Tag Archives: temple

Passion Sunday and Holy Week in Year B (Ormseth12)

The Transformation of All Life Dennis Ormseth reflects on the reorientation of creation to its sacred center.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Sunday of the Passion
Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16 (Procession)
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42

The week we call “holy” traditionally begins with the congregation’s Palm Sunday procession: the pastor reads the processional Gospel from Mark 11; as the people go into the sanctuary, they wave palms while singing “All glory, laud, and honor to you, redeemer, king, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.”  With the second verse of this hymn, the singers might envision themselves to be joined by “the company of angels,” as “creation and all mortals in chorus make reply” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, No. 344). The procession thus calls forth cosmic expectations for the events of the week thus initiated: All creation recognizes the great significance of the remembrance of Jesus’ “last week.” As the participants quiet themselves for the long reading of the passion narrative that is ahead, however, they will likely have already missed an important point of entry into the cosmic meaning of the day.  Their procession has ended, and they begin to grapple with the sudden shift from joy to dread as the reading begins: “It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. . . .” (Mark 14:1). What will have been missed is the strange “non-event” at the end of the processional Gospel.

Jesus “entered Jerusalem” we read, “and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11). The entry of the son of David into the great city might be expected to end in triumphal arrival at the center of power of the Jewish temple-state. As Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan describe the importance of the temple, it was “the sacred center of the Jewish world.”  The temple in Jerusalem was “the navel of the earth” connecting this world to its source in God, and here (and only here) was God’s dwelling place on earth. . . . To be in the temple was to be in God’s presence . . . . To stand in the temple, purified and forgiven, was to stand in the presence of God” (The Last Week, p. 6). But Jesus only “looked around at everything,” we are told, and “as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” His arrival at the temple was apparently as unnoticed and, for him personally, as unmoving, as that of a typical modern tourist among the late-hour crowds on a tour of too many churches in a European city, and ready to retreat to the hotel for dinner. From the perspective of our concern with the significance of holy week for the creation and its care, however, his “look around”  signals a momentous shift in understanding: The temple’s significance as the “sacred center” and “dwelling place” of God has, as far as Jesus is concerned, been vacated.

Jesus’ relationship to the temple in Jerusalem is a central motif in Mark’s Gospel, and no less so at precisely this point in the narrative. Indeed,  the events narrated between 11:12 and 13:37, namely, from the end of the procession Gospel to the beginning of the passion narrative, are focused almost entirely on Jesus’ relationship with the temple: Jesus curses a fig tree (11:12-13), “emblem of peace, security, and prosperity” associated with the temple-state; the next day, Jesus re-enters the temple, this time to cleanse it of all that makes it “a den of robbers” (11:15-19); looking on the withered fig tree, Jesus suggests that “this mountain”—that is, Zion, the location of the temple—could “be taken up and cast into the sea” (11:23); and, although the temple was, as Borg and Crossan put it, “the only place of sacrifice, and sacrifice was the means of  forgiveness,” mediating access to God  (The Last Week, p. 6), Jesus instead proposes that “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that our Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (11:25).

Thus is the status of the temple indeed reduced in Jesus’ view to the condition suggested by his casual “look around.” Moreover, while “walking in the temple,” he engages its officers in controversy about the authority of their traditional antagonists, the prophets, in this instance represented by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. And he tells against them the prophetic parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard: They are the wicked tenants who would take as their own the land that the presence of God in the temple rendered holy. They should give back the land to God (“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” 12:17). Obedience to the Great Commandment of love to God and the second one like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he stipulates, is “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And, in a final outburst of rejection, he disputes the view that the coming of the Messiah entails the restoration of the temple state: the Messiah is not David’s son (12:37) and, as such, will not rehabilitate the old imperial vision. The piety practiced in the temple is, in Ched Myers’s phrase, nothing but “a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation,” as is illustrated by the poor widow who gives everything she has to the temple treasury (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 321. See Myers analysis, Chapter 10, pp. 290 – 323, on all the several points summarized here in these two paragraphs). Accordingly, Jesus’ teaching in the temple ends with the announcement of its desecration  and its apocalyptic destruction (13:1-22).

Jesus’ repudiation of the temple is complete and total, Myers argues. Noting that Jesus “takes a seat ‘facing’ the temple (13:3) in preparation for delivering his second great sermon, he summarizes the moment’s significance this way:

“With this final dramatic action, Jesus utterly repudiates the temple state, which is to say the entire socio-symbolic order of Judaism. His objections have been consistently based upon one criterion: the system’s exploitation of the poor. He now sets about warning his disciples against joining those who would wage a messianic war in defense of the temple (13:14).  The ‘mountain’ must be ‘moved,’ not restored. Jesus now offers a vision of the end of the temple-based world, and the dawn of a new one in which the powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, p. 322-23).

And so we arrive once more at the Gospel text with which the Season of Advent begins in this year B of the lectionary cycle, the apocalypse of Mark 13:24-37. Readers joining us only recently or for the first time with this comment will be helped to appropriate the significance of this recapitulation by reading our comment on the First Sunday of Advent. What has concerned us from that beginning is the possibility that with the rejection of the temple comes a displacement of what, beyond its socio-political significance, the temple represented in Jewish cosmology. As we put it then, “the temple was the sacred space in and through which the people experienced the presence of God in creation, and by means of the stories of creation . . . were given their orientation, not only to God, but also to creation.”  What, we again ask, are the consequences for creation of the dislocation of God’s presence from the temple, if it was indeed regarded as “the navel of the world.”?

In answering this question, we have shown in subsequent comments on the texts from Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, first, that what displaces the temple as the locus of divine presence in the narrative of the Gospel, and indeed, more fully in the experience of the Christian community at worship, is of course the person of Jesus himself. And second, we have argued that the story of Jesus is as fully engaged with the reality of the creation as the temple itself ever was. The Gospel of Jesus the Christ not only provides access to the presence of God in creation, but it also provides a characteristic orientation to creation. “Yes, to be sure,” we wrote already in that first comment, “the ‘heaven and earth’ of the social order of the temple state is passing away, and soon; but the new creation will rise in the Garden of Gethsemane toward which Mark’s story now proceeds” (First Sunday of Advent).

In what follows here, we argue that it is precisely in Mark’s narrative of the passion and in the week’s associated Scriptures that the church’s lectionary for Year B gives us its most full access to the God of Creation in the person of Jesus, and that this access brings with it a definitive orientation to the creation Jesus was called to serve. The events accompanying the destruction of the temple, Mark has Jesus observe to his disciples, are “but the beginning of the birth pangs” for the new creation (13:8). As we noted in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, “The darkening of the sun and moon are the creation’s sympathetic participation in the wrath of God against human sinfulness, which is systemically connected to the ‘desolation’ of the earth, drawing on Isaiah 13:10. The falling stars allude to the ‘fall’ of the highest structures of power in history, which, Myers suggests, refers to the Jewish and Roman elites who will shortly assemble to watch Jesus’ execution (Myers, p. 343; cf. Carol J. Dempsey, Hope Amid the Ruins: The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, pp. 78-79).” These cosmic signs will be followed by the coming of the Son of Man with “great power and glory,” as his angels are sent out to “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (13:26-27).

(It is helpful to note that while this section of Mark concerning the culmination of the conflict between Jesus and the temple-state is not part of our readings for Holy Week, the section of the Gospel of John that tells the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was read on the Third Sunday in Lent, with the same message: the temple will be destroyed, and it will be replaced by the resurrection body of Jesus [see Tom Mundahl’s relevant comments on the readings for that Sunday]. But Mark will be our primary source for what follows. We are primarily concerned to locate and discuss those elements of the narrative that are most important for our concern for creation and its care in each of these sections. We follow the interpretation of Ched Myers in his Binding the Strong Man.)

Myers observes that in the opening verse of our reading of the Passion, Mark “plunges the reader into the deepest heart of Jewish symbolic life: the high holy days in Jerusalem.” It is interesting to note, then, that as important to the festival as the temple was, it no longer figures as the center of action; the story of Jesus’ last days unfolds, rather, in “the house of a leper and a Jerusalem attic, the Mount of Olives and an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard, and of course ‘Golgotha’ and the tomb” (Binding the Strong Man, p. 357). The first of these settings is the house of a leper in Bethany, ‘a narrative reminder of the way in which Jesus’ discipleship practice continues to challenge the social boundaries of the dominant order” (Ibid. p. 358). Astonishingly, a woman anoints Jesus’ head with expensive oil, an action condemned by some present but which receives Jesus’ profound approbation as a proper anticipation of his death and burial, as opposed to the inauguration of a triumphal reign. But, as Myers also significantly notes, “her care for Jesus’ body narratively prepares us for the emergence of this body as the new symbolic center of the community in the corresponding ‘messianic banquet’” which follows” (Myers, p. 359).

So the scene shifts quickly to what Myers suggests is “an attic room”: Jesus instructs his disciples to make preparations for their meal in a place that will be identified for them by a man bearing water. Myers thinks that this is an appropriately inconspicuous signal that helps conceal the whereabouts of Jesus as they “celebrate the meal after the manner of the original Passover.” They will eat the meal “as those in flight,” seeking escape from oppressive exile (Myers, p. 361). And the notion that the attic room is a place to which water must be carried reminds us that water itself is important to the gathering of Jesus’ disciples. Indeed, from the beginning, the gatherings of this community have taken place in the presence of water.  A river of water, we recall, was the site of Jesus’ commissioning by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:10). His first disciples would be called from their work at the side of the sea (Mark 1:16). Those he healed followed him to the sea, where the unclean spirits identify him as the Son of God (Mark 3:7-11).  After he stilled the storm while crossing the sea with his terrified disciples, he sent the Legion of unclean spirits crashing down the bank into the sea to be drowned (Mark 5:13). He fed five thousand by the sea, and walked on the sea, imploring his disciples to “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

So if all of these references are to the flight through the water at the Red Sea, remembered in the festival, they also point to the fact that water in each of these events is a touchstone for the very presence of God, and that its use is instrumental to God’s gracious and redemptive purposes. Just so here: the water carried in the jar to the hidden space marks the divine presence in the midst of those gathered and so confers on the gathering the high significance of what happens there. Furthermore, if we pick up on the tradition of foot washing from John 13, the primary reading assigned for Maundy Thursday, we note that Jesus will use this water to wash the feet of his disciples, an expression of his service to them as the very Servant of God (John 13:1-17, 31b-35). As the woman in Bethany cared for his body, anointing it with oil, so does Jesus in turn freely care for the bodies of his disciples, with water made very precious, not only by its scarcity, but also by its use according to the will and purposes of God. Jesus models for his disciples that holy use: “So if I, your lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

We have in other places discussed the significance of water for an ecologically oriented faith, most pointedly in our comment on the story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob in the gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent in Year A of the lectionary. As we asked there, “Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation,” as it is increasingly seen and treated in the world?  “Or is it more properly an ‘object of awe,’ calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its maker?” We would refer our readers to that discussion, and it seems appropriate to repeat the main point of our conclusion: What faith calls for is an orientation that appreciates the presence of water as essential for all life on our blue planet, and is therefore profoundly respectful of water as sacred gift. “As an essential part of God’s creation, water is to be served and protected.” (See also Tom Mundahl’s  comment on the flood story in his commentary for the First Sunday in Lent and on baptism as “an ark-assembly that hears God’s promise to Noah and creation amplified to become a powerful word of resurrection and renewal, trumping the watery muck of all that would destroy creation”). It was only a jar of water that alerted the disciples to the place where they should prepare for their meal according to Jesus’ instruction. But, as we noted on the occasion of the Baptism of our Lord, whether there is a bowl of it, a pool or a river, water will come to provide a center not just for the rites of Christian worship, but as a “a center to the world,” a “spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless give a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people.” (The quotation is from Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground, pp. 105-06)

If the bodies of the disciples must be washed, these bodies must all the more be fed.  And so, when they had gathered, Jesus “took a loaf of bread,” we read, “and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’” The bread, Myers observes, “that sustained the hungry masses ‘on the way’ (Mark 8:2) has now become Jesus’ ‘body’—which body has just been ‘prepared’ for death.” “Then he took a cup,” we read on, “and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’” And again, as Myers notes,  the covenant will “be ratified in the shedding of Jesus’ blood (Mark 14:24).”  What becomes clear about this meal, Myers concludes, is that Mark is portraying Jesus here as the “eschatological paschal lamb,” and we realize suddenly “that Jesus is not after all participating in the temple-centered feast of Passover (note that Mark never mentions the eating of lamb). Instead he is expropriating its symbolic discourse (the ritual meal) in order to narrate his new myth, that of the Human One who gives his life for the people.”

The displacement of the temple is now complete, Myers observes. “Through the symbolic action of table fellowship,” he notes,

“Jesus invites the disciples/reader to solidarity with his impending arrest, torture, and execution. In this episode, Mark articulates his new symbolic center, and overturns the last stronghold of symbolic authority in the dominant order, the high holy feast of Passover. In place of the temple liturgy Jesus offers his “body,”—that is, his messianic practice in life and death. It is this very “sanctuary/body” opposition that will shape Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ execution” (Myers, p. 364).

And the narrative of the Gospel of John no less so, we might add, noting the frequent mention of temple authorities in the section of the narrative appointed for Good Friday, John 18:1 – 19:42 (See especially 18:13-14, 19; 19:14, 31, and 42).

As Jesus leaves the meal and goes out of the city to the Mount of Olives, one senses that not only the temple but the city itself is no longer the sacred center of Jewish life for him or for his disciples. It is left entirely in the control of  those whose collaboration will destroy it, even as they conspire to capture Jesus and kill him because he has spoken against them. Who can save this city from its leaders? But the disintegration of the community is felt most palpably in the reality that Jesus’ own community is also being torn apart: even as they share the meal, the betrayer is at hand. Later in the garden, the three leaders of the disciples cannot stay awake to watch with him, their bodies enacting, as Myers puts it, “the mythic moment of struggle” between “staying awake” and “sleeping” (Myers, p. 368). Their spirit may be willing, “but the flesh is weak.” Judas has betrayed Jesus for money; his bodily embrace will mark the target for the soldiers who come to arrest Jesus. Rejecting violent response, Jesus is led away, as “all of them deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:50).  The crowing of a cock will signal his complete abandonment—the non-human creation, we are reminded, is keeping watch.

Thus does the narrative of the last days of Jesus with his disciples end. There is only the curious episode of the young man who “was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (Mark 14:51-52). Myers suggests that he is “a symbol of the discipleship community as a whole, which has just itself fled (Mark 14:50). He escapes naked (gumnos), indicative of shame, leaving behind a cloth that becomes the “burial garment” for Jesus.” He comes back at the end of the Gospel, however, as the young man “’sitting at the right’ and fully clothed in a white robe—symbols of the martyrs who have overcome the world through death.” The figure suggests to Myers that “the discipleship community can be rehabilitated, even after such a betrayal. The first ‘young man’ symbolizes ‘saving life and losing it,’ the second ‘losing life to save it’” (Myers, p. 369).

Helpful as Myer’s discussion is, as far as it goes, Gordon Lathrop offers the more creative insight that the young man represents something much more dramatic: He is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, the blind beggar who receives his sight from Jesus, a literary allusion to Plato’s Timaeus, a resource of great significance for Western cosmology. The point Lathrop would advance is that Mark’s gospel fundamentally challenges that cosmology, in which the “wise man follow[s] the thoughts and revolutions of the universe, learning the harmonies of the sphere, so that having assimilated them he may attain to that best life which the gods have set before mankind, both for the present and the future.” It was a world view “marked by the privilege and domination of certain upper-class, physically intact males.”

Once he is given new sight, Mark’s “son of Timaeus” instead follows Jesus to his death, to reappear as the first witness of the resurrection. He represents an alternative cosmology in which there is “a hole in the heavens, a tear in the perfect fabric of the perfect sphere, then the Spirit descending like a dove at the end of the flood and a voice coming from the heaven.” In this new cosmology, the blind who have come to sight are “associated with the word about the death of Jesus and with the bread, cup, and baptism that hold out that death as a gift of life” (Lathrop, Holy Ground, pp. 26-38). And we might add, where the movements of earthly bodies have more to tell us than have all the stars in heaven. The idea that the young man ran off naked, it occurs to us, is not so much a symbol of shame as a sign of readiness to be baptized into a new creation.

Along with water, we accordingly note, bodies and their care are of crucial significance to the passion narrative. Indeed, we would suggest that they provide the basis for exploring the fullest meaning of this narrative for creation and its care. Jesus washed the bodies of his disciples as would a servant, and yet he feeds them as one who can give them new life, even his very own being. He is, as it were, both source and sustainer of the life that is theirs in community. Norman Wirzba argues in his recent excellent book on Food and Faith that their own bodies are where humans become most immediately and irreducibly aware of their relationship to the creation that sustains them in life, as one of interdependence and responsibility.

“Bodies are not things or commodities that we have or possess. In the most fundamental sense, every body is a place of gift. It is a vulnerable and potentially nurturing site in terms of which we come to know and experience life as the perpetual exchange of gift upon gift. The realization inevitably leads to the conclusion that bodies are therefore also places of responsibility. How have we received what we have been given, and what have we done with the gifts of nurture? Through our bodies we learn that who we are is a feature of where we are and what we receive. Through our bodies we discover that what we become is a feature of what we have given in return. Bodies are the physical and intimate places where we learn that life is a membership rather than a solitary quest” (Food and Faith, pp. 103-04).

In terms of our interest in the relationship of humans to creation, our bodies, we suggest, are where we are oriented fundamentally to the rest of creation as members of the great body that is creation itself, and to our responsibility to care for that creation as part of ourselves.

There is an inherent anxiety about this membership in the larger creation, Wirzba suggests, namely, what he describes as “the fear of interdependent need and responsibility” that

“compels us to see bodies (in some extreme cases even our own bodies) as alien and as a threat. We worry that the fragility of life will be the occasion for someone else to take advantage of us. Recoiling before our own vulnerability and need, we come to view others with suspicion. We become filled with the desire to control every body that we can” (Ibid, p. 104).

This anxiety results in various forms of exile, both forced and self-imposed—ecological, economic, and physiological—that constitute a state of alienation from full membership in the creation, characterized by “the belief that we can thrive alone and at the expense of others” and that fundamentally denies “the fact that we eat, and so depend on each other for our health and well-being. Because of this denial we forfeit the hope of communion” (Ibid. p. 109).

In this perspective, we see that the narrative of the meal is about Jesus’ most essential work. In it he addresses  just this denial and provides its remedy. On the one hand, as Myers suggested, the need for the disciples’ retreat to the attic room is an expression of this alienation and its impact of human relationship. The gathering of disciples in the Jerusalem attic was pervaded, it seems, both by deep “anxiety of membership” in their society and by a “fear of interdependent need and responsibility,” which compels their suspicion in others as alien and as a threat to their life. The washing and feeding of the disciples bodies, on the other hand, is an expression of restoration of human solidarity in membership both with other people and with the non-human creation that continually gives and sustains life.

At stake here is the interpretation of Jesus’ cross as a sacrifice. We note that the readings for Good Friday place particular emphasis on this theme. Jesus, the reading from Isaiah 52 reminds us, is God’s suffering servant who “shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; and for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which had not been heard they shall contemplate.” Psalm 22 offers, after its dreadful lament of forsakenness, the hope that “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.’ Why? Because “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,” as the reading from Hebrews 10 puts it, “by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God.” Or alternately, from Hebrews 4 and 5, because “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. . . . In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . . .” (Hebrews 4:14-16; 5: 7-9.)

Key to understanding the significance of the meal that Jesus shares with his disciple as a re-orientation to creation is that with his sacrifice he restores to those he feeds the sense of their bodies as created gifts from God. As Wirzba explains, citing David Bentley Hart, as a  replacement of the temple, Jesus’ sacrifice effects

“‘a miraculous reconciliation between God, who is the wellspring of all life, and his people, who are dead in sin.’ Christ’s blood, like the blood sprinkled in the Jewish temple, is not a substance of terror reflecting violence and death, but the medium of reconciliation healing division and renewing life by putting it on a divinely inspired, self-offering path. Christ is a continuation of the temple because it is in him that heaven (the place of God’s life) and earth (the place of creaturely life) meet. By participating (through Baptism and Eucharist) in his sacrificial life, Christ’s followers taste the fruit of heaven” (Ibid. pp. 124-25).

Accordingly, “when Christians declared Jesus to be the final and complete sacrifice who atones for sin (see Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, and I John 2:2), they were not simply making a statement about the man from Nazareth. They were saying . . . that a sacrificial logic of self-offering has been at the heart of the divine life from all eternity” (Ibid., p 125) and “also characterizes created life” Why? “Because there is no life without sacrificial love, and no love without surrender, the destiny of all creatures is that they offer themselves or be offered up as the temporal expression of God’s eternal love” (Ibid., p. 126). Jesus’ life and death are finally about the “transformation of all life and the reparation of creation’s many memberships. Where life is broken, degraded, or hungry, Jesus repairs life, showing it to us as reconciled, protected, and fed” (Ibid. p. 147). And as members incorporated into his body, we are privileged to share in that ministry of restoration – of all creation!

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Let’s have a Lenten fast from our consumer economy! – Tom Mundahl reflects on the continuation and completion of the Sabbath.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Thirds Sunday of Lent, Year B (1012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

As we continue our pilgrimage through the forty days of Lent, we are reminded of Israel’s forty year trek to the land of promise. This week, we will focus on the gift of “the ten words,” the Ten Commandments, on the way to that new land. But we will also see how these words connect with the institutional religion that developed there, especially ‘temple-focused’ religious life.

Perhaps what is most unique about the description of the giving of “the ten words” in our first reading is the immediacy of God’s presence. This is the only example in the Old Testament of direct, unmediated address by God to the assembly. Quite likely the purpose of this direct address is to insure that these “words” are heard correctly, not ‘watered down’ by mediators. Ironically, the assembly cannot take it! Immediately after hearing “the ten words,” they ask Moses to resume as mediator (Exodus 20:18).

Sabbath is more than the absence of labor!

For our purposes, it may be that “the word” most closely connected with caring for creation is the “third word” about keeping the Sabbath, the commandment given the longest elaboration in both versions of “the ten words” (See also Deuteronomy 5:6-21). This “word,” traditionally considered by Lutherans to complete ‘the first table’ of the law consisting of commandments focusing on the relationship between God and humankind, is much broader in meaning—because the notion of ‘sabbath’ as interpreted by the author of the first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2.4a) is much more than a “day off” to rest from the heavy lifting required by the first six days.

Sabbath is a dance of delight.

In fact, creation continues on the seventh day. What was lacking from the first six days? Apparently, the ‘lack’ was rest, menuha, a Hebrew word suggesting far more than the absence of labor. Menuha, Sabbath rest, carries rich connotations of delight in sharing the harmonious interdependence of all that God has made. And, recall that Exodus 20:10 makes sure to include livestock in Sabbath observance. No longer can we hold that humankind is the “crown” of creation. Now it is Sabbath rest, menuha, a dance of delight, that crowns the Creator’s work.

Sabbath is a time when all life is celebrated.

Instead, Sabbath is kept when its integrity before God and before all life is celebrated. When that does not happen, all creation is in danger. As Norman Wirzba warns:

“Failure to understand God’s ownership and control of creation leads to human destruction of creation and a distortion of who we are as created beings. Sabbath observance, in other words, teaches us that we are not God, that we are finally not in control, and that the goal of creation is not to be found in us.” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford: 2003, p. 37.)

Failure to observe Sabbath rest leads to destruction and violence. Keeping Sabbath, on the other hand, opens the way to the mutuality and care sought by the “Second Table” of commands, focused on relationships among creatures.

“Sabbath keeping is an act of creation-keeping.”

Terence Fretheim puts it on the mark when he claims that this “third word” is a rich source for care of creation: “Sabbath keeping is an act of creation keepin.” (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 230). And, this creation-keeping that is rooted in Sabbath menuha (rest) leads us to embrace a perspective on creation care—called by Wendell Berry “the Great Economy.” (Berry, Home Economics, San Francisco: North Point, 1987, pp. 74-75.) This notion of “the Great Economy” is practically synonymous with earth-keeping. It views the integrity and health of the whole creation so broadly that it includes even ‘the fall of a sparrow.’ This perspective contrasts sharply with conventional economic views that mark species disappearance, decline in air or water quality, and even climate change as “externalities.”

Let’s have a Lenten fast from our consumer economy!

A sabbath-based embrace of “the Great Economy” is also rooted in a sense of responsibility and care, echoing the call to “till and keep” (Genesis 2:15). During the Lenten season when we are enjoined to consider ‘fasting,’ perhaps we have an opportunity to reduce consumption, freeing ourselves from unnecessary ‘shopping anxiety’ and reducing pressures on the natural world. This practice may liberate us for what E.F. Schumacher has called a “becoming existence” that provides “the maximum well-being with the minimum of consumption” (E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (New York: Harper, 1973, p. 57).

Sabbath is joining the choir of all creation in worship and praise.

Finally, an economy based on Sabbath menuha would join the whole creation in worship and praise. Psalm 19 certainly echoes this refrain we find throughout the scriptures: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament declares his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) But what kind of worship reflects true Sabbath keeping? This leads us to consider John’s narrative of Jesus’ Cleansing the Temple, our Gospel text. We move from “the ten words” to “the Word made flesh.”

John joins Matthew and Luke in describing a temple cleansing. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in John comes near the very beginning of the gospel, at a Passover observance. Following the amazing story of ‘the Wedding in Cana” where Jesus provided massive amounts of wine to continue the party, we now see another eschatological sign regarding the temple.

Although a new and cleansed temple had traditionally been part of future hope, Jesus provides two insights that are significant. First, it is the Jewish leadership that will be responsible for destruction of the temple. When he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19), “destroy” is imperative (“you destroy the temple”) and implies that the religious elite will accomplish this destruction themselves by not using this ‘cultural tool’ to promote Sabbath delight (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol. I, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 120). Second, the temple will be replaced by the Risen One, whose new being constitutes a ‘raising’ of the temple. Of course, this idea is carried on in the Johannine tradition with the vision of the new city in the Revelation to John: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”(Revelation 21:22).

The vision of the New Jerusalem represents the fulfillment of creation.

“And there will be no night there.” (Revelation 21:25). This ‘feature’ of the new city is strikingly reminiscent of the first creation story’s description of the seventh creation of Sabbath rest, menuha. For, unlike the other ‘days’ of creation, there is no “evening” on the seventh day, a sign of fulfillment. Could it be that the embodied temple, Jesus the Risen One, described in the Revelation to John, constitutes the perfect fulfillment of Sabbath rest and delight?

Perhaps, then, we can see weekly Sabbath-keeping as the anticipation of creation’s ultimate redemption, the time when “all will be well.” That frees us to understand the work of Christ as the continuation and completion of the Sabbath. Wirzba claims: “The early Christian . . . understood Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God and his ministry to be the incarnation of God’s delight and peace in a world of pain and violence” (Wirzba, p. 40). In fact, Jesus’ making himself the sign of a new “temple” engenders hope that all of life will become a Sabbath feast. Because this is a feast of delight for all, it brings with it both hope for the future of creation and active concern and care for all that God has made.

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Third Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Breathe in the Fragrance of Creation’s Renewal – Tom Mundahl reflects on faith and courage for the renewal of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

The first sentence of the appointed Prayer of the Day for the Third Sunday in Lent, Series B, sets the tone for our reflections. “Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 28). Our texts not only show how faithful and courageous living is enhanced by the gift of torah, especially the Sabbath. They also describe the challenges of living this out in a faith community that often forgets its very purpose in favor of factionalism and protecting institutions.

Although terms like “commandment” and “law” carry a coercive tone to modern ears, our First Lesson frames the “Ten Words” as liberatory. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Because God frees from bondage, this new instruction is aimed at enhancing life in a renovated community. As much as opening the sea, this torah is an act of saving liberation.

Even though eight of the commands (“words”) are apodictic, framed negatively, they function to open up life by focusing on those behaviors which destroy community rather than providing a detailed set of “rules” for life. That is, the commandment about “not bearing false witness” also suggests the freedom to speak well of neighbors and strangers in order to enhance and build relationships (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, p. 221). The two positive “words” regarding honoring parents and the importance of Sabbath guarantee identity for persons and community by providing both a sense of heritage and time to celebrate the unity of creation.

It is significant that the “word” given the most space in both this reading and in Deuteronomy 5 is “instruction” concerning the Sabbath. Far from being based on the need of the Creator for a “breather” after six days of “heavy lifting,” the Sabbath is a celebration of the “completion” of creation. Moltmann finds it curious that, especially in the Western Church, “creation is generally only presented as the six days of work. The completion of creation is much neglected, or even overlooked altogether” (Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 277).

While we usually think of creation in terms of origins, Wirzba suggests that we should rather think more in terms of the character of creation defining both the cosmos and God’s people. “The world becomes creation on the seventh day. In like manner, the nation of Israel testifies to its religious identity . . . as it keeps the holy day of rest, ‘the feast of creation.’ Humanity and earth become most fully what they are to be in the celebration of the Sabbath” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2003, p. 35). He continues, “If we understand the climax of creation to be not the creation of humanity but the creation of menuha (rest), then it becomes possible to rethink the character of creation and its subsequent destruction in a more profound manner. How does our treatment of creation and each other reflect the menuha of God?” (Ibid.).

Sabbath, then, is a gift calling all creatures to live in harmony with God’s shalom. Fretheim suggests, “Even more, sabbath-keeping is to participate in God’s intention for the rhythm of creation. Not keeping the sabbath is a violation of the created order; it returns one aspect of that order to chaos. What the creatures do with the sabbath has cosmic effects.” (Fretheim, 230) For example, “keeping the Sabbath calls one to a hospitality that makes room for others to flourish and be themselves” (Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 45). To do this requires careful observation and study of the variety of creation, the kind of discipline characteristic of gardening. It also suggests that, rather than finding identity in consumption, humans develop the ability to nurture kinship among all the “citizens” of creation.

Psalm 19 could be considered a Sabbath festival in honor of the interdependence of creation. As “the heavens tell the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (v. 1), the psalmist echoes the notion common to biblical thinking that everything created shares the capacity to participate in praise of the creator. In this way, the non-human creation joins the worshipping assembly in praise. The power of this participation by non-human creation is all the more impressive because: “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out throughout all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (vv. 3-4). As Mays writes, “It is all very mysterious and marvelous. The visible becomes vocal. Seeing is experienced as hearing. The imagination is in the midst of an unending concert sung by the universe to the glory of God” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 99).

This concert is augmented by the words of the torah, which are metaphorically connected to creation as “sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (v. 10). While the familiar conclusion of the song (psalm) may remind us of prayer beginning or concluding a homily, the words fuse the divine role of creator of the natural world and pattern-maker for the human community. For the lyric “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (v. 14) is much more. The powerful images of “mouth/heart” and “rock/redeemer” suggest the warp and woof of weaving together the intimate connection of humankind, creation, and creator.

But Paul writes to a Corinthian community where that fabric has been dangerously frayed by factionalism. To remedy this tragedy for those “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2), he calls his respondents to move beyond the cunning of human wisdom which has become a major obstacle to unity. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, “Common to the parties is the demand for proof of divine truth. In this way they set themselves up as the authority to pass judgment upon God . . . . They expect God to submit to their criteria” (First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47).

Paul strips away the illusory power of these human criteria. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:22-24). It is precisely this god-project, setting leaders, institutions, and governments up as “ultimate authorities,” that even today has led to division, economic inequality, war, and ecological distress. For human “standards and criteria” are all too often partial, reflecting only self-interest. They seem to always benefit only “us,” however that “in-group” is construed.

It should be no surprise, then, that our pretense to have discerned the necessary “signs” and gained sufficient “wisdom” has opened the door to the anthropocene epoch. Embracing our own selfish standards, we have wantonly used technological power to bring the earth to the brink of ruin. “The very cultivation of our powers has left us exposed to a nature that refuses to be tamed and is increasingly unsympathetic to our interests” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 37). The claim to pursue policies and economic activity to meet what we call “needs” has resulted in a techno-industrial system of monstrous anthropocentrism threatening the equilibrium of the earth. And, because we are slow to acknowledge this (that is, we are not anthropocentric enough because we do not accept responsibility and act on it), we foster a situation of chaos on this planet not unlike the disorder in the Corinthian church.

But, according to Paul, there is another way. This is demonstrated by the obedient one whose concern for renewing all things was not limited even by the instinct for self-preservation. The Roman Empire responded to this new form of servant-leadership with their most persuasive threat—death, a shameful, public death on a cross. This time, even the ultimate sanction was not enough. “Rather than proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, it (cross and resurrection) shatters the world’s systems of authority. Rather than confirming what the wisest heads already know, it shatters the world’s systems of knowledge” (Richard Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 31).

Just as the Christ event shatters the imperial ideology, so entering the anthropocene exposes the failure of the techno-industrial system we live in, with, and under. What does it mean for us today to hear: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength?” (v. 25). If we have crossed this barrier, will not our responses seem weak and foolish? Wind power and solar instead of blowing the tops off mountains for coal and drilling like technological “prairie dogs” for fracked oil? Conservation, simpler living, and reuse instead of finding our identity as “consumers?” Sharing and learning from indigenous people instead of robbing their land and its riches? Relearning the “old technologies” and discovering contentment rather than worshipping at the altar of “more?” Finding a way of increasing cooperation as we refuse to “swim with the sharks”? We have shredded the fabric of the world; now we can only trust that God’s foolishness and weakness of the Risen One and his call to a new sabbath of all life will show us a “way” that will be a faithful and courageous response.

Perhaps the way will be as difficult as moving from the festivities at Cana to the Jerusalem Temple. In Cana, it was a time to celebrate—and not only the joy of the newly-married couple. Even deeper was the celebration of Jesus’ arrival “on the third day” (John 2:1), the day of creation when the Creator made earth appear and with it growing plants of every kind, including the grapevine! (Margaret Daly-Denton, John—An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to be the Gardener, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 65). Just as the Hebrew Scriptures pictured “mountains dripping with wine” (Amos 9:13) as evidence of Israel’s restoration, so Jesus’ actions evidence nothing less than new creation. Here is the Wisdom of God appearing on Earth, inviting us to the banquet where we enjoy the wine she has prepared (Proverbs 9:5).

What a contrast between this celebration of the free gift of creation and the deterioration of the Temple precincts into an emporium—strip mall, where currency was exchanged and a great variety of sacrificial animals was made available. Of course, by this time in history Passover was a very big and important celebration in Jerusalem. Even if Josephus exaggerates in claiming a crowd of three million, it must have strained every resource of the city. And the resources of the many pilgrims, all of whom found themselves under the obligation to sacrifice a lamb (or a dove, if circumstances required). While we often look askance at animal sacrifice, as Wirzba observes, “The costliness of the offering expressed the recognition that even though human beings work hard to rear and cultivate the food on which their lives depend, it is still the gift of the creating Source of all life, growth, and fertility” (Food and Faith, p. 118).

For people who lived close to the agricultural and animal sources of life, this seven day festival of unleavened bread recalled the seven days of creation. “Passover was thus widely understood at the time of Jesus as a celebration of the renewal of creation” (Daly-Denton, p. 71). This helps us understand the Jesus’ anger. As the center of worship, the Temple was intended to symbolize the cosmos as God’s creation, the hub from which “rivers of life” flowed to the world (Ezekiel 40-42). Instead, it had become a mercantile center. “With its storehouses and treasuries, it had degenerated into a repository of large quantities of money and goods extracted from the surplus product of the peasant economy.” (Ibid., p. 72) The temple had become both an ideological support and a financial “cash cow” of the Roman colonial system and its local collaborators.

Essentially, the governing authorities and Temple elite were already desecrating it by turning it into a financial institution instead of a house of prayer for all people. Raymond Brown suggests that when Jesus says, “Destroy this temple” (v. 19a), he means, “Go ahead and do this and see what happens” (The Gospel According to John, i-xii, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 115). Brown continues, “Jesus is insisting that they are destroying the Temple, even as the disobedience of their ancestors provoked the destruction of the Tabernacle at Shiloh and of Solomon’s Temple” (Ibid., p. 122). This Temple will shortly be replaced by the Risen One.

But the meaning here is far richer. After the resurrection event, the disciples began to understand that Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me,” was more than a warning to “lighten up.” This passion cost Jesus his life. And the “raising up” of the Temple (v. 19b) is hardly reference to a new architectural project; it is a new bodily temple (naos) that becomes the axis of new creation. This accounts for the positioning of this “sign” at the beginning of John’s Gospel: to make it clear that the one who is “Word made flesh” (1:14), who on the cross, “draws all things to himself” (12:32), and brings the creation its “wedding celebration” (hieros gamos) in the form of a living and life-giving Temple, is the center of all creation.

Just as Mark describes the “ripping open” of the traditional Platonic cosmology which provided security, so the Johannine writer acknowledges the destruction of the Temple, the “home” of traditional worship. Now the “Word made flesh” invites followers to “come and see” in all the places where “signs” are performed and makes even the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany a proper place to breathe in the fragrance of creation’s renewal (John 12:3). So wherever we gather around this fragrance, we are at home because he is present both as host and servant of creation (John 13:1-38) to nourish faith and courage.

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth12)

God Is the God of Embodiment throughout Earth and Sky! Dennis Ormseth reflects on God’s presence calling us to care of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

1 Samuel 3:1-10 {11-20}
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

God is immanently present in the lives of those who are called.

The call to discipleship and testimony to Jesus as Son of God are primary themes in the readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany. Motifs relating to the theology and care of creation are present, but subtle. Using the first lesson and the Gospel, for instance, interpreters call attention to the different and sometimes surprising ways that the call to discipleship comes. Correlatively, we would call attention to the presupposition of this understanding of divine address, that God is immanently present in the lives of those called, a theme we have encountered in the Christmas season and emphasized in our comments for its relevance to our orientation to creation.

God is everywhere and in all times present.

The Psalm for this Sunday is a particularly strong expression of this theme. God, the psalmist asserts, is truly “inescapable”: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away” (139:1-2; “The inescapable God” is the title given to Psalm 139 in the NRSV).  Employed on this Sunday to frame Jesus’ insight concerning Nathaniel in the gospel reading as a sign of divine omniscience, these verses are linked to an appreciation of God as everywhere and in all times present, not just to the one who sings God’s praise, but throughout the creation:

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your and shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (139:7-10).

Stunningly, not even cosmic transformations can separate this human from the Creator: “If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (139:11-12). Verses 7 through 12 of the psalm are unfortunately not assigned for the reading, but are nonetheless properly referenced in connection with the confession, at v. 13, that the God who is this human’s creator, who not only “knit me together in my mother’s womb” was also there “when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depth of the earth” (139:15).

While the psalm thus embraces a panentheistic view of divine presence, the idea that Jesus shares God’s omniscience is reason enough for Nathaniel to confess that Jesus is “the Son of God.” The more fulsome theme of creative and sustaining omnipresence attributed to the Creator in the Psalm is not necessary for this confession, but other cosmological motifs in the text supply some elements of this aspect.  First, there is the mystery of the fig tree. Interpreters may see an allusion here to Zechariah 3:10: “When the Messiah comes, ‘you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree’” As Nancy Koester suggests, “Nathaniel wonders: Is Jesus really the one whom the Scriptures promise? Jesus point to the promise coming true in Nathaniel’s own experience:  Wasn’t Nathaniel under his fig tree when Philip called him?” (Koester, “Epiphany,” in New Proclamation Year B, 1999-2000, p. 96). Readers of these comments, however, may recall from our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent the observation of William Telford that “the Old Testament literature “on the whole knows very little of nonsymbolical trees.” Thus, we repeat what we said then,

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

The fig tree confirms the link with caring for creation.

Our concern in that earlier comment for Advent was that such cosmological elements, which were commonly associated with the temple in Jerusalem, were being rendered meaningless for the Christian tradition, since the presence of God was relocated from the temple to Jesus, following the Markan insistence on abandonment of the temple. Following this theme through the readings for Advent and Christmas, we have seen that this concern was hardly justified. And indeed, the present text confirms this view once again: the fig tree’s return here, albeit now from the Gospel of John, reaffirms the link between Jesus’ mission and concern for creation. Care of creation is recognized here, however subtly, as a concern appropriate to the call to discipleship. And as Jesus’ promise to Nathanael that he” will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” (John 1:51) the future of that discipleship will take its course in a cosmological context, with glorious traffic between heaven and earth.

The displacement of the presence of God from temple to Jesus is a common theme.

Reference to the displacement of the presence of God from temple to Jesus has been an interpretive key for this series of comments on the lections for year B, beginning with the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. Strikingly, in addition to the symbol of the fig tree, temple as scene and as metaphor is more explicitly utilized here in this set of readings as well. Samuel’s call takes place in the temple at Shiloh, we note, at a time when the leadership of Eli as priest has been deeply compromised by the wickedness of his sons. In a development that foreshadows Jesus’ own attack on the temple state, Samuel’s call commences with the thorough rebuke of both Eli and the temple sacrifices:  “the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever” (1 Samuel 3:14). While Yahweh will continue to appear at Shiloh for some time (3:21), in due course, God will act through Samuel to establish the house of David and eventually also a new temple in Jerusalem. Samuel, who knows himself in his calling to be God’s servant (3:9), becomes the agent of this relocation: the ark of the covenant will move on, for the God whom Israel encountered in the wilderness will not be captured for one place or for one house.

Christian bodies, corporately and individually, are temples “of the Holy Spirit.”

If “temple” designates God’s “down to earth” presence, the truly astonishing thing to be observed in these readings is that by the time of the Apostle Paul, Christians were expected to know that their bodies, both corporately and individually, were temples “of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). God will indeed be an embodied God, incarnated as was Jesus in the very bodies so “intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:15.) It belongs to the service of the servants of God to be the occasion, location, and agency of both this embodiment and its persistent renewal in the ever expanding “house” of earth and sky. (See Jurgen Moltmann’s discussion of Friedrich Oetinger’s thesis that “Embodiment is the end of all God’s works” in Moltmann’s God in Creation, pp. 244-75, for an extensive development of this theme.)

God is immanently present in the lives of those who are called.

God is everywhere and in all times present.

The fig tree confirms the link with caring for creation.

The displacement of the presence of God from temple to Jesus is a common theme.

Christian bodies, corporately and individually, are temples “of the Holy Spirit.”

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

Planting Trees as Symbol and Expression of the Restoration of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on God’s presence in creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

1 Samuel 3:1-10 {11-20}
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

“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).

With the readings for Baptism of our Lord, we saw how care for creation is implicated in both Jesus’s own baptism and the ongoing practice of Christian baptism. In truth, “For those who are in Christ, creation is new.” We discover further implications of this assertion in the readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B of the lectionary: Care of creation belongs to the call to discipleship and testimony to Jesus as Son of God, primary themes in these readings.

To begin with, there is the strange business of the fig tree. Why does a fig tree figure so significantly in this story? Amongst the numerous suggestions listed by Raymond Brown (The Gospel According to John, I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 196, p.83), interpreters may see an allusion here to Zechariah 3:10: “When the Messiah comes, ‘you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.’” As Nancy Koester suggests, “Nathaniel wonders:  Is Jesus really the one whom the Scriptures promise? Jesus points to the promise coming true in Nathaniel’s own experience: Wasn’t Nathaniel under his fig tree when Philip called him?” (Craig Koester, “Epiphany,” in New Proclamation Year B, 1999-2000. p. 96). Readers also might recall that in the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent in year B (Mark 13:24-37), the fig tree is included in a list of cosmic signs that will mark the arrival of the Messiah: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Mark13:28). With reference to this text and its associated account of Jesus’ curse of the fig tree in Mark 11, William Telford reminds us, in his Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, that “the Old Testament literature on the whole knows very little of non-symbolical trees.” After examining several texts, Telford concludes:

“The fig tree was an emblem of peace, security, and prosperity and is prominent when descriptions of the Golden Ages of Israel’s history, past, present, and future are given—the Garden of Eden, the Exodus, the Wilderness, the Promised Land, the reigns of Solomon and Simon Maccabaeus, and the coming Messianic Age . . . . The blossoming of the fig tree and its giving of its fruits is a descriptive element in passages which depict Yahweh’s visiting his people with blessing, while the withering of the fig-tree, the destruction or withholding of its fruit, figures in imagery describing Yahweh’s judgment upon his people or their enemies . . . . “(Cited in Ched Myers,  Binding the Strong Man; A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988, pp. 297-98).

In this connection, it is particularly striking that Jesus’ sights Nathaniel under the fig tree, with his approving comment: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” This is followed in quick sequence by first, the account of the Wedding at Cana, also a picture of divine blessing, and then by the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, with which the fig tree is commonly associated as a sign of divine presence and blessing. The fig tree’s presence here in the Gospel of John, we want to suggest, provides a link between Jesus’ mission and concern for the well-being of creation. Care of creation is recognized here, however subtly, as a concern inherent in the call to discipleship.  Indeed, the future of that discipleship will take its course in cosmological context, with glorious traffic between heaven and earth.

The theme of divine presence relative to both the arrival of the Messiah and the Jerusalem temple, it occurs to us, is more important in these readings than is commonly recognized. In addition to the symbol of the fig tree, temple as scene and as metaphor is important as well, as the appointment of the story of Samuel’s call might alert us. Samuel’s call takes place in the temple at Shiloh, we note, at a time when the leadership of Eli as priest has been deeply compromised by the wickedness of his sons. In a development that foreshadows Jesus’ own attack on the temple state, Samuel’s call commences with the thorough rebuke of both Eli and the temple sacrifices: “The iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever” (1 Samuel 3:14). While Yahweh will continue to appear at Shiloh for some time (3:21), in due course, God will act through Samuel to establish the house of David and eventually also a new temple in Jerusalem. Samuel, who knows himself in his calling to be God’s servant (3:9), becomes the agent of this relocation: The ark of the covenant will move on, such that the God whom Israel encountered in the wilderness will not be captured for one place or for one house.

So also with Jesus and his disciples: The presence of God, with its attendant blessing of land and people, is now being relocated from temple sanctuary to the person of Jesus. This is the import, we suggest, of Nathanael’s confession of Jesus as “Son of God” and Jesus’ response to him: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John l1:50-51). As Raymond Brown notes, interpreters have explained the saying with reference to a variety of texts having to do with the vision of Jacob in Genesis 28:12, involving ‘the ladder, the shekinah, the merkabah, Bethel, or the rock;” it is “in the theme that they have in common” that “they are probably correct; . . . the vision means that Jesus as Son of Man has become the locus of divine glory, the point of contact between heaven and earth. The disciples are promised figuratively that they will come to see this; and indeed, at Cana, they do see his glory” (Brown, p. 91). Unfortunately, the sequence of the lectionary does not offer an occasion to follow up this suggestion with an examination of the story of the wedding at Cana; if the reader will refer to the comment in this series for the Second Sunday of Epiphany in Year C, however, its import for care of creation will be clear: The marriage at Cana, we argue there, is metaphorically the marriage of heaven and earth promised by the prophet Isaiah in the associated lesson for the day, Isaiah 62:1-5.

The significance of this relocation for discipleship doesn’t end there. Indeed, if “temple” designates God’s “down to earth” presence, the truly astonishing thing to be observed in these readings is that already by the time of the Apostle Paul, Christians were expected to know that their bodies, both corporately and individually, were temples “of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). God will indeed be an embodied God, incarnated as was Jesus in the very bodies so “intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:15). It belongs to the service of the servants of God to be the occasion, location, and agency of both this embodiment and its persistent renewal in the ever expanding “house” of earth and sky (See Jurgen Moltmann’s discussion of Friedrich Oetinger’s thesis that “Embodiment is the end of all God’s works,” in Moltmann’s God in Creation, pp. 244-75, for an extensive development of this theme).

Correlatively, we would call attention to the presupposition of this understanding of divine presence, that God is immanent  in the lives of those called by Jesus, lives according to the Psalm that are deeply grounded in the earth. God, the psalmist asserts, is truly “inescapable”:  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away” (139:1-2). “The inescapable God” (the title given to the Psalm in the NRSV) is a God who is everywhere and in all times present, not just to the one who sings God’s praise, but throughout the creation:

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (139:7-10).

Stunningly, not even cosmic transformations can separate this human from the Creator: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me becomes night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (139:11-12). Unfortunately, verses 7 to 12 of the psalm are not assigned for the reading, but they are properly referenced in connection with the confession, at v. 13, that the God who is this human’s creator, who not only “knit me together in my mother’s womb” was also there “when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depth of the earth” (139:15).

The fig tree is 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. The story that when Martin Luther was once asked, “If you thought tomorrow might bring the Day of Judgment, what would you do?” He replied, “I’d plant a tree,” is  probably apocryphal; it is nonetheless relevant to these insights. “What is certain,” Larry Rasmussen notes, is “his use of the tree as metaphor for the Christian life in his ‘Lectures on Isaiah’ and specifically in his commentary on Isaiah 61:3C: ‘They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory’’”(Earth Community Earth Ethics, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996, p. 199).

In this age of environmental crisis, Lutherans could do much worse than to adopt the tree, fig or otherwise, as sign and inspiration of their discipleship. As we have noted, it’s an image with deep resonance in biblical tradition and Christian witness; it is also prominent, Rasmussen notes, in ancient Judaism, where the “Torah itself, the embodiment of divine instruction and the first emblem of Judaism, as a tree of life. It is even said that abiding by the words of Torah restores the tree of life lost in the primal act of disobedience in Eden.” But also now more than ever in our ecologically informed age, a living tree has become a sign of a healthy, fruitful earth, breathing in the carbon dioxide emissions that threaten to disrupt nature’s balance, breathing out the oxygen that is the essential requirement of all life on earth. As William Brown writes, reflecting on the results of over two centuries of intense study of nature,  “the tree of life remains the most suitable simile for describing the metanarrative of life on Earth” (William p. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation:  The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 114). Planting trees in the face of possibly catastrophic climate change makes sense for people of Christian faith of all traditions, as sign of hope and faithfulness, yes, but also as servant of the earth, following in the steps of our Lord Jesus, servant of all creation.

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

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth15)

Jesus Ushers in a New Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the new creation we experience in baptism.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

“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).

With the readings for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, the church begins to tell its story of how it has come to see creation as “new.” With the ministry of Jesus, the old does indeed “pass away” and “all things are new.” As Mark’s gospel opens, we realize that this transition is already underway.  As God’s people are gathered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, the power and authority of the Jewish temple-state centered in Jerusalem, with its exclusivistic appropriation of the blessings of the God’s covenant and its sustaining cosmology, begins to give way to the reality of a new people dwelling with God within a renewed creation.

The readings draw this reality into view in dramatic fashion. In the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit as a dove over the waters, we are invited to see the opening of a new creation story, in which again, the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Once again “the voice of the Lord is over the waters,” as wind and flame announce the enthronement of the Lord “over the flood” (Psalm 29:3-10). As the dove descends on Jesus, we are reminded of the “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth,” which was promised when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16). In the fresh light of this “first day,” the first born of a new humanity rises out of the waters. Having identified fully with our sinfulness in submitting to John’s baptism of repentance, this “son of God” begins to restore among us the imago Dei, and opens the possibility of our lives being regenerated by the Spirit in his name.

Thus is inaugurated, in Ched Myer’s characterization, Jesus’ “subversive mission.” Jesus’ baptism serves to mark the difference between John’s valid but incomplete “baptism of repentance” and the full  “renunciation of the old order” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 129). We note that our second lesson suggests that this difference was deemed important enough in the early church to merit the Apostle Paul’s instruction that those baptized by John should be baptized again in the name of Jesus, so as to complete their baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. In view of its cosmological accents, however, Jesus’ baptism also marks a parallel liberation of the biblical cosmology from its ties to the temple state, in favor of its restoration as part and parcel of the new reign of God in creation. New creation, and not merely repentance, this suggests, is the purpose of the Christian practice of baptism; this difference is also very significant, we want to suggest, relative to our concern for care of creation.

It is instructive to note, following William P. Brown’s discussion of biblical cosmology in his book on The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010), that the cosmological elements we have identified here are drawn primarily from the cosmogony of Genesis 1:1-2:3, a portion of which is therefore appropriately selected for our first reading. This cosmogony, Brown shows, is clearly modeled on the pattern of the temple in Jerusalem. With clearly and fully differentiated domains,” the account “gives form to creation” that “manifests a symmetry supple enough to allow for variation and surprise.” The narrative progresses day by day from the empty formlessness of “Day 0” through the differentiation of realms of light, waters above and below, and land, which are then in turn filled with lights, aviary and marine life, and land animals, including humans, with their food, to the fully differentiated fullness of the completed creation on Day 7. It is a literary version, Brown argues, of the three-fold structure of the temple’s portico, nave and Holy of Holies. “The first six days, by virtue of their correspondence, establish the architectural boundaries of sacred space.  The last day inhabits, as it were, the most holy space . . . . In the holiest recess of the temple God dwells, and on the holiest day of the week God rests” (Brown, p. 38-40).

What is particularly striking about this description is its inherent dynamic, which is hardly compatible with the rigidity and hierarchy commonly associated with the management of sacred space under the authority of a priestly governing elite, like what the reader will encounter later in the pages of Mark’s gospel. Here, differentiation of realms never becomes separation; dominion never implies domination. On the contrary, division is regularly overcome by generativity. As Brown puts it, “Genesis 1 . . . describes the systematic differentiation of the cosmos that allows for and sustains the plethora of life.” Perhaps this is no more apparent than in the narrative’s treatment of the very holiness of God. While adhering to the “aniconic” prohibition of divine images, the account nevertheless allows for the identification of an imago Dei with humanity.  “Cast in God’s image, women and men reflect and refract God’s presence in the world. The only appropriate ‘image of God,’ according to Genesis, is one made of flesh and blood, not wood or gold (p. 38).”  Whether interpreted in terms of an “essential resemblance” of son to father, the “universalizing” of the exercise of dominion, the displacement of the divine assembly unto human community, or the reflection as male and female of the “communal and generative dimensions of the divine,” the imago Dei shares with God in the “cooperative process of creation” (Brown, p. 44). Even as the waters and the earth share in that agency, so do humans participate in creation as “a cooperative venture exercised not without a degree of freedom,” and as “deemed good by God,” set toward the furtherance of life.

Mark’s Gospel, we suggest, while insisting on the displacement of the presence of God from the Jerusalem temple onto Jesus, by no means intends that this move renders irrelevant or obsolete the cosmogony of the temple. On the contrary, with his setting at the very beginning of the Gospel, of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, and filled with the cosmological reverberations as it is, the author opens up that cosmology to the restored embrace of the full creation. As all the people walk the land and move to the bank of the river and as they then experience the movement of the Spirit over the waters and the voice declaring a human being good (“my beloved”), the reader senses that this story opens one afresh to the wonder of the creation. As once before when Israel came out of exile, we are caught up in what Brown sees as the import of Genesis 1: there is here “a profound effort . . . to put the painful past of conquest and exile behind and to point the way to a new future.”

It is therefore exceedingly important to observe, as Gordon Lathrop has shown in his book on liturgical cosmology, Holy Ground, that a fully expressed practice of Christian baptism retains several key cosmological elements from the Genesis cosmogeny. Water, of course, takes central place here, combined with Spirit. Whether there is a pool or a bowl of it, the waters of the baptismal rite provide not only a center to the rite, but, as Lathrop points out,

“[t]hey also provide a center to the world. Here is a womb for the birthing of new life, as ancient Christians would say.  Here is a sea on the shores of which the church may be as a new city open to all the peoples. Here is a spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless gives a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people” (Holy Ground, p. 105-6).

Astoundingly, we note, the font in the local parish church can thus be seen to take the place of the temple in Jerusalem as the center of the universe, an omphalos. Set out in the gathering space of the congregation, it reminds us of both cosmological and ecological realities,

“that what goes on here is not only about human culture but also about cosmos. The water comes here from elsewhere in the world’s water system, from a river or lake or underground stream, ultimately from the rain itself. But then, what water does come here is gathered together in fecundity and force. If the water is before us in abundance, it may waken in us inchoate put powerful longings for both a cleaner earth and a widespread slaking of thirsts; it may give us a place for our reconceiving death and life within this watery world; it may give us a cosmic center” (Holy Ground,  p. 106).

Supporting the development of this baptismal awareness is instruction that includes a strong emphasis on the doctrine of creation and the faithful care of creation.

“Teaching the faith involves, as its first and basic move, teaching that there is a world and not just chaos, that this world is created, and that human beings have a compassionate and caring role within that creation. Christian faith is, first of all, trusting the creator, trusting, therefore, that the world is not some trick. Formation in prayer, then, involves learning to stand within this world in thanksgiving” (Holy Ground, p. 107).

Then, just as the temple in Jerusalem attracted various significant symbolizations of life in God’s creation (such as the cosmic mountain, the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation, the spring waters of life, and the tree of life}, so are other primal elements placed at the edge of the water of baptism to . . .

“call our attention to their world center, this spring, this birthplace:  a fire burns—that most widespread phenomenon of our universe, creative and destructive burning—here as a paschal candle giving light, evoking in a small way both the warmth and the danger of this new life; olive oil is poured out or marked upon those baptized, fruit of the life-giving trees of the temperate regions of the earth, evoking healing, festivity, and, here, the sacred office given to the baptized; new clothing is put upon the baptized, great white robes, as if those immersed here came forth a whole new sort of humanity, making a fully new beginning; and the whole community then leads these newly baptized ones to a meal, a sharing of the sources of life within the world, sustenance for this new humanity, for these new witnesses to the order of the cosmos” (Holy Ground, p. 107).

If linkage of the church’s baptismal practice to Jesus’ own baptism thus orients us to the creation, it is important to remember that it does so always by taking us first to the margins of human life, away from our social and political centers, indeed, to the edge of the wilderness. These marks of creation serve to relocate us to the wilderness experiences of the people of God where new creation always begins, and what naturally follows for us, as for Jesus, is an experience in the wilderness where the basic reorientation to God’s creation is first fully actualized.  We note that in Mark’s narrative, following his baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). In the narrative of the liturgical year, we return to this exodus on the First Sunday of Lent; in the meantime, we look to see what impact this reorientation to creation has on the calling out of a community of the new creation, and indeed, what “new creation” actually might mean for us.

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

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth12)

If You Would Experience God, You Must Fall in Love with Earth Dennis Ormseth reflects on baptism as a cosmic event.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

The incarnation means that “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.”

With the readings for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, we return to “the beginning” of the Gospel of Mark which, as we noted in our comments on the lections for the First and Second Sundays of Advent, draws us quickly into the cosmological as well as the eschatological themes of Mark’s story. Readers of those comments will recall the strong interest of Mark’s Gospel in these themes: the author breaks decisively with the cosmology of the temple-state centered on the Jerusalem temple, as the elect of God are gathered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness for the opening of the new creation. This break in fact provided the impetus for us to trace in the lections of the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent the dislocation of God’s presence from the temple to the person of Jesus. Subsequently, in the readings for Christmas Eve and Day, we beheld him enfolded in the glory of God’s primordial light and life. Jesus’ birth is worthy of all creation’s praise, we suggested, because, as Mary saw, not only would he break with the human pattern of domination that makes a desert of creation, but the birth itself effects a reorientation to creation expressed in the insight that the incarnation of God in his person means that the “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.” In Larry Rasmussen’s excellent words, “so if you would experience God, you must fall in love with earth.”

The Gospel is a “new creation” story—as Jesus rises from the waters.

In the readings appointed for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, the church fully affirms these cosmological accents of Jesus’ advent. Once again, “the voice of the Lord is over the waters,” as wind and flame announce the enthronement of the Lord “over the flood” (Psalm 29:3-10). Yes, in the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit as a dove over the waters, we are meant to see the opening of a new creation story, in which, as on “the first day” of creation, the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2), and we are reminded of the  “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” which was promised when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16). Out of the waters rises a new humanity: having identified fully with our sinfulness in an act of repentance, Jesus opens the possibility of our identifying with him as God’s new creation.

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

Thus is inaugurated, in Ched Myer’s characterization, Jesus’ “subversive mission.” The cosmological accents of Jesus’ baptism thus serve to mark the difference not only between the temple state and the kingdom of God, but also between John’s valid but incomplete “baptism of repentance” and the full “renunciation of the old order” which Jesus’ baptism represents (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 129). We note that our second lesson suggests that this difference was deemed important enough in the early church to merit the Apostle Paul’s instruction that those baptized by John should be baptized again in the name of Jesus, so as to complete the baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. New creation, and not merely repentance, this shows, is the purpose of the Christian practice of baptism; the difference is also very significant, we want to suggest, relative to our concern for care of creation.

Baptism is the renunciation of the old order and the emergence of a new reality.

It is instructive to note in this respect that, as Gordon Lathrop has shown in his book on liturgical cosmology, Holy Ground, that a fully expressed baptismal practice retains significant cosmological elements. Water, of course, takes central place here. Whether there is a pool or a bowl of it, the waters of the baptismal rite provide not only a center to the rite; as Lathrop points out,

“[t]hey also provide a center to the world. Here is a womb for the birthing of new life, as ancient Christians would say. Here is a sea on the shores of which the church may be as a new city open to all the peoples. Here is a spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless give a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people” (Holy Ground, p. 105-6).

The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by the baptismal font—center of the cosmos.

Astoundingly, we note, the font in the local parish church can thus be seen to replace the temple in Jerusalem as the center of the universe, an omphalos. Set out in the gathering space of the congregation, it reminds us of both cosmological and ecological realities,

“. . . that what goes on here is not only about human culture but also about cosmos. The water comes here from elsewhere in the world’s water system, from a river or lake or underground stream, ultimately from the rain itself. But then, what water does come here is gathered together in fecundity and force here. If the water is before us in abundance, it may waken in us inchoate put powerful longings for both a cleaner earth and a widespread slaking of thirsts; it may give us a place for our reconceiving death and life within this watery world; it may give us a cosmic center” (Ibid., p. 106).

Baptism is not just a personal experience; it is a cosmic event.

Supporting the development of this baptismal awareness is instruction that includes a strong emphasis on the doctrine of creation and the faithful care of creation.

“Teaching the faith involves, as its first and basic move, teaching that there is a world and not just chaos, that this world is created, and that human beings have a compassionate and caring role within that creation. Christian faith is, first of all, trusting the creator, trusting, therefore, that the world is not some trick. Formation in prayer, then, involves learning to stand within this world in thanksgiving” (Ibid., p. 107).

Then, as the temple in Jerusalem attracted various significant symbolizations of life in God’s creation (such as the cosmic mountain, the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation, the spring waters of life and the tree of life; see our discussion in the comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent), so are other primal elements placed at the edge of the water of baptism to

“call our attention to their world center, this spring, this birthplace: a fire burns—that most widespread phenomenon of our universe, creative and destructive burning—here as a paschal candle giving light, evoking in a small way both the warmth and the danger of this new life; olive oil is poured out or marked upon those baptized, fruit of the life-giving trees of the temperate regions of the earth, evoking healing, festivity, and, here, the sacred office given to the baptized; new clothing is put upon the baptized, great white robes, as if those immersed here came forth a whole new sort of humanity, making a fully new beginning; and the whole community then leads these newly baptized ones to a meal, a sharing of the sources of life within the world, sustenance for this new humanity, for these new witnesses to the order of the cosmos” (Ibid., p. 107).

Jesus’ baptism and our baptism orient us to God’s creation.

If linkage of the church’s baptismal practice to Jesus’ own baptism thus orients us to the creation, it is important to remember that it does so always by taking us first to the margins of human life, away from our social and political centers, indeed, to the edge of the wilderness. These marks of creation serve to relocate us to the wilderness experiences of the people of God where new creation always begins, and what naturally follows for us, as for Jesus, is an experience in the wilderness where the basic reorientation to God’s creation is first fully actualized. We note that in Mark’s narrative, following his baptism, ‘the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). In the narrative of the liturgical year, we return to this exodus on the First Sunday of Lent; in the meantime, we look to see what impact this reorientation to creation has on the calling out of a community of the new creation.

The incarnation means that “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.”

The Gospel is a “new creation” story—as Jesus rises from the waters.

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

Baptism is the renunciation of the old order and the emergence of a new reality.

The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by the baptismal font—center of the cosmos.

Baptism is not just a personal experience; it is a cosmic event.

Jesus’ baptism and our baptism orient us to God’s creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

First Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Ormseth11)

All Nature Sings! Dennis Ormseth reflects on the incarnate God, given for all creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

“All Nature Sings”

The readings for the First Sunday after Christmas conform to the pattern of praise and witness we have observed in the Christmas lectionary so far. The circle of nature’s praise is dramatically enlarged, and our understanding of the reason for this praise is deepened. Psalm 148 is the classic example of the points made by Terry Fretheim regarding nature’s praise (see the introduction to our comments on the lessons for The Nativity of Our Lord).  Heavens, heights, all the host of angels, sun, moon, shining stars, highest heavens and waters above the heavens; sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind; mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds, and human beings. The list amply illustrates the psalmist’s “ecological” awareness: each entity contributes its unique voice, but it does so in complementary ways as an orchestrated whole

The Lord creates the fruits of the earth and the fruits of righteousness.

Why does all creation raise this extraordinary chorus of praise? The psalm itself emphasizes God’s generative, ordering creativity: God “commanded and they were created;” God “established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.” All things know their limits and work together cooperatively and sustainably. The reading from Isaiah adds more seasonal focus to this by repeating words from the Third Sunday of Advent, words that revel in awareness of God’s saving presence among God’s faithful, an awareness that is connected to renewed vitality of the earth: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God causes righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” But it is the story of the presentation of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem that gives us a most surprising justification for the praise of God by all creation.

On the surface, the story of the presentation of Jesus to the Lord in the temple is a rather straightforward tale of obedience to the traditions of Israel. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, “the Messiah will emerge from within a family and social world deeply enmeshed in the traditions of Israel, a pious and expectant ‘people of God.’ His parents observe the laws regarding circumcision, purification, and presentation of the first born as dedicated to the Lord, and do so within the symbolic heart of the people, Jerusalem, and its Temple” (Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, p.  56). Yet the observance here is anything but conventional. The temple is the holy center of national life, and the boy is brought there to be “designated as holy to the Lord” (Luke 2:23). But his holiness clearly derives from elsewhere, as the prophetic Simeon acknowledges by the power of the Holy Spirit which has drawn him to this encounter with “the Lord’s Messiah.” Jesus is the “salvation” God has “prepared in the presence of all people.”

Jesus is the salvation that loves, heals, and transforms.

Fred Strickert highlights the irony of the scene: “a closer examination of the text brings to light a stark contrast between the old reality and the world into which Jesus was born and the new reality of his life and ministry.” In this sacred space, access to which was limited to Jews and only partially open to Jewish women, Simeon declares Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel,” without distinction or qualification. And what he has to say will be heard by Mary and witnessed by the ancient Anna, herself also a prophetess. Simeon, Strickert suggests, “sees what others would not and declares inclusion of the whole world in this place of exclusion.” Similarly, Anna, “a woman doing a man’s job,” blesses the child. “These two represent all of those without title that Jesus will meet, love, heal, and transform.” (Beth Tanner, “First Sunday of Christmas,” in New Proclamation, Year B 2012 Advent through Holy Week, p. 46-47. Strickert’s comment is quoted by Tanner from his article, “The Presentation of Jesus:  The Gospel of Inclusion.  Luke 2:22-40,” Currents in Theology and Mission 22, no. 1 (1995): 33.)

The temple and its place in Jewish national life are clearly being challenged by the infant boy brought there for blessing. This challenge has been anticipated in the sequence of lections read during Advent and Christmas, as the opening of the Gospel of Mark presented a clear break with the temple-state in favor of “the one who is coming,” and the Gospel of John confirms this transfer of God’s presence from the temple, first to the womb of Mary and then to the house of the church with the proclamation of the Word made flesh, whose glory we have seen, “the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14; see our comments on the lections for the Sundays of Advent and for Christmas for the development of this theme). In having Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple, Luke might seem on the one hand to resist this transfer, or at least ignore it;  the Isaian prophecy of the first reading might prompt us, after all, to see in the presentation itself the fulfillment of prophecy concerning Jerusalem and its temple: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch”  (Isaiah 62:1-2). Yet we note that even this prophecy points to “the nations” who shall see this vindication, and to “all the kings” who will see God’s glory. Just so, the prophet Simeon announces “the light for revelation to the Gentiles” and of glory “to your people Israel.” And if the prophetess Anna speaks of the child precisely “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem,” it is because these two affirmations complement each other. As we recalled in our comment on Mary’s Magnificat on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, God’s promises to Abraham included a blessing to be a blessing for all the nations. Jerusalem and its temple is no longer at the center of God’s story.

God moves from the temple to the creation at large.

If Mark suggested displacement of God from the temple to Jesus, here the appropriation of the temple and its meanings fit better here as a description of Luke’s strategy, just as it does for the Gospel of John. The temple is not without ongoing significance in the course of Jesus’ life and mission (See the list of relevant passages in David Tiede, Luke, p. 74). And indeed, its meaning for him already casts a shadow over the boy’s future here in the story of the presentation. As Simon tells Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” This foreshadowing of the opposition that Jesus will encounter and the crucifixion that such opposition will lead to is symbolized here by the mention of the “pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons’ the offering of the poor which Joseph and Mary  brought for sacrifice.

Borg and Crossan’s observation about the Christmas stories being “parabolic overtures” to their gospels which, with great economy and literary creativity, serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole’” of each narrative is again well taken. In this perspective even the smallest detail may register a profound shift in perspective and meaning. For an evangelist that “is interested in temple practices and settings, and intent on demonstrating the faithfulness of Jesus and his followers to true temple worship” (so writes David Tiede, Ibid.), the matter of the sacrifices mentioned here is a bit of a puzzle. The text mentions both the ritual of consecration of the firstborn (Exodus 13:20) and the sacrifice for the purification of the mother (Leviticus 12:8).  But, as Tiede points out, “Luke speaks of ‘their purification,’”  implying that both Mary and Joseph are purified. And while the law actually stipulated a redemption price of five shekels for the consecration of the boy and a lamb and a dove or two doves for the ritual cleansing of the mother, only the later is mentioned, and the less costly offering provided for the poor is the option taken. Gordon Lathrop thinks that Luke conflates the traditions here: “the birds for the sacrifice being juxtaposed to the ‘presented’ child.” The conflation goes to support a key point of the text, Lathrop suggests, because it reminds us that the temple is

“a place of ritual killing. That the child is carried into that place makes us hear the text in a certain way. In succeeding texts in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus will be spoken against in the temple (Luke 20:1ff) and his death will be prophesied there (20:15; cf. 19;47). If he is “set” for the falling and rising of many in Israel, it is as a stone in temple building (20:17-18), which is rejected and yet becomes the source and ground of the rising new temple. He falls and rises and so is the source of all rising (Lathrop, “The First Sunday after Christmas,’ in Proclamation 4: Advent/Christmas, Series B, pp. 52-53).

Thus, the Gospel of the day brings Jesus’ future suffering into the midst of Christmas. The shadow of the crucifixion darkens the entry of the family into the temple. But the story foreshadows even more; and it is this “more” that makes clear the justification for the fulsome praise of all creation.

As several commentators have noted, Simeon’s song has been appropriated to the Christian eucharistic liturgy as the canticle following distribution of the bread and wine. The words are of course entirely appropriate: in the service, we, too, have seen God’s “salvation, which God has prepared in the presence of all peoples.” But perhaps more yet is intended here. Simeon is a prophetic figure, but he is commonly represented in Christian art as a priest. This assumption is natural, not only because he comes to the temple, but also because the pattern of this story confirms closely to the ordo of the Christian liturgy. The participants in the story have been gathered there by the Holy Spirit. Simeon takes the boy up in his arms and praises God. But then he bespeaks of the boy’s future suffering and death, with which Mary is now incorporated: a sword will pierce her soul, too. Just as bread and wine are taken and lifted up in blessing, then broken and distributed, so also is the boy taken, lifted up in blessing, and his breaking is anticipated in speech inspired by the Holy Spirit. And as at her annunciation, Mary is the church, whose destiny is identified with that of the child. We who hear this story read aloud in the assembly of the congregation know ourselves to be allies of the suddenly present and active Anna, who gives thanks and who proceeds to spread the word, speaking “about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

In the meal is revealed grace by which the incarnate God is given to all creation.

If this encounter cannot be described as the first Christian Eucharist, it nonetheless anticipates that meal with sufficient clarity to justify the praise of all creation which we join to the story in our singing of Psalm 148. Here is revealed the means of grace by which the incarnate God will be given to all creation. As Lathrop again notes, as the temple suggests the theme of suffering, it “also suggests the theme of light. This house is, after all, the ancient dwelling place of the glory of God. It is the place of light.” The new temple “of which this child is the cornerstone is not a place of killing. His suffering is the end of that” (Ibid. p. 53).

In Christ, God is in solidarity with suffering creation.

There is much to consider here, but, surely, we can understand that creation has reason to praise God. In the first place, in place of the practice of animal sacrifice is substituted the eventual sacrifice of the cross, which brings healing and new life to the world God loves. The non-human animals among God’s creatures will surely rejoice! More fundamentally, as a comment by Christopher Southgate (which we quoted a year ago as we reflected on the story of Herod’s killing of the innocents) brings out, God’s presence to the creation is here revealed to be a suffering presence “of the most profoundly attentive and loving sort, a solidarity that at some deep level takes away the aloneness of the suffering creature’s experience” (The Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, p. 52). The incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is accordingly “the event by which God takes this presence and solidarity with creaturely existence to its utmost, and thus ‘takes responsibility’ for all the evil in creation—both the humanly wrought evil and the harms to all creatures” (Ibid., p. 76). Just so, since this pertains to all creatures, considered both as collective species and as individuals, all things and all creatures find reason to rejoice, and do so greatly. In our Christmas worship, we are privileged to join in their song.

All nature sings.

The Lord creates the fruits of the earth and the fruits of righteousness.

Jesus is the salvation that loves, heals, and transforms.

God moves from the temple to the creation at large.

In the meal is revealed grace by which the incarnate God is given to all creation.

In Christ, God is in solidarity with suffering creation.

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

Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

Bearing God into the World Dennis Ormseth reflects on Christ’s birth opening space and time for the renewal of Earth.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46b-55 or Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

God raises the dead and creates something out of nothing.

One more Sunday we wait for the coming of God. We have waited with hope, we have waited in fear, and we have waited with deepening joy. Now we wait faithfully and obediently, because this last Sunday of the Season of Advent, we wait with Mary. Indeed, we wait as Mary waits, having with her been addressed by the angel Gabriel: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” No doubt perplexed as she was by these words and pondering “what sort of greeting this might be,” we nonetheless receive the words with faith, and bow in respect for their import for our life together. If the Lord is with us, as the one who presides in our worship service announces, we are indeed “favored ones,” and share Mary’s conviction and joy. As Gordon Lathrop suggests,

“The word which follows such exchange tells us of God’s great grace and favor to the lowly, invites us to let fear go, and assures us of the core biblical mystery—that the God who raises the dead and creates something out of nothing is able to give life where there is none. That word of creative favor and life is the presence of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament. We are invited to respond: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Lathrop, Proclamation 4:  Advent/Christmas, Series B, p. 35).

We have, as it were, been gathered by the Holy Spirit into Mary’s company. We are Mary, and Mary is the church, singing her song, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

What do the readings for this Sunday have to contribute to a theology of creation? And what encouragement do they offer us for engagement in care of creation? The one for whom Mary waits is clearly the heir to the throne of David, ancient and revered king of Israel, to whom, as our first lesson reminds us, God promised, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” But the anointed one will not rule over his people as other kings rule, with power to dominate the lowly and favoring the rich over the poor. On the contrary, it is precisely in this great reversal that lowly Mary recognizes her savior and ours. Clearly there are implications for politics and social justice here in Mary’s song. But as we suggested in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, Mary’s song is also “good news for Earth: she sings of the end of dominating powers which will clear the way for the expected ‘new Earth, where righteousness is at home.’” And there is even more here to applaud on behalf of the creation, much more.

Gabriel’s message to Mary that Jesus is “the son of the most high,” to whom God will give “the throne of his ancestor David” is the reason for the appointment of the oracle of Nathan in 2 Samuel to our lections for this Sunday. It is the connection to David that commonly receives first and even exclusive attention in the preaching of the church, of course; it suffices for this emphasis that David’s offer to build a house for God sets in motion the pun that leads to God’s promise to establish a house for David, i.e. the Davidic monarchical dynasty. The related matter of the proposed building of the temple in Jerusalem may actually seem an unnecessary complication, as reflected in fact that the verses which actually anticipate the erection of the temple by Solomon (2 Samuel 7:13-16) are omitted from the reading. However, as Gordon Lathrop aptly notes in commenting on these readings, both kingship and temple together “provide centrally important metaphors for the message of the New Testament.” And as Lathrop cautions us, great care is needed in interpreting this material, because “[t]he tradition of royal ideology is only received in the New Testament with critique and massive transformation.”

God breaks out of the temple to be available everywhere.

Including the elided verses in the reading of the lesson would help remind the congregation to the fact that, in spite of Nathan’s revised opinion of David’s proposal to build a temple for God, David’s son Solomon did actually build the temple. That he did so with massive forced labor (Cf. 1 Kings 5 and 6) initiates the tragic role the temple played in the religio-political centralization of the kingdom, which, with respect to Herod’s second temple, is viewed by the author of Mark as a complete disaster for the people’s relationship to God. It is therefore highly instructive that at the outset of the temple tradition the divine protest in Nathan’s oracle condemned the presumption on which the sad history of the temple is based: “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” As Frederick Houk Borsch comments, “God has no need to be tied down to one place. God is instead on the move and is fully capable of raising up David from the sheepfold, winning a name for him, and making a place for God’s people without a temple” (“Advent Christmas,’ in New Proclamation, Year B, 2002—2003, p. 25). God makes place for God’s people, in order that they might have life and dwell in peace.

Place, land, and life sustained though generations are the gifts that God promises.

Place, land, and life sustained though generations: these are the gifts that God promises “his servant David”—without the temple. As we have discussed in our comments on the readings for the first three Sundays of Advent, concern that the followers of Jesus should completely sever themselves from the temple state correlates well with the way the Gospel of Mark opens, with John the Baptist announcing the coming of God, not to Jerusalem and the temple, but in the wilderness, away from the city. Mary’s visit with Elizabeth “in the hill country of Judea,” following the angel Gabriel’s instruction, serves to align the annunciation of Mary with this perspective. Thus if God’s promises to David are being renewed with Mary’s child, they are also being extended. God “has helped his servant Israel,” Mary sings, “in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:54). God’s promises to Abraham, we recall, included gifts of land, great progeny, and fame, but also a blessing to be a blessing for the nations. And if Mary’s child is the Davidic messiah, he is also according to Gabriel, first of all “the Son of the Most High,” of whose kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:3). As David Bartlett suggests, this “means that Jesus’ rule extends not only forever but infinitely in all directions. That is to say, it is not the kingdom of Israel only but the re-invention of the whole creation, God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven”  (“Advent/Christmas,” in New Proclamation, Year B, 1999—2000, p. 26).

God’s presence is global and universal—and always concrete.

If God’s presence is seen no longer as confined to the Jerusalem temple but in Jesus’ lordship to be global and even universal, then, as Lathrop points out, our readings point to dual transformations of both king and temple at this culmination of the Advent season:

For us, it is the crucified who is ‘king,’ the center of order and peace and God’s presence.  Moreover he is ‘king’ without being any king at all, but by being the victim of kings. It is a virgin girl, not a mighty warrior or a royal prophet, who receives the new royal oracle. And the house of God is her temple, the body of her child, and the house of the church. This house is there for all people, welcoming the least ones into the center, into the presence of God” (Lathrop, p. 36).

From the movement of the Advent season we have traced through these Advent Sundays, our readers will recall that we have followed God out of the temple up into the mountains, and through the heavens. Our concern throughout has been to see if the orientation to creation that the temple represented is completely forsaken, or instead restored in a new location. So we have been heartened by Mark’s direction to look for God to come along paths prepared in the wilderness and alongside the River Jordan. We have been drawn to the insight of John’s Gospel that after the Jerusalem temple was in fact already destroyed, we should now find the light and life of a new creation in the person of one who was in our midst but is yet unknown.

The finite creation is capable of bearing infinity.

Therefore we may or may not be surprised at the news delivered by Gabriel to Mary that she should house within her body a truly holy child, one who will be called “Son of God.” But what a truly astonishing new thing, of inestimable significance for creation and creation’s care, this is: Mary’s faith and obedience call for a radical re-orientation to the finite creation as capable of bearing infinity (finitum capax infiniti)  from all those who identify with Mary. Larry Rasmussen states the significance of this re-orientation this way:

“‘God is in the facts themselves,’ said Bonhoeffer, asserting his conviction that God is amidst the living events of nature and history. His favorite quotation from F. C. Oetinger said much the same: “The end of the ways of God is bodiliness.” The meaning of finitum capax infiniti is simple enough: God is pegged to earth. So if you would experience God, you must fall in love with Earth. The infinite and transcendent are dimensions of what is intensely at hand. Don’t look ‘up’ for God, look around. The finite is all there is, because all that is, is there” (Earth Community Earth Ethics, p. 272-73).

Put differently in words that reflect Augustine’s understanding that our bodies are “the dirt we carry,” the dust of the earth from which all living creatures are made, Jesus included, reflects God’s glory, and calls for appropriately infinite respect.

With Mary we are bearing God into the world.

The church came in due time to confess Mary as theotokos, “God bearer.” She understood herself to be Servant of the Lord (Luke 1:38). Those who care for creation will celebrate her service to the Servant of Creation, who in his suffering on the cross served God by loving the earth and all its creatures as God loves them (For an extensive development of this theme, see our comments on the lectionary for Year A). And we will share in her calling. Indeed, isn’t this the reason for our joy this season and all seasons: at some moment, our waiting for God turns wondrously into the awareness that with Mary we are bearing God into the world? As mother and child are one, so are church and its savior one, having been gathered, being blessed and broken, in order to be shared with all the creation. In that moment, Mary’s soul “magnifies the Lord,” and so do ours. In that moment, Mary’s spirit “rejoices in God [her] Savior,” and so does ours, for Mary’s spirit and ours are joined in one and the same Spirit of the Lord, who is coming into the world. Whether as holy child laid in a manger at Christmas time, suffering servant laid into a tomb on Good Friday, or the Lord who returns in judgment and restoration in the fullness of our time, with Mary we welcome this Jesus as one who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, in order that space and time might be opened for the renewal of Earth and the manifestation of God’s glory in all that is. 

God raises the dead and creates something out of nothing.

God breaks out of the temple to be available everywhere.

Place, land, and life sustained though generations are the gifts that God promises.

God’s presence is global and universal—and always concrete.

The finite creation is capable of bearing infinity.

With Mary we are bearing God into the world.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
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

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the desert?  As Belden Lane suggests:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

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

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

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

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

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

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

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

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

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

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

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

First Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God breaks out of the Temple to be present everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark envisions a new world free of domination.

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

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

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

Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God breaks out of the Temple to be present everywhere.

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

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

Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe.

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

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