Jeremiah 1:4-10

January 31, 2016


It was 2:00 AM and 26-year-old single mother Ashley Smith needed a smoke. But she was out of cigarettes. And so she decided to go to a nearby market in order to feed her addiction.

As she was leaving her apartment, she noticed a blue truck in the parking lot with a man in it. She didn’t think too much about it. She had only moved into the apartment two days prior. So she thought maybe he was a neighbor coming home or something. She got into her car and went to the store. She came back to her apartment about five minutes later. And the truck was still there. And the man was still in it. Ashley got out of her car and rushed to her apartment. As Ashley started to put her key in the door of her apartment, a man stuck a gun in her ribs. She began to scream, but he told her if she did what he asked he wouldn’t hurt her.

At first she didn’t know who her assailant was, but when he took off his hat, she recognized him from a news report. He was Brian Nichols. Brian Nichols was a prisoner brought to court for the retrial of a rape conviction. When he arrived at the courtroom he overtook his guard. In the melee he took her gun and shot and killed the presiding judge, the court reporter, a deputy and a federal agent. Then he escaped.

Now this man who had earlier in the day killed four people in cold blood was in Ashley Smith’s apartment. He tied her up with masking tape, a shower curtain and an extension cord.

Ashley pleaded with him not to hurt her. She told him that she had a five-year-old daughter who she was to meet at 10:00 AM the next morning. And that her daughter would be very upset if her mother didn’t show up. She also told him that her husband was murdered four years ago, and if she too were murdered, her little girl wouldn’t have a mommy or a daddy.

Ashley Smith spent hours talking with Brian and listening to him. He told her that he deserved to have a bullet in his back. She said, “No one deserves that!” He said that he felt like he was “already dead” so it didn’t matter what happened. She told him he wasn’t dead, he was standing there before her very much alive, which she pointed out to him was a miracle. They talked about what he had done, and they watched television coverage of the manhunt. It made him sad to see what he had done.

Some time during the night Brian untied Ashley, and she asked him if she could do some reading. He asked her what she wanted to read, and she pulled out her Bible and a copy of Rick Warren’s best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life. That night she opened the book to Chapter 33, her reading for the day. She read aloud the first paragraph. Brian interrupted, “Stop.” He said, “Read it again.” The paragraph raises the question: “What is your purpose in life?”

There ensued a deep discussion about purpose and failure and sin. Brian said he didn’t have any purpose. His life was over. She told him that his life wasn’t over, that he might get caught and that his purpose from now on might be to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to fellow inmates. Finally, Ashley told Brian that it takes more of a man to surrender and pay for what he has done then to kill others and himself.

In the morning Brian put the guns he had stolen under the bed, and Ashley made pancakes for his breakfast. She asked him again if she could go and meet her daughter. He told her she could. When the police arrived Brian Nichols held up a white towel and surrendered and went peacefully.

This man, who had burst into Ashley’s apartment claiming to be a soldier on a mission, now walked out gentle as a lamb, thanks to Ashley Smith’s humble courage. Smith, who herself has struggled with methamphetamine addiction later commented to reporters that she wanted his mother to be able to say “Thank you” that no one else had to die, including him. What a story of faith and courage, and it’s right out of the headlines from March 2005.

Beloved, everyone needs a purpose for life. Maybe this is why Rick Warren’s book has been so amazingly successful. People need a purpose for living.

Tim Hoerr in his book Thank God It’s Monday! tells about his brother Ben.

Ben is the executive pastor of a 1000-member church in the Midwest. Early in his pastoral career, Ben questioned his role as a full-time pastor. He had many talents, says his brother, Tim, including musical, literary and rhetorical skills, as well as a special flair for art. Ben wondered if he could make the best use of these talents in the pastorate. He was frustrated from seeing others using their talents, having fun, and earning a much better living.

While wrestling with the decision of whether or not to stay in the pastorate, Ben reflected on the life of Christ. Then his eyes fell on this verse from the New Testament: John 17:4. At the end of his life Jesus declared, “I have finished the work I was sent to do.”

Suddenly Ben discovered what real success is. Success isn’t defined by the accomplishments and experiences of others. Success isn’t in comparison to standards of great wealth, outstanding accomplishments, or fame. Rather, he found that success is about fulfilling a unique purpose and having an impact on the lives of others. Jesus declared, “I have finished the work I was sent to do.” Ben realized that he was exactly where he was supposed to be—sharing his unique talents and serving others. He did not leave the ministry, but went back to it with a new and lasting exuberance.

This is a profound insight which you and I need to remember. Success is NOT measured in comparison to the accomplishment of others. Success IS fulfilling the purpose that God has assigned to us. That night in Ashley Smith’s apartment, Brian Nichols wrestled with this question, “What is your purpose in life?” We need to wrestle with that question. We will never be happy until we do.

The prophet Jeremiah knew what his purpose was. He writes, “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.’”

You can’t be any clearer in your understanding of your mission than that. No wonder Jeremiah has had such an impact on the history of the Judeo-Christian community. It’s hard to stop a person who knows exactly what he was sent here to do.

Jeremiah obviously knew what he was about at an early age. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you …” Jeremiah had some idea of his mission from the very beginning. Some people are like that. Maybe you were. You can approach some young people at 12 or 13 years of age and ask them what they want to be and they will tell you a doctor, or a lawyer, or a police officer or a teacher or whatever, and they never vary from that. They go through their lives all the way to their grave knowing, “This is what I am supposed to do.” That is a great gift.

Most of us are not like that. Most of us wander. Drift. We try this. We dabble in that. We’re like Charlie Brown in an old Peanuts comic strip. Charlie Brown says with bewilderment, “I feel like I was born on the wrong planet!”

Charlie’s like most of us, and it is a terrible feeling.

In January of the year 1912, Robert Falcon Scott made a tragic journey to the South Pole. Afterward he described one occasion when weather conditions were such that a white haze blended with the whiteness of the snow. No horizon was visible. Wherever he looked, it was simply one unbroken whiteness. There was no point in the visible distance upon which they could direct their course as they drove their sleds forward. Before long, they were coming up on their own tracks! Believing they were going forward, they were, in fact, only going around in a great circle. To solve the problem, they began throwing snowballs in the direction of true South so they had something ahead of them on which to fix their eyes.

Don’t you wish you had a snowball to throw sometimes, to find your direction? It was easier in earlier generations in an agricultural society when most people knew they would spend their lives on the family farm. But now there are so many choices. What’s a person to do?

The most important thing we can do is look to Jesus. I don’t mean that you and I are to spend our life wandering around the countryside teaching and healing. That could be our calling, but probably not. What we want to do is to look to Christ’s example of selfless service. Christ did not spend his life looking out for number one. That’s the most tragic thing that is happening in our society. We are becoming a me-centered society. All that matters is that we get ours.

An extension of that is that we are becoming a materialistic society. We think that having nice things is the reason we are here. How sad. “The one who dies with the most toys wins!” Well, I hope, as you lay in the ground you enjoy all those nice toys. No, there’s much more to life than that. Let me give you an example of a truly successful man.

Most of you are familiar with the name Albert Schweitzer. What you may not know is that, in his theological views, Albert Schweitzer was not very orthodox. Today he would be regarded with suspicion as–dare I use the word from the pulpit–a liberal. I need for you to understand that so that you will appreciate a story about this remarkable man. It is a story told by Dr. Fred Craddock:

“I think I was 20 years old,” writes Craddock, “when I read Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus. I found his Christology lacking–more water than wine. I marked it up, wrote in the margins, raised questions of all kinds. And one day I read in the Knoxville News-Sentinel that Albert Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio, to play the dedicatory concert for a big organ in a big church up there. According to the article he would remain afterward in the Fellowship Hall for conversation and refreshments.

“I bought a Greyhound bus ticket and went to Cleveland. All the way up there I worked on this Quest for the Historical Jesus. I laid out my questions–I made references to the pages–I figured, if there was a conversation in the Fellowship Hall, there’d be room for a question or two.

“I went there; I heard the concert; I rushed into the Fellowship Hall, got a seat in the front row, and waited with my lap of questions. After a while he came in, shaggy hair, big white mustache, stooped, and 75 years old. He had played a marvelous concert. You know he was a master organist, a medical doctor, philosopher, biblical scholar, lecturer, writer, everything. He came in with a cup of tea and some refreshments and stood in front of the group, and there I was, close.

“Dr. Schweitzer thanked everybody: ‘You’ve been very warm, hospitable to me. I thank you for it, and I wish I could stay longer among you, but I must go back to Africa. I must go back to Africa because my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. We have a medical station at Lambarene. If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me?’

“I looked down at my questions,” writes Fred Craddock, “they were so absolutely stupid. And I learned, again, what it means to be Christian and had hopes that I could be that some day.”

Fred Craddock was in the presence of a man who knew his purpose in life— to serve Christ by serving others.

What is the purpose in your life? I can tell you this: if you are living only for yourself, you’ve missed it. And all the toys in the world won’t change a thing when that day comes when you stare death in the face. Everyone needs a purpose for life. Success is not measured in comparison to the accomplishments of others. Success is fulfilling the purpose that God has assigned to each of us. Jesus declared, “I have finished the work I was sent to do.” Look to Jesus. See what a life dedicated to God looks like and go and do likewise. Amen.