“I am with you and will rescue you”
Seasons of hope can quickly turn ominous. After Adam and Eve fell into sin in the garden of Eden, God’s tree of life changed from a harmless source of fruit to a dangerous eternal device. Years later, the very water that Noah’s world perhaps initially welcomed became a world- covering deluge that washed away the wicked.
In his first vision to the young prophet Jeremiah, the Lord turned a season of hope into an ominous warning. He showed Jeremiah “the branch of an almond tree.” Jeremiah wasn’t the only one watching in this vision. The Lord also was “watching” to see the fulfillment of this vision. This Hebrew word for “watching” sounds similar to the Hebrew word for “almond tree.” The Lord’s play on words here is purposeful. As the Israelites watched for the blossoms of the almond tree to indicate the arrival of spring, so the Lord was watching the almond tree “to see that [his] word is fulfilled.”
While Jeremiah contemplates the “watching” of the Lord, another vision quickly arrives. A boiling pot in the north is tilted toward Jeremiah and his people. The meaning of this vision would be even more ominous. “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land.” The next words of the Lord sounded treasonous. Foreign kings would enter Jerusalem, toppling David’s great and ancient seat to set up their own thrones.
Clearly, for Jeremiah and the kingdom of Judah, the hopeful, rejuvenating sight of the almond tree would soon become an apocalyptic sign. The storms of spring would not compare to this coming squall of destruction. The harsh reality was that the people of Judah deserved the entire tempest. The people of Judah lived their wickedness by burning incense to other gods. They had been unfaithful to their Lord, their husband, through their spiritual adultery.
None of these actions made any sense. One of sin’s greatest temptations is its logical appearance. However, at their core trespasses always remain illogical. The people of Judah were now “worshiping what their hands have made.” The thing formed cannot stand greater than the one who forms it. Our sinful nature deeply desires to be greater, wiser, and more powerful than he who formed us. When these desires apprehend us, we need to be reminded that we are not greater than our God.
This danger can subtly creep into the mind of the called worker, too. As sinners, we can be very adept at turning the hopeful blessings and messages of the Lord into ominous devices of sin. Humanly speaking, turning God’s perfect, eternal hope into a law message can appear very effective. After all, guilt can drive sinners to follow laws too. What a temptation for a pastor or teacher to change God’s gospel message of hope into an ominous warning of law! Results may follow, but the motivation becomes all wrong. Martin Luther knew this as well as anyone. Plagued by a guilty conscience, Martin Luther was driven to extreme lengths in his efforts to make himself right with God. But because Luther took God’s law seriously, he soon realized that none of his works could ever earn him the eternal hope he so desperately desired. “Or else” does not get us to heaven. Turning God’s gospel hope into an ominous warning doesn’t either.
Miraculously, the Lord accomplishes the opposite. Only Jesus can change an ominous, torturous cross into a sure and certain hope of forgiveness and eternal life. Who in the Roman world would have ever envisioned a day when their bloodiest, most frightening instrument of death would become the most cherished symbol for Christians? At the cross, the ominous became auspicious. A generation before Jeremiah became a prophet, the prophet Isaiah compared every ominous aspect of Jesus’ suffering with the beautiful result it would bring about:
“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
While Jeremiah was probably familiar with Isaiah’s gospel prophecy, there would be no gospel for God’s people in Jeremiah’s message on this day. Instead we see a boy prophet who was perhaps scared to share this extensive law message. Who wouldn’t be apprehensive? Jeremiah’s first message from the Lord was pure law. The Lord was watching, and he didn’t like the idolatry he saw. The Lord was summoning foreign invaders to surround Jerusalem. As the Lord’s worker, there would be no probation period for Jeremiah. People were going to hate him and his message already in the first days of his ministry. What pastor would preach such harsh law in his first sermon? What teacher would share such harsh words in her first parent-teacher meeting? The law has always been difficult to share boldly.
Jeremiah must have been apprehensive. The Lord needed to spur him on or he might never have shared his first prophecy. “Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you.” It would be good for every called worker to recall those words before a difficult meeting where God’s law will have to be shared.
So how can we get ourselves ready? Daily preparation for ministry comes through our own reading of God’s word. We need to hear that same law convict us before we can hear the gospel heal us. A healthy prayer life with our Father in heaven also remains a necessity. Our Father in heaven gave his own Son to save us. Surely he will answer our every prayer according to his good will.
Fear is a powerful emotion. It can hijack a well-prepared Christian and convince us to bury our talent or to cover the light of the gospel. Jeremiah knew those fears well. He knew his own people would hate this message and hate him for sharing it. He needed to hear a strong reminder of God’s love. “Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them.” If Jeremiah wanted to be scared, then God would make him scared. But he didn’t need to be.
The Lord then went on to share some of the most comforting words he would ever speak to a prophet. No doubt Jeremiah held on to them throughout his ministry. “Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall.” He would certainly need the fortitude of iron and bronze. Jeremiah was about “to stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land.”
Previous prophets usually had the luxury of living among other prophets. These previous messengers of God could lean on the faithfulness of the priests of the temple. The most blessed prophets even had the support of faithful kings. Not Jeremiah. He would stand as an enemy to his own kings (Jeremiah 36), his own officials (36:19, 26; 38:4), and even his own priests (26:7–9)! False prophets would plague him most of his ministry (14, 23, 28). And even his own friends (11:21) and family (12:6) would reject him.
What hope could there be for this young, scared, and hated prophet? What hope is there for the modern-day minister of the gospel who sometimes stands against his own leaders, community pastors, friends, family, and culture? How can we endure when the Christian churches of our communities band together in refuting our scriptural foundation? Other schools attract more students with their surplus of funding and endless extracurricular activities. Divisions within our church always seem one argument away. Feelings get hurt instantly. People leave the congregation in a rage and run your name through the mud in your community on their way out. Perhaps even threats of death have come your way because of your position and the message you share.
Even in the face of these possible persecutions, the Lord’s message remains the same: “Get yourself ready!
“They will fight against you but will not overcome you.” What a message for Jeremiah to hear at his commissioning! Were those words similar to what you heard when you were ordained or installed? Perhaps not. But maybe they should have been shared. God was up front about the persecutions Jeremiah would face. So was Jesus with his disciples. Early in their tutelage, Jesus warned them before he sent them out, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:21–22).
Even in the face of these possible persecutions, the Lord’s message remains the same: “Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you.” Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Fellow servants throughout the kingdom are undergoing the same persecutions. Jeremiah suffered, too.
So what sustained this suffering prophet? What held him together when strife threatened to rip him apart? At the end of the beginning, the Lord gives a loving, gospel reminder for his Jeremiah to hold all his days: “‘They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 1:19). And he did.
Remember those words. Your Lord is speaking them to you, too. The almighty fortress that protected Jeremiah throughout the most perilous ministry of them all stands fast around you too. An iron pillar keeps you immovable. A bronze wall holds you firm when the flood of persecution washes all around you. On seven different occasions the Lord reminded Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid” (1:8; 30:10; 40:9; 42:11; 46:27; 46:28; 51:46). He daily reminds you of the same. “‘They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord.”
“Why should cross and trial grieve me?
Christ is near With his cheer; Never will he leave me.
Who can rob me of the heaven
That God’s Son For me won When his life was given?” Amen.
(Christian Worship 428:1)