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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Doom and Gloom, Old and New
distributed 2/7/14 - ©2014

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.

  1. The proclamation of a prophetic critique is a long, lonely, ongoing task, and it must be embodied in the life of the messenger. Jeremiah's personal life, renouncing marriage and children, was consistent with his public message. Those of us who speak words of warning today will be more credible, and harder to dismiss, when we are equally consistent. (Note the common attacks against Al Gore's travel.)

  2. Sometime -- not always, but sometimes -- the dire predictions of prophets and experts do come true. Jeremiah was right, just as climate scientists and ecologists have been accurate in naming the dangerous trajectory of our culture. We are seeing the first signs of unstable climate and ecological destabilization that are, indeed, catastrophic. Yet all too often today, I hear those who favor the status quo lump together all great warnings as failures and falsehood. (Alan AtKisson, in Believing Cassandra, addressed the way warnings can bring changes that avert the catastrophe -- and then skeptics say that the predictions were wrong.) Doomsday predictions can be true.

  3. It is significant to me that Jeremiah preached in Jerusalem, the holy city, the site of the temple, the center of "God's chosen people." Jeremiah said that the city and the people would be demolished -- and they were. Let's remember that when people (including powerful politicians) reject the dangers of climate change with the implicit or explicit claim that "God would never let that happen to us." If Jerusalem can be destroyed, and the covenant renounced by God, then we can have no expectation of miraculous divine deliverance from our self-inflicted crises.

  4. Jeremiah's audience could not understand why he was dumping his doom and gloom on them. They saw themselves as good people, living presentable lives as members of their community in what they believed to be "ordinary times." They were oblivious to how far they were outside of God's law and the covenant relationship. They assumed that ordinary life, business as usual, was morally OK. Brueggemann wrote: "Jeremiah's contemporaries are so detached from the claims of Yahweh, however, that they are unable to recognize the realities that the prophet regards as perfectly obvious." The parallels to our situation -- where economic growth, increasing energy use, and escalating consumer desires are seen as good and normal, even by Christian scholars -- are painfully clear, at least to me.

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.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Jeremiah 16:1-13
Prophetic words from just before the fall of Jerusalem
[1-2] The word of the LORD came to me: You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place.

[3-4] For thus says the LORD concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning the mothers who bear them and the fathers who beget them in this land: They shall die of deadly diseases. They shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried; they shall become like dung on the surface of the ground. They shall perish by the sword and by famine, and their dead bodies shall become food for the birds of the air and for the wild animals of the earth.

[5-8] For thus says the LORD: Do not enter the house of mourning, or go to lament, or bemoan them; for I have taken away my peace from this people, says the LORD, my steadfast love and mercy. Both great and small shall die in this land; they shall not be buried, and no one shall lament for them; there shall be no gashing, no shaving of the head for them. No one shall break bread for the mourner, to offer comfort for the dead; nor shall anyone give them the cup of consolation to drink for their fathers or their mothers. You shall not go into the house of feasting to sit with them, to eat and drink.

[9] For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to banish from this place, in your days and before your eyes, the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.

[10-12] And when you tell this people all these words, and they say to you, "Why has the LORD pronounced all this great evil against us? What is our iniquity? What is the sin that we have committed against the LORD our God?" then you shall say to them: It is because your ancestors have forsaken me, says the LORD, and have gone after other gods and have served and worshiped them, and have forsaken me and have not kept my law; and because you have behaved worse than your ancestors, for here you are, every one of you, following your stubborn evil will, refusing to listen to me.

[13] Therefore I will hurl you out of this land into a land that neither you nor your ancestors have known, and there you shall serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favor.


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