Sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk – Sunday 25th August 2019.
‘Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”’
That was Jeremiah’s excuse when God gave him a job…what’s yours?
As you can imagine, as a teacher I heard many excuses. The prize, however, goes to the year 6 child who had to tell me that the dog had indeed eaten, not just her homework…but most of her year’s science notes too. She brought me what was left as proof…
Seriously though, excuses are a recurring theme in the Old Testament…and I’d like to spend a little time today thinking about why and what it might say to us.
Today’s passage, at the start of the book of Jeremiah, is the prophet’s recollection of how his life with God began. And it echoes similar passages from other prophets. God calls them to speak for him…and they provide a list of excuses why they can’t possibly do it.
Jeremiah is only a boy; Ezekiel doesn’t know what to say; Isaiah is unworthy; Moses is just no good at speaking. Why so many excuses?
Well excuses are part of human nature. Ask a child to tidy a bedroom and get a hundred reasons why they can’t, just now. And I know when I put off tasks I don’t like; I’m ready with excuses about being too busy with something else ‘more important’.
Often we make excuses to ourselves as much as to others…is that perhaps a sign that we feel guilty? For me, excuses show that I know I’m avoiding something I probably should be doing…otherwise there’s no need to justify myself…no need for an excuse.
I suspect it was because the prophets knew it was God calling that they found excuses rather than just ignoring it. It was because they knew these words must be spoken, that they had to justify not being the person who would do it.
So excuses might be a useful hint of something not quite right. The first time someone suggested I consider ordination, I said I already had a vocation as a teacher. I gave it no more thought…presumably because it was true.
A few years later it was mentioned again – and I heard myself making excuses – about my family, my job, our finances. It was all completely reasonable – but over the next few days I realised they were just that – excuses. Perhaps excuses can be a search for justification – when we’re not confident we’re doing the right thing.
There are plenty of times when we feel perhaps we should speak out, for or against something, or act…but we persuade ourselves out of it – find excuses for inaction, for keeping quiet. There are situations when we wonder about sharing our faith – but find plausible reasons not to.
Of course not every idea that pops into our heads is a good one. Not every course of action someone suggests is wise. I’ve spent a good portion of my life learning not to speak without thinking. But when I find myself coming back to ideas, with excuses for why I shouldn’t act on them…I’m inclined at least to take them seriously…to consider whether they might just be a prompt from God.
Mind you, when we look at what Jeremiah’s being asked to do…his excuses seem entirely understandable. When he does deliver God’s difficult and unpopular words…he’s rejected, hunted, imprisoned and thrown down a well for his pains.
In a way – faced with the task of speaking God’s word – excuses are the right response. In that gospel passage Lynne had the pleasure of preaching about last week…Jesus said he comes to bring division not peace. Following Jesus, speaking his words, is not always easy or popular.
So all those excuses, from Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah and many others, are unsurprising. But they also demonstrate another human thing…our tendency to make it all about us. God gives a task – and we look at ourselves – at our inadequacy, at the demands it will place on our lives, at the cost.
But God’s response shows it’s not about us – it’s about God. God says to Jeremiah “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I shall send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you. I have put my words in your mouth.”
Excuses are not only a prompt that we should perhaps act…they’re also a reminder that, yes, without God we can’t manage. But that doesn’t matter – because God always has an answer to our excuses. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Moses – they were all given the words and the voice.
When we start thinking of excuses, of reasons why we can’t…we should remember God has the answer that says we can. His ultimate answer…the Holy Spirit…by whose grace we will find all the words we need – and the courage to speak them.
I’m not suggesting you’re all called to ordination – although you never know…but as Christians we are all called at some time to speak God’s words…at work…in the playground…to our friends or family.
So next time you find yourself making excuses…perhaps it’s worth stopping, praying, discerning whether what you’re avoiding might be a prompt from God.
And if you think that might be so, but your excuses are still very appealing – remember it’s not about us – it’s about the amazing fact that God wants to engage with his creation – and lets us share in the task.
Gracious God – we thank you for calling us to share in the building of your Kingdom. May our excuses prompt us both to speak out, and to rely on you, so that we speak in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen