Scripture: Jeremiah 4:11–14, 19–28
The night sky was filled with stars. Brilliant pinpricks and clusters stretching all the way across Abram’s line of view. As he stood beneath this night sky, Abram thought of the moment of creation, in which Yahweh spoke this brilliance into existence. He was filled with awe…and with worship.
And in that very moment of worship, Yahweh spoke again:
“Look at the stars, Abram. Can you count them? One day, the number of your descendants will be like the number of stars in the sky.”
But Abram paused. “Lord, I am too old. And my wife is too old. And we have no children. How can this be?”
And the Creator Yahweh smiled the all-knowing smile that knew a million generations that had come before, and a million generations that would come after, and replied, “Just count them. And believe.” And in that moment, creation and covenant were held together by the God who spoke them both into being.
Seventy generations later, another man looked up into the night sky. He had been raised on the stories of Father Abraham, and knew that he was one of those stars in the sky. One of the countless descendants of a woman who wasn’t supposed to have any children, and a man who was called into covenant by the voice of Yahweh. God had been faithful when the people of that covenant had not been…when the descendants who were numbered like the stars in the sky rejected the covenant that they had made with God. When they followed the false gods of power and prestige. When they ignored the needs of the vulnerable instead of caring for them. When they turned their heads toward the empires of the day and worshipped their strength instead of God’s commandments. Seventy generations later, this young man looked up again into the stars and wondered if Yahweh still cared.
And in that moment of desperation, Yahweh spoke again:
“Jeremiah, before you were formed in the womb, I knew you. I had a plan for you to be my prophet. To remind the people of my covenant with them. To show them that their empire-loving, power-worshipping, vulnerable-ignoring ways would bring them to destruction. Look again at the stars. Look again to the sky. For now, it foretells of impending doom. Of the destruction that comes when my people ignore my covenant…my children….the widows and orphans and strangers in their midst. I have built my covenant and built this nation on the promise of caring for the least of these, but my people have ignored my ways. And now, the sky itself will foretell of what happens when a nation turns its back on those in deepest need. My creation will cry out in agony because my people have forgotten my covenant with them. Once again, creation and covenant are held together. But now, both are dismantled by disobedience and arrogance and pride. Jeremiah, my chosen prophet, teach my people of their disobedience. Warn them of the coming destruction, that they have brought on themselves.”
But Jeremiah paused. “Lord, I am too young. I do not know how to speak. How can this be?”
And the Creator Yahweh smiled the all-knowing smile that knew a million generations that had come before, and a million generations that would come after, and replied, “See now, I touch your mouth and you will speak the words that I give you to speak. Believe…and speak the truth.” And in that moment, once again, creation and covenant were held together by the God who spoke them both into being.
One hundred and thirty generations later, the followers of Yahweh still look to the skies. They count the stars and stand in awe of a Creator who made suns and planets and galaxies and a million more bodies that they can now count and name and describe with a new accuracy and immediacy. Like Abram, they look up to the sky and stand in awe and worship. And one hundred and thirty generations after Jeremiah, they look to the skies and also see destruction and death. They see skies void of clouds, signifying droughts that are decades long, longer than anyone alive can remember…droughts which force vulnerable farmers to sell their family farms…which run family businesses into the ground…which leave forests tinder-dry and vulnerable to a single spark…which leave poor communities without water to drink or bathe or wash. Or they look up and see angry skies filled with clouds that rain and rain and rain, flooding the communities who cannot afford to move to high ground, ruining crops and homes, rising ocean levels and anxieties around the world. One hundred and thirty generations after the call of Jeremiah, the people of Yahweh still look up to the skies and see death and destruction. And once again they ask their Creator, “how can this be?”
Scholar Patrick D. Miller points to the passage that I read a few moments ago as a significant statement about creation and covenant. He points to the Hebrew to suggest that what Jeremiah was saying was a literal reversal of what happened in Genesis One: “the prophet reports a vision of desolation that is a virtual dismantling of creation, a return to chaos….Covenant and creation are so connected that the dissolution of the one threatens the other.” Miller reminds us that what is happening in Jeremiah is a world-dismantling event, and is it any wonder that theologians have seen a parallel with our current climate disaster, and the broken covenant that leaves God’s children in desperate need?
A similar message comes from another Christian scholar—from the discipline of science—Katharine Hayhoe. Hayhoe is an astronomer and physicist, and directs Climate Center at Texas Tech University, and just so happens to be a Christian married to an Evangelical pastor in the Bible belt in Lubbock: “For Christians, doing something about climate change is about living out our faith – caring for those who need help, our neighbors here at home or on the other side of the world, and taking responsibility for this planet that God created and entrusted to us.”
Finally, Todd Miller, who wrote the book Storming the Wall, which we read a few months ago with the Earthworks Purple Team, talks about the countries globally most exposed to extreme weather. His top ten list reads like the Missions report from First Baptist: Myanmar, where church members have visited and we have sponsored Central Seminary students; Haiti—where we have a decade-long relationship with missionaries and friends; and Nicaragua—where we have just begun to develop a ministry relationship. These are the neighbors currently experiencing the dismantling of creation most deeply. American Baptist preacher and writer Tony Campolo says it succinctly: if we say we care about the poor, wherever they are in the world, then we must care about climate change.
This theology of broken covenant and dismantled creation is found throughout the book of Jeremiah. If you are looking for good news in the book, you have to look pretty hard. But the good news is there, if you look closely. You might have heard it in today’s passage, in verse 27. It is quick, but the voice of God promises, “I will not make a full end.” There is a crack of light peeking through the door.
And then the door slams shut again! The rest of the chapter, Jeremiah goes back to gloom and doom and destruction. And Chapter 5 is more of the same. And Chapter 6. Until about halfway through that chapter, where we see the door crack open just enough to let in a little more light. Listen to chapter 6, vs. 16:
Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
And ask for the ancient paths,
Where the good way lies
and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
And then the rest of the chapter goes on about how they chose the wrong path and everything is going to fall apart and the Babylonians are going to show up on their front door and kill everyone. But here in verse 16 is this door that cracks open just long enough to let in the light.
And this is common in Jeremiah: tucked in between all of the gloom and doom is this choice. “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths.” For Jeremiah, there is still good possible in the midst of the desolation and dismantling. There is still a choice for God’s people IF—and this is the big if—they remember the old ways. The ancient paths. Paths of creation and stewardship. Paths of covenant and caring for the vulnerable and outsider. A lot a Biblical scholars talk about the fact that Israel forgot their covenant as they became more…comfortable. As they grew in stature and started to push their weight around politically and militarily. And I would guess that most of the people that Jeremiah preached to did not set out to destroy their neighbors with hatred in their hearts. For the most part, they just got comfortable and…forgot. Forgot that others were hurting. Forgot to consider that their convenience and comfort might have a negative effect on their neighbors. Forgot what it was like to live in the wilderness, to rely on God’s provision, to need help from someone else.
Jeremiah is reminding them of the way back. Reminding them of the old ways of service and sacrifice and care and concern for others. For there is destruction and death throughout the book, but there is also grace. There is forgiveness. The people of God have a route back to covenant. Back home. And Jeremiah, for all his gloom and doom, offers the potential for them to follow it. “Stand at the crossroads.”
Have you seen the movie Castaway? It stars Tom Hanks as a man marooned on an island for years, with very few options for survival. Eventually, though, he makes it home, and finds himself forgotten and left out by the people in his life. The movie ends with a bit of ambiguity. Hanks stands under a huge Texas sky, as a way for the movie-makers to symbolize possibility and hope. And he stands at a literal crossroads, looking a little lost, when a woman drives up and tells him where each of the roads will go. Again, the message of the scene seems to be that he has options…possibilities. The way forward is not chosen for him, but he gets to choose.
It is a wonderful visual representation of Jeremiah, standing at the crossroads. And for us today. You have heard it before that we are at a crossroads when it comes to climate change. Everyone will tell you that they know the way to go. Climate deniers will tell you that it is all made up and your high school science teacher is part of a vast left-wing conspiracy. Some climate activists will tell you that it is too late and climate change is all your fault, and you hate the earth and hate your children and your children’s children, and the polar bears. But I just finished a powerful book by George Marshall, who suggests that the reality is that most of us understand that something is wrong. That something has been changing, and it’s hurting our neighbors. But knowing what to do and how to help is complex and complicated and difficult, and it doesn’t help to wallow in the guilt, nor to stick our heads in the sand and ignore it.
Instead, I would put us in that big sky clearing with Tom Hanks. At this crossroads, let us think about the ancient paths. The ancient paths of Abraham and creation and covenant. Of Jeremiah and caring for the vulnerable in our midst…and the vulnerable that we will never meet. Of Jesus, who invited us to take up our cross and deny ourselves. And slowly, little bit by little bit, lifestyle change by lifestyle change, let us begin to make choices that care for our neighbors. Our neighbors who cannot afford to relocate out of a floodplain. Our neighbors who have had the same family farm for five generations. Our neighbors who want to live in the woods without fear of disastrous climate fires. Just like the people that Jeremiah preached to, we need a reminder. Living in a land much like the comfortable Israelites, it is easy to forget our covenant with God. Easy to forget the ways that our convenience has an impact on others. Easy to forget our calling as followers of Yahweh is to a life of sacrifice, to give up our personal comfort for the sake of the needs of others. As we stand at the crossroads, let us remember.
Two summers ago, you all gave me a wonderful gift. I was able to take a sabbatical, and use it for study and travel and family time and rest. And near the end of that summer, I took a couple of weeks in solitude. I hiked and read and sat out in the shadow of the mountains of Colorado.
And at night, I went out and sat underneath a sky filled with stars, and planets, and the Perseid meteor shower. And I worshipped. I saw God’s creation overwhelm and inspire and empower me to return to ministry. And one of the ways that I felt inspired was to talk more about things like creation care, and climate change, and what it looks like to care for our neighbors in this context. As I looked up at that sky filled with stars, it felt like God’s voice whispering to Jeremiah: “you stand at a crossroads. Make a choice.” Now, I had long since come to believe that creation care was important, come to believe the science that climate change was a significant challenge facing us as humans. But in that moment, underneath the stars of God’s glorious sky, I was reminded again of my covenant. Of my choice. Of my opportunity at the crossroads. Today, I invite you to look up…to listen…to ask how God is calling you. And if you are willing, join me in the ancient ways. The ways of God’s covenant and creation. The ways of sacrifice and service. The way of shalom. Of rest for the souls of all of God’s children.