I Knew You

August 21st, 2022 Jeremiah 1:1-12 by Pastor Galen

Too Young (or Too Old)?

When I was in kindergarten, I could not wait to be in 1st grade. The first graders seemed so big and so tall. When we played with them during recess, it felt like they towered over us. I wanted to be in first grade so that I could be as big as them. When I got to middle school, I wanted to be in high school, and when I got to high school I wanted to be a senior, because they seemed to rule the school and have so many privileges that the rest of us didn’t have. When I went off to college, I started looking forward to graduating and being done with school and entering the “real world.” When I was finally done with school (I thought), that’s when I could finally make a difference in the world.

At some point, of course, it starts to go the other way. The older we get, we start looking at people who are younger than us, and we envy their youthfulness. We look back longingly on the days when we were young and full of energy or in good health, and we wish we could go back in time.

Any of us who have ever counted ourselves out because we thought we were too young or too old can identify with the prophet Jeremiah, who thought that he was too young to be used by God because he was still a boy – or at least a youth. The Hebrew word “na-ar” used here can be translated anywhere from “child” to “young man.” From Jeremiah’s point of view, he was too young to be used by God.

Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah, the priest, and so no doubt he had the expectation that one day he would indeed serve God – and perhaps even do great things like his father, who may have been the same Hilkiah the high priest who discovered the Book of the Law that had been buried in the temple in Jerusalem for generations (see 2 Chronicles 34:14). One day, when he was older, Jeremiah imagined that he too would enter into the temple and the Holy of Holies where only the high priest could go once and year, and that he too would offer sacrifices on behalf of all the people in the temple. Some day, perhaps he too would lead his people back to God as his father Hilkiah did. But that was a day far far in the future in his mind. From Jeremiah’s perspective, he was way too young.

But one day, while he was still a youth, Jeremiah clearly heard God speaking to him, 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” (Jeremiah 1:5).

As we talked about last week, prophets were not people who looked into a crystal ball and told people their fate – as if there was nothing that could be done about it. Rather, the role of prophets was to speak the words God gave them. Often this did include warnings of what would happen if the people continued down the path they were headed – but it also included promises and blessings if they turned back to God and followed God’s path for their lives.

And so God was essentially saying to Jeremiah, “I knew you even before you were born, and I have set you apart – I created you – to be my spokesperson to the nations.”

God Knew Us Before We Were Born

Now first of all, let’s just pause here, and point out how amazing it is that the God of the universe knew us even before we were born. Even before we entered into this world, God saw us, and knew us, and God had plans for us. You and I and each and every person on the planet is known and loved by the God of the universe. How amazing is that!

The Psalmist says to God in Psalm 139:13-16:

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

that I know very well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

all the days that were formed for me,

when none of them as yet existed.

God knows us intricately, and had a plan for us even before we were born. God formed us, God created us with a purpose and a plan.

And so God told Jeremiah that God knew him even before he was born, and that he had placed a special calling on his life, to speak God’s words to the nations. And notice this was not just the kingdoms of Israel and Judah – nations that considered themselves God’s chosen people. Jeremiah had been called to the nations (plural). His ministry would extend far beyond his own people, to nations he had never even met or encountered.

Jeremiah responded the way probably all of us would have responded – by pointing out his own disqualifications – in this case, his youthfulness and lack of experience.

But God was not swayed, saying, “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” (Jeremiah 1:7-8).

The Almond Branch

And then God gives Jeremiah a simple test to prove that Jeremiah was ready to be a prophet and to proclaim God’s words to the nations. God tells Jeremiah to look around and to tell God what he sees. And Jeremiah looks around. Remember, God has just called him to be a prophet to the nations. So perhaps he expects to see the heavens torn open or the moon turned to blood. Perhaps he expects to see a vision of monsters and dragons – indicative of the spiritual battles taking place around him.

But Jeremiah looks around, and all he sees is a simple stick. A simple little branch that had been broken off of an almond tree. Since Jeremiah was a young boy, perhaps this was the sort of stick that Jeremiah had picked up off the ground and had been playing with earlier that day. Perhaps he had been using it as a walking stick, or pretending it was a sword, and had been using it to fight off imaginary enemies. Maybe he had been digging with it in the dirt, or using it to play a game with his friends.

But after this big pronouncement from God that God was calling Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah looks and all he sees was this simple little stick. I imagine Jeremiah shuffling his feet, and looking down at the ground and saying, “all I see is a stick – the branch of an almond tree. See, that’s why I’m not ready for this prophet stuff – I don’t see anything extraordinary or profound.”

But God says to Jeremiah: ““You have seen well.”” Jeremiah passed the test! And I don’t think that it was just because he saw what God wanted him to see, but because he was willing to proclaim exactly what he saw – no more, and no less.

You see, a lot of people in Jeremiah’s situation may have been too embarrassed to say that all they saw was a stick. Maybe they would have been inclined to add their own interpretation to what they saw. To add some sort of religious-sounding mumbo jumbo to make it seem as though they were really intelligent or profound. But Jeremiah, in his youthfulness and honesty, was willing to just describe exactly what he saw without adding his own interpretation. And that was, I believe, exactly what God wanted.

You see, there are a lot of self-proclaimed prophets out there, even today. TV evangelists, Youtube personalities, people who claim to speak for God. Often they’ll start out with a claim that is
indisputable – perhaps a passage from Scripture, perhaps something that happened to them, perhaps a dream or vision they had. And it may indeed be true. But then they proceed to add their own interpretation, and that’s where things go off the rails. We see this all the time when so-called prophets try to predict exactly when the world is going to end, or when Jesus will return to take us to heaven – even though Jesus said that “no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen” (Matthew 24:36 NLT). And yet people try anyway. Perhaps they’re just trying to gain followers, or maybe they really think they are speaking for God. But this is not the type of prophet that God desires. God wants people, like Jeremiah, who will speak only what they see or hear from God – no more, or no less.

(I recognize the danger inherent in speaking from this pulpit – that it may be easy to confuse my words with God’s words. That’s why it’s always good to test everything you hear from the pulpit – or anywhere – with God’s Word revealed in and through the life of Jesus Christ, recorded in Scripture. I pray that anything I say, today or any day, that does not line up with the person and character of Jesus Christ would fall by the wayside, and that only the truth of God revealed through Jesus Christ would come through)/

But this, I believe, is where Jeremiah’s youthfulness and lack of position and prestige were actually an asset in his prophesying. Because Jeremiah was willing to speak exactly what God revealed to him – no more, and now less. He was willing to speak the truth, no matter how obvious it seemed. And later on, as he continued to prophecy throughout his life, he was willing to proclaim God’s words no matter how harsh or controversial his message may have been.

I’m reminded of the little boy in the classic story The Emperor’s New Clothes. Con artists who convinced the emperor that they were fabulous fashionistas who had discovered an incredible new fabric that would appear invisible to anyone who was unintelligent or incompetent. Since no one, including the king, wanted to appear unintelligent, no one was willing to admit that they could not see the clothes the emperor was supposedly wearing, except a little boy in the crowd who declared what everyone knew to be true – that the emperor was in fact not wearing any clothes. Jeremiah was willing, like that little boy, to speak the truth that God revealed to him. No more, and no less. And that was all God required.

And so we learn some rather amazing things from this passage:

We learn that God knew us and had a plan for our lives even before we were born. We learn that we are never too young, or old, or inexperienced, or too advanced in years to serve God. God can use us at whatever stage of life we are in. We learn that, when God moves us to share the Good News with others, that we should seek to share exactly what God has revealed to us through God’s Word – and we are to be careful and clear when adding our own interpretation and opinion.

God’s Promise to Jeremiah – and to Us

But the passage doesn’t end here, with Jeremiah simply passing the test that God gave him. It ends, in fact, with a promise for Jeremiah, and a little bit of a “dad joke” – a fun little play on words – to help Jeremiah remember the promise that God has for him. (As a dad, I love “dad jokes” because they always make my 6-year-old laugh, and my teenagers groan and roll their eyes. Like when my daughters ask if we’re having pasta for dinner, and I say, “It’s a ‘pasta’-bility” rather than possibility).

You see, in Hebrew, the words “almond branch” and “watch over” sound a lot alike. And so when Jeremiah says that all he sees is the branch of an almond tree, God says, yes, and in the same way I’m going to “almond branch” you as you proclaim my word. This direct translation doesn’t work since “almond branch” sounds nothing like “watch over” in English, but I think Eugene Peterson captures this pun well in his Message paraphrase of the Bible. When God asks Jeremiah what he sees, Jeremiah says, “‘a walking stick—that’s all.’ And God said, ‘Good eyes! I’m sticking with you. I’ll make every word I give you come true’” (Jeremiah 1:11-12, MSG).

And so here in Jeremiah 1, we have not only the proclamation that God knew us before we were born, and the promise that God has a special plan for each and every one of us, that none of us are too young or too old to be used by God, but we also have this promise, that God will stick with us to the end.

And so the next time you go for a hike and pick up a walking stick, or the next time you pick up a stick in your yard, know that God is sticking with you as well. God is watching over you, and that whatever it is that God has called you to do, God will be right by your side, equipping you and empowering you to do God’s will. You are never too young, or too old to be used by God.

May we make ourselves available to God’s purposes in our lives, knowing that God will stick with us until the end.

Amen.

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