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Eco-Justice Notes
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What Do You See?
distributed 1025//13 - ©2013

"What do you see?" is a common enough question, but it feels more significant when God is the one asking.

Three times, YHWH asked the prophet Jeremiah, "What do you see?" Amos and Zechariah each fielded the question twice. It is a centering question for faith and action in any age, because it calls us to be faithfully attentive to what is happening right now.

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In the first chapter of Jeremiah, God appoints the young man to be a prophet to the nations. Jeremiah tries to decline, but is told that he really does not have a choice in the matter. God's words are placed in the prophet's mouth, and he begins decades of truth-telling in Jerusalem.

Right off the bat, God poses the "what do you see" question, and Jeremiah comes back with two prophetic images, two metaphors for what is going on. The first relies on a Hebrew pun to affirm that God is watching over the prophetic word. God affirms Jeremiah, and says, "You have seen well."

It is the second image that speaks most clearly and powerfully to me. Jeremiah, the master of poetic communication, "sees" a pot of boiling water, balanced precariously on a fire, about ready to tip over. He is very specific -- it is tipping from the north.

Once again, God validates what Jeremiah sees, and fills in the metaphor with political details: "From the north disaster will come boiling over on all who live in the country." The nations north of Judah will invade and lay siege to Jerusalem. It is a message of disaster that the princes and priests don't want to hear, but God charges Jeremiah to stand up to those in power, and to be fearless in speaking the truth.

"What do you see?" The truth is in plain sight. The newly-anointed prophet knows what is going on in the geo-political turmoil of the region. He's tracking the gossip in town, and picking up on the anxiety about potential war. But where everybody else is in denial, he sees that the boiling pot is about ready to tip and spill with a flood of destruction and violence.

God does not ask the prophet other questions that would be less immediate. God does not ask, "what do the people want to hear?" or "what was the word of truth 500 years ago?" or even "what is the secret knowledge that I have given only to you?"

"What do you see?" is the way God gives permission for a prophet to coin a powerful visual metaphor that describes what is going on right then and there. The gift of the great prophets is to capture in just a few words -- a boiling pot, or Amos' plumb line -- an image that speaks truthfully about what is happening.

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"What do you see?" Right now, in the fall of 2013? If God's prophetic word of truth is breaking in among us, what gets named as the urgent and essential message?

I don't have Jeremiah's gift for visual imagery, but I'll give it a try.

I see an escalator (not an image that crops up often in the Bible) going up and up, floor by floor, with ever-rising CO2 levels and temperatures moving together. At each floor, there is less beauty, more conflict, and it is harder to find a way back down. We are being carried up into the more extreme circles of hell.

I see a cemetery, expanding far into the distance, with the freshly mounded soil of new graves multiplying, each one representing a species forced into extinction. Most of the headstones are small, for the species unknown to us or barely recognized, with a scattering of large markers for the prominent and beloved creatures whose disappearance we notice and mourn.

I see a crowded city, where all the people have phones pressed to their ears, and their eyes are glued to tiny screens, and they are constantly distracted by a cacophony of advertising and meaningless information, and they are oblivious to each other and to the wonders of creation around them. I see that all-too-familiar image because the prophetic images name what is already present among us, as well as that which is coming quickly.

When God asks, "what do you see?", the answers are not pleasant. The prophets who are asked to find a powerful symbol speak in times of crisis, and they are seeking to break through the denial and self-interest that prompt such warning and judgment. There are, of course, other images of hope and joy. There are depictions of God's shalom embodied, and of the realm of God present among us, and those enticing metaphors are the flip side of the hard prophetic images. The hopeful images are timeless, in a way, but when the prophet "sees" with a message of warning, the picture is immediate and specific and shows what is going on right now. It highlights what is most urgent and most dangerous.

Jeremiah saw a cooking pot on the boil, tipping from the north, about to spill into Judah. There is nothing generic or comforting about that message. It names the threat that everyone knew and no one wanted to admit.

In today's world, I believe that God continues to ask prophets and people of faith, "What do you see?" The facts of our global crisis are not hidden. God's call to repentance is expressed among us when the prophets provide a compelling image that captures truth about our situation -- a truth that the powerful and comfortable want to deny.

We may not be Jeremiah or Amos, but the Pentecost promise is that "your sons and your daughters will prophesy" (Acts 2:17). The question from God is posed to each one of us.

Let me know how you answer the question God asks you. "What do you see?"

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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