The other day I was having a discussion with one of my mentors. He asked how I was doing and I said, ‘I don’t know how I feel. All I see around me is change and decay, loss, the end of so many things, a paralysis about how to move forward, if one can move at all.’ “How do you lead people,” I said to my mentor, “when you cannot see the way forward and few of the ways that have worked will ever work again. When your labourers are few and the labour is, well, abundant and yet, also uninterested or unwilling.’ Who am I that God would put me into the middle of this? What am I to say or do?
My mentor replied to me: “if God truly knit you in your mother’s womb, as he did with all of us, do you not think that he knew what he was doing when he put you right into the middle of this?” His response provided a great segue into our passage from Jeremiah today, and even to our readings from Hebrews and Luke.
We hear God tell Jeremiah - who seems to be experiencing some self doubt given Israel’s own circumstances of moral deprivation and impending captivity by other nations - that he has knit him in his mother’s womb. “I knew you before you were born and I’ve consecrated or destined you for this particular path in life, of being a prophet to Israel.” To do what, “to guide and lead them.” Echoing Moses who says something similar earlier, Jeremiah says, “umm, God, I’m only a boy. I can’t do this. I don’t know what to do or how to help. I will lead them astray.” God replies to Jeremiah, “do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’ just go where I send you and speak the words that I give to you. Don’t be afraid of the people I send you to, I’ll deliver you, I’ll give you the words. And God touches Jeremiah’s mouth and provides him the words to speak.
The central point of this passage is captured well in our reading from Hebrews. The presence of God communicated through the Scriptures, which Jesus himself embodies, is quite distinct from the presence and words of any mere human being. God’s presence, seen clearly in Jesus’s life, is the righteous judgment of all human words and actions. So in Jesus we see fulfilled all the words, all the direction, all the actions, given to Jeremiah throughout his whole ministry. Jeremiah’s ministry then, isn’t about him, his ways, his strengths, his weaknesses, his concerns and fears and confusion. Rather Jeremiah’s ministry is about pointing - unknowingly - forward to Jesus’s ministry. And only in seeing Jesus’s life, do we see how all of Jeremiah’s life and ministry make sense of who God is and of what God is doing in the world.
That’s how God works. Every single one of us is consecrated, chosen, appointed for one purpose: to point other people to Jesus. The way our lives play out is a reflection of the multitude of ways in which God works to capture the attention, to challenge, to nurture, to care, to support, to press, push, to burn away the chaff, to drop the baggage we carry, so that he can draw even the most stubborn, the most broken, the most in need, the least in need, into his reconciling grace.
This is the point being brought home in our Gospel reading from Luke. We have a woman who has a physical and spiritual condition that has caused her to be bent and immobile for years. She certainly represents many of us with physical conditions. Yet she represents us more deeply in that every single one of us, no matter our physical capacity, is crippled by sin. And frankly, deep down, every one of us knows this, even if we don’t acknowledge it or name it sin. It’s a kind of recognition that we are not whole and complete and the longing and various ways of working to make ourselves whole, even if those ways are often quite broken themselves (consumerism would be an example of this, attention seeking or constantly criticising others would be another).
Along comes this religious leader of the synagogue, who, trying to follow the rules, says, “hey, you can work six days a week but the Sabbath is for rest.” Jesus calls him a hypocrite. You do work on the Sabbath, he says, you take your donkey and lead him to water don’t you. It’s really important to capture the symbolic meaning of these words here. Jesus isn’t just talking about water and donkeys. Nor is he merely over turning an antiquated Sabbath keeping practice, or suggesting that we all work 24/7. Those are very bad interpretations of this passage.
The presence of water in Scripture is always associated with God’s provision: Christ is the rock in the desert that provides water to the Israelites to meet their physical needs, as it would meet the donkey’s physical needs; but more importantly, that water, drawing on the water in the well drawn up by a woman, and the water in the garden of Eden, is grace itself. It is the very presence of God providing for our physical needs and for our spiritual need for grace, our reconciliation to God our Father. The point Jesus is making in Luke then is this: do not get stuck in your own ways - whether those ways are bound to fears, as with Jeremiah; or arrogance, as with the Synagogue leader who follows the laws or the old ways completely literally to the point that he misses God’s actual provision of grace in Jesus’s healing; or whether those ways lead us to indifference, as happens to many of us when we’re faced with uncertainty and confusion. Ask first, what is God doing here? What is God doing with me? How is God challenging me or correcting me, not for my own sake, but so that I can’t point other people to him. It is this witness that, as Hebrews puts it, cannot be shaken, but that will remain until the end of time. For this witness reveals the source of all that we are: our God. AMEN