Jeremiah 1

Here and there, as you continue your pilgrimage through life, write down your name. Study it and pray over it until you can make it a covenant of celebration. Especially in moments of despondency, never forget that whatever your name is, it is important to God.

The hippie era of American history ended in the 1960s. Those old rock-and-roll, LSD refugees of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district began moving down the coast to Santa Cruz. They got married and had children too, though usually not in that sequence. But these hippie parents never named their children Melissa or Brett. They named their children lovely names like Snow Princess, Sea Foam, and Panache. People around Santa Cruz grew accustomed to their children playing Frisbee with little Time Warp or Spring Fever. Eventually a lot of children with names like Moonbeam, Earth-Love and Precious Promise all ended up in public school. It was in that era of our history that one of the Santa Cruz kindergarten teachers first met Fruit Stand.
On the first day of school this hippie child got off the bus wearing a tag proudly displaying “Fruit Stand.” The teacher thought the name was odd but no odder than the names of many other hippie children. She avoided making the boy feel self-conscious about the name.
“Would you like to play with the blocks, Fruit Stand?” she asked. And later, “Fruit Stand, how about a snack?” Little Fruit Stand accepted all her offers hesitantly. By the time of afternoon recess the name didn’t seem much odder than Heather’s or Sun Ray’s or Fairie Queen’s. At the final bell, the teacher led the children out to the buses. “Fruit Stand, do you know which one is your bus?” He didn’t answer.
That wasn’t particularly strange. He hadn’t answered all day. The teacher realized that lots of children are shy on the first day of school. It didn’t matter; she had instructed the parents to write the names of the children’s bus stop on the reverse side of their name-tags. Just as the teacher put the little boy on the bus and said “Good-bye, Fruit Stand, I’ll see you tomorrow,” she turned over his bus-tag — and there, neatly printed, was the word “Anthony.” (As told by Luanne Oleas in the Californian, Salinas, California).
I’ve often thought how much like “Fruit Stand” these Bible names must have sounded. Isaac meant something like “Giggles,” Esau “Big Red,” Jacob was “Grabberboy.” Jonah was “Dovey,” Methusaleh “When I die, watch out!” Damascus meant “Bag of blood,” Habakkuk was “Babylonian house plant,” and Jeremiah means “God will hurl.” With a name like “God will hurl,” you can wind up with a horrible inferiority problem! Anathoth was his bus stop. So when God yelled down and said, “Hey you, down there, Yes you … you, God will hurl, I’ve known you since you were in the womb,” Jeremiah must have asked, at least once, “Well, for goodness sakes, why didn’t you name me Bradley!”
“Bradley” would sound too odd in the Old Testament’s table of contents — Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Bradley, Lamentations, Ezekiel, etc. While I don’t believe that Jeremiah much cared for “God will hurl,” with a name like that on an I.D. bracelet you know you’re no ordinary kid. You must realize how strategically important you are to God.
All of my life I have suffered from inferiority, and it took me a long time to come to grips with the idea that I was strategically important to God. The word Calvin is related to Calvary which as you know is related to the Hebrew word Golgotha which means “place of the skull.” The Latinized “Calvin” more properly means “bald.” I actually think I would have preferred “God will hurl.” Like most people I have never particularly liked my name, probably because it more and more is becoming my definition. But, for all of its shortcomings, I now take it by faith that my name has consequence. A God who has counted — in quick time — the hairs of my head, has saved me and called me, and constantly reminds me that He has called me by name; to Him my name has significance.
I was born the seventh of nine children and my mother had named all those who preceded me with various monikers. Some of them were strikingly Grecian; I have two sisters, Izetta and Helen. Some of them were biblical; I have a sister Ruth and a brother David. I am both reformation and biblical: my reformation name is Calvin and my unmentionable, biblical middle name is Absalom’s minister of war who dies a Frank Peretti kind of death. So I never talk about it. In reciting my mother’s biblical names, I wrote some years ago:
My mother it is clear to see was very fond of Bible names,
My brothers Mordecai, Nicodemus, Zacariah James.
My mother named my little sis (and this will surely hurt your head),
Ruth, Zilpah, Bilpah, Zipporah, Mary Sarah Jocabed.
I’m the first of triplets three and here’s the handle she gave me,
Jeremiah Isaachar, Rueben Bar Hilkiah,
The other two are Jonadab Amos Ben Milkiah,
And Hannaneel Megiddo Joel Azariah.
My mother loved those Bible names, it’s really very true.
I’ve always wondered why. Her name is Cindy Sue.
(Apples Snakes and Bellyaches, Word Books: Waco, TX., 1990, p. 189)
Well, names matter. And the name that matters most to us is our name. They matter not because they tell others who we are, but because they tell us who we are. Most of us are riddled, at one time or another, with feelings of inferiority. How incompetent and unsure of himself Jeremiah was: He is known as the “weeping prophet.” In chapter 1, Jeremiah rises from the mishmash of his own inferiority.
Who of us has not felt Jeremiah’s strong feelings of inferiority? Most of us in confronting any great task say something like, “I can’t do it, I’m afraid. I’m not adequate. If somehow conditions were better or I were in the right place! If only I had more strength of character, I’d do it.”
A cartoon I recently saw in a book pictured a psychiatrist sending his receptionist out into his crowded waiting room by saying to her: “send the paranoids in first — the ones with inferiority complexes don’t mind waiting.” That’s not altogether true. Inferiority-complexers do mind it, but they feel they somehow deserve it. The inferiority-ridden love their “worm theology” — in fact, they invented it and keep it alive. The inferior usually love their inferiority; they only feel really good when they feel really bad. They love to sing “Oh to be nothing, nothing!” but they rarely sing it out of healthy humility. In fact, they’d rather be singing “Oh to be something, something!” but they simply feel they’re not worthy. Their telephone answering machines always say, “I’m sorry, so very terribly, horribly sorry I can’t come to the phone right now. I doubt if you have an important message to leave me, but if you do, leave it after the tone. Have a nice day and remember that God loves a suffering spirit.”
Inferiority is our common malaise in the ministry. A lot of ministers suffer from it. Jeremiah is my kind of guy. I was so inferior even the neighbors noted it and pointed it out to my mother as I grew up. In my late teens, one of my sisters felt led of God, to help me get in touch with myself by telling me that in her opinion, which was as inerrant as the King James Bible, that if God called me to do anything, He must have had a wrong number.
When I told my preacher I was called to preach, he didn’t necessarily feel that God had a wrong number, but he was concerned that I might have had a poor connection.
Still, he wanted to help me get started on my calling. He asked me to preach at the “Garfield County Old Folks Home” to celebrate the debut of my call. Most of those at the county home were deaf, so it seemed to him a safe place for me to try out my calling. The pastor told me to not preach too long and that while I might notice a couple of the very old ones excessively drooling, this should not be interpreted as a hunger for more.
The fact that the sermon would fall largely on deaf ears did not ease my anxiety. The idea of all preaching filled me with terror. I still remember how hard I worked on that very first sermon. I wanted it to be great. I typed five, single-spaced pages of notes. I preached for three minutes. It takes me longer than that to clear my throat now. I have a feeling that most now yearn for one of my old three-minute sermons, but then I was humiliated. I sat back down and refused to preach again for a year and a half. Inferiority nearly destroyed my desire to try again!
God called me to make a covenant to my strategic self-existence. Now you are here and you may often lament your small role in a big Christian machine. Christianity ought to have magnified you and not reduced you. It ought to have taught you that Jesus is a special Savior who came on a special mission. He specifically calls specific individuals with specific assignments. You are special. What right does the church have to abnegate your special role?
Oh, it’s easy to sit back and cry, “Oh, to be nothing … nothing …” The problem with that is that it’s redundant; there is hardly any use reinforcing what many of your deacons already think. But if you really think you are “nothing, nothing” you shouldn’t do it on God’s time. He is counting on your significance, not your nothingness. We are to take up our cross, not to annihilate ourselves but to take meaningful stands for Jesus in a doubting world. Those who crucify their old sin nature demonstrate to the world what their significance to God really is.
Into this passage comes the man from Anathoth, Jeremiah! Anathoth wasn’t much of a town, poor and beyond the north walls of Jerusalem. Jeremiah is probably no more than 14 years old when God comes to him and says, “I want you to bear my word before kings.” Can you see why he’s insecure? Think how you would feel if you were in the eighth grade and God told you He had a little sermon He wanted you to speak to the U.S. Senate. Naturally, Jeremiah says, “Who am I, God? I’m only the man from Anathoth. I’m a dead dog that you should ask this of me. Perhaps, God, if I were from somewhere else, with a more prestigious name, I could do it.”
God said, “No, Jeremiah — your problem is not that you are helpless and hopeless. Your problem is that you’ve never made a covenant with your strategic self-importance.
But why had they gotten heated in the first place? Because we all want to be somebody! We want to be proud of who we are and where we’re from. Anathoth was a nowhere place. And so in this great passage when Jeremiah says, “God, I am nothing” (Jeremiah 1:6), he has geographical credentials to back it up.
I cannot speak! I am but a youth (Jeremiah 6).
But the Lord said to me:
“Do not say, ‘I am a youth,’
For you shall go to all to whom I send you,
And whatever I command you, you shall speak.” (Jeremiah 1:7)
The man from Anathoth is literally the kid from Anathoth.
Do not be afraid of their faces,
For I am with you to deliver you,”
says the Lord. (Jeremiah 1:8)
Inferiority always comes because we measure who we are or where we are against those who seem to be more and have more than ourselves. The truth is, God doesn’t care about these things. God loves people where He finds them. And willingness, not skill is the key to His use; as the cliche’ says: God wants our availability, not our ability.
Inevitably, all the great heroes of the word of God have begun with some kind of excuse. Moses had exactly Jeremiah’s excuse. He said, “Lord, I cannot speak.” Unlike Jeremiah, he couldn’t say, “Lord, I’m young,” because he was eighty years of age. Moses had taken eight decades — eighty years — to really practice his excuse and get it down! For eighty years of life, Moses had said, “Oh, I’m not much. I can’t speak. Get somebody else, God!”
When God calls our name, we remain weak while we slink down and hide behind our inferiority. The God of all the cosmos who has redeemed us is waiting to complete us with all that we need to accomplish great things. But we’ve got all the excuses memorized.
Gideon also cowered behind inferiority. He said, “Not me, Lord. If you want me to do this, Lord, put dew on everything but the fleece and I’ll believe you.” Abraham, too, objected to becoming the father of a nation because of his age. Isaiah, like Jeremiah, pleads youth and insecurity as the cause of his inferiority. “Lord,” Isaiah cried, “my lips are unclean!” We all have some reason why we don’t want to do God’s will, and our denials rise from our inferiority.
There are two or three things that God wants you to know about yourself that will eliminate your feelings of inferiority. One of them is hidden in Jeremiah 1:4:
The word of the Lord came to me saying:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
(Jeremiah 1:4-5)
John Calvin taught that in eternity past God picked us out to love us. He didn’t just wait till we got here; He acted well ahead of time. God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you, I knew you! Before I formed you … I called you to be something brand new.”
This passage isn’t really teaching specifically about abortion, but it leads me to think of the tenderness of God. With divine fingers, God shapes in the human womb an image and form like His own. Each embryo is a person whom God has laid out for His own use in eternity past. To have been loved a long time before our arrival is a reason for getting rid of all our feelings of inferiority. There is another reason:
“Before you were born I sanctified you:
And I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
God isn’t haphazard in His plans for your life. Long before He formed you in the womb, He not only knew your name, but He had a life-calling all picked out for you. And yet I find among you a lot of fuzzy commitment to who you are. You’re not looking for God, yet that’s the search we all need. But you are confused about who you are and what you mean ultimately to God.
Before you were ever born God made a decision about your strategic self-importance. Now, in spite of this, most Christians I know are living in strategic denial. Self-denial can be beautiful but it can also be ugly! It is often the lie that says “I don’t matter.” Jeremiah begins with God saying you do matter.
Jeremiah hears from the Almighty who says clearly, “Jeremiah, if you feel inferior, the problem is your sights are too low and you haven’t set your compass! Just look up! I knew you, I called you. You cannot be inferior as long as you are connected. Look up, young man! I have a plan for your life.” God knows us and ordains a life that keeps us from going nowhere.
If you want to leave our feelings of inferiority, we must listen to Jeremiah:
But the Lord said to me:
“Do not say, ‘I am a youth,’
For you shall go to all to whom I send you,
And whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Do not be afraid of their faces,
For I am with you to deliver you,” says the Lord.
(Jeremiah 1:7-8)
Do you ever find yourself asking, Who am I, Lord?” What difference can my life make? The denomination is going up in flames and I hardly know who I am. I’m too liberal to be a conservative, and too conservative to be a liberal. I believe every word of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, yeah, verily, from the table of contents to the maps. But God, it’s just that I wanna die for Jesus in Burugundi, not fighting other Baptists in the streets of Nashville. God help everybody in Virginia love everybody in Texas, and help everybody in Texas love each other. Make all the bad Baptists good and the good Baptists easy to get along with. Lord help us all face the Annuity Board three times a day and realize that if everybody is willing to make 8% a year by saving in the same ministers fund, maybe we could exalt Jesus together.
But Lord, if we Baptists can’t learn this kind of love and the whole thing does split, help me not split. Handcuff my untried hands to your nail-pierced hands, and send a Spirit Breeze to stretch my banner on the wind. Keep all my allegiances primary, even if my tuition goes up as the institutional quarrel drains the coffers. God, I don’t know what else to do! I have no power, no position, I am youth.
Hear God cry: “Do not say I am a youth … you shall go to all to whom I send you and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of their faces … this boiling pot … I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:7-8)
“I’m going to fill up the deficiencies in your personality,” cries God to the child prophet. No longer cry my child, ‘God help me, I’ve got an inferiority complex!’ Of course, you do and there’s a good reason for that. You’re inferior. But you’re not in this alone, I’m going to fill your inferiority with my strength! Further,” God says, “not only am I going to do that, I’m going to honor your dreams for yourself.”
Moreover the word of the Lord came to me,
saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?”
And I said, I see a branch of an almond tree (Jeremiah 1:11).
This is a tricky passage in Hebrew. I’ve got to give you a two-minute crash course in Hebrew. The word for ‘almond branch’ in Hebrew is shagedth and the word for ‘ready’ in Hebrew is shogedth. God says, “What do you see?” Jeremiah said, “I see a shagedth (an ‘almond branch’).” And God said, “I’m going to make you shogedth (‘ready’).”
This shagedth/shogedth pun is beautiful. It would be like catching up to Jeremiah outside Waxahatchie and saying, “What’s that tree, Jeremiah?”
“Why man, that’s Texas Pecan!”
“Well, my friend, God can use you! As sure as that’s a Pecan, He can!. He can use you as ‘ready’ {shogedth) as sure as God made almonds {shagedth).
But the almond rod is not the end of his visions. “What else do you see, Jeremiah?” cried God.
Jeremiah replied, “I see a boiling pot from the north, spilling armies and demons down over this whole land.”
“Shucks, that’s just a denominational quarrel, my child. Don’t be intrigued by it. Stand still and see what I’m going to do with your life. I am going to honor all your dreams. Now Jeremiah, you just quit your whining and stand up. son. You’re my child and all my children are down-right important. Make a covenant with your self-importance. Why,
“I’m telling you, GOD WILL HURL, you are going to stagger the world because of my importance in your important life … prepare yourself and arise! And speak to them all that I command you. Do not be dismayed before their faces, lest I dismay you before them.
For behold, I have made you this day
A fortified city and an iron pillar,
And bronze walls against the whole land —
Against the kings of Judah,
Against its princes,
Against its priests,
And against the people of the land.
They will fight against you,
But they shall not prevail against you.
For I am with you,” says the Lord,
“to deliver you.” (Jeremiah 1:17-19)
God has promised you that you never have to face this world in your own strength. He protects us. He clothes our weakness in the impenetrable armor of life. God is our defense! Our peace!
Last spring I was meeting in a prayer group with five seminary friends. I must confess I like living close to students. I find a richness in watching them as they cope with poverty and slug it out with identity. I like watching them struggle in that furious race to try and get their degrees before their world dissolves. I liked them because they were all keeping their eyes on the boiling pot of the north. I liked some of those existential moments when we’d be on our knees in prayer and the times when one of them would say, “Calvin, I have no idea what I’m doing here!”
I would comfort them by saying, “You, too?” But in my heart, I knew better. In my heart, I knew I was here by divine appointment. It was good to put my arms around my young brother and say, “Come on, brother, it’s time for you to get on your knees and let God tell you why you’re here. You’re here because God’s got a plan for your life. But nothing good is going to happen till you make a covenant with your strategic self-importance.”
The city of Rome is built over a system of soft-lava tunnels called catacombs. There are 525 miles of these tunnels beneath this ancient city. These catacombs seem so institutional, so Baptist-like: just miles and miles of dark hallways waiting for bulletin-boards and tract-racks.
When Barbara and I visited the city we descended into that section of those dark, dank passageways known as the Catacombs of St. Sebastian. For only 30,000 Italian lire, our guide told us that these were believed to be the actual rooms where Peter and Paul hid out before their arrests and martyrdoms — I was skeptical. Then he showed us a piece of plate glass on a wall that protected a very early ancient etching. Someone, perhaps waiting to be thrown to the lions, had scratched into the soft stone the words, PAULE ET PETRE, PROVICTORE. This is good Latin vocative for “Paul and Peter, pray for us.” The words could have been put there by a first-century martyr, or they could have been put there by Indiana Jones. Nevertheless, I’ve never been able to forget the words.
There must have been a lot of confused seminarians down in those sunless tubes, trying to figure out how they were going to answer their world in a desperate time. When you wander through the catacombs of seminary existence, try to see them not as an alimentary canal filled with institutional enzymes digesting your uniqueness but as the birth-canal of a covenant — your covenant with your own strategic self-importance.
Always I am amazed at what God can do with those who are willing to be used. I often think back to that day when I was a teenager and I made a covenant with God. Then I preached my first awful sermon and failed. Though I was so far down and so deeply depressed that I thought I’d never get out of it again, I made a covenant with my self-importance. And God began to enable me. I got an education and went to Nebraska, where never a Southern Baptist preacher had plowed, and I won literally thousands of people to Christ. I tell you this with no sense of ego. I know who I am; I know what grace God has afforded me. I would be spiritually lost today had it not been for Jesus. But He was there. And when I see all that He has done, I know that I have been made useful.
See how important you are. Surrender. Whatever you do, however major or minor you consider it, it is of relevance to God. How true is Moody’s chide, “The world has yet to see what the person entirely committed to God can achieve.” Declare yourself. Who knows, maybe your name is GOD WILL HURL; maybe your bus stop is Anathoth!

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