Tag Archives: eschatology

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

New Creation Is Proactive: Regenerative and Restoring Dennis Ormseth reflects on becoming full participants in maximizing life’s creativity.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  2 Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

Why, exactly, is it appropriate to associate Jesus and “new creation”? The question calls for an extended Christological discussion far beyond the limits this commentary and the abilities of this commentator. Our taking of 2 Corinthians 5:7 as our epigraph for this series of comments on the Epiphany readings nonetheless gives us pause, if for no other reason than the rarity of the association. Of the two instances of “new creation” in the Bible (Galatians 6:15 is the other), this is the only one that specifically links the phrase with Jesus or Christ. As the authors cited in our discussion of  ‘new creation” in our comment on the Fourth Sunday note, the phrase “is generally seen—like the occurrences in intertestamental Jewish literature . . . as originating as a motif in the eschatological hope of the prophets, especially Deutero-Isaiah (see esp. Isa. 43:18-19)” and “developed in Trito-Isaiah into a depiction of the eschatological renewal of creation and specifically the idea of a “new heaven and new earth” (e.g., Isa 65:17-25, 66:22)” (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt,and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul:  Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis ; Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 166). Elizabeth Johnson explains the Christian extension of the concept (creatio nova)  as follows:

“Adapting this same pattern of interpretation, Christian theology makes protological and eschatological assertions of its own (Greek eschaton, the furthest end). Anchored in Christ, the life of the church in the Spirit offers ongoing experiences of a good and compassionate God amid the community’s own sinfulness and graced commitments. Proclaimed in word and sacrament, experienced in ordinary and extraordinary moments alike, the merciful presence of God, which grasps us at times even in the ache of its absence, gives grounds for speaking with gratitude of an original beginning and with hope of a blessed future. Considerations of the world’s ultimate origin and final end launch the mind toward the unknowable. For theology this is the deep mystery of the living God who bears us up in the present.”

Is this association then primarily a matter of faithful extrapolation, which as Johnson admits can “sound like wishful thinking” and can “seem like science fiction fantasies”?  “The unreality of it all can be a stumbling block for faith,” she cautions. “But there is one God, burning fire of divine love. The logic of belief holds that if this absolute holy Mystery can create life, then this same holy mystery in faithful love can rescue it from final nothingness (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. London:  Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 213).

It is no doubt by virtue of this dynamic that we have the first reading and psalm we do for this Sunday. The church in assembly makes the connection between Jesus of Nazareth and the God who creates all things: first with his exorcism in the synagogue, now in this Sunday’s Gospel with his first healing, followed by additional exorcisms and healing of “all who were sick or possessed with demons” until (in Mark’s Semitic hyperbole), “the whole city was gathered around the door of Simon’s house” (1:33). The church sees in these episodes the presence of the creator, and makes the bold claim that what happened of old is now happening anew. Creation in its fullness is being restored. More than simply miracle stories, the significance of these actions, in Myers’ view,

“can be seen only as a direct reflection of his social reality. Economic and political deterioration, especially in the decade prior to the upheavals of the Romano-Jewish war, had dispossessed significant portions of the Palestinian population, especially in the densely populated rural areas of Galilee. Disease and physical disability were an inseparable part of the cycle of poverty (a phenomenon still true today despite the advent of modern medicine). For the day laborer, illness meant unemployment and instant impoverishment. The “crowds” (ochlos) form the background to the story and represent a major aspect of its social location . . . . Jesus’ healing ministry is thus portrayed as an essential part of his struggle to bring concrete liberation to the oppressed and marginal of Palestinian society” (Myers, p.144).

These actions are what Myers terms “symbolic actions,” by which he does not mean that they were only of ”merely metaphorical significance,” “devoid of concrete, historical character,” but rather that their “fundamental significance, indeed power, lies relative to the symbolic order in which they occurred.” Such action has “divine power,” but not in the sense usually ascribed to them; their power lies “not in a manipulation of nature but in confrontation with the dominant order of oppression and in witness to different possibilities” (Myers, p. 147).  In the language employed by cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, “his healing and exorcism functioned to ‘elaborate’ the dominant symbolic order, unmasking the way in which it functioned to legitimate concrete social relationships. Insofar as this order dehumanized life, Jesus challenged it and defied its strictures: that is why his ‘miracles’ were not universally embraced” (Myers, p. 147-48).

It is important to note, furthermore, that these symbolic actions have purchase not only with respect to “what Jesus does,” but also to whom and where he does them. In the period of this first day, Myers notes, “Jesus moves from a synagogue in Capernaum to a house (1:29) to an undetermined wilderness site (1:35). Similarly, later Jesus is portrayed as moving from synagogue (3:1) to sea (3:7 to mountain (3:13) to house and finally back to sea (4:1), an itinerary of “key symbolic coordinates.”  And it is perhaps especially significant that Jesus desires to proclaim his message, not only in the city of Capernaum, but even more so in the “neighboring towns” (1:38). The crowds (ochlos) are “people of the land,”  “lower class, poor, uneducated, and ignorant of the law” with whom, according to the rabbis “Jews should neither share meals nor travel together” (Myers, (p. 156). Jesus’ ministry relates in this way to all the people and the entire landscape of the entire region, “throughout Galilee” (1:39).

The picture is thus one of a people dispossessed from the land by the dominating Hellenistic population of the cities, who suffer from diseases associated with that status, and are subject to demonic possession and alienated from the elite class that rules the community from the synagogue. “In sum, in his careful use of socio-symbolic space, Mark portrays Jesus as struggling against the dominant symbolic order as it manifests itself in each social sphere in his mission of liberation” (p. 152). But they is a new people in the making, in new relationship to each other and to the land in which they live. Jesus is the catalyst for this development, as it were, the energies of which are the gift of the Creator. The Gospel reading for this Sunday thus introduces us in paradigmatic fashion to what might plausibly be seen as “new creation:” the work of one who “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (Isaiah 40:23), and who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isaiah 40:29). Jesus does so precisely because his God is  the one who also “sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in” (40:22), “the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (40:28).

In our first reading, we have an exceedingly significant prototype of this “new creation.” Isaiah 40, William Brown observes, reaches back to the foundational experience of the people of Israel in the “trauma of exile brought on by the loss of land, temple, and king,” from which the prophet drew “a new theological vision, one that emerged from the fertile soil of religious polytheism.” The “God of Israel, YHWH, is the one and only God, the creator of all” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation:  The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2010, p.216). The crowning theological achievement of “Second Isaiah,” Brown suggests,

“was to have YHWH stand alone, but alone in manifold fullness. Stephen Geller identifies three originally separate aspects of divinity that came to be subsumed or integrated under Israel’s Godhead: ‘God as king, as warrior, and as protector.’ In ‘Second Isaiah,’ however, the list grows longer and more differentiated. YHWH is depicted as a warrior (40:10; 42:13; 51:9-11), shepherd (40:12), king (5:7); comforter (40:1-2; 49:13; 51:3, 12), lover (43;4), husband (54:5), potter (45:9), father (45:10a, 11), mother (45:10b,  11; 49:15), Holy One (41:14, 16, 20; 45:11), redeemer (41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 54:5), and covenant-maker (42:6; 49:8, 54:10; 55:32) . . . .

God’s composite personality in ‘Second Isaiah’ cannot be reduced to any one attribute. Neither is YHWH simply a compilation of all them. God’s divinity is not measured simply by addition.  In the fullness of divinity, the prophet’s God stands utterly alone and fully transcendent, above all categories . . . .

YHWH’s transcendent status rises above the myriad attributes and roles that are ascribed to the deity. “Second Isaiah’s” conception of deity is more than the sum of its roles. Except for one. God’s most central role is also, not coincidentally, the one that fits God’s transcendent status most fully: creator. The creator of all is “above” all.  God creates both darkness and light, the old and the new. YHWH is a divine singularity, incomparably and exclusively divine, whose creativity knows no bounds” (Brown, p. 217-18).

This Creator creates anew in Jesus, but “new creation” doesn’t end there. Again in the present time, it is the hope of the church who in Jesus’ name would similarly seek to liberate the peoples of the earth and the earth itself from their destructive alienation, that the power of this God will manifest itself yet again and again. Thus with  Psalm 147 we praise this Creator with present tense, as one who heals the present world and is the origin of all that is and will be. Yes, Yahweh “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds,” and yet also “determines the number of the stars”; and “gives to all of them their names” (147:4). In Christ, we are privileged to participate in the new work of this God.

It is one of the most provocative aspects of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, that she is alert to the need for what we have referred to here as “creative” power. She doesn’t call it that, of course, and may not have in mind divinity. Yet she identifies as “one of the most important developments” of the resistance movement against the destructive forces of extractive capitalism “a new kind of reproductive rights movement”, one “fighting . . . for the reproductive rights of the planet as a whole—for the decapitated mountains, the drowned valleys, the clear-cut forests, the fracked water table, the strip-mined hillsides, the poisoned rivers, the ‘cancer villages.’ All of life has the right to renew, regenerate, and heal itself” (This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.  New York; Simon & Schuster, 2014, p. 443). A promising shift is underway, she observes:

“As communities move from simply resisting extractivism to constructing the world that must rise in its rubble, protecting the fertility cycle is at the heart of the most rapidly multiplying models, from permaculture to living buildings to rainwater harvesting. Again and again, linear, one-way relationships of pure extraction are being replaced with systems that are circular and reciprocal. Seeds are saved instead of purchased. Water is recycled. Animal manure, not chemicals, is used as fertilizer, and so on. There are no hard-and-fast formulas, since the guiding principle is that every geography is different and our job, as Wes Jackson says. . . . is to ‘consult the genius of the place’” (Klein, p. 446).

These processes, she observes, “are sometime called ‘resilient’ but a more appropriate term might be “regenerative.’” Resilience is passive; “regeneration, on the other hand, is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.” The vision goes far beyond “the familiar eco-critique that stressed smallness and shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint’ to embrace change of our actions “so that they are constantly growing, rather than extracting life.” We are, she concludes, what Gopal Dayaneni, a California ecologist and activist, describes as “the keystone species in this moment” and “have to align our strategies with the healing powers of Mother Earth—there is no getting around the house rules. But it isn’t about stopping or retreating. It’s about aggressively applying our labor toward restoration” (Klein, pp. 447-48). Although we might prefer to call the healing powers “Yahweh,” we can heartily agree with this prescription for “new creation.”

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

For Those Who Are in Christ, Creation Is New! Dennis Ormseth reflects on driving out the demon of climate change denial.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  II Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.” What, exactly does this promise mean? We have taken it as our epigraph for these comments on the lectionary texts for the Sundays after Epiphany in year B, with the expectation that light will be shed on its meaning as we move through the season. While the text itself, II Corinthians 5:7, does not appear among the readings for any of these Sundays, the second readings through Transfiguration Sunday are consistently drawn from the Letters of Paul to the Corinthians. We therefore anticipated that the assertion would be found consonant with the themes the readings set out. Thus far we think we have shown this to be the case. It helped greatly, of course, that at the outset the readings for the Baptism of Our Lord are rich in creational metaphor and motifs; transferring them to the life of those baptized in Christ was a relatively straightforward matter. On the Second Sunday after Epiphany, we uncovered in the fig tree under which Nathanael sat, when Jesus called him to be a disciple, a sign that binds confession of Jesus as manifestation of God to awareness of God’s presence in creation and the call of the disciple to care of creation. And in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday, we argued that for those “who are in Christ” at this moment of Earth’s all-encompassing ecological crisis, it is indeed time for “breaking with business as usual,” following Jesus’ call to engage in “a fundamental reordering of socioeconomic relationships” which, if it encompasses the ecological systems of our planet together with the human community, could lead to all creation’s restoration—to new creation.

The readings for the Fourth Sunday provide further support for this interpretation. In the Gospel we see what Ched Myers describes as “the public inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum”, in which “Mark will establish the essential characteristics of the messianic mission.” We are immediately made aware of the nature of the challenge of “breaking with business as usual.” As Myers point outs out, “in one sentence [1:21] Mark moves Jesus from the symbolic margins to the heart of provincial Jewish social order: synagogue (sacred space) on a Sabbath (sacred time)” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books , 1988; p. 141). Jesus’ teaching is acknowledged by those assembled to be authoritative, which has prompted the church to assign Deuteronomy 18:15-20 as our first reading: Jesus is a prophet like Moses, whose teaching is powerful to accomplish his mission. But these affirmations also serve to frame the conflict that breaks into the open in his encounter with the “man with an unclean spirit,” as having “everything to do with the struggle between the authority of Jesus and that of the scribes” (Myers, pp. 141-42). The man’s greeting “communicates defiance toward a hostile intruder,” Myers suggests, but “this defiance quickly turns to fear:  “Have you come to destroy us?”

Following the interpretation of Howard Kee, Myers argues that the episode is “paradigmatic”:

“The word of the demon makes clear that the struggle is not a momentary one, but is part of a wider conflict of which this is but a single phase . . . . The narrative is wholly compatible with the picture . . . emerging from apocalyptic Judaism of God’s agent locked in effective struggle with the powers of evil, wresting power from them by his word of command.”

Such narratives, it is important to note, do not “glorify the one who performed the act,” as Hellenistic miracle stories tended to do; modern interpreters who focus on Jesus’ presumed supernatural powers do something similar. These stories instead “identify his exorcism as an eschatological event which served to prepare God’s creation for his coming rule” (Myers, p. 143. Kee’s work cited here is “The Terminology of Mark’s Exorcism Stories,” New Testament Studies, 14, pp. 242ff). As “one of the central characteristics of the messianic mission of Jesus” which he passes on to his followers, exorcism “is the main vehicle for articulating the apocalyptic combat myth” between the powers (and their earthly minion) and Jesus (as envoy of the kingdom). “Mark’s account thus begins to specify the political geography of the apocalyptic contest begun in the wilderness (1:12f). The demon in the synagogue becomes the representative of the scribal establishment, whose “authority” undergirds the dominant Jewish social order (Myers, p. 143). With this episode, Myers notes, “Mark thus established the political character of exorcism as symbolic action.” Subsequent exorcisms in the Gospel are similarly “concerned with the structures of power and alienation in the social world,” in particular “the deep rift between Jew and gentile” (7:24ff), and “the agonizing struggle to believe in the new order of the kingdom” (9:14).

One observes here a striking structural similarity between this analysis of the opposition Jesus encountered and Naomi Klein’s description of the climate change denial movement’s opposition to climate change action. Here, too, there is great fear expressed by the defenders of our dominant economic system. One can easily imagine a climate denier standing in the door of a meeting of the Heartland Society she describes, refusing to allow entry to a climate change activist, with the frightened challenge (in the words of the demon in Mark), “Have you come to destroy us?” As she writes, this . . .

“is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we  need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market” (Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2014. p. 41).

Klein’s point is critical to an understanding of the dynamics our our political situation relative to climate change:

“Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces” ( p. 41).

And it isn’t only a matter of economic and political policy; here, too, there is an ideological “war of the myths:”

“[F]or many conservatives, particularly religious ones, the challenge goes deeper still, threatening not just faith in markets but core cultural narratives about what humans are doing here on earth. Are we masters, here to subdue and dominate, or are we one species among many, at the mercy of powers more complex and unpredictable than even our most powerful computers can model?” (Klein, p. 42).

Faced with this situation, how might the church respond in Jesus’ name?  How might we drive the demon of climate change denial out?

An answer requires more extensive discussion than we can do here, of course. But key elements of an answer lie close at hand this Sunday in the second reading from 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. In fact, this text relates as closely to our epigraphic promise as any we will encounter during the season.  With its concern for eating of food sacrificed to idols, the passage may seem irrelevant to the concerns raised by the Gospel reading. Until, that is, we learn in verse 6 that the presupposition of Paul’s argument here is the powerful confessional statement that “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

 As David Horrell, Cheryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate point out in their Greening Paul:  Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010), the repeated “all things” (ta panta) here alerts us to the connection between this passage and the line of Paul’s thought represented by the famous hymn of Colossians 1:15-20. The phrase “refers to everything, indicating the universal and cosmic scope of the hymn’s concerns.  This view of all things as the work of the one (good) creator, in and through Christ, implies the intrinsic goodness of all created entities, including the nonhuman elements, a repeated emphasis in the first creation narrative in Genesis” (Horrell, et al.p.104). The confession in 1 Corinthians 8, these authors argue, is the most important of several texts showing that for Paul

“there is no intrinsic or inherent source of moral corruption in the material things of the world God has made. And it is significant that this is expressed even in a letter (1 Corinthians) where the “world” is generally depicted in somewhat negative terms, owing   . . . to Paul’s sense that he needs more strongly to reinforce a sense of distinction between the church and its wider society” (Horrell, et al., p. 159).

Combined with “the most important reconciliation text in the undisputed Pauline letters,” 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 (which includes our epigraph), this and other texts (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:27-28), provide a basis for arguing that “broadly construed as the drawing together of all things into Christ (and/or God), cosmic reconciliation can stand at the focal center of [a] reading of Pauline theology and at the center of. . . Paul’s story of creation (Horrell, et al., p. 168). Within the framework of this cosmic narrative, the “new creation” of 2 Corinthians 5:17 is “plausibly construed” as

“focused less on the individual’s new identity – a focus that may owe more to Western individualism than to Paul . . . and more on the sense that what God has achieved (or is in the process of bringing about) in Christ is a cosmic “new creation”: anyone who is in Christ belongs to, participates in, this new creation, in which the former distinctions (between Jew and Gentile, etc.) no longer count for anything. The work of God in Christ is a renewal of the cosmos, an inauguration of the promised eschatological new creation, not merely the transformation of individual believers” (Horrell, et al., pp. 169-170).

While Paul’s “predominant concern is with the conversion of human beings and with the communities of believers whose corporate life he seeks to shape,” these authors conclude, his theology is nevertheless “centered on the act of God in Christ which affects the whole cosmos and has inaugurated the renewal of that cosmos—what Paul describes as new creation”  (Horrell, et al. p. 172).

All things belong in God, all things are being reconciled in Christ: this is what “new creation” means. All things are valued as good; all things are being restored to the community of creation. And to be in Christ is to participate in that great work. So does Psalm 111 appropriately remind us that

            Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
Full of honor and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures forever.
He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and merciful (111:2-4)

Who then, and by what power, can climate change deniers, persist in their opposition to care for creation?

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

Waiting for the coming of God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent—joyful anticipation of liberation and transformation.

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

Waiting for the coming of God.

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

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

Advent—joyful anticipation of liberation and transformation.

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

Sunday July 24-30 in Year A (Ormseth)

Feast on These Parables from Nature! Dennis Ormseth  reflects on the messy business of God’s kingdom.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 24-30, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Our reflection on the teaching of Jesus, the Lord, the Servant of Creation, continues to explore themes significant for caring for creation days in a medley of new parables: the Mustard Seed; the Yeast, Treasure Hidden in a Field; A Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; and a Net Thrown into the Sea. As with the parables from the previous two Sundays, our reading brings out new treasures along with the old treasures (Matthew 13:51). Similarly, the reading from Romans continues from where we left off last Sunday, in considering life in the Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life. We turn first to the teaching of Jesus the Servant of Creation.

The mustard seed: What a strange mess is this kingdom! The parable begins with signs of the unclean, a planting in a garden, and will not meet grandiose expectations. Yet. . . the birds will find shelter in its shade.

The Mustard Seed. Again we encounter a sower planting seed, and, again, like the sowers who cast the seed wildly and forgot to protect the field from alien intruders, the action of the sower strikes us as unlikely. A farmer in the ancient world would normally not sow a mustard seed in the midst of his field. As Bernard Brandon Scott point out, “the mustard, a common plant in the eastern world, grew and spread quickly. Consequently, a farmer sought to control its seeds.” The plant, this comment suggests, was regarded somewhat as we would an evasive species. More importantly, in Jewish tradition, the action of sowing depicted here could be seen as a violation of the “rules of diverse kinds.” These rules “had as their purpose to bring order into the disorderly world, and the creation of order in this world replicates the division between the sacred and the profane. Where things could or could not be planted and what could be planted or mixed together were important for the maintenance of purity boundaries.” Following other commentators, Scott notes that “a mustard seed could not be planted in a garden,” where vegetables would be the usual planting. And it could be planted in a field only in carefully proscribed spaces. The parable thus begins with “a metaphor of impurity.” The sower “has risked breaking the law of diverse kinds by mixing what should not be mixed. . .” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable:  A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, pp. 374-76, 381). How is the kingdom of heaven like a sower who proceeds in such a disordered, unholy manner?

The focus of interpretation, of course, is usually more on the seed than the sower, precisely because the seed is very small, and the tree that grows from it, at least in the parable, is “the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.” The parable is about astonishing growth, this suggests:  the kingdom, though small and hidden, will become very large and impressive, thus confirming its divine character. This perhaps makes good sense for us, for whom growth is culturally taken to be a nearly unmitigated good. However, that would not have been true for the ancient farmer, for whom the growth of an invasive species like the mustard seed had to be seen as an agricultural disaster! Nor is it true for an ecologically aware reader, who would appreciate the possible harm to be done to the field. As Scott notes: “The seed’s planting and its growth create a conflict for a hearer. Is this growth a divine blessing or a violation? Is it clean or unclean? How is one to decide?” (Ibid., p. 383).

To make things worse, in a sense, the parable’s shrub outgrows the normal limits of its “kind,” to become a tree. No anticipation of Darwinian evolution, this; on the contrary, this transformation is miraculous: the shrub is transformed into a “mixed allusion” familiar to the ancient hearer as the “eschatological tree of Ezekiel and Daniel,” which, like the great cedar of Lebanon, shelters not only birds in its branches, but underneath them, gathers “all the creatures of the earth.” Scott concludes: ‘A hearer is left to make sense, to fit together a mustard plant that has pretensions to the grandeur of a cedar of Lebanon. How that resolution takes place leads from story to kingdom” (Ibid., p. 385-86).

The parable makes a light-hearted burlesque of the noble cedar as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God by substituting the mustard shrub.

Scott concludes: the parable “makes a light-hearted burlesque of the noble cedar as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God by substituting the mustard shrub.” Although a symbol of both strength and protection, the cedar also represents pride: “A Grain of Mustard Seed extends the logic of Ezekiel [17]. All cedars and trees, even Israel, will be brought low.” It is the lowly mustard bush, scandalously planted in the field of the world that both political and religious authorities seek to keep well-ordered according to a static conception of the creation, that “will ‘bear Israel’s true destiny’” (Ibid., p. 386; Scott cites Robert W Funk, Jesus as Precursor, for this point). Still, significantly, the mustard bush does what the cedar would do: provide shelter for the birds of the air. “The parable begins with signs of the unclean, a planting in a garden, and will not meet grandiose expectations. Yet. . . the birds will find shelter in the shrub’s shade. Many have preferred the mustard tree, this unnatural malformity of mythical botany, to the recognition that God’s mighty works are among the unclean and insignificant” (Ibid., p. 387).

A tree does not exist for itself alone, but for others. So it is with those who are part of the kingdom of God!

The sower, we note, might well have his own purposes: to provide a niche for creatures that do not easily fit into the economic calculations of our agricultural, “growth” obsessive, economy. A field on the University of Minnesota agricultural campus in St. Paul had for years several large cages to trap birds that disrupted the research conducted in it. A sower who deliberately seeds a tree to host birds in the midst of his field is of a different mind-set, a servant of all creation, perhaps, who meets the needs all creatures (sometimes by creative adaptation, even!), and not only those of human beings. In good ecological form, whether mighty cedar or lowly mustard, the tree does not exist for itself alone, but for others. So it is with those who are part of the kingdom of God!

The Yeast.  The parable of the yeast begins in a way similar to the Mustard Seed, with a highly ambiguous image of growth. Scott calls the parable “one rotten apple.” The yeast, a woman, and her kneading the dough, combine to offer an image of impurity. As Scott notes, yeast (leaven) “is made by taking a piece of bread and storing it in a damp, dark place until mold forms. The bread rots and decays, unlike modern yeast, which is domesticated.” Leavened bread was for everyday use; only unleavened bread was appropriate for holy days (Ibid., p. 324). The negative connotations of “leaven” are familiar: “the involvement with even a little evil can corrupt the whole,” and Matthew elsewhere associates leaven with the “teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:12).” How, the hearer must ask, “can the kingdom be like leaven?” (Scott, pp. 324-25) As to the woman, Scott quotes Albrecht Oepke: “Characteristic of the traditional position and estimation of woman is a saying current in different forms among the Persians, Greeks and Jews in which man gives thanks that he is not an unbeliever or uncivilized, that he is not a woman and that he is not a slave.”

Three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess.

By way of contrast, the three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess. The large amount is evocative of the story of Abraham’s reception of three visitors, Gideon’s preparation for the visitation of the angel of the lord, and Hannah’s gift for the dedication of the temple. Thus the parable suggests, “not only are three measures much more than normal but that the amount is connected with an epiphany,” an image that coheres with the “kingdom of God.” “Yet how is a hearer to combine three measures with the preceding negative terms?” (Ibid., p. 326-27) Scott refuses to dodge the strikingly messy implications:

The kingdom (the holy and good) is pictured in terms of an epiphany of corruption. How radical is the parable’s intention? Does it mean to state that good is evil in an ethics of absurdity? Or is its function to subvert a hearer’s ready dependency on the rule of the sacred, the predictability of what is good, and warn that instead the expected evil that corrupts may indeed turn out to be the kingdom.

Would not a teacher who is the Servant of all Creation, who indeed saves the whole creation by dying on a cross, be entirely at home in a kingdom of God that embraces the awful messiness of life on the earth?

Or again, we would add, would not a teacher who is the Servant of all Creation, who indeed saves the whole creation by dying on a cross, be entirely at home in a kingdom of God that embraces the awful messiness of life on the earth?

 Treasure Hidden in a Field.  Once more we are confronted by a dilemma, the problem, as Scott names it, of “Finders Keepers:”

If the treasure belongs to the finder, buying the land is unnecessary.  But, if the treasure does not belong to the finder, buying the land is unjust.”  If the dayworker has claim to the treasure, he has no need to rehide the treasure and buy the land. He can simply claim the treasure. That he does rehide the treasure and buy the land indicates that he does not believe he can make such a claim. Also, from the point of view of narrative structure, a hearer discovers that the finder is not the landowner only when he buys the field, thus concentrating narrative attention on the buying. The structure of the line involves finding and joy/selling and buying. But because buying signifies that he does not own, does not owning call into question the joy of finding? (Ibid., pp. 399-400; the quotation in italics is from Dominic Crossan, Finding is the First Act, with his emphasis).

Treasure receives its value, its joy, because it appears outside the bounds of the everyday. It is an occurrence that breaks expectations and interrupts the everyday.

The kingdom of God is like finding the treasure, suggests Scott, in that “treasure receives its value, its joy, because it appears outside the bounds of the everyday. It is an occurrence that breaks expectations and interrupts the everyday. Because it is not something earned or labored for but something found, it is lawless. Its joy is precisely in its lawlessness, its unearned, not worked for character” (Scott, pp. 401-02).

What if the kingdom of God is like a person who walking in the woods and discovers an endangered spotted owl?

We can suggest a contemporary analogy: A person walking in the woods discovers a creature, a spotted owl, say, in any case, an individual animal belonging to an endangered species. In his joy, he resolves to buy or otherwise get control of that patch of woods; for only by preserving that habitat does the owl have a chance of survival. But who owns the woods? In order to “save” the owl, he has to sue the owner to limit his control over use of the woods. Is this a proper action driven by great joy? Only by keeping the owl hidden in the woods is there a chance of sustaining that experience of joy in the presence of the beautiful creature. Or is the action an unjust transgression of property rights, sanctioned by environmental laws that the owner has to regard as an unconstitutional deprivation of his property rights? What if the kingdom of God is like a person, who walking in the woods, discovers a spotted owl?

That is the kingdom’s corrupting power—the desire to possess it!!

A Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls.  The dilemma of this parable builds on an aspect of the parable of the treasure hidden in a field. As ownership of the field and the treasure within it calls into question the possibility of sustaining the joy of discovery, so does ownership of the pearl of great value complicate the life of the merchant. Scott captures the point succinctly: “If to buy the pearl he has sold off his capital, whether all he owns or his merchandise, he will again have to sell the pearl, or else he will be broke, because the pearl only generates in being sold. Thus the thing of value, the pearl, has no ultimate value.” The kingdom of God is like that, Scott suggests, in that it “cannot be possessed as a value in itself . . . for the merchant will sooner or later have to sell his pearl. And that is the kingdom’s corrupting power—the desire to possess it” (Ibid., p. 319). Might one not say the same for God’s creation?

A Net Thrown into the SeaHas the hearer been caught within the net of these parables, the teaching of Jesus, the Servant of Creation? Are those caught up in his net—members of his church—good fish or rotten fish? Which side of the parable’s various dilemmas do they fall out on? The sorting out into baskets is indeed something to be reserved for the end, when the angels of God will bring final clarity to our relationship with the creation and our relationship with the creation’s creator. Until then, we swim with all the rest of the fish, utterly dependent for our very lives on the environing sea, chaotic as it may sometimes appear to be. For to be taken out of water is for fish or for any species to die.

The creation is bound up with humanity—and the Spirit is in a solidarity of shared groaning and, similarly, a shared hope.

An ear for the groaning of creation.  The parable of  “A Net Thrown into the Sea’ thus returns us, we would suggest, to the narrative about creation which David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate construct on the basis of the “ecotheological mantra text,” namely, Romans 8:18-25. As we argued in our comment on that reading a week ago, the parables of Jesus share a narrative of creation that is strikingly similar to the one these scholars identify as key to understanding Paul’s view of the relationship between “the children of God” and the non-human creation (See our comment on the readings for last weekend). As we summarized their argument,

Paul teaches that a creation “enslaved-to-decay has been subjected to futility by God.” But that it was “subjected in hope” means “that the focus, from the subjection onwards, is entirely forward-looking; there is no description of the act of creation, no indication as to what (if anything) preceded its subjection to futility.” The “co- groaning” and “co-travailing” has been the state of creation since its subjection; the creation is “bound up with humanity and the Spirit in a solidarity of shared groaning and, similarly, a shared hope.”

In terms of the parable of the Net Thrown into the Sea, for the time being, we swim in the sea while drawn toward the light of the final judgment of God regarding our relationship with God and God’s creation. But as “children of God,” we do not swim aimlessly, or alone. The Spirit of God, the Lord, the Giver of Life, present at creation, sustainer of all of life, accompanies us on this great migration. As Paul writes, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” In our “co-groaning and “co-travailing,” the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:26-27). It is on this account, and this only, that “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” And if we give “all things” a strong reading as intending the fullness of creation, as it does elsewhere in Paul’s writings, rather than simply the particular occasions of trial and suffering for which we usually appropriate it, we are indeed encouraged to look and to live forward in hope for the full realization of the purposes of God and for the complete restoration of creation.

Feast on these Parables from Nature! The Kingdom is Messy Business Indeed!

The mustard seed: What a strange mess is this kingdom! The parable begins with signs of the unclean, a planting in a garden, and will not meet grandiose expectations. Yet. . . the birds will find shelter in its shade.

The parable makes a light-hearted burlesque of the noble cedar as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God by substituting the mustard shrub.

A tree does not exist for itself alone, but for others. So it is with those who are part of the kingdom of God!

Three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess.

Would not a teacher who is the Servant of all Creation, who indeed saves the whole creation by dying on a cross, be entirely at home in a kingdom of God that embraces the awful messiness of life on the earth?

Treasure receives its value, its joy, because it appears outside the bounds of the everyday. It is an occurrence that breaks expectations and interrupts the everyday.

What if the kingdom of God is like a person who walking in the woods and discovers an endangered spotted owl?

That is the kingdom’s corrupting power—the desire to possess it!!

The creation is bound up with humanity—and the Spirit is in a solidarity of shared groaning and, similarly, a shared hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Sunday of Advent (December 15, 2019) in Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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