This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on September 11th, 2016.
When reading the word “desert,” our minds quickly imagine sandy landscapes and a scorching sun. This passage paints imagery of the burning winds of the desert that blow fiercely from the bare heights stinging all in its path. The text creates vivid descriptions of a desert that can be creatively explored. This could be a frozen, barren wasteland with stinging, icy winds that burn like the scorching sun upon the skin. Most likely the imagery comes from a middle eastern desert storm, a dry, dust bowl where sand covers the sun leaving the land in utter darkness. No creatures can be found for even the birds have fled, flying south. Nothing will grow, and nothing will live in the waste and void. Jeremiah is returning the listener to Genesis chapter one where the earth was formless and empty. This Hebrew phrase is only seen in Jeremiah 4:23 and Genesis 1:2.
However, both passages we see that even in the midst of the chaos, God is always present. The Spirit of God that hovered over the chaotic waters in Genesis is very different from the wind blowing down destruction from the north. In the Israelite tradition, the wind was used for winnowing or sorting, separating the wheat grains from the chaff. But this is no cleansing breeze rather this wind is used to scatter everything in its path.
The question for people during personal or political turmoil is ‘what is the purpose of the wind’? Is the wind scattering or sorting? It is important to distinguish between the two because one gives meaning behind the wind and the other does not. These hot, dry winds described by Jeremiah were most likely are the sirocco winds coming from the Mediterranean Sea that can reach hurricane speeds. A similar devastating wind blew across the United States in the 1930’s Dust Bowl destroying all means of life along the way. A God who said “this is good” in Genesis is now a God who says “this is bad” in Jeremiah.
The coming wind is cause for lament. It describes a foe from the north, the Babylonian threat looming over Israel. This powerful enemy is a dark shadow on the horizon.
The warning is directed at the nation of Israel, “my poor people.” This Hebrew phrase has different translations in Jeremiah such as “wound of my people” (8:11), “my sinful people” (9:7), or “daughter of my people” (14:17). Throughout each use of this phrase God’s children are depicted as vulnerable, and God is voicing concern for the future danger of his people.
The juxtaposition of Jeremiah and Genesis also occurs with Jeremiah and Proverbs. The use of wisdom literature is heard throughout this lament. Proverbs 1:7 says “The fear of the Lord is beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Jeremiah’s oracle is satiric in nature, pushing against the so-called “wise” leadership that prided themselves on their “wisdom.” Using literary parodies like “my people” or “skilled in doing evil” often heard in wisdom traditions, Jeremiah uses these phrases as a slap in the face to the false prophets in Israel.
In the passage, the reader can feel the divine irritation that God has with the people. These stupid, foolish humans who think they have been so wise in their ways. Jeremiah emphasizes that their covenant with God is not about following the rules set forth by Moses and earlier patriarchs of Israel but about the core of spirituality and the heart of God’s worshippers. The disobedient behavior of God’s people appears in their stupidity and ignorance. Disobedience is merely a symptom of a deeper spiritual problem the Jeremiah is addressing.
Like Jeremiah’s experience, preaching unwelcomed news is not why preachers get into this line of work. One of Jeremiah’s significant contributions in his time was setting the foundation for the new covenant between God and the people of Israel. Yes, the defeat by the Babylonians ultimately leads to a new covenant but before we get to Jeremiah 31:33 where God writes a new covenant upon their hearts we have to linger in chapter four.
The end is always the beginning of something new. However, some ends are painful and give rise to lamenting. Every spiritual journey of God’s people revolves around different seasons. This lament provides a look inside the harsh reality of the soul in a season of winter.
The construction of the new covenant requires the collapse of the old. Transitions for all communities of faith into new seasons of change can feel like a devastating demolition of what once was. God’s people have a history of clinging so tightly to what once was that letting go of the old becomes all the more painful.
This excruciating season for Jeremiah and the people of Israel is a human experience that connects with all people. The darkest hour of night is always right before the sun rises. This deep abyss gives the illusion that the restoration of hope seems but a distant dream in the midst of the current nightmare. Laments are means of illuminating one reality of being human by clenching the pain, the emptiness and the feelings of abandonment in one hand and while clinging to faithfulness in the other.
Buechel Park Baptist Church, Louisville, KY
Tags: lament, grief, wind, chaos, faithfulness