Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 11, 2022
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 Commentary
Or better written, Silent Spring in italics as befits a book title because that was indeed the title of Rachel Carson’s well-known book that was among the first cries of the modern ecological movement.
Years ago, before I knew what that book was about, upon hearing the title I pictured some serene setting: a natural spring bubbling up silently in some lovely mountain valley while a man and woman take their ease on a picnic blanket, enjoying sips of some shimmering glasses of a light and oaky Chardonnay. “Ahh, it’s so peaceful here” the one might say to the other.
How wrong that impression was! Because what Carson feared, and warned about, was a season of spring that would be silent because no birds would be alive to warble their beautiful tunes, no loons would cruise atop lakes to issue their hauntingly lovely cry: spring would be silent, not raucous with nature’s sounds, because pollution (and now maybe we need to add global climate change) would have wiped them out, obliterating creatures into extinction.
Silent Spring could be an apt title for a good portion of Jeremiah 4 as well. It’s difficult to discern if the destruction of the earth is a result of the creation’s reacting to the evil of the Israelites or whether God is the one actively destroying the land. Or maybe it’s both. But the instructive point is that as is true elsewhere in the prophets (see Hosea 4:3 for yet another example) so here there is a clear link between human sin and the ruination (and suffering) of the non-human parts of creation. Whether the natural fallout of human abuse of nature or some more direct result of God’s anger at such evil, the fact is that the whole creation suffers when God’s people repeatedly fail to follow God’s ways.
In fact, in Jeremiah 4:23 we get a picture of un-creation, of chaos, as Jeremiah uses words that echo directly the “formless and empty” nature of the universe in Genesis 1:1 before God began to impose the order of his creation on the world. Sin, in other words, unmakes God’s works. It is the video of creation being played backwards. It shakes what should be rock-solid (mountains and hills) and makes the earth uninhabitable for people and birds and flocks and herds alike.
Everything gets ruined BUT . . . that is not the end of the story. Evil and the sullying of creation do not get the last word, only the Creator God Yahweh does and his last word is a return to life, to flourishing, to hope. But in the meantime, all creation groans (as the Apostle Paul put it some centuries after Jeremiah’s time) under the weight of sin.
Across the last few decades as at long last the Christian church has begun to awaken to its own responsibilities in earthkeeping and creation care, there have been a number of Christian reactions to the ecological circumstances on earth. Some Christians shrug, deeming physical concerns too slight a matter to bother with. Surely spiritual concerns and moral issues involving humans only take center stage over concerns about spotted owls and coral reefs. Others seem convinced that the earth is destined to be completely wiped out some day anyway (and replaced with something that is decidedly non-earthy) and so why try to stand in the way of a course of destruction that God himself will one day finish off? If the Titanic is sinking, don’t re-arrange deck chairs. And for some reason embracing climate change as a reality has been made into a partisan issue that people and Christians more inclined to the political right reject.
But others recognize that creation remains dear to God and that the Son of God died to redeem “all creatures of our God and King.” Colossians 1 says as much as does Romans 8. And don’t forget that when John had his apocalyptic vision of heaven as recorded in the Book of Revelation, the first song he heard was not the song to the Lamb on account of redemption but the first song recorded in Revelation 4 is a celebration of the creation and of God’s role in making all that exists.
But many Old Testament passages teach us the same thing. Creation is important to God. Matter matters. To God. And if it’s true that creation suffers on account of human evil and recklessness, then it’s also true that the salvation God has launched to deal with—and ultimately stamp out—that same evil and recklessness will heal the creation.
In Jeremiah 4, God’s own people are depicted as clueless, as having willfully and completely cut themselves off from the knowledge of who God is and what God expects. That is a dire spiritual situation. But the effects of human sin and rebellion never get limited to just local concerns. Like ripples on a pond, the effect of sin goes out in ever-widening arcs, affecting eventually the entire created order.
In recent years scientists have developed a theory of what is sometimes called “chaos theory” or “the butterfly effect.” It now appears that the universe is a vastly interconnected web that is far more sensitive than we thought. As it turns out, even small events on one part of the planet can contribute to far bigger events clear on the other side of the world. The wafting of a butterfly’s wings over Chicago today may have something to do with the whipping up of a thunderstorm over London a week later. That’s not an exaggeration, either: science seriously believes things are now just that interconnected. And so perhaps it is no surprise, after all, to see that indeed, when human beings fail to honor God and God’s creation designs, the effects of that rebellion go on and on, affecting all creatures of our God and King in ways that really do cry out for salvation.
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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