Tag Archives: Advent

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.

Second Sunday in Advent, Year C (Mundahl)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series C: 2018-2019
By Tom Mundahl
First Sunday in Advent
Jeremiah 33: 14-16
Psalm 25: 1-10
1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13
Luke 21: 25-36

The season of Advent quietly opens the door to a new church year as assemblies focus on the coming of God. Not only do we celebrate the incarnation so beautifully narrated by Luke, we celebrate the continuous coming in creation, community, word and sacrament. Finally, we look forward to the mysterious advent that Moltmann calls “the sabbath of eternal joy” (The Coming of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, p. 338).

As we reflect on Advent readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, we will hear texts concerned with both the future and the incarnation, texts that are woven together by deep confidence in the presence of a Word that empowers our lives and gives us endurance to struggle for ecojustice.

Each week during this dramatic season we must ask the question voiced by film director David Mamet: “Where do we put the camera” (David Mamet, On Directing Film, New York: Penguin, 1991, p. 10)? This week’s Gospel text, which will be our focus, suggests that we position our “cameras” as best we can facing what can only be called a threatening future. Elizabeth Kolbert sounds the alarm: “This fiery summer has given us a glimpse of what climate change will look like.” She proceeds to describe not only all-too-common blazes in the western U.S., but also to remind us of deadly fires ranging from Greece to Sweden’s Arctic Circle (Kolbert, The New Yorker, September 10, 2018, p. 36). Then, in early October, the IPCC reported that a 2.0 degree allowable rise in temperature sanctioned by the Paris Accords of 2015 must be reduced to 1.5 degrees C. Eric Solheim of the UN Climate Programme said of this new report, “It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, October 9, 2018, pp. 1 and 10).

The reality of living in a new climate regime (labeled “anthropocene” by Earth systems scientists) intensifies our stance toward the future. Because of the Earth’s response to human release of greenhouse gases, we are learning that “in the anthropocene we may say that the present is drenched with the future…the unsettling presence of things to come” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 132). To double down on this, Bruno Latour suggests, “we have to position ourselves as though we were at the end of time” (Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 213).

Perhaps we can slacken the tension by taking a biblical cue offered by Latour. It comes from Paul’s advice to the Corinthian community: “Those who mourn should live as if they did not; those who are happy as if they were not; those who buy something as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7: 30-31, Latour). Not only does this orient us toward the future, but it reminds us that the end/purpose of our lives is to be about the down-to-earth task of worship, learning, and serving one another and the whole creation in expectation of renewal.

This new advent also calls our attention to Luke’s Gospel. Unique in sharing his methodology, the author proposes to undertake an investigation to write “an orderly account” (Luke 1:1-4) so that worshipping communities will hear reliable truth. This new “history” reckons with “the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1b). Michael Trainor suggests that the verb translated as “fulfilled,” plerophoreo, might be better translated as “brought to fruition” (as it is translated more than 70 times in LXX), reflecting divine action to bear renewal for the Earth household (About Earth’s Child: An Ecological Listening to the Gospel of Luke, Sheffield Press, 2015, p. 65). That creational fruitfulness is central to Luke is underscored by his genealogy, beginning with “Adam, son of God” (Luke 3:38), not with Abraham as Matthew has it (Matthew 1:2). Creation, then, orders Luke’s Gospel.

As Luke orders the story of divine fruitfulness, concern for the future is unavoidable. Because this gospel stems from the post-temple era (after 70 CE) use of material from Mark’s “little apocalypse” is unique. No longer do we envision the elect being gathered in by angels (Mark 13: 27). Now the consequences of the coming parousia will be felt throughout the earth (oikoumene) (Luke 21:26, 35). What is more, this universal renewal of the fruitfulness of life is to be met not with fear but with eager joy: “raise up your heads” (Luke 21: 28) to “stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21: 36).

Just as Luke shapes the Markan tradition for the needs of his own audience, so must we interpret ‘sun, moon, and stars” (Luke 21: 25) in a manner more comprehensible to us. Influenced by the poetics of T. S. Eliot, Michael Trainor suggests that the meaning of a poem or verse is not fixed by the author’s milieu. “Its meaning continues and expands beyond the writer’s lifetime…and is the fruit of interrelated texts—earlier generational insights, cultural factors that influence the writer, the social world of the text’s original audience, previous texts and traditions, and the world which the interpreter brings to the text” (Trainor, p. 46).

While it is not the intention of this writer to literalize the metaphorical power of apocalyptic, the current despoiling of creation cannot help but influence our understanding. The sun and moon seen through the polluted air of Shanghai or San Francisco (or even the Twin Cities when choked by smoke from Canadian wildfires) offer a clear sign of threat. The distress caused in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, or the Gulf Coast of the U.S. by the “roaring of the sea” (Luke 21:25) during major storms fills living creatures with “foreboding about what is coming upon the world” (Luke 21:26). Advent of 2018 must still promise the Coming One—if only he can be seen through the cloud deck (Luke 21:27). Yet this is not a time of paralysis for the faith community. Instead, the call is to straighten up in confidence because of the divine commitment to creation, the same commitment shared by all seeking ecojustice.

Luke also transforms the “parable of the fig tree” (Luke 21: 29-33). Now we are invited to consider “the fig tree and all the trees” (v. 29). Because the fig tree is a common symbol for Israel (see Hosea 9:10), by referencing all trees the author signals an audience beyond the Jewish (or Jewish-Christian?) community. It is no longer that the Messiah is near, “at the very gates” (Mark 13: 29b), but that the more universalized “kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21: 31) and provides confidence in the integrity of creation.

This insight provides help in uncovering the meaning of this difficult concluding sentence: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21: 33). While current cultural forms and exploitation are transient, when we remember that divine speech (dabar) is the very basis of creation, we claim without reservation that removal of creation from God’s care would be impossible (Trainor, p. 258). Luke remains very down-to-earth.

It is these very mundane issues that comprise the final part of our text, all distinctly Lukan. Because Luke continues to call believers to attend to creation and evidence of needs, paying prayerful attention is crucial. As always (a word appropriate to Luke’s longer time horizon), there are temptations dulling this careful awareness. “Be on guard,” Luke warns, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life….” (Luke 21: 34).

No doubt there have always been diversions that get in the way of faithful responsibility. But no time in history has provided the distractions available in the present age. Neil Postman has captured the power of communications technology to divert in his Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), now a generation old. While information technology can be a powerful tool of change (witness this website), there is no doubt that, as Postman argues, in the US the real danger to civic culture is not only the hard-nosed authoritarianism (think of immigration and prison policies) depicted by George Orwell in 1984, but the pleasure-driven polity painted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, a culture based on consumption, drug use, and self-absorption.

While the militarization of police forces and increasing surveillance technology do smack of Orwell, the mania of consumerism, advertising, and easy credit, especially this time of year, begin to resemble a hedonocracy. Naturally these have all infected the church where “entertainment-based worship” and messages promoting “adjustment” to this kind of culture are rampant. Recognizing this, Postman writes, “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether” (Postman, p.121).

Perhaps the most significant form that “dissipation” takes today is the refusal to take climate change seriously. How do we explain this? Is it because of lack of scientific understanding, the likelihood that homo sapiens is hard-wired by our evolution for short-term thinking, a psychology of previous investment that ill fits us for major change, increased urbanization with decreasing contact with the natural world, the lobbying of wealthy carbon companies, or sinful selfishness—the heart curved in upon itself? Likely all of these play a significant role.

French theologian and philosopher, Bruno Latour, asks that we dig deeper. While Lutherans have just last year celebrated one of the catalytic events of the Reformation, Luther’s October 31, 1517 call to debate the nature of church authority, we often ignore the tragedy of a century of European warfare sparked by this movement. By the time of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), parties exhausted by war sought a basis for order beyond divisive claims of religious truth. What emerged was a firm agreement to respect the principal cuius regio, cuius religio first promulgated as part of the Peace of Augsburg of 1555. This meant that religion now was less a search for truth and free to be used as an ideological support for the new mercantilism aimed at adding to the wealth and military power of the state, vast acquisition of natural resources from colonial conquest, the new science, and, eventually, the all-powerful market to allocate wealth (Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 90).

In effect, states immanentized religious forces, giving a spiritual patina to the economic behemoths and empires that resulted. Although Karl Marx was wrong in many ways, he was dead right in his analysis of the ideological use of Christianity, a new gnosticism that gave divine authority to anything the Belgians did in the Congo or the English inflicted on child workers in what Blake called “the Satanic mills” (see Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952, chapters V and VI). Ironically, this ideological use of religion was precisely what was at the basis of Luther’s revolt—exposing the mis-use of the free Word of God as an “institutional mascot.”

Because human regimes were so confident of their arrogant divinely-approved goals, it was and is unthinkable that anything so mundane as the Earth system and its carbon-stuffed atmosphere should get in the way. The very notion that the earth could demonstrate agency, reacting to being treated like a cesspool, is unthinkable (Latour, p. 207). Is not the will of the Holy One that those created in the “image” of God produce and consume endlessly? To play on a well-known verse, “What use is it to save your soul, if it means losing the world? “ Even if it is God’s good creation.

Clearly, we are at a point where we have to listen to Luke and take the notion of “end time” seriously once more. Late in his life, Karl Barth wrote, “We do not know what Nature, what the cosmos in which we have lived and still live now, will be for us then; what the constellations, the sea, the broad valleys and the heights, which we see and know now, will say and mean then” (quoted in Hamilton, p. 133). Unfortunately, laments Hamilton, “we can indeed make out, through the haze of residual uncertainty, the future’s broad contours under the influence of this new human power” (Hamilton, p. 133).

As the shape of this anthropocene apocalypse becomes clearer, we are discovering where the cameras must be aimed: toward a people looking for freedom from all that “amuses us to death” and instead learning to live down-to-earth lives that focus on “where we are” (our home neighborhood) and “who we are” (servants of creation). This happens when we are alert at all times and pray that we have the strength not to flee our call to seek ecojustice.

By not fleeing, we embrace one of the richest themes in scripture: dwelling. “To dwell” means to make a commitment to a place, its people (neighbors), and its very humus. Even in Luke’s Gospel, which ends with the call to share the good news with all the world, beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24:47-48), the purpose is to provide a home for all in this fruitful earth. This means that the greatest Advent surprise—echoing the Bethlehem birth—is John’s vision that at the fulfillment of all things we will:

See, the home of God is among humans (all that lives)
God will dwell with them…. (Revelation 21:3)

Not surprisingly, John’s apocalypse ends with the watchword for Advent: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22: 20).

Tom Mundahl tmundahl@gmail.com.

 

 

 

First Sunday in Advent, Year C (Mundahl)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series C: 2018-2019
By Tom Mundahl
First Sunday in Advent
Jeremiah 33: 14-16
Psalm 25: 1-10
1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13
Luke 21: 25-36

The season of Advent quietly opens the door to a new church year as assemblies focus on the coming of God. Not only do we celebrate the incarnation so beautifully narrated by Luke, we celebrate the continuous coming in creation, community, word and sacrament. Finally, we look forward to the mysterious advent that Moltmann calls “the sabbath of eternal joy” (The Coming of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, p. 338).

As we reflect on Advent readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, we will hear texts concerned with both the future and the incarnation, texts that are woven together by deep confidence in the presence of a Word that empowers our lives and gives us endurance to struggle for ecojustice.

Each week during this dramatic season we must ask the question voiced by film director David Mamet: “Where do we put the camera” (David Mamet, On Directing Film, New York: Penguin, 1991, p. 10)? This week’s Gospel text, which will be our focus, suggests that we position our “cameras” as best we can facing what can only be called a threatening future. Elizabeth Kolbert sounds the alarm: “This fiery summer has given us a glimpse of what climate change will look like.” She proceeds to describe not only all-too-common blazes in the western U.S., but also to remind us of deadly fires ranging from Greece to Sweden’s Arctic Circle (Kolbert, The New Yorker, September 10, 2018, p. 36). Then, in early October, the IPCC reported that a 2.0 degree allowable rise in temperature sanctioned by the Paris Accords of 2015 must be reduced to 1.5 degrees C. Eric Solheim of the UN Climate Programme said of this new report, “It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, October 9, 2018, pp. 1 and 10).

The reality of living in a new climate regime (labeled “anthropocene” by Earth systems scientists) intensifies our stance toward the future. Because of the Earth’s response to human release of greenhouse gases, we are learning that “in the anthropocene we may say that the present is drenched with the future…the unsettling presence of things to come” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 132). To double down on this, Bruno Latour suggests, “we have to position ourselves as though we were at the end of time” (Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 213).

Perhaps we can slacken the tension by taking a biblical cue offered by Latour. It comes from Paul’s advice to the Corinthian community: “Those who mourn should live as if they did not; those who are happy as if they were not; those who buy something as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7: 30-31, Latour). Not only does this orient us toward the future, but it reminds us that the end/purpose of our lives is to be about the down-to-earth task of worship, learning, and serving one another and the whole creation in expectation of renewal.

This new advent also calls our attention to Luke’s Gospel. Unique in sharing his methodology, the author proposes to undertake an investigation to write “an orderly account” (Luke 1:1-4) so that worshipping communities will hear reliable truth. This new “history” reckons with “the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1b). Michael Trainor suggests that the verb translated as “fulfilled,” plerophoreo, might be better translated as “brought to fruition” (as it is translated more than 70 times in LXX), reflecting divine action to bear renewal for the Earth household (About Earth’s Child: An Ecological Listening to the Gospel of Luke, Sheffield Press, 2015, p. 65). That creational fruitfulness is central to Luke is underscored by his genealogy, beginning with “Adam, son of God” (Luke 3:38), not with Abraham as Matthew has it (Matthew 1:2). Creation, then, orders Luke’s Gospel.

As Luke orders the story of divine fruitfulness, concern for the future is unavoidable. Because this gospel stems from the post-temple era (after 70 CE) use of material from Mark’s “little apocalypse” is unique. No longer do we envision the elect being gathered in by angels (Mark 13: 27). Now the consequences of the coming parousia will be felt throughout the earth (oikoumene) (Luke 21:26, 35). What is more, this universal renewal of the fruitfulness of life is to be met not with fear but with eager joy: “raise up your heads” (Luke 21: 28) to “stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21: 36).

Just as Luke shapes the Markan tradition for the needs of his own audience, so must we interpret ‘sun, moon, and stars” (Luke 21: 25) in a manner more comprehensible to us. Influenced by the poetics of T. S. Eliot, Michael Trainor suggests that the meaning of a poem or verse is not fixed by the author’s milieu. “Its meaning continues and expands beyond the writer’s lifetime…and is the fruit of interrelated texts—earlier generational insights, cultural factors that influence the writer, the social world of the text’s original audience, previous texts and traditions, and the world which the interpreter brings to the text” (Trainor, p. 46).

While it is not the intention of this writer to literalize the metaphorical power of apocalyptic, the current despoiling of creation cannot help but influence our understanding. The sun and moon seen through the polluted air of Shanghai or San Francisco (or even the Twin Cities when choked by smoke from Canadian wildfires) offer a clear sign of threat. The distress caused in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, or the Gulf Coast of the U.S. by the “roaring of the sea” (Luke 21:25) during major storms fills living creatures with “foreboding about what is coming upon the world” (Luke 21:26). Advent of 2018 must still promise the Coming One—if only he can be seen through the cloud deck (Luke 21:27). Yet this is not a time of paralysis for the faith community. Instead, the call is to straighten up in confidence because of the divine commitment to creation, the same commitment shared by all seeking ecojustice.

Luke also transforms the “parable of the fig tree” (Luke 21: 29-33). Now we are invited to consider “the fig tree and all the trees” (v. 29). Because the fig tree is a common symbol for Israel (see Hosea 9:10), by referencing all trees the author signals an audience beyond the Jewish (or Jewish-Christian?) community. It is no longer that the Messiah is near, “at the very gates” (Mark 13: 29b), but that the more universalized “kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21: 31) and provides confidence in the integrity of creation.

This insight provides help in uncovering the meaning of this difficult concluding sentence: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21: 33). While current cultural forms and exploitation are transient, when we remember that divine speech (dabar) is the very basis of creation, we claim without reservation that removal of creation from God’s care would be impossible (Trainor, p. 258). Luke remains very down-to-earth.

It is these very mundane issues that comprise the final part of our text, all distinctly Lukan. Because Luke continues to call believers to attend to creation and evidence of needs, paying prayerful attention is crucial. As always (a word appropriate to Luke’s longer time horizon), there are temptations dulling this careful awareness. “Be on guard,” Luke warns, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life….” (Luke 21: 34).

No doubt there have always been diversions that get in the way of faithful responsibility. But no time in history has provided the distractions available in the present age. Neil Postman has captured the power of communications technology to divert in his Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), now a generation old. While information technology can be a powerful tool of change (witness this website), there is no doubt that, as Postman argues, in the US the real danger to civic culture is not only the hard-nosed authoritarianism (think of immigration and prison policies) depicted by George Orwell in 1984, but the pleasure-driven polity painted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, a culture based on consumption, drug use, and self-absorption.

While the militarization of police forces and increasing surveillance technology do smack of Orwell, the mania of consumerism, advertising, and easy credit, especially this time of year, begin to resemble a hedonocracy. Naturally these have all infected the church where “entertainment-based worship” and messages promoting “adjustment” to this kind of culture are rampant. Recognizing this, Postman writes, “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether” (Postman, p.121).

Perhaps the most significant form that “dissipation” takes today is the refusal to take climate change seriously. How do we explain this? Is it because of lack of scientific understanding, the likelihood that homo sapiens is hard-wired by our evolution for short-term thinking, a psychology of previous investment that ill fits us for major change, increased urbanization with decreasing contact with the natural world, the lobbying of wealthy carbon companies, or sinful selfishness—the heart curved in upon itself? Likely all of these play a significant role.

French theologian and philosopher, Bruno Latour, asks that we dig deeper. While Lutherans have just last year celebrated one of the catalytic events of the Reformation, Luther’s October 31, 1517 call to debate the nature of church authority, we often ignore the tragedy of a century of European warfare sparked by this movement. By the time of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), parties exhausted by war sought a basis for order beyond divisive claims of religious truth. What emerged was a firm agreement to respect the principal cuius regio, cuius religio first promulgated as part of the Peace of Augsburg of 1555. This meant that religion now was less a search for truth and free to be used as an ideological support for the new mercantilism aimed at adding to the wealth and military power of the state, vast acquisition of natural resources from colonial conquest, the new science, and, eventually, the all-powerful market to allocate wealth (Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 90).

In effect, states immanentized religious forces, giving a spiritual patina to the economic behemoths and empires that resulted. Although Karl Marx was wrong in many ways, he was dead right in his analysis of the ideological use of Christianity, a new gnosticism that gave divine authority to anything the Belgians did in the Congo or the English inflicted on child workers in what Blake called “the Satanic mills” (see Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952, chapters V and VI). Ironically, this ideological use of religion was precisely what was at the basis of Luther’s revolt—exposing the mis-use of the free Word of God as an “institutional mascot.”

Because human regimes were so confident of their arrogant divinely-approved goals, it was and is unthinkable that anything so mundane as the Earth system and its carbon-stuffed atmosphere should get in the way. The very notion that the earth could demonstrate agency, reacting to being treated like a cesspool, is unthinkable (Latour, p. 207). Is not the will of the Holy One that those created in the “image” of God produce and consume endlessly? To play on a well-known verse, “What use is it to save your soul, if it means losing the world? “ Even if it is God’s good creation.

Clearly, we are at a point where we have to listen to Luke and take the notion of “end time” seriously once more. Late in his life, Karl Barth wrote, “We do not know what Nature, what the cosmos in which we have lived and still live now, will be for us then; what the constellations, the sea, the broad valleys and the heights, which we see and know now, will say and mean then” (quoted in Hamilton, p. 133). Unfortunately, laments Hamilton, “we can indeed make out, through the haze of residual uncertainty, the future’s broad contours under the influence of this new human power” (Hamilton, p. 133).

As the shape of this anthropocene apocalypse becomes clearer, we are discovering where the cameras must be aimed: toward a people looking for freedom from all that “amuses us to death” and instead learning to live down-to-earth lives that focus on “where we are” (our home neighborhood) and “who we are” (servants of creation). This happens when we are alert at all times and pray that we have the strength not to flee our call to seek ecojustice.

By not fleeing, we embrace one of the richest themes in scripture: dwelling. “To dwell” means to make a commitment to a place, its people (neighbors), and its very humus. Even in Luke’s Gospel, which ends with the call to share the good news with all the world, beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24:47-48), the purpose is to provide a home for all in this fruitful earth. This means that the greatest Advent surprise—echoing the Bethlehem birth—is John’s vision that at the fulfillment of all things we will:

See, the home of God is among humans (all that lives)
God will dwell with them…. (Revelation 21:3)

Not surprisingly, John’s apocalypse ends with the watchword for Advent: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22: 20).

Tom Mundahl tmundahl@gmail.com.

 

 

 

Third Sunday in Advent, Year C

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

By Dennis Ormseth

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

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

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you

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

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

he will rejoice over you with gladness,

he will renew you in his love;

he will exult over you with loud singing

as on a day of festival.

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until cities lie waste without inhabitant,

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

until the Lord sends everyone far away,

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

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

like a terebinth or an oak

whose stump remains standing

when it is felled.” (6:11-13a)

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

They shall not build and another inhabit;

they shall not plant and another eat;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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