Summary: Before you wre interested in God he had already called and appointed you!
Knowing that the fully developed, passionate humanity of Jeremiah necessarily had a complex and intricate background, we prepare to examine it. But we are brought up short. We are told next to nothing: three bare, unadorned background items — his father’s name, Hilkiah; his father’s vocation, priest; his place of birth, Anathoth. We want to know more. Without more information how can we gain an adequate understanding of the humanity of Jeremiah? We need to know the social and economic conditions of Anathoth. We need to know whether the father was passive or assertive. We need to know if the mother was overly protective and when she weaned her son. We need to know the teaching methods used by local wise men. The questions pile up. Lack of evidence frustrates us. What we need is a breakthrough manuscript discovery in seventh century B.C. Anathoth, manuscripts containing anecdotes, statistics and letters — raw material for a reconstruction of the world into which Jeremiah was born.
We fantasize an archaeological scoop. Meanwhile what we have right before us turns out to be far more useful — a theological probe. Instead of being told what Jeremiah’s parents were doing, we are told what his God was doing: “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” (Jer 1:5).
2 The first move
Before Jeremiah knew God, God knew Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” This turns everything we ever thought about God around. We think that God is an object about which we have questions. We are curious about God. We make inquiries about God. We read books about God. We get into late night bull sessions about God. We drop into church from time to time to see what is going on with God. We indulge in an occasional sunset or Symphony to cultivate a feeling of reverence for God.
But that is not the reality of our lives with God. Long before we ever got around to asking questions about God, God has been questioning us. Long before we got interested in the subject of God, God subjected us to the most intensive and searching knowledge. Before it ever crossed our minds that God might be important, God singled us out as important. Before we were formed in the womb, God knew us. We are known before we know.
This realization has a practical result: no longer do we run here and there, panicked and anxious, searching for the answers to life. Our lives are not puzzles to be figured out. Rather, we come to God, who knows us and reveals to us the truth of our lives. The fundamental mistake is to begin with ourselves and not God. God is the center from which all life develops.
All wise reflection corroborates Scripture here. We enter a world we didn’t create. We grow into a life already provided for us. We arrive in a complex of relationships with other wills and destinies that are already in full operation before we are introduced. If we are going to live appropriately, we must be aware that we are living in the middle of a story that was begun and will be concluded by another. And this other is God.
My identity does not begin when I begin to understand myself. There is something previous to what I think about myself, and it is what God thinks of me. That means that everything I think and feel is by nature a response, and the one to whom I respond is God. I never speak the first word. I never make the first move.
Jeremiah’s life didn’t start with Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s salvation didn’t start with Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s truth didn’t start with Jeremiah. He entered the world in which the essential parts of his existence were already ancient history. So do we.
Sometimes when we are in close and involved conversation with three or four other people, another person joins the group and abruptly begins saying things, arguing positions and asking questions in complete ignorance of what has been said for the past two hours, oblivious to the delicate conversational balances that have been achieved. When that happens, I always want to say, “Just shut up for a while, won’t you? Just sit and listen until you get caught up on what is going on here. Get in tune with what is taking place, then we will welcome you into our conversation.”
God is more patient. He puts up with our interruptions; he backtracks and fills us in on the old stories; he repeats the vital information. But how much better it is if we take the time to get the drift of things, to find out where we fit. The story into which life fits is already well on its way when we walk into the room. It is an exciting, brilliant, multi-voiced conversation. The smart thing is to find out the identity behind the voices and become familiar with the context in which the words are being used. Then, gradually, we venture a statement, make a reflection, ask a question or two, even dare to register an objection. It is not long before we are regular participants in the conversation in which, as it unfolds, we get to know ourselves even as we are known.