2011 National Festival of Young Preachers

Jeremiah 1:1-10: FIRE IN MY BONES

A forest fire rages out of control in California. We see pictures of firefighters. Some swing picks. Some drive trucks. Some stare in despair across the ravished hills and ravines. Helicopters rescue stranded people and fire planes drop tons of retardant. People sob as they watch their homes go up in flames. It is always sad.

Some days later an announcement: authorities in California have identified the origin of the recent wild fire. Four college students were camping but failed to properly extinguish a fire. They show us a picture of the camp site, then the faces of four people. I am always impressed that, in the midst of so many square miles of scorched earth, anybody could discover when and where it all started.

I feel the same way when I read the preaching of Jeremiah. It is the most chaotic collection of material in the Bible. Like a wild fire, it rages, without order: in the temple, from a cistern, at the city gate, and from the court of the guard. Scholars debate the chronology of his life. Square in the middle of this muddled collection we call the prophecy of Jeremiah, the preacher himself confesses, “The word of God is like a fire in my bones. I cannot control it.”

Who lit this wildfire of weal and woe? And when? And how?

When Jeremiah looks back on his life, when he pens his memoirs, when he puts down on paper the events and episodes of his life, he answers this question. He adds to his chronicle of seasoned prophecy an episode from his youth: a prologue, the preacher called it last night.

Let us look to this prologue for clues to the prophetic fire: where it started and when and how. It will help you, young preachers, realize that what is happening to you, even this day, will shape your life. God is lighting a fire in you that you cannot quench or control.

Jeremiah remembers what God said to him as a boy. He shares with us a teenage memory: “Before you were born, I selected you,” the Lord said to Jeremiah early in his life. “I anointed you a preacher to the nations.”

Not just to your congregation, not just to your denomination, not just to the Christian community, but to the world, to the nations, to the human community. The message you have of justice and judgment, of salvation and redemption is something needed by the whole world. The message you have of truth, of peace, of beauty, of hope is a word the whole world needs to hear.

In these matters Jeremiah is like Jesus. Not just that Jesus also received his call early in life. Not just that Jesus also suffered misunderstanding, torture, and rejection. For both Jesus and Jeremiah, the call was not confined to the synagogue or the temple, to the first century or the Syrian coast. Jesus and Jeremiah had a word for the world, his world and our world, my world and your world.

But when this word of anointing, of vocation, of calling came to Jeremiah, he resisted. He pushed back. Jeremiah protested, “I am too young.”

Some of you are nervous about your age. And some of your elders want to keep you in your place. “These young people must wait their turn,” one older preacher said to me. You must honor your elders, finish your degree, receive their approval, accept their time table. RIGHT?

Except that Mother Teresa began her mission in India at age 18.

Except that Andrew Gillum was elected a city commissioner in Tallahassee at age 23.

Except that Lebron James signed an NBA contract at age 19.

Except that Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook at age 20.

Except that Jackie Evancho is singing like an opera star at age 10.

Perhaps God read a similar list to Jeremiah. No doubt God then added that most often repeated command in the Bible: “Do not be afraid.” That is the word of God to you today: Do not be afraid!

Do not be afraid of your youth.

Yes, you lack degrees, and experience, and wisdom, and opportunity. Yes, I know that. But you have what this sixty-year-old preacher doesn’t have: energy, vision, passion, surrender, sacrifice, a lifetime of consecration ahead of you. The history of spiritual renewal and moral revival is largely the story of young people.

Preachers my age are focused on retirement, the stock market, the cost of health insurance, and how to keep peace in the church. The fire is burning low. In many of my colleagues, it is nothing but embers. What kind of fire can we light? You think we can be the change you want to see? We are singing out of hymnals, for God’s sake.

God says to you today: Do not be afraid. Chisel that above the doorway of your house. Set that to music and make it your ring tone. If you sign up for God’s Twitter account, this is what you will hear: Do not be afraid. 16 characters. God does not need all 144 characters allotted. God needs just 16. DO NOT BE AFRAID.

Do not fear your age. And do not be afraid of your own voice.

Jeremiah said, “I do not know how to speak. My speech is halting, ignorant, stammering, confused, provincial, dull, empty, flat, boring. Dear God I cannot speak to hold the attention of my mother let alone a congregation of your people.” Perhaps Jeremiah sought another way to fulfill God’s purpose in his life.

Go see the movie “The King’s Speech.” Be warned. There is no violence. No sex. No special effects. No fast cars or bloody faces. But it is a true story of a man whose vocation in life required him to speak in public. The movie will remind you of the power of public speech. It will inspire you to overcome any barriers to effective communication.

Some of you are tempted to abandon the voice. You say to yourself, we live in the digital age, the era of images. Movies are the wave of the future. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” you quote and think the matter is settled.

Not so fast.

The most powerful thing in the world is the human voice. When I leave here I will drive an hour east to my home, there to be greeted by my grandson, who will spread his arms and say some version of, “What we do now, pawpaw?” Just the sound of his voice makes the sun rise and the world turn.

The laugh of a baby, the whisper of a lover, the commendation of a boss, the marching orders of a general: these touch the soul and transform the spirit; they move nations and change the world. The three-day battle at Gettysburg was important, but the part of that struggle that now echoes around the world are the words that were spoken there five months after the battle ceased: “Four score and seven years ago…” Martin Luther King, Jr. marched all over the country, but it was what he said that reverberates around the world: “I have a dream.”

Your voice matters. Do not fear to use your voice for the glory of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord.

A few years ago I had a student, a talented, dedicated student. He came to college as a ministerial student, a preacher boy. After a year or so he was ready to give up preaching. “I want to run the sound board,” he said to me one day. “And what would really invigorate our campus worship are smoke machines.” He then submitted a lengthy, detailed proposal for better sound effects and more smoke.

I wanted to shake him. As a matter of fact, I think I did shake him. He had the ability to stand in front of people and declare the good news of God, but he had drifted into a vocational fog. Screens and smoke will never replace one person standing face to face with one person or one thousand people and speaking with intelligence and passion.

Do not be afraid of your voice. When you speak, the fire of God burns bright. When you speak, the fire in your soul ignites the mind and imagination of another. When you speak, you become like Jeremiah and like Jesus, the power of God; the fire in your bones dances across time and space to melt the heart, purge the soul, and set on fire the holy imagination of those who listen.

When the youthful Jeremiah was hesitant to own his voice and unloose his speech for the glory of God, here is what happened: “Then the Lord put out a hand and touched my mouth and said, ‘I have put my words in your mouth.’”

Use your voice to declare the good news of God. Do not fear what God has called you to do. God will give you words and use these words coming out of your heart and lips to set the world on fire! Do not be afraid of your voice!

God used another set of images to describe Jeremiah’s vocation as a public preacher. “You will plant and pluck. You will build up and tear down. You will create and destroy.”

God understood what some of you do not: The spoken word has power to change things, to transform human life, to make a difference in the world.

This entire preaching movement, this whole Academy of Preachers, this National Festival of Young Preachers arose out of the soil of indecision, out of a field of doubt, out of the harvest of hesitation. Too many college students in my care had lost confidence that preaching is a socially significant vocation. They, like you, love Jesus and want to make a difference in the world. They, like you, want to live lives of significance. But they were not convinced that the preaching voice is a fulcrum by which you can move the world. So they explored careers in law, and public service, and education, and social justice. These all are vocations of honor and worth. But the human voice that speaks with passion and eloquence, lifting the horizons of hope and parting the waters of despair, that voice will shape the future of human life on this planet.

Time magazine produced a list last year of the 100 most influential people in the world. Some on the list you would expect: presidents, politicians, managers, tycoons, judges, artists, writers, inventors. One category is omitted: preachers. Yes, there is one nun, who runs a charity. Not a preacher, prophet, or pastor on the list!

Not a single reference to those people who: speak into the public square the gospel word; who organize people to serve, sacrifice, and volunteer; who offer words of encouragement to people burdened by grief, anger, confusion, and failure; who call a congregation to clothe the naked, visit the lonely, welcome the stranger; who announce the forgiveness of sins and the hope of life eternal life; who teach the most significant book ever written; who critique every earthly empire and contend for the kingdom of God; who direct the most powerful dramas on earth, around this table and in the pool back there; who declare, the time is fulfilled, and today is the day of salvation; who confess to themselves and to God, “There is a fire in my bones; I am worn out from holding it in.”

Do not fear your vocation, young preacher. Do not doubt its power. Jesus came preaching, not because there were no other avenues of influence, but because the voice touches the soul, and the voice dancing with the fire of God singes the soul of the world.

The most influential person in the world when I was your age was not a politician, not a general, not a lawyer, not an entertainer, certainly not an athlete. He was a teacher and a preacher, living in exile, recording his words on cassette tapes and mailing them all over the world. He fermented a revolution, what we now call the Islamic revolution. He was the Ayatollah Khomeini. He challenged the power and culture of the United States and all the western world. He had a moral vision of human life on planet earth. He was a preacher. He shook the world. The vibrations still shaking the world were set in motion by the force and fury of his words.

“A word is dead when it is said, some say,” and here I quote the lady of Amherst, “I say, it just begins to live that day.”

Your words have unlimited power to bring salvation and redemption, to call people and nations to righteousness and justice, and to announce that the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of our Christ.

God has set a fire in your bones! God has ignited your soul. There is among you another Desmond Tutu, ready to lead a nation toward reconciliation. There is among us another John Paul, turning east to rebuke atheism and turning west to condemn materialism. There is among us another Billy Graham, globetrotting the world to declare the word of God. There is another Martin Luther King, Jr. lifting the whole world with a dream of inclusion and cooperation. There is another Sharon Watkins, standing before the nations and calling a president to lead his people with moral courage.

Do not fear your youth. This is the time when God ignites the fire. Do not fear your voice. It is the power of God to declare the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ. Do not fear your vocation. It is the purpose of God in your life and in the world.

If you live and speak without fear, someone will say of you, “He reminds me of Jeremiah” and “She reminds me of Jesus.” You will have fulfilled your vocation. And one day, you will receive your reward. Not a cathedral or a palace or a throne, but something said and something spoken. Not a retirement package or a title or a crown, but God the righteous judge will speak to you the only words that matter: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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