Grace Presbyterian Church
September 11, 2016, Pentecost 17C
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17
If you pick up a newspaper today, or turn on your television or radio, you will most likely be reminded that today is the fifteenth anniversary of one of the most incomprehensible acts of human cruelty any of us has witnessed in our lifetimes. It’s hard to avoid on a day like today.
Of course, there are several in this sanctuary today whose lives extend far enough back to encompass a different evil, one of monstrous scope and one whose effects also continue to reverberate through history, the indescribable horror known as the Holocaust.
Aside from the horrors of such acts themselves (which are awful enough), the trouble is that, despite the clear biblical warnings of verses like Romans 12:21 (“do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”) or 1 Peter 3:9 (“do not repay evil for evil, … but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing”), humanity is altogether too practiced at the repaying of evil with evil. We multiply it. The effect of the evil snowballs and multiplies seemingly – seemingly – beyond our control. War refuses to be confined to one neat and tidy space on the globe, but slips out and spreads into locations we don’t understand. “Justice” becomes a code word for “vengeance.” Violence becomes a default mode of responding to perceived slights, taking up arms against “the forces of evil” becomes a first option rather than a last resort, and such responses are met with … even more evil. It is, in the most explicit sense of the phrase, a death spiral.
And this is the world into which the prophet Jeremiah invites us – no, demands us – to look in today’s reading.
Jeremiah was a dark prophet for a dark time in the history of God’s covenant people. His prophetic term extended from a period in which Judah was under threat from hostile neighbors, with Jerusalem under siege, to a period of exile and displacement, with Jerusalem also being destroyed. In other words, there was plenty to be lamented, and Jeremiah didn’t miss an opportunity.
Today’s reading comes from the earlier part of Jeremiah’s prophetic career, with Jerusalem under a long and grinding siege. And Jeremiah was hardly the only prophet in town; plenty of more “official” prophets, sometimes directly connected to the royal court establishment, were quite happy to “prophesy” outcomes that were far more appealing to the people and The Powers That Be: how Jerusalem could not possibly fall, or how their God would not betray them – somehow not taking into account how the people and the king had horribly betrayed God. Jeremiah, on the other hand, had no interest in sugar-coated prophecies, and was more than willing to remind the people of their sin.
Even taking all that into account, this is one dark prophecy, and particularly unflinching in its assessment of the people, particularly in verse 22. The word “foolish” or its root “fool” is not so uncommon in scripture; you might have noticed it at the very front of today’s responsive reading of Psalm 14, in which it is the fool whose heart denies God. You don’t, however, see too many scriptures in which the people are called “stupid,” but there it is right there in the same verse; “stupid children” with “no understanding.”
If the language is particularly harsh, the offense is not new; once again, the people of God’s covenant had forsaken that covenant and turned to the worship of idols. It is a recurring theme in Hebrew Scripture, whether one is reading the histories like the books of Samuel, Kings, or Chronicles, or the prophetic books that constitute the final chunk of our Old Testament. The people turn to idols and away from God; God’s judgment comes upon them and they are conquered or taken into exile. Repent, and repeat.
In this case, the prophetic response Jeremiah issues at God’s prompting is unrelenting, both in the bleakness of its vision and in the promise, so to speak, of its fulfillment. In fact, it is so bleak that it does, very specifically in its language, promise nothing less than the undoing of creation.
Note the language of verse 23, in which the prophet looks and – see! behold! – the earth is “waste and void.” That is very specific language; in fact the Hebrew words, tovu vavohu, are found in that combination only one other time in scripture, at the beginning of Genesis, when the earth is described as being “a formless void.” This is such a rare and specific phrasing that it’s hard to believe it’s accidental; Jeremiah is specifically evoking the “formless void” of pre-creation chaos to describe the earth in the wake of the people’s faithlessness and God's judgment.
The echo of the creation account continues; the prophet looks to the heavens and they have no light, undoing "let there be light". The mountains and hills are quaking and shaking, no longer stable and solid; the earth is devoid of life, human or animal, and all vegetation and plant life is turned into desert, before the “fierce anger" of the Lord. So says the Lord, “the whole land will be a desolation,” and even if the Lord also promises not to “make a full end,” the Lord also promises not to relent or turn back.
Now one thing to keep in mind about these prophetic writings taken from Hebrew Scripture is that the worst interpretive thing we can do with them is forget that they were written, first and foremost, for their immediate readers – in this case the people of Judah, having strayed from the worship of Yahweh and turned to idols, now seeing their capital city under siege. Fro them such a vision as described by Jeremiah didn’t have to be read literally to have the desired effect. They understood desolation when they saw it, or heard it described in prophetic oracle. Jerusalem destroyed, all life driven out of it, the land laid waste – all was clear enough.
This, though, is a prophecy that works for modern readers or listeners as well, and almost requires less of a metaphorical ear that it might have in Jeremiah’s day. Two news items that came out this week point to the degree to which Jeremiah’s vision could sound chillingly literal. In one, new research indicates that the planet has undergone “catastrophic” loss of wilderness in the past two decades, to the point that only about twenty percent of the earth can still be considered “wilderness” – a catastrophic development indeed for the planet’s biodiversity in both animal and plant life.[i] Ongoing human degradation both of earth and climate was, not surprisingly, the major factor in such loss.
The other story, which might have gotten more attention generally, was of another nuclear test conducted by North Korea. If we were tempted to forget about our capacity to destroy the planet and ourselves many times over with nuclear weapons, such events serve as a chilling reminder. Between such stories and others, Jeremiah’s prophecy sounds more literal than it should – the very de-creation of our world.
Now how in the world does one preach hope in the face of such bleakness?
On one level, you don’t.
There are times when it would be a sin on my part to varnish over the harshness of scripture. There are times when the only decent response is to be challenged to look without flinching at the world, and what we have done with, and to, it.
For one, we have not been good stewards of our planet, a conclusion that is more inescapable daily. Whether one looks at the thousand-year flood events that happen on a yearly basis now, or the aforementioned degradation of the planet’s unspoiled places, or simply the latest news from our new earthquake capital of Oklahoma, we have done harm to God’s creation. And yet so many – even in the church – somehow see such degradation as God’s will for us, a damnable statement if anything.
Stepping further back, perhaps we also need to examine our fidelity to our God more broadly. The surface answer suggests that we, unlike the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time, obviously don’t worship idols, and if you’re being extremely technical and literal, you are correct, I guess. Still, we only deceive ourselves if we pretend that we as a people, and even as the church, doesn’t have its own particular kinds of idols. The church, or some corners of it, seems awfully power-hungry these days, and has for a long time (many centuries) had a preoccupation with wealth. We get obsessed with regaining the status we once had. To be blunt, we can – and often do – make idols out of virtually anything. We can – and often do – make idols out of these flags, or this building, or even this Bible, when we insist on using it for anything but seeking God’s will for us as the body of Christ.
It is not that we will or choose to do evil, not most of the time. We are, however, quite complicit in choosing the comfortable, the easy, the popular over what is right or good or just. Our consumption choices, for example, may well lock in poverty conditions or environmental degradation for others (and frequently both, and in the same places), whether on the other side of the world or the other side of town, but we’re o.k. with that as long as we don’t have to look too close. Ill will or not, we’re still contributing to that de-creation that Jeremiah demands we look at.
On the other hand, there is one hope, even if we find it elsewhere in scripture. As Paul reminds us in the epistle reading for the day, we follow a Christ of grace. We follow a Christ who ministers forgiveness to us, no matter how bleak our sin, as Paul (a man all too familiar with making an idol of his religion) was highly aware.
Living in grace and knowing forgiveness, though, cannot be an excuse to shy away from confronting the harm that we do. Whether it be the continued degradation of God’s creation, the human penchant for acts of cruelty, our unwillingness to face up to the injustices that are too much a part of everyday life for too many in the world and in this country, our continued pursuit of things other than the things of Christ, or any other sin (and that is the right word), we make a mockery of the grace that saves us if we do not face the wrong that we do – the harm we cause, intentional or not – and its consequences for the world and for each other.
We must, with Jeremiah, look without flinching at the “void and waste” which which we threaten the world and each other. We must face the consequences of our idolatries, our selfishness, and our failure to live up to the grace God bestows upon us. And we must act to change; to lay aside those idols and selfishness and follow only Christ, the one who saves, the one who redeems, the one who shows us grace, even in the face of God’s judgment. For indeed, God will judge, but God will not abandon.
And for a God who does not abandon, even in judgment, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#17 Sing Praise to God, You Heavens!
#435 There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy
#713 Touch the Earth Lightly
#739 O For a Closer Walk With God
 “The Planet Is Going Through a ‘Catastrophic’ Wilderness Loss, Study Says,” https://thinkprogress.org/most-wilderness-is-gone-thanks-to-humans-ad828409f4b6#.ry0yr5z73 (accessed 9/9/16).
There are times I wish Google Images would just admit "nope, I got nothin'" when I enter a scripture reference; but for images of desolation, sadly, World War I is always a good place to look...