We had orientation for new divinity students at Wake Forest University School of Divinity last week, and I led devotions. Here is what I told the class of 2012.
Divinity School Orientation
Sermon on Jeremiah 17:5-8
So, you decided to come to Divinity School? How did people respond when you told them what you wanted to do with the next three years of your life? Did anyone ask if you were crazy? Did they back away slowly afraid that someone who would choose to spend three years studying theology might do anything? Were they thrilled that you had finally answered the call to ministry that they always knew you had? Did they envy you for doing something they wished they had done years ago or did they pity you because they knew that unless you are Crefelo Dollar you’ll never make money off of the Word of God? What did they say to you?
More importantly, what did you say to yourself as you were filling out applications to Wake Forest and maybe even one of those other divinity schools in the area? What did you say to yourself during those long sleepless nights as you struggled with your sense of vocation and your desire to do what God wants you to do with your life? I remember what it was like twenty-five years ago when I packed up all my belongings and drove north to Pennsylvania with a song on my lips and anxiety gripping my heart. It wasn’t easy pursuing my Master of Divinity degree, especially since I was married and already had one daughter. I thought about Isaiah having his lips purged with flaming coals from the altar before he could preach the Word. I thought about Nathaniel, in whom there was no guile, and the other disciples whom Jesus called. I thought about Jeremiah struggling with his call to be a prophet, accusing God of having seduced him and abandoned him. During a particularly boring class, a classmate drew a picture of me as a biblical prophet in exile longing for Salem. It felt like exile. You see, I had never lived outside of the state of North Carolina nor had I been a member of any church other than the one I was baptized in as a baby. I felt uprooted and was a stranger in a very strange land. But at least I could comfort myself with the knowledge that I would never be corrupted by mammon and materialism after I was ordained.
The orientation committee asked me to lead devotions on this remarkable text from Jeremiah that they chose as the theme for these four days. It is a good selection because the prophet reminds us of some truths that have endured the corrosive effects of history and the rise of modern biblical criticism. Jeremiah was a prophet who was called to deliver God’s word of judgment during one of the worst times in the history of Judah. If they had had a course titled God and the Jerusalem Times in those days, Jeremiah would have been the major topic of discussion. Jeremiah “spoke truth to power” centuries before that became a meaningless cliché. In his sermons he called the people to change their ways in order to preserve their country. His calls to self-examination and repentance were so brutally honest and so memorable that we now label any such call to communal repentance a Jeremiad. (See you are already learning things for church history class!) People did not always take kindly to Jeremiah’s preaching, as you probably know, and his life was often threatened. For years he labored and suffered for his people, and finally he went into exile in Egypt. His life as well as his words witnessed to his devotion to God and his love for his people despite rejection and hardship.
I’m telling you all this so you will see that our lesson for today does not exist in isolation. These verses are a central part of Jeremiah’s overall ministry as a prophet of the Lord. I suspect that Jeremiah was not merely preaching to others when these beautiful words fell from his lips like honey from the honeycomb. He asked himself questions like you have been asking. He often wondered why he was doing what he was doing. He questioned the goodness and wisdom of God in choosing him to proclaim judgment and hope for the nation. He felt uprooted, abandoned, and exiled. And these words were a reminder to focus on what is essential and true. Those who trust in the Lord are like trees planted by the waters.
It may have something to do with growing up with the last name Atwood, but I have always loved trees. I used to climb trees all the time as a child, sometimes taking a book with me to read while sitting on a branch. Trees are remarkable living things. They are a bridge between heaven and the earth. They live long lives and provide shelter and nourishment for many kinds of animals. Yes, it is true; I am a tree hugger who loves the Ents in Lord of the Rings. Trees seem so stable and durable that we can easily forget that trees are living creatures who need water and nourishment to grow. Living in an arid land, Jeremiah knew that trees cannot reach their full potential or their full lifespan without lots of water. A tree growing beside a stream will grow and flourish because the water is there to renew its life. Such a tree will flower in season and put forth fruit. Such a tree will be supple and flexible when the winds of change blow and storms threaten.
I hope that you are such a tree. I hope that you are firmly rooted beside the stream of living water that flows from God while you are in Divinity School. At times you may feel parched and thirsty and needy. At times you may feel like you have been uprooted from all that gave your life meaning and structure previously. At times you may feel like the storms of theological controversy or existential shock are going to topple you, but remember that you can be a planted by a living-giving stream that flows from God. The faculty and the dean cannot plant you by the river flowing with God’s grace. You have to heed Jeremiah’s words and trust in the Lord who has called you to this place. You have to keep trusting in God and drinking deeply of divine goodness and mercy.
We are hoping that you will grow here intellectually, spiritually, professionally, but the old adage is true. We can lead you to the waters, but we cannot make you drink. Don’t get so wrapped up in learning about Jeremiah’s historical context in pre-exilic Judah or the debates over authorship of different sections of Jeremiah that you forget to learn from the words that the scribes recorded for us. Don’t get so wrapped up in theological and pastoral debates over sin and forgiveness, judgment and grace that you forget to drink deeply from the living waters of grace and experience forgiveness. Don’t get so wrapped up in analyzing old Baptist preachers use of the Jeremiad in American revivalism that you ignore this message. Let your roots stretch out into the living waters so that you may become a bridge between earth and heaven. Let your leaves grow and may your branches be covered with delicious fruit that will nourish a hungry world.