Tag Archives: Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

Bearing God into the World Dennis Ormseth reflects on Christ’s birth opening space and time for the renewal of Earth.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46b-55 or Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

God raises the dead and creates something out of nothing.

One more Sunday we wait for the coming of God. We have waited with hope, we have waited in fear, and we have waited with deepening joy. Now we wait faithfully and obediently, because this last Sunday of the Season of Advent, we wait with Mary. Indeed, we wait as Mary waits, having with her been addressed by the angel Gabriel: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” No doubt perplexed as she was by these words and pondering “what sort of greeting this might be,” we nonetheless receive the words with faith, and bow in respect for their import for our life together. If the Lord is with us, as the one who presides in our worship service announces, we are indeed “favored ones,” and share Mary’s conviction and joy. As Gordon Lathrop suggests,

“The word which follows such exchange tells us of God’s great grace and favor to the lowly, invites us to let fear go, and assures us of the core biblical mystery—that the God who raises the dead and creates something out of nothing is able to give life where there is none. That word of creative favor and life is the presence of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament. We are invited to respond: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Lathrop, Proclamation 4:  Advent/Christmas, Series B, p. 35).

We have, as it were, been gathered by the Holy Spirit into Mary’s company. We are Mary, and Mary is the church, singing her song, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

What do the readings for this Sunday have to contribute to a theology of creation? And what encouragement do they offer us for engagement in care of creation? The one for whom Mary waits is clearly the heir to the throne of David, ancient and revered king of Israel, to whom, as our first lesson reminds us, God promised, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” But the anointed one will not rule over his people as other kings rule, with power to dominate the lowly and favoring the rich over the poor. On the contrary, it is precisely in this great reversal that lowly Mary recognizes her savior and ours. Clearly there are implications for politics and social justice here in Mary’s song. But as we suggested in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, Mary’s song is also “good news for Earth: she sings of the end of dominating powers which will clear the way for the expected ‘new Earth, where righteousness is at home.’” And there is even more here to applaud on behalf of the creation, much more.

Gabriel’s message to Mary that Jesus is “the son of the most high,” to whom God will give “the throne of his ancestor David” is the reason for the appointment of the oracle of Nathan in 2 Samuel to our lections for this Sunday. It is the connection to David that commonly receives first and even exclusive attention in the preaching of the church, of course; it suffices for this emphasis that David’s offer to build a house for God sets in motion the pun that leads to God’s promise to establish a house for David, i.e. the Davidic monarchical dynasty. The related matter of the proposed building of the temple in Jerusalem may actually seem an unnecessary complication, as reflected in fact that the verses which actually anticipate the erection of the temple by Solomon (2 Samuel 7:13-16) are omitted from the reading. However, as Gordon Lathrop aptly notes in commenting on these readings, both kingship and temple together “provide centrally important metaphors for the message of the New Testament.” And as Lathrop cautions us, great care is needed in interpreting this material, because “[t]he tradition of royal ideology is only received in the New Testament with critique and massive transformation.”

God breaks out of the temple to be available everywhere.

Including the elided verses in the reading of the lesson would help remind the congregation to the fact that, in spite of Nathan’s revised opinion of David’s proposal to build a temple for God, David’s son Solomon did actually build the temple. That he did so with massive forced labor (Cf. 1 Kings 5 and 6) initiates the tragic role the temple played in the religio-political centralization of the kingdom, which, with respect to Herod’s second temple, is viewed by the author of Mark as a complete disaster for the people’s relationship to God. It is therefore highly instructive that at the outset of the temple tradition the divine protest in Nathan’s oracle condemned the presumption on which the sad history of the temple is based: “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” As Frederick Houk Borsch comments, “God has no need to be tied down to one place. God is instead on the move and is fully capable of raising up David from the sheepfold, winning a name for him, and making a place for God’s people without a temple” (“Advent Christmas,’ in New Proclamation, Year B, 2002—2003, p. 25). God makes place for God’s people, in order that they might have life and dwell in peace.

Place, land, and life sustained though generations are the gifts that God promises.

Place, land, and life sustained though generations: these are the gifts that God promises “his servant David”—without the temple. As we have discussed in our comments on the readings for the first three Sundays of Advent, concern that the followers of Jesus should completely sever themselves from the temple state correlates well with the way the Gospel of Mark opens, with John the Baptist announcing the coming of God, not to Jerusalem and the temple, but in the wilderness, away from the city. Mary’s visit with Elizabeth “in the hill country of Judea,” following the angel Gabriel’s instruction, serves to align the annunciation of Mary with this perspective. Thus if God’s promises to David are being renewed with Mary’s child, they are also being extended. God “has helped his servant Israel,” Mary sings, “in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:54). God’s promises to Abraham, we recall, included gifts of land, great progeny, and fame, but also a blessing to be a blessing for the nations. And if Mary’s child is the Davidic messiah, he is also according to Gabriel, first of all “the Son of the Most High,” of whose kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:3). As David Bartlett suggests, this “means that Jesus’ rule extends not only forever but infinitely in all directions. That is to say, it is not the kingdom of Israel only but the re-invention of the whole creation, God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven”  (“Advent/Christmas,” in New Proclamation, Year B, 1999—2000, p. 26).

God’s presence is global and universal—and always concrete.

If God’s presence is seen no longer as confined to the Jerusalem temple but in Jesus’ lordship to be global and even universal, then, as Lathrop points out, our readings point to dual transformations of both king and temple at this culmination of the Advent season:

For us, it is the crucified who is ‘king,’ the center of order and peace and God’s presence.  Moreover he is ‘king’ without being any king at all, but by being the victim of kings. It is a virgin girl, not a mighty warrior or a royal prophet, who receives the new royal oracle. And the house of God is her temple, the body of her child, and the house of the church. This house is there for all people, welcoming the least ones into the center, into the presence of God” (Lathrop, p. 36).

From the movement of the Advent season we have traced through these Advent Sundays, our readers will recall that we have followed God out of the temple up into the mountains, and through the heavens. Our concern throughout has been to see if the orientation to creation that the temple represented is completely forsaken, or instead restored in a new location. So we have been heartened by Mark’s direction to look for God to come along paths prepared in the wilderness and alongside the River Jordan. We have been drawn to the insight of John’s Gospel that after the Jerusalem temple was in fact already destroyed, we should now find the light and life of a new creation in the person of one who was in our midst but is yet unknown.

The finite creation is capable of bearing infinity.

Therefore we may or may not be surprised at the news delivered by Gabriel to Mary that she should house within her body a truly holy child, one who will be called “Son of God.” But what a truly astonishing new thing, of inestimable significance for creation and creation’s care, this is: Mary’s faith and obedience call 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.

With Mary we are bearing God into the world.

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. 

God raises the dead and creates something out of nothing.

God breaks out of the temple to be available everywhere.

Place, land, and life sustained though generations are the gifts that God promises.

God’s presence is global and universal—and always concrete.

The finite creation is capable of bearing infinity.

With Mary we are bearing God into the world.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Courage Tom Mundahl reflects on beholding versus seeing.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46b-55
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

While there is no doubt of the significance of Davidic pedigree (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16), or of the evangelical energy with which Romans concludes (Romans 16:25-27), this final Sunday in Advent belongs to Mary. Both the Annunciation and the Magnificat reveal the power and mystery of the coming of God.  As poet Denise Levertov writes:

Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage, unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
(Denise Levertov, “Annunciation,”
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov,
New Directions, 2013, pp. 836-837)

As he narrates the births of John and Jesus, Luke clearly favors Mary.  Zechariah  finds the message from the angel that his elderly and “barren” wife, Elizabeth, will bear a child more than a little ridiculous.  With understandable skepticism he asks, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18) But the lack of faith demonstrated by his cross-examination guarantees there will be no more questioning. He is struck dumb until the birth.

What a contrast Mary provides!  She is very young in a world that values age, a woman in a male-dominated culture, and poor in a highly-stratified economy.  All of these are intensified by her lack of a husband, a situation made all the more precarious by Gabriel’s announcement (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 39).

That this is a visit of great moment is made clear by Gabriel’s greeting, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28)  From the Rosary’s “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” to  “Grace be on you, en-graced one,” the message is unmistakable: this is the one to bear the long-expected child.  Unlike Zechariah, who doubts the very possibility of this enterprise, Mary’s only question is procedural: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34b)

Gabriel’s response goes far beyond any obstetric explanation. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you….” That this is a movement of deep meaning is made evident by the “overshadowing” (επιςκιαζω) of the Most High.  This sense of the looming presence of God appears in the Exodus story (Exodus 40:34-35) and it also occurs in the Transfiguration narrative (Luke 9:34), where the presence of the Holy One “overshadows” the disciple group, making any suggestions about “marking the occasion” with traditional wilderness “booths” ridiculous.  What’s more, the scene reminds us of the “wind from God” overshadowing the “face of the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2). Here the evangelist suggests we are dealing with nothing less than new creation that, with this “deep incarnation,” includes the life of all creatures (Niels Henrik Gregersen, Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology, Fortress, 2015, pp. 20-21).

That his birth brought on by the “overshadowing” of the Most High transcends all notions of status is  made evident by the fundamental reversal demonstrated by Luke’s language.  Instead of being named the “Queen Consort” of the divine, brave Mary calls herself “the servant of the Lord.” (Luke 1:38) This theme blossoms with Mary’s song, the Magnificat.

Luke Timothy Johnson and other commentators remind us that Luke uses a compositional technique common to Hellenistic historians (cf. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War) by recreating speeches given by major actors to advance the narrative (Johnson, p. 43). Whether the speeches are given by Pericles or Cleon, there are few orations in this technique that match the Song of Mary in richness of poetic image. Not only is the Magnificat full of Hebrew parallelism, but the fact that it has been set to music  throughout history suggests that it is, at minimum, lyric poetry.  To paraphrase the old hymn, when we hear these words, “How can we keep from singing?”

Part of that impulse to sing comes from the simple fact that we are in the realm of what Walter Brueggemann calls “the theology of the impossible” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., Fortress, 2001, p. 141). This stems primarily from Gabriel’s assurance, “For nothing will be impossible with God”(Luke 1:37). As he continues to reflect on the struggle of the earliest church to begin the birth story, Brueggemann writes: “The beginning must be just right, for there is something new here that can scarcely be articulated, and the articulation must match the reality of the newness” (p. 102).  This cannot be done in prose, the language of royal decree, or even with forms of Greek historical rhetoric; it must be done in lyric leading to song. So we have the “Song of Mary”(Luke 1:46b-55) following the annunciation; the “Benedictus,” the “Song of Zechariah” (Luke 1:68-79) following the birth of John; the “Gloria,” or “Song of the Angels” (Luke 2:14) following the birth of Jesus; and the “Nunc Dimittis,” or “Song of Simeon”(Luke 2: 29-32), following the presentation. Is it a surprise that all of these are still part of the musical treasure of God’s people?

Even a piece of lyric poetry like the Magnificat contains structural elements.  The poem begins with the reversal of Mary’s condition from humility to blessing (1:46-49), moves to a wider statement of God’s mercy for the faithful over the generations (1:50),  continues with a vivid description of the reversal of social positions between the poor and arrogant (1:51-53), and concludes with a reminder that all of this fulfills promises to Abraham and descendants (Luke 1:54-55, Johnson, p. 43). This schema is reinforced by an additional pattern that “emerges from the repeated use of strong action verbs at the beginning of clauses.” For example, “magnifies,” “rejoices,” “he has looked,” “has done great things,” “shown strength with his arm,” “has scattered,” “has brought down,” “has lifted up,” “has filled,” “has sent the rich away,” and “has helped;” all serve to stress that this is, without question, God’s action (Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, pp. 26-27).

This narrative structure in no way compromises lyric freedom. Here is no royal decree, no official administrative order.  As Brueggemann concludes, “The event will not be contained by the rationality of kings, ancient or contemporary. Rather, there is here a brooding, a wondering, and an amazement” (p. 104).  “For nothing will be impossible with God”(Luke 1:37).

The wonder of this  may be signaled by the use of the word that used to be translated “behold” (ιδου) three times in the annunciation — vv. 31, 36, and 38.  The first two uses, by Gabriel, are rendered by NRSV as “and now.”  While the desire to avoid language of “excessive holiness” that communicates with contemporary listeners and readers is understandable, isn’t this just a bit too weak?  It may be that returning to “behold” may restore a bit of the necessary authority of messengers like Gabriel, and help us to recover a sense of mysterium tremendum with its sense of awe and overpowering urgency (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford: 1958, pp. 12-24).

Maggie Ross suggests “Hebrew and Greek authors are careful to distinguish bodily seeing from beholding or inward vision….To put this more simply, ordinary seeing is analytical; it discriminates, grasps, and controls.  Beholding is organic, ungrasping, and self-emptying” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p. 11). Joseph Sittler agrees, and goes on to claim that the biblical view of reality is particularly ecological — an ontology of creation community– that requires a “beholding of actuality” (“Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Bouma-Prediger and Bakken, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 79).

Sittler goes on to suggest: “‘To behold’ means to stand among things with a kind of reverence for life which does not walk through the world of the nonself with one’s arrogant hat on….To stand ‘beholding’ means that one stands within the Creation with an intrinsically theological stance” ( p. 80). Ross puts it more practically: “It was in the context of beholding that we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the context of distraction that we have mismanaged it.” (Ross, pp. 11-12)

The final use of “behold” in the annunciation is Mary’s most moving affirmation, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).  While it may not be in reaction to a personal visit from Gabriel, it may be that as we share in Mary’s servanthood, we will be “overshadowed” by the power of the Most High and given the courage (Levertov) to build justice and health for each other and the earth household.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014; edited and revised by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

Living the Anticipation, with Joy and New Light Tom Mundahl reflects on what it means to be whole.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 6:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Traditionally, the Third Sunday in Advent has been called “Gaudete Sunday,” a Sunday to “rejoice” as we turn in hope and expectation toward the Coming One. As the title, Gaudete, originally stems from the Vulgate translation of Philippians 4:4, “Gaudete in Domino semper” (“rejoice in the Lord always”), this week’s readings do not neglect this joy.

As a result of the prophet’s appointment to bring hope to the people of God, the faithful are pictured in the tradition of the earlier Isaiah (Isaiah 52:1-2), donning garments for the wedding party (hieros gamos) celebrating the bond with God. “I will rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God . . .” (Isaiah 61:10a). Because this joy explodes with energy, it can only be described in terms of the fecundity of creation: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the LORD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:11)

In much the same way, Psalm 126 gives voice to Jerusalem pilgrims (a ‘Song of Ascent’), who particularly wish to remember the return of exiles with poetry rich in natural metaphor. They recall, “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy . . . .” (Psalm 126:1-2a). Now they ask to be refreshed just as the dry watercourses of the Negeb region in the south run with water during the rainy season. Like Isaiah, the psalmist prays that the one who brought them back from Babylon will “bring them home rejoicing, carrying the sheaves.” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 400)

This week’s Second Lesson calls the community to rejoice with as much eloquence and passion as the Philippian correspondence. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” ( 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). Likewise, John the Baptist in our Gospel Reading continues to point toward the Coming One as the “true light which enlightens everyone” as the locus of joyful new creation.

 Constitutive of this joy is living out the call to belong to this community of a renewed exodus and creation. This ‘new Isaiah’ (Trito-Isaiah), likely one of the circle of Second Isaiah’s disciples, clearly finds identity as “an instrument of reconciliation and healing, passing those qualities on to others in the community open to God’s call” (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 224). Belonging means far more than a simple fact of association. Just as the speaking of the prophetic word summons it into existence ( Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p. 366), so it also moves the community to re-form. They do this as “oaks of righteousness” grown to display God’s glory. And how is this displayed? By building up the devastated cities and repairing the ruins (Isaiah 61:4).

That urban renewal will not take place overnight is underscored by the natural metaphors. What is described here is the steady process of blessing, imaged by “oaks of righteousness (Isaiah 61:3) and the growth of a garden (Isaiah 61:11). This natural time frame requires a community of renewed vocation, one of the most important “blessings” (Isaiah 61: 9b) of Isaiah’s proclamation of “the year of the LORD’s favor (Jubilee), and the day of vengeance of our God . . .” (Isaiah 61:2). It is absolutely crucial  to note that “vengeance” here carries its original meaning as “restoration to wholeness!” (Westermann, p. 367).

This connection to a community that “sets its clock” to the rhythm of oaks and gardens is key to enjoying this healing renewal. The result of an artificial and technical culture divorced from creation’s ebb and flow is what Wendell Berry has called a “wound that cannot be healed because it is encapsulated in loneliness, surrounded by speechlessness.” That is, when the human body—singly and corporately—lives only by and from its own productions, when vast periods of time are spent in cubicles facing screens, we are confined by what we “produce” and our mode of production. Then, as Berry continues,

“our works do not liberate us—they confine us. They cut us off from access to the wilderness of Creation where we must go to be reborn—to receive the awareness at once humbling and exhilarating, grievous and joyful, that we are part of Creation, one with all that we live from and all that, in turn, lives from us “(The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, San Francisco: Sierra Club,1977, p. 104).

Paul echoes this theme of living what our culture might call ‘holistically’ in a roundabout way. We have seen above how the final appeal in the structure of the letter has called the Thessalonian community to live in rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving (1 Thessalonians 5 16-18). In fact, Beverly Gaventa has called vv. 16-22 an “early form of church order” preceding even the Didache (Beverly Roberts Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, Louisville: John Knox, 1998, p. 84).

To maintain this order requires a very strong sense of identity. We find this in Paul’s “epistolary closing” (5: 23-28), which contains a prayer that the recipients be made “wholly (ολοτελως) holy” and enjoy  spirits, souls, and bodies that are “sound” (NRSV: ολοκλρον) or “wholly functioning” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Since it is difficult in 2014 to maintain the heightened awareness of the parousia that Paul calls for in 1 Thessalonians 4:1- 5: 11, perhaps we may be free to reinterpret playfully what it could mean for the community of faith to be “completely sound” and “fully functioning.”

Larry Rasmussen suggests “we must create ‘anticipatory communities’ as part of the successful negotiation out of the fossil fuel interlude.” (Rasmussen, Earth-honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 183). As he concludes his book, Rasmussen calls for a community of “sacred strangers in a secular society” (Rasmussen, p. 364). Such a community or set of communities might take as its charter responsibility for keeping Earth with all its creatures “completely sound” and “wholly functioning.” While this may seem like a tall order, Paul makes it clear that the One whose Advent we await “is faithful, and he will do this;” that is, he will keep the community faithful to the task (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

The author of John’s Gospel joins Mark in seeing the coming of Jesus as a new beginning (αρκη) for the whole creation. Like Mark, John begins this process with the work of John the Baptizer, whose role is abundantly clear: He is the one who comes to testify to the light coming into the world.

It is not long before his testimony begins. In a scene suggesting a courtroom trial, John is confronted by priests and Levites from Jerusalem asking him, “Who are you?” (John 1: 19). In answer to their examination, John makes it clear that he is neither Messiah, nor Elijah the forerunner, nor the prophet like Moses to come at the fulfillment. In the language of Isaiah, he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.” (John 1: 23).

It is likely that John’s response to this interrogation is designed not only to refute those who would see John as Messiah, Elijah, the Prophet, or even “the light” and follow him, but also to clarify his significant, although subsidiary, role. He baptizes with water and testifies to the “one who is coming after me,” the “one who stands among you whom you do not know” (John 1:26-27). That John also functions as something of a ‘revealer’ in giving testimony to the light is shown when, on the next day, he declares, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

This is not the end of the courtroom drama in this gospel. As the testimony of John the Baptizer concludes, the Evangelist adds his evidence—as a community is formed, signs are enacted, and the passion drama is reached (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XIII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 45; see also Gerald Sloyan, John, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 19f.).

This drama continues for all who live in Advent expectation. The Prayer of the Day for Advent 3 puts it well:

Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light . . . . (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 19).

That is, through baptism we are called to join John the Baptizer in testifying to the light.

Let’s face it: light as metaphor is difficult for those of us who live in so-called “developed societies.” Light is not only available twenty-four hours a day; we can hardly escape it even when we seek respite in the darkness. Sadly, those who live in urban areas without easy access to a planetarium can hardly teach children the wonder of constellations to help them appreciate the mystery of a starry night.

This has not gone unrecognized by environmental writers.  As he toured the U.S. promoting his book, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light (Boston: Little, Brown, 2013), Paul Bogard projected satellite maps of the U.S. from the late 1950’s, the mid 1970’s, 1997, and (as anticipated) in 2025, showing the spread of lighting. While the map from the late 1950’s shows a country mostly dark except for the Boswash conurbation, the Chicago area, and the Los Angeles basin, the map projecting 2025 light quotas reveals a country bathed in light with the exception of the mountain west. The ancient prayer, “lighten our darkness,” is harder to make sense of in this environment.

But the transformation of night affects more than the beauty of the night sky. It has become clear that so-called “blue light” from electronic devices reduces the production of melatonin necessary for sleep. Excessive light during the melatonin production cycle also correlates with increased rates of breast cancer among women (Bogard, 104-109). Now we need studies on the effects of lighting a continent on non-human plants and animals. We need to recognize that all this light, indeed, has become metaphorical “darkness.”

Therefore, while we continue to light Advent candles each week at home and in the assembly to demonstrate our joyful expectation of the Coming of God, we need to discover new images and metaphors to fit our call to be active and watchful, serving creation in way that is “wholly sound” and “fully  functioning” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). In the meantime, we celebrate our life together with its call to serve the whole creation and to let our lights shine—but perhaps not too brightly.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.
St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

Joyful Anticipation of the Transformation of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the cosmological significance of Christ.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Waiting for the coming of God.

We gather for a third Sunday, impatiently perhaps, waiting still for the coming of God. The reading from Isaiah looks forward to the restoration of Jerusalem that will take place in “the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God,” which the prophet proclaims (61:2). The second lesson encourages us in prayerful, grateful, and “blameless” waiting for the “coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). The Psalm anticipates the restoration of Jerusalem as well, and picks up on the theme of joy expressed in both of these lessons. And the Gospel focuses again on John the Baptist across the Jordan River. Preachers who have said everything they want to say the last two Sundays about waiting for God’s arrival will be eager to take advantage of the alternative reading of the Magnificat in place of the psalm, and focus on Mary.  Her joyful song of praise serves as a convenient tie between the eschatological focus of these texts and the Christmas story, which by now, no doubt, is foremost on the minds of members of the congregation. This will be the Sunday for children’s Christmas programs and the Christmas choir concerts.

How and why is John’s Gospel is different from Mark’s Gospel?

So it is likely that the eschatological and cosmological dimensions of these readings, with their implications for a theology of creation, will not find their way into this Sunday’s sermons. Indeed, the Gospel reading itself might seem to discourage it. John the Baptist is still “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness;” but neither those who come to question him nor John the evangelist makes much either of his message or of his location. They are more concerned with the question of what he represents, or rather, doesn’t represent. He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light (John 1:8); and he was definitely neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor “the prophet.” (1:20-21). Each of these possibilities had to be considered, given the heightened eschatological expectation of the time. And the all-inclusive denial of them here in our text is notably at odds with Mark’s presentation in the Gospel reading last Sunday. For Mark’s readers, Ched Myers argues, John’s garb and food are clearly meant to invoke Elijah, and his appearance in the wilderness “dramatically escalates tension expectation” with its reference to the prophetic “promise/warning” of Malachi 4:5: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives” (Binding the Strong Man, 126-27). Not so for John’s readers. Missing here as well are the great crowds coming out from Jerusalem to the Jordan, another sign for Mark of the beginning of the day of the Lord; only a few “priests and Levites,” officials connected with the temple, are mentioned as being “sent from Jerusalem” by the Pharisees. Our gathering this Sunday will have little of the eschatological “wildness” of the Second Sunday of Advent; and the cosmos has, too, has receded into the background.

Clearly, a reframing of John’s appearance at the Jordan has taken place from last Sunday to this Sunday or, more properly, from the writing of Mark to the writing of John. The highly eschatological and cosmological frame of reference connected with Mark’s challenge to the temple state has been largely displaced in favor of a singular focus on the ”one whom you do not know,” the one who is coming after” the voice (John 1:26-27). How are we to understand this reframing, and what are its implications for our concern with creation?

Part of the explanation for this shift is surely that the author of John writes in a time and place where Mark’s challenge to the temple state is no longer of central importance, for the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, and leadership of Jewish opposition to the Christian movement has passed from the priest and Levites to the rabbinic heirs of the Pharisees in Diaspora Judaism. Of some newer concern to John the evangelist might be the “sectarians of John the Baptist” who hung on to the legacy of “the voice in the wilderness,” as well as assorted alternatives to the Christian movement like the community at Qumran, which may have shared either territory or religious ideas with those sectarians. If so, it could be important to emphasize, as the Baptist himself does, that “he” [Jesus] must increase, but I [John] must decrease” (John 3:30).

On the other hand, an evangelist among the Diaspora might be particularly concerned to make the case to Jewish Christians threatened by expulsion from the now crucially important synagogues, that Jesus as messiah has actually replaced the Jewish institutions and festivals that they would now have left behind. The Baptist’s fierce challenge to the temple state was no longer helpful; on the contrary, the temple and its festival traditions could now instead be regarded as important resources for the development of the Christian witness. In Raymond Brown’s view, this is in fact a leading concern in the composition of the gospel. The motif of the relocation of God’s presence from the temple to the story of Jesus is of great significance for the structure and message of the Gospel. That story, Brown shows, is still largely played out in the context of the temple precincts and festivals, which serve to effect the appropriation of the traditions connected with them into the Christian narrative. With the Johannine community, continuity with the traditions of Israel’s temple has become theologically important again (See Brown’s illuminating outline of the Gospel in The Gospel according to John I-XII, pp. cxl-cxli and consider Brown’s discussion of John’s relationship to the Jewish cultural context in the Introduction to the first volume of this two-volume commentary (pp. lxvii – lxxix) is background for this paragraph).

The Gospel of John brings the cosmic / creation dimensions of Christ to the fore.

Our readers may recall that in our comment on the readings for the first Sunday of Advent, the relocation of God’s presence from the temple to the person of Jesus raised for us the question of what happens in this transfer to the orientation to creation that the temple and its festivals represented. “Where in the church’s Scriptures for this season,” we asked, “can we find the creation of God?” Or does this relocation mean that we are “left without any orientation to creation whatsoever?” Our reading from John provides an astonishingly ready, although for the moment somewhat oblique, answer. The man named John was sent from God, we are assured, but “he was not the light.” Those awake to the themes of the Gospel’s prologue will be quickly drawn to the cosmological significance of the one whom John precedes. No, John was not the light, but the one who is in the beginning as the Word and is now “coming into the world,” he is “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:6-9). As Gordon Lathrop has observed, “While Mark’s ‘arche of the gospel’ (Mark 1:1) includes John the Baptist, the arche of the Fourth Gospel articulates the very beginning of all things, echoing the first verses of Genesis in astonishing christological praise, but also still including the witness of John the Baptist.” In Lathrop’s view, this actually heightens the significance of John: “He is not simply a baptizer dealing with people’s needs who is depicted as Elijah. He is now a witness to the light, to the life and logos at the center of the cosmos” (Proclamation 4, Advent / Christmas, Series B, p. 27).

We shall, of course, have occasion to celebrate this good news for the creation—and our orientation to it—in the Gospel lesson for Christmas Day. In the meantime, John the Baptist is still crying out in the wilderness, baptizing with water, and we can make of his presence there what we can as a sign of good things to come. We will have to wait until after the Nativity, however, for our first encounter with the one “who is more powerful” than he (Mark 1:7), whose sandals he is not worthy to untie (both Mark 1:7 and John 1:27), the stronger one about whom it was said last Sunday that he will baptize “with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1: 8), and the eschatological “confrontation with the powers” dominating the cosmos that it represents (Myers, p. 127).

Advent—joyful anticipation of liberation and transformation.

All the same, our texts this Sunday, anticipate in subtle but significant ways that renewal of engagement to come. It is the “spirit of the Lord” upon the anointed one, the prophet Isaiah informs us, that sends “good news to the oppressed” about the restoration of the land (Isaiah 61:1) and the revived vitality of the earth, which as it “brings forth its shoots, and a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,” will “cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nation” (61:11). “Do not quench the Spirit,” warns the Apostle in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:19). And if the Magnificat is read in place of the Psalm, we can of course acknowledge therein the encouragement that the Holy Spirit confers on one who is lowly but dares to believe God’s power to “do great things.” Her song is good news for the earth: she sings of the end of dominating powers which will clear the way for the expected “new earth, where righteousness is at home” (Luke 1:52-54; 2 Peter 3:13), a presence that she personally embodies already. These anticipations of transformation to come whet our appetite for the fulsome renewal of creation by the power of the Holy Spirit that is “the Lord, the giver of life,” and in Elizabeth Johnson’s felicitous phrase, “the pure unbounded love that turns the hearts of human beings toward compassionate care as well as moves the sun and the other stars” (Johnson, She Who Is, p. 144). These expectations of both God and the cosmos are indeed reason for rejoicing on behalf of the creation in the darkness of this Sunday and the winter solstice.

Waiting for the coming of God.

How and why is John’s Gospel is different from Mark’s Gospel?

 The Gospel of John brings the cosmic / creation dimensions of Christ to the forefront.

Advent—joyful anticipation of liberation and transformation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Rejoice? Tom Mundahl reflects on joy in the midst of grief.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

The Third Sunday in Advent has traditionally been called “Gaudete Sunday,” a Sunday to “rejoice” as we turn in hope and expectation toward the Coming One. While gaudete (“rejoice”) originally comes from the Vulgate translation of Philippians 4:4, “rejoice in the Lord always”, this week’s readings do not neglect this theme.  For example, this week’s Second Lesson calls Thessalonian community members to “rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), while our First Lesson proclaims the “the year of the LORD’s favor” (Isaiah 61: 2). But how can we rejoice in the face of a quarter-million Covid-19 deaths, another record year of hurricanes and forest fires (during the hottest year recorded), while just a few miles from my home blocks of burned-out buildings stand empty in the aftermath of the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd.

Reflecting on this week’s readings, it is clear that the intended audiences for these writings did not spend their lives continuously doing the “happy dance.” They are the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, those who mourn, and those surviving with a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:1-3). Return from exile has not guaranteed comfort. In fact, arrival to a semi-destroyed Jerusalem apparently has led to renewed fissures in this wounded community. If the people had “wept by the waters of Babylon” (Psalm 137), is being oppressed in one’s homeland any better? Into this painful situation comes the Isaiah prophet (or the students of the “Isaiah school”) with a message of intensified hope (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 169).

Now all will be engaged in a process of rebuilding, a process that will be as slow as the growth of an oak tree. But because “the spirit of the Lord God” (Isaiah 61:1) is the motive force, all that is necessary for renewed life will gradually be done. These “oaks of righteousness” will rebuild ancient ruins and repair essential services.  While the strategy offered by the Ezekiel prophet was to focus on renewing the Temple priesthood, here the whole people “shall be priests of the LORD” (Isaiah 61:6, Paul D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic, Fortress, 1979, pp. 65-68). By sharing a calling to the priestly task of rebuilding the city, even the  fog of collective grief will begin to disappear.

Now this wave of shared responsibility will bring so much joy, the prophet can only describe it in terms of a wedding party (hieros gamos) celebrating a deepening bond between the divine and all creatures. Because the gift of joy explodes with energy, it is best described in terms of the fecundity of creation: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the LORD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61: 11). Is it any wonder that Jesus read just this text at his home synagogue (Luke 4:18-19 )?

At first glance, Psalm 126 seems only to celebrate the joy of temple pilgrimage by travelers, who on their way remember the return of exiles. “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy….” (Psalm 126:1-2a). But they cannot suppress a “blue note,” recalling weeping and asking to be refreshed, just as southern deserts are refreshed by spring rains. They pray that the one who brought exiles back from Babylon will “bring them home rejoicing, carrying the sheaves” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville, John Knox, 1994, p. 400).

In much the same way, Paul’s first letter to the assembly in Thessalonika appears to be little more than a friendly letter of warm support. That this is not the case is revealed by the apostle’s frustration that he cannot be with them as he continues his mission. In fact, this separation has made him feel like an “orphan” (1 Thessalonians 2:17).  That is a feeling that must be familiar to many of us during the many months of the current pandemic. Being cut off from family, friends, fellow worshippers, co-workers has created potentially dangerous isolation, making the call to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) seem like a cruel joke.

Beverly Gaventa suggests Paul’s conclusion of this letter goes far beyond warm exhortation. Instead, it appears to be “an early form of church order,” preceding the Didache by decades (First and Second Thessalonians, John Knox, 1998, p. 84). Maintaining this order then and now requires a strong sense of identity. We find this in Paul’s “epistolary closing” (5:23-28) which contains a prayer asking that the hearers be made, literally, “wholly holy” and enjoy spirits, souls and bodies that are “sound” or “wholly functioning” (5:23). Despite the threatening events of 2020, it is difficult to maintain Paul’s heightened awareness of the parousia, we are responsible for reinterpreting what it could mean for the community of faith to be “completely sound” and “fully functioning.”

One thing is sure: as faith communities we need to attend to the dying and the bereaved. At a time when too many have had to die alone, connected to the latest medical technology but disconnected from family, friends and faith community, we need every gift of the Spiritus Creator to affirm our ties with one another and keep them sound.  On a public scale, we need to consider Kenneth Feinberg’s proposal to establish a “national office of bereavement” to provide emotional, community, and financial support, as the office he led did in the aftermath of 9-11 (NPR Report, Weekend Edition Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020). But congregations also need to compensate for the absence of public funerals by using all means consistent with health protocols to support the “grief work” of those suffering loss. Perhaps one good unintended consequence of the pandemic will be to recover and acknowledge the tearing separation of “the empty chair at the table” and move away from naive and death-denying “celebration of life” services.

As we recover sensitivity to the power of loss in our lives, we also need to acknowledge our grief over damage to the earth.  Whether it is the prohibition from eating Mississippi River fish that my brother and I caught for dinner more than 60 years ago, the housing development built through our former cross-country skiing trail, or the fact that urban children will never see the Milky Way and learn the constellations, the loss is real. Of course, this is nothing like the asthma and other health problems experienced especially by those in poverty and people of color, victims of environmental racism.

In 2003, Australian geologist, Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to denote this loss. Seeing “the existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation of a loved home environment,” he saw that new language was necessary. (“The Age of Solastalgia,” The Conversation, August 7, 2012, p. 2). While we have all experienced this, no group has suffered as acutely as climate refugees from Central America and Africa who have been forced to find new homes at a time when they rarely find a welcome. When solastalgia and nostalgia (the “longing for home”) intersect, that is painful loss indeed. The UN conservatively estimates that each year 21.5 million people are added to this group. And this is not even to consider the loss of plants and animals during the current “sixth extinction.”

How can we respond? Larry Rasmussen suggests developing a community of “sacred strangers in a secular society” (Earth-honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 364). Such a network of communities might take as its charter responsibility for keeping the earth with all its creatures “completely sound” and “wholly functioning.” Part of this must include attending to bereavement in all it forms, including solastalgia. While this seems like a tall  order, Paul makes clear that the one whose Advent we await “is faithful, and he will do this;” that is, keep the community faithful to the task (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

John affirms this as he accepts his role as a witness who testifies to the light that comes in the midst of our darkness. This role becomes more than metaphor when he is “put on trial” by Temple authorities from Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, the central question is, “Who are you” (John 1:19)? Responding to their grilling, John makes it clear that he is neither Messiah, Elijah the forerunner, nor the Moses-like prophet to come. In the language of Isaiah, he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23).

The evangelist confirms John’s importance by including additional testimony. When asked later in the gospel about his identity, John again denies that he is Messiah, but calls himself the bridegroom’s friend. “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3: 29-30). As the plot in the gospel moves from John’s baptizing in the wilderness to its climax, we recall that “the voice” Isaiah describes sees the blooming of the wilderness (Isaiah 51:3). It is no surprise, then, that we move from forensic interrogation in the bleak desert to utter astonishment in the garden of resurrection (John 20), for when the Logos/Sophia is deeply incarnated, it brings a wedding feast for the whole creation (See the important work of Margaret Daly-Denton, John–An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to Be the Gardener, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 43-50).

Feasting hardly seems appropriate as 2020 comes to its brutal end.  Perhaps we need to hear  this week’s Prayer of the Day once again. “Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light….” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg-Fortress, 2006, p. 19). Through our baptism we are called to join John in testifying to the light. That testimony can be a challenge for it calls us to enter the deepest darkness with honesty and courage.

Facing exponential increases in Covid-19 cases, continued indifference to the climate crisis, and virulent racism, all too often we can only respond with lament.  Yet as we share this lament together something happens. As we feel frozen in crises that have no clear pathways through, together we discover the dim light of new routes for response.. That is certainly the witness of the Black Church. It is also the teaching of blues singers, a message captured by African-American poet Nikki Giovanni:

We stirred the blues in our stews to give us the strength to go on
And Lord Have Mercy we used The Blues to give us joy to make us laugh
To teach us how to love and dance and run
Away
And so much more
Thank The Lord
How to stay until the next day
The Blues is our history
Our quilt
(“The Blues,” Make Me Rain, William Morrow, 2020, pp. 28-29)

Perhaps learning to “sing the blues” will sharpen our eyes so that together we begin to see the light.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

Thinking about the Unthinkable Tom Mundahl reflects on our desert struggle in the time of climate crisis.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Few themes sound more forcefully during Advent than the promise of comfort.  We are moved by Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah,” as the tenor takes up the prophet’s voice with the clear tones of “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people.” Many of us will invite congregations to echo that message with Olearius’ hymn, “ Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, No. 256). Whether that message will hit home among so many of us who are already quite comfortable is a question that must be asked.

Half a century ago, when the danger of nuclear war was on everyone’s mind (it remains a great danger), Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute wrote a small, but shocking book entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable, New York: Horizon Press, 1962. In this volume, Kahn went beyond strategies aimed at avoiding nuclear war and asked: How would such a war be fought? Although some expressed fear that openly discussing this horror was dangerous, not only did this work change military strategy, it likely moved major nuclear powers to begin negotiations to reduce arsenals.

To God’s people exiled to Babylon, comfort and freedom were just as “unthinkable.” They were as unimaginable to those experiencing loss of homeland and sense of comfort that comes with it, as those voting on November 4, 2014 could imagine strong political decisions responding to climate change. Yet, the unthinkable prophetic word went out from Isaiah: Captives will be free to return home!

Sounding a new message of freedom and renewal of cultural life is the strategy of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). The prophet begins with a series of strong verbs designed to get the hearers back into motion—not an easy task. For it is likely that, even before the captivity, the leaders of Judea had become resigned to living under a “royal theology” that stifled imagination and hope. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “What is most needed is what is most unacceptable –an articulation that redefines the situation and makes way for new gifts about to be given” (The Prophet Imagination, 2nd Ed., Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2001, p. 63).

In such a situation, life-goals are often reduced to just getting by, mere survival. This makes for a culture vulnerable to takeover and manipulation since it is dying from the inside. In many ways, it is not different from contemporary US culture where dreams and imagination seem to have shriveled. The capacity to grapple with large issues seems atrophied. “When we try to define the holding action that defines the sickness, the aging, the marriages, and the jobs of very many people, we find that we have been nurtured away from hope, for it is too scary” (Brueggemann, p. 63).

Isaiah signals the end of these “holding actions.” No longer is simply managing lowered expectations acceptable; God is operating in a new way. And that is why the first word to the prophet is: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” It is a word of forgiveness so powerful it carries with it a New Exodus. Now all questions about being abandoned by the Holy One are at an end. A new and clear “enthronement formula”—”say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God” (Isaiah 40: 9-10)—now becomes the source of courage and imagination (Brueggemann, p. 72).

All of this from a prophet who clearly admits very little self-generated vision. In what amounts to a “call narrative” for this Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40:6-10), he admits his imaginative poverty. “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass and their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades . . . .” (Isaiah 40:6-8a).  Westermann reminds us that . . .

“The exiles’ greatest temptation –and the prophet speaks as one of their number was precisely to be resigned to thinking of them as caught up in the general transience of all things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence, and to saying ‘just like countless other nations destroyed before our time, we are a nation that perished: all flesh is grass” (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p.41).

But there is something that trumps this fatalism: “The Word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8b). This theme sounds throughout Second Isaiah, concluding with the final verses, a doxology describing the joy of all creation in the return of the exiles.

For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Only God’s creative word is an adequate basis for this New Exodus. To say, “Fear not,” with any other foundation would guarantee only anxiety. It is the necessary answer to Isaiah’s query: “What shall I proclaim?” It frees the community to trust in a divine presence that not only “comes with might” but also as the loving one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10 -11). It makes “thinking about the unthinkable” a hopeful enterprise.

Which suggests why Mark turns to Isaiah’s song of hope as he pens “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” in the “eschatological historical monograph” we call the Gospel of Mark. (Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007, p. 18)

This simple beginning immediately subverts the Roman imperial order where “good news” was the reserve of the emperor’s benevolence. Naming Jesus “the Son of God” only made matters worse. Not only was this a jealously-guarded imperial title  applied to an obscure figure from troublesome Judea, he had been executed as a brigand by the emperor’s colonial administrator.  Another exercise in “thinking the unthinkable” (see Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p.61). Yet this powerful beginning is no less than another “enthronement formula!”

Following this announcement, we hear an offstage voice anticipating the appearance of John the Baptizer. Rather than a simple reference to Isaiah 40, however, we are presented with a conflation including references to Exodus (23:20) and Malachi (3:1). “I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way . . . ” (Mark 1: 2a) contains deliberate echoes of the Exodus tradition where the Holy One promised, “I will send an angel in front of you, to guard you on your way and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Exodus 23: 20). Here we have a midrash on Isaiah 40 which suggests that this new messenger will indeed continue the Exodus tradition (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988, p. 125.).

But this conflation also refers to Malachi, the last of the prophets, who writes, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me . . . .” (Malachi 3:1). The evangelist suggests here that a renewal of prophetic action is taking place before your eyes! John does recapitulate Elijah. But the message that this messenger will prepare for the appearance of the Holy One at the temple is no longer the case. Now the action is far from Zion; it is in the desert, the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3). As we learned from last week’s gospel reading, the temple is no longer the center of action. This new Advent arrival will take place on the periphery, in the desert.

Why the desert?  As Belden Lane suggests:

“The desert as metaphor is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending. Yet it does. And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 195.).

As the “world begins to crack,” out steps John the Baptizer. At first glance, John seems to present nothing beyond the ordinary, a mere “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). But it is the response that clues us in that something extraordinary is happening. In what Myers calls “typical Semitic hyperbole,” we read that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him . . . .” (Mark 1:5). Significantly, instead of “all the people” gathering at the Jerusalem temple, they are gathering “in the wilderness” (ερημος—used four times in Mark’s “prologue” Mark 1:1-14). Mark wastes no time laying out the tension between “wilderness” and “temple” so crucial to comprehending the New Exodus announced by John.

That John the Baptizer is Elijah is made clear by his attire and diet (2 Kings 1: 8). But we are tempted to forget that Elijah was nothing if not a political prophet. In his struggle with the royal court of Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah vigorously pronounced judgment for violating the covenant with Yahweh, an action that forced Elijah to flee to the wilderness to save his life (Myers, p. 126). But there is even more in the image of Elijah. For Malachi projects Elijah as the one sent “before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5).

But this “day,” which now is not the “end,” but a “new beginning” in the tradition of Isaiah 40, will not come until “the stronger one” arrives, the one whose sandals John is unworthy to loosen (Mark 1:7). He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power greater than even the Roman Emperor can imagine. Perhaps, to “riff on” Malachi, even bringing blessing to the land.

That Advent expectation brings blessing and hope for renewal of the whole creation is underscored by this week’s Psalm (85). It is a communal lament seeking restoration so authentic that it encompasses both land and people. Here, the psalmist clearly recognizes that “humans are bound to the earth in an integrity that is biological, moral, and spiritual, as well as political and economic” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 25)

This lament is answered by an oracle (vv. 8-13) that not only promises the sought-for renewal but describes it poetically.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps (Psalm 85:10-13).

Prospects for significant change at the scale needed to confront our largest ‘environmental problem’—climate change—seems to hover near zero. But many avenues to love creation remain open. They need to be embraced. As we are comforted: In our desert struggle to serve creation, we are comforted to know that God’s future always includes what Aldo Leopold called “the land community, the substance of what biblical writers call ‘heaven and earth’” (Davis, 25). Perhaps this will still move us in this Advent “to think about the unthinkable.”

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.
St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

Advent Is about Gathering for the New Creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on wilderness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Again this second Sunday of Advent, we gather with heightened expectation for the coming of God. “A voice cries out,” the first lesson proclaims: “‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3). “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,” echoes the Gospel, “who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:2). Again we are being reoriented to God’s arrival, but also, as we suggested in our commentary for the first Sunday of Advent, to God’s creation: as we read in the surprisingly eschatological second lesson, we need to consider “what sort of persons [we] ought to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire[;],” for “in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Peter 3:11-13).

Elements in these texts are difficult in relation to care for creation.

This combination of texts strikes us as discordant and confusing. We are at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel and “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  But we also read what for most hearers will be a word about the end of the world: “the day of the Lord” that “comes like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it be disclosed,” (or, as some ancient authorities read, “will be burned up” NRSV note). What, we might ask, does the end have to do with the beginning? And does the voice cry out in the wilderness, “to prepare the way” for Jesus? Or is the voice itself the preparation of the way in the wilderness, as alternative readings of Mark suggest? Or does the voice call to prepare a way through the wilderness towards Jerusalem, as the reading for Isaiah suggests? Aside from inherent difficulties of interpretation that these questions raise, at stake for those whose concern is a mandate for care of creation are the meanings to be attached to the heavens that pass away, the elements that are dissolved, and the value and uses of wilderness.

Reading Mark on two levels: the first reading and the re-reading.

The story of the Gospel of Mark, interpreters of the book advise us, needs to be read on two levels. There is the first-time-through story of the good news of Jesus Christ, which is the eventful account of Jesus’ mission as it unfolds through his gathering of disciples, his teaching his way to them, and the conflict with religious and political authorities in Jerusalem that leads to his death. But there is also the re-reading of the Gospel invited by the direction the young man at the tomb gives to Jesus’ astonished followers, to go back to Galilee where “you will see him, just as he told you.” Readers revisiting the Galilee of the beginning of the Gospel will see things one did not notice in the first reading.

Ched Myers shows how this works with respect to the first sentence of the Gospel in Mark 1:1. On the first level, the beginning is simply what it indicates, the starting point of the story. But on the second level, Mark’s arche is also an “echo of Genesis” which according to Myers serves three functions:

“First, Mark is boldly suggesting that his story represents a fundamental regeneration of salvation history, as will soon be confirmed by his citation of the prophets. Secondly, it introduces at the outset the ‘palingenetic’ thrust of Mark’s apocalyptic discourse: this is a story about a new heaven and new earth. Thirdly, it has a specific meaning in light of the ending of the story . . . where Mark will point back to the place where the discipleship narrative was originally generated—Galilee. A rereading of (reengagement with) the story offers a ‘new beginning’ for the discipleship adventure.” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p.122).

Salvation history, eschatological cosmology, and discipleship are folded into the narrative of the Gospel. Interestingly, the selection of texts for this Sunday accordingly serves well to bring these “hidden” structures of meaning to light. The first lesson introduces relevant material from Isaiah that will help to uncover what the author of the Gospel does to regenerate salvation history. The second lesson presents apocalyptic material from early Christian tradition to help illuminate the promise of a new creation. And the Gospel reading itself engages us in the call to discipleship with a telling account of the first gathering of potential followers. We will consider each of these inter-textual connections in order. What is of special interest to us, of course, is the way in which this re-reading transforms the narrative at its very outset into a story that draws together the new salvation history, the new cosmology, and the anticipated interaction of Jesus with his followers in a narrative of the renewal of creation.

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

This is precisely what our reading of the scriptures for the First Sunday of Advent led us to expect, of course. The “heavens and earth” represented by the Jerusalem temple and the orientation to the creation which its social and political organizations involved, we recall, were “heavens and earth” in which righteousness was clearly not “at home” and, with the coming of the Son of Man, will give way to the dawn of a new world “in which the powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 323; cf. our comment in this series on the texts for the First Sunday of Advent). The beginning of the Gospel and the good news of Jesus Christ is the beginning of the campaign for “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” And, as we will see, readers are drawn dramatically into this enriched narrative, along with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.”

The campaign opens on two cultural fronts, the imperial Roman and the local Jewish. The very title of the Gospel, Myers points out, is intended to serve notice that “Mark is challenging the apparatus of imperial propagation.” The “good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God” proclaims ‘the advent of an ‘anointed’ leader, who is confirmed by the Deity and who proclaims a ‘kingdom.’ In other words, Mark is taking dead aim at Caesar and his legitimating myth” with “a declaration of war upon the political culture of the empire” (Ibid., p. 124).  Secondly, the prophetic voice crying “prepare the way” is indeed the voice of the prophet Isaiah from our first lesson, but with certain important revisions of the text. The “way” to be prepared, Myers notes, functions to introduce “the central discipleship motif in the gospel.” The “way” is “no mere path; a new way of life is being built [Mark’s verb is “constructed”] in the shell of the old world.” Additionally, the voice of “one crying out in the wilderness” is a reawakened voice thought by many of Mark’s contemporaries to have fallen silent forever with the prophet Malachi. But where that last prophetic word “announces that Yahweh is about to make a dramatic appearance in history,” it also “envisioned the site of Yahweh’s epiphany to be the Jerusalem temple (Malachi 3:1).” Not so Mark, who “conspicuously omits this part of the oracle, and in its place grafts on an almost literal quotation of Isaiah 40:3,” which, contrary to the plain meaning of Isaiah 40:9-10, in which Zion itself is the voice that calls the “cities of Judah” to attend to God’s arrival in their midst, also serves to direct attention away from Jerusalem. “The messenger will appear instead in the wilderness (1:3)—which is precisely where we find John the Baptist in the opening act (1:4)” (Ibid. p.127). Thus does Mark engage his second front, a polemic against the temple cult in the city of Jerusalem, which we discussed in our comment on the lessons for the First Sunday of Advent.

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

“Wilderness” is a “crucial coordinate of Mark’s narrative world,” Myers notes. It has “the principal narrative function” here in the Gospel’s prologue, he suggests, of representing the “peripheries:”

By inserting this coordinate in place of ‘Malachi’s temple (representative of the “center”) as the site of Yahweh’s renewed action, Mark creates a spatial tension between two archetypically opposite symbolic spaces. This wilderness/temple polarity becomes explicit in Mark’s wry report—a typical Semitic hyperbole—that ‘all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem’ seek John in the wilderness (1:5). According to the dominant nationalist ideology of salvation history, Jerusalem was considered the hub of the world to which all nations would one day come (see Ps 69:35f. and Is 60:10-14) (Ibid. p. 125).

“Wilderness” is, of course, a “crucial coordinate” in the narrative world of contemporary environmentalists as well; and the reading of this Scripture can perhaps provide an occasion for reflection on this shared symbolism, for reasons shared by the semantic field of Mark’s readers: “In literal terms, wilderness connoted an uninhabited and desolate place, marginal existence: John lives on locusts and honey (Mark 1:6), and persons hunger there (Mark 8:2f).  Symbolically, it was the site of a community in flight (as in the exodus tradition) or a refuge for the persecuted faithful who await deliverance.” These are meanings wilderness has certainly had in the story of the American west, meanings which are also commonly used in the ideological struggle for the preservation of untrammeled regions of forest, lake and mountain. We wonder, however, if another meaning of wilderness isn’t significant for both contexts. Wilderness is also the place of renewal and even redemption. At least it certainly appears to have that significance here in the Markan story: as earlier at Sinai, the wilderness is the location of a new encounter with God, to which is attached a new story and a new set of religious practices. Wilderness is the location of a reorientation to God that Mark regards as necessary to redemptive history, a complete break with the temple state—and, as such, needs the open and indeterminate space of the wilderness for its thorough realization. It is the “down to earth” counterpart to the relocation of God from the temple to the open skies of the cosmos.

 In that general way, it serves needs like those we find in the much-quoted statement of Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” The wilderness is a spiritual anchor for the renewal of both personal life and civil society in our time. We cannot dwell on this topic at length here; Mark’s gospel will provide additional occasions to carry the discussion forward. However, one meaning essential to the appreciation of this meaning of wilderness in either context is expressed in the first lesson from Isaiah. When the prophet asks what he shall cry, he is instructed to cry, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). The acknowledgement of being part of a fragile and vulnerable creation is an essential element in a sound theology of creation; and it is also the foundation of every campaign to discourage the human presumption of dominating and controlling nature to serve our purposes (See Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind for a discussion of “The Wilderness Cult’ in American experience; and Wallace Stegner’s brief “Wilderness Letter” in Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, pp. 110-120 for a range of meanings of wilderness in American culture).

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

Mark thus proposes the regeneration of salvation history by means of a pointedly altered prophetic voice and the reorientation to God’s presence by relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology. These are coupled to the dramatic movement of peoples from the “whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” out to the river Jordan to be baptized by John. We have noted above the hyperbole of this statement. Mark’s exaggeration serves to remind us of the significance of these events in the eschatological perspective we developed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. “Out of the temple, God goes, and into the cosmos, from where the powers in opposition to God are falling,” we wrote, reflecting on the apocalypse of Mark 13:27. “Off the temple mount go the elect, into the mountain wilderness, from which the winds blow freely to gather them up before the Son of Man.”  Myers suggests that as Mark “envisions the renewal of everything in the universe, the dawn of a new world now that the powers have been toppled,” the implied regathering at the end of the story makes the crucial connection to Mark’s story of discipleship.  The young man at the tomb

“sends the disciples back to Galilee—that is, back to the ‘genesis’ of the discipleship narrative. And how does Mark’s story commence? ‘The beginning of the gospel’ (1:1), the new creation! Like the ‘end,’ the ‘beginning’ too is archetypal, representing the invitation to join anew in the journey of discipleship, that struggle for justice in the only world there is.

So too all later readers of the Gospel are to be immediately caught up in the movement of people from Jerusalem out to the Jordan where they will witness the baptism of Jesus and the conferring of his mandate to bring about the new creation.” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 344)

Advent is about gathering for the new creation, the passing away of old cosmologies and the instantiation of the new heavens and earth.

All of which suggests a powerful theme for Advent preaching, namely, Advent is about gathering for the new creation, the passing away of old cosmologies and the instantiation of the new heavens and earth. The church gathers for many different reasons in different seasons and at various times of day, but in this first season of Advent, our gathering establishes the pattern for righteous gathering in worship all year long. The “elect gathered from the four wind, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven,” “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem,” going out to John to be baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. When we gather as we do in Advent, at the beginning of the whole story of Jesus Christ, we gather in a way that is prototypical for every time we gather for eucharistic worship, in which, similarly, the pattern of the whole story is recapitulated in gathering, word, meal, and sending.

Eucharistic worship is always a response to the voice in the wilderness.

If this is so, then might it not also be properly said, that according to Mark’s gospel, the Christian gathering for eucharistic worship is always a response to the voice in the wilderness, calling us to come out of the cosmologies that entrap us in nationalistic, socially and politically self-serving appropriations of God’s good creation? And if wilderness is the appropriate location where all this becomes very obvious, then perhaps it can also be said that Christian worship, rightly done, always begins in the wilderness under open skies, looking forward to the coming of God and the new creation that God’s Son brings, and in genuine repentance for the harm we have done and continue to do. Of that confession of sin, more later. But the psalmist is entirely correct in singing, as this morning’s psalm has it,

Surely his salvation is at and for those who fear him,
That his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground;
And righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
And our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
And will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85:9-13.)

Elements in these texts are difficult in relation to care for creation.

Reading Mark on two levels: the first reading and the re-reading.

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

Advent is about gathering for the new creation, the passing away of old cosmologies and the instantiation of the new heavens and earth.

Eucharistic worship is always a response to the voice in the wilderness.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

First Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

Stay Alert with Hope; and Beware the Consumers of Christmas. Tom Mundahl reflects on hope, watching, and serving.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

In a recent review of new books on climate change, British  environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth shares his fear that stopping warming is nearly impossible; the very best that can be done is controlling how bad it will get. This pessimism is reinforced by a conversation Kingsnorth had with Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in a New York cafe. Because Kahneman, an economist and a lifetime student of human decision-making, is convinced that no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living, he concludes:  “So that’s my bottom line: there is not much hope” (London Review of Books, October 23, 2014, p. 18).

Despite that increasing consensus, the community of faith insists on calling Advent a season of hope. But this is not a naive hope. As William and Annabeth Gay wrote their annual Christmas letter in 1969—in the midst of the worst of the Vietnam War –as always they included a hymn, whose middle verse puts it best:

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath and be transfixed by faith.
So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north,
the living flame, in secret burning,
can kindle on the earth and bring God’s love to birth.
(“Each Winter as the Year Grows Older,” No. 252, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 2006)

This hope is especially critical for those of faith called to serve a creation rent by the Ebola virus, drought from another record year of heat, water shortages, and rising oceans –all challenges met by paltry human response. As we begin a new church year, we look for signs of hope where they always have been, in our Advent readings from scripture.

It may be surprising that our first reading from Isaiah addresses those who have returned from exile in Babylon and have resumed a corporate life together. Yet things have not gone so well; the very promises of a New Exodus seem to have been empty. No wonder the people ask, “Where is the one who brought them from the sea…?” (Isaiah 63:11) and why does this LORD  “harden our hearts, so that we do not fear you?” (Isaiah 63: 17) (see the discussion by Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, pp. 234-235).

Out of this sense of frustration and failure comes a desperate cry: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….” (Isaiah 64:1).  While this image may call to mind the old tradition of the Divine Warrior, it goes even deeper to the Creator’s power to make new. Not only does this cry occasion a turning around –repentance—by the people, it roots what is to come in “remembering” God’s faithfulness. (Isaiah 63:11)

Even if the hopeful imagery of Second Isaiah (40-55) now seems to be fantasy, the prophet and people hold their broken dreams and defeated hopes together by remembering God’s action, the only power capable of healing what has been ‘dismembered.’ That memory does more than face backwards: it recalls that this is the God who clears the way for the new, capable of “tearing open the heavens and coming down.”

In fact, now the prophet reminds listeners of the creative imagery from the earlier Isaiah.

Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter!  Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, “What are you making?” (Isaiah 45:7)

This earthy metaphor serves as a timely affirmation in spite of the freed peoples’ faithlessness: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father: we are the clay and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). It is this trust in the ‘maker of heaven and earth’ that is the source of hope in the midst of hopelessness. And this hope is justified, for the prophet goes on to share a “divine speech” in Isaiah 65 that offers a promise of radical newness and a vision of shalom. (see Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge: 2009, p. 169)

For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth….I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people….They shall build houses and inhabit them;         they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit….for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be (Isaiah 65: 17, 19, 21-22).

Paul writes with just this sense of hopefulness to a Corinthian community faced with the challenge of cultural diversity and internal division. Even though our text comprises the formal thanksgiving in the letter, it is hardly formulaic. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, the very first word of this thanksgivingευχαριςτω—“I give thanks”—drives toward and includes everything in this section, culminating in the promise of strength to live out the community’s calling (Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, Hermeneia Commentaries, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975, p. 25).

Clearly, this community is not without resources as it continues to serve under pressure. Nor are these resources self-generated. The Corinthian community has been “enriched” by God’s gifts.  Despite the NRSV translation, the Greek word “spiritual” does not appear in 1:7. The grace of God simply provides what is required for life and service.

These gifts, χαριςματι, could not differ more from the great hunt for holiday gifts in the race beginning on so-called “Black Friday.”  Brueggemann deftly characterizes this “holiday shopping spree” as the “achieved satiation” of a “royal theology” aimed at sedating ‘consumers’ into thinking that everything is “all right” and that there are no problems that cannot be “fixed” by economic exchange (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, pp. 36-37).

The gifts Paul refers to are given to empower this new servant body to nurture the mystery of hope, to ‘get its hands dirty’ as part of a community so inclusive it ‘comprehends’ all creation.  No other scaling of community, κοινωνια, is comprehensive enough to do justice to the faithfulness of God. (1 Corinthians 1: 9)

Richard Hays, in his comment on this text, puts it nicely:

“We are apt to think of the church’s life and mission on a small, even trivial scale. We tend to locate the identity of our communities within some denominational program, or within local politics, or within recent history. But Paul urges us instead to understand the church in a cosmic frame of reference…. “(First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p.20).

Ironically, it is cosmic vision which frees us to see what is at hand locally with new eyes: every child, every one of Grandpa Ott’s ‘Morning Glories’ in the alley, every city council meeting, and even every diseased ash tree as holy, a gift of God.

Chapter 13 in Mark’s Gospel may provide us with more of the “cosmic” than we bargained for.  Description of “wars and rumors of wars” (13:7), “fleeing to the mountains” (13:14), false messiahs, and astronomical irregularities combine to create an atmosphere of terror and anguish. Far from being otherworldly, this dramatic language seems to describe the life situation of the earliest community and its response to the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE.

If scholars Adele Yarbro Collins and Ched Myers are right, this chapter “documents” the struggle in the Markan community over what tack to take in this violent popular uprising.  Collins suggests that “wars and rumors of wars” and the warning that “the end is yet to come” (13:7) fit best with the situation early in the Jewish War. “If the war were already over, it would hardly have been necessary to point out that the end had not yet come” (Collins, The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 82).

Myers goes further, suggesting that this chapter is written for an audience in the resurrection community tempted to join forces with ‘Jewish patriots’ in rebel action. “In such a moment, there was only one voice that could match the persuasive call of the rebel recruiters: Jesus the living teacher” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988, p. 330). This call is to say “no” to false messiahs, military violence, and predictions of the end of hostilities. It is a call to active watching and waiting, the call of the whole faith community during Advent.

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). This strong imperative sentence could be heard as a threat that produces nervous foreboding. Instead, it is an invitation to faithful and attentive service within the web of creation. A community that no longer lives in anxiety about making the right eschatological “call” is freed for this very activity: watching and serving. The time of fulfillment will come; in the meantime, wakeful care is the watchword, as it indeed is for the season of Advent.

This attention and watchfulness is more than a strategy; it replaces the world of the temple cult with trust in the “word” of the Risen One. (Mark 13:31) The old fig tree (Mark 11:12 -14)—representing temple culture –no longer bears fruit. A new crop is coming to nourish this community of attentive care. This crop will provide the sustenance servants of creation need to carry out their calling (Mark 13:28-31). This is true for us as we are challenged by an economic culture that uses shopping and buying to sedate us so we cannot see the way things really are.

When Wendell Berry wrote, “the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed” (“Faustian Economics,” Harpers, May, 2008, p. 35), he could just as well be speaking of the North American celebration of “the holidays.” Much as the earliest community was tempted to embrace military violence to easily solve the problem of Roman rule in Palestine, so we are tempted to forget any discipline of waiting and watching and, instead, to jump “whole hog” into the arena of “getting the goods.” In this kind of culture there is no hope that “consumers” will cut themselves off acquiring the latest toy and risk social disapproval, little chance that steps to deal honestly with the causes of climate change will be taken. But when we “keep awake” (Mark 13:37), who knows what new doors may open.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.
St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Thinking the Unthinkable Tom Mundahl reflects on our communal lament and hope for wholeness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Few themes sound more powerfully during Advent than the promise of comfort. We cannot help being moved by Handel’s Messiah as the tenor takes up the prophet’s voice with the clear tones of “Comfort ye, comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” During this “Covid year,” we will likely miss lifting our voices together in Olearius’ hymn, “Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006, No. 256). We will miss this because of the threats of the pandemic that has been horribly mishandled in the US, paralleling our response to climate change and systemic racism.

Half a century ago, when the danger of nuclear war seemed to be the principal threat on the horizon (that danger remains), Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute wrote a short, but shocking book entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable (Horizon, 1962). The author went beyond strategies aimed at avoiding a nuclear holocaust and openly asked: how would such a war be fought? Although some expressed fear that public airing in this explicit way would be dangerous, it was among the factors moving nuclear powers to arms reduction negotiations.

To the community living in Babylonian exile, the notion of comfort must have also seemed unthinkable. Comfort was as unimaginable to those who had lost their promised homeland as those voting in the US on November 3, 2020 could envision quick, scientifically- based action to control the novel coronavirus, reduce carbon emissions, and summon the courage to move toward the Beloved Community of racial harmony and justice. But the prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) is called to deliver a message of hope and renewal.

The difficulty of his task cannot be overestimated. For it is likely that even before the defeat of Jerusalem (587-586 BCE), the Judean religious elite had continued to live with a “royal theology” that stifled imagination and hope. for change. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “What was most needed is what was most unacceptable — an articulation that redefines the situation and makes way for new gifts about to be given” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Augsburg, 2001, p. 63).

Powerful covenant promises about serving as a blessing to all creation (Genesis 12:1-3) had shriveled to mere survival, just getting by. This produced a culture that was dying from the inside, vulnerable to extinction. In many ways, the Judean situation is not so different from 2020 America, where common values of equality and interdependent freedom have been traded for illusions of consumer satisfaction, tribal identification as Red or Blue, acceptance of extreme economic inequality, and refusal to acknowledge science — whether climate science or epidemiology. For us, turning around to take an honest look at our predicament, a deep Advent gaze illuminated by candlelight is scary. It is also the path to newness.

Isaiah signals the end of these “holding actions.” No longer is managing lowered expectations acceptable. The Holy One is operating in a new way. The exile is over; it is time for that which is least expected: comfort, a New Exodus, a new beginning of communal life. For those who doubted divine faithfulness, Isaiah offers a new enthronement formula, “say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’” (Isaiah 40:9-10). This is nothing less than a new birth of imagination and courage.

All of this comes by way of a prophet who confesses that his vision had dried up. In what amounts to a “call narrative” for this Second Isaiah, he admits his prophetic version of writer’s block: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are like grass and their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades….” (Isaiah 40:6-8a). Claus Westermann reminds us: “The exiles’ greatest temptation — and the prophet speaks as one of their number — was precisely to be resigned to thinking them as caught up in the general transience of all things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence, and to saying ‘just like countless other nations destroyed before our time, we are a nation that has perished: all flesh is grass’” (Isaiah 40-66, Westminster, 1969, p. 41).

But there is something that trumps the prophet’s fatalism: “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8b).  This theme sounds throughout Second Isaiah, concluding with an affirmation of the intricate and reliable involvement of that word in the workings of the earth household.  “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s creative word is the only adequate basis for a New Exodus.  To say, “Fear not,” with any other foundation, guarantees only anxiety. And it is the necessary response to Isaiah’s forlorn, “what shall I cry?,” for it frees the community to trust in a presence that not only “comes with might,” but also as the loving one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10-11). It makes “thinking about the unthinkable” a hopeful enterprise.

Which suggests why the evangelist turns to Isaiah’s song to follow immediately after what was likely considered the gospel’s title: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1, see also Adele Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Fortress, 2007, p. 18). This simple beginning immediately subverts Roman imperial order where “good news” was the exclusive reserve of the emperor’s benevolence. Naming Jesus “the son of God” only made matters worse. How could these imperial attributes flow from an obscure figure from troublesome Judea, who had been executed by the empire’s duly-appointed colonial governor (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p. 61)? Yet this subversive gospel title is nothing less than a new kind of “enthronement formula”–especially when read aloud in the assembly.

Following the announcement of this gospel-title, we hear an offstage voice anticipating the entrance of John the Baptizer. Rather than a simple rehash of Isaiah 40, however, we are presented with a creative conflation which includes references to Exodus and Malachi. “I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…” (Mark 1:2a) contains deliberate echoes of the Exodus tradition where the Holy One promises, “I will send an angel in front of you, to guard you on your way and to bring you to a place I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). Here we have a midrash on Exodus 40, suggesting that this messenger will indeed continue the Exodus tradition (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 2nd Ed., Orbis 2008, p. 128).

We also hear echoes of Malachi, the last of the prophets, who writes, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3: 1). The evangelist suggests here that a resumption of prophetic action is taking place before your eyes! The Baptist does recapitulate Elijah, but that this messenger will prepare for the appearance of the Holy One at the Temple is no longer the case.  Now the action is far from Zion; all focus is now on the wilderness (Isaiah 40: 3).  Why the desert? Belden Lane suggests: “The desert is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending. Yet it does. And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed“(The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 195).

As the “world begins to crack,” out steps the Baptizer. At first glance, he seems to present nothing beyond the ordinary, a mere “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). But it is the response that clues us in that something extraordinary is happening. In what Myers calls “typical Semitic hyperbole,” we read that people “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him…”(Mark 1:5). Notice, they are not gathering at the Temple; they are gathering in the wilderness (eremos–used 4 times in the gospel’s “prologue,” Mark 1: 1-14). This tension between Zion and the periphery will only grow as this fissure suggests a future so surprising that it will center in Galilee (Mark 16: 1-8).

Not so surprising is the evangelist’s strong identification of John with Elijah, especially in terms of wardrobe and diet (2 Kings 1: 8). With our tendency to domesticate Advent in order to present an even tamer Christmas, we forget that Elijah was nothing if not a political prophet. In his struggle with the corrupt court of Ahab and Jezebel, he pulled no punches and was forced to flee to the wilderness to save his life. But the Elijah-figure portends more. Malachi envisions Elijah as the sent “before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4: 5).

So this “day” is not the end, but a new beginning in the tradition of Isaiah 40, renewal which will come when “the stronger one” arrives, the one whose sandals John is unworthy to loosen (Mark 1:7). He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power even greater than Imperial Rome.  Perhaps, to “riff” on Malachi, even bringing blessing to the land.

But for us for whom the world has more than “begun to crack” with skyrocketing pandemic cases and deaths and yet another record hurricane approaching, no facile scriptural interpretation is half enough. Yet through our exhaustion, fear, and doubt we are upheld and strengthened by a community held together by a Spirit who can transform our “sighs too deep for words” ( Romans 8:26) into living toward a future for the whole creation so powerful it pulls us through with creative courage.

This is exactly what the psalmist sings. In Psalm 85, a communal lament seeking restoration to both human heart and land community, there is a recognition that “humans are bound to the earth in an integrity that is biological, moral, and spiritual, as well as political and economic” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 25).

This lament is answered by an oracle of hope envisioning the advent of wholeness.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Justice will go before him, and will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85:8-13)

Whether it is the challenge of healing broken bodies during a pandemic, listening to and learning from a creation that actively resists degradation in the anthropocene era, or working to bring racial justice, scripture is clear: it all belongs together. God’s future which we expect during Advent always includes what Aldo Leopold called “the land community, the substance of what biblical writers call ‘heaven and earth’” (Davis, 25). Perhaps the unthinkable sounds we hear this Advent are the cracking of the world –the shell of the old falling away.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

First Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

We Await the Transformation of the Cosmos. Dennis Ormseth reflects on an orientation to God’s Creation in the season of Advent.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
I Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

As heavenly powers fall, the scattered people of God will be gathered to witness the dawn of a new world.

A new church year begins as the last ended, waiting and watching, in hope for the coming of God’s future kingdom. Appropriately for the beginning of a new year, the readings for this Sunday are significantly cosmological. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” begins the first reading from Isaiah 64. “You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth,” prays the psalmist. And with the Gospel reading we are directed to the vision of the “Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). However, the contrast with the beginning of the secular New Year to come a month from now couldn’t be clearer: instead of the eternal return of the natural world, marked is it is in this season by the fading strength of the sun, we are oriented towards the future which God will bring the cosmos. Although in either perspective we find ourselves waiting in darkness, these texts invite us to look forward in time to when all things now darkened by human sinfulness will be restored. As heavenly powers fall, the scattered people of God will be gathered to witness the dawn of a new world.

Temple is the heart of the cosmos and Israel’s social order.

In his Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Gordon Lathrop alerts us to the importance of cosmology for interpreting the Gospel of Mark. Mark, he points out, is very “interested in ‘heaven’ (e.g., 1:11; 6:41; 8:11; 13:25; 14:62).” This interest, according to Lathrop, is driven in significant measure by Mark’s concern to break open the cosmic myths of the ancient world. “A hole in the heavens, a tear in the perfect fabric of the perfect sphere” of Plato’s Timaeus, for instance, opens the way for Mark’s own cosmology of “the Spirit descending like a dove at the end of the flood and a voice coming from the heaven.” Similarly, in Mark 4:30-32, the ancient cosmic image of the great tree of life “that holds all things in order” is broken open to reveal new meaning as an annual bush, still with room for all things in its branches, which is the cross. Most significant in our view, however, relative to our concern for creation in these Advent readings, is Mark’s treatment of “the Jerusalem Temple, that ancient symbol of the heart of the cosmos, the navel of all things.” “The temple is cleansed (11:25-19) and then held under the threat of destruction (13:2). But the cornerstone of a new temple (12:10-11) or its architect and builder (14:58; 15:29; compare 6:3) is the Crucified One” (Holy Ground, pp. 34-35).

Why does the temple hold this importance for us? First, because of its place at “the heart of the Jewish nation,” as Ched Myers puts it. “It was where God dwelt, and in it the whole ideological order was anchored and legitimated. It was the one holy place universal to all Jews, toward which all pilgrimages and contributions were directed.” Because the temple was the center of Jewish political, economic and social as well as religious organization, its existence and meaning were matters to which “every Jewish social group and strategy had to take an ideological stance” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man; A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 78-79). The destruction by the Roman army in 70 C.E. was a cataclysmic event which some scholars have regarded as giving occasion to the composition of Mark’s Gospel. While Myers argues otherwise (See Binding the Strong Man, pp. 417-21), he nonetheless maintains that for Mark “the temple state and its political economy represented the heart of what was wrong with the dominant system.” What distinguished Mark’s agenda over against the others who also rejected the control of the temple by the religious and political elite, the rebels leading the Jewish revolt and the Essenes who withdrew to the desert, Myers argues, was that Mark “had no wish for greater access to, or control over, the cultus—only its demise. In the same breath, he was at pains to reassure his Palestinian readers that God’s existence was not tied to the temple” (Ibid. p. 80).

God breaks out of the Temple to be present everywhere.

Understanding what Lathrop describes as the “breaking of the myth” of the temple is therefore crucial to appropriating the Gospel’s message. One commentator has insightfully captured what’s at stake in framing the question that is “first and foremost” in Mark’s theology as “where do we find God?” She answers: “Not in the glorious temple but on the cross. Not in the city proper but outside the city walls. Not in the center of power and authority but in the wilderness.” Which leads her to pose a great question for Advent: “Where will we look for God this Advent season?” (Karoline Lewis, “Where Are We?” Commentary on the Gospel for First Sunday of Advent, Mark 13:24-37 at www.workingpreacher.org).

Where in the church’s scriptures for this season can we find God’s creation? 

While we appreciate this perspective, what concerns us here is the possible displacement from the story of Mark, along with the temple, what more the temple represented in Jewish cosmology, besides the locus of God’s presence. Myers calls attention to “four elements of the ‘primordial landscape’” appropriated by Israel from ancient Near Eastern temple traditions: “the cosmic mountain; (2) the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation; (3) the spring waters of life, symbolizing both chaos and salvation; (4) the tree of life” (Myers, p. 79; he cites J. Lundquist, “The Legitimizing Role of the Temple in the Origin of the State,” in SBL Seminary Papers 1982, p. 171ff.). Clearly, the temple was the sacred space in and through which the people experienced the presence of God in creation, and by means of the stories of creation that incorporated these elements, were given their orientation, not only to God, but also to creation. What, we are asking, are the consequences of the relocation of God’s presence from the temple to the person of Jesus? What happens to the mountain, the hillock, the waters, and the tree of life when the sanctuary in which they are located is vacated? Are these elements of the “primordial landscape” relocated to the story of Jesus, and, if so, where do we find them? Does Mark find a place for them in his story of Jesus? Or are the readers of Mark’s Gospel, on account of Mark’s opposition to the temple state and its economy, possibly left without any orientation to creation whatsoever? This is our question for Advent:  Where in the church’s scriptures for this season can we find God’s creation?

Mark displaces creation: Temple, fig tree, and mountain.

Our search in Mark’s Gospel is at first rather discouraging. In the chapters leading up to this Sunday’s reading, Jesus enters Jerusalem and takes a first, quick look around the temple. This visit is followed “on the following day” by the strange action involving a fig tree. “He was hungry,” Mark tells us, so “seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it.” Finding “nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs,” he cursed it, saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:12-13). His cleansing of the temple follows immediately; and the next day, having gone out of the city with his disciples again, they discover that the fig tree has “withered away to its roots.” When Peter points this out, Jesus responds rather obliquely, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you” (Mark 11:20-23).

In explaining the significance of the cursing of the fig tree, Myers cites William Telford’s argument in his Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, in which he points out that “the Old Testament literature on the whole knows very little of nonsymbolical trees.” After examining several texts, Telford concludes:

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 fruits 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 . . . (Ibid. pp. 297-98).

So much for the cosmic tree, it appears, and the beneficial orientation to the creation that it symbolized: Jesus’ curse has killed it!

And there is much more to discourage any hope of reorientation to creation from him.  Faith in God, his response to Peter might suggest, will dispatch not just the cosmic tree, but also “this mountain” before them. Which mountain he means is not spelled out, but obviously he intends the sacred mount Zion, location of the temple. Indeed, the mountain will “be taken up and thrown into the sea,” thus rhetorically returning cosmic tree, temple, and mountain into the waters of chaos from which it arose! It would appear that Jesus’ followers have no need of any of these things. The temple and its primordial elements are rendered meaningless. As he says, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” The central concern will not be one’s relation to the temple and its correlated orientation to the cosmos, but rather one’s relationship with other human beings, as verse 25 shows us: Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

So will the religion of the temple with its socially and politically important orientation to creation be wholly displaced by a religion of personal forgiveness? It seems so! And isn’t it largely so in contemporary Christianity in America? In any case, when we arrive at the exchange between Jesus and his disciples just prior to our reading, we cannot be too surprised that Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple. In what Karoline Lewis delightfully calls the disciples’ “Little Red Riding Hood” moment (“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”), Jesus assures them that “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2). If this is true—and by the time most readers come to the Gospel, it has of course long been true as a matter of historical fact—what will replace it? Taking a seat on the Mount of Olives “opposite the temple,” Jesus has a stern word of warning for his disciple, and for us: “False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.” It is a definitive moment. As Myers notes,

With this dramatic action, Jesus utterly repudiates the temple state, which is to say the entire socio-symbolic order of Judaism. His objections have been consistently based upon one criterion: the system’s exploitation of the poor. He now sets about warning his disciples against joining those who would wage a messianic war in defense of the temple (13:14). The “mountain” must be “moved,” not restored.

Mark envisions a new world free of domination.

And with that, Jesus offers them “a vision of the end of the temple-based world,” but also, fortunately, “the dawn of a new one in which the powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, p. 323). What that vision of a new world is we shall have ample opportunity to discover in the year to come, but already the readings for this first Sunday of Advent point the way.

It is, after all, the creation itself that will alert the disciples to the coming of the Son of Man:  “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Reorientation in both space and time is part of the expected action to come: the elect will be gathered from the four directions of the winds, and from the depths of the earth as well as the heights of heaven. The Son of Man comes in the center of the cosmos! Upon seeing the “desolating sacrilege” that violates the holiness of the temple, as Jesus anticipates earlier in his warning (Mark 13:14-15), they will have fled from the city to the mountains. There they will be extremely vulnerable to conditions in the wilderness, having no time to fetch a coat or provide for nursing mothers. But for the sake of the elect, God will cut short that time of exposure. The main thing is to be alert to the signs in both the heavens and on earth that announce the arrival: “keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Given the assumptions of popular apocalyptic in our culture, combined with broad familiarity of the second law of thermodynamics, it is easily assumed that these signs point to the destruction of creation: the sun burning out, the moon losing its light, and stars falling from the sky.  But as Myers points out, “[c]osmic portents symbolic of judgment are common in apocalyptic literature.” The darkening of the sun and moon are the creation’s sympathetic participation in the wrath of God against human sinfulness, which is systemically connected to the “desolation” of the earth, drawing on Isaiah 13:10. The falling stars allude to the “fall” of the highest structures of power in history, which, Myers suggests, refers to the Jewish and Roman elites who will shortly assemble to watch Jesus’ execution (Myers, p. 343; cf. Carol J. Dempsey, Hope Amid the Ruins:  The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, pp. 78-79).  As this morning’s reading from Isaiah 64 reminds us, creation acts in concert with the actions and purposes of God.  The heavens are torn, the mountains quake. It is like “when fire kindles brushwood and fire causes water to boil,” moments in which recent science has located seemingly chaotic and intractable changes which nonetheless result in a new ordering of nature: creation explodes with great energy when God comes suddenly out of hiding (Isaiah 64:1-2, 7).

Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe.

Out of the temple, God goes, and into the cosmos, from where the powers in opposition to God are falling; off the temple mount go the elect, into the mountain wilderness, from which the winds blow freely to gather them up before the Son of Man; the withered tree bursts into flame as the temple tumbles into the turbulent waters over which the Spirit of God moves: so, it seems, God’s departure from the temple means the re-engagement of all creation in God’s purposes. Is this the end? No, says Myers: The scope of the ingathering is from one end of creation to another; Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe, the dawn of a new world now that the powers have been toppled” (Myers, p. 344). And the most telling sign of this renewal of creation in God is the greening of the fig tree, which Jesus now gives to his disciples in parabolic form (Mark 13:28). All these things, Mark says, are like the greening of the fig tree: when you see it happening, you know that summer is near. So also, with these things, you will know that the Son of Man and the renewal of life that the Son of Man brings is near, indeed, is “at the gates” (13:28-30).

The leafing of the tree, Myers notes, implied for William Telford a blessing for the Christian community “as a counterpoint to its withering in 11:20 and against the curse of Jerusalem.” On the contrary, Myers argues, the narrative relationship between the two trees does not in fact suggest contrast, but continuity. Mark’s reader “must once and for all learn the lesson of the fig tree. Which was:  the world of the temple-based social order must come to an end (11:20-26) in order for the new order to dawn” (Ibid. p. 345).  The parable of the fig tree actually summarizes the teaching of Jesus’ earlier parables:

The leafy fig tree symbolized “not the kairos for fruit”; the “bad soil” (cf. the sower parable, 4:16f.) symbolizes the oppressive temple state, which causes fruit to “wither’ (11:21). Similarly, the leafy fig tree means that “summer” (or “harvest,” to theros, 13:28) is imminent. . . This was already spelled out in the seed parable of 4:26-29: the kingdom seed grows unseen, but when it yields fruit the “sickle” is sent (apostellei) for “the harvest” (ho therismos). The war means that the “moment of truth” is “at the door” for the community” (13:29) (Ibid.).

The teaching of Jesus is full of new life, not only metaphorically and spiritually, but also existentially and materially. But one must remain alert to see its blossom.

What, then, can we conclude thus far with respect to an orientation to creation in the season of Advent? Yes, to be sure, the “heaven and earth” of the social order of the temple state is passing away, and soon; but the new creation will rise in the Garden of Gethsemane toward which Mark’s story now proceeds. Even as the disciples will fail in their struggle to stay awake in that garden, the reader of the Gospel is alerted to the birthing of a new heaven and a new earth in the life and death of Jesus. What Jesus encourages here, Myers suggests, is “a mythic moment of watching, however eerie and uncorporeal it may seem to us,” that was widely understood by the early Christians:

It was the cornerstone of the primitive church’s understanding of eschatological existence on the edge of history, and perhaps the most strongly attested of all New Testament catechetical/parenetic traditions (cf. Mt 24:43-51; Lk 21:34-36; 1 Thes 5:2-8; Rom 13:11-13; Col 4:2; 1 Pt 5:8; Rv 3:2). For Mark, it is the culmination of Jesus’ sermon on revolutionary patience. The discipleship community is exhorted to embrace the world as Gethsemane: to stay awake in the darkness of history, to refuse to compromise the politics of the cross. (Ibid., p. 347)

We await a new ecological and developmental cosmology of life, according to which all things can work together to create and sustain the awesome diversity and beauty of the created universe.

This is indeed a new orientation to the creation for us. Perhaps there is no better way to begin a new year. Whether or not it will make a difference for the well being of Earth, perhaps only time will tell. “Heaven and earth”—cosmologies, that is to say—come and go, as the history of science shows us; and some are more fruitful than others. One could argue that currently we are caught up in the struggle between, on the one hand, the mechanistic cosmology favored by the construction of the world according to the fossil fuel industry, which along with its deeply entrenched commercial, political, and military powers, is killing life on earth, and on the other hand, a new ecological and developmental cosmology of life, according to which all things can work together to create and sustain the awesome diversity and beauty of the created universe. Which of these Mark’s Jesus would applaud is surely clear, if it true that his Word, like a fig tree, endures. We shall indeed keep awake this Advent season, to see what’s coming.

As heavenly powers fall, the scattered people of God will be gathered to witness the dawn of a new world.

Temple is the heart of the cosmos and Israel’s social order.

God breaks out of the Temple to be present everywhere.

Where in the church’s scriptures for this season can we find God’s creation? 

Mark displaces creation: Temple, fig tree, and mountain.

Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe.

We await a new ecological and developmental cosmology of life, according to which all things can work together to create and sustain the awesome diversity and beauty of the created universe.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

First Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Let’s Just Start Over! Tom Mundahl reflects on the start of Advent in the midst of pandemic, climate crisis, and racial violence.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Advent marks a new beginning, entry into a new church year.  What a luxury it would be to face the future by erasing the challenges of the last year as easily as a child does by shaking her Etch-a-Sketch. Unfortunately, as we restart the liturgical year — our framework for telling and living the story of faith — the persistent challenges of the coronavirus pandemic,  the climate crisis, and the raw wounds of systemic racism will not let go. Any naive hope for exemption from these is dampened by what the psalmist calls “the bread of tears” (Psalm 80:5).

That we are not the first generation to face such intractable problems is revealed by one of the earliest Advent collects which begins, “Lighten our darkness.” This prayer dates at least to the Fourth Century C.E. when it was described by St. Basil as “the candle-lighting hymn” (liner notes for the CD “Lighten Our Darkness,” various artists, Hyperion, 2006). It should come as no surprise, then, that during this season of new hope, we light candles.

Because we cannot “just start over,” we light another candle each week, not for aesthetic reasons or even to help find our way through this inconvenient season, but so we can take a new look at ourselves and our surroundings, away from the false illumination of a still powerful, but collapsing culture. During this season of darkness when we navigate by candlelight, we remember German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, reflecting on a decade of resistance to the Nazi regime, celebrated the surprising discovery that “we have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below” (Letters and Papers from Prison, Macmillan, 1971, p. 17). No longer can we take the clinically-detached view embodied by a gorgeous shot of our planet from space. Because our hands are “dirtied” by our responsibility for climate, pandemic, and racial violence, we must refocus our attention and, with Bonhoeffer, “dig in.”

As we advance into the murkiness of all that makes us anxious, we come to rely even more on the word of hope we hear from the scriptures, a word that has provided mooring during troubled times throughout the history of God’s people. The candles we light point precisely to this strong narrative. Because I was privileged to live near St. John’s University and Abbey during my pastoral service, I was able to see the Saint John’s Bible as it was crafted by Donald Jackson and his team. As the first handwritten Bible authorized by a monastic community in 500 years, the displays of the first sections with illuminations were breathtaking. But, as an advocate of frugality, I was taken aback by what I saw as the profligate use of gold leaf. Then one of the project’s directors explained that the gold leaf was used to catch candlelight so that reading scripture was possible–by reflective illumination. During the darkness of our time also, the Advent candles illuminate the scriptures so that we can rediscover the confidence and courage they provide. As we  consider the readings for the season of Advent we will be on the hunt for clues and surprises that will “lighten our darkness.”

Despite a gracious “New Exodus” providing return from captivity in Babylon, hopes for a resurgence of a just and vibrant corporate life in Judah had dimmed. The people began to ask, “Where is the one who brought us from the sea…?” (Isaiah 63:11) and why does this God “harden our hearts…?” (Isaiah 63:17) It is out of this frustration that the desperate people cry, “O that you would open the heavens and come down….” (Isaiah 64:1). While this image calls to mind the Divine Warrior tradition, it drives even deeper to the Creator’s power to make new. Renewal includes both the “turning around” of repentance and “remembering” divine faithfulness (Isaiah 63: 11), especially in the Sinai event.

Even if the hopeful imagery of Second Isaiah seems to have weakened, the prophet and people hold their broken dreams together by that very act of recalling God’s faithfulness, the only force capable of renewing what has been “dismembered.” That memory does more than face backwards; it recalls that this is a God who makes way for the new, one who is capable of “tearing open the heavens and coming down.”

Here, the prophet returns to  creative imagery from the earlier Isaiah. “Woe  to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter”(Isaiah 45:7). Recalling this earthy metaphor, the prophet goes on to affirm divine reliability. “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father: we are the clay and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). It is this trust in the “maker of heaven and earth” that provides a way through even in the midst of despair. This hopefulness is amplified as the prophet adds divine assurance of restoration and harmony to the land (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge, 2009, p. 169). These promises encourage us as we struggle with issues of justice, threats of political violence, and pandemic fears during the twilight of Advent. Just as the thin gold foil in an illuminated Bible gives clarity to a text, so our thin threads of hope weave together the sturdy fabric of confidence and expectation.

With the foundation of this promise of re-creation, we are energized to take part in restorative ecojustice ourselves, whether that means resetting the climate-driven human-wildlife imbalance that has led to Covid-19 and prospective deadlier viruses (see Rachel Nuwer, “Nature is Returning,” Sierra, November- December 2020, pp. 28-33), or learning from soil scientists such as Walter Jehne about the role of hydrology in the climate crisis.

Not only do we need to continue study of the role of excess atmospheric carbon on biodiversity; we need also to study the restorative effects of biodiversity.  Jehne estimates that restoring one percent of the planet’s cooling capacity through repairing hydrological cycles (preserving marshy areas, forests, uncovering urban streams and planting in the riverbank areas they need), increasing regenerative agriculture that minimizes or eliminates plowing, composting everything…would offset the effects of current anthropogenic carbon gases” (Rob Lewis, “Walking to the Restoration, Dark Mountain, 17, Spring 2020, p. 11). Of course, this is all the more reason to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to “lighten our darkness” by continuing to learn from our terroir.

While these steps to restore a regenerative creation and human resilience must all be community-based, moving beyond denominational “silos” to maintain a deeply-rooted theological foundation is essential.  We learn this from Paul, who writes to the Corinthian assemblies in order to confront the challenge of internal division. As Hans Conzelman suggests, the very first word of the formal thanksgiving comprising our text, eucharisto, “I give thanks,” drives toward the assurance that all the gifts necessary to live out the community’s calling, including the strength to persevere, will be provided (1 Corinthians, Hermeneia, Fortress, 1975, p. 25).

Because these gifts are freely-given, there is absolutely no basis for status differential or discrimination: all are called to serve. Of course, this is the time of year when the word “gift” often carries quite different meanings. It has been suggested that some may compensate for virus-produced anxiety by “doubling down” on holiday gifts. Walter Brueggemann counters that such shopping sprees provide a false “achieved satiation” that sedates us into thinking that everything is just fine and that there are no problems that cannot be “fixed” by more consumption (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Fortress, 2001, pp. 36-37).

The gifts Paul refers to are given to empower a servant community to nurture the mystery of hope, to build a community so inclusive it comprehends all creation. No other scaling of  koinonia is comprehensive enough to do justice to the faithfulness of God (1 Corinthians 1:9). Commenting on this text, Richard Hays warns: “We are apt to think of the church’s life and mission on a small, even trivial scale.  We tend to locate the identity of our communities within some denominational program, or within local politics, or within recent history. But Paul urges us to understand the church in a cosmic frame of reference….” (First Corinthians, Louisville, John Knox, 1997, p. 20).

We may conclude that chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel provides us with more of the cosmic than we bargained for. Description of “wars and rumors of wars (v. 7), “fleeing to the mountains” (v. 14), false messiahs, and astronomical irregularities combine to create an atmosphere more suited to bad Halloween horror movies. But far from being otherworldly, this dramatic language seems to describe the life situation of the earliest community and its response to the Jewish Revolt  of 66-70 CE.

If scholars Adele Yarbro Collins and Ched Myers are right, this chapter documents  the struggle within the early community over which tack to take responding to this violent popular uprising.  Collins suggests that “wars and rumors of wars” and the warning that “the end is yet to come” (Mark 13:7) fit best with the situation early in the Jewish War. “If the war were already over, it would hardly have been necessary to point out that the end had not come” (The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context, Fortress, 1992, p. 82). Myers goes further, suggesting that this chapter is written for an audience in the resurrection community tempted to join forces with Zealots in military action. “In such a moment, there was only one voice that could match the persuasive call of the rebel recruiters: Jesus the living teacher” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 2nd Ed., Orbis, 2008, p. 330).  This is a strong call to  embrace nonviolence in response to the climate crisis and the healthcare and racial justice reforms while we wait and watch during Advent.

This gospel offers no passive appeasement of Roman imperialism. The evangelist makes this clear in the first verse of the gospel. Historians remind us that emperors considered themselves great benefactors of their subjects as is made clear in the documents and pronouncements detailing their activities.  For example, the Priene Calendar Inscription found near Ephesus, dating from the early first century CE, claimed that the birth of the emperor, considered a “son of God,” “signaled the beginning of good news for the world because of him” (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p. 18). Contradicting this imperial arrogance, our gospel writer starts: “the beginning of the good news (“gospel”) of Jesus Christ, son of God” (Mark 1:1). In fact, Lathrop suggests that this clear statement should be considered the title of this anonymous gospel.

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). This strong imperative sentence could be heard as a threat producing nervous foreboding. Instead, it is an invitation to faithful and attentive service. A community that no longer lives in anxiety about making the right eschatological call is freed for helpful response to whatever assails us. A time of fulfillment will come; in the meantime ecojustice, feeding the hungry, and caring for the sick are seasonal watchwords.

Alertness and watchfulness are more than a strategy; they replace the world of temple cult with trust in the word of the Risen One (Mark 13:31). The old fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) representing temple culture  no longer bears fruit. A new crop is coming to nourish this community of attentive care, a fig tree-tree of life that will sustain servants of creation in carrying out what is necessary (Mark 13: 28-31).

As we approach Advent 2020, we know our task is daunting–almost unthinkable. Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has said that the next months of the pandemic will be by far the darkest (Osterholm Update Podcast, Episode 29). “Lighten our darkness” continues to be our prayer. And, when we are able to, we will join together in song.

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath and be transfixed by faith.
So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north,
the living flame, in secret burning,
can kindle on the earth and bring God’s love to birth.
(“Each Winter as the Year Grows,” No. 252, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg-Fortress, 2006)

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 22, 2019) in Year A

Faithfulness and Creativity: Robert Saler reflects on the example of Saint Joseph.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

The readings for the fourth Sunday in Advent continue the theme of God’s grace rupturing our quotidian ways of being in the world, and the ways in which the coming of Christ provides a new angle on God’s revelation. This way of framing the matter is important: while Christians affirm that God’s revelation was and is uniquely disclosed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the entire plausibility of the gospels’ narrative framework depends upon Israelite religiosity. This is particularly true in the story of Joseph: while Christians regard Joseph as a hero of the faith for abiding by God’s plan, the entire theological underpinning of Joseph’s encounter with the angel depends upon the rich tradition of Israelite encounter with the divine.

Striking for our purposes, though, is what we might call Joseph’s creative and even “faithful” disobedience to the Hebrew Bible. Much has been made of the fact that Joseph, having discovered seemingly indisputable evidence of his wife’s infidelity to him, could have exposed her to shame, legal punishment, and even death as revenge against her; instead, he chooses simply to end the betrothal without compromising her integrity. This, in and of itself, is an action of what Peter Rollins might call faithful infidelity to the law—by refusing to abide by the letter of the law, Joseph embodies its spirit. Too much Lutheran preaching has occluded the fact that the “law” as the nation of Israel encountered it was in fact a gift of grace from God, a gift that fashioned God’s people and bestowed upon them an identity in a world in which they would be perpetual underdogs. Joseph, by his action, embodies a kind of virtuosic inhabiting of that spirit of grace, but does so precisely by going against his rights under the “law.”

The notion that God’s grace is a kind of deconstructive force that undermines the letter of the law in order to disclose the fundamentally benevolent and life-giving structures of God’s interaction with the world is, of course, a foundational Lutheran premise. Grace does not cancel the law, but it operates in a kind of faithful infidelity to it in order to save sinners. If the law condemns sinners to death, then grace—bestowed by the same God who gives the law—removes the law’s penalty in order to demonstrate God’s redemptive love for what God has made.

A theological maxim that undergirds much of what happens at this site, Lutherans Restoring Creation, is that Christian theology is in need of a “new Reformation,” one that will gradually but permanently shift the center of Christian theology away from understandings of the faith that breed apathy or even hostility towards creation to those that highlight earth-honoring and care for creation as essential aspects of Christian vocation. Those of us who work within that maxim do not view that theological work as entailing the introduction of unprecedented novelties into Christian discourse, as if earth-honoring faith requires a wholesale abandonment of what has come before. Instead, we look to the richness of the tradition in order to discern the paths not taken, the potential conceptual resources, and the places within the core of the faith that can support an earth-friendly practice of Christianity. This lack of fidelity to the tradition as it has been conventionally lived out in many Christian circles is, in fact, a way of honoring what is best about the tradition.

Similarly, the task of preaching Advent hope is not a matter of introducing wholesale rupture into the lives of those listening; rather, it is an invitation to all of us to review where we have been and what God has done for us with fresh eyes, and to consider whether the call of newness that comes with Advent is a call to be creatively unfaithful to that which has held us back from life abundant. All of us have lived lives in which the Spirit of life and our own resistance to grace have intertwined and determined our course; thus, the homiletical opportunity to create a space of honoring what has been life-giving about the past, even as we “betray” those assumptions that have held us back from the life that God would have us receive, is a genuine gift of the preacher.

To live faithfully as Christians in a time of ecological danger will require creatively betraying the assumptions under which many of us were raised. It will require the confidence that comes when we realize that the same God who disclosed the shape of grace in Jesus Christ continues to work deeply within the structures of creation, redeeming that which God has made. And it will, most of all, require the sort of love that wages all on the notion that God’s justice is superior to (and more merciful than) our justice and that seeks to remain faithful to that wager against all odds. Inviting the congregation into that wager of love is a powerful Advent opportunity for Christ’s body on this day.

For additional 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

Second Sunday of Advent (December 8, 2019) in Year A

Granting Time, Rupturing Time: Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 11 and Matthew 3

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the Second Sunday in Advent, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 8-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

In his deeply insightful book Capitalism and Religion The Price of Piety (Oxford: Routledge, 2002), the philosopher Philip Goodchild investigates how the structures of late capitalism mimic those of religion, particularly Christianity. At one point, in a discussion on how we “spend” the resources given to us and how such spending choices reflect our “piety,” he offers the following observation on time:

One significant example of the way in which honor is shown is the gift of spending time. One shows value, respect, concern, or interest in something or someone by spending time on it or with them. Unlike other resources, however, we have no freedom to preserve the expenditure of time. Time may be saved only by intensifying expenditure elsewhere. The flow of time forces us to pay our respects—it is a currency that cannot be hoarded but only traded. If we do not choose how we will spend our time, then its expenditure will be determined for us by duty, custom, habit, or distraction. A renunciation of all honoring, all choice of where one spends one’s time, is an acceptance of the values imposed by external powers. It is acquiescence in the existing distribution of values, and an honoring of such values. To the extent that the future encloses possibilities, and thought is able to select among these possibilities, then honor is shown. The question of transcendence is laid upon all free creatures constrained by the flow of time. To be temporal and free is to be pious.

Goodchild’s insight recalls that of Luther, who argued that our real “gods” are the ones that we honor with our trust when the temporal flow of our lives becomes disrupted. It is when the normal flow of time, the quotidian rhythm of our days, becomes disrupted that we come face to face with the real objects of our piety.

John the Baptist was, of course, the great disruptor of time—this eschatological prophet, whom both Jesus and the Gospel writers honored by spending time on his narrative. Similarly, although the Isaiah passage for this week is often understood in somewhat “fluffy” terms as a charming vision of paradise, in its contxt it too should be understood with its full disruptive significance: the coming of peace is the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into a world in which, as Chris Hedges has said, “war is a force that gives us meaning.” Just as in the book of Revelation, the figure of “the lamb” here is fraught with prophetic force, for nothing damns the horrors of war (including war on our very surroundings) so profoundly as a vision of the blessings of peace.

As we think about how we live as citizens of creation, Advent forces us to acknowledge that both personally and systemically we so often choose to honor (with our time) activities of war, exploitation, and practices that are killing us and our planet. As Goodchild’s quote points out, we do this not only by our active choices, but also by our “acquiescence in the existing distribution of values”—our refusal to be disruptive of the customs and habits that are unsustainably exploitative (hence our liturgical confession of things “done and left undone,” sins of commission and omission).

It is helpful, then, to think of the eschatological in-breaking of God’s kingdom for which the church prepares in Advent in terms of the disruption of our piety—our pieties towards what it is that we honor with our time, the piety that causes us to go along unquestioningly with what Goodchild elsewhere calls the “liturgy of common sense” (even, and especially, when that quotidian “liturgy” is destroying our planet and ourselves), the piety that causes us to look at creation as a stockpile of resources for our consumption rather than a fragile web that sustains that which God loves.

In our daily pieties, we are no better than the hypocrites against whom John the Baptist rails—we, as much as they, need disruptive grace to reform our ways of spending the honor of time, and living as God’s people in God’s creation. The gospel promise of Advent, then, is that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus retains the power to break our way of honoring that which kills us, and frees us to live out our time on this planet as partakers of God’s new way of being.

For additional 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

First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2019) in Year A (Saler)

Improvisation — A Christian Stance of Hopefulness:  Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

At my seminary, I am currently facilitating an Augustine reading group. The group is taking the entire year to work our way through his magnum opus The City of God, purely for fun and edification. This 5th century text features Augustine engaging polemically with the educated pagans of his day, those who blamed Christians for the 410 sack of Rome by the Visgoth army and who advocated for a return to the worship of the Roman pantheon of deities.

I am a longtime lover of Augustine, and there is much about his critiques of the paganism of his day with which I resonate. However, in books 6 and 7 of the text, when he decries the arbitrariness of the placement of gods within the Roman pantheon, an interesting contrast emerges that I think separates his time from ours rather decisively.

In my view, part of Augustine’s mockery of paganism is that so much of it seems improvised to him: gods and men serve certain functions at a particular period of time, and are rewarded/used by being placed then in the pantheon in some position that correlates with their usefulness. By implicit contrast, then, Augustine presents Christian truth as something that is established from the foundation of the world and therefore is always already prior to human intervention (thus echoing Paul’s arguments that he was “handing on” only what had been given to him).

However, in between Augustine’s time and ours, those of us who are Christian have come to understand that the Christian imagination has always involved improvisation and the development of its key themes as those themes have moved across radically diverse epochs and cultures. Part of the genius of 19th century theology (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) was to recognize that doctrine is in a constant state of development, and that all living things must continually be developing and changing in order to stay vibrant. Pure stasis, argued theologians from Friedrich Schleiermacher to John Henry Newman, is death.

The early texts of Advent are clearly eschatological in focus. And thinking through how Christians who care about creation might understand the “end(s)” of the world is a worthy preaching task for this season. However, it is also the case that Advent invites the congregation to imagine how God continues to improvise throughout the biblical narrative, and indeed throughout the world as we experience it. The Isaiah reading invites us to imagine swords beaten into plowshares. Meanwhile, the reading from Matthew draws its pathos and power from the sheer unpredictability inherent in the end times: what is to come will be genuinely new, and preparedness is essential.

Genuine improvisation is not pure novelty; at its best (as in jazz, for example), it is rooted in tradition. The story of God’s salvific work towards all creation was given to Israel, and (despite a shameful history of anti-Judaism) the Christian tradition at its best has affirmed that it is a continuation of that same fundamental story as it is grafted onto Israel’s history. Similarly, Advent preaching must resist the temptation to frame the in-breaking of God’s kingdom as pure novelty. Not only is that idea not plausible, it also misses profound dimensions of the Christian witness—the deep resonance between the Holy Spirit’s ongoing improvisatory work in creation, the Biblical narratives’ tales of a God who shapes and is shaped by the actions of God’s people, and the shape of Christian hope for the future.

Innovation as eschatology, too, helps to bring out the resonance between the fact of the Earth’s suffering and the slightly menacing overtones of the Matthew reading (since many scholars think that what Jesus is describing is not God snatching people away, but rather imperial forces). The Earth is subject to injustice and degradation, and God’s redemptive improvisation must deal with this as well. We see from the “weak force” of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection how God chooses to work salvifically within the structures of injustice in our world.

Advent is a time, then, to preach about this hope with unsentimental but genuinely biblical confidence in how God’s Spirit continues to do its work throughout creation. The effective preacher will name the deep sense of unease we have as we are surrounded by the effects of what Augustine called libido domini—the imperial lust to conquer, a lust present in our politics and in our souls. However, this will be the occasion for the preacher also to name God’s refusal to let our degradation of what God has made be the final word in creation’s story, and for the preached word to give God’s people new eyes to see how that Spirit is “making all things new.”

For additional 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 of Advent (December 15, 2019) in Year A

Expanding the Imagination with Vision: Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 35.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the Third Sunday in Advent, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

The Isaiah text for this week is another Advent reading that offers a unique eschatological perspective—one that might be labeled as a utopia were it not centered in the midst of the ongoing struggle for salvific wholeness experienced by God’s people Israel. The reading contains imagery that is deeply tied to the notion of renewed creation. Much like Isaiah 11’s invocation of the lion lying down with the lamb, here a refreshed and renewed creation is depicted as having its barren and dry places inundated with life-giving water, its habitats kept safe from flesh-eating predators, and (as implied by the language of “everlasting joy”) even the power of death being removed from the creation.

This imagery of creation’s eschatological renewal has been deeply formative in both the Christian and Jewish imagination. Indeed, to the extent that studying early Christian writers is helpful for understanding how the gospel might have impacted those who were hearing it in its early stages, it is striking how often these images recur in patristic writings. As Paul Santmire notes, the church father Irenaeus (130-200) is particularly notable in this regard. As Santmire puts it:

Irenaeus does not assume a dialectic of human salvation and the whole creation, as Origen and many later theologians were to do. He does not envision any kind of pretemporal drama in eternity, where the elect are chosen (thesis); next a scene in time, the creation of the whole world for the sake of providing a place wherein the human creatures or rational spirits already chosen might be saved (antithesis); and then, finally a scene of reconciliation, where the human creatures or rational spirits are enabled to return to God again (synthesis). Rather, Irenaeus begins with the temporal beginning of the creation, as we have seen, and envisions one act of God, one divine economy, aimed at bringing the entire creation of a new status to a final fulfillment through the Word and Spirit” (Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, Fortress 1985).

In his text Against Heresies, Ireaneus picks up on Isaiah’s imagery as he imagines the eschatological fulfillment of creation’s blessedness:

The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionably to the times of the Kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon rising from the dead, when also the creation, having been renovated and set free, shall fructify with an abundance of all kinds of food, from the dew of heaven, and from the fertility of the earth.

He even envisioned a situation in which predatory animals would no longer have to hunt each other for food, having returned to a state akin to vegetarianism.

Similar imagery is offered by the patristic writer Lactantius (~260-317) in his text Divine Institutes:

Then, there will be taken away from the world those darknesses with which the sky is obscured and blocked from sight, and the moon will receive the brightness of the sun, nor will it be diminished anymore. The sun, however, will become seven times brighter than it now is. The earth, in truth, will disclose its fecundity and will produce the richest crops of its own accord. Mountain rocks will ooze with honey, wines will flow down through the streams, and rivers will overflow with milk. The world itself will rejoice and the nature of all things will be glad, since the dominion and evil and impiety and crime will have been broken and cut off from it. Beasts will not feed on blood during this time nor birds on prey, but all things will be quiet and at rest. Lions and calves will stand together at the manger to feed; the wolf will not steal the sheep; the dog will not hunt; hawks and eagles will not do harm; a child will play with snakes.

What might these ancient images have to do with contemporary preaching during Advent? The twentieth-century French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry once remarked, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” In a time when so much preaching towards care for creation (as in other important matters) can easily cross the line into mere moral exhortation (or, even worse, scolding), a rich homiletical challenge for today’s preacher—heir to Irenaeus and Lactantius—would be to imagine what sort of vision of fulfilled creation might stir the imaginations of congregations today, and how that vision might inspire creative action towards ecological justice today. Would imagining a world in which coal-burning plants were no more? Where the rich and the poor no longer have to be cast in the roles of ecological enemies? Where species can be appreciated in all their diversity without nagging fears of extinction?

When the preacher engages the Christian eschatological imagination in such fashion, the congregation is left open to surprise as to what actions such an imagination might give rise to, this Advent and beyond. As Jesus himself indicates in the Matthew text for this Sunday, the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into our world produces effects beyond what the world might have imagined previously; so it is that the church, Christ’s body on earth, might exceed all expectations (even its own) for what God’s spirit calls and equips it to do.

For additional 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

First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2019) in Year A (Santmire)

Why bother with Advent?  Paul Santmire reflects on the start of the Advent season and offers a sermon example.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Paul Santmire in 2016)

Readings for the First Sunday in Advent, Year A (2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

The season of Advent in North America is all-too often swallowed up by the so-called “Christmas spirit.”  Pastors know well the pressures from congregational members to sing Christmas hymns as soon as possible.  Never mind the fact that Christmas decorations already have been up for sale in Home Depot since the end of August.  Why bother with Advent?

Most pastors also know well that the biblical meanings of Christmas only make sense when they’re interpreted in terms of the rich texts of Advent.  Christmas, biblically interpreted, is countercultural.  The countercultural pilgrimage of Advent prepares the way for such understandings.  It’s not enough, in other words, for the people of faith to realize that “Jesus is the reason for the Season” of Christmas.  They need to understand that the biblical Jesus stands over against every human season, both in judgment and in promise.  Advent, rightly preached and enacted, will help the faithful claim that understanding as their own.

Karl Barth was wont to talk about “the strange new world of the Bible.”  What if the presiding pastor were to say, in introducing the themes of Advent:  “You’re not going to ‘get’ our Advent texts, at least not the way you might want to.  I sometimes have trouble understanding them myself.  Listen to them as if they were beamed here from some hitherto totally unknown planet in some strange language.  Advent texts refer to difficult ideas, like ‘the end of the world,’ which some Christians think they know all about, but which in fact are obscure to the point of being unintelligible.  On the other hand, what if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is urgently concerned to speak to you through these very texts?”

Isaiah 2:1-5 is a kind of free-floating text, only loosely related to its context.  Likewise for Micah 4:1-3, which is roughly identical with the text from Isaiah.  The words we have in Isaiah appear to reflect a kind of communal affirmation of faith, analogous, in Christian practice, to use of the Apostles Creed.  Why did that prophetic text have that kind of traditional place of honor in the memories and celebrations of the ancient People of God?  Its countercultural witness to a coming world of universal peace seems to be almost too much to believe in a world of constant warfare, with which the ancient People of God were well-acquainted.
Psalm 122 picks up many of the same themes of universal peace, flowing from Jerusalem.  Note the play of words with the name of the city, shalom or “peace.”  In terms of the history of religions, moreover, the city of Jerusalem for the Hebrew mind is a kind of umbilical center of the cosmos, the place where heaven and earth, the Divine and the mundane worlds are joined with unique intensity.

Romans 13:11-14 discloses the eschatological mind-set that permeates the faith of the Apostle Paul, a mindset that is sometimes forgotten as interpreters, especially Lutherans, focus on the Pauline theme of justification by faith (Romans 1:17).  But for Paul, the two are inseparable.  The Pauline vision comprehends the whole history of God with the creation, not just the pro me of justifying faith.
Matthew 24:36-44 may be the single most difficult biblical text to preach on in North America today.  Countless millions – including many members of mainline churches – have read the many popular novels in the Left Behind series, the idea being that the day is at hand when a few believers will be “raptured” up to heaven by God, saving them from the total destruction that God is allegedly about to wreak on the whole world.  For New Testament faith, on the contrary, the heavenly Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth (Rev. 21:2), leading to a new heavens and a new earth.  Jesus’ language here is figurative throughout, not literal.  It’s intended to shock the hearer into a new way of hearing and understanding (cf. “Keep awake”), akin to his puzzling reference to a camel going through the eye of a needle. (Luke 18:22-25)

Sample Sermon:  Let it Dawn on You Today

Text:  “…It is the hour for you to awake from sleep.  For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:11-13)

St. Paul’s words to the early Christian Church at Rome strike me with a certain terror.  Because I’m a night person.
Are you a morning person?  Or are you a night person?  If you’re a morning person, let me tell you what it’s like to be a night person.  It’ll be good for your spiritual health.  If you’re a night person, like me, then I imagine you’ll be glad to empathize with me, every step of the way.

I.
First, and you morning people may find this difficult to believe, it take a lot of energy to wake up.

My wife’s a morning person.  It took her many years into our marriage to realize that it didn’t make any sense for her to say anything of significance to me first thing in the morning.  You know, she pops right up, and starts talking to me about my “honey-do” list.  And I respond obediently, “uh-huh, uh-huh.”  Two hours later she discovers that I don’t have a bird of an idea what she said to me.

Sin is like that.  It takes a lot of spiritual energy to wake up.  So you’re a smoker.  You know that smoking’s a kind of suicidal behavior.  You know that the Lord doesn’t want you to kill yourself.  You’re going to stop sometime, you know.  But it never really dawns on you that now’s the time to wake up.

So you’re a cheater, at times.  Maybe it’s on your exams at school.  Maybe it’s cutting corners at work.  Maybe it’s on your spouse, real or imagined.  Maybe it’s on your income tax, hugely or just in detail here or there.  You fill in the blank.

Mostly you don’t get caught.  But the whole thing troubles you.  What’s more, you know that once you get into the habit of cheating one thing can lead to another.  And that could be catastrophic for you or for others.  If you’re a surgeon, the sleep you cheat on at night could lead you to amputate the wrong leg the next day or to fall asleep at the wheel on a high speed family outing.

Then there’s voting, in particular, and political action, more generally.  If press reports are to be believed, a majority of the U.S. electorate is now disgusted by the tenor and even the substance of our recent elections.  You may well be tempted to throw in the towel of politics, as if nothing political matters any more.  But the truth of the matter is that everything political matters today, perhaps more than ever.  What about the biblical vision of a just peace for all peoples and indeed for the whole creation?!  You heard it again in our readings today.  But if many Christians let themselves go groggy or even fall asleep on the political superhighways of our society, what’s to become of the promise of peace on earth, good will to all?

II.
That’s why we night people need alarms.  Sometimes I set two alarms, one on the bed table, one across the room.  Because I don’t trust myself.  I’m likely to turn off the alarm next to me, roll over, and go back to sleep.  Now as a bona fide night person, I hate those alarm clocks.  But all the more so, I know how much I need them.

Did you ever think that God is setting off dozens of alarms all around you?

Everybody these days is “in” to spirituality.  Go to your local big box book store and you’ll find dozens and dozens of books on spirituality.  So you stand there, like a deer at night staring at the headlights, wondering how you can possibly read enough of those books to be the kind of spiritual person you want to be.

In the meantime, God is setting off alarms all over the place.  Your physician tells you that you’d better quit smoking or you’re going to have a heart attack by the time you’re fifty.  Your teacher at school quietly takes you aside and tells you that moral integrity is more important than straight A’s, so you might consider writing your own papers and not getting them on line.  Your secretary tells you that she’s leaving, because the environment you wink at in your office is so abusive that she can’t take it anymore.  Then your pastor tells you that, notwithstanding all the toxicity of the last election, Jesus calls you to get back into the political struggle in behalf of the poor and the oppressed and indeed the whole Earth, that Jesus wants you to plunge in, not drop out.

Some people wonder where God is in their lives.  If that’s you, you could start by listening to all the alarms that’re going off all around you, every day.  “It is the hour for you to awake from sleep,” says Paul.

III.
But I can assure you.  There is hope, even for bona fide night people like me.

Let me tell you what characteristically happens to me on Sunday mornings.  Both my alarms go off.  During the dark winter mornings that we have in Advent, I stumble around in the twilight to get ready.  I rummage through the paper to see what happened the day before.  I say a quick prayer.  I gulp down some coffee.  And off I go.

Now and again, it happens.  I’m driving along West Market Street heading downtown, in the dawn twilight.  And then I happen to see the first rays of the sun.  On occasion, this is my vision.  At the top of the last hill down into the city, I look across the way and I see the sun coming up, right behind this church!  What a marvelous sight!

Did it ever dawn on you?  Did it ever dawn on you that if you were at the right place, at the right time, you could see that this world of sin and death and disappointment and political toxicity is in fact God’s world, where God’s struggling to overcome all the darkness?  Did it ever dawn on you that this commonplace society of sinners here on Sunday mornings who are struggling to believe in the midst of the darkness of this world:  that here’s a reliable place for you to see the Light of God?

That’s the way it’s been for me all my life.  However much I’ve stumbled around in the darkness, the Light of Christ has already been there for me, beginning with the mysteries and the ministries of the Church of Christ.  That doesn’t mean that the darkness is going to go away.  That means that you have seen the Light, baby.  Actually, in the person of a baby.  But I don’t want to get ahead of myself – because this is Advent, when what I need to be working on first and foremost is waking up, not figuring out how to hold an infant in my arms.

IV.
Let me tell you a story.  Happens to be a true story.

When I first started preaching and teaching about God’s love for the whole creation, not just humans, I felt very much alone.  In those days, back in the early nineteen-sixties, most of the Church’s preachers and teachers had other axes to grind.  Only a very few, like the great Lutheran theologian of nature, Joseph Sittler, even cared about such things.  Meanwhile, a few of us were indeed convinced that God so loved the world that God gave the Beloved, God’s only Son, so that the world might be saved through Him.

Similar developments were unfolding in a number of Christian churches.  By now the spiritual vision of God loving the whole world – every creature! – has taken over the hearts and minds of Christians throughout the world.  Pope Francis’ justly celebrated encyclical Laudato Si’, is the most visible of these developments, but only one among many.

In Lutheran circles, a growing grassroots ecojustice network, Lutherans Restoring Creation, is being used by God to transform Lutheran minds and hearts throughout our church.  A new generation of Lutheran theologians, too, dedicated to Earth ministry and to the poor of the Earth, is now calling on our congregations to participate in a new Eco-Reformation – the title of their recently published theological manifesto, which will hopefully inspire new conversations and new commitments in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

Once upon a time, when I was working through my days of depressed theological slumber about these theology and ecology matters, I never could have anticipated what has happened in our churches in the current generation.  But now it’s dawned on me!  God has not forsaken his churches!  I just had to wake up and see!  I also had to wait – but that’s another Advent theme for another day.

V.

It’s not easy being a night person, as I say.  Sometime it takes a long time to wake up and see the light!  But I can tell you, on the basis of my own experience, that sometimes, when you do get around to waking up, after you’ve heard the alarms, the experience of the dawning Light can be remarkable, even overwhelming, right in the midst of the darkness of this world of sin and death.

Hear this Word of the Lord, therefore.  Let it dawn on you this day:  “…It is the hour for you to awake from sleep.  For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, the night is advanced, the day is at hand.”  Amen.

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

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Year A

The Psalms of Christmas: Let All Creation Praise

By Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series B: 2011-2012

Nativity of our Lord

1. Introduction

2. Christmas Eve

3. Christmas Day

1. 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 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.

Creatures’ praise: they reflect in their existence the being that is God.

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.”

Nature’s praise is a symphony orchestra.

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.

2. Christmas Eve
Psalm 96

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

“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)

All Earth makes magnificent music

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. 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 praise? There is an expected ‘new earth, where righteousness is at home.’

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? On the Third Sunday of Advent, we had occasion to note the reason for the joy Mary expressed in her song of praise. The Magnificat, we suggested, is “good news for the earth,” in that “she sings of the end of dominating powers which will clear the way for the expected ‘new earth, where righteousness is at home.” 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).

 

 

Roman peace is destruction and devastation.

The treacherous character of this imperial peace is suggested, however, by how the Roman legions enforced that 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).

Creation awaits true peace, the Prince of Peace.

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 do make for a grand chorus!


3. Christmas Day
Psalm 97 or 98

Isaiah 62:6-12 or Isaiah 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

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth

“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?

The earth is expecting peace with righteousness.

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 (62:8-90). 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.

Earth rejoices because God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably.

So as we anticipated from Mary’s response to the Annunciation, 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). With her we are in her child given new orientation to the creation as finitum capax infiniti, capable of 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.

Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year C (Mundahl)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series C: 2018-2019

by Tom Mundahl

The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

As we approach the last Sunday in Advent and lean toward the Festival of the Incarnation, we marvel at Luke’s creativity in presenting the parallel births of John and Jesus in both prose and lyric song. Although it may be the case that the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis were among a growing collection of early hymns, their use by the evangelist is entirely original (see Gordon W. Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p. 122).

Perhaps the most important function of these songs is to express amazement and wonder at the birth of two children destined to renew their people, a wonder that overflows to the whole creation. Luke makes the force of the births crystal clear by situating them during the regimes of Herod and Caesar Augustus (Luke 1:5, 2:1). These political leaders wield power with the lifeless language of decrees and tax bills. In contrast, Brueggemann suggests: “There is no way to begin this new narrative except by a new song in the mouths of angels. The very idiom of lyric means the penetration of closed royal prose. The beginning is with a song that stands in conflict with the decree. All the old history is by decree, but the new history begins another way” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 103).

Not only does Luke here honor the Greco-Roman mode of enlivening historical narrative with the energy of speech in the style of Thucydides or Lucian, but employing “lyric hymnody” to celebrate divine action, he moves far beyond setting forth an “orderly account” (Luke 1:3) to “bring to fruition” (Luke 1:1, alternative translation of “fulfillment”) new life among the hearers of the story. Just as the root meaning of the word “poetry” is “to create or make,” so all captured by this narrative are enlivened and share in the remaking of creation.

While there is no doubting the significance of the Davidic pedigree (Micah 5:2-5a), nor the utter newness in atonement the author of Hebrews shares (Hebrews 10: 5-10), this final Sunday in Advent belongs to Mary and Elizabeth. The annunciation, the visitation, and the Magnificat reveal the power and the mystery of the coming of God. As poet Denise Levertov write of Mary, whose courage is confirmed by Elizabeth:

Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage, unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
(The Collected Poems of Denise
Levertov, New York: New Directions,
2013, pp. 836-837)

As we have seen from Luke’s narration of the parallel births, he clearly favors Mary and Elizabeth. Despite his priestly credentials, Zechariah finds the promise that his elderly wife will bear a son ridiculous. His question, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18) is the last we hear from him until John is named. By contrast, even though Mary is “much perplexed” (Luke 1:29) by Gabriel’s stunning words, she responds, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Wisely, she discerns Gabriel’s clue and travels to see her relative Elizabeth. Mary could receive no greater confirmation than Elizabeth’s rich blessings: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42), and “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Like 1:45). Blessing is always intimately linked with creation (Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978, pp. 40-42).

And yet, we should not underestimate blessed Mary’s perplexity and the richness of the dialogue with the messenger that follows. We hear Mary’s confusion in the simple question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”(Luke 1:34b) Gabriel’s response goes far beyond obstetrics. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you….” (Luke 1:35) That this is an enterprise of deep meaning is made evident in the “overshadowing” (episkiatzo) of the Most High. This sense of the looming, creative presence occurs as God’s very being fills the “tent of meeting” as the Exodus (a critical theme for Luke) continues (Exodus 40: 34-35, LXX). It recurs in the Transfiguration narrative (Luke 9:34—Exodus again)), where a similar presence “overshadows” the disciple group, making any suggestions of marking the occasion with “wilderness booths” all the more ridiculous. Even more primal is the “wind from God” that “overshadows” the “face of the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2, LXX). How could we conclude that the coming birth is anything less than a “new creation” leading to “exodus freedom?”

This birth brought on by the “overshadowing” of the Most High transfigures the earth household. The evidence is clearly heard in Mary’s response to the angelic messenger. Instead of being named “Queen Consort” of the divine, Mary entitles herself “the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). This theme of reversal will explode in the Magnificat inspired by Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. The boldness of Mary’s song comes from the simple fact that we are in the realm of what Brueggemann calls “the theology of the impossible” (Brueggemann, p. 141). Gabriel makes this clear by repeating the words to Abram and Sarai under the oaks of Mamre: “For nothing will be impossible for God” (Genesis 18:14, Luke 1:37).

Electric as it is, even lyric poetry like the Magnificat exhibits structural elements. The poem moves from singing of the reversal of Mary’s condition from humility to blessing (1:46-49) to a wider statement of God’s mercy to all who are reverent (1:50), to a vivid description of the reversal of the poor and arrogant (1:51-53, concluding with a reminder that this all fulfills promises to Abraham and descendants that will overflow into the future (1:54-55). This schema is reinforced by an additional pattern emerging “from the repeated use of strong action verbs at the beginning of clauses.” For example, “magnifies,” “rejoices,” ”he has looked,” ”has done great things,” ”shown strength with his arm,” ”has scattered,” “has brought down,” ”has lifted up,” ”has filled,” ”has sent the rich away,” and “has helped” all serve to stress that this is, without question, God’s action (Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, pp. 26-27).

But this narrative strategy does not compromise the free nature of this lyrical event. Here is no royal decree, no official administrative order. As Brueggemann concludes, “The event will not be contained by the rationality of kings, ancient or contemporary. Rather, there is here a brooding, a wondering, and an amazement” (Brueggemann, p. 104).

The wonder of all this is underscored by the use of the word formerly translated as “behold” (idou) three times in Gabriel’s “annunciation” (vv. 31, 36, and 38). The first two uses, by Gabriel, are translated by NRSV as “and now.” While the desire to avoid archaic language of “excessive holiness” is understandable, isn’t this just a bit too weak? It may be that returning to “behold” may restore the necessary authority of Gabriel and help us recover a sense of the mysterium tremendum with its riveting awe and overpowering urgency (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford,1958, pp. 12-24).

Maggie Ross suggests “Hebrew and Greek authors are careful to distinguish bodily seeing from beholding or inward vision….To put this more simply, ordinary seeing is analytical; it discriminates, grasps, and controls. Beholding is organic, ungrasping, and self-emptying” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p. 11). Joseph Sittler agrees, claiming that the biblical view of reality is particularly ecological—an ontology of creation community—that requires a “beholding of actuality” (“Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Bouma-Prediger and Bakken, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 79).

Sittler continues: “To ‘behold’ means to stand among things with a kind of reverence for life which does not walk through the world of the nonself with one’s arrogant hat on….To stand ‘beholding’ means that one stands within the creation with an intrinsically theological stance” (Sittler, p. 80). Ross puts it more practically: “It is in the context of beholding that we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the context of distraction that we have despoiled it” (Ross, p. 12).

The final use of “behold” in the annunciation is Mary’s most moving affirmation, “Behold (“Here am I,” NRSV), I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). While this is not so bad, with a deep performative meaning, it remains to poll the poets to determine the richer. And this is crucial, for as Paul Ricoeur reminds us, “obedience follows imagination” (quoted in Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989, p. 85). The search for ecojustice today requires a massive infusion of imagination, far more than the threat of more fires, hurricanes, and heat can provide. But then it cannot have been easy to face up to the task of becoming theotokos, the Mother of God—especially as a very young woman. William Butler Yeats helps us to begin to share the immensity of this calling in his poem, “The Mother of God,” which ends with this lament:

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains
This fallen star my milk sustains.
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones.
And bids my hair stand up?
(The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats,
New York: Macmillan, 1956, p.244)

Even as we join Mary in lament—in our case frustration over the struggle for ecojustice—during this Advent season, we remember Gabriel’s words, “For nothing will be impossible with
God” (Luke 1:37).

Tom Mundahl tmundahl@gmail.com.

Third Sunday in Advent, Year C (Mundahl)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series C — 2018-2019
The Third Sunday in Advent

by Tom Mundahl 

Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Isaiah 12: 2-6
Philippians 4: 4-7
Luke 3: 7-18

By tradition, the Third Sunday in Advent has been called Gaudete Sunday, a day to “rejoice” as we turn in hope and expectation toward the celebration of Christmas, the twelve-day Feast of the Incarnation. While the designation Gaudete stems from this week’s Second Lesson, Philippians 4:4-7, Gaudete in Domino semper, “rejoice in the Lord always,” the remaining readings hardly neglect joyful hope.

Despite the people of Judah concluding that “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm” (Zephaniah 1:12b), the prophet envisions a new day where a remnant “shall do no wrong and utter no lies” (3:13). Then the carnival of celebration envisioned in our reading will erupt, a celebration of singing based on the unshakeable faith that “the LORD, your God, is in your midst” ( 3:17) and, in fact, is joining the party. It is a time when even the lame and outcast will lose their shame and be at home (3:19-20).

Much the same can be said of the “songs of Isaiah” (Isaiah 12: 1-6). No matter how uncertain the international political system might be, God is trustworthy. When the community takes that to heart, it is always appropriate to sing these two short verses reminiscent of the songs of Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15:1-21). These songs are so powerful that they continue to be used as worship acclamations. There are few more powerful texts than: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid, for the LORD God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (Isaiah 12: 2).

As good as it is to “rejoice,” we know that the new day has not arrived as we wonder how to respond to the worldwide refugee crisis, cholera in Yemen, mass shootings in the U.S., and the newly-released Fourth National Climate Assessment. It is no surprise that with high confidence this assessment predicts more floods, higher temperatures, more wildfires, reduced crop yields, transportation difficulties, and the appearance of previously rare diseases (www.nytimes.com/2018/11/23). Because the current administration released this report on so-called “Black Friday” (better celebrated as “Buy Nothing Day”), the hope was that it would be buried in this frenzy of consumption. Certainly it is not the kind of news that should spark community celebration.

But then neither should being in prison. Yet that is precisely the venue from which Paul urges the Philippian community to “rejoice.” He is not alone in projecting hope in the midst of a situation which could only be called desperate. As Brueggemann suggests, the prophetic imagination bearing hope often emerges from the unlikeliest places: from a birth to an elderly couple and a young, unmarried woman, from a wilderness retreat enjoyed by thousands with seemingly no food, from capital punishment using brutal crucifixion, or from a Roman prison (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 102).

Perhaps this is because in all of these cases that which is seen as “ordinary and proper” (especially when backed up by imperial coercive power) is not ultimate. Paul makes this clear in Philippians when he urges hearers to be “minded,“ not by an Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness,” but as Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave….” (Philippians 2:6-7a). He continues this line of thought by providing assurance that it is the peace of God beyond understanding which will “stand guard” (froreo) over the hearts and minds of the faithful. No longer is it a centurion, as Paul saw daily in prison, who provides for the security of the community; now the Pax Romana is replaced by the Pax Christi, a peace extended to the whole creation.

This search for peace and safety is at the center as Luke’s narrative of the ministry of John the Baptist continues. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7). Security can never be found by leaving one’s city or village for a mere splash in the Jordan River. John’s baptism entails repentance and bearing fruits worthy of a new outlook on life. This is especially true in the face of the temptation to join Lot’s wife in looking back to embrace what seems like a safe past.

John sees through this tactic. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor….’”(Luke 3: 8). As the Baptist uncovers this dodge, we see the sharp contrast between what John prepares the people to look ahead for and relying solely on pedigree—even from Abraham. An important clue is the word “begin” (archomai). Luke’s entire narrative moves God’s story forward, beginning with the communities of Abraham-Sarah and Moses-Miriam, but extending to all people and living creatures (Luke 2:32). No wonder John’s mission of preparation and baptism for repentance takes for granted congruence between cleansing water and bearing good fruit. Anything less neglects the coming future and needs to feel the axe; it is good only for burning (Luke 3: 9).

Much the same is true of current so-called “populist” movements that hearken back to a non-existent past when everyone had a good job, there was little crime, no environmental challenge, all went to church, and the dizzying assortment of “others” had not demanded a place at the table. Because this “past” can never be re-created, it is used primarily as a vague source of values aimed at choking off immigration, eliminating equal rights, and elevating an “ancestral group” on behalf of which authoritarians seek to rule. This backward looking ideology never bears good fruit as it spreads racism, sexism, homophobia, and neglects eco-justice. It makes nothing “great again,” but powerfully draws attention and energy away from responding to real needs.

What then is this “good fruit” that meets Luke’s intention in creating his “orderly account?” (Luke 1:1). Which is exactly what the crowds asked John the Baptist: “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:10, 12, 14). Whether it is a matter of sharing clothing and food or exercising the power to collect taxes or serve in the military, the answer is the same: live out an “ethics of the Magnificat.” As Mary sings, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). Like the provision of daily bread, all is gift—whether the harvest of wheat or the call to service. These gifts of creation become fruitful when they are shared as freely as they are received.

It is no surprise that John’s presence and teaching led people to “rejoice” that they had found the Messiah. John will have none of this. While he provides a water bath, the more powerful coming one will baptize with “the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16), a clear reference to the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Once again we are reminded of the Exodus, where the spirit-wind parted the seas, while the people were led by a pillar of fire. This new exodus will go through the very gates of death to open not only the scriptures (Luke 24:27, 32, 45) and the eyes of the disappointed couple (Luke 24: 31), but also open the whole creation to reconciliation-shalom (Luke 24:47). Baptism into the death and resurrection of this coming one (Romans 6:1-11) means a life of fruitful working toward ecojustice in opposition to the forces of greed that continue to destroy creation, described as “chaff” slated for a good burning (Luke 3:17b).

This powerful and gracious opening of the Earth to reconciliation (Luke 24: 47) is echoed in baptismal liturgies. Candidates for baptism, parents, and sponsors are empowered to fulfill these central responsibilities: to “proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God has made, and work for justice and peace” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 2006, p. 228). As we engage in pre-baptismal education and proclaim reconciliation, we are called to remember that our lives are formed to care for the whole creation.

Advent provides a fruitful time of opportunity for this message. While there is pressure to engage in endless shopping to find the most pleasing gifts, to load the calendar with a round of parties, card writing, and all the rest, the community of faith offers counter-cultural freedom to carve out time and space to focus on what is most important. While Christmas is hardly “Jesus’ birthday,” the phrase “Whose Birthday Is It?” had some real usefulness. Now broaden that to learn how to prepare for celebrating the Trinity dwelling with us—and we have something worth “rejoicing” in.

Tom Mundahl tmundahl@gmail.com.