God's Word on Sunday: Fear not following Jesus, God’s will

  • August 31, 2023

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 3 (Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27)

Jeremiah was a reluctant prophet and for a good reason. He knew that the message that he was missioned to proclaim to the people would be received badly. He knew that it would anger many people and that his life would be in grave danger.

From the moment of his first call, Jeremiah tried to convince God of his unsuitability for the role of prophet. He cited youth, lack of experience and lack of preaching eloquence as hindrances to his mission. But God was not buying any of it. Sweeping aside the objections, God assured Jeremiah that His grace and power would be with him in the mission. This was God’s show, not Jeremiah’s. He had no cause to worry.

But worry he did, for throughout his ministry he had to prophesy doom and destruction. He insisted that God wanted the nation to submit to the Babylonians — scarcely a message that would have won much approval. Neither the royal court nor the prophets on the royal payroll were interested in or moved by his words. For his efforts, he was ridiculed, threatened, beaten and thrown in a cistern to die.

In this passage from the Book of Jeremiah, he has reached the breaking point. Jeremiah accused God of seducing and deceiving him — putting one over on him — and he tried to quit. He insisted that he would not proclaim God’s word anymore; he was done. But it does not work that way. One does not simply walk away from a divine mission. The words burned inside of him and forced him to speak. He was driven, not by ambition but by the Spirit of God. Sadly, his message was not heeded. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and the people of Israel were led into Babylonian exile. Jeremiah ended his days as a refugee and faded into history.

There are many who fill prophetic roles in our own times. They too have a message that they feel driven to proclaim. And once again, it usually involves something that many do not want to hear. It can involve racial and economic justice, gender equality, Church reform, elimination of corruption and privilege, dealing with human-made climate change and environmental responsibility. These issues are certain to raise hackles, but the voices cannot and should not be silenced. They must be engaged on the spiritual and rational levels in dialogue. It is easy and convenient to condemn, ridicule and persecute. It is far more difficult but rewarding to allow oneself to be touched and changed.

Paul would agree — he urges us not to act or think in predictable and worldly ways, but to be transformed and renewed in mind and heart. In this way, we will be able to discern the will of God, which consists of whatever is good, acceptable and perfect. Never has this transformation and renewal been so urgently needed as now.

Peter had just been praised by Jesus and given special authority in the community — the keys of the kingdom. Within minutes, Jesus called him Satan and ordered him to step aside. Why the sudden reversal? Jesus had been explaining how He was to suffer and die before being raised again — this was what being Messiah meant for Him. Peter was aghast and tried to talk Jesus out of it. But Jesus insisted that Peter was now thinking in human rather than divine terms. As with most people, he was concerned with personal safety and self-preservation.

But all who desire to follow Jesus fully and to do God’s will must be prepared to let go of that concern and of fear. Worldly gain pales in comparison to what is granted to those willing to put on God’s mind and heart. The saints and martyrs knew this and were willing to pay that price for their faith. Many others throughout history sacrificed their comfort, well-being and even life itself for the sake of others.

We cannot receive the fullness of God until we empty ourselves as Jesus did. Two obstacles stand in our way: fear and excessive concern for self. Peter was well acquainted with both, but ultimately overcame them all.