Oscar-mania is upon us! I’ve seen two of the movies nominated for Best Picture: The King’s Speech and Black Swan. Both were excellent and well worth seeing.
Do you remember the Best Picture for 1981? (Some of you may not have yet been born!) It sticks in my memory, not only because it was an excellent movie, but because the movie came out while I was in seminary. One of my seminary professors grew up in China with the main character portrayed in the movie. Both their families, one American the other Scottish, were missionaries in early 20th century China.
Like most characters in the Bible, the prophet Jeremiah could have had an award-winning movie made about him! Jeremiah had been chosen before he was born. God’s purpose was carved into his very being. But Jeremiah protested that he was too young, too inexperienced for the task. Yet, when he honored God’s purpose, he was given the strength to face persecution with courageous determination and prophetic hope.
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘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.’
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’ Jeremiah 1:4-10
Like Jeremiah, Eric Liddel, the hero in Chariots of Fire, was young, 22 years old, when he sensed that he had been chosen to fulfill God’s purpose.
I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.
But running fast wasn’t enough. His loyalty to God was tested in the 1924 Paris Olympics when his heat was scheduled for Sunday. He refused to run. He could not honor God’s purpose if he broke the Sabbath. Officials even appealed to his loyalty to the British crown. Still he refused. Instead of running the 100-meter, for which he trained, he had to run the 400-meter…for the first time.
God, whom I believe chose Liddell before his birth, gave him unusual strength to win that race. Liddell then followed God’s call as a missionary to China. At 43, he died in a Japanese internment camp, where fellow prisoners drew strength for their struggle from his deep faith and Christlike joy.
Few of us are or could be Olympic athletes. Our stories will probably not be made into Academy Award-winning movies. But each of us can know an abiding sense that we have been chosen by God for a special purpose, or for a particular task. Listen to your life. Do you sense that God has chosen you for a particular purpose? Where do you “feel God’s pleasure?” What would it mean for you to honor that purpose in your life?
Or do you put up obstacles, like Jeremiah. In a way, we often stand in the way and become obstacles to ourselves in God’s transformation with us. In a nutshell, it’s the notion that religious people often get in the way of religion and that religion often gets in the way of God. Good people for good reasons often do silly and even bad things that make it difficult for others and for themselves to come to God.
There are already enough difficulties in this relationship of allowing God into our lives. There are already enough obstacles in the way hay God wants to enter our lives, and we certainly don’t need to be erecting new ones.
Just like Jeremiah, there are all sorts of people throughout the Bible who were told not to get in the way of those who would turn to God. At first it seems odd to think of ourselves as in any way obstacles to God’s work: “God has no hands but our hands” is a line out of an old hymn, The World’s Bible, by Annie Flint. Among our world we are, in some way, the means by which God does work in this world.
For many of us it is so difficult, no matter what our tradition or inclination, to realize that the transaction of faith is one between God and the individual soul. “Before you were born I set you apart,” God says to Jeremiah. God came to Jeremiah on God’s timetable.
Sometimes in our desire to be a witness to God’s great acts in our lives, we get in the way. Not that we believe so much in ourselves, but that we appear to believe so little in God’s ability to know and do the right thing at the right time. God needs all the help God can get, especially good publicity, but all the help we can give to God is not always helpful to God. We profess to be a person of faith, yet most of our time is spent proving how faithful we are.
A witness, however, is one who sees, who tells, who is. The witness has something to see, something of which she can speak with authority, as Mary at Jesus’ tomb said, “I saw the Lord.” She witnessed this with her own eyes. And a witness not only sees, a witness also tells, as Jeremiah says, “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.'”
Then a witness must always point beyond himself or herself. A witness is you. You are your testimony. You are what you attest to. You are what you witness to as a landmark, a means, a direction, a signpost. It is not simply what you see and what you tell, but what you are. Don’t get in the way, but be the way by which God enters the world and the lives of God’s creation.
God moves toward us in tender and insistent ways. Despite ourselves, we too move toward God as plants that seek the light. I profoundly believe that God has chosen each of us to be set apart by God. One of the first things we must learn is to not get in the way of that transaction. Don’t get in the way. Get out of the way. Be the way and allow the light to shine through you, and on you, and in you.
Your Sunday bonus: While Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire theme song won the Academy Award for original soundtrack, the hymn Jerusalem also played prominently in the movie. This hymn is based on a short poem by William Blake, written during World War I. It’s considered the unofficial British anthem. Fellow runner, Harold Abrahams, had this hymn played at his memorial service in 1978.