Words of Doom

September 15, 2019      Proper 24

Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28

We begin the creation season this morning with words from Jeremiah. These are not words I have chosen to fit our Creation theme; they are the regular lectionary reading for this day. Sometimes they just fit well.

Now Jeremiah has a bit of a reputation of being a harsh prophet of doom. He is something of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come among the prophets, with his visions of a nasty end for the people he is sent to. And this morning he has really outdone himself! The first reading gives us a nightmare vision, like some kind of twisted science fiction picture of our world when human beings are no longer here. But of course this vision is not mere fantasy. It names the deep fears of so many people.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Greta Thunberg, and suggested that she is much like a Jeremiah for our times. This is the urgent warning she is holding up to us, the warning of an earth rendered uninhabitable by human greed. If these are not your nightmares that Jeremiah is naming, they are the nightmares of many of our children.

“At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert towards my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse— a wind too strong for that.” Jeremiah is not talking about one of the many punishments the prophets threatened would come to discipline and cleanse God’s people. The consequences that are coming are too strong for that: they threaten to be deadly, a complete end.

“I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void.” The horrible image of an empty, sterile planet swirling through space. The phrase that Jeremiah uses, “waste and void”, is well chosen. These are the same words that appear at the beginning of Genesis to describe the dark chaos before the beginning of creation. Jeremiah is asking us to contemplate the unthinkable: that our sin may have the consequence of undoing God’s good creation, of returning us to that primal chaos of nothingness.

“I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.” What a terrible image of desolation, a landscape where birdsong has fallen silent. It calls to mind one of the seminal works of the environmental movement from the early sixties, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, a warning about the effect of our toxic chemicals on birds and insects. Her work led to the banning of DDT and the averting of that particular crisis. And yet recent reports tell us we are again in a crisis: the population of North American birds has collapsed by 70% in the past 20 years.

“I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins.” The fear of the fruitful land becoming a desert would have been very present to the farmers of Israel, cultivating a small area within sight of the great deserts. And indeed whole areas of the Mediterranean – Greece, southern Italy, parts of Turkey – lost their fertility in ancient times. With the felling of the forests, the farmland that supported their great civilizations dried up, and the topsoil blew away, leaving the countryside impoverished. People today in sub-Saharan Africa, in Mexico and the American South-west, know of the everypresent threat of the desert.

These are prophetic words that Jeremiah has to us, words that speak with astounding accuracy to our reality today. Oh, he doesn’t have a crystal ball to look to the future and see hurricane Dorian (“a strong hot wind”) or any nonsense like that. That is not how Biblical prophesy works. Rather, he is simply very much in touch with the precarious nature of creation, and the fact that human decisions have an impact. The threat to the nation is not because God is a capricious angry deity, but simply because our actions have consequences.

As my creation themed reading, I have been reading a book by the Episcopal Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis. She writes about the importance of land in the Old Testament. Of course I had been aware that the land is a central theme in the Old Testament – we all know about the importance of the Promised Land. But this book has brought it into focus for me in a new way, and shown me how it is even more important than I had realized.

The story of Israel is, after all, about a people who had wandered in the desert, and had come into a land that was given to them as a gift and a responsibility. In the Old Testament we read a lot about people’s inheritance. The word has a very specific and very important meaning: it is the portion that each family received to live off of and to tend. You may remember the story of how bad King Ahab tries to by Naboth’s vineyard from him; Naboth refuses, because it is his family inheritance. In other words, for ancient Israel, land was not a commodity that you could buy or sell; it was a sacred trust. It was to be passed down within the family; the family would tend it, leaving it stronger and more fertile for each new generation, and, in turn, the land would keep them alive and well fed. It was a form of agriculture that differed greatly from the empires around them, Egypt and Babylon, where agriculture was a massive centralized industry controlled by the central authorities.

This concern to care for the land is reflected throughout the Old Testament. We see it in the laws: they mandate careful practices of sustainability. They are to give the land a sabbath, letting it lie fallow to recover its fertility. They are not to farm by squeezing every last bit of profit out of the land, but are to leave the edges of the field, and leave what is dropped at the harvest, so both the poor and the land itself has something to keep them healthy.

And in the prophets we see the same concern. As society became wealthier and more urban, economic progress took its inevitable toll. The small family farms were bought up by the wealthy and combined into large scale operations. They moved increasingly from sustenance farming to cash crops for export, such as wine and olive oil. And the small farmers were displaced from their lands, and left to eke out an existence in poverty by working as day labourers. And in these practices the prophets saw an unhealthy trend, where the greed of the wealthy would end by destroying both the land and the people. Their words and their warnings have the purpose of calling back the people from the path of greed and exploitation, a path that could only lead in the end to death, to God’s ways of sustainability, care, and responsibility.

So much for the background of this passage. The question for us today is, what do we do with a passage like this? It is not pleasant to listen to, it scares us, because it names our worst nightmares. The temptation is so strong to ignore it, to turn away from it, to leave it buried in the Bible where no one will ever find it. But as painful as it is, it is also healthy to listen to, because it has that ring of prophetic truth, and we believe that truth is ultimately good for us, that truth will set us free.

I am reminded of the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, when the third Christmas ghost showed him the grim future that awaited him. Do you remember Scrooge’s question? It is an important one: “Spirit, are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

For Scrooge, these visions were life-giving. They were unpleasant, frightening, because they showed him the miserable end of the course he was set upon, but they were ultimately life-giving, because they changed him and set him on a better path.

We can only hope and pray and work to see that Jeremiah’s warning is equally life-giving to us.