“How Firm a Foundation”
Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10/Luke 13:10-17
July 28, 2019
The ability to adapt is one of humanity’s greatest assets. No species on this earth manages life’s ebbs and flows as effectively as we do. Extremes of heat and cold are unpleasant, but we have the means to protect ourselves. We inhabit virtually every area on the earth’s surface while explorers have explored and mapped the uninhabitable regions. We humans have made our home in the deserts, the soggy rain forests, and the vast frozen tundra.
We have found ways to utilize the resources at hand in adapting to the prevailing conditions. We have met the challenges imposed upon us with great creativity. We have not always adapted, but even when we failed our failures have often prompted us to approach a problem from a new vantage point that ultimately yielded the answer we were seeking. Affirmed by success, sobered, yet spurred on by failure, we have constantly pushed against the limits of the possible.
Life on this earth has been a laboratory for experimentation, the lessons life has taught equipping us to adapt and prosper. Among those lessons is one whose usefulness has been demonstrated over and over again. The lesson is caution. We have the capacity to anticipate danger in this circumstance or that, and take the necessary evasive action. Watch a child on the seashore sometime. Children love to frolic in the water, but there arrives a point at the water’s edge when the maturing child learns to be on guard. With a crashing wave, or a stumble on a rock, the caution light flashes yellow. “Don’t go further.”
The caution warning can quite literally be a lifesaver. But more often than not it functions less dramatically. I’m thinking of the occasion when we sit down to balance the checkbook. In that process we sometimes recognize that the outflow of money required to pay our bills is barely matches the money we have on hand. We identify the problem, and we move to address it—at least under ideal circumstances we address it.
The caution warning helps us to adapt to other circumstances as well. You are being asked to do something; to serve on a board or to give your time to some volunteer activity. That voice we often hear in the back of our minds is telling us to be cautious. “Watch out. Be on guard. Don’t over-commit.”
Caution is a wonderful tool for adaptation. Absent that tool life would be perilous and anxiety ridden.
Though a young man, Jeremiah proved to be mature beyond his years when God came calling. He was not to be rushed into anything for which he felt unprepared.
How overwhelmed with flattery he must have been when he heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” To be known by God was thing, however, to be commissioned by God was quite another. This whole thing about going to work for God was not something he was ready to embrace out of hand.
The question is, why would Jeremiah decline such an honor? After all, those chosen by God to be his prophets are but the smallest subset of the smallest subset of people who have ever walked the face of this earth. Yet Jeremiah was reluctant. There might be expectations he couldn’t meet. His inner voice told him “I may be over my head here. I may let someone down.”
“Jeremiah, I appointed you a prophet to the nations. You will be my messenger. You will speak for me.” “Honored, Lord, I’m honored. But, are you sure you’ve got the right man? Lord, I do not know how to speak. Look at me, I’m only a boy, and this prophet business is a man’s work.”
If only God HAD made a mistake, Jeremiah thought. He wasn’t ready to put his size seven feet into size twelve shoes. “I’m only a boy.” Who would argue with him? He was right. In his own eye’s he was a boy. But who was he in God’s eyes? That, friends, was a question he had yet to seriously consider.
Caution is a good thing, a useful thing, but how should we view it when it ends up stifling initiative or undermining potential. What happens when it stifles us? How many opportunities have people like you and I squandered for lack of personal confidence or the willingness to risk? How many worthy organizations have suffered because otherwise talented people took a pass, and left it to others to shoulder responsibility?
Caution is a good thing, a useful thing, but not when it stifles initiative and encourages sloth. All of us who serve in volunteer organizations have seen caution get in the way. We have heard people explain and rationalize their caution in both the long and short versions, and yes, many with justification.
People are justifiably cautious in the commitments they make, for most of the people who are candidates for leadership positions in bodies like the church, are the very people being sought out for placement on civic boards, for participation in college fundraisers, and leadership on school committees and a myriad of service organizations. Caution, yes, caution is a valid response, for it is easy to get ourselves spread too thin.
Yet for many caution gets in the way. We may indeed have had the extra time to make a valuable contribution, but choose instead to withhold, a loss to the organization we may have helped, but also the loss of what may have turned out to be a special opportunity for us personally.
Good stewardship of time involves choices, and people who are working with volunteers must learn to respect the choices being made. But insofar as the church is concerned there is another obligation, which must be upheld. The church leader is charged by God to challenge each person to develop his or her spiritual gifts just as fully as their temporal ones. Furthermore, the church is responsible to create the kind of environment where those who agree to serve are helped to understand that what they are being asked to do helps fulfill Jesus’ vision for the church. That, obviously, is no small task.
Caution is an extremely important component to life, but it has the potential to rule us. The fear of making a commitment may so stifle us that we may live our lives uncommitted to anything. “Lord, I’m only a child. Give me a pass. Find someone else.” Some people are so cautious, so reluctant to commit, that they effectively live out their lives as spectators, watching, while other people do. “Not now, but try me time. Just now my talents, my time, my money are already committed.”
We really have no way of knowing how old Jeremiah was when God tabbed him. Was he sixteen? Was he younger? A prophet of God took on a mighty big responsibility. Jeremiah was justifiably cautious. A failure to look before he leaped could get him into all kinds of trouble. He would have preferred God to check back with him when he had his act together, even a gray hair or two around the temples. God, of course, wasn’t asking Jeremiah to state his preferences. God didn’t care a whole lot about Jeremiah’s preferences. What God DID care about was work he was calling Jeremiah to do.
“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.” “You shall go and you shall speak.” Jeremiah received marching orders instead of a pass.
“But where shall I got and what shall I speak, Lord?” The questions were forming in Jeremiah’s mind just at the very instant when God touched him and put his [God’s] words in his mouth.
Pity that in our experience the ends don’t tie off that neatly. Few of us have had the kind of epiphany, the kind of encounter with the holy that Jeremiah experienced. Most of us have struggled to define who we are and understand what we have been placed on earth to do. We are cautious in making a commitment to God in whatever form that commitment might present itself.
We are cautious for we are already committed elsewhere, or we are not really that sure that we have the skills or background to do what we being asked to do. It’s quite appropriate to maintain those reservations, but by virtue of our baptism into the community of faith we have also been charged to use the talents and aptitudes God has given us.
There is a quote I have carried around with me for the past several years that speaks to the issues I have been raising. Johann Goethe wrote, “Whatever you do, or believe you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” While I doubt that Goethe necessarily wrote with Christian endeavors in mind, I definitely think those remarks of his are consistent with God’s call to Jeremiah. “Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” So what about caution? What if we fail?
Jeremiah’s commissioning from God did not come with the guarantee that he wouldn’t fail, that he would never taste defeat. In fact, Jeremiah’s very name has been translated to mean, “God throws.” If you take time to read the book of Jeremiah, and I hope you will, you will discover that the circumstances of the prophet’s life suggest that he was not so much placed in situations but thrown into them, his personal wishes or safety never really consulted. We have felt ourselves similarly “thrown” into circumstances for which we felt ourselves ill-prepared, with no guarantee of a soft landing. Jeremiah didn’t get the soft landing either, what he did get was God’s commitment that he would not be left on his own.
When I began contemplating the lesson form Jeremiah earlier in the week a stanza from a hymn came to mind. The words from that stanza were these, [we will be singing them soon] “Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed, For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid: I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, Upheld by My righteous omnipotent hand.” That second verse from the hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” is a powerful declaration, a declaration fully consistent I would add, with the message Scripture communicates.
The hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” delivers a powerful message—pay close attention to the words as we sing. Moreover, I think that the title itself charts the trajectory of the entire Christian experience. This is what I mean. We begin the life of faith as inquirers asking the question, “Just how firm is this foundation I have in God.” Jeremiah entertained that question, though not in so many words. “Lord, I’m only a boy, I do not know how to speak. I might well fail you.” In his encounter with God, Jeremiah was like the man who tentatively stretches his foot off the end of a pier in search of the bottom. “Is there something down there that will support me?”
Faith asks that basic question. “Can God really support me?” Jeremiah began there. We begin there. But life with God doesn’t end there. Life with God is a quest to establish a foundation that will hold up under the stresses and strains that life’s circumstances impose, it is embracing a discipline by which we learn the ways of God and thereby acquire enthusiasm for pleasing him.
Our faith matures in encounter with the world. It is through those challenges, those trials and tests, that our faith is refined and deepened. It was in living with God and literally putting his life on the line for God that the prophet Jeremiah shaped his boyish, immature faith into the colossus it would eventually become.
The circumstances we meet in our lives with God are likely to be far less stressful than those Jeremiah experienced. Jeremiah didn’t know where God was leading him. The same applies for us.
Yet though our experience under God may not be that of Jeremiah or our neighbor, of one thing we can be certain. Whatever our circumstances, God has laid a firm foundation under our feet. We will test that foundation time and time again to judge its strength, but of one thing we can be certain, as our faith matures so will our confidence mature in the knowledge that God’s everlasting arms uphold us. Indeed, a firm foundation. Amen.
Gracious God, we seek you as people who were first sought by you. You know us by name for you yourself named us, you address us as your “children,” your “beloved,” even “the apple of your eye.” We occupy a place in your heart, not by our choice, but by yours. You know us so thoroughly that we can’t hide the things we so vigorously attempt to conceal from you.
Lord, we are your own. May our worship today lead us to a better understanding of who you are calling us to be and what you are calling us to do.
“I am but a child.” Jeremiah exclaimed. “I am unprepared to do your bidding, Lord.” How often, O God, we have sought to put you on hold. Protesting that today is not a good day for us, we seek an extension. We say, “Tomorrow will work out better.” Lord, there are things in this life that we want to defer. Brimming with good intentions, we tell ourselves that we will get to this or that task tomorrow. Yet deep within us we know that we are just attempting a delaying action. Lord, how we challenge your patience. You call us to do, to act, but we hesitate, saying “I’ll try to fit that in tomorrow, next month, or next year.”
O God, grant us the courage to face up to our responsibilities. You seek our obedience. Create in us, O Lord, a new openness to you. Establish in us a love for what you love, and the freedom of bold action to seize the opportunities you present.
O Christ, our Savior, we are your brothers and sisters, members of your church, a church you yourself built, establishing your resurrection from the dead as its cornerstone. You are our firm foundation, the rock upon which all of our hopes for ourselves and the world are established. Grant us confidence to trust that your foundation will hold even as world events shake those foundations, even when your absence in this or that tragedy is keenly felt.
O God, we earnest pray for those who harbor doubts about themselves and their prospects. We pray for the uneducated and under-educated, those who have left school without prospects for jobs or continuing education. We pray for those who live from day to day unemployed, bystanders to life, who seeing no options for themselves have resorted to crime. We pray for unwed mothers and all children of poverty. We thank you for all teachers, social workers, and community volunteers who commit time and energy to turning back the tide of neglect. In praying for them, O God, we pray that you will impassion more and more of us to join them in their efforts.
O God, this vast world is your kingdom, and we pray for our sisters and brothers around this world, who have not heard your name, or who are persecuted in your name. We pray for the faithful throughout this world who daily contend with brutality and injustice, yet who by their steadfast faith show us a glimpse of your heavenly kingdom.
O Lord, our peace and our confidence we raise a special prayer for that person or persons your spirit is naming in our hearts at this very moment. Enfold them in your love, and abide with them for strength and reassurance.
For the day, for each other, for the church, and for the faith you have given us that we might serve thee, we offer our thanks and praise. Hear our prayers, in Jesus name…