Sometimes, I pray “The Great Litany,” Archbishop Cranmer’s majestic 1544 contribution to the Anglican liturgy. The Great Litany limns an antique, urgent and violent world: “From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.” It also speaks to our inner world and seeks deliverance from, among other things, blindness and hardness of heart, inordinate and sinful affections, pride and vainglory.
It is to this inner world that the prophet Jeremiah speaks in today’s readings, a world as disastrous for twenty-first century Americans as it was for ancient Israel. God commands Jeremiah to speak judgment upon Israel, and speak it he does.
On the other hand, this is not just a narrative of the Israelites being “bad” and therefore meriting punishment. They have been “bad” before, but never before has God instructed his prophet “do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you” (Jer. 7:16). What is going on here?
Like us, the Israelites had constructed a deeply false consciousness of reality. They thought, as do we, that they could give rein to whatever ran darkest in their workaday world six days a week, then go to temple (or church) one day a week for a recharge, as though we and they were loading up a cosmic phone card with fresh minutes.
God snaps the phone card in half: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?” (Jer. 7:9-10)
Divine anger is kindled because sin is a triple threat: we transgress, we transgress willfully and then we lay claim to the trappings of liturgy and law. Worse, this is a family affair: “Do you not see what they are doing in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven. And they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger” (Jer. 7:17-18).
What angers God, we think is daring. As songwriter Steve Earle notes on “I Feel Alright” (1996):
I’ll bring you precious contraband
And ancient tales from distant lands
Of conquerors and concubines and
Conjurers from darker times
Betrayal and conspiracy
Sacrilege and heresy
Our sense of reality gets twisted in other ways. In David Lean’s 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai, we hear some great whistling. More importantly, we see a British officer (played by Alec Guinness) in a Japanese POW camp. His false consciousness about a “temple”—a forced-labor bridge-construction project—is his undoing.
Like the prophet Jeremiah, daily we ask—at least, daily I ask—anyone who will listen: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” (Jer. 8:22) In the external world and in the internal, there is neither balm nor physician. Rather, there is only one Balm, which is the blood on the Cross. There is only one Physician, who is the resurrected Christ. We need no longer whisper with the prophet “the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved”—because we are.