I suspect that were Jeremiah 4 not on the Lectionary schedule, few preachers and teachers would be willing to tackle it. After all, among other reasons, relatively few of us like to talk about the kind of divine judgment it so graphically describes. What’s more, its grim apocalyptic imagery resists easy understanding and application.
Of course, a few Christian leaders might see in Jeremiah 4 predictions of coming global ecological catastrophe. They might even claim it foreshadows the climate change our world currently seems to be experiencing.
Yet as my colleague Scott Hoezee notes in an earlier (September 9, 2013) posting on this website, it’s very hard to tell if creation’s desolation that Jeremiah 4 describes will be the product of human evil, or if God is actively wreaking havoc on the creation. Or perhaps, as Hoezee posits, it’s both.
The prophet sets the Lectionary’s Old Testament text for this Sunday in the context of a larger section of his book that addresses Judah and Jerusalem’s sins, as well as God’s judgment on them. Yet it’s hard to pin down the precise historical context of this chapter.
Verse 5 refers to impending disaster that will come from “the north.” Verse 11 describes “scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert.” While this might seem to link verses 11-12 to the impending disaster verses 22-28 speak of, some scholars suggest that “scorching wind” is actually a metaphor for the irresistible judgment the invaders from the north will impose on Judah. So the link between the two separate sections the Lectionary appoints seems tenuous at best.
The imagery of Jeremiah 4:22-28 is nearly as mysterious as it is grim. It begins with Israel’s moral and spiritual check-up. God grieves that Israel is foolish because she doesn’t “know” the Lord. Among other things, she seems ignorant of God’s willingness to punish her for her sins. She can’t even imagine that God would ever scold her.
In verse 22 the Lord also mourns Israel’s childishness. She’s so immature that she can’t even imagine God doing anything but affirming her actions and her. While the Israelites are God’s “people” (22), God grieves that they act like foolish kids.
Yet the Israelites aren’t so childish that they don’t know how to sin against God and each other. Jeremiah insists, in fact, they’re quite “mature” at rebelling against God and God’s good purposes and plans. The Israelites are far better at doing evil than doing “good” by acting, talking and even thinking the way God created them to.
Verse 22 gives Jeremiah’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to explore our own foolishness, childishness and sinfulness. How does such foolishness manifest itself in our interactions with our friends and members of our families? How might God’s “people” (22) need to repent of our childishness and sinfulness in our relationship not only with God, but also the creation?
Yet while Israel’s moral and spiritual health is poor, it’s a picture of vitality compared to what God through Jeremiah warns creation will experience. When, after all, the prophet “looks” at the creation, he sees something eerily similar to what things must have looked like before God went to creative work. It isn’t just Israel that suffers as a result of her rebellion; the whole creation is also miserable.
Verses 22-28 make up what Walter Brueggemann calls “a staggering study of creation run amok, creation reverted to chaos.” In fact, Jeremiah’s vision is of a creation that has somehow reverted to its pre-creative state.
After all, everything Jeremiah sees is “formless and empty” (23), just as it was before the Creator began God’s work.
What’s more, when the prophet looks at the sky, he finds its light has been extinguished, leaving things as dark as they were before God created light (Genesis 1:2).
Nor can he see any mountains, among the most lasting reminders of God’s creative and sustaining power. On top of everything else, when Jeremiah looks, he sees no people, echoing the creative state before God created our first parents.
In other words, everywhere God gives the prophet sight to see, he can see only desolation, destruction and emptiness. Sin has unmade what God lovingly made. Since there is rampant human disobedience, there is no viable creation. Rebellion has created complete chaos.
This provides Jeremiah 4’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to explore with hearers examples of the kind of devastation human sinfulness wreaks on our world today. Polluted air, water, and ground points to our own destruction of what God creates and cares for. Less than stewardly use of both water and soil has wreaked havoc on those parts of God’s creation.
Jeremiah 4 contains so many descriptions of sin, rebellion and trouble that it may not be easy to find much grace in it. But to those to whom the Spirit graciously gives eyes, there is hope. After all, the prophet insists that all is not yet lost for God’s people or creation. Creation will suffer greatly. God has, after all, spoken and will not relent. God “will not turn back” (28) from what God has decided to do.
However, while scholars as diverse as John Calvin and Walter Brueggemann suggest verse 27 means God’s judgment is not yet complete, others scholars suggest it means God’s judgment will not be permanent. It at least implies evil and its affects on what God so lovingly creates and cares for don’t get the final word. God does. God will not completely destroy creation. God will give Israel a chance to repent, to spiritually mature. God, after all, longs not for destruction, but for healing for God’s sons and daughters, as well as all the works of God’s hands.
For the time being, however, Jeremiah 4 helps to remind us that God’s good creation is suffering deeply. As Paul wrote long after Jeremiah spoke, “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22).
Of course, Christians have responded to those groans in a number of ways. Some have basically plugged our ears to them by insisting that because creation’s misery is a byproduct of human progress, we shouldn’t worry or grieve about it too much. Others have decided since God is going to someday destroy the whole creation anyway, we shouldn’t waste our time caring for something that won’t last.
Yet still others recognize that God’s creation is very precious to the Lord. God didn’t, after all, send God’s Son Jesus to die just for sinners like us. God sent God’s Son to also redeem the entire creation that we sometimes seem so hell-bent on destroying. So those who maliciously and deliberately harm creation maliciously and deliberately harm what Jesus came to save.
Jeremiah 8 signals that God is not indifferent to the suffering of either God’s children or God’s creation. God will not simply let God’s people destroy each other, our earthly home and ourselves without trying to jolt us into renewed faithfulness and obedience.
So at the proper time God sends God’s one and only natural Son, Jesus Christ, into that groaning creation. He demonstrates power over that creation by calming storms and walking on water. Jesus also mitigates creation’s chaos by, among other things, feeding hungry people.
And when Jesus lets the Romans crucify him, it’s not just for the sake of sinners whom God so deeply loves. It’s also for the world that God passionately loves. A world that God will renew when Christ returns so that it can join the God’s redeemed creatures in offering unending praise to their Creator, Caretaker and Redeemer.
Illustration Idea (from the September 9, 2013 CEP Posting)
In That Hideous Strength, the final volume of his “Space Trilogy,” C.S. Lewis showed that he understands the way evil seeks to sully God’s good creation. Witness the following conversation involving a group of evil people and their plans for the physical environment of earth:
Having heard that the leader of a certain group had just ordered the destruction of a number of beech trees on a local estate, someone asks why he did such a thing. He then goes on to say that in general, he prefers artificial, aluminum trees.
“Consider the advantages. You get tired of [the tree] in one place, two workmen carry him somewhere else: wherever you please. It never dies. No leaves to fall, no twigs, no birds building nests, no muck and mess.”
“I suppose one or two, as curiosities, might be rather amusing.”
“Why one or two? At present, I allow we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.”
“Do you mean,” a man named Gould put in, “that we are to have no vegetation at all?”
“Exactly. You shave your face, one day we shave the planet.”
“I wonder what the birds will make of it.”
“I would not have any birds, either. On the art tree, I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing, you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.”
From C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, Collier Books 1946, pp. 172-73.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 11, 2016
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 Commentary