Hope in the Darkness

David Hilfiker

March 31, 2019

     Jer 25:3-11
     Ps 137:1-6
     Luke 13:1-9

     Marja and I recently received a fund-raising letter from an environmental organization we support.  On the front of the envelope they had printed: “Join us today to put an end to global climate change.”  Well, they are good organization but I have some news for them I have some news for them.  Whether we joined your organization or not, whatever we do, whatever you do, whatever anyone else does, we’re not going to put an end to climate change.

Given the nature of the human being, the nature of humanity as a social network, the extent to which global climate change has already progressed, and the natural feedback loops that will continue to warm the earth no matter of how little CO­2, we emit; in the future, the oceans will rise, the wildfires will increase, uncountable numbers of people will perish, and civilization will be unrecognizable. 

This is not a prediction any more than Jeremiah’s prophecy was a prediction; it’s a simple cold look at science, the nature of our society and the nature of God.

We’ve been working to create global climate change for at least two centuries.  We’re not going to reverse it in ten years or one hundred years.  Atmospheric carbon dioxide will continue to increase in the next decades.  Optimism that CO­2 concentration will even stay level, to say nothing of decreasing, to say nothing of decreasing enough to reverse climate change, is frighteningly Pollyannaish.

This morning I’d like to speak to you about three things:

  1. Climate change

  2. Our theological response, and `

  3. Theological hopefulness

Understandably, most of us don’t the like that part of the biblical prophetic tradition that speaks of woe and destruction.  We don’t mind it so much if God declares the woe and destruction, the people change, God relents, the prophecy is unfulfilled, and everything is again right with the world. 

But, it ain’t necessarily so!  In the 25th chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet delivers God’s message that the faithlessness of the people over generations is going bring about the destruction of Israel and the exile to Babylon.  For 23 years Jeremiah has been warning the people, but they haven’t repented or changed their behavior.  So, God—through Jeremiah—declares that they will be exiled for 70 years to Babylon.  There is no “but” here.  The people have been faithless for too many years. 

In the lectionary several weeks ago, on hearing of several natural tragedies that had killed many people, Jesus whether those people were worse sinners than anyone else.  It could’ve happened to you, he’s saying. And then in the following scripture about the fig tree, he gives the tree one more year to produce fruit, but failing that, it will be cut down. 

Israel’s faithlessness had gone on for generations, it was obvious that they weren’t going to change their behavior, and the punishment had been declared.  So Jeremiah says that it’s bad news as far into the future as he can see.  The people won’t change, God won’t relent, the nation will be destroyed, and the people will be sent into exile. 

You can imagine that the king and the people were not very happy with Jeremiah.  In fact, he says,

the priest and the prophets said to the officials and all the people, “This man deserves a sentence of death because he has prophesied against the city as you have heard with your own ears.”  (Jer 26:10-11)

In our time, for well over two generations (quite a bit more than Jeremiah’s 23 years), the modern environmental prophets have been warning us about the consequences of our faithlessness to God’s natural world.  By the 1950s, scientists were predicting global warming.  By the 1970s, the scientific consensus about the consequences of our carbon policies was clear.  In 1988, NASA’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, testified before the Senate in an open hearing that the world was failing “miserably” to combat climate change.  We all should have known, even back then.

In the thirty years since, increasingly dire predictions have been appearing.  These predictions, you may have noticed, are almost invariably underestimates.  The UN officially requires its own scientific Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to issue an unbiased report every five years.  But, in fact, the panel reports out the most conservative estimates of its scientists so that we’re spared the most likely consequences.[1]  A decade or two later, the predictions, not surprisingly, have to be upgraded.

We Americans have an extraordinary capacity to grasp at the positive and under-emphasize the negative (for instance, that environmental group’s come-on).  The confidence our optimism brings probably made possible, for instance, the (white) settling of the country against overwhelming odds.  In his book Lighten Our Darkness, Douglas John Hall calls the United States an “officially optimistic” country.  We believe in “overcoming obstacles.”  We believe that the nature of history is progress.  We even believe in the “perfectibility” of the human being.  In the last few years, of course, that optimism has been strongly challenged.  But the underlying tendency is clear.

The biblical story of God’s people, however, is not one of particular optimism.  Hope is offered continually, but that’s different from optimism.  Given the realities of our world, optimism regarding climate change is clearly unwarranted.    

So the exile is coming.  The Earth is going to suffer the effects of our behavior.  It’s already started, so there’s virtually no uncertainty about it.  And, just so we’re clear, the effects of our behavior will be catastrophic: certainly millions dead, if not billions, and the natural order overwhelmed beyond recognition.  In God’s world, of course, one can never say never, but Jeremiah and Jesus remind us that eventually God will have had enough.  Who can doubt that we qualify? 

The process is already well underway and to count on God’s fixing it after we’ve ignored so many warnings is, I would suggest, blasphemous.

So what is the nature of God’s promised hope?  That’s a theological question.  Our American theology’s answer has been, essentially, that God will always save us!  To respond adequately to global climate change, however, will require a new, more adequate theological understanding of how God speaks hope to us in the darkness.  If God is not going to fix things for us, what is God doing for us? 

Jesus’ entire teaching was in the context of Roman oppression without expectation that God would change things in the near future.  His response was to teach the Kingdom of God: love for God and for God’s people, care for the oppressed, justice everywhere.  As far as I can tell, Jesus was not optimistic that this was going to come about anytime soon, but he, nevertheless, taught a gospel filled with hope and meaning.

So what should we expect?  God has promised us faithfulness; God has promised us love; God has promised to be in solidarity with us.  God has promised us meaning.  God has not promised us safety from the ills of the world.  God has certainly not promised to save us from the consequences of our deliberate ignorance.  I God has not promised us freedom from pain.  (Just ask the vast majority of Christians in the world—those starving, those tortured—those who must watch their children die.  Are they any worse sinners than we are?)    

How does God offer us help in our coming exile? Like Israel before its exile, it seems that we feel  only hopelessness.  The question that the Israelites asked in Babylon is similar: How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?  (Ps 137)

This is by no means a simple question.  What kind of hope are we promised?  What we’d like is that the darkness be banished.  Sometimes that prayer is answered in just the way we want it.  But that’s not the promised response.  The promised response is that God will be with us in the darkness, accompanying us and sometimes giving us a small flashlight to see our way … even while the overall darkness remains.  That’s not the kind of response we’d like; it certainly doesn’t fit with our optimism, but that’s what’s promised: God will at least light the way, show the next steps.

We can look to Jesus for that first step.  Even in the midst of political hopelessness, Jesus spoke continually of the Kingdom of God.  He spoke of its coming, but cautioned us about trying to figure out its timing or the wider, even the political nature of the Kingdom of God.  The Jews asked: When will God end our oppression?  When will God destroy our enemies?  Jesus rarely spoke to that; but it certainly didn’t look like it would be anytime soon.

Well then, what were Jesus’ hearers supposed to do in the light of their oppression?  Jesus did say to give to Caesar only what belonged to Caesar.  He ran the money-changers out of the temple.  He offered some nonviolent ways to respond to oppression (“go the extra mile”), but those would hardly have been satisfying responses to Roman oppression then or environmental devastation now.

When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, he was mostly talking about forgiveness, love, God-being-with-us, solidarity, meaning and so on.  His to-do list was pretty much: “Love one another.”  There were lots of implications to that command, of course, (“treat one another fairly,” “give all that you have to the poor,” “do not worry,” keep working for justice and so on). 

We are offered a way of living in response to the intensifying darkness around us.  We would certainly like more of a prescription to banish the darkness, but it apparently won’t be forthcoming.

If I’m right, there is no realistic hope for preventing the tragedy of climate change.  Do you want to destroy hope ?Well, I am actually hoping to remove the optimism that we think could prevent climate change. 

Looking at the likelihood of success is the wrong place to find hope.  We begin at the place we are actually offered hope, hope for the coming of the Kingdom of God, not that pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by hope that is rightly mocked by the Enlightenment, but the day-to-day behavior that Jesus offered: and to reiterate, love, patience, forgiveness, justice; solidarity with the oppressed and with one another.  And that hope can give us the power to keep going in our practical, daily, search for justice and righteousness, and that includes persisting in the work against the worst impacts of climate change. 

Marja and I will continue to support that environmental organization, despite its naïve come-on.  Given the tragedy that is coming, every little thing we do will help incrementally, perhaps even save one life

One way of looking at the missions of Eighth Day and the rest of the Church of the Saviour is that we go about those mission without regard for their “success.”  I remember someone—my therapist, actually— challenging me when we started Joseph’s House, our home for homeless men with AIDS.  She asked, Why are you investing so much time, energy and money on people who are going to suffer anyway and die no matter what you do?  I doubt that anyone of us here would even think to ask that question today. Our “success” is presence, love, friendship, solidarity.

We here know what real hope is, and we go about it daily: we build the kingdom without regard for success: we provide relief to the poor, free the prisoners, provide housing for the homeless, give support to victims of violence, and much more.  We also work to deepen our community, to work to move ourselves closer to God, to build solidarity. 

And… Oh yeah … we organize potlucks every third Sunday.

None of these will dispel the darkness of climate change, but that’s not the promise or, at this point, one of our options.  Our task now is to recognize the light that God offers to shine on our next steps and to hope that our steps are adequately faithful responses.

The hope that is offered may seem pretty puny to those of us steeped in the American culture of optimism and success.  It may not initially offer us much sense of satisfaction.  It certainly doesn’t match the enormity of the need that we perceive.

But then is what we are offered.  And we can be grateful that we can move together as a community in solidarity with one another, …..following the light we’ve been given.

Canadian poet Alice Major writes,

It is an immense privilege to be alive at this time.  We owe it to ourselves to try as hard as we can to understand what’s going on. And to give meaning to it. . . . Only by understanding our lives as meaningful can we hope to create meaningful change.”

And that change is the Kingdom of God.

May it be so.


[1] Personal observation; I wish I could find an official source for this.