Tag Archives: 2012

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

How can we allow the religion of consumption to threaten God’s future? – Tom Mundahl reflects on turning from darkness to light.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

The Religion of Consumption

In 1955, American economist Victor Lebow wrote a prescription for the postwar economy that proved to be uncannily accurate.

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing pace.” (quoted in Alan Durning, How Much is Enough? New York: Norton, 1992, pp. 21-22)

The impact of this “religion of consumption” is no surprise to those who care for creation, all struggling to live justly and humbly in “the belly of the beast.” The results of this postwar orgy of consumption are clear enough: massive waste of energy and material; increased degradation of air, water, and soil; use of thousands of chemical compounds whose effects are unknown, massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane exhaust fueling climate change, and embrace of “magical thinking” trusting that these problems will be “solved” by the newest techno “trick.”

How could intelligent, sometimes well-meaning human beings threaten the future of God’s creation?

How could this be? How could intelligent, sometimes well-meaning human beings threaten the future of God’s creation? Today’s readings provide clues that, even though they are nearly too blunt to miss, we too often ‘skate over’ to avoid offending what we might call the ‘spirit of the age,’ especially at a time when we do not want to rock the boat of a fragile economic recovery.

How could the church have bought into Victor Lebow’s clearly idolatrous way of thinking? Or, to echo Nicodemus, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9). Is it, as Marxists used to claim, “false consciousness?” Are we simply so overwhelmed by the massive quantity of commercial messaging and allegiance to finding meaning in ‘branding’ that we cannot help but respond to these stimuli? Are we so overworked in an anxious job milieu that we take our rewards where we can get them –at the mall or by shopping online?

Light and Darkness / Old Life, New Way of Being in Christ

Our readings suggest that, while all of these carry explanatory power, it is worse than that. As the Nicodemus discourse winds down, Jesus, who in the Prologue has already been called “the true light, which enlightens everyone….” (John 1:9) describes how responding to his presence creates a “crisis” (translated as “judgment,” v. 19) that orients humankind to “the light” or “the darkness.” This parallels the distinction etched in our second lesson between the “old life” (Ephesians 2:3) and the “new life in Christ” that has created a new community of hope (Ephesians 2:4-10). No matter how those who do not believe have ended up in this situation, the result is the same—embracing of the darkness, living in the old ways where one must manufacture one’s own security and hope.

And there is plenty of support for living the old life of darkness! The Roman Empire could provide a complete syllabus of religious practices that would not only be socially approved, but provide a safe anchor in the community. Something like that seems to be true for all in our culture who prefer the darkness. Bill McKibben points out that a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming” featured several climate science deniers, including five with ties to Exxon Oil (TomDispatch.com, February 9, 2012).

In fact, the darkness of a system that depends upon ravaging God’s creation has taken more than a century of “popular education” (read ‘propaganda’) to develop. As theologian Norman Wirzba argues:

“In fact, the vices of the great moral and spiritual traditions –pride, greed, and prodigality—first had to be transformed into economic virtues for Adam Smith’s ideas abut production, acquisition, and work to take hold. Today’s economies, in other words, are planned. They depend upon founding myths or assumptions that need to be seriously questioned if we are to make significant changes in the way we live.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 98)

Let Light and Newness Prevail

But God’s purpose in sending the One who is “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14) is to recreate and renew all of creation so that light and newness prevail. This is the goal we move toward during Lent as we look forward to lighting the “new fire” at the Easter Vigil and anticipate new baptisms into this community of care and love. What moves us cannot be better summarized than in John 3:16: “God so loved the world….” Even if the world contains a deep power of opposition embracing the old ways of darkness, this created world is in the process of being made new.

John connects this action to the old story of Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness to bring hope to a community that has, in a sense, destroyed itself on the way to the Promised Land.

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14)

This cross now becomes the center of the world, the axis mundi , the locus from which the Son of Man will draw all to himself (John 12:32) in the process of driving out the ruler of this world…and the musty darkness.

We are called to be a new community of life and hope.

But that is not all. In the meantime, those already captured by the new light are very busy. “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may clearly be seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21). This line is beautifully echoed at the end our second reading describing the purpose of creating a new community of light and hope. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God created beforehand to be our way of life”(Ephesians 2:10).

Our task of good works is to care for creation.

Even in the face of a contracting consumer culture, filled with anxiety about what is coming next, our task is to continue to be about “the good works” already prepared for us. This is our life path. At times, I consider chucking this “care of creation struggle” in favor of walking the St. Olav Pilgrimage to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, or the El Camino Santiago Way to Compostela in Spain. Certainly, we all need to experience “sabbatical” time. But as Victor Lebow’s vision of “faith-based shopping” weakens us and our culture, the power of the one lifted up like the serpent frees us to continue to live out the way “prepared for us”—caring for creation.

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

First Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Wilderness As a Place of Possibilities Tom Mundahl reflects on finding hope in barrenness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B ( 2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Forty days and forty nights. Time in the ark with waters from the upper and lower firmaments, held back at creation, once more meeting at “boat level.” Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness tempted by Satan. Forty  days and forty nights of Lenten “returning to the LORD.” It should be no surprise to discover that these Lenten texts that help us prepare to celebrate the Paschal Feast are also rich in themes grounding us in care for creation.

Noah’s ark is a “floating seed-pod.”

How could there be a better place to start than with the tale of Noah and the Flood? As a result of human violence and corruption, God determines to destroy evildoers and the earth (Genesis 6:13). Yet this determination is not total, for Noah is commissioned to build an ark which is no less than a “floating seed-pod” ready to re-plant creation and human culture once more. Even though the opening of both the firmaments—below and above—could hardly be more menacing, Noah’s amazing ark portends an outcome beyond annihilation.

The scope of the Creator’s promise encompasses all creation.

This portent is fulfilled in a reading that stuns us with the scope of this covenant of promise. Not only does the Creator promise never again to destroy the earth by flood, but God also provides a natural sign as a reminder—the rainbow. No longer an instrument of war, this bow points to God’s victory over both the temptation to retributive justice and the chaos brought by humankind. The divine relationship with creation is now based on nothing less than “unqualified grace” brought about by a revolution in the heart of God (Brueggemann, 1982, p. 84).

The scope of this grace travels with such wild energy that it includes “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (9:16), reminding us of our co-participation with creation in the gifts of God and the opportunity not only  for us to care for the non-human, but also to learn from our encounters. As Christopher Southgate remarks so bluntly, “God’s purposes with creation are not wholly bound up with humanity” (Southgate, 2008, p. 37).

The courage to stand firm is rooted in the water of baptism.

This tsunami of promise concluding Noah’s watery forty days spills over into the lesson from 1 Peter. No matter whether this letter functions primarily as a “baptismal sermon,” it is clear that the power of baptism takes center stage. What will give these “resident aliens” in Asia Minor the courage to stand and make their defense before the authorities? It is the primal power of baptism (3:21) which contains those who gather (in later times a “nave,” from navis, ship or boat) as an ark-assembly that hears God’s promise to Noah and to all creation amplified  to  become a powerful word of resurrection and renewal, trumping the watery muck of all that would destroy creation. This is the unparalleled “confluence” of story and creation that will encourage and guide these communities under pressure. It is the same energy that will free us on behalf of all creation’s constituents to speak truth to those afraid to face the science of climate change and to unmask those who claim plutocracy and democratic justice to be identical.

Jesus’ forty wilderness days are drier. Yet, there are powerful themes that resonate in this Gospel lesson from Mark. As Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, “he sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (1:10). Just as in the flood, the firmament is pierced, but this time there is no destructive deluge: only a healing breach in the barrier between God and creation.

Jesus’ vision of this new immediacy is confirmed by the words he hears: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased” (1:11). If the gap between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ can be ‘torn open,’ so can an equally great divide—that between royalty and servanthood. Yes, Jesus is “the Son, the Beloved,” as kingly as can be (Psalm 2:7); but he is equally servant (Isaiah 42:1) who is “well pleasing.” Clearly, as has been claimed in these commentaries, he is Servant of Creation.

The wilderness is a place of new possibilities.

With language that matches his description of the “tearing of the heavens,” Mark describes Jesus being “driven by the Spirit” into the wilderness, where he is tempted for the biblical forty days. Not only do we hear echoes of the forty years of wilderness wandering by the people of God, we sense that this wilderness offers a new frontier, new possibilities in its very barrenness. It seems to be that “luminal place” or “threshold” where new doors are open and new hope is born.

This is not to turn this desert retreat into a trip to Palm Desert. While it may be tempting to see “the wild beasts” (1:12) as creatures straight out of Edward Hicks’ The Peaceable Kingdom, it is more likely that they are creatures of temptation that we meet most graphically in apocalyptic, especially Daniel and the Apocalypse of John. Since this menagerie is usually taken as a graphic representation of “the kingdoms of the world,” it seems likely that they have a deeper connection with the temptation by Satan than the Noah Covenant. As Mark’s Gospel unfolds, it becomes clear that the real temptation is for Jesus to understand himself not as Servant of Creation, but as “conventional Messiah” taking power in the usual ways, as elaborated by Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13).

The place of death becomes a locus of hope.

The hopeful irony is that in Mark, sometimes called a “desert Gospel,” all is turned upside down. What was seen as a place of death and waste (before Ed Abbey and others helped us see the beauty and complexity of desert ecosystems) becomes a locus of nourishment and hope. The forty days is central to Jesus’ ministry. Throughout the Gospel, “lonely places” provide opportunities for teaching, healing, and feeding thousands (Mark 6:8) as a new community is formed. Jesus continually seeks “wild places” as a refuge for prayer (1:36, 6:30-32) for himself and his disciples. And, the ultimate action in this Gospel takes place in the desperate and lonely forsakenness of the cross.

We are reminded most forcefully that these lonely, desert places where new life sprouts are a contrast to the aridity of the seemingly “civilized” religious establishment operating in the service of Imperial Rome in Jerusalem. On the “edges” of things, new life and community grow; the illusory stability of Jerusalem leads only to attempts to “plug” the breach in “the heavens” in denial of the new creation that this Gospel promises (1:1).

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

When Thoreau wrote that “in wildness is the preservation of the world” (“Walking”), he was far from packaging “the wilderness” as a commodity to be enjoyed in perfect comfort with all the right gear by wealthy folks.  Instead, he saw “wildness” as that deep down quality of creation that leads to surprising renewal. If there is a hint of that in our Gospel reading, there is even more of a sense that this one who embodies “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1) removes focus from “the-powers-that-be” in Jerusalem and Rome. This happens even in the “desert” far from the Tiber Valley of the Temple. What is more, it is described in language that not only reminds us of creation (“the beginning”), but it is the beginning of the good news, the “Gospel”—the kind of news that is the special province of the Emperor.  No wonder Jesus tangles with the “beasts!”

We are called to have the courage to make the hard decisions to care for creation.

Beasts continue to make their presence felt in our own day. Refusal to build the Keystone XL pipeline is maintained by the most tenuous combination of courage and political expediency, regardless of the fact that James Hansen of NASA has said that its building and encouragement of “tar sands oil” will mean “game over” for a swiftly heating planet. Fear moves 2/3 of American parents to transport children to school by car, where only a generation ago that same fraction walked, biked, or took the bus. Today, some of our “most abandoned” places are found not in the Mojave, but in decaying cities where deserted buildings and lots await transformation. Our readings suggest that even these desert challenges may end in new life and concrete hope.

 Noah’s ark is a “floating seed-pod.”

The scope of the Creator’s promise encompasses all creation.

The courage to stand firm is rooted in the water of baptism.

The wilderness is a place of new possibilities.

The place of death becomes a locus of hope.

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

We are called to have the courage to make the hard decisions to care for creation.

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth12)

It’s Time to Break with Business as Usual and Tend God’s Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on what we can learn from fishermen.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

It’s Time!

When it’s time, it’s time. And, indeed, it is time for Christians to reorient their lives to God’s creation in crisis. The readings for this Sunday provide occasion for making this call. From Mark’s Gospel we have heretofore heard the announcement of a new beginning. We have encountered John the Baptist at the Jordan and shared in his expectation of the arrival of one who is more powerful than he. We have undergone baptism with water, and await the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And now the word comes: John has been arrested; Jesus is on the move. “The time is fulfilled,” he proclaims, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14). So with Simon and Andrew, James and John, we are invited to “break with business as usual” and enlist in Jesus’ campaign to restore God’s creation (“breaking with business as usual” is Ched Myers’ apt characterization of these verses from the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel; see his Binding the Strong Man, p. 132)

The Kingdom of God is the Restoration of Creation.

What does the drawing near of the kingdom of God have to do with the restoration of the creation? A lot, if not everything, we would urge. We have anticipated this assertion in our commentary on the lectionary lessons for Advent and Christmas: the coming of Jesus, we have suggested, represents the relocation of the presence of God from the temple at the heart of the Jewish state to the person of Jesus, who is the servant of God’s creation. A succession of symbolic associations through these two opening seasons of the church year has provided confirmation of this perspective: the fig tree (First Sunday of Advent), the wilderness (Second), the light (Third), the incarnation (Fourth), the praise of all creation (Christmas Eve and Day, and First Sunday of Christmas), the assembly of God’s people for the meal (First Sunday), and the water of baptism (Baptism of our Lord). These are all signs of the immanence of God in the creation, which we argued in our comment on the readings for last Sunday is the presupposition of the call to discipleship from God. Now on this Sunday that God is seen in the person of Jesus to draw near and call into specific relationship those who will accompany him on his mission, and so be prepared to carry it forward in his name. But it is only with this Sunday that we first see how crucial the creation itself is to the fulfillment of the time and the drawing near of the reign of God.

Myers shows us why choice of location and occupation of the first people called as disciples is significant for understanding the nature of Jesus’ mission. Sea is important, along with wilderness, river, and mountain, he notes, as primary topological sites in Mark’s narrative. Here in the first part of the gospel, “the sea (of Galilee) is a prime positive coordinate; by it the discipleship narrative commences (1:16; 2:13), and consolidates (3:17)” (Ibid., p. 150). It is, obviously, the context in which fisherman, who are recruits for Jesus’ following, could be expected to be found. That the nature of their work is important is clear, both from Mark’s emphasis on it—“he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen,” and from Jesus’ use of that vocation in describing their future role in his mission: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (1:17). The image, Myers emphasizes, “does not refer to the ‘saving of souls,’ as if Jesus were conferring upon these men instant evangelist status.” The image is rather

“carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahweh’s censure of Israel. Elsewhere the ‘hooking of fish’ is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Amos 4:2) and powerful (Ezekiel 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege “(Ibid., p. 132).

Following Jesus requires a reordering of socio-economic relationships.

Belonging as these men do to an independent artisan class for whom “the social fabric of the rural extended family was bound to the workplace,” the call to follow Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the “world” of the disciple: in the kingdom, the personal and the political are one. These concrete imperatives are precisely what the rich—Mark will later tell us—are unable or unwilling to respond to. This is not a call “out” of the world, but into an alternative social practice.

No more business as usual.

Thus, this “first” call to discipleship in Mark is indeed “an urgent, uncompromising invitation to ‘break with business as usual’” (Ibid., pp. 132-33).

The fishermen’s dependence on God in fishing leads them to follow unconditionally.

What Myers’ exposition leaves unanswered, however, and indeed, even unasked, is the question as to why these fishermen are apparently both able and willing to respond so positively to Jesus’ call. What exactly is it about fishermen, to pick up on Mark’s emphasis, that renders them open to Jesus’ call and able to make the break? Our view, admittedly somewhat conjectural, is that it is in the nature of their work and its domain, the sea of Galilee, to foster such readiness and courage. Theirs was a daily encounter with both the great bounty and the threat of the sea. While harvesting that bounty, they move at the edge of chaos. Contrary to the rich people dwelling in the cities of the land, for whom their wealth was a guarantee of continued well-being and purchased safety and therefore a cause of resistance to Jesus, the fishermen’s entire dependence upon the sea for their livelihood could make them acutely aware of their dependence upon God for both their sustenance and their safety. We can imagine them singing with firm resolve the psalm appointed for this Sunday: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:5-8). People of this spirit could be quite ready to respond quickly and affirmatively to Jesus’ summons.

Work and play rooted in God are holy activities on behalf of creation.

This is to suggest, accordingly, that the fisherman’s relationship to the creation plays a significant role in the unfolding of this narrative. Their entire lives are so oriented to the unfettered dynamic of creation that “business as usual” in the socio-political realm of the temple-state has very little meaning for them. This suggestion is supported by Norman Wirzba’s argument in his book, The Paradise of God, that one of the keys to restoring to modern life a “culture of creation” is the reformation of our patterns of work and play, to bring them into proper relationship with the patterns of creation. Fundamentally, he argues, “work and play . . . are our responses to God’s own work and delight in a creation well made. They show, when most authentic, a sympathetic attunement to the orders of creation and their divine goal.” Meister Eckhart, Wirzba suggests, found that

“[i]n returning to our “ground,” as he put it, we come upon the experience of the grace of creation and there find our proper bearings for action. We learn that work is not foremost about us, but is instead the holy activity through which creation as a whole is sanctified. Work, rather than following from divine punishment, becomes the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart, and head.”

Human work, rightly understood and well-practiced, promotes entry “into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality” (Wirzba, pp. 154-155). This, we suggest, is how the Galilean fishermen lived.

This reading of Mark’s narrative is provocative, we think; contrary to our usual concern to show how Christian faith might help foster and sustain care of creation, we find here that a particular orientation to creation helps to form and foster a relationship of faith to God and commitment to God’s purposes.  Aware as they would have been of changes in their circumstances due to Roman domination of the seas and due to Jerusalem’s collaboration with Roman authorities, their relationship to creation renders the fisherman ready to see in Jesus God’s messiah. They agreed with Jesus: the time was fulfilled. As we have come to expect by virtue of our practice of baptism, water and the Spirit of God together stir up faith in God, so that  even the “unclean spirits” amidst the great crowd that eventually gathered by the sea, when they saw Jesus, “fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God” (Mark 3:7-11).

But perhaps this is not so provocative, after all, at least in more extended biblical perspective. That the creation itself assists in the stirring of faith and consequent action would actually seem a lesson to be drawn from the fabled story of Jonah, revisited in our first reading for this Sunday. It is the great fish’s role, after all, to redirect the reluctant Jonah to his calling. Is it not congruent with this “natural fact,” perhaps, that the animal population of Nineveh quite freely joins the human population in donning sackcloth and ashes?

Nature and God are telling us: It is time to repent like Jonah.

The lesson is timely for us: With benefit of only the slightest prompting on the part of the prophet of God, the ancient, sinful city of Nineveh repents of its alienation from God because of the sign of the fish. The reluctant prophet of God will himself eventually repent of his reluctance, but the change does not come easily. A parallel might be seen in the slowness of God’s church to attend to the crisis of creation, while the secular community of the world, educated about nature by the sciences of ecology and climate change, turns from its hugely destructive ways, and begins to do the hard work of restoring God’s creation. It is time; nature is telling us that it is time. And those Christians who do live close to the Earth and know themselves to suffer with the whole creation, need to leave their boats—or automobiles, electronic toys, or whatever—and, breaking with the spiritual authority of “business as usual,” follow Jesus.

It’s Time!

 The Kingdom of God is the Restoration of Creation.

Following Jesus requires a reordering of socio-economic relationships.

No more business as usual.

The fishermen’s dependence on God in fishing leads them to follow unconditionally.

Work and play rooted in God are holy activities on behalf of creation.

Nature and God are telling us: It is time to repent like Jonah.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth12)

God Is the God of Embodiment throughout Earth and Sky! Dennis Ormseth reflects on God’s presence calling us to care of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

1 Samuel 3:1-10 {11-20}
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

God is immanently present in the lives of those who are called.

The call to discipleship and testimony to Jesus as Son of God are primary themes in the readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany. Motifs relating to the theology and care of creation are present, but subtle. Using the first lesson and the Gospel, for instance, interpreters call attention to the different and sometimes surprising ways that the call to discipleship comes. Correlatively, we would call attention to the presupposition of this understanding of divine address, that God is immanently present in the lives of those called, a theme we have encountered in the Christmas season and emphasized in our comments for its relevance to our orientation to creation.

God is everywhere and in all times present.

The Psalm for this Sunday is a particularly strong expression of this theme. God, the psalmist asserts, is truly “inescapable”: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away” (139:1-2; “The inescapable God” is the title given to Psalm 139 in the NRSV).  Employed on this Sunday to frame Jesus’ insight concerning Nathaniel in the gospel reading as a sign of divine omniscience, these verses are linked to an appreciation of God as everywhere and in all times present, not just to the one who sings God’s praise, but throughout the creation:

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your and shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (139:7-10).

Stunningly, not even cosmic transformations can separate this human from the Creator: “If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (139:11-12). Verses 7 through 12 of the psalm are unfortunately not assigned for the reading, but are nonetheless properly referenced in connection with the confession, at v. 13, that the God who is this human’s creator, who not only “knit me together in my mother’s womb” was also there “when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depth of the earth” (139:15).

While the psalm thus embraces a panentheistic view of divine presence, the idea that Jesus shares God’s omniscience is reason enough for Nathaniel to confess that Jesus is “the Son of God.” The more fulsome theme of creative and sustaining omnipresence attributed to the Creator in the Psalm is not necessary for this confession, but other cosmological motifs in the text supply some elements of this aspect.  First, there is the mystery of the fig tree. Interpreters may see an allusion here to Zechariah 3:10: “When the Messiah comes, ‘you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree’” As Nancy Koester suggests, “Nathaniel wonders: Is Jesus really the one whom the Scriptures promise? Jesus point to the promise coming true in Nathaniel’s own experience:  Wasn’t Nathaniel under his fig tree when Philip called him?” (Koester, “Epiphany,” in New Proclamation Year B, 1999-2000, p. 96). Readers of these comments, however, may recall from our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent the observation of William Telford that “the Old Testament literature “on the whole knows very little of nonsymbolical trees.” Thus, we repeat what we said then,

“The fig tree was an emblem of peace, security, and prosperity and is prominent when descriptions of the Golden Ages of Israel’s history, past, present, and future are given . . . The blossoming of the fig tree and its giving of its fruit is a descriptive element in passages which depict Yahweh’s visiting his people with blessing, while the withering of the fig-tree, the destruction or withholding of its fruit, figures in imagery describing Yahweh’s judgment upon his people or their enemies.”

The fig tree confirms the link with caring for creation.

Our concern in that earlier comment for Advent was that such cosmological elements, which were commonly associated with the temple in Jerusalem, were being rendered meaningless for the Christian tradition, since the presence of God was relocated from the temple to Jesus, following the Markan insistence on abandonment of the temple. Following this theme through the readings for Advent and Christmas, we have seen that this concern was hardly justified. And indeed, the present text confirms this view once again: the fig tree’s return here, albeit now from the Gospel of John, reaffirms the link between Jesus’ mission and concern for creation. Care of creation is recognized here, however subtly, as a concern appropriate to the call to discipleship. And as Jesus’ promise to Nathanael that he” will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” (John 1:51) the future of that discipleship will take its course in a cosmological context, with glorious traffic between heaven and earth.

The displacement of the presence of God from temple to Jesus is a common theme.

Reference to the displacement of the presence of God from temple to Jesus has been an interpretive key for this series of comments on the lections for year B, beginning with the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. Strikingly, in addition to the symbol of the fig tree, temple as scene and as metaphor is more explicitly utilized here in this set of readings as well. Samuel’s call takes place in the temple at Shiloh, we note, at a time when the leadership of Eli as priest has been deeply compromised by the wickedness of his sons. In a development that foreshadows Jesus’ own attack on the temple state, Samuel’s call commences with the thorough rebuke of both Eli and the temple sacrifices:  “the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever” (1 Samuel 3:14). While Yahweh will continue to appear at Shiloh for some time (3:21), in due course, God will act through Samuel to establish the house of David and eventually also a new temple in Jerusalem. Samuel, who knows himself in his calling to be God’s servant (3:9), becomes the agent of this relocation: the ark of the covenant will move on, for the God whom Israel encountered in the wilderness will not be captured for one place or for one house.

Christian bodies, corporately and individually, are temples “of the Holy Spirit.”

If “temple” designates God’s “down to earth” presence, the truly astonishing thing to be observed in these readings is that by the time of the Apostle Paul, Christians were expected to know that their bodies, both corporately and individually, were temples “of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). God will indeed be an embodied God, incarnated as was Jesus in the very bodies so “intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:15.) It belongs to the service of the servants of God to be the occasion, location, and agency of both this embodiment and its persistent renewal in the ever expanding “house” of earth and sky. (See Jurgen Moltmann’s discussion of Friedrich Oetinger’s thesis that “Embodiment is the end of all God’s works” in Moltmann’s God in Creation, pp. 244-75, for an extensive development of this theme.)

God is immanently present in the lives of those who are called.

God is everywhere and in all times present.

The fig tree confirms the link with caring for creation.

The displacement of the presence of God from temple to Jesus is a common theme.

Christian bodies, corporately and individually, are temples “of the Holy Spirit.”

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth12)

If You Would Experience God, You Must Fall in Love with Earth Dennis Ormseth reflects on baptism as a cosmic event.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

The incarnation means that “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.”

With the readings for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, we return to “the beginning” of the Gospel of Mark which, as we noted in our comments on the lections for the First and Second Sundays of Advent, draws us quickly into the cosmological as well as the eschatological themes of Mark’s story. Readers of those comments will recall the strong interest of Mark’s Gospel in these themes: the author breaks decisively with the cosmology of the temple-state centered on the Jerusalem temple, as the elect of God are gathered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness for the opening of the new creation. This break in fact provided the impetus for us to trace in the lections of the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent the dislocation of God’s presence from the temple to the person of Jesus. Subsequently, in the readings for Christmas Eve and Day, we beheld him enfolded in the glory of God’s primordial light and life. Jesus’ birth is worthy of all creation’s praise, we suggested, because, as Mary saw, not only would he break with the human pattern of domination that makes a desert of creation, but the birth itself effects a reorientation to creation expressed in the insight that the incarnation of God in his person means that the “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.” In Larry Rasmussen’s excellent words, “so if you would experience God, you must fall in love with earth.”

The Gospel is a “new creation” story—as Jesus rises from the waters.

In the readings appointed for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, the church fully affirms these cosmological accents of Jesus’ advent. Once again, “the voice of the Lord is over the waters,” as wind and flame announce the enthronement of the Lord “over the flood” (Psalm 29:3-10). Yes, in the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit as a dove over the waters, we are meant to see the opening of a new creation story, in which, as on “the first day” of creation, the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2), and we are reminded of the  “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” which was promised when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16). Out of the waters rises a new humanity: having identified fully with our sinfulness in an act of repentance, Jesus opens the possibility of our identifying with him as God’s new creation.

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

Thus is inaugurated, in Ched Myer’s characterization, Jesus’ “subversive mission.” The cosmological accents of Jesus’ baptism thus serve to mark the difference not only between the temple state and the kingdom of God, but also between John’s valid but incomplete “baptism of repentance” and the full “renunciation of the old order” which Jesus’ baptism represents (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 129). We note that our second lesson suggests that this difference was deemed important enough in the early church to merit the Apostle Paul’s instruction that those baptized by John should be baptized again in the name of Jesus, so as to complete the baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. New creation, and not merely repentance, this shows, is the purpose of the Christian practice of baptism; the difference is also very significant, we want to suggest, relative to our concern for care of creation.

Baptism is the renunciation of the old order and the emergence of a new reality.

It is instructive to note in this respect that, as Gordon Lathrop has shown in his book on liturgical cosmology, Holy Ground, that a fully expressed baptismal practice retains significant cosmological elements. Water, of course, takes central place here. Whether there is a pool or a bowl of it, the waters of the baptismal rite provide not only a center to the rite; as Lathrop points out,

“[t]hey also provide a center to the world. Here is a womb for the birthing of new life, as ancient Christians would say. Here is a sea on the shores of which the church may be as a new city open to all the peoples. Here is a spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless give a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people” (Holy Ground, p. 105-6).

The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by the baptismal font—center of the cosmos.

Astoundingly, we note, the font in the local parish church can thus be seen to replace the temple in Jerusalem as the center of the universe, an omphalos. Set out in the gathering space of the congregation, it reminds us of both cosmological and ecological realities,

“. . . that what goes on here is not only about human culture but also about cosmos. The water comes here from elsewhere in the world’s water system, from a river or lake or underground stream, ultimately from the rain itself. But then, what water does come here is gathered together in fecundity and force here. If the water is before us in abundance, it may waken in us inchoate put powerful longings for both a cleaner earth and a widespread slaking of thirsts; it may give us a place for our reconceiving death and life within this watery world; it may give us a cosmic center” (Ibid., p. 106).

Baptism is not just a personal experience; it is a cosmic event.

Supporting the development of this baptismal awareness is instruction that includes a strong emphasis on the doctrine of creation and the faithful care of creation.

“Teaching the faith involves, as its first and basic move, teaching that there is a world and not just chaos, that this world is created, and that human beings have a compassionate and caring role within that creation. Christian faith is, first of all, trusting the creator, trusting, therefore, that the world is not some trick. Formation in prayer, then, involves learning to stand within this world in thanksgiving” (Ibid., p. 107).

Then, as the temple in Jerusalem attracted various significant symbolizations of life in God’s creation (such as the cosmic mountain, the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation, the spring waters of life and the tree of life; see our discussion in the comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent), so are other primal elements placed at the edge of the water of baptism to

“call our attention to their world center, this spring, this birthplace: a fire burns—that most widespread phenomenon of our universe, creative and destructive burning—here as a paschal candle giving light, evoking in a small way both the warmth and the danger of this new life; olive oil is poured out or marked upon those baptized, fruit of the life-giving trees of the temperate regions of the earth, evoking healing, festivity, and, here, the sacred office given to the baptized; new clothing is put upon the baptized, great white robes, as if those immersed here came forth a whole new sort of humanity, making a fully new beginning; and the whole community then leads these newly baptized ones to a meal, a sharing of the sources of life within the world, sustenance for this new humanity, for these new witnesses to the order of the cosmos” (Ibid., p. 107).

Jesus’ baptism and our baptism orient us to God’s creation.

If linkage of the church’s baptismal practice to Jesus’ own baptism thus orients us to the creation, it is important to remember that it does so always by taking us first to the margins of human life, away from our social and political centers, indeed, to the edge of the wilderness. These marks of creation serve to relocate us to the wilderness experiences of the people of God where new creation always begins, and what naturally follows for us, as for Jesus, is an experience in the wilderness where the basic reorientation to God’s creation is first fully actualized. We note that in Mark’s narrative, following his baptism, ‘the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). In the narrative of the liturgical year, we return to this exodus on the First Sunday of Lent; in the meantime, we look to see what impact this reorientation to creation has on the calling out of a community of the new creation.

The incarnation means that “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.”

The Gospel is a “new creation” story—as Jesus rises from the waters.

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

Baptism is the renunciation of the old order and the emergence of a new reality.

The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by the baptismal font—center of the cosmos.

Baptism is not just a personal experience; it is a cosmic event.

Jesus’ baptism and our baptism orient us to God’s creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Christmas in Years A, B, and C (Ormseth12)

Giving, Receiving, and Giving Again Dennis Ormseth reflects on the fullness of God.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas, All Years 

Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-2
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

With the texts for the Second Sunday of Christmas, the bells of Christmas ring out green themes yet one more time. The salvation for which we praise God here at the end of the Christmas season is decidedly ‘down to earth.” The repetition of the reading of the prologue to John’s Gospel from Christmas Day underscores the deeply incarnational character of God saving work (see our comments on the readings for those days). But there are a couple of new notes to the music here in these texts. In the first place, if human beings have a vocation to care for Earth, they show that non-human creatures in turn have a vocation of care for the humans (see Terry Fretheim’s discussion of “The Vocation of the Nonhuman” in his God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 278-284). The psalm praises God for the extraordinary care he shows to the people of Israel, in granting peace within their borders and directing the powers of nature so to fill them with ”the finest of wheat.” The prophet Jeremiah looks forward to the return of the people to the land, when “they shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden and they shall never languish again.”

Nonetheless, it is God’s restoration of the human vocation in Christ that evokes the final praise of the season. Some did not know him, John reminds us, and some still do not receive him. But those who receive him and believe in his name are empowered to live as children of God. Indeed, “he destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” This was God’s plan for the fullness of time, our second reading from Ephesians suggests, “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10.)

The accent in both the reading from Ephesians and the reading in the Gospel is on “fullness,” the pleroma: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Commentators seem reticent to instruct their readers as to the meaning of this pleroma, the term occurring singularly here in John, and only somewhat more frequently in Pauline literature. It clearly has to do with the giving and receiving of gifts, activity inherent in the event Christmas celebrates (and reflected more or less appropriately in the characteristic practices of the celebration), and prompts the following theological reflection.

In his book on “The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetic of Christian Truth,” David Bentley Hart describes the gift of God within the Trinitarian narrative in a manner that possibly illuminates the meaning of pleroma. “In the Trinity,” he writes,

“the gift is entire, and entirely ‘exposed’:  The Father gives himself to the Son, and again to the Spirit, and the Son offers everything up to the Father in the Spirit, and the Spirit returns all to the Father through the Son, eternally. Love of, the gift to, and delight in the other is one infinite dynamism of giving and receiving, in which desire at once beholds and donates the other.”

This infinite dynamism of giving and receiving, we would suggest, is the “fullness” from which we have received “grace upon grace,”—that is, we would additionally interpolate, the grace of redemption in Christ upon the grace of creation. Creation, Hart explains,

“is always already implicated in this giving of the gift because it is—in being inaugurated by the Father, effected by the Son, and perfected by the Spirit—already a gift shared among the persons of the Trinity, in transit, a word spoken by God in his Word and articulated in endless sequences of difference by the Spirit and offered back to the Father. . . . Creation is, before all else, given by God to God, and only then—through the pneumatological generosity of the Trinitarian life—given to creatures: a gift that is only so long as it is given back, passed on, received and imparted not as a possession but always as grace. “

Creatures participate in this “infinite circle of God’s love” simply by being creatures. As such, it is “all but impossible for them not also to give, not to extend signs of love to others, not to donate themselves entirely to the economy of agape.” Only when the gift is actively withheld is it not given, and this “suppression of the gift” is sin. There is, however, the knowledge that in God “nothing is lost and the substance of hope lies in the knowledge that God has given—and will give—again” (p. 268).

Thus, we conclude that the divine “fullness of grace and truth” is ample enough to embrace and enfold the cosmic fullness of “all things,” which are to be gathered into Christ “in the fullness of time,” “things in heaven and things on earth.” God’s infinite grace is inexhaustible, and allows no final limitation by any creaturely categories, sexual, ethnic, political, nor even the most basic differentiations of living creatures, the being of species, and the non-living physical creation. The significance of this fullness of grace for both the human and the non-human vocations lifted up in these readings is this: if non-human creatures participate in the divine circle of love by naturally fulfilling their vocation of service to humans, then humankind’s refusal of its vocation of care for the non-human creation does interrupt the dynamism of giving and receiving. But that refusal will not stand. It cannot bring that dynamism of God’s fullness to a complete halt, not with respect to any creature, considered in terms of either its corporate or its individual reality (See Christopher Southgate’s discussion of human and non-human “selving” and “heaven for pelicans” in his The Groaning of Creation). God’s giving and receiving and giving again of creation is finally not to be denied.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Christmas Eve and Day (Nativity of Our Lord) in Year C (Ormseth12)

All of Earth Rejoices at the Birth of Jesus – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011)

Readings for Christmas Eve (all years)

Psalm 96
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Readings for Christmas Day (all years)

Psalm 97 or 98
Isaiah 62:6-12 or 52:7-10
Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Introduction

The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share, namely,  that “all the Earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially.  As we shall see, first the good news for Earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat, is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and, secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve

“O sing to the lord a new song;
sing to the lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (96:11-12). We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we had occasion to note the reasons for the joy Mary expressed in her song of praise. Her Magnificat celebrates the expectation of the “radical reversal of the fortunes of the unjust powers that dominate human history, so that God’s intention with the creation might at the last be completely fulfilled.” A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is the way in which the story opens up this expectation. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan read Luke’s story of Christmas within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (The First Christmas, p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.” Borg and Crossan again comment aptly: “For Augustus and for Rome it was always about peace, but always about peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence” (Ibid., p. 65).

In our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, we noted how destructive this “peace” was for the Palestinian countryside; whole hillsides were stripped of forests to produce lumber for Roman constructions. The treacherous character of this imperial peace is further suggested by how the Roman legions enforced “peace” in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest:

“either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’”

Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been taken by Mary his mother to the top of the Nazareth ridge and told the story of this destruction, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

Contrast this Roman peace, then, with the vision of peace from Luke’s Christmas story: the night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory” (Ibid., pp. 46-53).

The stories, as Borg and Crossan aptly characterize them in their recent book on The First Christmas, are “parabolic overtures” to their gospels. With great economy and literary creativity, they serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole” of each Gospel narrative. Affirmations concerning the creation found in them, we think, while seemingly of minor significance, are highly suggestive of grand themes of the Gospel stories, which are to be explicated more fully in the full narrative of each Gospel. As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one whose armies turn the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—and the singing trees, safe from imperial destruction, do make for a grand chorus!

Christmas Day

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: What exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

In the readings for Christmas Eve, we have seen, contrasting visions of peace by violence and peace with justice and righteousness provide the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. Now in the first lesson for Christmas Day, the vision of peace with righteousness is extended so as to include specific reference to the restoration of the land. The land clearly benefits from a covenant of marriage between God and the people of Israel, the image provided by Isaiah in 62:4-5. (The reader may want to include these verses in the reading, to help the congregation understand the connection.) There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-9). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196)Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day extend the scope of the significance of Christmas for creation more broadly. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: the Word that is from the beginning is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation.

So as we anticipated  in singing Mary’s Magnificat, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we are invited to see in her child the glory of God incarnate, the “glory a of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14; see our comment on the Fourth Sunday of Advent). With her, we are through her child given new orientation to the creation as finitum capax infiniti, capable of bearing infinity. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online). So, yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for the non-human creation no less than for the human.  In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C

With Jesus’ appearance, space and time are opened for the renewal of Earth and the manifestation of God’s glory in all that is.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C By Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C: 2012-2013

The Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year C

Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 1:46b-55

Hebrews 10:5-10

Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

The setting of the oikumene found in the readings for the First Sunday of Advent prompted us to ask after the hope that the Christian gospel might offer a world caught up in the global ecological crisis of climate chaos. In spite of the “flattened earth” and “ax lying at the roots of the trees” imagery of the Second and Third Sundays of Advent, we have found ample encouragement for care of creation in the lectionary for these first three Sundays. As we wrote,

We are thus once again put on notice that Christ’s coming into our world entails a radical reversal of the fortunes of the unjust powers that dominate human history, so that God’s intention with the creation might at the last be completely fulfilled. People of faith will be oriented anew to the cosmos of which we are members as the creation of God that moves toward completion and even perfection, not on the basis of its own inherent powers, but by virtue of the will of its creator (Comment on First Sunday of Advent).

Even if this means confronting severe ecological crisis on a global scale, these readings confirm, the theological affirmations of these texts are a match for the challenge: The Most High of the Lukan narrative is the sovereign creator of all who brings into being “light and life, darkness and woe,” from above, but who also “from below, from the ground up,” transforms “the desolate land into a veritable garden paradise” (Comment on Second Sunday of Advent). Although John the Baptist’s call for repentance and reformation of behavior explicitly addresses only issues of social justice, his warning about the coming judgment in terms of the “ax lying at the roots of the trees” opens up the text to provide a basis for addressing the ecological crisis in our time with similarly appropriate responses to the degradation of habitat and atmosphere across the earth.

More powerfully, his announcement of the coming near of the Lord employs the metaphor of the farmer who comes with winnowing fork in hand, one who enlists the cosmic forces of water, wind, and fire for the restoration of the earth. “The primordial elements needed for new creation are thus gathered, and all the earth awaits the day when ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (Comment on the Third Sunday of Advent). So the readings for the first three Sundays of the Advent season do indeed look forward with great joy to the restoration and completion of God’s creation; They enlist us in actions toward that goal which are grounded in faith in God as the creator of all, and in the One who is coming near to us in the midst of the crisis of the world.

In the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, this good news is recapitulated in the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary, and especially in Mary’s Magnificat. As they meet, Elizabeth becomes a spirit-filled interpreter of signs of the new creation: “the child leaped in her womb” and, filled with the Holy Spirit, she identifies Mary as “mother of my Lord.” The verb “leaped,” Luke Timothy Johnson notes, “suggests an eschatological recognition (Ps 113:4 [lXX] and Mal 4:2)”; Elizabeth understands that the child’s leap is an expression of “eschatological ‘gladness (agalliasis)’ promised by the angel to greet John’s birth (1:14).” With her response, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (1:47), Mary joins and enlarges on Elizabeth’s pronouncement of joy: Mary’s child is the promised “savior.” As Johnson writes,

In the Magnificat, Mary’s praise for what God had done to her personally widens out to include what God does for “all who fear him” in every age, including what God is doing for Israel by the birth of its Messiah. . . . One cannot avoid the sense that Mary is here made the representative if not the personification of Israel. The mercy shown her reflects and exemplifies the mercy shown to the people . . . . We notice as well that the epithets applied to God in the song are attributes as well of the son she is carrying. God is called “Lord” and “Savior” and “holy.” So Jesus has already been called “holy” (1:34), and “lord” (1:430, and will shortly be termed “savior” as well (2:11). As with name so with function: God reverses human status and perception: in a downward movement, he scatters the arrogant, pulls down the mighty, sends the rich away empty. But God also, in an upward movement, exalts the lowly, fills the hungry, and takes the hand of Israel. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; pp. 41-42).

Nowhere in this recital of expectations is there an explicit mention of care of creation as response to ecological crisis, of course. The crisis of the oikumene is rather conceived in terms of the conceit of those who seek domination over others. As David Tiede writes,

In direct contrast to the mercy which God shows to those who fear him from generation to generation, God scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts. God does not deal with appearances, but “knows the heart” of all humanity without respect to status, as does also the Messiah (see Luke 11:17). Thus, as in Gen. 6:5 where God “saw . . . the wickedness of man . . . and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” leading to the flood, so now the coming of Jesus will mean, in Simeon’s words “that [secret] thoughts out of many hearts witll be revealed” (2:35). (David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishng House, 1988; p. 56).

All things human do therefore fall within the reach of this salvation. The salvation Mary envisions is in this sense all-encompassing. As Tiede writes:

No dimension of human life or culture will lie beyond the lordship of this Messiah. All systems, ideologies, and social structures may be judged by this new standard of divine justice and mercy—which does not mean that Jesus’ reign will simply displace all the social, political, or economic systems of the world, at least not yet. But their claim to ultimacy of ‘divine right’ and their ability to justify the rights and privileges of all their subjects have been challenged by the prophetic word of Mary’s son (Tiede, pp. 56-7).

The place of the proud at the center of the oikumene will be taken by the “servant” (Isaiah 41:8) who fulfills God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 17:7; 18:18; and 22:17).

That the promised salvation does nontheless embrace all creation remains for this narrative an inference to be drawn from the collected affirmations of these texts, the most significant of which are the assignment of titles to her child as one who belongs to God, and, with a nod in the direction of our two lessons, the “facts on the ground” of Mary’s pregnancy (Micah 5:3-4) and the “body you have prepared for me” in her womb (Hebrews:10:5). We therefore return to the statement with which we closed the comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in year B of the lectionary

Mary’s faith and obedience calls for a radical re-orientation to the finite creation as capable of bearing infinity (finitum capax infiniti) from all those who identify with Mary. Larry Rasmussen states the significance of this re-orientation this way:

“God is in the facts themselves,” said Bonhoeffer, asserting his conviction that God is amidst the living events of nature and history. His favorite quotation from F. C. Oetinger said much the same: “The end of the ways of God is bodiliness.” The meaning of finitum capax infiniti is simple enough: God is pegged to earth. So if you would experience God, you must fall in love with earth. The infinite and transcendent are dimensions of what is intensely at hand. Don’t look ‘up’ for God, look around. The finite is all there is, because all that is, is there (Earth Community Earth Ethics, p. 272-73).

Put differently in words that reflect Augustine’s understanding that our bodies are “the dirt we carry,” the dust of the earth from which all living creatures are made, Jesus included, reflects God’s glory, and calls for appropriately infinite respect.

The church came in due time to confess Mary as theotokos, “God bearer.” She understood herself to be Servant of the Lord (Luke 1:38). Those who care for creation will celebrate her service to the Servant of Creation, who in his suffering on the cross served God by loving the earth and all its creatures as God loves them. (For an extensive development of this theme, see our comments on the lectionary for Year A). And we will share in her calling. Indeed, isn’t this the reason for our joy this season and all seasons: At some moment, our waiting for God turns wondrously into the awareness that with Mary we are bearing God into the world?


As mother and child are one, so are church and its savior one, having been gathered, being blessed and broken, in order to be shared with all the creation. In that moment, Mary’s soul “magnifies the Lord,” and so do ours. In that moment, Mary’s spirit “rejoices in God [her] Savior,” and so does ours, for Mary’s spirit and ours are joined in one and the same Spirit of the Lord, who is coming into the world. Whether as holy child laid in a manger at Christmas time, suffering servant laid into a tomb on Good Friday, or the Lord who returns in judgment and restoration in the fullness of our time, with Mary we welcome this Jesus as one who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty, in order that space and time might be opened for the renewal of Earth and the manifestation of God’s glory in all that is.


For care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Christ the King Sunday, Year B (Ormseth)

The priesthood of all believers means that we are “priests” of all creation.

By Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series B: 2011-2012

Christ the King Sunday in Year B

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Psalm 93

Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

The long awaited king comes “with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail” (Revelation 1:7). With the texts for the Festival Sunday of Christ the King, the church hears a summation of the gospel of the lectionary narrative of Year B, and a matching mandate for its life under his kingship. Summation and mandate together bring our reflections on care of creation in Year B to an appropriate conclusion with reflections on the nature of Christ’s dominion and the human vocation.

The texts celebrate the “kingship” of Christ as “not from this world” (John 18:36). His kingship is instead a gift from “the Ancient One” (Daniel 7:13-14), the “Alpha and the Omega,” “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:4, 8), source and goal of all that is. But if Christ’s kingdom is not “from this world,” we nonetheless celebrate his kingship as belonging within the world: all the nations of the earth do wail on his account; while “coming with the clouds of heaven,” we read that he is “like a human being,” and he is given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14); and even the non-human creation, represented here by the seas that symbolize the subdued powers of chaos, join in the praise of the Lord who “has established the world; it shall never be moved” (Psalm 93:1-4). If his kingship is celebrated as eternal—worthy of “glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:6), it is also universal, that is to say, inclusive of all things in creation, with respect to both time and space (cf. Colossians 1:19).

Key here for our consideration of care of creation, of course, is the characterization of the nature of this “dominion.” That this concept, much discussed in the context of the environmental crisis, does not legitimize “domination” by those who belong to the kingdom over either the human community or the environment, is an assertion we have had repeated occasion to argue in the course of this series of comments in both year A and year B (See especially the comment on the texts for Name of Jesus Sunday). Christ’s is not a kingship which like those “from this world” can be gained or retained by violence; if it were, Jesus says, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36). If this “one like a human being” (Daniel 7:13) is “the ruler of the kings of the earth,” as the author of the Revelation to John reminds us, he is also “faithful witness” and “the first born of the dead,” three phrases that with remarkable economy, as Frank Senn notes, “extoll and proclaim . . . his earthly mission and heavenly minisry” (i.e. his “death, resurrection, and ascension”) (Frank C. Senn, “Christ the King,” New Proclamation Year B, 2000. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p. 259). Moreover, his work of love, the text from Revelation reminds us, is to free us “from our sins by his blood,” a clear reference to his death on the cross that recalls the sacrificial image with which we have been constantly engaged in the texts of the lectionary here at the end of the year. Jesus has dominion as king, readers of this series of comments will acknowledge, precisely because he is also the high priest who gave his own blood in the sanctuary of the cosmos, in order to open up the way for us through his body into the very presence of God.

This is of decisive import with respect to God’s love of creation and our care of it: as we concluded in our comment on the readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, in the words of Norman Wirzba, “On the cross Jesus encountered the alienating and violent death of this world and transformed it into the self-offering death that leads to resurrection life . . . . In light of his death and resurrection, creation can be seen as an immense altar upon which the incomprehensible, self-offering love of God is daily made manifest” (see our comment on the readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost; the quotation is from Wirzba, Food and Faith, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 125). Futhermore, it is of utmost interest with respect to our role in the care of creation that the author of the Revelation chooses to describe the benefit of Christ’s work for us in terms of priesthood: he has “made us to be a kingdom,” we read, “priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:6). Our role in the kingdom—our membership in it—is in the first instance to be understood as one of exercizing priesthood, which leads us into a discussion of the second grand theme concerning care of creation, namely, definition of the role of the human in creation. (Again we can refer our reader to earlier comments, most recently the one for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost).

In our comments on the lectionary for Year A, we showed that an understanding of Jesus as servant of creation correlates with an understanding of the role of humans as servants of creation. We, like he, serve God by serving God’s beloved Earth. Similarly here in Year B, as we have followed to its conclusion the narrative of Jesus’ displacement of the Jerusalem temple as locus where God is present in the world, we have seen the great importance of interpreting his work in terms of the role of high priest; it seems entirely appropriate, accordingly, that in the last set of texts for Year B the image of the priest should also capture the implications of Jesus’ role for our role in relationship to creation. What does it mean, precisely, to consider the human being as priest of creation? And how might that understanding benefit the creation?

Translating the role of the priest in ancient Israel into Christian idiom, Norman Wirzba describes the role of the priest in terms of the “lifting up” of the gifts of bread and wine to God in the Christian Eucharist. As Wirzba writes, following the thought of Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, the priestly role is . . .

to ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on earth here and now. Heaven is not a far-away place but rather the transformation of every place so that the glory and grace of God are fully evident. When in priestly motion we lift our hearts to God, what we are really doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, the ‘new heaven and earth’ (Rev. 21:1), so that our interdependent need can be appreciated as a blessing. As priests we begin to see creation as an altar of God’s offering. The altar becomes the inspiration for our offering of the world and ourselves (Wirzba, p. 206).

Moreover, in exercizing this priestly role, the faithful human being extends the reconciling work of Christ in relationship to all creation. “From the beginning, but also to its end,” in this view, “all creation is the expression of a divine intent that all creatures be whole and at peace, enjoying the Sabbath delight that marks God’s attachment to the world.” This intent is frustrated by humankind’s propensity for “making itself rather than God the center of desire and action. People have used their freedom to manipulate the world to serve their own ends rather than glorify God.” Wirzba sums up the consequences for creation this way: “We prefer to take the world, possess it, and consume it. What we do not realize is that this hoarding gesture, a gesture often founded upon a deep insecurity and anxiety within us, compromises and degrades the giving of God that is the life of the world” (Wirzba, p. 209).

Zizioulas further illumines the understanding of the human being as priest by contrasting it to the more common understanding of the human vocation as stewards of creation. The concept of the steward, he insists, is “managerial,” or “economic”— ‘the idea of arranging things according to and for the sake of expediency.” In the concept of the priest, on the other hand, the human being is related to nature not functionally, as the idea of stewardship would suggest, but ontologically: by being the steward of creation the human being relates to nature by what he [sic] does, whereas by being the priest of creation he relates to nature by what he [sic] is. The implications of this distinction are very signficant. In the case of stewardship our attitude to nature is determined by ethics and morality: if we destroy nature we disobey and transgress a certain law, we become immoral and unethical. In the case of priesthood, in destroying nature we simply cease to be, the consequences of ecological sin are not moral but existential. Ecology is in this way a matter of our esse, not of our bene esse. Our ecological concern becomes in this way far more powerful and efficient than in employing the model of stewardship (John D. Zizioulas, The Eucharistic Communion and the World, ed. by Luke Ben Tallon. London: T & T Clark, 2011, p. 139).

This is highly significant, Zizioulas insists, because the ecological crisis is . . .

due not so much to a wrong ethic as to a bad ethos; it is a cultural problem. In our Western culture we did everything to de-sacralise life, to fill our societies with legislators, moralist and thinkers, and undermined the fact that the human being is also, or rather primarily, a liturgical being, faced from the moment of birth with a world that he or she must treat either as a sacred gift or as raw material for exploitation and use.

An entire reorientation of culture to creation accompanies the commitment to priestly action: “As priests rather than stewards we embrace nature instead of managing it, and although this may sound romantic and sentimental, its deeper meaning is . . . ontological, since this ‘embracing’ of nature amounts to our very being, to our existence” (Zizioulas, p. 140).

Finally, from this perspective, an understanding of the role of the human being as priest of creation supports the careful development of creation beyond what it is naturally. Protection of nature, in Zizioulas view, should not be to be contrary to the development of nature, as it often is in much conservationist understanding. As priest of creation, the human being transforms the material world he takes in his hand . . .

into something better than what it is naturally. Nature must be improved through human intervention; it is not to be preserved as it is. In the Eucharist we do not offer to God simply grain or wheat and grapes, but bread and wine, that is, natural elements developed and transformed through the human labour, in our hands. Ecology is not preservation but development (Zizioulas, p. 140).

How does this differ from the human transformation of nature characteristic of the domination of creation by its human “proprietors”? In a priestly approach to nature, the purpose served by development is not primarily or exclusively the satisfaction of human needs, but rather because nature itself stands in need of development through us in order to fulfil its own being and acquire a meaning which it would not otherwise have. In other words, there is a development of nature which treats it as raw material for production and distribution, and there is a development which treats nature as an entity that must be developed for its own sake. In the latter case, although the human being is not passive, simply preserving or sustaining nature, he is developing nature with respect for its, and not his, interests, taking care of its fragility and its “groaning in travail,” to remember Saint Paul’s moving expression in Roman 8 (Zizioulas, p. 140).

In the Lutheran tradition, the priesthood of all believers has come to mean the inclusion and democratization of all members of Christ’s church in proclamation of the gospel, over against the elevation of the professional clergy. The Reformation protest against the Roman practice of sacrifice in the mass, on the other hand, has precluded fuller appreciation of this role for the Christian believer. With the revisioning of the meaning of sacrifice we have developed in this series of comments, it should be possible to enlist the concept not only for the restoration of creation, but also for the fulfillment of creation.

For care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Third Sunday in Advent, Year C

There is reason for all of God’s creation to rejoice!

By Dennis Ormseth

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  It is the Third Sunday of Advent and the readings all agree: it is time to rejoice. It is a liturgical tradition (Gaudete Sunday). And the readings give us ample reason to rejoice. After three chapters of gloomy judgment from the prophet Zephaniah, for instance, our first lesson breaks out with several of them:

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you

he has turned away your enemies (3:15).

The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory;

he will rejoice over you with gladness,

he will renew you in his love;

he will exult over you with loud singing

as on a day of festival.

I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.

The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.

. . .

At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the people of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord ( 3:15-20).

The psalm reading from Isaiah 12 doubles on the theme with its “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation . . . .” and “Sing praises to the lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth” (Isaiah 12:3, 5). And the second lesson from Philippians 4 redoubles it: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

Reasons for all this joy, as we read these texts, are twofold. First, joy results from the removal of fear of disaster (Zephaniah 3:15, 18b), connected in the first lesson with return of the people from exile (“At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you.” Zephaniah 3: 20) and in the second lesson with the coming near of the Lord (“Do not worry about anything.” Philippians 4:5). And secondly, the joy is due to high expectations of the presence of the Lord amidst the people (Zephaniah 3:15, 17, 18; Isaiah 12:6; Philippians 4:5). We will see that the Gospel for the day contains both of them as well. Because we read these scriptures in the season of Advent, our attention is naturally drawn to the second of these reasons, expectation of the presence of the Lord. For the sake of care of creation, however, it is important that we attend here to both: first, removal of the fear of disaster; and then, secondly, the expectation of the Lord’s presence.

The specific disaster mentioned in the Gospel, “the wrath to come,” is of particular interest to us because it includes the destruction of forest: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees” (Luke 3:9a). Yes, this is a metaphor for judgment against those who came out to John the Baptist in order to avoid that wrath: “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (3:9b).” But for early readers of Luke, we want to suggest, the force of this metaphor would have depended at least in part on the actual destruction of trees which they witnessed in the Roman occupation of Palestine.  As Barbara Rossing points out, the Jewish author Josephus, contemporaneous with Luke, laments the horror of destruction of the landscape of Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside by the Roman armies. . . Rome’s deforestation of conquered lands was notorious. Both Josephus and Aelius Aristides use the same Greek word, “make naked” (gymnos; verbal form, gymnoo), to describe Rome’s stripping of forests. Josephus laments the beautiful countryside around Jerusalem that was logged by the Romans to construct massive wooden siegeworks and embankments: “[Caesar] at once gave the legions permission to lay waste the suburbs and issued orders to collect timber . . . So the trees were felled and the suburbs rapidly stripped [gegymnoto]” (Josephus War 5.264).

Aelius Aristides admires Rome’s power to strip distant forests “bare” (gymnos). The huge logs that he sees arriving on ships from Asia are evidence of Rome’s global commercial hegemony:

So many merchants’ ships arrive here, conveying every kind of goods from every people every hour and every day, so that the city is like a factory common to the whole earth.  It is possible to see so many cargoes from India and even from  Arabia Felix, if you wish, that one imagines that for the future the trees are left bare [gymna]  for the people there and that they must come here to beg for their own produce. (Aelius Aristides Orations 26.12)

Roman devastation of the landscape, Rossing concludes, was a significant aspect of its imperialism and injustice, noteworthy for us “in a time when global deforestation is an increasing problem” (Barbara R. Rossing, “River of Life in God’s New Jerusalem: An Eschatological Vision for Earth’s Future,” in Christianity and Ecology, ed. by Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 211-12).

Concern on the part of John the Baptist’s audience about the “ax lying at the root of the trees” would have also been reinforced by biblical tradition, of course. From the beginning to the end of the Scriptures, trees are powerful symbols of life. The tree with its seed is there at the beginning in Genesis both as primal life (1:29) and as weighty symbol of the good life (2:9); and it is there in the closing vision of John’s apocalypse, Revelation 22:2, again with its “twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month;” and all along the way in between, the tree is the enduring symbol of life blessed by God. The death of a tree, by the same token, is a sign of loss of blessing, or as here in our Gospel for this Sunday, of divine judgment on the people. It is particularly significant to note in this connection that for the prophet Isaiah (whose book, as we saw in our comment on the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, is such a rich resource of models and metaphors for Luke’s narrative), the tree represents the nation in both judgment and blessing as recurrent event. In Isaiah 6, lacking comprehension and understanding the people refuse to “turn and be healed;” “How long, O Lord?” cries the prophet; God replies,

Until cities lie waste without inhabitant,

and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate;

until the Lord sends everyone far away,

and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.

Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again,

like a terebinth or an oak

whose stump remains standing

when it is felled.” (6:11-13a)

If for the prophet there is still hope, here at the beginning of his book it is faint hope: “The holy seed is its stump” (6:13). At the end of the book, on the other hand, the metaphor is used to bespeak exuberant expectation:

They shall not build and another inhabit;

they shall not plant and another eat;

for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,

and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (65:22)

From Babylon to the Roman Empire, from Isaiah’s to Luke’s audience, historical contexts  and textual connections combine to make “an ax lying at the root” an ominous sign of threatening disaster, material, social and religious.

In our comment on the reading for the Second Sunday in Advent, we noted the importance of Luke’s dependence upon Isaiah for natural metaphors that could be readily appropriated and understood by gentile readers not familiar with Mosaic traditions. These metaphors help his contemporary readers make the connections to our context as well: the “ax lying at the root” signals impending disaster for our generation also, not only with respect to deforestation, but with its associated contribution to the threat of climate change. Loss of forests, particularly the large forests of the tropical regions of Earth, is one of the major causes of the increase of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. And, as Larry Rasmussen argues in his insightful essay “Why Trees?”, loss of our arboreal companions on Earth threatens to close off a main source of  “meaning and a way of standing upright in the world”: trees, he writes, entertain the journey of the spirit–of forest peoples and others.  They are the subject of story, poetry, painting, and sculpture and the site and substance of things religious.  They are, then, essential to both the basic needs of civilization and its flowering.  Trees of life are life.

The dependence is profound. Trees do hold up the sky! More precisely, without them and other green plants, “sky” would not be. Every single breath every single human has ever taken or will take depends on trees and other green plants. Oxygen is the work of trees, not the nurse and hospital supply room. In fact, in Earth’s slow womb, trees together with other plants created the very conditions that eventually made for life as we know it. The coevolution of plants, air, water, and animals depends on the first-listed of these as much as any. And trees, by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, link air, water, and biota (living things) together in the unity that continues to make for life. The Native American legend is thus quite exactly the case, even when the language is mythic: “The sky is held up by the trees. If the forest disappears the sky, which is the roof of the world, collapses. Nature and man then perish together.” All trees are literally trees of life (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996, p. 213-4; the quotation is from Shridath Ramphas, Our Country, the Planet: Forging a Partnership for Survival, p.65).

No civilization, no matter how culturally or technologically advanced, has any substitute. One can therefore understand, Rasmussen insists, why people, especially people who have lived close to trees in undeniable dependence, have pictured the axis mundi, earth’s axis itself, as a tree. Or have seen in the canopy of trees the cosmos in its infinity and the arch of heaven. Or have found in tree life the power of all life: of fertility and growth, of seasons of change, or survival against all odds, of beauty, and of death and regeneration.

Trees bear profound religious significance in that they bring heaven and earth together.  They offer a “glimpse of God as Other and as Thou. . .  They bring the far God nigh, and they do so in ways we know the other as genuinely other and not ourselves in disguise.” At the same time and of “direct moral import,” trees . . .help disclose that we are located in nature, amidst deep kinship and deep difference in the same moment. Nature is in us as essential relationship, and this relationship is not peripheral: the relationship with the other constitutes our being itself. Deeper appreciation of difference—the ‘otherness’ of the other—thus goes hand in hand (or hand in branch!) with a sense of the underlying kinship of all things together (Rasmussen, pp. 215-16).

In conclusion, Rasmussen too turns to the prophet Isaiah, who, he suggests, “with characteristic prophetic passion for earth’s redemption,” offers a “picture of the just, sustainable society” that, as we have seen, includes “in passing–or more likely not in passing—the days of a tree” (Isaiah 65:22; Rasmussen, p. 217).

John the Baptist, we are suggesting, preached repentance and reformation of life to those who sought to escape the impending disaster they saw on the horizon of their community’s existence under Roman occupation and Jewish resistance. We are also suggesting that this preaching is relevant to our situation in the early twenty-first century, as we confront the threatened disaster of deforestation and climate change. When John’s hearers asked him, “What then shall we do?”, however, his answers concerned matters of social justice; deforestation as such was not among them and, of course, neither was climate change. Nevertheless, the combination in this text of implied forest destruction with tolerance of poverty, dishonest tax collection and police extortion, makes sense in terms of an indictment of behaviors for which the “brood of vipers” might well have had occasion to repent, as more or less passive or even willing collaborators with the Roman occupation forces, their identity as Jews (“children of Abraham”) not withstanding.

The “wrath to come” that they sought to escape was perhaps associated in the minds of Luke’s early readers with the destruction of Jerusalem during the Jewish Wars, as it appears Luke intended it to be (21:23; cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press,1991, p. 324). We clearly catch sight here, in any case, of a society on the verge of impending disaster, from which they might very well have been impelled to flee when news reached them of John’s preaching in the region of the Jordan River. And John’s counsel to them was just as clearly to stay with their community while making the changes in their behavior that Luke lists: sharing clothing and food with the poor, fair taxation, and honest government. These are not irrelevant to the development of solutions of our ecological crisis: poverty, financial manipulation, and corrupted regulatory enforcement are all factors that contribute to environmental loss. Furthermore, similarly posed changes in our behavior and policies regarding forest and energy conservation are obviously helpful and necessary responses to the crisis, if nonetheless insufficient. It is often observed that moral persuasion in the face of impending disaster has not proved adequate to motivate changes in society powerful enough to reverse environmental destruction, particularly not on the global scale of massive deforestation and climate change. Hence, it is the religious aspect of John’s preaching that strikes us as the more important and promising contribution of these readings to care of creation.

At the outset of this comment, we noted that along with fear of disaster, there was a second theme of equal importance, one more likely to be picked up here in the season of Advent with its call for joy: expectation of the presence of the Lord, the drawing near of God. In the Gospel, this is the third part of John the Baptist’s three-part sermon, after the call to repentance and the reformation of life, a response to the question of his audience as to whether he might be the Messiah: One who is more powerful than he is coming, he says, one who will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” We understand that this one is Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, but why “Spirit and fire”? Commentators have suggested a number of interpretations of ‘”the Spirit and fire,” as Alan Culpepper notes in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke:

(1) fire describes the inflaming, purifying work of the Spirit; (2) the repentant will experience the judgment of fire; (3) since the Greek term for “Spirit” can also mean ‘wind,’ the meaning is that Jesus’ baptism will bring the judgment of a mighty wind and fire; (4) as might be implicit in the first option, “Spirit” or “wind” and “fire” reflect the Christian interpretation of the Pentecost experience; or (5) John saw in Spirit and fire the means of eschatological purification: the refiner’s fire for the repentant and destruction for the unrepentant. The last combines elements of (2) and (3) and fits both the historical context of John’s preaching and the literary context in which the saying about winnowing follows (R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 85-86.

The combination of (2) and (3) commends itself most to us as well, but for a reason more in accord with (4), the Pentecost experience, which is not in the strictest reading an experience of “eschatological purification,”  but rather of empowerment of the community for the Spirit’s mission of bringing the Gospel to the whole earth.

In our view, the factor of judgment has been overemphasized. There is judgment, here, of course, but there is also new life in John’s promise of the coming of one with Spirit/wind and fire.  As we have been instructed by our other readings this Sunday to expect, there is reason here for joy as well as dismay and repentance: the disaster may occur, but that’s not the end of the story. The narrative moves forward to catch a glimpse of the beginning of the restoration of creation. As Culpepper explains, “At the harvest, grain was gathered to a threshing floor, where the farmer would pitch the grain into the air with a winnowing fork. The wind would blow away the light chaff, but the grain itself would fall back to the floor where it could be gathered for use” (Culpepper, p. 86).

Supportive background for this reading of the narrative is to be found, again, in Luke’s major source, the prophecy of Second Isaiah. As we noted in our comment on the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, YHWH’s status as creator had come in Second Isaiah to rise above all other roles ascribed to the deity. As we wrote, “The creator of all is ‘above’ all. God creates both the darkness and the light, the old and the new. YHWH is a divine singularity, incomparable and exclusively divine, whose creative reach knows no bounds” (quoting William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 219). If YHWH’s power was sufficient to move mountains, John asserts that it is also powerful enough to raise up new children of Abraham, which goes to the chief point here, the gathering of the people of God to do the work of God (3:8; cf. Johnson, p. 65, where he quotes Luke 1:37, “Nothing is impossible for God,” and comments, “This is hyperbole, but barely: it reflects the conviction that resurrection of the dead and creation from nothingness are both within God’s power,” and that “the ‘people of God’ for Luke will not be one defined by biological descent but by God’s gift of the Spirit and by faith”).

We also saw in our comment previous to this that “If Luke’s narrative of the life of Jesus begins with flattened mountains, it will lead to water flowing up in the desert, so that nothing is lacking for the new beginning of a  new creation.” And as we noted, following Brown again, Luke clearly understood that for Second Isaiah, . . .the “comfort” YHWH offers the people of Israel as they re-gather “dirties itself with transforming the desolate land into a veritable garden paradise.” The prophet’s language is ‘”rich with metaphors and images drawn from the realm of horticulture.” His “discourse covers a remarkable range of botanical diversity, from the lowly brier (55:13) to the most majestic trees, the cedar of Lebanon (41:19; 44:14). . . ‘Second Isaiah’ contains a veritable catalogue of flora.” Creation accordingly occurs not only from high, with God “single-handedly creating light and life, darkness and woe,” but also “emerges from below, from the ground up” (Brown, p. 206).

So the gardener or, better in this instance, the farmer comes with winnowing fork in hand to enlist wind and fire in preparation of grains for both harvest feast and new planting of seed—as the prophet had written, “the holy seed is [the tree’s] stump” (Isaiah 6:13; cf. above). Water is already at hand, available from the wells of salvation (Isaiah 12:3) and the Jordan river for the baptism of repentance; with the wind and fire brought by this farmer, new earth lies ready to be dug from the threshing floor. The primordial elements needed for new creation are thus gathered and all the Earth awaits the day when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” What precisely this might mean for Earth and its people—as we face forest removal and climate chaos—remains, indeed, to be “fleshed out.” But with the expectation of this gardener’s planting, there is truly marvelous reason this Sunday for all of God’s creation to rejoice.

For care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288