The Anatomy of the Call


The Anatomy of the Call

Jeremiah 1

Main Idea: Obedience to the call is a God-sized risk for God-sized results.

  1. God Calls Jeremiah (1:5).
  2. When God Calls, We Might Object (1:6).
  3. God Responds to Our Reasons (1:7-10).
    1. God commands (1:7).
    2. God cares (1:8).
    3. God commissions (1:9-10).
  4. What Does This Mean for Jeremiah (1:11-19)?
    1. A promise: God will honor his word (1:11-12).
    2. A prediction: disaster is coming (1:13-16).

The dimly lit dorm room was filled with a warm breeze. Outside my window was the shadow of the Appalachian foothills. I did not realize what it meant, but outside that window was where I would experience my first East Coast fall. Outside, it was glorious.

Inside, I was alone. Dropped off at college, I opened the box that contained the present my mom left me. It was a Bible in which she had marked every Bible “promise” she had for me. In her heart this was God’s way of encouraging, comforting, and committing to her that he was going to take care of her boy.

As I perused that Bible, the one promise that stood out to me, like no other, was the promise of Jeremiah 1:7:

Do not say, “I am only a youth,”

for you will go to everyone I send you to

and speak whatever I tell you.

I was eighteen years old and a few months away from preaching my first sermon in church. Yet in that moment I felt steel in my blood. I felt a resolve that all things would be taken care of by God if only I would act in obedience to him. His call was just that real, but my obedience was just that fragile. Perhaps Jeremiah’s awareness of his own frailty is what made him contest God’s call.

God used those verses to help me clarify my own call to ministry—what it would look like. For Jeremiah this was a specific call to a specific task. We are not all called to be a prophet, but we are all called.

The Bible describes a call to salvation. God calls us out to be saved. You have to come to grips with the reality of your own salvation. Once we come to Christ, there is a call to holiness. God has never called someone to ride the bench. There is a specific call to live a holy life, which means we are called to do specific things: husbands are called to lead their families and be willing to die for their wives; wives are called to respond to that leadership and manage their homes well; if you are single, you are called to purity and to a life devoted to the gospel; if you are a child, you are called to obey your parents; we are called to live in harmony with one another; and we are called to be good citizens of our country while we wait for our true kingdom. These are specific calls that express what it means to live a holy life.

Yet God will put his hand on some persons specifically and set them apart to have a prophetic word for a situation. This is the call to speak.

Like the other calls, this call has a general and specific expression. We are all called to open our mouths and speak. This means sharing the gospel with others. There are no professional Christians you can pay to do this for you. When a church member tells the pastor, “There is someone who needs a visit,” the pastor’s best response is, “I will go with you.” We cannot outsource our call to share our faith, to speak up for justice, or to right certain wrongs.

Yet this has a specific expression as well. God has always set aside those who will have a full-time vocational life of service to God. So those who are not called to ministry cannot ignore this text either; it applies to all of us. Yet, at the risk of alienating some, it is extremely important that churches not neglect “calling out the called.” This means that in this place, at this moment, God has a specific call on your life, and the call cannot be ignored. This was the case for Jeremiah.

God Calls Jeremiah

Jeremiah 1:5

Jeremiah’s call went down something like this:

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.

This had to be a little shocking for Jeremiah to hear. No enlistment. No job fair. No career counseling. No, God told him that as the raw genetic material was being composed in his mother’s womb, he was being set apart for this purpose.

The purpose of this passage is not to make a statement about the current abortion debate, but it does nonetheless. God’s sonogram did not reveal tissue but a person, a person who was called for a specific purpose. It would seem right for parents to pray for the life, the calling, and the future of their babies as each mother cradles a child in the womb.

There are three driving verbs here: God knew him, consecrated him, and appointed him. God’s tone is that this was “done and done.” God had this all arranged, but Jeremiah has an objection.

When God Calls, We Might Object

Jeremiah 1:6

Jeremiah complains that he is too young. While we do not know how young he is, we can imagine him as a late teenager when he is called. He is not so much concerned with his age but that his age prohibits him from being a good public speaker. We see a hint of the call of Moses here. “God, I cannot hold an audience. Not a good speaker, God. Give me some time” (Wright, Message of Jeremiah, 54).

The difference is that, unlike Moses, Jeremiah really was young.

His dismay at his call, and his later struggles to keep silent (20:9), gave their own witness to the divine, not human compulsion he was under. And unlike Moses, whose protestations rang a little hollow, Jeremiah really was young, it seems, and inexperienced. (Kidner, Message of Jeremiah, 26)

God had in mind on-the-job training. By the way, if God called him before he formed him, you would think God could take care of the timing. It’s almost as if God anticipated this response and dealt with it before Jeremiah ever made it. It is God’s way to answer our objections before we make them. Perhaps this is lost on Jeremiah.

Jeremiah is now facing the pivotal decision of his life. It is the decision to obey. There is no reason to believe that if he passes on this call, it will come back to him later. There is no, “I’ll think about this at the next service, at the next camp—next year.” There is no next time. There is no tomorrow. Perhaps God calls the young because they are just wise enough to obey. Jeremiah is in the position of simple obedience.

When God sets someone apart for ministry, there is generally a time when he or she knows it. If we reject that call, we may have another moment to respond. As someone said, big moments swing on tiny hinges of obedience. This is true even when, or especially when, we do not know what the next step is. George McDonald said it this way:

Men would understand; they do not care to obey. They try to understand where it is impossible they should understand except by obeying. They would search into the work of the Lord instead of doing their part in it. . . . It is on them that do his will that the day dawns. To them the day star arises in their hearts. Obedience is the soul of knowledge. (Knowing, 5)

Yet, over the course of years, I have met many, many people who, in a moment of transparency, will confess that at some moment in life they felt a compulsion, a yearning to obey God in a full-time call to ministry. They passed. They took another career path, another job, another degree. That simple decision, not to disobey but to postpone obedience, was the defining moment of their life. That decision led to another, and as days became years, they found that their decision to ignore the voice of God was not just a denial, but it was a trajectory. The soft voice of God being quenched once made it so much easier to do it the next time and the next, and now a life’s course has been set on the casual but radical turns away from the voice of God.

So if God is calling you, simply obey.

God responds to Jeremiah’s response, countering Jeremiah’s counter in three parts.

God Responds to Our Reasons

Jeremiah 1:7-10

God Commands (v. 7)

This is clear enough. His call was corrective, “Don’t say I am only a youth.” The point is not small. Everything Jeremiah will do will be accomplished in God’s power. There is not even a hint that he is called based on his ability or giftedness.

God Cares (v. 8)

The most frequent divine command in Scripture is simply, “Do not be afraid.” The comfort God gives Jeremiah is based on the reality that he will be with him to deliver him. That God is calling him to act based on God’s comfort helps us understand true courage. Courage is not an act of character; it is an act of faith. Being brash, taking risks, and throwing caution to the wind—these are not often acts of faith; they are acts of bravado. True courage has an object: faith in the character of God.

God’s encouragements are repeated toward the end of the chapter (vv. 17-19).

God Commissions (vv. 9-10)

God’s commission is specific. God puts his words in Jeremiah’s mouth. God still uses preachers with a prophetic voice, yet God does not use prophets today in the same way he did in the time of Jeremiah. The difference is that we have the complete witness of Scripture. We have in writing what God wants to say to us today and for all future days.

The act of a modern prophet is not retrieving direct revelation from God but rather “re-presenting” what God has already said. As preachers we are not seeking revelation so that we tell others what God is telling us; rather, we are taking his already revealed revelation and speaking it. We are not waiting for “a word” to speak; we are speaking the word God has given to us. This is a critically important distinction. To say it another way, we are speaking God’s word today when we re-present the word that is given to us through Jeremiah.

It is interesting that God appointed him to be over this nation. This was not a political office, but there is a ring of stewardship here. It was his responsibility to offer spiritual guardianship for this people. This is an interesting contrast to the shepherds of Israel who did not keep the stewardship God had entrusted to them (Jer 2:8; 10:21).

In the moment of God’s call to Jeremiah, God has something specific in mind for him. He was to “pluck up and to break down, to destroy, and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Notice that there are four negatives and two positives. God has promised that he will rebuild and replant Jerusalem. This will happen. But first God will break down and destroy. This is a metaphor he will return to again and again.

Yet even in this destruction God is preparing the way for something new. This is always the point with God. “God’s purpose in history—ancient, modern, or eschatological—is that when God brings catastrophic endings it is to prepare the way for unimaginable new beginnings” (Wright, Message of Jeremiah, 56). This idea is perfectly summed up in Jeremiah’s call. He will be used to both tear down and to build.

What Does This Mean for Jeremiah?

Jeremiah 1:11-19

A Promise: God Will Honor His Word (1:11-12)

This word picture is a play on words. The Hebrew word for “almond” sounds identical to the word for “watch.” God is taking specific care over his word to accomplish it. God’s will is that which will be accomplished. Jeremiah can speak with confidence. What God says will be accomplished—every promise fulfilled. Every ministry of the church is a ministry of the word. Counseling is bringing God’s word to difficult situations; children’s ministry is bringing God’s word to a child; women’s ministry is bringing God’s word to bear on the issues women face. If we are called to be holy, then ministry is a call to act holy. All of life is a response to a God who has already spoken (Adams, Speaking God’s Word, 59–60).

Preachers today must deal with this. We live in a world that wants suggestions and thoughts but not directives. However, what God has said will absolutely come true. What he promises is true.

A Prediction: Disaster Is Coming (1:13-16)

The historical backdrop to this chapter is that God is going to bring judgment on his people when the enemy comes from the north. The invading enemy will be Babylon. While Babylon lay to the east, when it invades, it will need to come to Jerusalem from the only real access: the north.

This prophecy would come true. Despite Josiah’s attempt at reform, ultimately God would use foreign nations to discipline Israel.


I know a sermon like this will cause some to wonder whether they are called. It might make you wonder, and some might feel confused: “Am I called to full-time vocational ministry?” God never writes confusion. So if you are confused about a call, take someone into your confidence and talk through the call to ministry. Those of us in vocational ministry have all been there, and it is important to talk through this to sense how God might be moving in your life and heart. But let’s end by talking about this practically. There are both a general call and a specific call.

We Are All Called

The general call is for all of us to be prophets. Every Christian, in one sense, is called to be a prophet. God never gives Miranda rights: you do not have the right to remain silent.

To what is God calling you? Some need to take up the mantle of being a man. God is calling you to stop taking the role of father and husband from cultural cues and lead like a godly man, for ladies to stop listening to the ambient culture about what femininity is and start listening to and obeying God, for students to humble themselves before parents and teachers and learn to be wise. These are God’s specific calls. He is not silent. He does not stutter. This is exactly what he is calling you to. It is in his Word. He. Is. Calling. You.

You are called to look at our culture—its government, its values, its entertainment, its way of thinking—and speak to it. Mothers need to be prophets so their children understand what God values. Fathers need to be prophets so families will be able to evaluate culture. It is wise to avoid a movie because of its rating; it is also wise to watch a family- or faith-oriented film and think critically with our children about why the writer and director painted characters in certain ways. Since we knowingly allow movie producers to be the storytellers of our culture, and therefore of our lives, we are obligated to speak to how these stories affirm, deny, or shade biblical truth. Let’s be honest. The church does not have equal time with our children. The church can’t right in one morning the message the world gives in six days, nor was it intended to. We are called to speak of the things of God at every turn (Deut 6:4-9) and thus interpret the culture in light of truth. This discernment is what it means to be a Christian in a foreign kingdom. The darkness will make us more obvious.

Some Are Called

Some, however, God has his hand on for a lifetime of ministry as a vocation. If this is you, then please understand that the specifics are not that important at this point. This is not really about a specific call. It’s about obedience.

Yet for some God is coming to you, and he is “hedging you in.” Like a cowboy on a cutting horse, God is culling you out from the herd. You can’t turn to the right or the left. It is just you and God. You know there is a specific call on your life. You want to pretend it is not real, but you are singled out. You can run from lightning, but you can’t run from thunder. You can choose not to heed it, but you can’t choose not to hear it. Maybe there are a thousand questions in your mind. All those questions have answers, but God is not obligated to answer those before you obey.

The question is not calling; it is obedience.

The Battle of Midway was one of the most fascinating battles in naval history, a strategic battle that protected America from the eastward creep of Japanese forces. It was won on a few tactical decisions—a few decisive moments by the Americans and a few surprisingly indecisive moments by the Japanese.

One of the worst indecisions was the Japanese commander’s inability to decide whether to bomb or torpedo. A last-minute decision was made to switch from torpedoes to bombs; the planes were rearmed so quickly that the crewmen left the torpedoes and fuel on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier. When the American dive-bombers descended to bomb the carrier, they were shocked to see all of the bombs, the offensive weapons the enemy was using to attack them, lying in the open. When the American bombs detonated on the carrier, the bombs of the enemy exploded, causing three Japanese carriers to be sunk in moments. The bombs that were offensive weapons became a great tactical advantage for their enemy.

Indecision makes us vulnerable. It allows the enemy the right moment to take our advantages and make them disadvantages. You have heard that an unguarded strength is the greatest weakness. This is because the enemy knows that if we are not seeking after God, we will lose the battle due to overconfidence in our strengths. What we think is our greatest advantage tragically becomes what he will use against us.

Now God is calling you. He is not calling you to do something as explicit as become the prophet for an entire nation. Rather, he is calling you to obey him. This is not about the call; it is about obedience.

Everything God wanted to do with Jeremiah hinged on this one moment of obedience. So it is with you. Obedience is a God-sized risk for a God-sized call. And the opposite is true. Disobedience is a man-sized risk for a man-sized result. The heart of courage is not personality; the heart of courage is faith. So, if God is calling you, believe. Have faith.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. How should we understand a call to salvation, a call to holiness, and a call to speak?
  2. God’s call to Jeremiah was specific. He was to “pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” What are the implications for these four negatives and two positives?
  3. What are the three driving verbs related to Jeremiah’s call (1:5)?
  4. In what way did Jeremiah counter God’s initial call (v. 6)?
  5. God countered Jeremiah’s counter with three responses. What are the three parts of God’s counter (vv. 7-10)?
  6. What does Jeremiah 1 teach us about the sanctity of human life and the protection of the unborn?
  7. What are the similarities between an Old Testament prophet and a New Testament preacher? What are the differences?
  8. Every ministry of the church is a ministry of the word. Can you explain?
  9. How has God called Christians today to respond to culture, government, values, and entertainment? How should we think and speak to these issues?
  10. What is the distinction between a general call to ministry and a specific call to vocational service?