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Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the desert?  As Belden Lane suggests:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

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

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

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

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

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

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

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

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

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

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

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