Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sermon on Jeremiah 8:18--9:1 by Prof. Ruthanna Hooke

My thanks to my colleague Ruthanna for letting me share her profound sermon on Jeremiah.

crying-lion

A Sermon Preached at Virginia Theological Seminary

Year C, Proper 20: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Tim. 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

Ruthanna B. Hooke

September 22, 2010

The bumper sticker reads, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Jeremiah might change it to this: “If you are not in anguish, you don’t get it.” Jeremiah was sent to prophesy to a people who would not get it, would not see, would not pay attention. They could not see the depth of their sin, nor the divine how judgment that was bearing down upon them. All the woe in store for them could ultimately be traced back to a single cause: they had turned away from God. “Be appalled, O heavens, at this,/ be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord,/for my people have committed two evils:/they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,/ and dug out cisterns for themselves,/ cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” All kinds of evils stem from this founding sin and folly, this breaking of the first commandment to have no other Gods but God. As a result of this sin, the people turn to false gods and idols; they speak deceitfully; they oppress the widow and orphan; they are greedy for unjust wealth; unfathomably, we hear just before today’s passage, they sacrifice their own children to pagan gods. And they deny it all; they say, “peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

Because of this welter of sin, God’s judgment is about to be enacted. This judgment will take the form of the Babylonian armies sweeping into Jerusalem, destroying the city, laying waste to the land, razing the temple, slaughtering hundreds and leading thousands away in exile. In one sense, these events are merely the forces of history working themselves out: a mighty empire crushing a weak nation state. On a deeper level, however, these events are a result of the people’s sinful and foolhardy way of living, and this is so in two ways. First, they provoke Babylon’s invasion because of hubris—they make alliances with other nations and rebel against Babylon, refusing to acknowledge their weakness as a nation, the limits of their power. Second, although in allying with other nations they put other lords over them other than Yahweh, and so once again commit idolatry, they also, paradoxically, still take for granted that the God who lives in Zion will rush in and magically save them from their conquerors. They say, “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,” as though the mere presence of this building in Jerusalem means that God is like money in the bank, on which they can draw at will. Instead of worshipping God in humility, they have begun to view God as a genie in a bottle, there to do their bidding. Their hubris toward Babylon is only the flip side of their complacency about God. God is offended by their presumption. In today’s text, we hear the people asking, “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” And God retorts, “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?” In the face of their heedless, idolatrous ways, God is not going to save them as they presume. Instead, God’s judgment is going to come upon them. The judgment of God, in this case, is not so much a bolt of lightning striking them down from on high, as it is God’s refusal to spare them the terrible consequences of their own sinful actions.

Once we start to pay attention, we will begin to see that we too live in a time of God’s judgment, by which I mean, again, not so much God’s sudden intervention to punish us as God’s allowing us to endure the dreadful and inevitable results of what we have done and left undone. For instance, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It came about in part because of inadequate regulation of oil drilling, because weaker regulations allow oil companies to maximize their profits. And, at a deeper level, the oil spill came about because of our addiction to fossil fuels in this country, because our whole lives depend on cheap sources of energy, and we will take whatever risks necessary to get them. Not surprisingly, BP just announced that they will probably start drilling again in that area now that this well is capped. Of course they will, and they’ll drill and drill and drill as long as we consume and consume and consume. And yet we reap judgment for this—in the form of wildlife killed, ecosystems polluted, livelihoods destroyed. Or take global climate change. This too is happening because we will not reduce our use of carbon, and we keep pumping more and more of it into the atmosphere. And we reap judgment for this—in the form of polar bears drowning, islands in the Pacific being inundated, deadly floods in Pakistan and India as weather patterns change and the monsoon hits areas it never hit before. Or take the recession we are currently in, which was caused in part by the collapse of the housing bubble, which in turn was caused in part by greed, by financial institutions seeking to make a profit with risky dealings that imperiled our whole financial system. And we reap judgment for this—just last week new statistics came out showing the alarming rise of poverty in this country due to this recession: 1 in 7 Americans now live in poverty, 25% of African-Americans, and 1 in 5 children. 1 in 5 children. All these evils are, at root, forms of idolatry. We overconsume, give way to greed, because we set ourselves up as little gods, the center of our universe, who can have whatever we want, failing to acknowledge God as the center, this earth as God’s creation, and the requirement that we live within its limits. And God judges us for this, by allowing us to live through the horrible results of what we ourselves have done, by allowing us to live with the consequences of turning away from God.

If this were all there were in the book of Jeremiah—human sin and divine judgment—there would be cause only for despair. But there is more here than this, another voice aside from one of anger and condemnation. It is the voice of lament. More than any other prophet, Jeremiah not only passes judgment, but also laments. And what is particularly striking is that it is not only Jeremiah who laments—it is God who laments for God’s people. At many points, including in the passage we heard this morning, it is difficult to tell whether it is Jeremiah speaking or God speaking, and that is not surprising, for Jeremiah is speaking God’s very Word. It is God, then, whose lament we hear in today’s text: “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt…O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.” In the midst of the calamities the Israelites faced, in the midst of the horrors we endure, over and under and beyond God’s anger, is God’s anguish. God laments, God cries out in pain, God’s own heart is breaking.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, one of the Chronicles of Narnia, there is a boy named Digory who commits a sinful deed that brings evil into the world of Narnia right as it is created. Digory also has a mother, in our world, who is dying. When he has to come face to face with Aslan, the creator of Narnia, the Christ figure, Digory is terrified not only of the lion’s judgment, but also he fears that, because of what he has done, Aslan will refuse to save his mother’s life. Digory manages to apologize, without being able to look at Aslan; but then, in his desperation, he begs, “but please can you help my mother?” At this moment he finally looks right into the lion’s face, and there he sees something that surprises him more than anything in his whole life: the lion’s eyes too were full of tears, and Digory realized that Aslan was sadder about his mother than he himself was.

And this was Good News for Digory, before he ever knew whether his mother would live. It was good news for him to know that God was in more pain about his suffering than he could ever be. The good news of Jeremiah begins with our coming to know the God Jeremiah knew, the God who laments over the sin, evil, and suffering in our world. God is sadder about the oil-suffocated birds than we are; God is sadder about the flood victims than we are; God is sadder about the children living in poverty than we are. As our opening hymn puts it, “In haunts of wretchedness and need, on shadowed thresholds dark with fears, from paths where hide the lures of greed, we catch the vision of thy tears.” The tears of God are the first ray of hope for us, as they invite us to do as Jeremiah did, to dwell for a time in this divine anguish. Like Jeremiah, we are to join in God’s lament.

As we do this, hard and painful as it is, repentance and transformation become possible. Most basically, to join God’s lament is to turn back to God, and thus to undo the underlying sin of idolatry, the turning away from God, which for both the Israelites and us is the founding sin that drives all the others. To turn back to God, to join God’s lament, is to wake up, to pay attention to what is really happening, no longer pushing it away from us in fearful denial, no longer saying, “peace, peace,” where there is no peace. When we join God’s lament we not only know, intellectually, and can list off, as I just did, things that are wrong, but we begin to feel them, take them into our hearts. This is especially important because judgment, the effects of our sinful actions, falls more heavily on some than on others—the fishermen in the Gulf feel the effects of my sinful consumption more than I do, the flood victims feel the effects of global warming more than I do, the child in poverty feels the effects of greed and corruption more than my own child does. Joining in God’s lament rectifies this imbalance by drawing us closer to the suffering of those who bear the worst burdens of our sinful choices. Most important, when we join God’s lament it strengthens us precisely because it is God’s lament—we do not grieve over sin, evil, and suffering alone, but God grieves with us, and for us, and more than we ever can. And it is because God suffers with us that our suffering, finally, does not overwhelm us. This is the logic of the Cross. It is because of this that we can finally allow our hardened and complacent hearts to break over the sin and evil that we have done, and that is done on our behalf.

Only when this happens can the hope that Jeremiah saw, on the far side of all the destruction and suffering, begin to become a reality. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” God cannot write a new covenant on hearts that are hardened and closed. Only when hearts are softened, only when they are broken over the suffering and pain of the world, only when they are turned over to God again, only then can God take them gently, and begin to write in them a new law, a new way of being as God’s people in the world, a new covenant that cannot be broken.

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