Stay Together, Encourage One Another, and Actually Act – Tom Mundahl reflects on the connection between preparing the way and changing our ways.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year C (2018, 2021, 2024)
Last night I heard a news report about a young journalist who covered Africa and the Middle East from a home base in the water-starved city of Capetown, South Africa. As a close follower of events, she was shocked to see that her hometown of Malibu was being evacuated ahead of one of the many wildfires plaguing California. Immediately she called her parents, only to have her father respond with the brusque message that he could not talk because he and her mother had just finished loading their car to escape the flames that were now in his line of vision. By the time he called three hours later, he shared with his daughter several photos of what little was left of their home where they planned to gather for the holidays (The World, National Public Radio, November 12, 2018).
While the phrase “home for the holidays” resonates with people all over the world and satisfies a deep, shared longing, we live in the age of refugees. Whether it is climate refugees in California, Africa, Syria, victims of Central American injustice heading north in “caravans,” or plants and animals moving to climates more species-appropriate, God’s creatures are on the move. This continual exodus toward what Stephen Sondheim in West Side Story called “a place for us” is also at the heart of the biblical story, especially during Advent.
Our reflections begin with John the Baptist, a prophet who, at first hearing, is nearly impossible to connect with the comforts of home. But the parallel stories of the conception and birth of John and Jesus certainly find a place with the Old Testament miracle births of Isaac and Samuel. In fact, John’s story begins in the very cradle of his faith community, the Jerusalem Temple. The Temple was not only the center of religious transaction; it was a complex built to remind the people of creation. It has been said of Solomon’s Temple (destroyed in 587 BCE) that it “was an ecological map of the universe.” Among its many features were two basins, each holding 40,000 liters of water that symbolized both the waters of creation and the sea crossed at the Exodus (Michael Trainor, About Earth’s Child: An Ecological Listening to the Gospel of Luke, Sheffield: University Press, 2017, p.71).
Creation by the active Word of God must have slipped the mind of John’s father, Zechariah, whose turn had come to offer prayers at the incense altar, for he could not fathom the words of Gabriel that his elderly wife, Elizabeth, would finally bear a child (Luke 1:18-19). Because of this skepticism, Zechariah was struck dumb until the day of the birth, when a family argument broke out about this child’s name. Taking a stylus and a beeswax tablet, John wrote, “His name is John” (Luke 1:63). Immediately, not only was his speech restored, but the early hymn we call “Benedictus” poured out.
Employing traditional language from prayers of blessing (berakoth), the hymn praises God for raising up a powerful leader ( “horn of salvation”—translated “savior” by NRSV) fulfilling the promise made to Abraham (Luke 1:73), whose covenant of blessing for all (Genesis 12:3) fits neatly with Luke’s universal concerns (Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 46). Soon the hymn zeroes in on John’s specific vocation, a call to “prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76), which seems to echo the Exodus tradition. This should be no surprise in a gospel that features a long travel narrative (Luke 9:51-19:28) virtually introduced by the Transfiguration account, where Moses and Elijah discuss his “departure”—literally exodus—to take place in Jerusalem (see Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, pp. 111-112). John the Baptist maps the way for this new movement.
John’s role only intensifies in our Gospel text (Luke 3:1-6) where in the midst of all the great leaders (“pharaohs”) of the Roman world, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2). That powerful, creative, and prophetic word propels John into the Jordan River region where he offers a baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).
As one called to take up Malachi’s role of “messenger to prepare the way” (Malachi 3:1), the demand for repentance should come as no surprise. For the prophet (“Malachi” literally means: “my messenger”) announces a divine lawsuit against the people who are accused of “wearying” the LORD by saying, “All who do evil are good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them” (Malachi 2:17). This ethical construction is not far from the honor meted out to the wealthy in the U.S. and throughout the world today, much of whose gain comes at the expense of the creation and 99%+ of its people. Malachi makes sure that the message of judgment cannot be ignored: “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap” (Malachi 3:2b).
Because God’s commitment to creation and its creatures does not change (Malachi 3:6), this process of purification, painful though it may be, is a necessary step in coming to a new mind (metanoia—repentance). As the illusion that “anything goes” is uncovered and those promoting this deception (especially the priests) are shown to be nothing but frauds, the prophet graciously brings about the end of the fantasy that all life can be managed and controlled. Ironically, this creates space for hope. Now that the accepted understanding of things is in doubt, hope, “the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion,” finds room to grow (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 65).
John the Baptist is the voice-messenger who prepares the way for “this new reading of reality.”
Just as Zechariah’s once dumb tongue can sing again, so crowds in search of a faithful voice make the wilderness trek for renewal. But this renewal is couched in language and images as old as this people. John Dominic Crossan suggests, “the wilderness was not just sand, and the Jordan was not just water” (John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1994, p.43). Obviously, John was not the first to lure crowds to the wilderness to teach and form a movement for serious change. With its lack of distractions, it was the perfect place to form new mindsets (metanoia). But the wilderness was the Jordan River Valley, the river whose crossing symbolized a new beginning.
By returning geographically to the birth of Israel’s existence, John the Baptist signals the end of the old order complete with a change of mind and heart accompanied by “the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). But this “forgiveness” is far from being the forensic “putting away” of individual transgressions. Trainor claims: “The kind of forgiveness that Luke envisages, which metanoia and baptism reflect and John urges, is fundamentally communal. It is neither individually nor anthropologically centered: rather it is social and environmental” (Trainor, p. 98). John calls for creation-wide reconciliation best captured by the Hebrew word shalom, an interdependence experienced by immersion in the water of life, a new way of “crossing the Jordan.”
And this is only intensified by Luke’s use of Isaiah 40:3-5. The prophet’s hopeful word to exiles in Babylon that there would be a dramatic “new exodus” of return not only defines John as the messenger preparing the way for Jesus; it reminds us that the entire messianic enterprise affects the whole cosmos. “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low . . . and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3: 5a, 6). This set of powerful metaphors begs us to expand the meaning of all flesh to give “all of God’s critters a place in the choir.”
Central to the metanoia John invites (even clearer in next week’s lesson) is a call for honesty. We cannot acquiesce to the perverted logic of the people of Malachi’s time: “All who do evil are good in the sight of the LORD” (Malachi 2:17). No longer can we pretend that what clearly exploits the creation is good just because it may supercharge economic growth for a short time. God’s people have all too often adjusted their thinking and acting to the short-term requirements of the culture. John the Baptist will have none of that.
The alternatives before us in North America at this time are stark. No group of fellow citizens has experienced the literal sense of a “refiner’s fire” as painfully as Californians, especially the former residents of Paradise, where the death toll may be counted in the hundreds. Today we can say with honesty that there is no more Paradise. These anthropocene wildfires are far more than what insurances companies used to call “acts of God.” They all have a connection to our dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, consequent warming, change and intensification in prevailing wind patterns, and drought. The resulting fierce wildfires should be no surprise.
If John would have us live out baptismal repentance, what could be done? In the spring of 2018 a small group of pipeline protesters, who oppose these energy superhighways out of the conviction that as much oil as possible should be kept in the ground unburned, shut off a major Enbridge line in North Central Minnesota. To maintain safety, they informed Enbridge ahead of time, acknowledged their trespassing and prepared themselves for arrest. This was a clear act of civil disobedience where the perpetrators were prepared to suffer the consequences of possibly lengthy imprisonment.
However, they also planned to offer a “necessity defense,” allowed by a Court of Appeals ruling. To assist their legal team, they recruited NASA atmospheric scientist James Hansen and activist-writer Bill McKibben to offer testimony. The hope was to make this trial a national educational forum. In the face of this threat, the presiding judge acquitted the defendants, preventing the “public classroom” from opening (Elizabeth Dunbar, www.mprnews.org, series beginning April 23, 2018).
The willingness to face ten-year prison sentences cannot help but remind us of our reading from Philippians (1:3-11). As he writes from prison, over and over again Paul refers to a partnership (koinonia) in the gospel (Philippians 1:5,7) as an important ingredient providing courage and hope. Even though we do not share Paul’s sense of the imminence of the final advent, or, more so because we do not, as a faith community we need to learn from pipeline protesters how to stay together, encourage one another in acts of responsibility, and actually act on behalf of the creation in tough times. After all, the root meaning of koinonia is “common,” and we share nothing in common so much as a creation crying for justice.
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.