Stay Alert with Hope; and Beware the Consumers of Christmas. – Tom Mundahl reflects on hope, watching, and serving.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
In a recent review of new books on climate change, British environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth shares his fear that stopping warming is nearly impossible; the very best that can be done is controlling how bad it will get. This pessimism is reinforced by a conversation Kingsnorth had with Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in a New York cafe. Because Kahneman, an economist and a lifetime student of human decision-making, is convinced that no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living, he concludes: “So that’s my bottom line: there is not much hope” (London Review of Books, October 23, 2014, p. 18).
Despite that increasing consensus, the community of faith insists on calling Advent a season of hope. But this is not a naive hope. As William and Annabeth Gay wrote their annual Christmas letter in 1969—in the midst of the worst of the Vietnam War –as always they included a hymn, whose middle verse puts it best:
Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath and be transfixed by faith.
So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north,
the living flame, in secret burning,
can kindle on the earth and bring God’s love to birth.
(“Each Winter as the Year Grows Older,” No. 252, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 2006)
This hope is especially critical for those of faith called to serve a creation rent by the Ebola virus, drought from another record year of heat, water shortages, and rising oceans –all challenges met by paltry human response. As we begin a new church year, we look for signs of hope where they always have been, in our Advent readings from scripture.
It may be surprising that our first reading from Isaiah addresses those who have returned from exile in Babylon and have resumed a corporate life together. Yet things have not gone so well; the very promises of a New Exodus seem to have been empty. No wonder the people ask, “Where is the one who brought them from the sea…?” (Isaiah 63:11) and why does this LORD “harden our hearts, so that we do not fear you?” (Isaiah 63: 17) (see the discussion by Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, pp. 234-235).
Out of this sense of frustration and failure comes a desperate cry: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….” (Isaiah 64:1). While this image may call to mind the old tradition of the Divine Warrior, it goes even deeper to the Creator’s power to make new. Not only does this cry occasion a turning around –repentance—by the people, it roots what is to come in “remembering” God’s faithfulness. (Isaiah 63:11)
Even if the hopeful imagery of Second Isaiah (40-55) now seems to be fantasy, the prophet and people hold their broken dreams and defeated hopes together by remembering God’s action, the only power capable of healing what has been ‘dismembered.’ That memory does more than face backwards: it recalls that this is the God who clears the way for the new, capable of “tearing open the heavens and coming down.”
In fact, now the prophet reminds listeners of the creative imagery from the earlier Isaiah.
Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, “What are you making?” (Isaiah 45:7)
This earthy metaphor serves as a timely affirmation in spite of the freed peoples’ faithlessness: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father: we are the clay and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). It is this trust in the ‘maker of heaven and earth’ that is the source of hope in the midst of hopelessness. And this hope is justified, for the prophet goes on to share a “divine speech” in Isaiah 65 that offers a promise of radical newness and a vision of shalom. (see Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge: 2009, p. 169)
For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth….I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people….They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit….for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be (Isaiah 65: 17, 19, 21-22).
Paul writes with just this sense of hopefulness to a Corinthian community faced with the challenge of cultural diversity and internal division. Even though our text comprises the formal thanksgiving in the letter, it is hardly formulaic. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, the very first word of this thanksgiving, ευχαριςτω—“I give thanks”—drives toward and includes everything in this section, culminating in the promise of strength to live out the community’s calling (Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, Hermeneia Commentaries, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975, p. 25).
Clearly, this community is not without resources as it continues to serve under pressure. Nor are these resources self-generated. The Corinthian community has been “enriched” by God’s gifts. Despite the NRSV translation, the Greek word “spiritual” does not appear in 1:7. The grace of God simply provides what is required for life and service.
These gifts, χαριςματι, could not differ more from the great hunt for holiday gifts in the race beginning on so-called “Black Friday.” Brueggemann deftly characterizes this “holiday shopping spree” as the “achieved satiation” of a “royal theology” aimed at sedating ‘consumers’ into thinking that everything is “all right” and that there are no problems that cannot be “fixed” by economic exchange (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, pp. 36-37).
The gifts Paul refers to are given to empower this new servant body to nurture the mystery of hope, to ‘get its hands dirty’ as part of a community so inclusive it ‘comprehends’ all creation. No other scaling of community, κοινωνια, is comprehensive enough to do justice to the faithfulness of God. (1 Corinthians 1: 9)
Richard Hays, in his comment on this text, puts it nicely:
“We are apt to think of the church’s life and mission on a small, even trivial scale. We tend to locate the identity of our communities within some denominational program, or within local politics, or within recent history. But Paul urges us instead to understand the church in a cosmic frame of reference…. “(First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p.20).
Ironically, it is cosmic vision which frees us to see what is at hand locally with new eyes: every child, every one of Grandpa Ott’s ‘Morning Glories’ in the alley, every city council meeting, and even every diseased ash tree as holy, a gift of God.
Chapter 13 in Mark’s Gospel may provide us with more of the “cosmic” than we bargained for. Description of “wars and rumors of wars” (13:7), “fleeing to the mountains” (13:14), false messiahs, and astronomical irregularities combine to create an atmosphere of terror and anguish. Far from being otherworldly, this dramatic language seems to describe the life situation of the earliest community and its response to the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE.
If scholars Adele Yarbro Collins and Ched Myers are right, this chapter “documents” the struggle in the Markan community over what tack to take in this violent popular uprising. Collins suggests that “wars and rumors of wars” and the warning that “the end is yet to come” (13:7) fit best with the situation early in the Jewish War. “If the war were already over, it would hardly have been necessary to point out that the end had not yet come” (Collins, The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 82).
Myers goes further, suggesting that this chapter is written for an audience in the resurrection community tempted to join forces with ‘Jewish patriots’ in rebel action. “In such a moment, there was only one voice that could match the persuasive call of the rebel recruiters: Jesus the living teacher” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988, p. 330). This call is to say “no” to false messiahs, military violence, and predictions of the end of hostilities. It is a call to active watching and waiting, the call of the whole faith community during Advent.
“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). This strong imperative sentence could be heard as a threat that produces nervous foreboding. Instead, it is an invitation to faithful and attentive service within the web of creation. A community that no longer lives in anxiety about making the right eschatological “call” is freed for this very activity: watching and serving. The time of fulfillment will come; in the meantime, wakeful care is the watchword, as it indeed is for the season of Advent.
This attention and watchfulness is more than a strategy; it replaces the world of the temple cult with trust in the “word” of the Risen One. (Mark 13:31) The old fig tree (Mark 11:12 -14)—representing temple culture –no longer bears fruit. A new crop is coming to nourish this community of attentive care. This crop will provide the sustenance servants of creation need to carry out their calling (Mark 13:28-31). This is true for us as we are challenged by an economic culture that uses shopping and buying to sedate us so we cannot see the way things really are.
When Wendell Berry wrote, “the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed” (“Faustian Economics,” Harpers, May, 2008, p. 35), he could just as well be speaking of the North American celebration of “the holidays.” Much as the earliest community was tempted to embrace military violence to easily solve the problem of Roman rule in Palestine, so we are tempted to forget any discipline of waiting and watching and, instead, to jump “whole hog” into the arena of “getting the goods.” In this kind of culture there is no hope that “consumers” will cut themselves off acquiring the latest toy and risk social disapproval, little chance that steps to deal honestly with the causes of climate change will be taken. But when we “keep awake” (Mark 13:37), who knows what new doors may open.
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.
St. Paul, MN