Justifying God

God doesn’t call the qualified; God qualifies the called. This seems like an odd topic for today, Super Bowl Sunday. After all, if anything, those who are competing are most definitely qualified. Their body chemistries have given them the unique advantage that they have fine-tuned through years of work and fitness, maybe even a spritz or two of deer antler spray.

And even though these athletes are most certainly qualified, I’m going to go out on a theological limb and say that, no matter how many players might invoke the name of the Almighty today, God doesn’t really care who wins the Super Bowl. Now if the Falcons were playing, we might be having a different conversation….

That’s all fine and good for sports. But when it comes to faith, God doesn’t call the qualified; God qualifies the called.

This morning we have returned again to the deep well of the prophet Jeremiah. You may remember that one Jeremiah text was the pillar of our capital campaign; and the verses we just read, the calling of Jeremiah, are ones we have visited in worship a couple of times over the past year. And one way to sum up Jeremiah is this: God doesn’t call the qualified; God qualifies the called.

When Jeremiah is first approached by God, he politely declines what he thinks is an invitation. “No thank you, Lord. You don’t want me. I am only a child…”

But God, apparently, has no time for excuses. God has a plan, and that plan is in motion! God needs a prophet. Someone needs to speak the word of truth to nations and empires! Someone has to pluck up, and pull down, and destroy, and overthrow…and build and plant. But mostly, level! Decimate! Annihilate! And Jeremiah? Jeremiah is the one that God has chosen to hire, the lucky stiff.

Jeremiah may not be qualified, but apparently, that’s of little consequence. God has been planning this since Jeremiah was in utero. Jeremiah is called; his resumé is irrelevant! Because God doesn’t call the qualified; God qualifies the called.

And God knows, Jeremiah is going to need all the God he can get. He is about to embark upon an ambitious ministry. First, he is sent to the farthest corners of Israel, letting everyone know how wrong they’re getting it. People are worshiping false gods, setting up altars to other deities, breaking God’s law just about every chance they get, completely forgetting the grace of God that got them where they are.

Next, he’s imprisoned by the king for doing this, and stays locked up until the Babylonians come, conquer Israel, destroy Jerusalem, and drag the people into captivity. In other words, the consequences Jeremiah has been warning against have come to pass. His warnings went unheeded; and when he shared them, he was punished for doing so.

I’m not exactly sure what would pass for qualified in this case…but I am sure that nothing in Jeremiah’s background could possibly have prepared him for the kind of misery that being an unwelcome prophet brings. Yet, somehow, he persisted, despite the odds and persecutions he faced.

And he was able to do it without bitterness, so much so that he was later able to pass along good news from God: “Surely I know the plans I have for you,” God said to a dejected people, “plans for good and not for harm, to give you a future filled with hope.”

Jeremiah’s power as a prophet was important enough that, by the time Jesus appears on the scene, Jeremiah’s story has become sacred Scripture. And yet, it seems that people are always doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Jesus seems to have very little in common with Jeremiah on this subject. He is called, yes, and he is bold, but he is also qualified – that is, if you count being the incarnate Son of God as a qualification. That said, there is more to connect these two lessons that first glance might suggest.

You see, what Jeremiah and Jesus were both preaching against was the same deeply embedded sense of entitlement. In Jeremiah’s time, the nation is ascendant; but it no longer knows why. The people seem to have convinced themselves that their success is their own doing. They have forgotten their own story, the fact that their ancestors were delivered from cruel captivity and led into freedom and promise. Now living in these promises, they seem to think they have deserved them. The concept that this could all go away was an absurd premise…but one that soon comes to pass.

And centuries later, as Jesus speaks to his hometown crowd in Nazareth, the same sense of birthright persists. The national glories are a thing of the past; and yet, they still cling to this outdated notion that they, and they alone, are God’s beloved children. And as Jesus puts down the scroll of Isaiah and begins to preach, he tackles their assumptions head on. “A prophet is not welcome in his home town”, he tells them. And they know he is talking about himself.

But apparently that’s not enough to drive the point home. He goes on to remind the congregation of two key moments in Scripture. These were situations when two great prophets were sent not to their own people, but to strangers. Elijah, in a time of great national famine, heads north among the Phoenicians to bring sustenance to a starving Gentile widow. And later Elisha, when leprosy abounded, was sent to heal not only a foreigner, and not just a Syrian, but the commander of enemy armies! If you want to get a sense of how outrageous this is, imagine that Mahmoud Ahmadenejad has cancer, and Dr. Oz goes to Tehran to treat him.

Jesus’ teaching bears all the subtlety of chiseling with a sledgehammer. The stories he lifts up are ones in which God shows compassion to aliens. Enemies. Foreigners: folks who had no part in the perceived birthright of their nation. And this is what sends the congregation, well, over the edge, so to speak.

All of this puts us in an interesting position. We stand on the far side of history. We can see that Jeremiah was right to warn the nation, and that the people were foolish not to listen. And we can read back with shock and horror at the townsfolk who thought Jesus was dangerous enough to throw off the cliff. But if we were there, in the thick of it, would we be so bold as to take the side of the one whom God had called? Or would we be more inclined to side with the multitudes and lean into our own senses of entitlement?

I think most of us here would fall into one of two camps. There are those of us who are so sure that we have earned what we have, that we are the qualified, the ones who deserve God’s blessings. Don’t hear me wrong: I’m not saying for a moment that we haven’t worked hard, or that we haven’t made a difference or produced good things. What I am saying is that there can be danger in this thinking. If we are so convinced that we are the only ones at work, then we leave God out of the equation. And that puts us right there with the ancient Israelites, ignoring Jeremiah’s pleas that faithful memory would get us back on the right track. And so we are easily tempted to rest on our laurels, to lean into our assumption of birthright, ready to attack the presence of God in our midst that dares to suggest otherwise.

Then again, maybe none of this rings true with you. And that brings us to the second camp, those of us who feel utterly unqualified for any of this. We have dark secrets in our past, shames that keep us from believing that we could ever be loved. We might put up a good show to those around us, but we know what we are really like. We say that God can forgive anything, but there’s no way that could include the stuff that we keep hidden. Why in the world would God put me up to something, since I’m incapable of anything?

God doesn’t call the qualified; God qualifies the called. You are called. To what? Well, that’s up to God, who has known you since before you were born. Maybe you have an inkling of it; but you have chosen to push it aside as ridiculous or fearsome. Not all of us are called to be prophets to nations; but all of us are called to faithfulness and trust in the God who calls us into places we would never go if left up to our own devices.

Where are you being called today?