The Voice of the Prophet

September 1st, 2019      Proper 22

Jeremiah 2:4-13

And so we gather again in this beautiful old church, a building that holds so much history, that stands as a reminder of our heritage of 228 years in this place. It has a wonderful sense of place about it, of being rooted in the Valley, this particular piece of God’s green earth that we are privileged to call home. The huge old windows put us so close to the natural world, the golden sunlight of early September, the lush green following that badly needed rain. I always feel a bit like I’m at camp when we worship here.

And yet looking at the readings for this morning, I find myself taken in a very different direction. The voice that kept speaking most insistently is a dark and troubling voice, the voice of the prophet Jeremiah. A voice of passion, of outrage, of despair even. Prophets are not supposed to be comfortable, I guess. And Jeremiah has the reputation of being one of the most uncomfortable of the prophets.

Last week we heard the story of Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet. He was a very young man, scarcely more than a boy. Yet he finds himself drawn into a life of extreme moral seriousness. He is given a dark perspective on the world: he is cursed to see corruption and immanent disaster wherever he looks. It is a calling that brings him a lot of pain and loneliness. People around him react with incomprehension and fear and aggression to what he has to say. It all seems so maladjusted and pointless, except for one thing: he speaks the truth, the truth that no one wants to hear.

Today’s passage, probably from early in his long career as a prophet, speaks of Israel having abandoned God and set its heart upon worthless idols. Presumably many who heard him wouldn’t have understood what he was on about. After all, the temple still stood in Jerusalem, the God of Israel still got his share of sacrifices, and if people want to dabble in other religious traditions, one shouldn’t be so intolerant. Everything is just fine.

But for Jeremiah, everything is not fine: it is terribly out of step. God is not just one more jealous deity among others, but the one who led them out of slavery in Egypt, who cared for them in the years of wandering in the wilderness. He looks back to that time in the wilderness as a kind of honeymoon time. Living off the land, closely attentive to the rhythms of nature, the people knew themselves dependent on God’s grace daily. That closeness continued in the early days in the Promised Land, as they got to know this fertile land they had been entrusted with, and learned the social and economic practices outlined in the Law, practices that were about living a balanced and sustainable life in harmony with the land. But over time, other ideologies, other practices crept in. Israel began to look with longing to the gods and economies of the powerful empires around them, and that original sense of dependence on God was lost. This is the situation that most people find normal, even desirable, the benefits of progress perhaps, but which for Jeremiah was intolerable:
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord.

It is difficult for us to understand Jeremiah’s urgency, particularly around the issue of idolatry. In our age of religious tolerance, the demand to worship one God seems narrow-minded and arbitrary; why not embrace the fullness of religious traditions? What we have lost sight of is that the gods of the ancient world were not just quaint spiritual traditions, but were closely caught up with systems of political power and empire, of gender roles, and of economic systems. Baal, who was worshipped as a bull, was the god of male power and dominance, the god of political and economic structures that served to oppress the poor and exploit the earth. In fact, he still is: you can find his graven image on Wall Street. When the prophets denounce idolatry, they are not being narrow-minded or arbitrary; they are being political.

Thinking about Jeremiah, I find myself inevitably drawn to think about another young person with an unpopular message: Greta Thunberg, that young Swedish woman, a child really, who has become such a passionate spokesperson warning us about climate change. Like Jeremiah, she is dismissed for her youth. She is rejected and vilified in the press, mocked by some columnists for her Asperger’s Syndrome – well heeled, privileged, influential men mocking a child for her handicap. Perhaps Jeremiah had Asperger’s as well: he certainly shared her focus, her lonely obsession with an intense moral vision. Like Jeremiah, she has the blessing or curse of seeing with clarity what others cannot or will not see, of seeing the calamity when so many about her insist that everything is just fine. And so, like Jeremiah, many want to dismiss her as hysterical, except for one thing: like Jeremiah, she tells the truth. An unpopular and unpleasant truth, but the truth nonetheless.

So perhaps God is still sending us prophets.

From a speech of Greta Thunberg’s to the world economic powers at Davos: “Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

The same sense of moral urgency, trying to shake us awake, trying to get us to see how out of control our world is. That is what prophets do. “Be appalled at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord.” It is a message that we resist with all of our being, because it is intolerable. But it is also, unfortunately, true.

We are coming up to the season of Creation, and in a sense I am jumping the gun a bit with today’s sermon. It has become an ambivalent time of the year: wonderful, in that we can celebrate together the joy and the glory of God’s good creation; difficult, in that we are confronted again with the painful and seemingly hopeless truths of what we are doing to this creation. God knows, we don’t want to be dragged into a single litany of despair. I am finding I just can’t bring myself to read the reports coming out of the Amazon these days – they are just too painful. There is no point in wallowing in the despair of one bad news story after another.

But what is important for us in Creation Season, I believe, is that we remind ourselves of what our tradition has to say about our current climate crisis. Because these ancient texts, speaking to us over the millennia, actually have a lot to say to us today. Firstly, they teach us to love creation, to look upon it with wonder and awe and reverence and joy. That is the most important thing, because this world needs our love. And everything else follows from it.

With the love of this world comes the sorrow, and the pain, and the despair even at what is happening to it. The voice of Jeremiah, of Greta Thunberg, call us to be shocked and appalled. And again, our tradition knows about this. It teaches us to sit with hard truths, to lament them, to let them change us, so that we are willing to change.

Thirdly, our tradition has a lot to teach us about how to live sustainably and at peace with creation. The vision of the wilderness time that Jeremiah hearkens back to – that is something that First Nations people would understand, I think, the need to return in our imagination to the simpler time when we lived off the land. The Law that Jeremiah calls us back to, the Torah, is also a resource, a guide to living sustainably in an economy where we take what we need, not all we can get. And the moral values of the Biblical tradition, that teach us humility and reverence and concern for the vulnerable, these are things we need to revisit, because they are what the world needs more of.

Because the climate crisis is at its root a moral crisis. Yes, it is an economic and technological and political crisis, but it is most broadly a moral crisis. We as a species need to rethink the way we interact with the natural world around us. To do that, we need all the resources of imagination and moral vision, to help us learn to see our relationship with creation differently. The Bible has a lot to offer in terms of those moral, imaginative resources. That is why the season of Creation is important: we take the time to explore some of those resources, and to see what the faith has to offer us and the world as we learn to rethink everything.