And I said: Ah, Lord GOD! Surely You have deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying: It shall be well with you— Yet the sword threatens the very life! At that time, it shall be said concerning this people and Jerusalem: The conduct of My poor people is like searing wind from the bare heights of the desert— It will not serve to winnow or to fan. A full blast from them comes against Me: Now I in turn will bring charges against them.
Reading today’s scripture we face two difficult verses back to back. First Jeremiah accuses God of being a liar, and then God accuses the conduct of the people of Judah as being, “like a scorching wind.” What are we to do with these words? Is there a lesson to be drawn from the cry of Jeremiah and the charges which God is placing on God’s people?
Jeremiah raises his question to God, “Have you deceived these people?” After God has described the coming Babylonian invasion. We have discussed this invasion at length before, in our examination of Isaiah’s prophecies. The rulers of the land had abused the peasant workers outside of Jerusalem, idolatry had become prevalent throughout, and the community had broken down to a point where everyone was chasing after their own well being at the expense of others.
The coming Babylonians were considered an inevitability. Jeremiah had been handed down two chapters worth of oracles against the people of Judah. In true jeremiad fashion, he now raises his voice to say, “God this is an awful lot! How can you bring down such fire on your people?” The danger of such a question, of course, is that God might have an answer prepared for us when we ask it.
God looks at Jeremiah and says, “You think that I am causing trouble here? Have you looked at what you all have done?” God is not passing the buck in this passage, but is reorienting the Jeremiah’s viewpoint. In an attempt to deal with the wrathful God who seems to have presented themselves to Jeremiah, Jeremiah is accusing God of backing out on the covenant. That ancient agreement between God and the children of Jacob, the agreement renewed at Sinai. God does not take this accusation lightly, and explains exactly why God has set up such a harsh punishment for the people of Judah.
God calls the conduct of Judah a, “Searing wind,” that is dry like the desert. The vivid imagery imagines a destructive force that leaves nothing behind. If the people of Judah were crops they would wither up in a moment. If they were land they would dry and crack in a moment. Their conduct destroys one another, it rips and tears and does nothing top build one another up, nothing to help one another. This wind is not contained to Judah though, but is described as going outward, reaching even as far as God’s throne.
Throughout scripture we see examples of the worship of God’s people rising up to God as a pleasing aroma, like incense wrapping around itself as it rises from a censor. This is one of the few times that the work of the people is actively offensive to God’s senses. The foul smell of human sin had reached God in the time of Noah. The prophet Isaiah told of God rejecting the prayers and rituals of God’s people. However, Jeremiah is the first time that God seems to be physically affected by the conduct of God’s people. God feels the heat. God is parched.
Whenever we picture God as a judge over the nations, we often do so as if God is an unchanging presence standing above us. We see God as unaffected by what we do – condoning or condemning us based on whether or not the thing we have done matches the rules God has established. The unflinching judge, the old man with grey hair and a stern look on his face. This sort of God is the one that hands out punishments like candy.
Scripture does not leave us with this image of God though. Scripture shows us a God who cares enough about creation to take an active interest in it. When God’s people become destructive toward one another and to the world at large God reaches out to set things straight. The violation of covenant through idolatry is one thing, but to hurt one another, to support the rulings of unjust judges and the policies of discriminatory officials. That is too much.
The grandeur of God and of creation can cause us to come to a place of repentance. Honesty about our own imperfection can get us to tip toe toward a place of repentance as well, but it is oftentimes when the consequence of our actions catch up to us that we are finally willing to change. As one author once put it, “Change can only happen when the pain of staying the same is too great.” For the people of Judah this manifested in a moment when even God had to stand apart from them.
The damage they caused the land in through farming that was only concerned with crop yield and not with sustainability. The damage they caused by starving the poor and selling them off as slave workers. The damage they caused by seeking profit over peace. The burning of their conduct had destroyed the lives of the people of the land, the land itself, and had distanced them from God. When everything was gone, would the pain of staying the same be enough for them to turn back toward God?
When we look out into the world we do not see something that can stay on the path it is set upon. We cannot maintain a world where every month brings another list of people killed in mass shootings. We cannot live in a world that sees people dying in the streets while the rich buy up houses just so they can, “invest in real estate.” Looking into the world, which literally grows hotter day after day, we would be hard pressed to disagree with God’s assessment. Our conduct is like a searing wind, it is too strong to survive. If we let it go one like it we have now, there will be nothing left to be redeemed. We will be like the barren fields of Judah, ripped to pieces by our own greed before Babylon ever draws near.
The first and most important change we make when transforming the world is transforming ourselves. The hatred we see in the world begins in our heart. The violence that tears apart families begins with our own cruel words toward one another.
So how do we change? We began this month looking at the example which the Eucharist sets for us. We talked about being a willing participant in God’s redemptive work. What we must do today is go beyond talking about change and actually change. If any part of us is still clinging to our desire to control those around us, to harm those we disagree with, to fracture the community we live in, we must give up those feelings. The fact is that when we talk about repentance we cannot do so as if it is a nebulous concept, something theoretical.
Repentance is the constant reorientation of our life to align with God’s vision. This vision is also not something abstract. It is made up of each and everyone of us, we are the Body of Christ, we are the first fruits of God’s perfect reign. The question is whether or not we can embody that high calling. We must love one another as God has demanded. We must raise those in need up and challenge the proud who hold them back. We must go beyond practicing what it right and speak against those who do evil in the world. We must call out against our rulers today who have no regard for those in need, we must open our hearts and minds to those who are displaced.
We must change and we must change now because the problems of the world are not going to shrink on their own. The natural trend of creation is toward entropy and disorder, not organization. Later in Jeremiah’s prophecy in chapter 4 the world that we have let continue on in hatred and despair is described as, “formless and void,” our cruelty toward one another leaves God’s good creation in complete disorder. The carefully molded universe is rendered, “formless and void,” as if the chaos waters of Genesis had never receded. We are in such a world today, we are wading in the waters of a world that has been destroying itself from the moment that we stepped out of Eden and into it.
Things do not have to stay that way though. Jeremiah questions whether or not God lied to God’s people. “If this is inevitable, then why did you ever make a covenant with us to begin with!” The question has an answer… The destruction was never inevitable. It was inaugurated and created by human action. God is not completely removed from the coming armies, but God does not see their action as “Good” the violence that they commit will not contribute to God’s vision for the world. God, even in promising, “I will not relent from this judgment,” offers a choice for the people of Judah.
Continue on in your ways. Rebel against my vision of love and community. Destroy yourselves and one another. Or. Turn back to me. Walk in my ways. Give up your pursuit of wealth and power and instead seek justice and mercy. Give up the empty trappings of a religion that justifies your own cruelty and accept the true religion that challenges you each day to be better. The way of God is a way that leads to life, not because God is holding a sword to our neck and demanding conformity – but because God asks us to live in peace with one another, as loving members of a single family, of a single kingdom that transcends all borders and all factions.
Let us commit ourselves today to make the necessary changes, to side with God and God’s vision for the world. Cast off the yoke of your own expectations. Look at the creation which God has made and seek to preserve it. Look to those around you and truly love them as neighbors and siblings in Christ. Let today be the day that starts the kingdom of God on earth. Here, now, in Shenandoah Junction. In this church. In our pew. – Amen.