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Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

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

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

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

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

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

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

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

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

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

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

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

First Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God breaks out of the Temple to be present everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fig tree was an emblem of peace, security, and prosperity and is prominent when descriptions of the Golden Ages of Israel’s history, past, present, and future are given. . . . The blossoming of the fig tree and its giving of its fruits is a descriptive element in passages which depict Yahweh’s visiting his people with blessing, while the withering of the fig-tree, the destruction or withholding of its fruit, figures in imagery describing Yahweh’s judgment upon his people or their enemies . . . (Ibid. pp. 297-98).

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

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

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

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

Mark envisions a new world free of domination.

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

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

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

Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God breaks out of the Temple to be present everywhere.

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

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

Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe.

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

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

Sunday November 13-19 in Year A (Ormseth)

Claiming the Future as Precious Gifts of People and Land. Dennis Ormseth reflects on acting boldly for restoration and healing.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday November 13-19, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Zephaniah  1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12
I Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

At first look, the lessons seem to be unrelated to care for creation.

We approach the end of the church year, and our focus is directed by the lectionary towards the end of all time. The scriptures for this Sunday before the festival of Christ the King (The Reign of Christ) bear careful reading, lest care of creation be crushed under the weight of apocalyptic narrative popular in American culture. Zephaniah 1:18, for instance, speaks of a time when “in the fire of [the Lord’s] passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” “Who considers the power of your anger?” the psalmist asks (90:11). And while our second lesson holds out the promise that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” it says nothing about the fate of the non-human creation.

Accordingly, when we hear the Gospel speak of “a worthless slave” who is to be thrown “into the outer darkness,” we are fully ready to throw our lot in with those who pursue the strong “growth strategy” of the first two servants of Jesus’ parable. Obviously, one doesn’t want to have to deal with the anger faced by that fearful, no-growth slacker of the third servant. His economic behavior might be a great thing for Earth’s climate, but that could hardly matter if the whole earth is to be consumed! Since we know not the “times and the seasons” and are “children of the day,” we can “make hay while the sun shines,” so to speak, and enjoy the Lord’s bounty while it lasts.

Fortunately, this total reversal of everything we have come to expect of Christ the Lord, the Servant of Creation, is not the only possible reading of our texts. On the contrary, when read with appropriate attention to the narrative of the Servant of Creation we have uncovered in this year’s lections, these scriptures comprise a fine, penultimate word of encouragement for care of creation.

Injustice among humans and the devastation of the land go together.

The “great day of the Lord” described in our first reading is a place-specific and time-specific day of judgment upon Judah in the “days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah” (Zephaniah 1:1), due to their idolatry (“I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priest”; 1:4) and their sin “against the Lord” (1:17). The people, it seems, have lost their fear of God and disregarded God’s call for justice. They “rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’” The people may have great wealth, but their wealth will not save them: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.”

The passage thus expresses a theme common to the biblical prophets. As Carol Dempsey puts it in commenting on this chapter from Zephaniah, “Breach of the covenant relationship on the part of human beings reaps repercussions that devastate not only humanity but the natural world as well” (Hope Amid the Ruins:  The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, p. 87; cf. Terry Fretheim’s discussion of the same theme in Jeremiah, in God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 171-74). As to the scope of this devastation, Dempsey cautions that the Hebrew term ‘eres translates interchangeably as earth” or “land,” and suggests that the more appropriate interpretation “when used in conjunction with the idea of suffering is ‘land’” (Ibid. p. 76-77).

Breaking the covenant results in social injustice and ecological injustice

Our first lesson thus reaffirms points of great importance for the story of the Servant of Creation:  while the reading does not foresee a final, all-encompassing destruction of Earth, it does say that human sinfulness stemming from faithlessness in relationship to God the Creator results in both social injustice and eco-injustice. God’s judgment is worked out in relationships with both humans and the creation more comprehensively. The reading should give us cause to tremble: We do not know the times and seasons, but the morning newspaper presents headlines warning both that the “poorest poor hit record high” and that “CO2 takes ‘monster’ jump” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, Friday, November 4, 2011, pp. 3 and 9). Might this dreadful combination of unequal distribution of God’s gifts and disregard for the health of the planet culminate in an apocalyptic destruction of the creation, as so many environmental experts fear?  We dare not dismiss the possibility out of hand; the call to repentance in the face of this possible judgment must be heeded!

Still, if it is true that we are “children of light and children of the day,” as the second lesson says, we will also read the times as the Servant of Creation would have us read them, and “encourage one another and build up each other” so as to persevere all the more in the care of creation, both humankind and otherkind—for that is precisely the good word we take away from Jesus’ “parable of the talents” in today’s Gospel.

Interpretation of the parable of the talents is made problematic by the fact that it seems so contrary to much of Jesus teaching. Warren Carter describes the contradiction as follows:

“In this parable the master behaves in tyrannical ways that imitate dominant cultural and imperial values (25:25-30) and contradicts Jesus’ previous teaching. He rewards the first two slaves for their accumulation of wealth and punishes the third slave for not doing so. The parable takes the perspective of the wealthy elite and legitimates a ‘rich-get-richer and poorer-get-poorer’ approach. It punishes the one who subverts the system” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 487-88).

Who is this master? Conventional allegorical interpretation says that he is Jesus, who thus challenges his disciples (the slaves) to be ready for his delayed return by setting out for them the possible consequences of their failure to properly prepare. But if the master is taken to be Jesus, Carter argues, it would seem that “the gospel has co-opted dominant cultural values in picturing the establishment of God’s empire. God’s empire imitates, rather than provides an alternative to, Rome’s empire, in which the wealthy and powerful become even more so at the expense of the rest.” The strong, positive message that the disciples are “to be actively seeking their master’s good, faithfully carrying out the tasks he has entrusted to them,” has overridden all other concerns, including what exactly that good is, relative to the purposes of God. As we have suggested above, the possible implications of this for care of creation are dreadful: could Jesus have been so careless about the role of his disciples as co-servants of creation, or could Matthew have been so clueless?

The parable is contrary to the values promoted everywhere else in the Gospel.

Bernard Brandon Scott provides us with an alternative reading that rescues the parable for care of creation.  The first two servants have indeed done well. They have made proper use of the wealth that has been placed in their hands. “These servants,” Scott suggests, “are not slaves but stewards acting in the master’s stead.  From the profit they make for their master they will be able to enrich themselves, for they expect to share in his good fortune” (P. 226). Their future, following on their master’s return, is secure, as is the master’s estate.  And from the narrative of the Servant of Creation, we might interpose, as co-servants of creation, they are to enjoy the marvelous increase in value resulting from their care of that which the master has entrusted to them.

None of the options are viable—neither predatory greed nor paralyzing fear.

The unfortunate third servant, on the other hand, has an image of his master that, as Scott suggests, “deprives him of a future, for it freezes the servant in fear.” Is this image of the master wrong? There is poignant ambiguity to the parable here, Scott notes:

“The master never accepts the description of the third servant’s aphorism [reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed] but points back to the first two servants. His refusal to take back the talent implies his rejection of that image. A hearer is asked to choose between two competing images of the master: the explicit image put forward in aphorism by the third servant, and the image implied in the actions of the first two servants. Is the master the hardhearted man of the third servant’s attack, or is he gracious and generous, as he was toward the first two servants? How do we know which of these two views is correct?” (Ibid. pp. 233-34).

We know which image is true of God by virtue of attending to the larger narrative of the Servant of Creation in which this story is placed. The Creator sows the creation richly and graciously and the servants of creation do have incalculable wealth to be responsible for and to take care of.

How can we claim the future as precious gifts of people and land?

What emerges from the parable, Scott urges, is “how one goes about claiming the future. Is it claimed by preserving the precious gift? Or is it claimed in the present as freedom of action, liberating the servant from an aphoristic, conventional vision that paralyzes him?” For Scott it is clearly the latter: “The parable as a window onto the kingdom demands that the servant act neither as preserver nor as one afraid; but act boldly he must. If one is to act boldly, then the rules have been changed. They are no longer predictable.” Again we interpose from the narrative of the Servant of Creation: not frozen preservation, but restoration, healing, and enhancement of a living and dynamic creation is the servant of creation’s proper role. And for that, a trusting faith, wide awake to what’s happening with the creation, is essential. It’s true: terrible in aspect, indeed, is the “outer darkness” of climate change and ecological devastation that will follow from failure to properly serve and steward the wealth of God’s creation. If that is truly the future of Earth, there will be all too much “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Those who trust the Creator, on the other hand, can hope with the psalmist “to be satisfied in the morning with God’s steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14).

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