Rev. Caroline Barnett
Promise and Potential
Now the word of the LORD came to me 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."
Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
But the LORD said to me, "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."
Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
It seems to me that the mark of a good candidate for the job of “prophet” is that you don’t actually want to be one.
Being a prophet is hard work. It involves telling people about unpleasant realities. Often prophets travel to new lands, places they are not particularly welcome; they speak truth to power and they make a lot of people uncomfortable. There is no security in being a prophet and very little material reward. Working for God, at least in scripture, is not a pleasant task.
So we get these stories, stories like today’s, of God calling people into to service— into prophethood, into leadership— and the most common reaction is to respond “Who me? Or “You have the wrong person” or “I can’t do that.”
If hesitancy is the mark of a good prophet, then Jeremiah fits the role perfectly.
He easily lists his disqualifications:
He is too young. He doesn’t know how to speak. So even if he could get people to listen to him, Jeremiah isn’t sure he’d know what to say. Maybe if God would wait a couple of years, Jeremiah might be better suited for the job with a little more experience.
But here’s where Jeremiah makes a mistake. He’s focusing too much on the future.
Sometimes when we hear the word “prophet,” we think of fortune-telling and forecasting future events. We imagine cryptic messages about what’s going to happen someday.
But prophecy in scripture isn’t about the future— at least not entirely. Rather it is God’s way of communicating with God’s people in the moment, telling them what is happening right now, especially if they are unable to see it for themselves.
Prophets don’t predict the future, they reveal something true about the present.
So if prophecies are not future-oriented messages, then perhaps the qualifications for being God’s prophet are not rooted in one’s future potential, but in who they are and who they have been.
Listen to the words of God’s call to Jeremiah.
Before I formed you, I knew you… before you were created, I knew who you are.
It doesn’t begin with what Jeremiah will do as a prophet. It begins with promise— God knows who Jeremiah is, and God has known who Jeremiah is before Jeremiah even knew himself.
Imagine with me if this passage did not begin with this promise, but skipped right to the declarations of what Jeremiah will do. Imagine how unattainable that might feel. How much pressure that might create for our young prophet.
It would feel less like a calling and more like a marching order.
Now, if prophecy gets the reputation that it is all about future potential, the same can be said of attending a university.
Students have arrived at colleges across the country and here in Auburn, and they are sorted into fields and majors that will prepare them for certain vocations and jobs— at least that is the goal. In some ways, that major, that program, what you study becomes a part of your identity. And every day you get closer to your graduation date, that question “what are you going to do after graduation?” Becomes more and more direct, and more and more pressing.
College in a lot of ways deals with the potential of who you will be, perhaps sometimes at the expense of who you are right now.
But as writer Cole Arthur Riley says, “The question of calling is not primarily a question of what we might become, but a question of what is already true— not least of which what is true about the self.
“Ask me what I want to be,” she continues “but not before you ask me who I want to be. Ask me who I want to be, but not before you ask me the more searing question of who I am.” (This Here Flesh, 45)
Of course, the focus on potential isn’t limited to those in college. All of us experience in our own ways moments when it feels like we are judged based on who we could be rather than who we are.
On what we can do someday rather than what are doing now.
On when we will achieve certain goals rather than what we find meaningful about our lives today.
And all that noise about potential, it can drown out the promises God makes before any of that matters.
But God knows who Jeremiah is before God invites him to wonder who he will be and what he will do. And God knows who we are, even if we are uncertain of who we are and who we will be.
Listen again to God’s words to Jeremiah…
before you can be anything,
before anyone can expect anything from you,
God knows you.
Before you can think important thoughts,
Before you make a decent salary,
Before you will figure out who you want to be,
God knows you.
It from that promise of knowing that God issues that call to prophecy for Jeremiah.
Not necessarily a job, but a way of being that will lead Jeremiah into good, challenging, and worthwhile work.
It is from that same promise of knowing us, that God calls us into so many different and beautiful things. Some meant for the future. Some meant for right now.
Mari Andrew is a New York Times bestselling writer and an artist whose work has been featured in various respected publications and is shared with over 900,000 Instagram followers online. If you were to look at her today, you might think she has definitely figured out what her calling is and she has pursued is successfully.
But Mari wasn’t always sure what she wanted to do with her life. For over a decade, she was both intrigued and overwhelmed by the question: “What should I do with my life?”
She worried that she wasn’t picking a path quick enough, and she felt herself lagging behind her peers who were moving up their professional ladders while she worked multiple temp jobs and at coffee shops, while feeling a tad dissatisfied. She worried that since she didn’t have a path, she wasn’t doing much of importance. This is, until one day, she changed the question she asked from “what should I do with my life,” to “what matters to me right now.”
With the switch, she realized her life had meaning. It had meaning every morning she woke up early to paint and draw. It had meaning in her interactions with customers at the coffee shop. They showed her how she wanted to be treated and how she wanted to treat others.
Her life had meaning in the days and nights she would walk around her city, noticing new details that inspired her, until one day, her mind was filled with thoughts and ideas she needed to write down and share with others.
“What matters to you right now?” is just another way of asking “Who are you?” which is just another asking “Who is God calling you to be?”
The answers to any of these questions may be complicated and difficult to put into words. They might take some time to figure it out. They might take a whole lifetime to figure it out and they might change along the way.
Tonight at UKirk’s opening dinner, I probably won’t ask anyone “who you think God is calling you to be.” That seems a little intense for the first time we gather.
Instead, I’ll probably ask, what your major is and where you are from. Questions that will give us details about one another, but maybe not the whole picture.
But beneath the get-to-know you questions, UKirk and the Church are places where, when they are at their best, we are not accepted because of some future potential we may hold.
We belong here, because we know we belong to God.
And, we can do things we worry we may not be qualified for, just like Jeremiah who becomes a prophet whose words will tear down what is evil and build up what is good, because of the promises of God.
And it is here, in this place, with these people, we can ask these questions: Who are you? What matters to you? Who is God calling you to be? because of the promise that God already knows the answers.
Thanks be to God, amen.