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The Yes Man

The “Yes man”
Jeremiah 1:4-10
February 7, 2010

Intro
Imagine that you’re on the committee searching for a new pastor (which would thrill some folks, but I’m not making any sort of announcement!) Perhaps one day we’ll be big enough to hire an associate. Just imagine with me for a little while.
I’m sure you’d have a list of what you’d like to see. Here are a few things that would be on mine:
Some experience
Willingness to get his/her hands dirty
Optimistic/ vision for the future
Good with folks
Ideas to further the church’s mission.

Now imagine that you have interviewed some very interesting prospects, and this fellow named Jeremiah is the last on your list for a “first round” interview. He comes in, and doesn’t seem to have any experience, and doesn’t even offer much about his background or why he would be a good choice for the church. Rather, he mumbles something about only being a youth and not really knowing what he’s doing. And if all that weren’t enough, he mentions nothing about the way he might improve what is already at the church. Instead, he uses words like uproot, tear down, destroy and overthrow.
If I were interviewing a prospective colleague, it’s about this point in the interview that I’d say something like, “Well, yes. Thank you for your time, Mr. Jeremiah. Ummm…. we’ll let you know.” Jeremiah would not be my top pick for a candidate. Heck, clearly he wouldn’t even be his own top pick. But for some reason, he does seem to be God’s top pick.

Jeremiah–Every man’s prophet
On days when I’m pretty sure I have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into, I really like Jeremiah. While I wouldn’t pick him for a colleague, I think I’d for some reason pick him at least as a friend. He doesn’t exemplify the things I would hope a church leader would, but he’s kind of a spokesperson for the way I feel– and I’m quite sure that I’m not the only one. He voices the things I don’t dare say aloud: that I’m fearful and anxious, that I’m pretty sure I’m inadequate and ill prepared. In a lot of ways, he’s sort of “everyman’s” prophet. He shows us what it means to be an “anyway” sort of guy: a guy who might not be the best at what he’s doing, but who goes anyway.

The difficult journey
I sure don’t envy Jeremiah. Not only is he young and inexperienced, not only is he quite certain that there are 1000’s of more qualified applicants, but he’s charged with saying some really difficult things to the people. Read the book of Jeremiah some time, and tell me you’d be anxious to say the things he was charged with saying.

We get a hint of these things in our passage today: in a really important order, God makes it known through Jeremiah that things are going to change. First, there will be all sorts of destruction, and then there will be a new creation.

Think about how uncomfortable we get with the idea of change. I try to put on a brave front, especially when I’m here and trying to get other people excited, but change, even small change, scares the heck out of me. I’m a planner, I think, just so there is never a moment that will be left to chance. Because if there are holes in the schedule, the unknown might creep in. And that’s just talking about a change of schedule. When we’re talking about bigger change than that, it throws me for a major loop.

But Jeremiah isn’t talking about change, not really. What he’s really been charged with telling the people is that there is going to be a total transformation. All the former things will pass away.

Imagine how uncomfortable we’d be with that! We’d much prefer building additions over razing the whole building and starting over. We’d rather build on to what we already are, than to have everything that we stand on destroyed. But God has another picture in mind. God wants to completely remake the people (and us) because only then can we be the children of the promise that we were designed to be.

The Lord happened to Jeremiah
I wonder why Jeremiah went. He was young and inexperienced. He felt ill equipped. And he had a message to bring which if people paid him any attention might just get him killed. But he goes.

I’ve been thinking about Jeremiah, and because he’s sort of “everyman’s” prophet, I’ve been thinking about us too. Why did Jeremiah go? Why do any of us go? After all, we’re all called too.

Not to be captain obvious, but something happened to Jeremiah. And not to be captain obvious-er, that something that happened to Jeremiah was the Lord.

I wonder what it would be like if we stopped long enough to think about what it means to each of us that the Lord has happened to us? Wonder if that changes anything?

I’ve never really thought about callings in that way. I’ve never really thought about the fact that the Lord happened to me. And the only way I can get my feeble brain around it is to ponder what life would be like if the Lord hadn’t happened to me? What would I look like if left to my own devices?

For me, when I think about the Lord happening to me, I am reminded first of all, that a calling from God is nothing that can be taken lightly. Oh, we’re great trivializers–especially once we truly believe that God calls all of us. We play down our call to this or that, saying “It’s really not that big of a deal.” Or perhaps we make excuses like Jeremiah tried (unsuccessfully) to do. “But I don’t have time” or “But I don’t feel prepared” or whatever else. But if the LORD is happening to you, it kicks things up a notch.

Another thing that happens when the Lord happens to someone is that they are given a very clear opportunity to say yes to God’s call. I don’t know that this always feels like a blessing, and if sometimes it seems like more of an interruption than an opportunity, know that you are not alone. The scriptures are full of people whom God interrupts with a change of plans. But with the opportunity to say yes to God comes the very clear moment of definition. We feel like we are, to quote a hymn, “Called as partners in Christ’s service.” And not only all that, when we are presented with an opportunity to say yes to God, there will always be that line of “before” and “after” where life can never really be the same.

But there is something else that happens when the Lord happens to someone: they are in the Lord’s hands. When I think about what it means to be in God’s hands, I am reminded that this is God’s party– that God is going to work it out how and when God sees fit.

I think of the many places in scripture that talk about not being afraid, and it happens in the passage we read today. But as I was thinking about Jeremiah and these words to him, I also thought about the 23rd Psalm. Jeremiah, in a lot of ways, was standing in the valley of the shadow of death by agreeing to take God’s words to the people. Yet, as the Psalmist writes, Jeremiah seems to fear no evil, because “thou art with me.” When the Lord happens to someone, I don’t think they are any longer overshadowed by death. I think they are overshadowed by Christ.

Does that change anything? It does at least for me, because Christ, and not death, always gets the last word.

I wonder if the people to whom Jeremiah preached could tell that the Lord had happened to him? I wonder if they could tell that Jeremiah was overshadowed by something other than death? Sometimes my imagination gets the best of me, but I think of Jeremiah like I described him earlier: lacking confidence or direction, embarrassed by his calling. But when I read his book, that’s not the person I meet. It feels like either my first impressions of Jeremiah were wrong, or that he’s been changed and empowered and made bold.

That makes me wonder– can people tell that the Lord has happened to us? I’d like to believe so, but some days I wonder– at least about myself.

The first time the Lord happened to me that I really knew what was going on was two days before September 11– which I guess means I’m getting close to a decade away from that moment of definition. I remember what it was like to be so fired up, and so sure that I was doing the thing that God asked of me. But I still had a few years of college left, and gradually that fire faded. The Lord happened to me again in the months before I started seminary, and I was supercharged yet again. But three years of seminary is a long time, and with all the school work and the working and blah blah blah, the fire slowed again. But then I was ordained, and man, I knew I was on fire– nothing could stop me. I remember the words my dad charged me with, and made a fresh committment to be the best darn minister that I could be. And you guessed it, a once roaring fire died down to smoldering embers once again.

I’ve been thinking about it, and over the years, I’ve talked to lots of people, and I think this is a fairly typical thing. There is a pattern of being on fire, and then gradually things take you away from that fresh committment, until we become lacksidasical and apathetic. We get comfortable, and take easier, less threatening roads. We forget what an extraordinary thing it is that the LORD has happened to us. The farther and farther we get away from that moment of definition, the harder and harder it is to remember what its like to be on fire for God. 

Do you remember all the times that you’ve been on fire for God? Times when you were so ready to tell everyone you met about your incredible God experience? Times when you knew something was different, and that God had called you to something, and you knew that God would see you through? If you’ve had those moments, which you probably have, though some of those moments are definitely quieter than others, you probably look back on them and long for that passion to descend upon you again.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about– every time we say yes to God, we keep ourselves close to that moment of definition. Every time we say yes to God’s call and plan, we are reminded of what it means to be God’s.

But he said yes
I haven’t let this show through, and I’ve probably been a little hard on Jeremiah. But truth be told, Jeremiah is one of my favorite characters– perhaps because he voices the same things that I’m afraid to say out loud. He’s a reluctant prophet. He’s scared. He even tries to tell God that God has chosen the wrong person. But God is pretty clever, and reminds Jeremiah that he has been set apart since before his birth. And then God reminds Jeremiah that he won’t do the hard stuff on his own.

I love Jeremiah for his reluctance and anxiety. But what I really love is that Jeremiah trusts Gods promises, scary though that may be, and he goes anyway.

Several years ago, there was a really popular book called the Purpose Driven Life, which I’ve only read part of so I can’t really say too much about it. But I’ve been thinking about that title as I’ve been sitting with Jeremiah this week, and I think Jeremiah shows us a little bit about what it is to lead a purpose driven life. The Lord happened to Jeremiah, the Lord overshadowed Jeremiah’s fears, and Jeremiah said yes– even though it would have been a lot easier to say no. Jeremiah lived his life according to the purpose to which God had called him.

Every time God asks something of us, we’re presented with an opportunity to say yes. We’re presented with a chance to put our very lives in God’s hands and trust that things will work out as God intended. We’re presented with a moment that defines us, and that reminds us of God’s call and claim on our lives. We’re given the opportunity to be drawn closer to God, which becomes so intense that it suddenly starts to shine through in all that we do. We’re presented with a chance to live our lives according to God’s purpose.

At this very moment, God is placing a call on you– and only you can know what it is. I hope your answer is yes.

To the calling, claiming God be the glory. Amen.

Charge and Benediction: One of my favorite praise songs has a chorus that goes like this, “ Yes, Lord, Yes, Lord, Yes, yes, Lord. Yes lord, Yes, lord, Yes, yes, amen.” My prayer is that, trusting God to overshadow us and our fears, that be our answer too.

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Preached on 10.25.09 using Job 42:1-6, and Mark 10:46-52

This sounds morbid, but I’ve decided something about the sort of send-off I want when I leave this world to meet my maker. I’ve decided I want a big New Orleans style parade during which great jazz musicians will loudly and joyfully sing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

I’ve only seen the New Orleans jazz funeral in movies, but it always looks like it’s a proper celebration of life. And folks just join the parade!

Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved that image. I mean, first of all, who doesn’t love a parade? And not only that, but I’ve always loved the chorus “When the Saints Go Marching In, How I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.” I always imagined my less than saintly self just joining the parade of saints as they march into heaven, and being in that number!

As I was looking at the text this week, that’s the first place my brain started. In a lot of ways, it’s a pretty good analogy of what’s going on. Jesus is more or less parading through town, and he’s got a bunch of groupies, who more or less just want to be “counted in that number” as he goes through town. I’m not entirely sure they even know what’s going on, or even what it would mean to be in Jesus’ parade, but they want to be there, nonetheless.

All of the sudden, a poorly dressed blind beggar stops the parade with his loud cries. I’ve been both a watcher of and a participant in parades, and like everyone else, believe that if a parade is going to stop, it’d better be for a really good reason. Just imagine– what if the Macy’s Parade stopped and they went to a blue screen– or even more irritating, went to commentators who were speculating about why the parade had stopped? Understandably, the crowd is irritated with the blind beggar. After all– this is a celebration! Who is this nobody to stop such a grand occasion?

I can imagine him defending his choice–
“Bartimaeus, this is a parade! What were you thinking?”
“Really guys, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just wanted to touch Jesus, and this is my only chance.”

“But Jesus works every day. His regular office hours are from 9-5. There is no need to bother him unless it’s an emergency.”

“It is an emergency! In fact it’s a matter of life and death! But I guess Jesus has no time in his busy schedule for a man as worthless as me.”

Fortunately, before he leaves with his head hung and the weight of the world on his shoulders, Jesus asks one of the rebukers to get Bartimaeus. Commentaries differ here. Some say that the crowd feigns pious hospitality because Jesus is watching. Some say that the crowd is changed by Jesus’ compassion.

I think I’d rather believe the latter. It’s like being at a middle school dance. If you’re a nobody, but the cool kid thinks you’re somebody– then you too become cool by association. Besides that, if you look at the preceeding passages, Jesus has been working to overcome the spiritual blindness of his followers. In the passage right before this one, James and John were absolutely oblivious as to what it meant to be a follower of Christ. They were vying for the positions of greatness in the eternal kingdom. Clearly, as Mark is laying his story out, he wants his readers to be changed in response to Christ.

Jesus asks blind Bartimaeus the same pointed question he asked James and John, “What is it that you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus, knows what he wants: he wants to see again.

That’s funny to me–at least in a divinely ironic sort of way. I get the fact that Bartimaeus is physically blind. Who, in his shoes, wouldn’t want to have his sight restored? But what’s funny is that Bartimaeus seems to be the one most able to “see” out of the whole crowd.

He sees how people treat him. He sees how people decide he’s not worthy of getting close to Jesus. He sees that he’s a nobody in the eyes of the world. He sees who Jesus is, and even what it means to follow Jesus.

And all of this while being blind.

The crowd doesn’t see it, and his disciples are no better. Interestingly, it takes a blind man to help the seeing ones really see.

That’s a great story– a nice reversal. But what catches me off guard is the ways that the ones who count themselves among the followers are the very ones that keep people away from Jesus.

If they were Jesus’ PR people– they’d fail miserably. I sure wouldn’t want them on my church’s evangelism committee!

What haunts me even more is that I’m not entirely sure that churches don’t still do this. Granted, if you asked anyone here, we would say that our mission is helping people get to Jesus, and I think we really believe it. But, we never realize that what we do affects the ways that people come to Jesus.

We’d never intentionally push people out of the parade.

But what about the ways we, along with Christians all over the world, unintentionally push them away? Do we push them away from Jesus when we squabble about petty things? Do we keep them from drawing close to Jesus when we don’t treat each other with the love of Christ? Don’t misunderstand– we’re amazing when it comes to visitors. Anyone that comes through our door will be warmly welcomed. If they choose to not to come back, it’s not because they didn’t get enough attention. We pat ourselves on the back, and are truly confused when our visitors don’t come back–which happens in just about every small church.

“But we have a brand new nursery for them to play in.” “But every person here went up and greeted them.” “But we have this new young preacher.” And still, it feels like everything we do hits a brick wall. We scratch our heads, and think “We’re a great church! Why can’t we grow?”

Have you ever watched a group of runners or swimmers? When the starting gun goes off, they are all over each other. Before I did the triathlon several years ago, someone warned me that unless I wanted to take a chance on getting my teeth knocked out (again) that I should stay back, and wait until all the really competitive swimmers got out of the way. I knew I wasn’t well trained enough to win, so that knowledge kept me out of the starting pack. And the advice giver was right– arms and legs were flailing everywhere, and some got knocked or kicked. It was ugly to watch!

I wonder if visiting a church is like that? (I’m basing this on visiting several churches over the years.) The first few times you visit, you could swear that you finally found a church home. But as you start getting involved, you realize more and more exactly what’s going on. And if you stand there long enough, all you can see is elbows jabbing. You see the petty fights. You see the power struggles. You see who is gossipping about whom. You see who cares more about what you’re wearing than they do about who you are.

It’s ug-ly!

We think people don’t see those sorts of things, that we’ve hidden them well. But even if people can’t put a finger on it, I think they do sense when a church is divided. And as far as I can tell, it has the same end result as the crowd with Bartimaeus: People are pushed farther away from Jesus.

Thanks be to God– the story doesn’t end there. As Jesus often does, Jesus steps in, and doesn’t leave either Bartimaeus or the crowd the way he found them.

Commentaries place this story in the category of “Miracle” story along with stories like the raising of Lazarus, and the feeding of the 5,000. Miracle stories are those where Jesus breaks usual human circumstances and changes the expected outcome.

Even though this is kind of a funny looking miracle story that doesn’t follow the usual parameters, I think it is really a miracle. Even though the miracle itself only gets a small shoutout in one verse of the story, what happened that day was absolutely miraculous in that it took one from darkness to light, from blindness to sight.

Theologian Rudolf Bultmann says, “Miracle means ‘work of God.’” And what a good way to describe this story, because at it’s heart, this story is about the power of Christ to restore and redeem.

As I think about the ways that this story might speak to even this particular church, I think it might be a miracle story for us too. Just like Jesus doesn’t leave either the crowd or the one seeking him alone, Jesus likewise refuses to leave us as we are, and seeks to restore us, jabbing elbows and all. Just as Jesus has the power to restore Bartimaeus to health, so he has the power and desire to restore us to health.

Well, that’s lovely. I could totally pull a cheesy preacher move, and stop there. But then you might not get to see the surprise that caught me off guard.

I was happy to trust the commentaries, who after all seem to know much more than I do, until I read the story while paying attention to the last line: “Go on your way, your faith has made you well. Immediately, he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.

What I realized is that just as much as this is a miracle story, it’s also a call story.

When we’re talking about call stories, we’re talking about stories like Abraham and Moses and Saul/Paul. Call stories are those stories in which a person is just going on about their life, when all of the sudden God gets ahold of them, and makes it known to them that they are wanted as followers.

This story doesn’t exactly follow these rules either– because Jesus sends the man on “his” way. Yet, the man realizes his ultimate life’s goal is to follow on Jesus’ way, and he becomes a follower.

I know, I know… I’m getting dangerously close to what could be considered theological minutia. But if this is both a miracle story and a call story for Bartimaeus, then it must also be both a miracle story and a call story for us.

The miracle is that Christ isn’t done with us, and seeks to restore this church, both individually and corporately. The call is that we’re to get up, take our new health, and follow Christ.

We know that Mark doesn’t just write to write– he’s direct and to the point. And that makes the fact that he chose to include the part about Bartimaeus throwing off his cloak a very interesting choice. It wouldn’t have made sense to those watching– he was a beggar, and he needed that cloak. After all, he didn’t have a nice warm place to sleep, and cold times were coming. It’s not like he could go buy another one either.

The fact that Mark includes this detail makes me pay attention. It’s got to be a symbolic move. Bartimaeus is throwing off his cloak, even before he is healed–because he is confident that he will be healed. And he is confident that once he is healed, his life will be so utterly different that he won’t even need that old cloak. I’m not sure, but I’d guess that as much as that cloak meets physical needs, it’s also somewhat of a security blanket. It’s probably been with him everywhere, and if he has to, he can draw himself into it and blend in with his surroundings.

But he throws it aside, carelessly. What a gesture of freedom!

Today is Reformation Sunday– the day when protestants celebrate the fact that Martin Luther got stinkin tired of the wrongdoings of the church, and took some action.

But if you change the pronunciation a little, you’re left with something that bears even more significance. Today is also re-formation Sunday. It’s a chance for us that are still stinkin tired of the wrongdoings of the church to allow ourselves to be re-formed and re-shaped. It’s a chance to toss away our security blankets, and to take steps of faith. It’s a chance to trust that Christ will make us well. It’s a chance to peak out from under our cloaks of blindness to see how other people need Jesus just as much as we do. It’s a chance to look at ourselves, and be chagrined at the way we accidentally push people away from Jesus. And it’s a chance to answer Christ’s question of “What do you want me to do for you?” with “Lord, Jesus, help us to see.”

Celebrating Reformation Sunday means that we truly believe that God isn’t done with the world, or with us. And that is both miracle and calling.

Amen.

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