation that the Hebrew prophets so poetically painted in their inspired imagery.
With a wide variety of voices, all of God’s people have something to say to disrupt the dangerous false peace that lulls so many to sleep. Being a maker of disruptive beauty is an apt description of what artists and writers are to do. I hope we can humbly and patiently question the conventional, and so prepare the way for a new story to be planted, a new creation to be imagined. For the new to be considered and welcomed, the existing order of false peace must be revealed for what it is–an illusion, a broken cistern.
You’ve been shaped on the Potter’s wheel
Jeremiah’s qualifications to speak came from God’s initiatives, which began before he was born:
“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.” (1:5)
God formed him on his potter’s wheel. The words and the melody he was given would flow from his unique shaping. God authorized him to be that person, not self-made.
Jeremiah’s appointment, his being chosen for the job, was because “I’ve known you all your life, and I’ve uniquely shaped you all along.” A few lines later, Jeremiah said, “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth” (1:9), qualifying and authorizing him to say that he’s been given to say.
Don’t miss the significance of being known by God—He knows you better than you know yourself. You think you know you. You and I are unaware of so many of our strengths. We perceive some as weaknesses because we’ve bought into hero myths that exalt intellectual prowess or charisma over imagination and authenticity.
God the potter’s relational forming produces personal uniqueness and is what having your “mouth touched” (1:9) means. He has taken the ingredients of the personality he gave you, your circumstances, the people you’ve known, and orchestrated them to shape the “clay” of you and write a story.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul refers to the church as God’s workmanship—his work of art, his “poem.” (2:10). The best way for you and I to be a poem of disruptive beauty is to work from our formation. Be the art God made you rather than imitating someone else.
If you’re like me, you look around at certain skills other people have and envy them. You think, if I just had her talent, I would not be afraid. But God does not just hand out outward skills to build your confidence and reduce your vulnerability. He is the potter who knows you and forms you.
We all struggle with fears about our work, our story, our art making. We tend to attribute them to a lack of talent. You may lack someone else’s talent, but you don’t lack talent. And God’s equipping is not a mere “capability.” It is part of the tapestry he has woven from brokenness and grace.
Are you involved in a lot of self-recrimination and envy? Remember this: God did not say you have to say something about everything or be skilled at everything. Just speak what he is given you with the mouth he has touched. Work and speak from the gift of being yourself–the total person he has uniquely shaped over the course of your life.
“Dress yourself for work”
The call of Jeremiah provides us with enough to help us begin to pushback against the fears that paralyze us. God has given us something to say. He has provided a beautiful melody that has the power to disrupt the illusion of superficial cures. He has formed us each into a living, breathing clay pot with a unique and winsome story.
If you promote disruptive beauty, there will be people who fight against you. But God has touched your mouth. Now he says, “dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you” (1:17). Even though you feel afraid, even though you feel your training isn’t complete, put on your work clothes and show up at the places your Father sends you. His is with you. He knows you. He has chosen you for this moment.
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