Thinking about the Unthinkable – Tom Mundahl reflects on our desert struggle in the time of climate crisis.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Few themes sound more forcefully during Advent than the promise of comfort. We are moved by Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah,” as the tenor takes up the prophet’s voice with the clear tones of “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people.” Many of us will invite congregations to echo that message with Olearius’ hymn, “ Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, No. 256). Whether that message will hit home among so many of us who are already quite comfortable is a question that must be asked.
Half a century ago, when the danger of nuclear war was on everyone’s mind (it remains a great danger), Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute wrote a small, but shocking book entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable, New York: Horizon Press, 1962. In this volume, Kahn went beyond strategies aimed at avoiding nuclear war and asked: How would such a war be fought? Although some expressed fear that openly discussing this horror was dangerous, not only did this work change military strategy, it likely moved major nuclear powers to begin negotiations to reduce arsenals.
To God’s people exiled to Babylon, comfort and freedom were just as “unthinkable.” They were as unimaginable to those experiencing loss of homeland and sense of comfort that comes with it, as those voting on November 4, 2014 could imagine strong political decisions responding to climate change. Yet, the unthinkable prophetic word went out from Isaiah: Captives will be free to return home!
Sounding a new message of freedom and renewal of cultural life is the strategy of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). The prophet begins with a series of strong verbs designed to get the hearers back into motion—not an easy task. For it is likely that, even before the captivity, the leaders of Judea had become resigned to living under a “royal theology” that stifled imagination and hope. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “What is most needed is what is most unacceptable –an articulation that redefines the situation and makes way for new gifts about to be given” (The Prophet Imagination, 2nd Ed., Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2001, p. 63).
In such a situation, life-goals are often reduced to just getting by, mere survival. This makes for a culture vulnerable to takeover and manipulation since it is dying from the inside. In many ways, it is not different from contemporary US culture where dreams and imagination seem to have shriveled. The capacity to grapple with large issues seems atrophied. “When we try to define the holding action that defines the sickness, the aging, the marriages, and the jobs of very many people, we find that we have been nurtured away from hope, for it is too scary” (Brueggemann, p. 63).
Isaiah signals the end of these “holding actions.” No longer is simply managing lowered expectations acceptable; God is operating in a new way. And that is why the first word to the prophet is: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” It is a word of forgiveness so powerful it carries with it a New Exodus. Now all questions about being abandoned by the Holy One are at an end. A new and clear “enthronement formula”—”say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God” (Isaiah 40: 9-10)—now becomes the source of courage and imagination (Brueggemann, p. 72).
All of this from a prophet who clearly admits very little self-generated vision. In what amounts to a “call narrative” for this Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40:6-10), he admits his imaginative poverty. “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass and their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades . . . .” (Isaiah 40:6-8a). Westermann reminds us that . . .
“The exiles’ greatest temptation –and the prophet speaks as one of their number was precisely to be resigned to thinking of them as caught up in the general transience of all things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence, and to saying ‘just like countless other nations destroyed before our time, we are a nation that perished: all flesh is grass” (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p.41).
But there is something that trumps this fatalism: “The Word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8b). This theme sounds throughout Second Isaiah, concluding with the final verses, a doxology describing the joy of all creation in the return of the exiles.
For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
Only God’s creative word is an adequate basis for this New Exodus. To say, “Fear not,” with any other foundation would guarantee only anxiety. It is the necessary answer to Isaiah’s query: “What shall I proclaim?” It frees the community to trust in a divine presence that not only “comes with might” but also as the loving one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10 -11). It makes “thinking about the unthinkable” a hopeful enterprise.
Which suggests why Mark turns to Isaiah’s song of hope as he pens “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” in the “eschatological historical monograph” we call the Gospel of Mark. (Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007, p. 18)
This simple beginning immediately subverts the Roman imperial order where “good news” was the reserve of the emperor’s benevolence. Naming Jesus “the Son of God” only made matters worse. Not only was this a jealously-guarded imperial title applied to an obscure figure from troublesome Judea, he had been executed as a brigand by the emperor’s colonial administrator. Another exercise in “thinking the unthinkable” (see Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p.61). Yet this powerful beginning is no less than another “enthronement formula!”
Following this announcement, we hear an offstage voice anticipating the appearance of John the Baptizer. Rather than a simple reference to Isaiah 40, however, we are presented with a conflation including references to Exodus (23:20) and Malachi (3:1). “I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way . . . ” (Mark 1: 2a) contains deliberate echoes of the Exodus tradition where the Holy One promised, “I will send an angel in front of you, to guard you on your way and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Exodus 23: 20). Here we have a midrash on Isaiah 40 which suggests that this new messenger will indeed continue the Exodus tradition (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988, p. 125.).
But this conflation also refers to Malachi, the last of the prophets, who writes, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me . . . .” (Malachi 3:1). The evangelist suggests here that a renewal of prophetic action is taking place before your eyes! John does recapitulate Elijah. But the message that this messenger will prepare for the appearance of the Holy One at the temple is no longer the case. Now the action is far from Zion; it is in the desert, the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3). As we learned from last week’s gospel reading, the temple is no longer the center of action. This new Advent arrival will take place on the periphery, in the desert.
Why the desert? As Belden Lane suggests:
“The desert as metaphor is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending. Yet it does. And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 195.).
As the “world begins to crack,” out steps John the Baptizer. At first glance, John seems to present nothing beyond the ordinary, a mere “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). But it is the response that clues us in that something extraordinary is happening. In what Myers calls “typical Semitic hyperbole,” we read that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him . . . .” (Mark 1:5). Significantly, instead of “all the people” gathering at the Jerusalem temple, they are gathering “in the wilderness” (ερημος—used four times in Mark’s “prologue” Mark 1:1-14). Mark wastes no time laying out the tension between “wilderness” and “temple” so crucial to comprehending the New Exodus announced by John.
That John the Baptizer is Elijah is made clear by his attire and diet (2 Kings 1: 8). But we are tempted to forget that Elijah was nothing if not a political prophet. In his struggle with the royal court of Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah vigorously pronounced judgment for violating the covenant with Yahweh, an action that forced Elijah to flee to the wilderness to save his life (Myers, p. 126). But there is even more in the image of Elijah. For Malachi projects Elijah as the one sent “before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5).
But this “day,” which now is not the “end,” but a “new beginning” in the tradition of Isaiah 40, will not come until “the stronger one” arrives, the one whose sandals John is unworthy to loosen (Mark 1:7). He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power greater than even the Roman Emperor can imagine. Perhaps, to “riff on” Malachi, even bringing blessing to the land.
That Advent expectation brings blessing and hope for renewal of the whole creation is underscored by this week’s Psalm (85). It is a communal lament seeking restoration so authentic that it encompasses both land and people. Here, the psalmist clearly recognizes that “humans are bound to the earth in an integrity that is biological, moral, and spiritual, as well as political and economic” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 25)
This lament is answered by an oracle (vv. 8-13) that not only promises the sought-for renewal but describes it poetically.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps (Psalm 85:10-13).
Prospects for significant change at the scale needed to confront our largest ‘environmental problem’—climate change—seems to hover near zero. But many avenues to love creation remain open. They need to be embraced. As we are comforted: In our desert struggle to serve creation, we are comforted to know that God’s future always includes what Aldo Leopold called “the land community, the substance of what biblical writers call ‘heaven and earth’” (Davis, 25). Perhaps this will still move us in this Advent “to think about the unthinkable.”
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.
St. Paul, MN