Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
22 “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” 23 I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. 24 I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. 25 I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. 26 I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger. 27 For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. 28 Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.
Buckle up. This uncomfortable reading. Jeremiah does not mince words as he describes the consequences of turning away from God. It won’t be a hot wind that winnows or cleanses; ‘the whole land shall be a desolation.’ Jeremiah reverse engineers the creation narrative—the wind that sweeps over the waters and creates our world becomes the hot wind which destroys. I brought you into this world…I can take you out.
These are very harsh words and are difficult to reconcile with our belief in a loving and forgiving God. How can a loving God make such threats? It is tempting to dismiss this passage as an outdated ‘fire and brimstone’ sermon. But that ‘explanation’ is simply a way to avoid the painful truth that Jeremiah is trying to communicate. Belief in a forgiving God does not exempt us from the consequences of turning away from God. The choices we make have consequences and we need to know what is at stake.
Usually, I emphasize the positive side of choosing to follow God. The God of love shows us what is important and the God of love shows us how to love. Choose life. Enjoy love, accept the promises of God.
Jeremiah, on the other hand points to the negative. He prophesied that the stakes are unbelievably high when we make our life choices—for us as individuals, as a people and as a cosmos. Our turning away from love has terrible consequences. All of creation will be laid waste if we continue to be ‘stupid children’.
In Jeremiah’s time and in our time, turning away from regard and connection leads directly to alienation, polarization and death. We are not simply missing out, we are doing active harm. And all too often we fail to see that harm until it is too late. These lessons are startlingly contemporary.
This week I saw a post on Facebook that are Jeremiah’s very words for our time. It read:
The earth is 4.6 billion years old.
Let’s scale that down to 46 years.
We’ve been here for 4 hours.
Our industrial revolution began 1 minute ago.
In that time, we have destroyed more than 50% of the world’s rainforests.
This is not sustainable.
The way of God—the way to sustainable life is regard and connectedness. On the scale of the world’s existence we are short timers and we will certainly not be the first or last species that becomes extinct. But extinct we will be if we do not turn toward God’s way—regard for our planet and each other. We need rainforests to survive and if we forget that, the consequences will be devastating.
God has shown us a way that leads to life but if we insist on doing things our way and fail to see how we are interconnected in God’s creation, we will destroy what gives life. When we fail to see our interconnectedness. When we are short sighted and act on the basis of profit or short term interest, we are Jeremiah’s stupid children. The hot wind will literally destroy our planet.
Especially in our individualistic society, it is hard to see how we all affect each other. No one wants to hear that our choices can be so devastating. Why should a farmer in Brazil forfeit the opportunity to grow soybeans so he can support his family? And if they are going to sacrifice their opportunity, for the greater good, who will stand with them? Who will make sure their families are not sacrificed in the process? Such considerations require something well outside of our usual thinking.
We do not want to see the larger consequences. We do not want to be held accountable and we do not want to face the enormity of the problem. God’s intention and purposes extend far beyond our limited lifespan. We may love our children deeply but if a teenager insists on speeding, our love can not protect him from a fatal accident. And even in the face of clear and obvious warnings, we have an amazing capacity to deny and avoid such truths. After all, lots of people speed and are not injured. If the danger is not immediate and credible, we are likely to act as if the danger is not real. Jeremiah was fighting an uphill battle.
Even though, in real life we do it all the time, I don’t think it ever works particularly well to try to threaten people into good behavior. “Do this or else…” is embedded in our parenting. We would like to think we have measured responses and clear discipline but just as often we box ourselves into making unenforceable threats and/or our methods contradict what we intend to teach—’share or I’ll take your toys away’; ‘don’t hit or I’ll smack you.’ (Parenting can make fools of us all.) The net result is that threats often lose credibility. And in religious terms the rewards and punishments of an afterlife have largely lost their power to persuade—or intimidate.
But that does not change the reality of real danger. The real danger is that if we are not aligned with God, we are not aligned with life. Love and life literally require connections. Going it alone is not an option. It looks like one, but it will not work. And worse, our very interconnectedness can drag us down. A store keeper in Jerusalem probably had little to say about the political maneuverings that ended in the destruction of his city. He may have been devout. He may have been on the right side of the political arguments of his day, but his city was destroyed and he was left homeless. It is depressing to realize how he was not the master of his own fate. Corporate sin overwhelmed any individual good intentions he might have had. And it might well be the same for our planet and our nation. Now that is discouraging.
I am confronted over and over again by problems bigger than any individual. Whether it is rising carbon dioxide levels, political self righteousness or how we can fight over the best way to be inclusive in our church, there is a depressing intractability to the problems before us. Even when we are at our best, we can not be sure we have aligned with God.
When is supporting someone loving?— and when is it enabling? It is an error many, many Christians have made. Just because we intend to be loving does not mean we are aligned with God. We can be so wrong! And even when we are ‘right’, we may well be overwhelmed.
The affect in both Faith in Real Life groups was sobering and a bit depressed. None of us wanted to hear Jremiah’s words of warning.
It takes a great deal of faith to keep loving in the knowledge that ultimately, only God knows the outcome. Jeremiah called the people into uncertainty and into struggle. He sabotaged any sense of entitlement or certainty that we might imagine or rationalize. But Jeremiah did not have an answer. He just warned of the danger.
But if we face, even briefly, our limitations, we will feel humble—and humility expands our ability to connect with others. If we face even briefly the dangers before us, we are grounded in our reliance upon God. Even Jeremiah adds the caveat to his words: “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” Somehow, in ways that we can not imagine, God is working his purposes out.
When you follow God, you stand for regard and for the interconnectedness of the whole creation. When you announce that human self interest and short sightedness leads to alienation, polarization and death, you will be opposed. It is the way of the cross. There was new life where we could see none.
The way of humankind leads to destruction. The way of God leads to life. It makes a difference how we choose. Let it be so.