Proper 19C / Ordinary 24C / Pentecost +17
September 15, 2013
BUZZZZZ, BUZZZZZ, BUZZZZZ. “We interrupt this programming for a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.”
We are all familiar with the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) tests that occasionally interrupt our radio listening or TV viewing. (If you’re from Oklahoma and regularly deal with severe weather, you listen to them a little more closely than everyone else does.) We’ll be driving along in auto-pilot mode, focusing on going from point A to point B, to do whatever important thing is on our list of Business as Usual, and we are suddenly jolted awake by that infernal buzzing. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s only a test, and we brush it off much as we would the buzzing of a mosquito.
The Hebrew Bible reading for this week (from the prophet Jeremiah) is much like that darn EBS test, jolting us awake and making us pay attention for at least half a minute. Only, in Jeremiah’s case, it wasn’t a test. The book attributed to the prophet Jeremiah covers the period from 640-587 BCE – before, during and after the defeat of the kingdom of Judah by the
Babylonians, the exile of the Judean elite to Babylon, and the final fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. This series of events – collectively known as the “Babylonian Captivity” or “Exile” – were completely unthinkable to the Judeans before they happened. Jerusalem was known in the Psalms as a bastion of God’s eternal commitment to protect the Israelite people: “Within its citadels, God has shown a sure defense” (Psalm 48:3).
But then Jerusalem fell, its people were scattered, and its land was laid waste by the Babylonians.
In the Hebrew Bible reading this week, the prophet Jeremiah foretells the demise of Judea at the hands of the Babylonians: “Look! He comes up like clouds, his chariots like the whirlwind, his horses are swifter than eagles – woe to us, for we are ruined! … Besiegers come from a distant land; they shout against the cities of Judah” (4:13, 16). The description of the destruction of the Babylonians is cosmic in its proportions. Several commentators have said that it echoes Genesis narrative – but in reverse:
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins (vv.23-26).
For Jeremiah, the destruction of Jerusalem was a direct consequence of its inhabitants forsaking their Covenant with YHWH and committing systemic injustice against the vulnerable of its land: “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good” (vv.22). Because YHWH was the center of all order in the universe (Genesis), and because the land was a gift from YHWH (Exodus), the abandonment of YHWH’s Covenant by the Israelites resulted in the total destruction of the land.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben warns us that, even though we think that life on our planet is the same as it has always been, drastic, destructive changes are already underway: “The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has – even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine … that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not” (Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough, New Planet. 2010). Theologian Ellen F. Davis categorizes some of the ways that we have depleted the earth and failed to live as through it is a gift from God, protected by Covenant: “Within the last century, a third or more of the earth’s original forest cover has been cleared, much of it converted to agriculture … In addition, half the wetlands of the planet have been drained and filled or otherwise destroyed. In California, fully 90% of the wetlands have disappeared; and 60% of native fish species are either threatened or already extinct” (Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. 2008). There are voices among us trying to wake us up and warn us that business as usual is no longer an option. We would do well to pay attention.