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SERMON: Despair and Birth Pangs
Jeremiah 4:9-10, 23-28 Matthew 23:37 - 24:8
God, may my words be loving and true; and may those who listen discern what is not. Amen.
The world is burning before our eyes.
The ancient words of Jeremiah seem as though they are moving day by day from figurative language about divine judgement to an unremarkable summary of this week's news.
The rhythms of nature are thrown into chaos.
At once urban smog and light pollution rob us of the beauty of the stars.
We look on as earthquakes in Türkiye, and Morocco, and other parts of the world reveal our common human fragility.
The earth is becoming desolate. Species extinction, desertification.
The world which has sustained peoples since the time of ancient stories is becoming uninhabitable, unlivable.
Like the ancient prophet, we are aware of the failing courage of our leaders, and the deceptive veneer of calm as we head powerlessly towards environmental destruction. Even before the arrival of spring we begin to notice the blossoming of flowers, new growth shedding the frost of winter, the sun shining resplendent in glory.
The end of the world will be incredibly aesthetically pleasing.
We act as though all will be well while the sword is at our throats.
Like the prophet Jeremiah himself, it is so often the younger cohort in our society who are most attentive to these perils. Greta Thunberg, and the global activists with whom she collaborates (particularly those from First Nations communities around the world) have been sounding the alarm. And we have not been taking heed.
The despair of this moment is tragically being inscribed onto young people. Even while it is so often young people who are calling us to action. Research on the mental health impacts of climate concern reveals a stark reality.
A survey conducted by the youth mental health organisation Orygen showed that:
76% of young people are concerned about climate change
67% say climate concern is having a negative impact on youth mental health
Over 70% of young people name the sources of this negative mental health impact as:
Worrying about the future of the planet
Reports of extreme weather events already happening
Most young people (56%) have seen their concern increase over the last 12 months, only a small minority (12%) have seen their concern decrease
I’m not a mental health expert or practitioner. I’m not here to provide advice for addressing the mental health concerns raised by the challenges of climate catastrophe. I can only offer the standard advice in that space: be open to talking about it, find people you trust, reach out to care professionals.
As a preacher I want only to make the connection that the patterns of anxiety in young people around climate change seem to reflect the dynamics which we have heard in scripture. That is to say, this anxiety is driven by the real and looming threat of crisis, while being found in a place of disempowerment — where leaders in our society are not taking enough action.
Crisis and disempowerment are persistent themes throughout scripture. They are evident in the prophetic words of Jeremiah, made in the context of Jewish people being forced into exile and dispossessed of their land.
So too in the life and ministry of Jesus in the Gospels. The Gospels are framed by multiple crises.
The crisis of the looming crucifixion and death of Jesus. From the very beginning of the Gospel narratives the writers and their original audience are aware where this story is going: it ends in death inflicted by a Roman cross.
The original audience of the Gospel text also faced an immediate crisis in their own time: the ongoing disempowerment and persecution by Roman authorities. This crisis found its centre in the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70CE, when “not one stone was left upon another, all was thrown down.” (Matt 24:2b)
This crisis of destruction fundamentally transformed the social, cultural, and religious life of the Jewish community - out of which the Christian tradition emerged.
The witness of scripture validates the experiences of crisis felt by peoples across time and place. So too it speaks to what it means to wrestle with God and our place within systems of disempowerment.
The crises which face humanity are set within the wider crisis of the spiritual decay of the world itself. All human societies, all of human existence as part of the created order, seem to be marked by fragility, struggle, violence, and lack. We struggle to survive, we find ourselves inevitably drawn into conflict, we are subject to or perpetrators of harm. This reality separates us from God and the wellspring of life and love, mercy and peace, joy and justice which God ought to be for us.
What Jesus offers into the experience of crisis and disempowerment is a word of lament. In this word Jesus echoes the lament which runs through his own Jewish tradition — including in texts like Jeremiah.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate." (Matt 23:37-38)
Lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.
Lament is the gathering place for the pain, and heartache, and despair which is held within us as we face the world.
Lament is the attempt to inscribe our loss and yearning onto the world itself.
Lament is an act of love.
The lament of love refuses to say that, "all will be well," when the sword of climate crisis is held at our throats. Or more concretely, when rising sea levels threaten the islands of the Pacific, desertification the water supplies of the African continent, floods the livability of South Asia, and uncontrollable fires our own burnt land.
All is not well. And our anxiety is, at this level, rightly placed. Despair a valid and appropriate response to crisis. Lament validates our feelings of despair. There is no shame in despair which faces despairing things.
And yet, and yet despair which turns into lament opens our hearts in love. Lament reclaims a part of the world to bear the mark of truth that our sorrow is for lives that are grievable, lives worth grieving. That our sense of loss is not for ourselves, but for those we are bound to in the interconnected web of life.
We seek then no retreat from the sorrow of the crisis which we face. Nor some easy solution, where our disempowerment is in the last revealed as empowered — as if pulling a rabbit from a hat. Instead we seek the bonds of love with each other that name the sorrow of our shared loss.
This is where Christ's voice is heard: in the word of lament which names our lives and loss as grievable. In the merciful words of Christ our pain is gathered, in all its validity. In Jesus Christ, the one who goes the way of the cross, are formed bonds of love which lead the way to hope. Turning the pain of our despair into birth pangs.
Hope, friends, is not retreat from despair. But in the midst of lament we find: our love, God's love, and Christ's cry of love for the world.