My daughter always laughs when I use this phrase: apparently it is one of my buzz-words and she tries to spot it coming when she hears me preach. I’m usually unapologetic, though, and I certainly would be if I were preaching on this section of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah’s calling, which became clear in the first chapter of his book, was a prophetic one which involved uprooting, tearing down, destroying and overthrowing (Jer 1:10). This calling had to be worked out in the context of a massive culture-change, as the old order of life in Israel was to be shattered and replaced by a period of exile. His job was basically to prepare the nation for the fact that everything they knew and held dear was about to come to an end. That’s what you call ‘deeply counter-cultural’.
But what is it like to have been given such a ministry? Our passage for today gives us a bit of insight into what Jeremiah must have felt like, and it is not a pretty sight. He was the victim of persecution and reproach (v 15), of isolation (v 17), and of unending pain and incurable wounds (v 18). His attitude to the God who has set this calling on him swings wildly, even in this short passage: God remembers him and cares for him (v 15), but a few verses later he accuses God of having abandoned him and let him down (v 18).
The prophetic calling is never an easy one, but in my experience it is far easier when the people to whom you are called know their own need of God. The unknown guy we call ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, for example, had a ministry of reassurance to those who were coming to the end of the exile, and his words are some of the most beautiful and oft-quoted in the OT. But Jeremiah, writing a few decades earlier, had an altogether more difficult task: telling those who believed that everything in the garden was rosy that in fact they were in deep deep trouble. If your favourite definition of a leader is ‘one who defines reality’, then you’ll know that when life appears to be going smoothly people are actually not very interested in reality at all, and those who have the nerve to try to define it can get themselves in a serious mess.
So how does the God whom Jeremiah believes has messed him around so much respond to his prophet’s plight? I wonder if we might paraphrase v 19 as something like ‘You can give it all up if you like! You can go back to speaking comfortable but worthless words, and of course you won’t be speaking in my name, but that’s your choice. But there is a better way: people might turn to you, if they hear the authenticity of my words through your voice, but whatever you do don’t turn to them, don’t just feed them the platitudes they want to hear.’ This is the prophetic calling in a nutshell: never easy but only authentic if God is behind your words.
There is also an interesting point to come out of God’s protestations of protection and salvation for his servant. V 20-21 are promises from God, but what exactly was the cash value of them to Jeremiah? God would protect him, rescue him and save him, but he was still thrown in a pit and left for dead, and persecuted and vilified throughout his life. So where were God’s protection and rescue then? I can only conclude that God’s ideas of protection and mine vary slightly: if I pray for a comfortable life and a lack of conflict, maybe what God actually protects me from is losing the plot and becoming comfortably apostate. As someone once said ‘God will never harm you. You might die, but he’ll never harm you.’