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Sunday 30 January 2022: Epiphany 4

An uncomfortable calling

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30

By David Hinchliffe

Chair of the South-East District of the Methodist Church

Context: a congregation of older teenagers and adults

Aim: to be honest in acknowledging that discipleship is costly; to be reassuring that it is God who calls us

One of the greatest challenges of the pandemic lockdowns was the closure of church buildings. How could we worship when not in church? For preachers – how do we preach without a congregation? Quickly, we discovered new methods of worshipping and preaching – often via the internet, and often finding new audiences the church had not reached before.

On this day in 1933 the Nazis came to power in Germany. By strange co-incidence, two days later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – who from the outset realised the evil the Nazis represented – gave a live radio broadcast on the ‘führer’ (leadership) principle. Whether out of time, or deliberately, the broadcast was cut off from the airwaves. It symbolised what was to come: the Nazis would seek to silence by whatever means anyone who spoke out against them. Imagine carrying a message which risked you being silenced. Would you speak out?

Our reading from Jeremiah is special to me. At a young people’s Bible study group I felt called to be a Methodist minister. How could I be sure? I felt confused and scared! The following Sunday I went to church where the minister read our passage. Jeremiah was young – probably a teenager too! He was overwhelmed by the call – what on earth would he say? Who would listen to him? He was only a boy! How many of us have felt called by God to serve (not just as a preacher) but have found convenient (even sensible) reasons for saying, ‘No, God! You’ve got it wrong!’ Hearing Jeremiah’s call gave me reassurance and terror in equal measure! After all, while God dismisses Jeremiah’s excuses, God doesn’t say that all will be easy and well. God tells Jeremiah to go wherever he’s told and say whatever message he is commanded. Moreover, he shouldn’t be afraid of those who hear him – God will rescue him! I’m not sure that is a word of reassurance! If you read the rest of Jeremiah, you will discover that Jeremiah’s ministry was hard, his message a burden to him, and many would try to silence him.

Jesus is older than Jeremiah, but today’s gospel reading comes at the beginning of his public ministry. He’s preaching to the most difficult congregation of all: his home crowd. Jesus’ sermon is one of the shortest in history: ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ Just nine words! The reaction is euphoric: they are amazed at the words of sheer grace Jesus has spoken. For a preacher, can it get better than this? The answer is clearly ‘no,’ because then it goes wrong. They question his authority and Jesus questions their sincerity. They want signs. They don’t want a prophet to challenge their ways, especially suggesting that God’s compassion includes foreigners too. And so the admiring crowd turns. They try to throw Jesus over a cliff. On the basis of our Bible readings, who would dare to respond to any call from God, let alone a preacher?

Our readings make it clear: speaking up and speaking out for God is a dangerous enterprise. God’s commissioning of Jeremiah made that clear. Jeremiah’s message was one which would build and plant (usually to be welcomed), but also ‘pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow’ (usually rejected). Only the most self-confident (or lacking in self-awareness) would gleefully welcome such a challenge. Words which upset the status quo, defy the religious hypocrisy of the day, or challenge the prejudices of the community are not going to be welcomed – then or now. Such a message is dangerous – to listener and to the preacher alike. So why bother?

Firstly, because neither Jeremiah nor Jesus could ignore God’s call on their lives. Secondly, they knew the message they proclaimed was not their own; it was God’s message they had been commanded to share. It was the Spirit of the Lord emboldening Jesus to speak forth. In his commissioning, God touched Jeremiah’s mouth, symbolically putting God’s words on his lips. The message would not be that of a cranky teenager or cynical adult, but God’s words to do as they must: to challenge and tear down what is false, and to build up what is of God.

Twelve years after being silenced on the airwaves, on 9 April 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred by the Nazis whose evil he recognised, and which through word and deed he denounced. He was not silenced. God was with him.

When God calls us to be a disciple and touches our lips, we receive the words we are to say. Will you be silent?

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