| Jeremiah 4:22-28
|Sun, September 13, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|"Found". That's the good news. Right? That's what all the joy in heaven is about. The lost sheep has been found. The missing coin has been discovered. The prodigal son has come home. "What was lost is now found ... what was dead has come back to life" (Luke 15:32). This is the gospel that we celebrate here. "What love! What love!" (VU #360). It is the story that you will see told at noon by Jan's slides from three orphanages in the Dominican Republic. It is the message that underlies the poster that may have brought a curious soul or two here this morning: "Lost? Find sacred space, silence and song, comfort and challenge, Christian community. Where? Sundays at 10:30 at University Hill Congregation". On a vast, disconnected campus ... far from home ... how many students are waking up this morning wishing that they could find what they are looking for ... or, better yet, be found by it? Being found by the grace of God ... this is our song and our story. It's what we're about ... it is who we are: 'I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see'.
Yet, we don't often talk this way. Oh, we go through the motions on Sunday. We sing the songs and tell the story. But it's a rare day, indeed, when anyone of us actually speaks about being found by God. That's for other, less 'proper' churches. We don't go in for testimonials much. It's just not a part of United Church culture. That kind of thing is just not done here. Which is what made our mid-summer dinner with the Native Ministries Consortium all the more remarkable. It was something quite amazing. A group within the congregation had begun talking about ways to build relationships with members of the First Nations of British Columbia. It was suggested that we might offer hospitality to the students and families who attend the two week Native Ministry Summer School at VST. They are far from home. They meet in our church. It seemed only natural to offer them a meal. So it happened that we had over seventy guests for dinner one evening in July. What a great occasion. And after supper ... how does one describe what occurred after supper? We had advertised a gospel hymn-sing. We had arranged for a pianist. We had brought out the hymn books. But we weren't prepared for what took place. One by one, alone and in groups, our guests came to the microphone to say thank-you, to offer a prayer, to lead in a song. Our carefully managed event took on a life of its own ... a long life. But what was most striking about it all was the testimonies that each of our guests invariably offered. They were not forced ... or longwinded ... or sentimental. Often they just came as an aside: "It has been two ... or five ... or ten years ... since I was saved from my life on the street" ... "This is my wife - we met at the Treatment Centre where I work as a counsellor now. This gospel song tells our story ..." And then we would hear a song about being lost and found, being dead and coming alive once more. Some of the non-natives present wanted to apologize for the simplistic, 'old-fashioned' theology being offered up in such a 'sophisticated' theological setting. But listening to the stories, one after the other, on into the night, one could not escape the powerful truth ... these people have been found, saved, reborn. That is the only way to describe it.
Yet here ... in our life together ... we rarely speak of these things. "Lost" is not a part of our vocabulary. Unless, that is, we are speaking of someone else ... of a child or grandchild who seems lost in the world or to the family ... or of a father or an uncle whose 'fallen off of the wagon'. Other nations seem lost: Afghanistan with its repressive 'Taliban' ... or North Korea 'celebrating' fifty years of nationhood in the midst of horrific famine. "Lost" is a word reserved for others. But we are rarely lost ... not lost for words ... or for answers. Our politicians have long ago learned from us that they must never admit to being lost. No, they must lead by example ... and that means never - but never - confessing uncertainty about which direction to take. The economy? Don't worry ... its under control. Quebec? Ditto. Global warming? We have 'our people' working on it. It is the first and great unspoken commandment of an officially optimistic culture: never, never, say the three fatal words 'we are lost'. And not only in the culture 'out there' but also 'in here' in the church. Slowly the growing chaos overwhelms our denomination and others. All the signs point to inevitable and catastrophic change. But we still talk about 'strategies' for change and 'redeveloping' the church. No one dares to say the dreaded words: 'lost ... we are lost'.
Which is what makes Jeremiah's poetry so shocking ... and so dangerous. Jeremiah speaks the words that no one else has dared to utter. In Jeremiah's Jerusalem life is going on its daily routine ... it is business as usual. So everyone thinks. Oh, they know that there are problems. And so do we. The UN may still rank Canada as the finest place on earth to live ... but there are cracks showing. The UN's poverty index drops Canada to tenth place. Surely it is nothing that a little tinkering with government policy cannot fix. Except that Jeremiah sees something else. Where others see problems that are political and economic and social in nature, Jeremiah understands that the root cause of the growing catastrophe is theological. Jerusalem looks to the north and sees ominous signs of Babylonian expansionism. Jeremiah looks north and sees a different foe preparing to invade ... a foe whose heavenly host cannot possibly be stopped. It is all so real for Jeremiah: "My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war" (Jer. 4:19). But life in his beloved Jerusalem continues as if everything is stable and predictable ... as if there is nothing to be alarmed about.
Of course, there is something to be alarmed about. Nothing is going to remain predictable or stable for Jerusalem anymore. And not because of Babylon either. Jeremiah sees that Israel's real enemy is God. And when God is your enemy ... all is lost. There is no hope. It's over. The ship is going to sink no matter how often the deck chairs are rearranged. No one ever wants to have to face up to such news. To admit to being absolutely and terrifyingly lost goes against everything we have been taught to believe in a modern problem-solving culture. We want to trust in some magic technological solution - some new pill or computer - to rescue us from our predicament. And yet maybe we know somewhere deep inside that things have changed ... that things have come unglued ... that we cannot save ourselves from the doomsday that draws ever nearer. Is this the reason that the story of the Titanic looms so large over the late 20th Century? Why do people line up at midnight to purchase their copy of the videotape so that they can watch the tale again for the umpteenth time? Everyone knows how it ends ... the unsinkable ship is lost. And the first-class passengers who wonder what all the fuss is about ... who refuse to don their life jackets, sure that it must be a safety drill ... are they a metaphor for an entire culture that cannot dare to imagine that the unimaginable is unfolding before its eyes?
This is the people for whom Jeremiah's poetry is intended. His poetry is not, in the words of one commentator, "a blueprint for the future. It is not a prediction. It is not an act of theology that seeks to scare into repentance" (Brueggeman, 'A Commentary on Jeremiah', 1998, p. 61). In other words, Jeremiah's prophecy is not a geo-political forecast describing the next move of the Babylonian high command. It is poetry intended to overturn the way an entire people understand their place in the world. This is no easy task. Remember Desmond Tutu's question about the problem of rousing South African society to face reality: "How do you wake up a people who are pretending to e asleep?". How does it finally dawn on us that the ongoing extinction of countless species is not simply an environmental problem? When will it finally sink in that the devastation of the earth's forests and the plundering of its oceans and the poisoning of its atmosphere is not simply a question of politics and economics? Jeremiah looks around and sees through God's eyes: "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 they do nor know how to do good" (Jer. 4:22). This is about the ways in which greed and disobedience, indifference and injustice have set humankind over against the Holy Creator. This is first and foremost a theological crisis. It is about coming face to face with the utter devastation that awaits a world that evades and mocks God.
Jeremiah sees clearly that the future is precarious. Those around him are numbed to reality. What sermon can he preach to make them sit up and pay heed? The words tumble out ... words that echo the first chapter of the Bible ... such familiar words ... such a familiar cadence ... and yet somehow strangely unfamiliar: "I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light." In the beginning God looked on chaos ... looked on the great void ... and created light. Not now. Now light fades to darkness. "I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro." In the beginning God looked on the waters and created safe, solid land. Now nothing is stable anymore. "I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled." In the beginning God looked at the emptiness and created all living things. No more. Now the species are extinguished, one by one. "I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger. (Jer. 4:23-27). Jeremiah imagines the unimaginable: that the God who once constructed the earth is now in the deconstruction business. This is the Word of the Lord: "It is not business as usual ... things are not going to stay the same. It is the end of the known world. That world is lost. Gone forever." We may wish to pretend otherwise for awhile longer ... but we do so at our peril. Now is not the time to shift the deck chairs. Now is the time to prepare for the worst. To cry out: 'all is lost.'
All is lost. I can almost hear what you are thinking: "What a way to end a sermon ... especially a sermon on the first Sunday back after the summer. Couldn't we have something just a little more upbeat than 'all is lost'?". I agree. Trust me, I tried ... I tried not to say it. But then I remembered the ninety and the nine ... and the missing lamb. I thought of the woman losing a precious coin from her necklace dowry. And I saw that the good news of God's saving grace can only be told among those who know that they are lost without it. The testimonies that were spoken here, after dinner in July, could only be offered by people who knew the devastation and hopelessness of being given up for dead ... of being utterly lost before they ever dreamed of being found by God. Easter occurs after, not before, Good Friday. Today, Jeremiah only hints at the possibility of newness in the wake of divine destruction. For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a devastation: yet I will not make a full end" (Jer. 4:27). What does it mean? "Yet I will not make a full end". This is not much for a devastated people to cling to ... or for a lost soul to trust in. But it is the stuff of which hope is born ... for it reveals the deep yearning within God to recreate and to redeem ... a deep yearning that cannot be denied even as God dismantles the corrupt, polluted institutions of the earth.
Lost? Yes ... we are lost. We are lost in grief for the safe and secure world that we have come to rely upon. Our church is lost. Our culture is lost. We have strayed from the sacred path. We cannot find our own way back home. So let us end our frantic attempts to bring back the good old days. Enough with our presumptions that we can create a new world. We are lost. We cannot fix it. We cannot solve it. We cannot save ourselves. But we can let go of all false pretences to know where we are. And we can abandon any suggestion that we know the way ahead. Then, like a lost lamb, we can wait ... wait for the Great Shepherd to find us ... to restore our soul ... and to lead us in right paths ... for God's (and heaven's) sake.