The earth is waste and void… (Proper 19C)

The earth is waste and void… (Proper 19C)

Sunday 15 September 2019 | The Rev’d Clare Barrie

Jeremiah is sometimes called the weeping prophet, the prophet of lament. For more than 40 years, across the reigns of five kings of Judah, Jeremiah called for repentence and the restoration of the original intent of the covenant God had made with God’s people through Moses. 

Jeremiah’s words, words describing a great foe approaching from the north, the Babylonian threat on the horizon, resonate urgently today with the threat of the climate crisis we are facing. The power and threat of the Babylonian empire was real in the 6th century CE. The threat our world faces today is equally real. 

“A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert towards my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse – a wind too strong for that…” The hot wind is like the sirocco, the devastating storm wind that can reach hurricane speeds, bringing dust and dryness. It devastates without discrimination – a divine judgement, in Jeremiah’s eyes, which ravages leader and people, rich and poor, just and unjust alike. It is a kind of terrible reversal of God’s gifts of sun and rain, which as Jesus says, don’t discriminate between the evil and the good, the righteous and the unrighteous. 

As Jeremiah’s vision unfolds, it is as if he can’t look away from the catastrophe. Over and over, he says, I looked… and lo… it is like a terrible unravelling of the creation, those days out of time when God looked again and again, and saw that it was good. Now Jeremiah looks, and lo – the earth is waste and void, tohu wa bohu. The only other place this phrase is used in the Hebrew bible is in the first chapter of Genesis, when the surface of the waters were seen as tohu wa bohu, a formless void. Jeremiah looked to the heavens, and they had no light… 

And why this devastation? Jeremiah rails against the foolishness of God’s people, a people without understanding, skilled in doing evil and not knowing how to do good. In the words of our psalm the morning, fools are those who say in their hearts, there is no God… in other words, those who belong only to themselves, who are accountable only to themselves for their behaviour. 

It is the ultimate breakdown of the covenant promise, forgetting the deep relatedness and interdependence of all humanity and all creation with each other and to the divine… living instead out of a practical worship of the self as the sole reference point of for one’s existence. 

All of this seems extraordinarily current. We are caught in a web of technological, political and economic folly. Global warming, the destruction of biodiversity, and demands on the water and food resources of the earth are all looming and their possible results within the lifetimes of many of us are strikingly resonant with the images that haunted Jeremiah. 

Last week I spoke about the fires wreaking havoc across the Amazon. This week I’ve been reading about what is perhaps the worst drought in living memory affecting Australia. There are desperate water shortages across much of New South Wales and southern Queensland – dams are drying up and thousands of fish have been dying in dwindling river systems. Towns are literally running out of water. The Burrendong dam on the Macquarie River – six times the size of Sydney Harbour – is now at 4.5% capacity. 

One farmer commented that he thought that ‘people now acknowledge that we’re in uncharted territory… if the numbers are right a version of this is going to become the new normal… and we need to think differently about how we produce things and what we produce. The worst thing we can do is carry on farming… the way we always have.’ But in some areas, that is what’s happening – some farms still have rights to use groundwater for irrigation, including for cotton farming, even where this may be the only remaining water source in a region. 

Here in Aotearoa it’s hard to imagine drought on this scale. We are buffered in so many ways from the worsening impacts of climate change, and so we are incredibly privileged. As much as we bristle and protest when we are accidentally left off world maps, it feels like no bad thing to be sitting quietly in our peaceful corner, out of the way of the hot wind bearing down out of the desert, the terrible unravelling of the goodness of creation that we have wrought. 

We don’t know where the tipping point is, but it does seem now that we will not avoid irrepairable damage, and it is a question of degree. Tohu wa bohu, waste and void.… I have been reminded of that terrifying poem by Yeats, The Second Coming.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

And yet. And yet…. “For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” I will not make a full end… with these words, Jeremiah gives us pause, and reminds us of the hope of grace. 

Perhaps the most awful aspect of the climate crisis is the falsehood that we are powerless to do anything. The scale and complexity of what we see unfolding on the 6 o’clock news leave us feeling that our actions will make no difference. Like Jeremiah, we want to say, I looked… and lo…

But we are not powerless, and as God’s people we are called to care for creation as stewards, as kaitiaki – guardians. We have the power of our votes, the power of our voices and our protests, the power of our purchases, the power of our conversations. Just as God searches and searches for the lost sheep, for the lost coin, no matter how unlikely it is that they be found, so must we search for every opportunity to make a difference. 

The falsehood that we are powerless depends on the deeper falsehood that we are each standing alone in the face of this crisis. Our hope and our power to make a difference lie in recovering our identity as community, as a people who are dependent upon one another and on the life of creation of which we are a part. 

So let our prayer, our understanding, our choices, our actions, our kaitiakitanga, be woven together in common purpose, for the glory of God and the goodness of this world which has been gifted to us, to our children, and to our children’s children.