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First Reading = Ephesians 1:1-14
1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: 2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
We are starting our new series looking at the prophet Jeremiah as a window into discovering our divine design. In simpler terms, we’re going to try to equip you to understand your purpose from God for this phase of life, and then encourage you to be intentional about seeking that purpose. That’s a bold aim, but I believe we can make some real progress on that front if you really want to and if you’re willing to put in some time during the week.
I can’t tell you your purpose through a sermon. But I can give you some tools to use in seeking your purpose from God. And if you attend one of our groups that’s looking at this same material, you’ll get even more tools to seek and understand your purpose from God.
For a little background on Jeremiah, he was a prophet for about forty years. And they were pivotal years in the history of the Jewish people. Jeremiah’s ministry straddled the great destruction of Jerusalem, the destruction of God’s temple, and the exile of the Jewish leaders. He shared the word of God to the people when they had false hope. He shared the word of God when the people thought God had abandoned them forever. He shared the word of God when he was celebrated (which was rare). And he shared the word of God when he was despised and rejected (which was just another day at the office for him).
We don’t know exactly how old Jeremiah was when he became a prophet. In our text today he complains that he is too young, but it’s not clear whether he’s a literal child around the age of twelve or if he was being figurative. Most scholars peg Jeremiah in his mid-teens to maybe early twenties at the start of his ministry.
So now that you know a little bit about Jeremiah, let’s hear how God called him to his purpose as a prophet – one who speaks the truth that God reveals to them.
1The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, 2to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. 3It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.
4Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5“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.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 9Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
When I was in seminary learning to become a pastor, I had two basic paths laid out for me. On one hand, I was a lifelong Presbyterian attending a Presbyterian seminary while also pursuing the multi-year Presbyterian ordination process for pastors. On the other hand, I had helped start a new, independent church before seminary, and I could see staying with that or even joining the staff of another independent church. In other words, I was going to seminary to learn to become a pastor. I was still deciding if I would be a Presbyterian pastor.
And God did give me clarity on that question. All I had to do was think about it. Pray about it. Study it. Gain experiences on both sides of my choice. And I had to keep doing that for three years. Only then did God provide clarity. And that clarity wasn’t a thunderbolt from the sky moment. It was just a sense of peace that my next step was to become a Presbyterian associate pastor at a church where I could learn from the head pastor. And that’s what I did after seminary. It just took three years to settle on that.
So I could tell you, “God told me to become a Presbyterian associate pastor after seminary,” and that would be true. But it would also distill three intense years of wrestling into a single sentence. In a similar way, I believe Jeremiah’s sense of calling from God that we heard in our text today was actually a growing sense of purpose that came to Jeremiah by wrestling with God for a couple of years. What we have in our text today is probably, in my reading of Jeremiah’s timeline, distilling a couple of years’ worth of wrestling with God into a few sentences.
I mean, can’t you imagine a teenager sensing a call from God and wanting to say “no” to it? Can’t you imagine a teenager telling God, “I’m not ready! I’m not even sure about what you’re saying!” Really, let’s be honest. Can’t you imagine someone of any age doing that?
I share this idea that Jeremiah might have experienced and understood his calling from God over a span of a couple of years because I think it’s a lot easier to relate to. Contrast Jeremiah’s conversation with God with some other key call stories from the Bible. Remember Moses? Yeah, he talked to God via a burning bush. Elisha? He saw his mentor taken into heaven on a chariot of fire and knew he was called to take the prophet mantle.
Isaiah? Here’s a little snippet of his experience from Isaiah 6: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.”
In the New Testament, Saul was blinded by a vision of Jesus and healed by a Christian. Mary received a visit from the angel Gabriel. Gabriel also visited Zechariah the father of John the Baptist to foretell John’s birth. Zechariah didn’t believe the angel and was made mute until John’s birth.
Those are all really intense experiences! Contrast the burning bush, the chariot of fire, the singing heavenly seraphs, the vision of Jesus, the visits by the angel Gabriel – contrast those with Jeremiah. “Now the word of the Lord came to me…”
Even if that was a literal voice, that’s pretty tame in the space of Biblical callings from God. And if it really was a two year process of wrestling with God, then Jeremiah’s call story is downright common. That’s how I figured out my next step after seminary. That’s how lots of people discover their purpose from God – after a long period of wrestling with God.
If you want to know your purpose from God, you’re probably not going to get a burning bush or a chariot of fire or a visit by an angel. If you do, please let me know! But if you wrestle with God about your purpose, if you spend time seeking that purpose and praying on that purpose and asking God to reveal that purpose, you are pretty likely to reach clarity eventually. It might not happen within the next six weeks, but then again it might!
I’m challenging everyone hearing this. If you don’t know your purpose from God and you want to know it, set aside some time and energy and mental space and soul space to wrestle with God for the next six weeks. Maybe this strange year we’re in is actually giving you the space to see things from a different vantage point. Maybe God can sneak some light through the cracks of your 2020 life. But if you just kinda sorta wish God would reveal his purpose for your life, that’s not likely to result in any divine revelations.
Jesus told us to love the Lord our God with “ALL your heart and with ALL your soul and with ALL your mind.” Not a little side corner of our hearts. Not the spare room in our souls. Not the leftovers of our minds. ALL of our hearts, ALL of our souls, ALL of our minds. If you want to know God’s purpose for your life, put some time into it over the next six weeks. Again, my goal for this series is to equip you to wrestle with God about your purpose and how to live it in this phase of life. But I can only give you the tools. I can’t wield them for you.
Destiny is a Big Word
But I want to address one of the biggest obstacles most people face when they’re trying to discover their divine design – their purpose from God. Many people think that having a purpose from God is something of grand proportions. Like Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star or overthrowing the Empire. That’s a grand destiny, to be sure. But did you know you can have a purpose that is just as big as your life? As a parent, part of my purpose is contained within my children. No one’s going to make a movie about that. If they do, I want Brad Pitt to play me. Just sayin’.
In 2 Kings 5, there’s a foreign general named Naaman who suffers from leprosy. He hears that Elisha – he of the chariot of fire call story – might be able to heal him. But Elisha won’t even see him. He sends a messenger to tell General Naaman to wash himself in the Jordan river seven times and he would be healed. And Naaman is furious! He’s insulted because Elisha won’t see him face to face. He’s insulted because Elisha wants him to take seven baths. As if he hadn’t already bathed a few times over the years!
But one of Naaman’s servants says, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So Naaman follows the simple instructions begrudgingly and he’s healed.
I tell you this because I was once like Naaman. Some days I still have Naaman thoughts. “If God would give me a big task, I would do it!” But what if God gives me a small task? What if God gives you a purpose that’s too small to be made into a movie? What if God gives you a purpose that almost no one will ever notice other than you, God, and maybe a couple other people? Will you be as faithful in that small task as you think you would be if you got a visit from the angel Gabriel?
Have you ever looked at a painting or watched a movie or heard a song and thought, “That was OK?” That was blah? That was generic? I’ve thought that even about some well-reviewed movies and some famous paintings. But other paintings and other movies and other songs move me! My family loves the movie Captain Ron. It’s hard to go a whole conversation in my family without at least one Captain Ron reference. My parents have not one but TWO copies of the DVD just in case one dies!
I can’t tell you how many times I have quoted one of the fabulous lines from Captain Ron to someone. And they just stare at me. I think I have only met two other people outside my family who have seen Captain Ron, and I have quoted it to hundreds of people. All of you are missing out, I tell you!
Most people don’t know about it, but that movie is part of the fabric of my family of origin! It may not be a classic to anyone else, but it is cinema royalty to me!
The life that God dreamed for you doesn’t have to win an Oscar. The life that God dreamed for you doesn’t have to be famous. The life that God dreamed for you doesn’t have to make the history books. It just has to be the life that God dreamed for YOU. Your purpose from God needs to be faithful to God, not worthy of a movie script. Maybe it’s like Captain Ron to my family, and no one knows it but you and God. But if it’s the purpose God had in mind for you, if it’s the life God dreamed for you, it’s a beautiful and heavenly thing.
But here’s the challenge with the smaller purposes that most of us have. The challenge is live that purpose uniquely as God dreamed for you instead of generically as anyone could do it. There might be a bunch of people hearing this who have similar purposes from God for this phase of their lives.
There might be twenty people hearing this whose purpose from God right now is to pass along their faith to their grandchildren. OK. That’s great! But how did God design you to do that? What does God hope you will do this month in pursuit of that purpose?
Are you the fun one? Are you the quiet but respected one? Are you near or far from the grandkids? Have your kids followed Jesus, or is faith skipping a generation? Are your grandkids curious about faith or antagonistic or apathetic? All of these questions affect how God designed you to fulfill that purpose right now in your situation.
So the challenge if you have a purpose like that – one that could be similar to dozens of people’s purposes from God – the challenge is to actually do something about it instead of just letting it float along generically. How can you be intentional about your purpose if it’s something more day-to-day like passing faith to the grandkids? How can you leverage your personality or your experiences or your whatever to achieve that purpose? You don’t need a big, earth-shifting purpose to be intentional about it.
My great-grandmother – we called her Mamaw – didn’t want anyone to know her true age. She was viscerally opposed to anyone knowing how old she was, and she wasn’t playing around about it. She ran a cemetery, and her deceased husband was already buried there. In fact, her own headstone was sitting there already. And it listed her name, her birth date, and a dash waiting for her eventual death date to be engraved. One time when we went to visit the cemetery, my brother looked at her headstone with her birth date engraved and he exclaimed, “Mamaw! Now we know how old you are!”
She slowly turned, winked at him, and said impishly, “Don’t believe everything you read!”
So she may or may not have lied on her own tombstone. But I want you to think about telling the truth on your tombstone. Here’s one tool that can help you figure out your divine design – your purpose from God. If you could choose what someone would truthfully write on your headstone to summarize your life, what would you choose? What would God want someone to be true about your life when they write your headstone?
One dearly departed husband put “I told you I was sick” on his tombstone. So when his wife passed away she engraved on her headstone, “And I was sick of hearing it.” Rodney Dangerfield famously put on his headstone, “There goes the neighborhood.”
More meaningfully, someone put on their headstone, “Raised four beautiful daughters with only one bathroom…and still there was love.” Now that’s saying something!
What would you want written about you? What do you hope is true of you at the end of your life? What does God hope is true of your life? That’s one tool for discovering your divine design, your purpose from God.
The second tool is a little more specific. Imagine three years from now. What do you hope is true three years from now? If you could pray for something earnestly to be true three years from now, what would you pray for? Let’s go back to that grandkids example. What if, instead of saying you hope to pass your faith along to your grandkids, you narrow that down to say within three years two of my grandkids will exhibit interest in their faith? Which two? What will you do about it over the next three years? Over the next year? Over the next six months?
That’s the three year horizon. What’s a Godly dream for three years from now? Write it down as specifically as you can. And then start thinking about how you can contribute to that tangibly over the next few months.
We’ve been dreaming about that three-year horizon as a church. For example, we often hear that people wish there were more younger people at our church. Almost every church in America wishes that, by the way. But let’s roll with it. In three years, what do we dream for our church in terms of seeing more younger people at our church?
I’ve recently thrown out a potential way to quantify that as a three year horizon dream. Within three years, our church will have grown relationships with 50 people under the age of 50 deep enough that we know how to pray for them each month. I call that Compassionate Relationships when we know someone well enough to pray for them specifically and regularly. So if our church dreams to have compassionate relationships with 50 people under the age of 50 within three years, what should we be doing over the next six months? How should that affect our goals for 2021?
You might be wondering why we hired a youth director in the middle of a pandemic. Well first off, we’ve been trying to hire the right youth director for almost two years, so it’s about time. But second, we can’t reach 50 people under 50 without someone pouring into our youth and their families. And thanks to your generosity for the last few years and especially this year, we were able to confidently hire the right person as our youth director in the middle of a pandemic. Your faithful generosity empowered our investment in our church’s three year dream. Thank you!
Another three year dream is that every person in our congregation has compassionate relationships across multiple generations. We don’t just want children knowing children and youth knowing youth and adults knowing adults. We dream of compassionate relationships across multiple generations like the best family reunion this side of the Mississippi!
Last year we told you we dreamed of being a church that is exceptionally loving to children and their families. We asked you to sign the children’s ministry support promise. We asked you to learn the names of children you see at worship and greet them by name. And many of you did it! Guess when our children’s ministry started growing? When many of you started doing that. Children want to come back to that church where nice people know their name. You did that! Thank you!
This year, Kate is asking you to write individual notes of love, encouragement, and support to the children of FPCL since we can’t see them in-person right now. Write a note as long or as short as you want, mail it to Kate at the church address by September 11. You don’t know which kid will get your note, so don’t try to put their name on it. Write one note of encouragement and love and support. Write two notes. Write 21 notes if you want to reach every kid in our church!
If you want to see more younger people in our church, write a note! It helps us to be exceptionally loving to children and their families! Let’s surprise the children with a deluge of notes! A flood of notes! We can do this together! You can write a note even in COVID quarantine! You can write a note no matter how old or young you are! So come on! Let’s do this!
Sisters and brothers, I got a little fired up there talking about putting our church’s purpose into action. And that’s because my purpose from God is to unleash potential in the name of Christ. When I see what’s possible through Jesus, I want to see it become reality. That gets me out of bed in the morning.
Well, actually my children get me out of bed earlier than I want to in the morning. But unleashing potential in the name of Christ is what keeps me going. That potential doesn’t have to be grand. It doesn’t have to be worthy of a movie script. It just has to be God’s dream for an actual person or an actual group like our church. Unleashing that potential, striving for God’s dream for us, that’s my purpose.
So my dream for you during this series is that you get a much clearer glimpse of the life God dreams for you. If you seek that clarity. If you invest in understanding God’s dream for your life. And if you then start working toward God’s dream for your life, then God will be on the move in your life and in our midst. Can you imagine, can you dream what that would look like? Let’s unleash that potential in the name of Christ! Amen.