Sunday November 13-19 in Year C (Utphall22)

A New Song – Nick Utphall reflects on the voice of the forest in concert with us.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Readings for Sunday November 13-19, Year C (2022, 2025)
Malachi 4:1-2
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Well, the department stores have been at it for months now. So why don’t you jump on the bandwagon and enjoy a little bit of Christmas, even at this point a couple weeks before Advent.

Two of our readings dump us smack dab into Christmas carols. Perhaps the more obvious are the direct quotations from Malachi that appear as part of stanza 3 of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of peace! Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings, ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die,
born to raise each child of earth, born to give us second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn king!” (Charles Wesley)

If you come around to that hymn on Christmas Eve, it may be worth recalling that it came from the prophet Malachi. It’s worth it partly because it is a surreal and strange image to have the newborn Jesus all of a sudden sprout a pair of wings. It’s also worth recalling the origin because you may really require a repetition of this surprising promise that the prophet Malachi brings. We’ll return to that original setting below.

The second Christmas carol offered to us in these readings is Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 98. If you didn’t pick up on it with first reading, you’ll almost certainly see connections when you have the tune in your head:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive its King!
Let ev’ry heart prepare Christ room,
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let all their songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy. (Isaac Watts)

Of course, this has come to feel like a Christmas carol. Some hymnals place it in the Advent section. (One of my mentors insisted it was actually most fitting for Easter. Maybe that would fit “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” as well, since they proclaim second birth as Jesus is risen.) We typically conceive of these special occasions for where or when we place “Joy to the World.” But as it comes from the Psalms—and even in Watts’ setting—there is nothing explicitly about Jesus, much less his birth. What there is is lots of joy at God’s coming into our world. Not only into my heart or to redeem my sins, not only to “make the nations prove” that God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. God’s coming delights the fields, floods, rocks, hills, and plains, as nature sings!

With similar expansive understanding, these verses from the Psalm are also a reference or connection for the hymn setting of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures, “All Creatures Worship God Most High.”

If you are interested in following the suggestion from the Psalm itself to “sing a new song,” instead of those old European standards, you might look to the Brazilian folk song Cantai ao Senhor. The English translation has:

Oh, sing to the Lord, oh, sing God a new song.
Oh, sing to the Lord, oh, sing God a new song.
Oh, sing to the Lord, oh, sing God a new song.
Oh, sing to our God, oh, sing to our God.

For God is the Lord, and God has done wonders…
So dance for our God and blow all the trumpets…
Oh, shout to our God, who gave us the Spirit…
For Jesus is Lord! Amen! Alleluia!…
Oh, sing to our God, oh, sing to our God.
(tr. Gerhard M. Cartford, Evangelical Lutheran Worship Hymn 822)

Here’s a version to hear the tune, if you don’t know it. Plus, as a bonus, it has some extra verses added to round out Psalm 98.

This little musical journey has sent us through the Christian calendar and around the landscapes of the globe. And all of that might be worthwhile and even joyful, but we haven’t yet directly explored the readings for the day.

To return to our 1st reading, the book of Malachi is post-exilic (maybe 470-450 BC), but at a time when restoration didn’t live up quite fully to expectations. According to Beth Glazier-McDonald, the book of Malachi “reflects the weaknesses of a community disheartened by the non-fulfillment of the promises of past prophets… Although Malachi harshly condemns priests and evildoers, he shows deep concern for the hard-pressed faithful, assuring them of God’s love (1:2-5) and of God’s certain coming to fulfill all their hopes (3:1-5; 3:16-4:6)” (Beth Glazier-McDonald in Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition, Newsom and Ringe eds. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, p. 248).

I mentioned above that by Christmas you may be ready for another dose of Malachi’s promise. As we approach this Sunday, the second to last of the church year, we are also passing an American election. Some may have the feeling of being “disheartened” with “non-fulfillment” from politics, that past promises haven’t brought much relief. People may feel that restoration after the worst of the pandemic has not come as quickly as they wished. Life may remain hard-pressed due to inflation or systemic oppressions, and any of us may yearn for God to come and fulfill all our hopes. We may need such an assurance repeated.

That stands certainly in the face of climate change. Even with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act by the United States Congress in August, our hopes for addressing the problem in a meaningful way may remain tenuous. During this occasion when we will be hearing Malachi in worship, simultaneously the United Nations will be convened yet again for climate action, with COP27 in Egypt. (You can read about it here.) Certainly the intent is to build on past progress. But questions remain: Will the world actually be able to commit to reducing emissions enough that we can stay below the Paris Agreements 1.5° C goal? Will richer countries be willing to find the resources to aid developing countries who are already suffering more drastically the impacts of changing climate?

With those questions and those worries, it is dramatic to hear our Malachi passage from The Message version of the Bible, replacing a simple oven that burns roots and branches (NRSV) with the sort of vision we’ve seen in drought-stricken American West and Australia, in the clear-cut Amazon of Brazil, and in Indonesia. Here is Malachi (“my messenger”) in The Message: “Count on it: The day is coming, raging like a forest fire,” [God-of-the-Angel-Armies says so.] “All the arrogant people who do evil things will be burned up like stove wood, burned to a crisp, nothing left but scorched earth and ash—a black day. But for you, sunrise! The sun of righteousness will dawn on those who honor my name, healing radiating from its wings.”

Those burning rain forests of Brazil may well be ready to join in a new song, “ring[ing] out with joy before the LORD, who comes to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:8b). They, indeed, may be longing to join the Brazilian folk tune, “Oh, sing to the Lord, oh, sing God a new song. Oh, sing to our God, oh, sing to our God. For God is the Lord, and God has done wonders!” We could hear that echoing from the sea, as coral reefs continue to bleach, roaring in lament and longing to sing for joy. It reverberates in rivers that this year ran to lowest levels and gasped for water, as they want to dance and bounce and clap their hands.

And for us, too, after scorched earth political campaigning or literal raging forest fires, we likely need a promise of goodness and hope, of restoration with healing wings spread gently over us.

Yearning for that promise, the word from Jesus for this week may seem peculiar at best, or amplifying our disheartenment at worst. As he declares it in the First Nations Version of our Gospel reading, “When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not fear, for these things will come first—but the end is not yet. Tribal wars will break out, and nations will war against nations. There will be great earthquakes, food will be scarce, sickness will spread everywhere, and bad signs will appear in the sky” (Luke 21:9-11, First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament).

As a forecast, that would be an awful and terrifying prediction. We know things are already bad, and is Jesus telling us that we still have all of that to come?! But we need not take it as fortunetelling the future. These realities were already present for his followers in the Gospel of Luke, just as they have continued for 2000 years, and as we recognize bad signs in the sky (perhaps for our own time as measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) and have lived through years of the sickness of COVID-19 spreading everywhere. In this reality, Jesus doesn’t give glum warning. He offers promise: this is not the end. The opposite of terrifying prediction, he reassures “do not fear.” Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! For God is the Lord, and God has done wonders!

Exactly when we may be disheartened, feeling weak and hard-pressed, that may be the time for the necessary hope in trusting ourselves to the God of promise. We cling to a message that it is not the end, that we can take courage over cowering fear. The sun of righteousness that rises with healing in his wings raises us up, too. Raised up on wings, you also may bring the healing.

This is the vocation issued in the 2nd reading: siblings, “do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thessalonians 3:13). Idleness may not just be laziness but may be that you have been immobilized by dread of the overwhelming and daunting tasks we face. Do not fear!

In rich nations like the United States, we should observe and properly understand the validation in the 2nd reading: “we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:8). White Americans in particular have burdened others and not paid for what we have taken, in the history of Black people who were enslaved and in extractive economies that deplete resources of developing countries. It is well time that instead we toil and labor night and day so that we pay our share and lighten the burden we’d imposed, offering our part in restoration and strengthening our communities.

In that way, along with hard-pressed peoples, and along with the forests and hills, seas and rivers, perhaps we, too, will join in the new song. Joy to the world! Oh, sing to our God, oh, sing to our God!

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2022.