By Emily Hylden
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” God tells Jeremiah as he begins to bestow a difficult call. I hear Psalm 139 in this passage, the prayer that extols God’s intimate knowledge of each person, how fearfully and wonderfully each one of us is made. Indeed, God created Jeremiah to be a prophet even as the baby’s bones were still being knit together and calcified.
More than a determinist proof-text to affirm that no one ever really makes any life decision, the text conveys that God cares so deeply for each life created that he dreams up how that person might make the world into God’s kingdom, and then plants seeds of that work right into our very marrow.
I wonder if it’s something like Michael Phelps.
There is myriad speculation that his wingspan makes him an exceptional swimmer; that his double-jointedness means his feet are like flippers; and that his ratio of torso-to-legs creates the perfect arc to slice through the water. All these physical aspects make him an excellent swimmer, but clearly he didn’t win all those medals just because of the way his body is shaped.
God’s call on Jeremiah’s life from his very conception doesn’t mean it was easy for Jeremiah to be the wailing prophet. It doesn’t mean it took little effort on his part to march out and preach the unpopular message of repentance every day to an unreceptive people. It doesn’t mean the prophet’s isolated life was convenient for Jeremiah. But it does mean Jeremiah was doing exactly the work God had created him to accomplish.
To figure out where that inner drive came from, I was struck by another call narrative, one in the New Testament. Just like Jeremiah, just like Moses and most of the Old Testament calls, the recipient of this one balked when she first heard what it was God meant for her to do.
I’m talking about Mary, the mother of Jesus. As you probably know, the angel Gabriel comes to this young woman and tells her what God has in mind. Like Jeremiah, who says, “No way, I’m too young,” Mary says, “That’s impossible, I’m a virgin.”
Sometimes when the Annunciation is preached, a lot is made of Mary saying yes to God, as opposed to the resistance of Jeremiah and Moses.
I was a fairly pious teenager, but I still can’t imagine saying, “Sure, God, impregnate me. No problem. Glad to be available.” There’s clearly something else going on here, and I suspect it’s what academics diagnose as “prevenient grace.”
That’s what Jeremiah and Mary and Moses, and anybody who dares to say yes to God’s call, all rely on. Sure, they’ve got the equipment sitting there, the equipment that God created them with, the flipper feet or the ready reproductive system — these things they’ve got through no effort or work of their own.
This prevenient grace— grace that goes before — is the same thing; God plants it in us so that we’re able to respond to him when he calls. It’s not our own strength that says on Mary’s lips, “Sure God, use my body” or in Jeremiah’s words, “Yes, absolutely, send me to your people who aren’t going to listen anyway.”
The strength and power to say yes is not something that we hold ourselves or that we make of our own volition. God gives us the yes that we can then choose to present back to him.
That’s right. We can choose how to use the grace and the equipment — or gifts — that he’s given us. He’s given us not only strong bodies, or wise minds, or hard-won experience. He’s given us a choice, too. We can take all those gifts he’s given, and we can do whatever we want with them. We can say no.
Now here’s the thing. When we say no and perhaps like the prodigal son pack our convertible with all our blessed belongings and drive off into the sunset, we’re leaving the fortress that the psalm talks about. We’re letting the castle of God’s protection fade distantly in our rearview mirrors. Not only is that clearly a selfish thing to do, but I wonder if, at the root, that kind of running might be about fear.
You see, this fortress, this God who gives great gifts and gives us the grace to say yes and to keep going and to put in the effort to do good work for his kingdom, this God and fortress requires a lot of us, too.
There’s another psalm that talks about God as a protective shield — kind of like an umbrella. Of course, sometimes an umbrella doesn’t quite cover all of you. Maybe your calves still get wet, or your back, or if you’re sharing the umbrella, your arm might still be drenched. In the same way, God doesn’t promise to shield everything that we might try to bring into the fortress with us; God promises to protect and defend and maintain us in the circle of his love. Having known us from before we were formed in the womb, who knows better than God what makes us who we are, and what things must be lain aside, or as Hebrews says, burned up?
God doesn’t promise to protect me from my laziness and sloth. He doesn’t say he’ll let me keep my sinful habit that placates me like a pacifier. God says to each of us as he says to Jeremiah, “I am with you to deliver you.” And truly, only God knows who each one of us is, only God knows the bits that are essential, the bits that must be delivered.
This goes against most of the understandings that we’re fed about relationships. Our culture teaches us to think about interactions with others as if we’re in a contract: you do your part, I do mine, and neither of us crosses any boundaries. Contracts protect all the little pieces of ourselves that we want protected. Contracts demand something of us, but never more than we bargain for.
God and his kingdom don’t work that way. God makes covenants, not contracts. God calls. He doesn’t deliver documents via courier. We can’t say for sure what exactly we’ll have to give up or precisely what we’ll have to endure to follow God’s call and be in relationship with him. We can’t make contracts with the Lord God Almighty.
Sometimes, like for Jeremiah and I’m sure for Mary, it might feel like the commitment, like the call that God has placed on our lives, demands so much as to destroy who we are. We want to be within the protective fortress of God’s presence, but we have to give up so much to get inside the gate that we must leave a big pile of pacifiers and identities and assumptions and dearly held possessions outside the wall. The gate is too small to let them all in with us, so we can easily see the draw of gathering up all those things in our shiny little convertible instead and high-tailing it in the other direction.
But what happens if we say yes? What happens if we choose to use that grace and freedom and equipment that God has given us to say yes to him instead? Well, then we draw near to the consuming fire of the almighty God. We may find that all those things we left outside the gate aren’t the sum of the things we’ve got to forsake.
The heat of our Lord’s presence may wrest from our hands even more of our sin and even more of ourselves. Really, it’s just more of what we thought was ourselves, but what God knows is holding us back from who he’s created us to be, from the work that he’s created us to accomplish.
So our only option, if we truly desire to do the work we were created to accomplish, and to be who we were made to be, is to say yes to God’s call, to accept the covenant that God offers through Jesus Christ, knowing that we will be safe in his fortress, knowing too that it will cost much, even to the edge of our of sanity and the cliff of our lives.
But even those moments form us into the creation God made and intends. As God drew near to us even before our conception, full of hope that he might guide us into his glorious plans, may we use the grace he has given us to respond by saying yes, drawing near to his presence, accepting him through the body and blood of his Son, to be transformed, to let the consuming fire of almighty God refine each of us as his glorious creation.
In the Jeremiah passage this morning, God touches Jeremiah’s mouth, saying, “There, now I’ve put my words in your mouth.” In the gospel passage from Luke, Jesus touches the crippled woman, saying, “There, woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Even when Mary is called, she’s somehow touched by God as the Holy Spirit comes upon her to create the body of Jesus in her womb.
When the divine touches human flesh, the reaction is transformative. The old passes away and the new is born. Sin falls away, is burned away, and the true self, the true creation of God, is revealed.
May we approach the throne and altar with joy and trepidation, knowing that our nourishing encounters with God, life-giving as they are, also touch and burn us to the quick, all oriented to God’s unending love and to his great glory.
The Rev. Emily R. Hylden lives with her priest husband and three sons in Lafayette, Louisiana, and is host of the podcast Emily Rose Meditations.