Tag Archives: John the Baptist

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

Living the Anticipation, with Joy and New Light Tom Mundahl reflects on what it means to be whole.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

Traditionally, the Third Sunday in Advent has been called “Gaudete Sunday,” a Sunday to “rejoice” as we turn in hope and expectation toward the Coming One. As the title, Gaudete, originally stems from the Vulgate translation of Philippians 4:4, “Gaudete in Domino semper” (“rejoice in the Lord always”), this week’s readings do not neglect this joy.

As a result of the prophet’s appointment to bring hope to the people of God, the faithful are pictured in the tradition of the earlier Isaiah (Isaiah 52:1-2), donning garments for the wedding party (hieros gamos) celebrating the bond with God. “I will rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God . . .” (Isaiah 61:10a). Because this joy explodes with energy, it can only be described in terms of the fecundity of creation: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the LORD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:11)

In much the same way, Psalm 126 gives voice to Jerusalem pilgrims (a ‘Song of Ascent’), who particularly wish to remember the return of exiles with poetry rich in natural metaphor. They recall, “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy . . . .” (Psalm 126:1-2a). Now they ask to be refreshed just as the dry watercourses of the Negeb region in the south run with water during the rainy season. Like Isaiah, the psalmist prays that the one who brought them back from Babylon will “bring them home rejoicing, carrying the sheaves.” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 400)

This week’s Second Lesson calls the community to rejoice with as much eloquence and passion as the Philippian correspondence. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” ( 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). Likewise, John the Baptist in our Gospel Reading continues to point toward the Coming One as the “true light which enlightens everyone” as the locus of joyful new creation.

 Constitutive of this joy is living out the call to belong to this community of a renewed exodus and creation. This ‘new Isaiah’ (Trito-Isaiah), likely one of the circle of Second Isaiah’s disciples, clearly finds identity as “an instrument of reconciliation and healing, passing those qualities on to others in the community open to God’s call” (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 224). Belonging means far more than a simple fact of association. Just as the speaking of the prophetic word summons it into existence ( Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p. 366), so it also moves the community to re-form. They do this as “oaks of righteousness” grown to display God’s glory. And how is this displayed? By building up the devastated cities and repairing the ruins (Isaiah 61:4).

That urban renewal will not take place overnight is underscored by the natural metaphors. What is described here is the steady process of blessing, imaged by “oaks of righteousness (Isaiah 61:3) and the growth of a garden (Isaiah 61:11). This natural time frame requires a community of renewed vocation, one of the most important “blessings” (Isaiah 61: 9b) of Isaiah’s proclamation of “the year of the LORD’s favor (Jubilee), and the day of vengeance of our God . . .” (Isaiah 61:2). It is absolutely crucial  to note that “vengeance” here carries its original meaning as “restoration to wholeness!” (Westermann, p. 367).

This connection to a community that “sets its clock” to the rhythm of oaks and gardens is key to enjoying this healing renewal. The result of an artificial and technical culture divorced from creation’s ebb and flow is what Wendell Berry has called a “wound that cannot be healed because it is encapsulated in loneliness, surrounded by speechlessness.” That is, when the human body—singly and corporately—lives only by and from its own productions, when vast periods of time are spent in cubicles facing screens, we are confined by what we “produce” and our mode of production. Then, as Berry continues,

“our works do not liberate us—they confine us. They cut us off from access to the wilderness of Creation where we must go to be reborn—to receive the awareness at once humbling and exhilarating, grievous and joyful, that we are part of Creation, one with all that we live from and all that, in turn, lives from us “(The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, San Francisco: Sierra Club,1977, p. 104).

Paul echoes this theme of living what our culture might call ‘holistically’ in a roundabout way. We have seen above how the final appeal in the structure of the letter has called the Thessalonian community to live in rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving (1 Thessalonians 5 16-18). In fact, Beverly Gaventa has called vv. 16-22 an “early form of church order” preceding even the Didache (Beverly Roberts Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, Louisville: John Knox, 1998, p. 84).

To maintain this order requires a very strong sense of identity. We find this in Paul’s “epistolary closing” (5: 23-28), which contains a prayer that the recipients be made “wholly (ολοτελως) holy” and enjoy  spirits, souls, and bodies that are “sound” (NRSV: ολοκλρον) or “wholly functioning” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Since it is difficult in 2014 to maintain the heightened awareness of the parousia that Paul calls for in 1 Thessalonians 4:1- 5: 11, perhaps we may be free to reinterpret playfully what it could mean for the community of faith to be “completely sound” and “fully functioning.”

Larry Rasmussen suggests “we must create ‘anticipatory communities’ as part of the successful negotiation out of the fossil fuel interlude.” (Rasmussen, Earth-honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 183). As he concludes his book, Rasmussen calls for a community of “sacred strangers in a secular society” (Rasmussen, p. 364). Such a community or set of communities might take as its charter responsibility for keeping Earth with all its creatures “completely sound” and “wholly functioning.” While this may seem like a tall order, Paul makes it clear that the One whose Advent we await “is faithful, and he will do this;” that is, he will keep the community faithful to the task (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

The author of John’s Gospel joins Mark in seeing the coming of Jesus as a new beginning (αρκη) for the whole creation. Like Mark, John begins this process with the work of John the Baptizer, whose role is abundantly clear: He is the one who comes to testify to the light coming into the world.

It is not long before his testimony begins. In a scene suggesting a courtroom trial, John is confronted by priests and Levites from Jerusalem asking him, “Who are you?” (John 1: 19). In answer to their examination, John makes it clear that he is neither Messiah, nor Elijah the forerunner, nor the prophet like Moses to come at the fulfillment. In the language of Isaiah, he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.” (John 1: 23).

It is likely that John’s response to this interrogation is designed not only to refute those who would see John as Messiah, Elijah, the Prophet, or even “the light” and follow him, but also to clarify his significant, although subsidiary, role. He baptizes with water and testifies to the “one who is coming after me,” the “one who stands among you whom you do not know” (John 1:26-27). That John also functions as something of a ‘revealer’ in giving testimony to the light is shown when, on the next day, he declares, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

This is not the end of the courtroom drama in this gospel. As the testimony of John the Baptizer concludes, the Evangelist adds his evidence—as a community is formed, signs are enacted, and the passion drama is reached (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XIII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 45; see also Gerald Sloyan, John, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 19f.).

This drama continues for all who live in Advent expectation. The Prayer of the Day for Advent 3 puts it well:

Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light . . . . (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 19).

That is, through baptism we are called to join John the Baptizer in testifying to the light.

Let’s face it: light as metaphor is difficult for those of us who live in so-called “developed societies.” Light is not only available twenty-four hours a day; we can hardly escape it even when we seek respite in the darkness. Sadly, those who live in urban areas without easy access to a planetarium can hardly teach children the wonder of constellations to help them appreciate the mystery of a starry night.

This has not gone unrecognized by environmental writers.  As he toured the U.S. promoting his book, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light (Boston: Little, Brown, 2013), Paul Bogard projected satellite maps of the U.S. from the late 1950’s, the mid 1970’s, 1997, and (as anticipated) in 2025, showing the spread of lighting. While the map from the late 1950’s shows a country mostly dark except for the Boswash conurbation, the Chicago area, and the Los Angeles basin, the map projecting 2025 light quotas reveals a country bathed in light with the exception of the mountain west. The ancient prayer, “lighten our darkness,” is harder to make sense of in this environment.

But the transformation of night affects more than the beauty of the night sky. It has become clear that so-called “blue light” from electronic devices reduces the production of melatonin necessary for sleep. Excessive light during the melatonin production cycle also correlates with increased rates of breast cancer among women (Bogard, 104-109). Now we need studies on the effects of lighting a continent on non-human plants and animals. We need to recognize that all this light, indeed, has become metaphorical “darkness.”

Therefore, while we continue to light Advent candles each week at home and in the assembly to demonstrate our joyful expectation of the Coming of God, we need to discover new images and metaphors to fit our call to be active and watchful, serving creation in way that is “wholly sound” and “fully  functioning” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). In the meantime, we celebrate our life together with its call to serve the whole creation and to let our lights shine—but perhaps not too brightly.

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

Third Sunday of Advent (Dec. 13) 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 Second 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

**NEW** Third Sunday of Advent (Dec. 13) in Year B (Mundahl20)

Rejoice? Tom Mundahl reflects on joy in the midst of grief.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

The Third Sunday in Advent has traditionally been called “Gaudete Sunday,” a Sunday to “rejoice” as we turn in hope and expectation toward the Coming One. While gaudete (“rejoice”) originally comes from the Vulgate translation of Philippians 4:4, “rejoice in the Lord always”, this week’s readings do not neglect this theme.  For example, this week’s Second Lesson calls Thessalonian community members to “rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), while our First Lesson proclaims the “the year of the LORD’s favor” (Isaiah 61: 2). But how can we rejoice in the face of a quarter-million Covid-19 deaths, another record year of hurricanes and forest fires (during the hottest year recorded), while just a few miles from my home blocks of burned-out buildings stand empty in the aftermath of the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd.

Reflecting on this week’s readings, it is clear that the intended audiences for these writings did not spend their lives continuously doing the “happy dance.” They are the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, those who mourn, and those surviving with a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:1-3). Return from exile has not guaranteed comfort. In fact, arrival to a semi-destroyed Jerusalem apparently has led to renewed fissures in this wounded community. If the people had “wept by the waters of Babylon” (Psalm 137), is being oppressed in one’s homeland any better? Into this painful situation comes the Isaiah prophet (or the students of the “Isaiah school”) with a message of intensified hope (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 169).

Now all will be engaged in a process of rebuilding, a process that will be as slow as the growth of an oak tree. But because “the spirit of the Lord God” (Isaiah 61:1) is the motive force, all that is necessary for renewed life will gradually be done. These “oaks of righteousness” will rebuild ancient ruins and repair essential services.  While the strategy offered by the Ezekiel prophet was to focus on renewing the Temple priesthood, here the whole people “shall be priests of the LORD” (Isaiah 61:6, Paul D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic, Fortress, 1979, pp. 65-68). By sharing a calling to the priestly task of rebuilding the city, even the  fog of collective grief will begin to disappear.

Now this wave of shared responsibility will bring so much joy, the prophet can only describe it in terms of a wedding party (hieros gamos) celebrating a deepening bond between the divine and all creatures. Because the gift of joy explodes with energy, it is best described in terms of the fecundity of creation: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the LORD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61: 11). Is it any wonder that Jesus read just this text at his home synagogue (Luke 4:18-19 )?

At first glance, Psalm 126 seems only to celebrate the joy of temple pilgrimage by travelers, who on their way remember the return of exiles. “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy….” (Psalm 126:1-2a). But they cannot suppress a “blue note,” recalling weeping and asking to be refreshed, just as southern deserts are refreshed by spring rains. They pray that the one who brought exiles back from Babylon will “bring them home rejoicing, carrying the sheaves” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville, John Knox, 1994, p. 400).

In much the same way, Paul’s first letter to the assembly in Thessalonika appears to be little more than a friendly letter of warm support. That this is not the case is revealed by the apostle’s frustration that he cannot be with them as he continues his mission. In fact, this separation has made him feel like an “orphan” (1 Thessalonians 2:17).  That is a feeling that must be familiar to many of us during the many months of the current pandemic. Being cut off from family, friends, fellow worshippers, co-workers has created potentially dangerous isolation, making the call to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) seem like a cruel joke.

Beverly Gaventa suggests Paul’s conclusion of this letter goes far beyond warm exhortation. Instead, it appears to be “an early form of church order,” preceding the Didache by decades (First and Second Thessalonians, John Knox, 1998, p. 84). Maintaining this order then and now requires a strong sense of identity. We find this in Paul’s “epistolary closing” (5:23-28) which contains a prayer asking that the hearers be made, literally, “wholly holy” and enjoy spirits, souls and bodies that are “sound” or “wholly functioning” (5:23). Despite the threatening events of 2020, it is difficult to maintain Paul’s heightened awareness of the parousia, we are responsible for reinterpreting what it could mean for the community of faith to be “completely sound” and “fully functioning.”

One thing is sure: as faith communities we need to attend to the dying and the bereaved. At a time when too many have had to die alone, connected to the latest medical technology but disconnected from family, friends and faith community, we need every gift of the Spiritus Creator to affirm our ties with one another and keep them sound.  On a public scale, we need to consider Kenneth Feinberg’s proposal to establish a “national office of bereavement” to provide emotional, community, and financial support, as the office he led did in the aftermath of 9-11 (NPR Report, Weekend Edition Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020). But congregations also need to compensate for the absence of public funerals by using all means consistent with health protocols to support the “grief work” of those suffering loss. Perhaps one good unintended consequence of the pandemic will be to recover and acknowledge the tearing separation of “the empty chair at the table” and move away from naive and death-denying “celebration of life” services.

As we recover sensitivity to the power of loss in our lives, we also need to acknowledge our grief over damage to the earth.  Whether it is the prohibition from eating Mississippi River fish that my brother and I caught for dinner more than 60 years ago, the housing development built through our former cross-country skiing trail, or the fact that urban children will never see the Milky Way and learn the constellations, the loss is real. Of course, this is nothing like the asthma and other health problems experienced especially by those in poverty and people of color, victims of environmental racism.

In 2003, Australian geologist, Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to denote this loss. Seeing “the existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation of a loved home environment,” he saw that new language was necessary. (“The Age of Solastalgia,” The Conversation, August 7, 2012, p. 2). While we have all experienced this, no group has suffered as acutely as climate refugees from Central America and Africa who have been forced to find new homes at a time when they rarely find a welcome. When solastalgia and nostalgia (the “longing for home”) intersect, that is painful loss indeed. The UN conservatively estimates that each year 21.5 million people are added to this group. And this is not even to consider the loss of plants and animals during the current “sixth extinction.”

How can we respond? Larry Rasmussen suggests developing a community of “sacred strangers in a secular society” (Earth-honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 364). Such a network of communities might take as its charter responsibility for keeping the earth with all its creatures “completely sound” and “wholly functioning.” Part of this must include attending to bereavement in all it forms, including solastalgia. While this seems like a tall  order, Paul makes clear that the one whose Advent we await “is faithful, and he will do this;” that is, keep the community faithful to the task (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

John affirms this as he accepts his role as a witness who testifies to the light that comes in the midst of our darkness. This role becomes more than metaphor when he is “put on trial” by Temple authorities from Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, the central question is, “Who are you” (John 1:19)? Responding to their grilling, John makes it clear that he is neither Messiah, Elijah the forerunner, nor the Moses-like prophet to come. In the language of Isaiah, he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23).

The evangelist confirms John’s importance by including additional testimony. When asked later in the gospel about his identity, John again denies that he is Messiah, but calls himself the bridegroom’s friend. “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3: 29-30). As the plot in the gospel moves from John’s baptizing in the wilderness to its climax, we recall that “the voice” Isaiah describes sees the blooming of the wilderness (Isaiah 51:3). It is no surprise, then, that we move from forensic interrogation in the bleak desert to utter astonishment in the garden of resurrection (John 20), for when the Logos/Sophia is deeply incarnated, it brings a wedding feast for the whole creation (See the important work of Margaret Daly-Denton, John–An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to Be the Gardener, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 43-50).

Feasting hardly seems appropriate as 2020 comes to its brutal end.  Perhaps we need to hear  this week’s Prayer of the Day once again. “Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light….” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg-Fortress, 2006, p. 19). Through our baptism we are called to join John in testifying to the light. That testimony can be a challenge for it calls us to enter the deepest darkness with honesty and courage.

Facing exponential increases in Covid-19 cases, continued indifference to the climate crisis, and virulent racism, all too often we can only respond with lament.  Yet as we share this lament together something happens. As we feel frozen in crises that have no clear pathways through, together we discover the dim light of new routes for response.. That is certainly the witness of the Black Church. It is also the teaching of blues singers, a message captured by African-American poet Nikki Giovanni:

We stirred the blues in our stews to give us the strength to go on
And Lord Have Mercy we used The Blues to give us joy to make us laugh
To teach us how to love and dance and run
Away
And so much more
Thank The Lord
How to stay until the next day
The Blues is our history
Our quilt
(“The Blues,” Make Me Rain, William Morrow, 2020, pp. 28-29)

Perhaps learning to “sing the blues” will sharpen our eyes so that together we begin to see the light.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

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 (Dec. 6) 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

**NEW** Second Sunday of Advent (Dec. 6) in Year B (Mundahl20)

Thinking the Unthinkable Tom Mundahl reflects on our communal lament and hope for wholeness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (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 powerfully during Advent than the promise of comfort. We cannot help being moved by Handel’s Messiah as the tenor takes up the prophet’s voice with the clear tones of “Comfort ye, comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” During this “Covid year,” we will likely miss lifting our voices together in Olearius’ hymn, “Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006, No. 256). We will miss this because of the threats of the pandemic that has been horribly mishandled in the US, paralleling our response to climate change and systemic racism.

Half a century ago, when the danger of nuclear war seemed to be the principal threat on the horizon (that danger remains), Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute wrote a short, but shocking book entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable (Horizon, 1962). The author went beyond strategies aimed at avoiding a nuclear holocaust and openly asked: how would such a war be fought? Although some expressed fear that public airing in this explicit way would be dangerous, it was among the factors moving nuclear powers to arms reduction negotiations.

To the community living in Babylonian exile, the notion of comfort must have also seemed unthinkable. Comfort was as unimaginable to those who had lost their promised homeland as those voting in the US on November 3, 2020 could envision quick, scientifically- based action to control the novel coronavirus, reduce carbon emissions, and summon the courage to move toward the Beloved Community of racial harmony and justice. But the prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) is called to deliver a message of hope and renewal.

The difficulty of his task cannot be overestimated. For it is likely that even before the defeat of Jerusalem (587-586 BCE), the Judean religious elite had continued to live with a “royal theology” that stifled imagination and hope. for change. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “What was most needed is what was most unacceptable — an articulation that redefines the situation and makes way for new gifts about to be given” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Augsburg, 2001, p. 63).

Powerful covenant promises about serving as a blessing to all creation (Genesis 12:1-3) had shriveled to mere survival, just getting by. This produced a culture that was dying from the inside, vulnerable to extinction. In many ways, the Judean situation is not so different from 2020 America, where common values of equality and interdependent freedom have been traded for illusions of consumer satisfaction, tribal identification as Red or Blue, acceptance of extreme economic inequality, and refusal to acknowledge science — whether climate science or epidemiology. For us, turning around to take an honest look at our predicament, a deep Advent gaze illuminated by candlelight is scary. It is also the path to newness.

Isaiah signals the end of these “holding actions.” No longer is managing lowered expectations acceptable. The Holy One is operating in a new way. The exile is over; it is time for that which is least expected: comfort, a New Exodus, a new beginning of communal life. For those who doubted divine faithfulness, Isaiah offers a new enthronement formula, “say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’” (Isaiah 40:9-10). This is nothing less than a new birth of imagination and courage.

All of this comes by way of a prophet who confesses that his vision had dried up. In what amounts to a “call narrative” for this Second Isaiah, he admits his prophetic version of writer’s block: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are like grass and their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades….” (Isaiah 40:6-8a). Claus Westermann reminds us: “The exiles’ greatest temptation — and the prophet speaks as one of their number — was precisely to be resigned to thinking 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 has perished: all flesh is grass’” (Isaiah 40-66, Westminster, 1969, p. 41).

But there is something that trumps the prophet’s fatalism: “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8b).  This theme sounds throughout Second Isaiah, concluding with an affirmation of the intricate and reliable involvement of that word in the workings of the earth household.  “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 shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s creative word is the only adequate basis for a New Exodus.  To say, “Fear not,” with any other foundation, guarantees only anxiety. And it is the necessary response to Isaiah’s forlorn, “what shall I cry?,” for it frees the community to trust in a 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 the evangelist turns to Isaiah’s song to follow immediately after what was likely considered the gospel’s title: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1, see also Adele Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Fortress, 2007, p. 18). This simple beginning immediately subverts Roman imperial order where “good news” was the exclusive reserve of the emperor’s benevolence. Naming Jesus “the son of God” only made matters worse. How could these imperial attributes flow from an obscure figure from troublesome Judea, who had been executed by the empire’s duly-appointed colonial governor (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p. 61)? Yet this subversive gospel title is nothing less than a new kind of “enthronement formula”–especially when read aloud in the assembly.

Following the announcement of this gospel-title, we hear an offstage voice anticipating the entrance of John the Baptizer. Rather than a simple rehash of Isaiah 40, however, we are presented with a creative conflation which includes references to Exodus and Malachi. “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 promises, “I will send an angel in front of you, to guard you on your way and to bring you to a place I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). Here we have a midrash on Exodus 40, suggesting that this messenger will indeed continue the Exodus tradition (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 2nd Ed., Orbis 2008, p. 128).

We also hear echoes of 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 resumption of prophetic action is taking place before your eyes! The Baptist does recapitulate Elijah, but 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; all focus is now on the wilderness (Isaiah 40: 3).  Why the desert? Belden Lane suggests: “The desert 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 the Baptizer. At first glance, he 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). Notice, they are not gathering at the Temple; they are gathering in the wilderness (eremos–used 4 times in the gospel’s “prologue,” Mark 1: 1-14). This tension between Zion and the periphery will only grow as this fissure suggests a future so surprising that it will center in Galilee (Mark 16: 1-8).

Not so surprising is the evangelist’s strong identification of John with Elijah, especially in terms of wardrobe and diet (2 Kings 1: 8). With our tendency to domesticate Advent in order to present an even tamer Christmas, we forget that Elijah was nothing if not a political prophet. In his struggle with the corrupt court of Ahab and Jezebel, he pulled no punches and was forced to flee to the wilderness to save his life. But the Elijah-figure portends more. Malachi envisions Elijah as the 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 strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4: 5).

So this “day” is not the end, but a new beginning in the tradition of Isaiah 40, renewal which will come when “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 even greater than Imperial Rome.  Perhaps, to “riff” on Malachi, even bringing blessing to the land.

But for us for whom the world has more than “begun to crack” with skyrocketing pandemic cases and deaths and yet another record hurricane approaching, no facile scriptural interpretation is half enough. Yet through our exhaustion, fear, and doubt we are upheld and strengthened by a community held together by a Spirit who can transform our “sighs too deep for words” ( Romans 8:26) into living toward a future for the whole creation so powerful it pulls us through with creative courage.

This is exactly what the psalmist sings. In Psalm 85, a communal lament seeking restoration to both human heart and land community, there is a recognition 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 of hope envisioning the advent of wholeness.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss.
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.
Justice will go before him, and will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85:8-13)

Whether it is the challenge of healing broken bodies during a pandemic, listening to and learning from a creation that actively resists degradation in the anthropocene era, or working to bring racial justice, scripture is clear: it all belongs together. God’s future which we expect during Advent always includes what Aldo Leopold called “the land community, the substance of what biblical writers call ‘heaven and earth’” (Davis, 25). Perhaps the unthinkable sounds we hear this Advent are the cracking of the world –the shell of the old falling away.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Sunday July 3-9 in Year A (Carr)

Taking on Rationalization Amy Carr reflects on donkeys facing war horses.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 3-9, Year A (2020, 2023)

Zachariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There is both utopic political imagination and Machiavellian rationalization at play in today’s scripture readings. We need the former if we are to minimize climate catastrophe, and ways of reckoning with the latter if we are to enact the kind of collective transformation we need to bring down global temperatures.

On one hand, in our first reading, we have Zechariah’s ludicrous vision of a coming humble king who will exercise dominion while riding a donkey, on whose back he somehow defeats enemies riding mighty war horses. Jesus casts his own authority likewise as that of one who is “gentle and humble in heart, even as “[a]ll things have been handed over to [him] by [his] Father” (Matthew 11:29, 27). The juxtaposition of immense authority and humility is jarring, yet abruptly trust-evoking. Koan-like, the pairing of dominion and humility startles us into a new awareness—a tangible sense of how collective security can be based on mutual trust rather than coercive force.

On the other hand, Jesus wryly observes that “this generation” rationalizes its opposition to the prospect of God’s emerging humility-rooted kingdom by making whatever argument seems to suit the person or the moment: John the Baptist’s calls to repentance are hushed because he was weirdly austere (“neither eating nor drinking”), so he must have “a demon” (Matthew 11:18); yet Jesus’ calls to repentance are ridiculed as hypocritical warnings of a “glutton and a drunkard” because he enjoys “eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19). Indeed, in every generation, we can be blind about the shifting ways we rationalize a cynical complacency, especially about a call to turn in a radically new direction as a species. We can be tempted to portray every visionary as somehow dangerous or corrupt, and thereby dismiss their message.

If Jesus keenly names the kind of hypocrisy that might drive a Machiavellian will to power, Paul gets at why we might be drawn to going along with those who speak of securing the current order of things, even if we know it’s less than ideal for all. Paul peels back the mask to call out the sheer absurdity of rationalizing our resistance to acting for the common good:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Romans 7:21-23).

Perhaps rationalizations that are rooted in selective, belittling observations of prophetic leaders are themselves a mask for despair about our individual or collective ability to act more justly toward one another and toward creation. We see there is a better way, but we feel unable to pursue it—so we justify our sense of stuckness.

It is precisely this inability that Paul believes is healed by baptism into the corporate body of Christ: “Wretched man that I am! Who will heal me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a). When we who “are weary and are carrying heavy burdens” come to Jesus for “rest,” and take Jesus’ “yoke” upon us and “learn from” him as  one who is “gentle and humble in heart,” we will “find rest for [our] souls,” for his “yoke is easy, and [his] burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). To walk in the way of the Torah, to walk with Jesus as the living Word of God, is to be empowered to do that which we cannot do on our own—or when we are addictively in league with the “law of sin” that we express in entrenched, institutionalized patterns of injustice in our lives together.

Taken together, today’s scripture readings testify that a vision of a just and peaceful creation—and the resistance to that vision—are both collectively negotiated. The current climate crisis only intensifies an awareness that the prophets, Jesus, and Paul are calling us not to an individual escape from the tensions of this world, but to living together from the power of peace that cannot be broken by—but can begin to crumble—the powers that sustain collective paths to destruction.

What deeper corporate call to repentance have we ever had than one that asks us to reorient our everyday material world so that we can live more lightly on the planet—so that all species can keep breathing? The call is corporate because it requires wide-scale technological transformation—not simply a collection of individual choices to reduce, reuse, or recycle. Only government policies will enable the particular “monumental shifts historians call ‘energy transitions’” away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Although the shift is more possible and affordable today than it was ten years ago, we still need $800 billion of “investment in renewables . . . each year until 2050 for the world to be on course for less than 2ºC of warming.” And politicized rationalizations for a failure to invest persist—such as in the decision of the Trump administration to roll back EPA monitoring of air pollution in the name of not overburdening companies amid the pandemic. (Quotes are from “Not-so-slow burn: The world’s energy system must be completely transformed,” The Economist, 5-23-20, https://www.economist.com/schools-brief/2020/05/23/the-worlds-energy-system-must-be-transformed-completely).

In the summer of 2020, maybe we can draw ecojustice inspiration from two places we can perceive the Spirit’s breathing today in winds of swift collective change: through our global calls to let fellow human beings breathe, by preventing deaths from the coronavirus whose symptom is difficulty breathing, as well as deaths by racist ways of policing that manifest in unnecessarily suffocating or killing people of color. Responses to both the pandemic and racist police brutality have found expression in a global sensibility. We have watched ourselves transform the texture of our social relations almost overnight through lockdowns and social distancing. We have witnessed a sudden surge in multiracial protests around the world demanding an end to systemic racism—sparked by the humble witness of 17 year old Darnella Frazier using her cell phone to film a Minneapolis police officer suffocating George Floyd.

Frazier is riding a donkey against the war horses of systemic racism in policing, as Greta Thunberg has done against the more invisible resistance of governments to enacting the kinds of rapidly intensive changes in energy infrastructure that we need to mitigate the disaster of climate change. Like Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem amid Passover crowds, both Frazier and Thunberg have cheering crowds attending them and the vision to which they bear witness. Both also come up against rationalizations for the status quo, and efforts to dismiss them or their prophetic messages.

The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, like the 2019 school walkouts for climate change, express an eschatological vision—a glimpse that another way of being is globally contagious and possible, and grounded in a more accurate vision of our shared humanity and planetary condition. We stand with Zechariah in our capacity to behold human beings—and our belonging to creation—without the distortion of a kyriarchical hunger for power over resources and people.

But as Jesus and Paul suggest in today’s readings, those who stand with Zechariah come up against the subtle war horses of minimization and rationalization that prevent meaningful policy changes, be they about the environment, racism, or public health. On these fronts, to take on the yoke of Jesus is to engage in both the humbling inner soul-searching and the persistent collective organizing that address each of these manifestations of sin. Then indeed “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”—or by her “children” (Matthew 11:19).

Dr. Amy Carr
amyreneecarr@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Advent (December 8, 2019) in Year A

Granting Time, Rupturing Time: Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 11 and Matthew 3

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

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

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 8-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

In his deeply insightful book Capitalism and Religion The Price of Piety (Oxford: Routledge, 2002), the philosopher Philip Goodchild investigates how the structures of late capitalism mimic those of religion, particularly Christianity. At one point, in a discussion on how we “spend” the resources given to us and how such spending choices reflect our “piety,” he offers the following observation on time:

One significant example of the way in which honor is shown is the gift of spending time. One shows value, respect, concern, or interest in something or someone by spending time on it or with them. Unlike other resources, however, we have no freedom to preserve the expenditure of time. Time may be saved only by intensifying expenditure elsewhere. The flow of time forces us to pay our respects—it is a currency that cannot be hoarded but only traded. If we do not choose how we will spend our time, then its expenditure will be determined for us by duty, custom, habit, or distraction. A renunciation of all honoring, all choice of where one spends one’s time, is an acceptance of the values imposed by external powers. It is acquiescence in the existing distribution of values, and an honoring of such values. To the extent that the future encloses possibilities, and thought is able to select among these possibilities, then honor is shown. The question of transcendence is laid upon all free creatures constrained by the flow of time. To be temporal and free is to be pious.

Goodchild’s insight recalls that of Luther, who argued that our real “gods” are the ones that we honor with our trust when the temporal flow of our lives becomes disrupted. It is when the normal flow of time, the quotidian rhythm of our days, becomes disrupted that we come face to face with the real objects of our piety.

John the Baptist was, of course, the great disruptor of time—this eschatological prophet, whom both Jesus and the Gospel writers honored by spending time on his narrative. Similarly, although the Isaiah passage for this week is often understood in somewhat “fluffy” terms as a charming vision of paradise, in its contxt it too should be understood with its full disruptive significance: the coming of peace is the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into a world in which, as Chris Hedges has said, “war is a force that gives us meaning.” Just as in the book of Revelation, the figure of “the lamb” here is fraught with prophetic force, for nothing damns the horrors of war (including war on our very surroundings) so profoundly as a vision of the blessings of peace.

As we think about how we live as citizens of creation, Advent forces us to acknowledge that both personally and systemically we so often choose to honor (with our time) activities of war, exploitation, and practices that are killing us and our planet. As Goodchild’s quote points out, we do this not only by our active choices, but also by our “acquiescence in the existing distribution of values”—our refusal to be disruptive of the customs and habits that are unsustainably exploitative (hence our liturgical confession of things “done and left undone,” sins of commission and omission).

It is helpful, then, to think of the eschatological in-breaking of God’s kingdom for which the church prepares in Advent in terms of the disruption of our piety—our pieties towards what it is that we honor with our time, the piety that causes us to go along unquestioningly with what Goodchild elsewhere calls the “liturgy of common sense” (even, and especially, when that quotidian “liturgy” is destroying our planet and ourselves), the piety that causes us to look at creation as a stockpile of resources for our consumption rather than a fragile web that sustains that which God loves.

In our daily pieties, we are no better than the hypocrites against whom John the Baptist rails—we, as much as they, need disruptive grace to reform our ways of spending the honor of time, and living as God’s people in God’s creation. The gospel promise of Advent, then, is that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus retains the power to break our way of honoring that which kills us, and frees us to live out our time on this planet as partakers of God’s new way of being.

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