The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Doom and Gloom, Old and New
In recent months, I've been pushing hard on the theme that "these are not ordinary times". Multiple global crises -- like the wierding of climate, species extinction, topsoil loss, and pervasive toxic chemicals -- are tied to surging population growth, powerful new technologies, and globalized corporations whose only mandate is to make money, whatever the consequences. This convergence has put us in a situation of great peril, and a time of urgent collective choice, that is unprecedented in all of human history.
There has never been such a threat to the whole planet. And yet, I've found powerful insights and important lessons for these not-ordinary-times from the prophet Jeremiah. His words from 2,700 years ago are not pleasant, cheerful, or even hopeful. They are doom and gllom, blunt and frightening. Across the centuries, they speak truth from his time of great peril to ours.
The text I have in mind is never used in the Revised Common Lectionary, probably for very good reason. It is not a great preaching text -- although I have used it a couple of times to deliver a sermon with at least a tinge of hope. It is better used as a powerful passage for a class to study, which is the context where I came back to it again this week.
Let's explore this difficult and meaningful piece of scripture, and tease out what it has to say to us. (The text of Jeremiah 16:1-13 is at the bottom of this email.)
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Jeremiah was a prophet in Jerusalem, proclaiming what he believed to be The Word of the Lord. He had a reputation as the bearer of doom and gloom. Kids on the street would taunt him with the Hebrew words magor misabib, which translate to "terror and destruction on every side." That's a rough nickname, and he earned it by predicting the destruction of the holy city. The book of Jeremiah is in our Bible, in part, because he was right. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
Our 13 verses from Jeremiah are just one expression of his recurring message. This wasn't a one-time proclamation from him. Verses 1-2 let us know that he never married or had children because he thought the future was going to be too awful. His life as a single man embodied a long-term, daily witness of warning.
We get 7 verses (3-9) that tell us just how awful it could be. Children will die of deadly diseases, by the sword, and by famine. Both great and small will die. Nobody will bury the bodies, and wild animals will feed on the corpses. There will be no rituals of mourning, no communities of support and comfort. Happiness and celebration will be banished from the land.
When Jeremiah tells this to his people, they respond with shock (10-12). "Why are you telling this to us? What have we ever done?" To which Jeremiah says, "Your ancestors served other gods, and you have behaved worse than your ancestors. You follow your stubborn evil will, and refuse to listen to God." And so, God will hurl them out of their homeland, and end all relations with them (13). As Walter Brueggemann points out in the International Theological Commentary, "Yahweh has taken away his 'peace' (shalom), his 'steadfast love' (hesed), his 'mercy' (rahamin). The covenant relation is now over." It is an oracle of complete devastation that goes to the core of the Jewish identity.
The people of Jerusalem did not like it when Jeremiah kept hammering this message of doom and gloom. But when the city did fall, they took the prophet with them into their exile. Finally, they recognized the truth of his witness.
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I'm not sure the style of Jeremiah's message would be effective today. His pronouncement of horror wasn't "effective" in 590 BCE, either. But there are at least four themes and messages in these verses that need to be lifted up, both for the prophets of today, and for those who dismiss the prophetic warnings.
Our use of the term, "Not Ordinary Times," is generating some creative "buzz" among those who hear it. Our proposal for a six-month worship "season" that intentionally addresses the theological, ethical and political issues of this time of crisis is attracting a good group of volunteers to help develop themes and resources.
As we go about this work -- which presumes that our society is in deep trouble, and that ordinary beliefs, behaviors and institutions are taking us even deeper into crisis -- I am grateful for Jeremiah's ancient words. From long ago, he reminds me of the difficulty of the task, the reality of the situation, the powerful denial that we face -- and the importance of continuing a faithful witness.
May we be as persistent and honest in our work as Jeremiah was 2,700 years ago.
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