Tag Archives: Barbara Rossing

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.


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.

Sunday August 7 – 13 in Year C

Freedom from Fear is Freedom to Act:  Robert Saler reflects on Luke 12:32-40

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for August 7-13, Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 20-23
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Well-cathechized Lutherans tend to be familiar with most of what theologian Robert Jenson refers to as the “slogans” of the Lutheran faith – “two kingdoms,” “theology of the cross vs. theology of glory,” etc. Oftentimes, though, we portray these slogans as if they mean only one thing, like code words pointing to one specific reality.

It’s more rewarding to realize that any theological notion rich enough to bear the “thickness” of a tradition like Lutheranism is more likely to be polysemic and polyvalent – referring to multiple kinds of truths simultaneously, with shifting emphasis on a given meaning depending on the context in which the words are deployed.

This is particularly true of the cornerstone Lutheran slogan  “justification by grace through faith apart from works.” It is this theological notion that defines Lutheranism, both ecclesially and hermeneutically. Ecclesially, because historically and today, it allows us to judge church practices (indulgences, worship styles, baptismal practices, etc.) by the standard of whether or not they place emphasis on God’s loving action towards us rather than our pious attempts to justify ourselves religiously before God. Hermeneutically, because prioritizing our inability to earn God’s love and salvation allows us to approach such otherwise dire passages as Jesus’ eschatological warnings in Luke 12: 32-40 with the mindset, not that we will live up to the remarkably high standard of eschatological “alertness,” but that God in Christ has already taken the initiative in taking up our failures into the larger Triune work of salvation.

This alone is a rich and crucial referent on the slogan “justification by grace through faith apart from works.” However, another meaning of the phrase is crucial in our time of ecological peril and opportunity. If we are freed to live without eschatological fear of God and free from the demand to justify ourselves religiously by our own actions, then that freedom from fear frees us to be creatures whose actions on behalf of creation and the neighbor—however partial and imperfect—do not need to live up to some hidden standard of divine perfection, but only the God-given creaturely standard of caritas (charity). As Luther saw, the freedom of a Christian to serve neighbor and creation has as its root freedom from eschatological fear, such that we can perform acts of love and charity in genuine concern for the neighbor and not concern for our spiritual résumés.

To take a counter-example: it is well-documented that some (not all) fundamentalist Christians are skeptical about creation care for specifically theological reasons. In many cases, the presenting reason is because they believe that Earth is a temporary vessel for the human drama of salvation, a vessel that will be destroyed at the eschaton/ endtime (cf. Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, Fortress, 2005). However, I have increasingly wondered whether the deeper reason why this particular brand of judgment-oriented fundamentalism is so suspicious of creation care is because framing God as a vengeful judge who can only be appeased by right “works” of belief (that is, believing the proper Christian doctrines) sets God up as what philosopher Slavoj Žižek might call “the Big Other,” namely, the impossible standard by which we measure our actions such that we eventually become neurotic and insular in our capacity to act healthily towards ourselves and others. Fear paralyzes right action; freedom from fear inspires love that heals. Without becoming triumphalist, we Lutherans should not underestimate what a gift this aspect of our heritage is for the Church catholic and the world as a whole.

All of this is to say that the same hermeneutic that allows us to read Jesus’ eschatological statements as promises of God’s coming salvation and not as dire (and ultimately paralyzing) warnings of impending doom is the same hermeneutic that frees us for action. When God’s word heals us, it frees and forms us to play our blessedly limited parts in healing all that God has made. Let the preacher preach love, and know that in her doing so God’s spirit is at work fashioning a people who can live, work, and heal in this Earth.

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




Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Susan Henry)

Revelation’s Easter Message

Readings for Series C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Revelation 7:9-17 **Acts 9:36-43 **John 10:22-30

Sermon from Pastor Susan Henry at House of Prayer Lutheran Church,  Hingham MA

More than Just Weird

Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

After Sunday worship last week, Kurt Lundin leaned in conspiratorially to greet me, saying “Did you notice – hymn number 666?” Indeed I did, and I told him I suspect that the people who put the hymnal together thought long and hard about what song should go with that infamous number.  It’s “What Wondrous Love Is This,” and there are clear references in it to the book of Revelation — which is where 666 and all that “mark of the Beast” stuff comes from.  In the third verse of that hymn, we find, “To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing . . . To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM, while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing.”   So there, 666!  “To God and to the Lamb” we will sing, we will sing.  You can’t scare us!

In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, a seer named John who is in exile on Patmos, likely for being a thorn in the side of the Roman empire, writes to seven churches in what’s now Turkey about a heavenly journey he experienced in a series of strange visions.  Through what John has received, he wants believers to find hope and courage so they can live faithfully in even the most difficult times and circumstances.

John’s visions are weird stuff, to put it mildly, although the meaning of the coded language was clearer in its own time and culture than it is to us.  Rome was an oppressive empire, and it expected blessing and honor and wisdom and power to be given to Caesar, the ruler Nero at that time.  It was dangerous not to do that, but Christians then (and now) rightly give honor and blessing and glory and might to God, not to imperial rulers or authoritarian leaders.  Just as Voldemort in the Harry Potter books was sometimes referred to as “He who shall not be named,” Nero was alluded to by believers in other ways.  For example, since Jewish numerology assigns numbers to the letters of the alphabet, when you spell out Caesar Nero, you get – ta-dah! – 666.   He who shall not be named.

The book of Revelation was controversial enough to be the last book accepted as part of the Bible, and Martin Luther was never convinced Revelation really belonged there – although he felt free to appropriate some of its imagery to viciously attack the pope.  Revelation has been used and misused throughout the centuries, and the current iteration of misuse is the well-known series of Left Behind books and movies.  In them, born-again Christians get “raptured” up to heaven out of their beds, cars, or planes, leaving behind their clothes, glasses, hearing aids, and maybe even their hip replacements.  The rest of us get left behind.  Lutheran scholar and professor Barbara Rossing recalls how her seminary students once left clothes carefully arranged on their chairs for her to find when she came to class.  Nobody got raptured, she said – “I found them in the cafeteria.”[1]

The whole rapture thing, she insists, “is a racket.”  It was invented back in the 1830s as part of preacher John Nelson Darby’s system of biblical interpretation.  The word “rapture” doesn’t occur anywhere in the Bible, so the concept got pieced together from a verse here and a verse there.  The Left Behind books are grounded in Darby’s system, and they lead to what Rossing sees as a preoccupation with fear and violence, with war and “an eagerness for Armageddon.”[2]  For fundamentalist Christians – who are politically influential right now — all of this has significant implications for American foreign policy in the Middle East, which should give us pause.

It’s only on All Saints Day and during the Easter season every three years that we hear readings from Revelation, so it’s a perfect time to leave behind the misuses and abuses of it and wonder how it might be the word of God addressed not just to first-century Christians, but to us today.  It’s full of rich images for worship that are meant to be read more as poetry than prediction.  And while John hears about the coming Lion of Judah – fierce and violent – what he sees is “the Lamb who was slain” – vulnerable and victorious.

As I was studying Revelation this week, I found myself thinking about the baptismal font in the church where I grew up.  It was white marble and on its cover stood a little lamb with a tall, thin pole leaning against it.  At the top of the pole was a narrow signal flag.  Oh, I realized, that’s “the Lamb who was slain [who] has begun his reign.”  And we who got baptized in the water in that pure white font were washed in the blood of that slaughtered Lamb.  It’s a shocking image that we’ve thoroughly domesticated, and of course it’s not meant to be taken literally.  However, it bears witness to how life is stronger than death and how God’s vision is about new life, restoration, renewal, and healing.

When chaos threatens, people of faith can live as people of hope, enduring through struggles and suffering because we trust that ultimately God’s power is greater than any other power, God’s grace is stronger than the world’s sin, and God’s reign has already begun, even if we don’t see it.  Revelation is a pretty bracing witness – encouraging us to not give up or give in to whatever is not “of God.”  We sometimes pay lip service to how a life of faith is a counter-cultural way of life, but Revelation amps that way up and exhorts us to resist the cultural and political forces that work against God and seek to thwart God’s desire for an end to violence and oppression.  The Lamb who was slain becomes the shepherd who leads the flock to green pastures and springs of water, and through places of danger to where “God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  John wants believers to listen in worship to his visions so that they will find courage and discover strength for the present because they have hope and trust in God’s future.

A week or so ago, Kris Niendorf came to the Thursday Bible study with a bunch of origami peace cranes she’d made as signs of hope while watching the not-so-hopeful news on tv.  It seems to me that, through these tiny symbols of resistance to the world’s injustice and violence and oppression, Kris was refusing to give in to the despair that I suspect can tempt us all.  Images, gestures, and actions can embody hope and offer strength in anxious times like our own, and worship itself is full of such images and actions.  We come to remember who God is and who we are.  We come to be put back together after the past week so that we can be signs of peace and hope in the week ahead, bearing witness to God’s power to sustain and encourage us and to lead us to live ever more deeply into our identity as people of faith.  Revelation speaks as powerfully about our call to live with hope and courage in the face of injustice and violence as it did in the first century.

Revelation offers us a word from the Lord in another way, too.  In a couple weeks, we’ll hear a reading from Revelation in which John sees the holy city, the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God.”  He hears a voice saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”[3]  In John’s vision and God’s plan, the earth matters.  We don’t go up to God; God comes down to us and makes God’s home with us.  If we took that image seriously, how might it affect how we care for the earth and for all life on this planet we call home?

The language of Revelation is filled with images of all creation being restored and redeemed, and of all who make earth their home singing praises to God.  As part of the Great Thanksgiving in the liturgy during the Easter season, I say, “And so, with Mary Magdalene and Peter and all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all its creatures, with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, we praise your name and join their unending hymn. . . .”  Did you catch that?  It’s not just us who sing but it’s the earth itself, the sea, the creatures who walk and swim and fly.  We all sing “to God and to the Lamb” and “millions join the theme” as we sing, as we sing.  We’re part of a cosmic chorus.

We humans are smart but not necessarily wise, and technology allows us to exploit our planet’s resources faster than the earth can renew itself.  That has never been true until now.  We who are called by God to care for and protect what God has made are surely called to repent — not only for what we have done but also what we have left undone in caring for God’s creation.  From the beginning, we were created for partnership with God, for joining all creation’s song of praise.  We were not made to wreak havoc on creation, which humankind increasingly is doing.

In that holy city that comes down from God, the water of life that we know in baptism flows through the city from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  John sees that “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  Can you picture in your mind God’s new creation where water flows freely, all are fed, and healing marks all kinds of relationships?  Where our allegiance is to God alone?

That’s the vision John describes, and we are called to live into it, to let God’s future draw us to it and to work for its fulfillment.  A clear-eyed look at the forces, fears, appetites, and institutions that resist what God desires makes it clear that courage and hope will be crucial if we are to live faithfully.  A community of worship that sings “with earth and sea and all its creatures” and receives the Supper of the Lamb will help sustain us.  The book of Revelation – which, as you see, is not just weird — will ground us in a deep ecology that is the word of God addressed to us today.

And so, let us be faithful people of hope and courage, of strength and healing.  Let us be faithful people together in worship and praise.



[1] Amy C. Thoren, “Barbara Rossing:  The Wittenburg Door Interview,” Issue #202, November/December 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Revelation 21:2-3

Second Sunday in Lent in Year C (Saler)

Look for God downward, deep into the soil of the “crucified Christ”
by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013
The Second Sunday in Lent in Year C

Genesis 15:1-18
Philippians 3:14 – 4:1
Luke 13:31-35

The readings for this Sunday hinge on two of the most powerful biblical motifs for citizenship in the Christian canon. The vision experienced by Abram in Genesis is that of “the land”—the geographic stability that gives God’s people Israel not only a place to live and flourish, but also an identity. Meanwhile, the Philippians text presents what appears to be a contrast to this rootedness by describing the Christian’s “citizenship in heaven,” even to the point that “earthly things” are seemingly dismissed.

And indeed, Christian exegetes have played up this contrast throughout Christian history—often with perilous results. The notion that, while the Israelites were tied to a physical “land,” Christians must yearn for a higher, more “spiritual” land (a notion often filtered through Augustine’s discussion of the earthly vs. heavenly “cities” in his City of God) became a staple of medieval exegesis, with its fourfold method of literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical interpretations of scriptural texts. In this schema, the literal or “physical” sense of the text often was considered to be the lowest and least profound, while the anagogical sense (generally related to a spiritualized eschatology) was the most sublime. For instance, exegesis treating “Jerusalem” as a literal geographic location was insufficiently pious for most Christian exegesis; interpreting it instead as “heaven” was the more sophisticated option. The notion that Christians’ loyalty was to a disembodied heavenly ideal and NOT the Earth in its fecund physicality thus was buttressed by Platonic exegetical strategies that linked the “letter” of the text with matter and the “spirit” of the text with ethereal and incorporeal verities.

Lutherans bear a special burden for the ill effects of this history. Many of Martin Luther’s later, polemical writings against the Jews of 16th century Germany (writings which have been repudiated by the ELCA) accused Jewish exegetes of being insufficiently sophisticated precisely along these lines—that is, he accused them of holding on to “physical” readings of Hebrew Biblical texts instead of spiritualizing them along Christian lines (cf. Mark Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles: Politics and Polemics 1531-46, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005). It is thus particularly incumbent upon contemporary Lutherans to appreciate this historical fact: when the physicality of Biblical imagery—including that of “land”—is denigrated, this often becomes legitimation for violence.

In this Lenten season, we can take this insight and realize that understanding Christian “citizenship in heaven” as somehow disembodied from Earth, as separated from “the land” that God has given to all citizens of Earth, is indeed the first step towards legitimating the violence that threatens us all today. Ecological degradation is in fact a form of violence—not only against animals, trees, and non-human ecosystems, but also against those poorest human populations that suffer most immediately from the impact of pollution and global climate change. For this reason alone, Christian preachers should avoid the temptation to further the contrast between “citizenship of the land” and “citizenship in heaven” in their preaching.

But the value of good exegesis is not simply a matter of promoting the right praxis–it’s also about identifying the right source of hope. As Barbara Rossing has pointed out in her book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004), the eschatological vision of Revelation is one in which “heaven” and the earth in all of its physicality merge—the fullness of the kingdom is the redemption of the earth AS earth. Meanwhile, Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has argued forcefully throughout his writings that Christian should not entertain any notion of salvation that does not take as primary Paul’s vision (in Romans) of Gentile Christians being grafted by grace onto the tree of Israel. The boldness of the Christian claim is that, in Christ, we Gentiles are inheritors of the promises given to God’s people Israel. “Land” is our future and present hope.

To have as one’s eschatological orientation (encompassing both the present and the future) “citizenship in heaven” should, therefore, make us MORE attuned to Earth as the site of God’s redemption. Exegeting scripture—and preaching Christian loyalty to “the hope that is within us” (1 Peter 3:15)—should direct our eyes, not upwards to an incorporeal heaven, but down deep into the soil of God’s beloved land, the land promised to Abram and granted to us by grace through faith.

In our day, when God’s earth and God’s children cry out for relief from the ecological violence to which we all have been party, the preacher—acting in the prophetic mode embodied by Jesus in the Luke passage—might have to take the risk of confronting directly our Christian tendency to dismiss “earthly things” in favor of the panacea of cheap spiritualism masquerading as eschatological hope. If God is the God of love whom Christians proclaim, and the cross is the shape of God’s salvation in this world, then surely God is at work deep in the soil of the “crucified Earth.” And where God’s cross is at its redemptive work, there also should God’s church be.




Midwinter Convocation

How do we care for all that God has created? 

What happens when our answer differs wildly from others?

This year’s speakers at Mid-Winter Convocation will help us navigate the challenges of how we live, what we eat, and our fraught relationship with the land.

  • Melanie Harris, Professor of Religion, Texas Christian University
  • Barbara Rossing, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
  • Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament, Bible Division Chair, Luther Seminary
  • Norman Wirzba, Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology, Senior Fellow, Kenan Institute for Ethics

Register by December 14 for the early-bird rate. 

Eastern WA/ID Synod Accepts Eco-Reformation Work

Congratulations to the assembly and team which brought forth a Memorial and Resolution to support the focus on ecological integrity throughout the ELCA’s 500th Observance of the Reformation!

The good news as detailed by proud Pastor Alex Schmidt:

Greetings, this evening, Folks of Faith Lutheran [Leavenworth, WA]!
You can be proud of our Synod delegates, John Butruille and Lisa Therrell who have done a splendid job in hanging in there on some long days beginning Friday! Ninety-two churches with over 200 delegates are present here in Pasco. It is now Sat. night and we’ve just finished our 12 hour day.

Lisa, on behalf of the Faith Lutheran Earth Stewardship Group of which she is a part, did a most excellent job in her assembly workshop (which she’ll present as an adult forum on May 24th, along with John’s assembly reflections). Lisa also in gave two very articulate 3 minute speeches presenting the Memorial (directed to the National Church) and Resolution 1 (directed to our Synod) for the Assembly’s consideration and vote. Both documents were prepared by the Earth Stewardship Group and both passed nearly unanimously!

The testimonies that set the stage:

Reverend Barbara Rossing’s video address on why this is a critical ministry for the ELCA to wrap their arms around.

Keynote address from Prof. Ben Stewart included the logic laid out in Chris Hayes’ “The New Abolitionism”:

· scientists have identified a limit to how much carbon can go into the air if we hope to avoid cataclysmic damage to human civilization (565 GT by midcentury)

· there’s 5X that much carbon in known, extractable reserves right now (2,795 GT)

· countries and corporations are counting all of that carbon as wealth, but they can only cash it in if they burn it.

· thus, we are charged with convincing or compelling these countries and corporations to count those “assets” as being worth zero, nothing.

· (there’s one clear historical precedent for such a huge amount of “assets” suddenly being ruled no longer “property” — the abolition of slavery in the United States.)


Short address to the assembly:

My name is Lisa Therrell. I am from Faith Lutheran Church in Leavenworth, Washington. I am retired from a 34 year career with the United State Forest Service, where discussions on climate change science became commonplace towards the end of my career. Our family also has a farm in Asotin County that has been in our family prior to Statehood, where we witness changes to the landscape.

In the Genesis story we read, “And God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

We know this about the Inland Northwest: a land defined by mountains and canyons, prairie and scabland, forests, rivers, lakes, and fertile fields. We are defined by this landscape, fed by this landscape, renewed by this landscape.

I am here to remind you the Earth is God’s Good Creation worthy of our care. Before you are two companion resolutions. Memorial 1 is directed to the 2016 Churchwide Assembly to make addressing climate change and ecological justice major themes of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Resolution 1 is to this Synod, to advocate for reduced dependence on fossil fuels and to step up our care for creation.

God appointed us to tend the garden. Our failure to care for the garden is a sin against God, a failure to love the Creator with our whole heart. The challenge is clear. We must steadily reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. And we can do it. Our congregation put 96 solar panels on our local Middle School, a sign of the transition we can make to renewable energy.

But what does this have to do with the Reformation? The Reformation was a return to our biblical roots and a call for the renewal of the church and its mission. Theologians have coined the term “Ecclesia semper reformanda” meaning “the church is always to be reformed”. So we can observe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation as a “looking back”, but also a “looking ahead” for where the active presence of God’s people is needed in an ailing world.

There are many ways churches can work on ways to reduce their own carbon footprint and to inspire members to do the same. We can be a faith voice in our communities, region, and nation for care of creation. We can lead the way globally as peacemakers and healers of the land, standing in solidarity with those in peril and leaving a positive legacy for unborn future generations.

We are a church of reformers. I ask for your vote in favor of leading an Ecoreformation to save the atmosphere that surrounds our fragile planet while there is still time.

Thank you very much.


Eco-Reformation in the Context of Climate Change

Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod Assembly 2015
Resolution 1 

Memorial on Eco-Reformation in the Context of Climate Change

WHEREAS, 2017 will mark observances of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which addressed fundamental threats to human well-being and all of God’s creation in theological, social, and political ways; and

WHEREAS, the 1993 ELCA Social Statement Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice affirms that, “we are called to care for the earth as God cares for the earth;” and

WHEREAS, in 1993 with Caring for Creation we realized the urgency was already “widespread and serious, according to the preponderance of evidence from scientists worldwide [of] dangerous global warming, caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide” from the burning of fossil fuels, and that “action to counter degradation, especially within this decade, is essential to the future of our children and our children’s children. Time is very short;” and

WHEREAS, in the 1999 ELCA Social Statement Economic Life:  Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, this church declares that “Too often the earth has been treated as a waste receptacle and a limitless storehouse of raw materials to be used up for the sake of economic growth, rather than as a finite, fragile ecological system upon which human and all other life depends;” and

WHEREAS, the Statement of Vision and Expectations for Ordained Ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) stipulates that “the people of God are called to the care and redemption of all that God has made. This includes the need to speak on behalf of this earth, its environment and natural resources and its inhabitants. This church expects that its ordained ministers will be exemplary stewards of the earth’s resources, and that they will lead this church in the stewardship of God’s creation;” and

WHEREAS, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote in a pastoral letter on September 19, 2014: “Daily we see and hear the evidence of a rapidly changing climate. Glaciers are disappearing, the polar ice cap is melting, and sea levels are rising. Incidents of pollution-created dead zones in seas and the ocean and toxic algae growth in water supplies are occurring with greater frequency. Most disturbingly, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising at an unprecedented rate. At the same time we also witness in too many instances how the earth’s natural beauty, a sign of God’s wonderful creativity, has been defiled by pollutants and waste… The present moment is a critical one, filled with both challenge and opportunity to act as faithful individuals and churches in solidarity with God’s good creation”; and

WHEREAS, the Lutheran World Federation has already, with its three-fold theme “Salvation: Not for sale. Human beings: Not for sale. Creation: Not for sale.”, signaled its intention to include creation at the center of global 2017 anniversary commemorations; be it therefore

RESOLVED, that this Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod, recognizing the need for ongoing reformation of the ELCA, memorialize the 2016 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA to make climate change and ecological justice major themes in ELCA planning and activities leading up to and following the observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.


Faith Lutheran Earth Stewardship Group:

Margaret Neighbors, Facilitator, Lisa Therrell, Presenter of Resolution

MaryCarol Nelson, Mary Schramm, Rev. John Schramm, Rev. Dr. Barbara Rossing, David Morgan, and Don Hurst, members.

Faith Lutheran Council:

MaryCarol Nelson, President

Judy Moody, Mary Schramm, John Butruille, Terry Leverenz, Dottie Smallbeck, Lindsay Camp, and Pr. Alex Schmidt, members.

Cluster Pastors:

            Pr. David Haven, Celebration Lutheran, Wenatchee

            Pr. Kent Narum, Fullness of God, Holden Village

Congregational Forum Resources:

Caring for Creation:  Vision, Hope, and Justice  http://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Caring-for-Creation   A most excellent Lutheran and Biblical perspective on the crucial, political, social, and economic issues surrounding environmental care of creation.

Economic Life:  Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All   http://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Economic-Life   Another insightful and biblically based document which examines the impact of economics on human well-being as well as sustainability of our environment.

Lutherans Restoring Creation
www.lutheransrestoringcreation.org  LRC is a grassroots movement advocating for and promoting care of creation through the ELCA.  Their website provides extensive and creative ideas and resources.

Lutheran World Federation:
https://www.lutheranworld.org/reformation-2017  This global service and justice oriented organization’s informative website provides an excellent and insightful critique of global tendencies tying human and environmental well-being to economic gain.



Reflections on Swedish Bishops’ Letter on Climate Change

On May 19, 2015, LSTC Professors Kadi Billman, Barbara Rossing, and Vítor Westhelle, reflected on A Bishops’ Letter about Climate Change published by the Church of Sweden in 2014. The Rev. Dr. Antje Jackelén, archbishop of the Church of Sweden, concluded the session presented for the LSTC Board of Directors and faculty. Click here to watch the four videos.

Click here to read “A Bishops’ Letter about the Climate” from the Church of Sweden.




Creation Care: Faith to Action May 19th, 2018

MAY 19th, 8-12
Come and join us at Lutheran Outdoor Ministries Center for a day of learning practical ways we can all respond to God’s call to care for the earth
with Keynote Speaker, Dr. Barbara Rossing

Why We Need an Eco-Reformation

There are voices across the ELCA calling for a reformation of the church to encompass care for all of God’s good creation.
We have spent centuries rightly nurturing our relationship with God (Love God) and one another (Love your neighbor). However, we have neglected God’s relationship with creation, our relationship with the rest of creation, and God’s relationship with us through the rest of creation (love creation). Now it is time to turn to this task with our full resources.
God’s Earth is in great trouble—pollution of air, land, and waters, ozone depletion, loss of forests and loss of farmable land to desert, proliferation of waste, global climate change, and much more. These changes are wreaking unjust havoc upon Earth, especially the poorest and most vulnerable humans, and on innumerable other creatures and plants of the entire natural world.

The overwhelming majority of scientists believe that these conditions are due in large part to the accumulative impact of human activity since the industrial revolution. To stop the destructive activity and to embrace practices that restore Earth, we will need sweeping changes in our society and our world.

Let’s begin with ourselves as a church. This will involve more than modest reforms such as adding a few hymns or using green cleaning products. This issue is not an add-on or simply a cause for those so interested. It involves all of us together. We need a transformation in our life and mission as a church, individually and together. We need to reform our worship, our theology, our ethics, our practices, and our spiritual disciplines.

As a church, we have always chosen to focus on care for the most vulnerable. We have rightly chosen as a church to emphasize feeding the hungry. Can we now broaden our commitment to the most vulnerable so as to care also for vulnerable earth and to address the connection between hunger and our ailing planet.

Our church needs a New Reformation as radical and transformative as the first one in the sixteenth century. We need to address the signal issue of our time (the restoration of Earth), as the sixteenth century reformation addressed their signal issue of that time (the salvation of the individual). We need to shift from being human-centered in our understanding of salvation to being Earth-centered in a way that seeks the well-being of all Earth Community.

We are approaching the observance of the five hundredth anniversary of the Sixteenth Century Reformation in 2017. As preparation for this event, Lutherans Restoring Creation urges us to consider embracing a New Reformation, an Eco-Reformation, as our means to rise to the greatest challenge of our time.

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