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A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on September 16, 2012.

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 4:23-28

In an ancient age of wisdom, the preacher of Ecclesiastes wrote, “For everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.”
There is a rhythm to our existence that helps us understand the themes of birth and death, of living and dying, of building up and tearing down. And so in maturity, we appreciate the power of a dominant narrative only in light of the various counter-narratives that broaden and deepen truth as we discover it.

Let me illustrate that with this story:  A pastor was once preaching on the glory and beauty of creation. His listeners were listening intently because onstage with the pastor a local artist was creating a painting of creation, a beautiful landscape of a garden done impressionistically in the style of Monet. It beautifully captured the light and shadows of the day. The placid waters of the pond and the greenery of the gardens were mesmerizing. But when the painter finished the scene and put down her brushes, the pastor unexpectedly took a paint brush, the size you would use in painting your house, and swiped an ugly smear of black paint across the painting. It was so startling a thing to do, the congregation gasped. Undeterred, the pastor slashed stroke after stroke of black paint across the canvas until the beauty of the artist’s creation was tragically covered over, no longer visible at all. The church sat in stunned but angry silence.

“And so,” pronounced the pastor in making her point, “we have blemished creation. Our rebellion against one another and against God has the power to despoil the world’s landscape.”

Take that story and imagine that’s what Jeremiah was saying to his people in Judah six centuries before Jesus. His people had been living in the veritable garden that was the Promised Land, but they had turned it into a disaster area by their incessant drive for wealth gained on the backs of the poor, by their lost sense of justice, and by chasing after false gods to the agony of the one God who had brought them to this land. The creation stories that gave meaning and identify to the people of God and the marring of the original invitation to tend the garden were lost in self-centered interests driven by individualism and national exceptionalism.

In so doing, the prophet plunges us into a frightening world that’s a reversal of the world created by God.  Jeremiah’s world is a darker version of the past and a fearful word of judgment had to be uttered by the prophet in order for light to not disappear altogether. The idyllic past glory of the Davidic reign is long gone and Jeremiah describes a future that includes the destruction of their great Temple and the exile of the Israelites who will serve a generation in slavery.

 

 

I

 

Walter Brueggemann described this prophetic word as a word uttered on “the other end” of history. So the prophet Jeremiah looked upon the state of things and spoke poetically and prophetically as a means of illuminating the spirit of the age. Rather than drawing upon political or military arguments or utilizing the language of science or philosophy, the prophet becomes the poet in speaking to the depths of human existence. “The poet, one element at a time, plucks up and tears down the whole of created order, until he has completely canceled out the whole wonder of creation.” [1]

Jeremiah warned his people in an unforgettable way — he took the creation story and played it backwards:

Instead of God saying “let there be light,” and there was light, Jeremiah looked to the heavens, but there was no light.

Instead of God separating the waters and creating the firm dry land, Jeremiah looked on the mountains, and saw them quaking.

Instead of God creating living creatures upon the face of the earth, Jeremiah looked across the land, and saw no creatures at all — even the birds were gone.

Instead of God creating vegetation and plants on the land, Jeremiah looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert.[2]

One by one he snuffed out the creative stages of God’s handiwork as though he were snuffing out the candles on the candelabra of creation one by one.

The headline of the prophet’s time could have read, “Return to chaos.” The return to chaos is how we might describe life in the dangerous places of our world:

  • Sub-Saharan Africa is where hunger and despair describe the tribal existence;
  • Arab Spring, where militant Arab groups all across the Middle East vie for power upsetting old allegiances in the name of revolution;
  • Chaos in urban American cities where poverty and unemployment strangle those trapped in circumstances so desperate we cannot imagine;
  • Social chaos requiring ever-more prisons and police strength where communities have come close to disintegration.
  • Without becoming hopeless and dreary, it’s not difficult to recognize as the people of God, we have work to do.

II

Elie Wiesel reminds us the prophet Jeremiah stood in a unique place in Jewish history because he alone predicted the catastrophe of the fall of Jerusalem. He saw it coming and spoke eloquently to the Jewish people to prepare them for what was to come; he then experienced the destruction of the City of David, and lived to tell the tale. “He was, in short, a survivor, a witness …. he alone sounded the alarm before the fire, and after being singed by its flames went on to retell it to any who would listen.”[3]

Wiesel himself was a witness and a survivor, having lived through the death camps of Nazi Germany. He knew what it meant for the creation to regress into chaos. He knew what it meant as a child to see his parents carried away to their deaths. Understanding of the depth of his experience and the raw meaning came over time as he allowed his curiosity the freedom to ask the hard questions. In this text, he struggled with its meaning as we may be struggling, wondering just what loss of innocence we may encounter in our own experiences of loss.

Wiesel asked about the metaphors of Jeremiah and pondered how they stripped away the hand of God from the physical world.

“Quaking mountains? What did Jeremiah mean to convey?” he asked. Then understanding came to him when he visited Babi-Yar, where in a ravine near the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, the Nazis massacred over 33,000 Jews over a two-day period. It was the largest single mass killing of the Holocaust. But that was not all as others were killed there as well including Soviet POWs, communists, Gypsies (Romani people), Ukrainian nationalists, and civilian hostages numbering between 100,000-150,000 persons.

Witnesses to the slaughter of Jews in the fall of 1941 told Wiesel that between Rosh Hashanah (today) and Yom Kippur German soldiers massacred some 80,000 Jews and buried them in a ravine near the center of Kiev and because of those buried bodies the ground shook for weeks on end.[4] Apparently the decomposing, buried bodies made the earth shake as the old biblical admonition, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” didn’t come without a price.

III

One day the prophet’s faithful friend and scribe Baruch was arrested and brought before the king, who wanted to read Jeremiah’s fabled book. In the winter palace before the great fireplace that roared to keep the king warm, he read Jeremiah’s tales and then destroyed them one by one. Reading one and casting it into the flames, Baruch watched in amazement how Jeremiah’s work was reduced to ashes.

Jeremiah showed his resolve when he heard of this and went back to writing all over again. But as a last story, he added the story of the destruction of the first scrolls to add new emphasis to their original meaning. To his readers, Jeremiah passed along the difficulty of living a truly prophetic life. To hold to the power of the dominant text and not to give in to the subversive text is our challenge.

When we read Jeremiah with an openness to how he envisioned the world of his day, the impending destruction and the exile of his people (both as a witness and as a participant) we realize how important it is that we not lose our dominant text knowing that we could give in to the subversive text of lesser identity and purpose.

To this end, we face the contradictory tension between belief and behavior, of faith held in our hearts and the reality of how poorly faith is lived in our day to day experience. We hold up the ideal of how faith should be lived and honored by our convictions and recognize just how difficult it is to live honorably before God and in community with those who share the world. Rather than withdrawing into our Christian piety, God is calling us to stretch outside of ourselves with resolve we will not regress into the chaos of living as if God was limited by our failure of nerve.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation, The Bible and Postmodern Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993, 83

[2] Doug Murray, “The Un-Creation,” First Baptist Church, Wilson, NC, 9/13/10, http://www.firstbaptistwilson.com/?p=215

[3] Elie Wiesel, Five Biblical Portraits, Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1981, 100-101

[4] Wiesel, Ibid. 126-127

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