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Epiphany 4, 01/31/2016

Sermon on Jeremiah 1:4-10, by Samuel D. Zumwalt

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! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’;
for to all to whom I send you, you shall go,
and whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
declares the Lord.”

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me,

“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

            We read in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word (in Greek “logos”) is living, active, and powerful, because God is God. So when we read in Jeremiah 1:4, “Now the Word of the LORD came to me, saying...” it is impossible for any Christian who takes God’s Word seriously not to read Jeremiah 1:4 as the Word who is God and with God speaking to Jeremiah here in v. 4. The Word is powerful!


            Because the Word of the LORD is God and with God (that phrase already identifying the one God as a community within Himself – Father, Son,Holy Spirit), we Christians cannot pretend there was a time when the Word of God was not God (as did the Arian heretics in the first centuries of the Church and as Arian heretics by other names do so today). Before the Word became flesh in Mary’s womb tabernacling among us full of grace and truth (John 1:14), the Word of God was with God and the Word of God was God from all eternity. Before Mary or Joseph was told the Virgin Mary would bear a Son conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1 and Matthew 1), before He was ever given the name “Jesus” (Yeshua, meaning God saves), the Word of the LORD was with God and was God from all eternity. This is a non-negotiable point for those who would be called Christians. In other words, the Word of the LORD is living, active, and powerful from all eternity, and He, before His incarnation in Mary’s womb, spoke to and through the prophets (Heb. 1:1). He is still speaking: through His Word and Sacraments today.

            We don’t have to belabor the point that many scholars and pastors who have facility with the biblical languages have been so influenced by the Enlightenment they cannot seem to get out of the center that belongs to God alone. As others have pointed out more eloquently than I, when you begin with yourself as the biblical interpreter, you end up with yourself. Those who approach God’s Word as if it were a corpse to be autopsied end up being forensic pathologists of the Bible, who can speak influentially about the various parts but cannot comprehend the Word of the LORD. In other words, they will have eyes but cannot see and ears but cannot hear.

            Likewise, if one goes to the text as a Marxist, one will end up reading God’s Word as a Marxist. If one goes to the text as a heretic, one will read God’s Word as a heretic. If one goes to the text as judge over what is or is not rationally possible, then one will read God’s Word accordingly. In short, many readers may go to their graves with certitude only to learn they were very wrong! For the Word of the LORD is active, powerful, living, and He is and will be God apart from our approval or concurrence. God will be God. And the rest of us...not so much.

Already as the Word of the LORD is forming Jeremiah in the womb, He is consecrating (in Hebrew, “qadash,” to set apart) Jeremiah for God’s plan of destruction. Through Jeremiah’s proclamation, the Word of the LORD is living, active, and powerful. The Word of the LORD will pluck up (in Hebrew “nathash”), break down (in Hebrew “nathats”), destroy (in Hebrew “abad,” to cause to perish), overthrow (in Hebrew “haras,” to throw down), and, only then, He will promise to build (in Hebrew “banah”) and to plant (in Hebrew “nata”) for God’s future.

Like Moses and Isaiah, Jeremiah is a reluctant prophet, quick to offer up his obvious youthful shortcomings as a hedge against such lonely work. Would more were like him today. Nevertheless, when the Word of the LORD touches his mouth, Jeremiah now understands, like Moses, he will be burdened with the real presence of God’s living, active, and powerful Word. Doubtless Jeremiah, son of the priest Hilkiah, has, at the outset of his call, a more hopeful sense of his vocation than later when he learns how much he is mocked, scorned, and wanted dead.

One wonders if, ironically, in hope if not tone, that like Jonah, he started with expectations the Word of the LORD would work a quicker turnaround with his hearers. Perhaps he envisioned the role of “seer” in a heroic way. But Jeremiah learns that to be a preacher of God’s destruction of intimate and other enemies is to be saddled with the reputation: “Here comes old ‘gloom and doom,’ old ‘fear is all around.’ Who can stand to listen to him? He’s always so negative!” With such Nielson ratings, no wonder Jeremiah calls God “seducer” (20:7).

The Christian reader cannot help but think of Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Because Jeremiah’s hearers and we are born in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, their old sinner and ours must be destroyed by God’s Word before we can be made new, built up and planted.

Jeremiah’s hearers must come face to face with the reality of God’s destructive power: Jerusalem’s supposedly unbreachable walls, its supposedly inviolable temple, and the supposedly permanent vocations of king and priest all plucked up, broken down, destroyed, and overthrown. Only when the comfortable have been deeply afflicted does the Word of the LORD promise the building and planting that will come with God’s new covenant (Jeremiah 31).

Like those who lay down and wept by the rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137), the Christian reader thinks tearfully of the deaths of dear ones and of that coming night when no one can work, that pay day when the wages of our sin must come due as we ourselves lay dying. But the Christian reader is driven to the mercy of the God in Jesus Christ, who hates nothing that He has made, so that our crucifixion with Christ in Holy Baptism is surely our own call to be His lost and condemned creatures now raised to newness of life not once but daily. Buried with Christ in baptismal waters, we die the only death we will die, because raised with Christ to newness of life we have His promise that He will make all things new, especially dust and ashes (Revelation 21).

Thomas Ken’s appointed hymn for Compline (Night Prayer, Prayer at the Close of Day) is instructive here: “Teach me to live, that I may dread the grave as little as my bed. Teach me to die, that so I may rise glorious at the awesome day” (Lutheran Book of Worship, #278, stanza 3).

Jeremiah’s call keeps before us Christians our own call in Holy Baptism. While He was forming us in our mother’s womb, the Word of God had plans for all people. Wanting none to be lost and having suffered and died as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, He saw what we could be, once restored in baptismal waters. The Word of the LORD came to St. Paul saying: “... we are his workmanship,created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). And there is no greater work than to declare the mercy of God in Christ Jesus for sinners. His Good News is not meant to be kept inside the Church but sent outside to those who do not yet know they are longing for His mercy and yearning for freedom from sin, death, and the old enemy.


The Word of the LORD is living, active, and powerful. It must be cruel to kill that which is hostile to the one God in three persons in order to be kind to raise the dead to new life in Christ. To those certain that their own supposedly inviolable walls, temples, and institutions cannot be plucked up, broken down, destroyed, and overthrown (fill in the blanks with a plethora of options), we must remind ourselves and them that “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8). Even as we cling to Christ’s promise marked on our foreheads in Holy Baptism, we remind ourselves day after day: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

And so the baptized come once again empty-handed to the Lord’s Table where the Word of the LORD touches our lips and fills us with Himself in bread and wine. Food for the journey.


In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Dr. Samuel D. Zumwalt
Wilmington, North Carolina
E-Mail: szumwalt@bellsouth.net

I found Prof. Thomas Eggers’ lectionary study helpful: http://concordiatheology.org/lalp/