Tag Archives: Terry Fretheim

Preaching On Creation: Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) in Year A (Ormseth)

Jesus is the Faithful Servant of God’s Creation. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for Sunday of the Passion, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 31:9-16
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Phillipians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

The processional Gospel presents Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Warren Carter notes that Matthew’s narrative of the event includes several “features common to traditions of Jewish and Greco-Roman entrance processions:” the appearance of the ruler, a procession into the city, welcoming and celebrating crowds, and a hymnic acclamation. Certain details in Matthew’s account, however, serve to mark Jesus as “a different sort of king,” in Carter’s phrase. First, there are none of the usual speeches of welcome from the local elite. Obviously, neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities in the city recognize Jesus as having any authority; in their place we hear “the whole city . . . in turmoil, asking ‘Who is this?’ to which the crowd with Jesus answers, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” As Carter observes, “it is an ominous confession. Jerusalem is a city with a  reputation for killing prophets (Mt 23:37).” So Jesus enters a tense and divided city.

Secondly, the prophetic character of Jesus’ entry to the city is immediately demonstrated by the alteration of another customary feature: instead of a cultic act,  commonly a temple sacrifice, by which the ruler would take possession of the city, Jesus’  cleanses the temple (Mt 21:1-13). Thus in contrast to “the oppressive and tyrannical reign of Rome, which has claimed divine agency and overstepped the mark ( Mt 20:25-28),” Carter writes, the reign of Jesus . . .

“is not based on military violence and does not employ social and economic exploitation of legal privilege. It is merciful, inclusive, life-giving, and marked by servanthood and peace. This son of David enacts God’s reign, which protects the needy, supplies the weak (Ps 72), and heals the sick (Solomon; Mt 9:27). He comes not to fight for the city, but to serve it (Mt 20:28)” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 413-15).

Jesus is the king who comes as a servant.

A third detail of the account powerfully symbolizes this servant character of his leadership: the animal on which Jesus rides to enter the city is a donkey. Matthew calls our attention to it by providing an extended account of its procurement (Mt 21:1-7). By tradition a royal animal (e.g. Solomon in 1 Kings 1:33-48), the donkey “is also an everyday beast of burden” and “a symbol of derision and scorn.” Instead of “a war horse . . . or ‘chariot of triumph’ . . . intended to demonstrate authority, to intimidate, and to ensure submission,” Jesus “chooses what is royal but common, derided but liberating” (Carter, p. 414-15). Its contrast with imperial style is not the only significant thing about this animal in reference to Jesus, however. Carter points to it as a sign of Jesus’ dominion in the creation: in his arrangements for the donkey and its colt, he suggests, “Jesus [again] exerts his lordship over nature (cf. Mt 8:23-27, 14:25-33) and exercises Adam’s authority over the animals in Gen 1:26-33” (Carter, pp. 415-16). More significantly, we note that the primary text from Hebrew scripture undergirding this account is the one we encountered on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, in connection with the healing of the man born blind. Jesus’ entry to the city on the donkey would remind readers of the Gospel familiar with Hebrew traditions, of the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the anticipated arrival in triumph of the messianic King from Zechariah Chapters 9 – 14. As we summarized the text there, drawing on Raymond Brown’s exegesis of the healing in the Gospel of John, as the messianic king arrives on an ass, Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:10) and opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (Zecharariah 13:1) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326; see our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A 2014). Jesus’ arrival in the city as this humble messianic king portends the restoration of both nation and land  by Yahweh, when “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea” and “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:8-9). As we found in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, flowing water is the sign of God’s restoring presence in the earth.

Thus at the opening of our Passion Sunday observance, the description of Jesus from our comment on the First Sunday in the Season of Lent is reaffirmed: as one who serves God faithfully, Jesus serves creation in the dominion of life. With the first reading from Isaiah 50, the church identifies Jesus as that servant, but now as one who suffers on account of that humble service. And with the famous hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the second reading, the church doubles down on that identification, placing it in cosmic perspective: ‘though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”” (Philippians 2:6-8). Indeed, this text is especially important for our understanding of Jesus as servant of creation, as can be seen by returning to our interpretation of the narratives of the two temptations, first of Adam and Eve, and secondly of Jesus, from the readings for the first Sunday in Lent. As we discussed in our comment on those texts, Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level, the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it, “When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

The reading from Philippians 2 addresses the concern: to “regard equality with God as something to be exploited” is an appropriate way to characterize the primordial fault of humankind. Created with powers to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, Adam and Eve desire to know as God knows; they refuse to respect the limit set on their nature by their Creator. Thus humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75). In contrast, as we summarized our reading of Jesus’ temptation, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil “exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth.” These principles, we suggested, “go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God” (See our comment on the texts for the First Sunday in Lent). The prophet Isaiah speaks righteously for Jesus this Sunday in saying, “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (Isaiah 50:5).

With these themes in mind, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion reads as an account of his “passion” for the creation. Judas contracts to betray Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver,” apparently not a great amount of money, but sufficient to entice a man who doesn’t know how to value things more righteously; the pursuit of wealth, it would seem, has taken utter control of Judas’ life. As they gather for the meal that ritually represents and celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, Jesus’ exposure of Judas’ betrayal destroys their sense of community in the company of the “Lord” whom they have trusted to defend them against all manner of evil: “diseases, demons, nature, and people” (Carter, p. 505). Their meal is shrouded with the threat of coming violence: the breaking of bread foreshadows the violence of Jesus’ death. Consequently, the meal which looks forward ritually to a flourishing life in the presence of God in the land God promised Israel, becomes an occasion for the betrayal of God’s purposes by those who govern the land as part of the dominion of death. 

Jesus’ blessing of the bread and wine, however, in turn restores the meal through its connection with release from sin and death to an anticipation of the future restoration of all creation. The decisive battle between the dominion of death and the dominion of life is joined. The wine Jesus directs them to drink bears the significance of the bloody sacrifice that Moses made to seal the covenant between God and the people in Exodus 24:8. It is blood “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin,” which also “evokes the release of Israel from Babylonian captivity” (Carter, p. 506). Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah, who bears the suffering and “releases the sin” of many. Carter explains that the translation “release from sins” is preferred over “forgiveness of sin’ because the Hebrew here “denotes much more than a personal restoration to fellowship with God (though it includes this).”  His detailed exegesis is important:

“In Leviticus 25 the noun appears at least fourteen times to designate the year of jubilee or forgiveness (see [Matthew] 5:5). Leviticus 25 provides for a massive societal and economic restructuring every fifty years, in which people rest from labor, land and property are returned and more evenly (re)distributed, slaves are freed, and households are reunited. In Deut 15:1-3, 9, the noun refers to the remission of the debts of the poor every seven years. In Jer 34 (LXX 41):8, 15, it refers to release of slaves (but note v. 17). In Isa 58:6 it defines part of God’s chosen fast, ‘to undo the thongs of the yoke . . . and to break every yoke,’ an image of ending political oppression (see 11:28-29). In Isa 61:1, God’s anointed is ‘to proclaim liberty/release to the captives, good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted’ (see Mt 5:3-6.) In Esth 2:18 and 1 Macc 13:34 it indicates relief from imperial taxes” (Carter, p. 507).

The sin to be released, this view maintains, encompasses the whole reality of the pursuit of power and wealth that has such destructive impact on the creation. The sin to be released, Carter concludes, is . . .

“a world contrary to God’s just purposes. Jesus’ death, like the exodus from Egypt, the return from exile in Babylon, and the year of jubilee, effects release from, a transformation of, sinful imperial structures which oppress God’s people, contrary to God’s will. His death establishes God’s justice or empire, including release from Rome’s power.”

Release from sins thus has “personal and sociopolitical and cosmic, present and future dimensions.” It renews the original promise of the Passover Meal, but extends it to encompass all creation: indeed, it anticipates a new creation: Jesus looks forward to the day when he will drink wine in the reign of God in the earth (Carter, p. 507). 

The disciples have a hard time trusting this promise, of course, as do we, still. The battle between the dominion of life and the dominion of death for their allegiance continues. As they leave the meal, their minds are fearful and set on escape, as Jesus knows too well; he will join their despair in the garden of Gethsemane. Before we follow him into the garden, however, one more comment on the meal is appropriate as we also look forward to the celebration of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday. In view of the transformation of the meal from a feast that recalls a seemingly lost hope to one anticipating the future restoration of creation, we note that Christian congregations have in their Eucharistic service an incredibly significant resource for sustaining service to creation.  We recall a statement by Wendell Berry: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation.  When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want” (Quoted from Berry’s Gift of Good Land, p. 281, by Christopher Southgate, in Groaning of Creation, pp. 105-06). In the Eucharist, bread and wine are fruits of creation put to sacramental use in the restoration of creation.

Strikingly, it is in a garden that Jesus once again confirms his role as the servant of creation who does God’s will. The setting provides distance from the threatening authorities, at least until they invade it, and from the sleeping disciples as well, as Jesus goes farther and farther into the garden. It ought also to be a place of access to God, but God is silent. As he was once tempted three times in the wilderness, now Jesus prays three times to the absent Father. His prayer is to be released from his mission; it is effectively the suffering servant’s prayer: “Yet not what I want but what you want.” He admonishes his disciples to stay awake, “that you may not come into the time of trial,” which echoes the sixth petition of the prayer he taught his disciples. Carter sees a striking similarity between this scene and Moses’ prayer at Massah, when Israel tested God by “doubting God’s presence and God’s promise to deliver them and supply water.” He comments: “The temptation to doubt God’s plans, goodness, faithfulness, and ability is not far from Jesus or the disciples in the story, or from Matthew’s audience” It is indeed a trial in the wilderness. His own prayer accordingly also echoes “the Lord’s prayer,” now from the third petition: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  We might add the missing phrase: “on earth as it is in heaven.” He is the faithful servant of God who serves God’s creation (Carter, pp. 511-12).

The narrative moves on to the confrontation with the religious and political authorities. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, and the mob lays hands on Jesus to arrest him. A disciple strikes out with a sword, and is rebuked by Jesus. He refuses to use violence; that is not his way. He will not participate in the dominion of death; his is the dominion of life. The contrast with his opponents is clear as Caiaphas probes Jesus’ identity and his claim to authority, looking for a reason to condemn him to death. The members of the Sanhedrin agree to seek Jesus’ death; the governor will execute him. Jesus is subject to the power of Rome. But is Pilate really the one who decides Jesus fate? As Jesus is handed over, the powers of death are united in a course of action that will kill the servant of life.

Still the dominion of life nevertheless makes its presence felt. As the first among the disciples to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah succumbs to the questions of servant girls with him in the courtyard, the crow of the cock reminds Peter of Jesus’ anticipation of his betrayal. As Jesus is left to face the authorities without allies, the call of the bird reminds us that as in the wilderness (Mark 1:13), non-human creatures are still with him; events are proceeding according to the Creator’s time. So also does Judas’ repentance provide counter-point to the judgment of the Sanhedrin; by the admission of his betrayer, Jesus is innocent, and his blood is “innocent blood.” It is too late to stop the course of events toward death, however; Judas succumbs to the power of death by taking his own life. Ironically, however, the Sanhedrin uses Judas’ “blood money” to purchase a field for the burial of foreigners. The process that leads to Jesus’ death is not without good consequences: this piece of earth bought by Judas’ repentance will receive strangers to the land and give them rest. It is a sign that, even in the midst of the dominion of death, preparation is made for the dominion of life, in which the Earth is home for God’s creatures.

Finally, as Pilate does what the Sanhedrin asks him to do, and what “the people” demand, he releases the violent insurrectionist Barabbas and condemns the non-violent Jesus to death by crucifixion. The one who has indeed proclaimed the coming of God’s realm of true and cosmic justice keeps his silence as the suffering servant of creation of Isaiah 52. Pilate washes his hands of the matter; ironically, this act of denial of responsibility exposes the truth: as Warren Carter puts it, “Roman justice is all washed up, It is not exonerated but exposed as expedient, allied with and co-opted by the religious elite who manipulate a crowd to accomplish its own end” (Carter, p. 527). In the cause of justice, water tells the truth. That the people take Jesus’ “blood” upon themselves and their children, is both an acknowledgment of their responsibility for Jesus’ death in concert with Judas, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate; and for the reading audience an ironic “recognition (echoing Exod 24:8) that God’s forgiveness is available to all, including the chief priests’ crowd,” both now and in the future establishment of God’s empire at Jesus’ return (23:39) (Carter, p. 529). Thus water and blood together are signs from the creation that this event bears both truth and hope for all creation.

As passersby deride Jesus on the cross saying “you who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt 27:40), the theme from the temptations returns. The chief priests and scribes mock him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” Jesus remains faithful to the rule of the servant of creation: it is not want he wants, but indeed what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation. And so as Jesus hangs on the cross, the creation marks his dying: “darkness came over the whole land” (Mt 27:45). Reflecting the pain of its Lord, the light of creation dims. As Jesus breathes his last, the Earth shudders. As Carter comments, “Just as God’s creation in the form of a star witnesses to his birth (Mt 2:1-12), so the sun and the earth attest his death and anticipate new life.” These signs belong to the time of tribulation (Mt 24:3-26); they “anticipate God’s coming triumph, which his return in glory will establish (Mt 24:27-31)” (Carter, p.  536). As Lazarus was raised from the dead, bodies are liberated from their tombs by the shaking of the earth. Their rising anticipates the new creation. Meanwhile, women look on from a distance; they are followers who have, as Carter notes, imitated “his central orientation (Mt 20:25-28):They serve him over a sustained period of time and distance in travelTheir service is not only a matter of providing food and/or hospitality, though that may well be an important dimension. . . The verb denotes Jesus’ giving his life in obedience to God and for the benefit of others (Mt 20:28; cf. 25:44). The term is all-embracing for Jesus’ ministry. Likewise for the women” (Carter, p. 538). The Earth, having been broken open by the earthquake, receives its Lord, and a stone is put into place at the opening of the tomb; the non-human creation witnesses that he is truly dead, and later, that he has risen from the dead.

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The work of the Spirit makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 11.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent bring us into the arena of the decisive battle between the dominions of life and death in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Fear of death and its power to destroy life hangs over the Gospel narrative. When Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is near death, he appears to dally until he knows that he is actually dead. Wary disciples warn Jesus against returning to Judea, where his enemies had recently tried to stone him. Confronting the reality of Lazarus’ death and the anguish of Mary and Martha, he is overwhelmed by his grief. Those who had come to console the sisters and knew of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind are dismayed by his failure to come quickly and restore him to health. Even after he has raised Lazarus, death maintains its grip on the attending crowd: the chief priests and Pharisees, fearful that this sign will stir up the people and bring down the wrath of the Roman garrison upon both the nation and its temple, set immediately to planning Jesus’ death (John 11:45-53).

Readers who have followed him on our Lenten journey will recognize that Jesus brings to this confrontation the powers of the dominion of life. Throughout the story, Jesus  seems to speak from another script. His delay has redemptive purpose. Witnesses to the healing of the man born blind will have eyes to see that, just as God listens to sinners, so Jesus’ has heard the troubled sisters’ anguished pleas and shares fully in their grief. The “living waters” by means of which he healed the man born blind are meant for many others, and for much more than such healing of individuals. He has given them to Samaritans as well as Jews, creating new community that overcomes their divisions—indeed, as he disclosed in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, he promises to bring such waters to all, so that they might worship God in Spirit and truth. Sent by God the Creator out of love for the cosmos, he went to Jerusalem to restore those waters to all the people in the land, from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean. For they are Spirit-bearing waters, like those at the creation of the world. Now he has come to his friends in Bethany outside Jerusalem to reveal in the face of death that he is nothing less than “the resurrection and the life” and to show them “the glory of God.”  

Thus the powers of the dominion of life stand strong over against the powers of the dominion of death. But it is important to ask, at this point, what actually is at stake in this conflict, and what we can hope to come of it? Lazarus dies of natural causes, like most human beings do, and he lives to die again. Jesus does not raise him to eternal life, at least not in the most literal sense of that term; this is not in that sense a final victory over the physical power of death. What it is, rather, is illuminated by recalling what we learned regarding death  early in our Lenten journey from the reading of Genesis 2, in connection with Jesus temptation in the wilderness. “Death per se,” it was argued there, following Terry Fretheim’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden,” was a natural part of God’s created world” and “accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin.” The “exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death,” which gives rise “to an ever-deeper distrust of God.” Trust in God’s word, as we saw, was the overriding issue in the original temptation in the garden and of Jesus’ temptation as well. “Unlike Jesus in his temptation” we found,  Adam and Eve did not trust “the word of God that set limits to their use of creation,” and so went against God’s will for their relationship with creation. Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation.  The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance. . . What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation:  each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life (See our comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2014).

The raising of Lazarus accordingly shows what we can hope for in the face of death, whether our own or that of others we love. There is at least this: however wrenching it might be for family and friends, and however commonly it occurs in the creation, death need not be reason to lose faith in God as creator, as the Lord, the giver of life.  Active here in the raising of Lazarus is the Spirit, in the words of Elizabeth Johnson that point to the connection of the narrative to our concern for care of creation, “made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself”  (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 139). We discern in the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus the pattern of relationship that is at the heart of care for all creation. It is the work of the Spirit that makes God’s love for the cosmos through the gift of his Son worthy of trust. 

But the decisive battle between the two dominions is yet to come. Whether in facing one’s own death or that of others we love, there is available to this faith no sanction for visiting death upon those who stand over against us, either through indifference or through enmity. That is nevertheless what happens to Jesus. Unlike Lazarus and as his disciples feared, Jesus will die a violent death at the hands of his enemies. When the chief priest and the Pharisees meet in council to consider what to do about Jesus in the wake of his raising of Lazarus, this is precisely what they propose: 

What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.  But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “you know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:47-50).

There is deep irony to this, of course.  As John notes, Caiaphas thus prophesied “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” 

The readings that accompany the Gospel this Sunday accordingly anticipate a dramatic expansion of the significance of this conflict. The first lesson from Romans reframes the conflict from the perspective of the Apostle Paul, beyond the cross and resurrection, as between “the mind set on the flesh” which is death, and “the mind set on the Spirit,” which is “life and peace.” And that sharpens the contrast: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God”, but “if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” And the promised outcome is then even more glorious: “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:6-11). The extravagant hopes for the creation awakened by the prophecy of Ezekiel and celebrated in readings of the Vigil of Easter are on the horizon: all creation will be restored, body with soul, skin and bones as well, and the people will be returned to the soil they are to serve and keep (Ezekiel 37:14). With Jesus and the Psalmist we wait on the Lord, “For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7).

First Sunday of Lent (March 1, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Lent Calls Us to Serve the Flourishing of CreationDennis Ormseth reflects on the temptation of Jesus and what it says for us.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Our Lenten journey begins in wilderness and proceeds through the land we call holy towards Jerusalem. Jesus walks the land, headed for his decisive engagement with the religious and political authorities that hold control over it. The ecological footprint of this journey thus covers both wilderness and the territory of settled human habitation; it also provides context for questions of a more general nature involving the relationship between humans and the rest of creation overall. According to Christopher Southgate, these are the three broad contexts in which humans might exercise care for the creation: “One is that of the whole surface biosphere; another is the context of what is presently wilderness; the third that in which humans live alongside the nonhuman creation and cultivate or actively manage it” (The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p. 113). During this Lenten journey, we might expect to engage in considerations concerning each of them. What intrigues this reader is that all three figure already in the story of Jesus’ temptation, here at the beginning of the journey. Indeed, read in conjunction with the other texts appointed for this Sunday, we want to suggest, the story serves as prologue to an adventure in the healing of all creation.

The story begins with the report from Matthew that immediately following his baptism “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). We are thus put on notice that the account to follow concerns a conflict of cosmic scope between the powers of good and the powers of evil, or more appropriately, the powers of life and death. The Spirit that leads Jesus and is at the very heart of the relationship between Jesus and God made manifest in the his baptism is confessed by the church as “the Lord, the giver of life,” His antagonist, “‘the devil,” as Warren Carter notes, “once a member of the heavenly court, accuser of humans (Zechariah 3:1-10, Job 1-2) and inciter of sin (1 Chronicles 21:1),” is the “evil opponent of God’s purposes, who tempts people to sin and thwarts God’s plans.” “The central issue,” of the temptation, as Carter characterizes it, concerns allegiance: Who will determine Jesus’ actions? Will Jesus be faithful in carrying out God’s commission, or will the devil, God’s opponent, define his actions and claim his allegiance?” (Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 106, 108). But as our second reading reminds us, at stake here is more than the question of allegiance. At stake is whether because of that allegiance the power of death to exercise dominion through sin will be decisively broken, so that “dominion in life” will be given “through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). It is a matter, in a word, of life and death: Which shall be victorious?

Wilderness is the designated setting for the initiation of the contest. What is it about wilderness that qualifies it for this role? Anthropologists will point, of course, to the “liminality” of the wilderness. It is space at the margins of human life, where human communities and their political and economic elites have neither privileged place nor power. There we are made freshly aware of our deep dependence upon the powers and resources that reside in creation beyond human habitation and control. In the wilderness, as it were, we revisit the primordial Garden of Eden. As with Moses and the people in the Exodus from Egypt, so now God employs the wilderness as testing ground for a relationship that bears immense significance for God’s restoration and renewal of creation. The forty days’ of isolation and fasting would bring Jesus to an acute sense of that dependence; the text puts it simply: “he was famished.”

The devil’s first temptation of Jesus is to suggest he could use his relationship to God “the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth,” to overcome that dependence by “turning stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). Jesus’ response, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), is manifestly an act of allegiance to God. But it is noteworthy that his response also concerns the human relationship to the earth: “One does not live by bread alone” (Mathew 4:4). Life, one we might extrapolate, is more than a matter of having power to manipulate and transform the natural order of things for human benefit, which the making and breaking of bread so powerfully symbolizes. Changing stones into something else, even for human benefit, must take into account what God has declared for the right relationship between humans and the rest of creation. Jesus’ refusal of this temptation acknowledges a limit on the demands humans can make on the non-human creation of the wilderness.

What is that “right relationship”? Our first reading reminds us what the will of God for human beings was intended to be. True, Genesis 2 tells us, the human is given a measure of power over creation: God had taken note of certain deficiencies in the “good” creation: there were no plants, there was no rain, and there was no one to “till” or serve the ground (Genesis 2:5). The human was thus created as part of a package of ongoing improvements, so to speak, beyond what was already in place. As Terry Fretheim puts it, humans are placed in the garden  “not only for the maintenance and preservation of the creation but also for intracreational development,” that is, for “service of the non-human world” which involves “moving it toward its fullest possible potential” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 53).

This “development” is, to be governed, however, by the clear purposes of God. God put the human being in the Garden of Eden to “serve” and to “protect” it—the translation preferred by many scholars now, over “till and keep.”  Strikingly, according to Ellen F. Davis, the key words here are not drawn from the fields of horticulture and agriculture, as one might expect, but relate primarily to “human activity in relationship to God; to serve or work on behalf of or worship (e.g., Exodus 9:1, 13). To serve the land would thus imply ‘that we are to see ourselves in a relation of subordination to the land on which we live . . . deferring to the soil. The needs of the land take clear precedence over our own immediate preferences.’ And this is shown to be the case not least because, as Genesis 1:29-30 indicates, human beings are heavily dependent upon the land for their very life.” Furthermore, “[w]hat it means to ‘keep’ the soil is akin to what it means to keep the commandments. To keep the commandments has both positive and negative dimensions, namely, to promote the well-being of others and to restrain violence and the misuse of others. And so to ‘keep’ the land is to promote its well-being and keep it from being violated through human misuse” (Fretheim, p.53. The quotation from Davis is from her Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 192).

Jesus’ response to the first temptation thus manifests respect and care for creation as obedience to God’s will. For Jesus, his wilderness temptation offers opportunity for restoring the right relationship between humans and the non-human creation. In contemporary ecological terms, he conforms to the principal notion, suggested by Southgate, of humans as “fellow-citizens of wild nature,” according to which wilderness is a place where other creatures, even the stones, have a relationship to God that is independent of humans; that, indeed, sees that “they are loved for their own sake.” Even the Son of God “must quiet the thunder of [human] ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idol,” in order that the praise of those other creatures to God can be offered without our distorting it. Whatever powers the human has in relationship to other creatures must be used, as Southgate suggests, to ward off “certain scenarios that would eliminate all or most” of the richness of life in the whole surface biosphere, and “to conserve at the most general level what God’s loving activity over 4.5 billion years has made possible on Earth, to make sure indeed that the future is no worse than the present” (Southgate, pp 113-14).

In his response to the second temptation, Jesus formalizes this orientation as a religious principle, not only for wilderness, but for all the land in which they live. The location for this temptation, it should be noted, is the temple in Jerusalem, at the center of the people’s religious practice. Guarantor of the good order of creation against the threat of chaos, the temple grounds the people’s expectation that God will be present to them in the land to which God has led them. It is there in the temple that their relationship to God can be restored. Jesus is invited to demonstrate his claim on God’s blessing by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; God’s angels, his tempter suggests, will bear him up. Again Jesus declines, quoting scripture, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The contemporary reader will note that by resisting this temptation, his act of allegiance to God again involves a refusal to act against the “laws of nature.” In non-scientific terms, it is a refusal of transcendence over the creation, a willingness to employ the power of the spiritual realm (the angels) for the purposes of securing his own glory. Appropriate to the link between worship in the temple and the good order of creation, Jesus will not use his intimate relationship with God to circumvent that order, even though doing so would seemingly alter dramatically his status and influence among the people. It would place him at the center of Israel’s worship, making him something of the “superman” Messiah that so many of his followers through the ages have wanted him to be. Jesus’ response shows that transcendence over creation is not what he is about, neither as human being nor as Son of God.

The third temptation takes place on a high mountain, where his tempter “shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8). The location provides an overlook for the entire habitat of Earth, where, as Southgate puts it, humans are “the ingenious innovators and managers of new ways of living in and with the non-human creation” (Southgate, p. 114). In terms of Jesus’ own teaching from his Sermon on the Mount, the choice Jesus confronts here is obedience to one of two masters, God or wealth. The unfettered pursuit of wealth, in all its complex ramifications and in concert with the drive to imperial control over other nations, we now know, is a chief cause of earth’s ecological degradation, and especially of global climate change and catastrophic extinction of species. We can imagine that this high mountain, like the mountains of his sermon and of his transfiguration before it, rejoiced, as the representative of Earth’s entire ecology, to hear Jesus’ refusal. Domination “of all kingdoms of the world” and the ecological devastation that accompanies it will not occur in Jesus’ reign (See our comment on the texts for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A).

Summing up, considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth. These principles go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God. At the same time, moreover, this perspective illumines the significance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the meaning of his final confrontation there with the power of death.

Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it,

The issue is not the gaining of wisdom in and of itself . . . but the way it is gained . . . . The issue is not the use of the mind or the gathering of experience, but the mistrust of God that the human move assumes. When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective. 

Not trusting the word of God that set limits to their use of creation, unlike Jesus, they went against God’s will for their relationship with creation.  Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75).

The text of Genesis 2 raises the possibility of a more drastic consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, of course, namely death, which appears to be the view of the Apostle Paul in our second reading as well: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned–. . . .” (Romans 5:12). Consideration of this possibility is important, first, because evolutionary theory—essential for an ecological understanding of the development of life—holds that all living creatures, human as well as non-human, come to fit their ecological niches by a dynamic process of selection that is driven by the survival or death of individuals with variations that do not serve the life of the species in question. To insist on the view that death enters creation as a consequence of human sin accordingly makes it difficult to hold together belief in God as creator and the foundational theory of biological development, with dire consequences for our ability to tend properly to the needs of living creatures as we participate with God in the ongoing creation. Additionally, it follows that if death is not a consequence of human disobedience, it cannot be regarded as a punishment for it either, which calls into question the meaning of Jesus’ death as a vicarious sacrifice for sin, as it has traditionally been understood. We will need to explore these issues more fully as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and his death on the cross. Raising them here, however, allows us to anticipate the framework for interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ death, towards which concern for care of creation is leading us. As we suggested at the beginning of this essay, that meaning has to do with the cosmic conflict between the dominion of life and the dominion of death.

Fretheim and others contravene the traditional interpretation that links sin and death directly. A close reading of the text of Genesis, they argue, doesn’t support that view. As Fretheim observes, “If human beings were created immortal, the tree of life would have been irrelevant. Death per se was a natural part of God’s created world.” If death accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin, God’s exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death, and, in this, Fretheim argues, Romans 5:12-19 gets it right (Fretheim, p. 77). Seeing the full reality of death does give rise to an ever-deeper distrust of God. Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance, as the Apostle sees it. What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation: each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life. And as the Apostle says, to follow Jesus is to “exercise dominion in life” (5:17). The distinction between these two rival dominions, we note in conclusion, is helpful in addressing the vexed assertion on the part of environmentalists that Genesis authorizes the human domination of creation that is so terribly destructive of the environment. While scholars agree that the relevant texts do authorize dominion, what those texts mean by that is what we see here in our Genesis reading, namely, responsibility and power to promote the flourishing of life within the creation. That is the dominion of life and the way of Jesus does indeed fully support it; it just as fully rejects the dominion of death. In the readings for the Sundays to come, we will see further what that can mean, not only for us humans, but for the nonhuman creation as well.

Ash Wednesday in Years A, B, and C

Returning to Our Origins Dennis Ormseth reflects on the start of our Lenten journey.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011)

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2011, 2013, 3017, 2020, 2023)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Potentially, the first text read to initiate the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, is a profoundly eco-theological text. The fact that note of this potential is rarely taken in commentaries for preachers is to be expected, given that exegetes are likely to focus on the call to repentance that is the central motif of the Ash Wednesday service: “ . . . return to me with all your heart. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:12-13).

That what precipitated this call was a crisis that we would today more readily describe as ecological than spiritual is admittedly not immediately obvious from reading the selected verses. Reading the entire book, on the other hand, makes this much more apparent. The description of the devastation striking the land and its inhabitants which precedes our reading in Chapters 1 and 2 is as ominous as any modern day forecast of the impacts of, say, habitat loss or climate change. And the subsequent portrayal of the restoration of the land in the latter part of chapters 2 and 3 would lift the heart of the most pessimistic environmentalist.

Read in this context, however, the selected verses clearly point to the creational significance of the prophet’s vision: the “great and powerful army,” is a great plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains.” The great swarm is incomparable: “their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” Thus, the trumpet is sounded on God’s holy mountain (already a signal that will alert readers of this series in the comments for the season of Epiphany, in which the mountain regularly serves as representative of God’s whole creation), so that “all the inhabitants of the land” (and not just the humans) might tremble, as a “day of clouds and thick darkness” brings “darkness and gloom” over the land (2:1-2). The reading stops short, however, of telling us just how searing and absolute the devastation is: “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them” (2:3). And astonishingly, we learn later that at the head of this “army” is none other than the Lord Himself: “The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?” (2:11). Verses 2:3 and 2:11can easily be added to the reading, should the preacher wish to bring this eschatological aspect of the text into focus for the congregation.

Scholars struggle to identify the precise historical setting of the prophet Joel. It perhaps suffices to observe that he is intimately familiar with the cult of the temple in Jerusalem, and that he lived in Judah sometime during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 B. C. E.). He lived, that

is, at the center of the Israel’s political and religious life. His description of the plague, however, is perhaps meant to remind his readers of an earlier great plague of locusts in the story of God’s people, the eighth of the great plagues that Moses called down from God on the Egyptian pharaoh and his people. Also, then, “such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again” covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt” (Exodus 10:14-15). As Terry Fretheim points out, in regard to the account of the Exodus and other similar incidents, locusts are “a symbol of divine judgment (Deut 28:38, 42; 2 Chr. 7:13; Jer 51:27; Amos 4:9; 7:1, Joel 1—2)” (God and World in the Old Testament, p.9). This time, however, the plague is visited on the people of Judah themselves, in their homeland. The purpose is the same as the Egyptian plague, however. Like Moses to Pharaoh, Joel’s call to the people is for repentance: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13).

This plea, as we have noted, is the primary reason for reading this text on Ash Wednesday. In the service, it serves to invite the general act of repentance, which in spite of the urgency suggested by announcement that “the day of the Lord is coming” and by delay of the assurance of forgiveness until Maundy Thursday, extends for the entire season of Lent. To recapture for this act the ecological significance of its original scriptural context would be, therefore, to initiate a season of repentance focused mainly, if not exclusively, on the “sinful” behaviors and policies that are responsible for the environmental crises of the present day.

Is there exegetical warrant for this strategy? Clearly, yes, in so far as the parallel between this plague in Joel and the other plagues from the foundational narrative of Israel is instructive. Fretheim argues that the plague narratives have an overarching creational theme. The ultimate focus of God’s liberating action in the Exodus is not Israel, but the entire creation. The “scope of the divine purpose is creation-wide, for all the earth is God’s.” He explains:

“The plagues are fundamentally concerned with the natural order; each plague has to do with various nonhuman phenomena. The collective image presented is that the entire created order is caught up in this struggle, either as cause or victim. Pharaoh’s antilife measures against God’s creation have unleashed chaotic effects that threaten the very creation that God intended . . . While everything is unnatural in the sense of being beyond the bounds of the order created by God, the word ‘hypernatural’ (nature in excess) may better capture that sense of the natural breaking through its created limits, not functioning as God intended. The plagues are hypernatural at various levels: timing, scope, and intensity. Some sense for this is also seen in recurrent phrases to the effect that such ‘had never been seen before, nor ever shall be again'” (Fretheim, p 120).

Substitute the plague described by Joel, and the characterization is still valid. The theological grounding for this approach to the plagues is an understanding of the relation between the moral and the created order that embraces both the Egyptians and the Israelites on their home ground: they have been “subverting God’s creational work, so the consequences are oppressive, pervasive, public, prolonged, depersonalizing, heartrending, and cosmic because such has been the effect of Egypt’s sins upon Israel [and later Israel’s sins in its own land]—indeed, upon the earth—as the pervasive ‘land’ language suggests” (Fretheim, p. 121).

If what pertains to the plagues of the Exodus pertains also to the plague of Joel’s context, it reasonably pertains to our situation of global environmental crisis today as well. As Fretheim concludes, “In this environmentally sensitive age we have often seen the adverse natural effects of human sin. Examples of hypernaturalness can be cited, such as deformed frogs and violent weather patterns. The whole creation groaning in travail waiting for the redemption of people needs little commentary today (Rom. 8:22)” (P. 123). Except, we would urge, as such commentary may in fact be relevant to preaching in the season of Lent. Lists of endangered species and ecosystems abound, that is true, and we do not need to add to their number here. Nevertheless, human responsibility for the causes is rarely acknowledged in the context of Christian worship. The prophet calls us to do just that: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation . . .Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep” (2:15-17).

Once the eco-theological potential of the Ash Wednesday service has been brought to the attention of the congregation by a slightly extended first reading, a similar refocusing of the second reading will reinforce its impact. Again the intent of the text seems straight forwardly spiritual: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20b). Again, the appeal is made urgent by reference to the “day of salvation,” in this instance drawn from the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 49:8): “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2). What follows is a list of critical situations and virtuous behaviors that the Apostle and our brother Timothy regard as their bona fides for their appeal to the Corinthian congregation as “servants of God”—a matter we will return to below. What the appointed text fails to bring out is that the Christ on whose behalf the appeal is made is the Christ in whom, according to Paul in 5:17, “God was reconciling the world to himself,” and “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17-19). Thus, if the lectionary lesson were to start at verse 17 instead of the present 20b, the preacher would have a second text with great significance for an eco-theological observance of Ash Wednesday.

2 Corinthians 5:17 is one of two Pauline texts (Galatians 6:15 is the other) that recent interpreters of Paul use to bring into focus the “green” aspect of Pauline theology. Although they are less frequently cited than Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, these “new creation” texts have traditionally been interpreted primarily as “anthropological conversion texts:” the new creation is a “new creature.” But David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in a new book on Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, make a strong argument against that reading. And we would urge adoption of their alternative understanding of these texts, as “referring to a cosmic eschatological transformation which the Christ-event has wrought.” Citing the work of Ulrich Mell, in their reading of Galatians 6:16, “The cross as an event of divine restoration is a world-transforming, cosmic event in that, in the ‘middle’ of history, it separates a past world before Christ from a new world since Christ . . .It is not the human being who is called ‘new creation’ but, from a soteriological perspective, the world!”

So also here in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul presents Christ “as the initiator of a new order of life (and a new order of creation),” who “represents a cosmic saving event, in which the human being is in principle bound up” (P. 167). Supporting this reading against the more individualistic, anthropological view, they suggest, is the fact that “apocalyptic” readers of Paul (since the work of Ernst Kasemann) have long emphasized “the epoch-making action of God in Christ; it is more properly seen as theocentric or christocentric than anthropocentric” (P. 168). When the concept of the “new creation’ is linked to the strong theme of “participation in Christ,” as we have it here in 5:17, Paul’s theology becomes strongly “amenable to an ecological rereading. . . [that is] centered on the act of God in Christ, which affects the whole cosmos and has inaugurated the renewal of that cosmos” (P. 172; For their full argument, see p. 166-178).

What implications for care of the environment follow from this view of Paul? Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate see no direct eco-ethical implications from the cosmic focus conveyed by the concept of the new creation in Paul’s writings. For them, it is rather the factor of “participation in Christ” that they find important in this regard, on account of which believers share in “the pattern of his paradigmatic story of self-giving for others,” summarized most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:5-11)”—which offers the paradigm of “one who chose not to act in a way to which he was entitled but instead chose self-denial for the benefit of others.”

We wonder, however, whether the concept of “new creation” does not itself suggest an ethical framework, one that reaffirms the Old Testament understanding of creation as fundamentally relational, as seen in the law developed within the covenant between God, God’s people and God’s creation. The “new creation” is a newly flourishing creation, like what the prophet Joel expected from God’s hand in response to the righting of the relationship between God and God’s people. The concept of righteousness is also of great importance for Paul, not only as a spiritual relationship between God and the believer, but also as a structure of right relationship within the creation. Fretheim makes a similar point with respect to the concept of salvation in the context of the Exodus: in that grand narrative, salvation means “the people are reclaimed for the life and well-being that God intended for the creation. As such, God’s salvation stands, finally, in the service of creation, freeing people to be what they were created to be and having a re-creative effect on the nonhuman world as well, as life in the desert begins to flourish once again” (God and World in the Old Testament, p. 126).

However, for an Ash Wednesday observance with its requirement that the preacher focus on what we have elsewhere referred to as “affairs of the heart” (see our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany), an emphasis on “self-giving for others” will serve to anchor our concern for the care of creation in all three of our readings. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the LORD (Joel 2:13), and Jesus extends the instruction concerning outward displays of piety: practicing one’s piety before others, whether in the giving of alms, prayer, or fasting, threatens one’s relationship not only with the God, but with the creation God loves. How so? What God sees in secret is the fact that such “showing off’ of one’s piety, so to speak, compromises the integrity of what philosophers and sociobologists call altruism, or in Horrell, Hunt and Southgate’s terms, “other-regard.” “Showing off” corrupts altruism with the always-insistent self-interest present in the heart. Practicing one’s piety before others is dangerous because that self-interest is antithetical to the spirit of God’s love. God’s love for the creation is itself pure other-regard, the very essence of God’s relationship to the creation, both in bringing it to be and in its restoration. Such other-regard is absolutely fundamental to the relationships between God, God’s people, and God’s creation. Participation in that love is absolutely critical for engendering a strong, caring relationship between human beings, but even more so for their relationship with nonhuman beings, characterized as that relationship necessarily is characterized by more “otherness.”

It is worth noting that the Apostle himself struggles with this problem of genuine altruism in his relationship with the Corinthians. He recognizes that he might appear to them (as he certainly appears to us) to boast of his sufferings and privations on their behalf; so he pleads for them to accept his work as a manifestation of a heart “wide open to you,” that they might also “open wide your hearts also.” A definitively Christian response to the ecological crisis of our time will be wary of this corrupting dynamic of self-interest in appeals to the public. Certainly, cleaning pollution from the air is of benefit for all, but in this perspective it is more important, ethically considered, that the benefit we emphasize is “for others.” On the other hand, encouragement for altruistic behavior can be equally diminished by flaunting in public one’s eco-spiritual “purity.” More than one good effort to encourage a congregation in the care of creation has been confounded by the self-righteousness of those responsible for developing it. It is clearly better to do as Jesus’ says: “Store up for yourselves” the greatly satisfying “treasures” of effective acts of love for creation in heaven, where neither the moth of self satisfaction can cut at its fabric of relationship, nor the rust of over-heated advocacy weaken the communal structures of our love for each other and the creation around us. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

So, there is opportunity enough in these readings to advance a strong appeal for love of the creation. But one thing more occurs to us. The ritual action for the day is marking on the forehead of penitents the sign of the cross in ashes, accompanied by the words, “From dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Somber action, somber words—too somber for one congregation, apparently. They wanted something more cheerful, more welcoming; so the pastors made the sign not with ashes, but with sparkling party dust and said an encouraging word to each person as they presented themselves. They might have said “you are made of stardust, and to stardust you will return” and not been so far wrong. But thinking of God’s act of creation, we might also this day remind people of their humble, but not the less glorious, origins: “you are from the Earth, and to the Earth you shall return.” That would put us in a good place, all the same, from which we can gratefully set out on our Lenten journey.

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (February 11-17) in Year A (Ormseth)

Choosing LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on Moses’ Farewell Speech and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

As we continue to mine the readings of these Sundays of Epiphany for foundations of an “Earth-honoring faith,” the first reading is obviously most relevant. The reading from Deuteronomy is the end of Moses’ farewell speech to the people he led out of Egypt, to Mount Sinai and through the wilderness, to the banks of the Jordan river at the boundary of the land promised to them.  He will not enter the land with them, so the speech carries the full burden of his hopes for them as they enter and claim their heritage.  The choice they face is a stark one: in Moses’ words, it is between “life and prosperity,” or “death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15). The choice concerns their relationship to God, but also their relationship to the land.  If they “obey the commandments of the Lord . . by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances,”  they “shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless [them] in the land that [they]are entering to possess.”  On the other hand, if their “heart turns away and [they] do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, [they]shall perish. [They] shall not live long in the land that [they] are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”  Significantly for our search for an “Earth-honoring faith,”  which we initiated the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany with Micah’s metaphor of God presenting God’s case against the people in the court of the mountains, Moses here calls both “heaven and earth” as witness to the choice he has set before them. The whole creation is to be aware and observe how the people choose.

For what might these witnesses be watchful?  In the chapter previous to our appointed text, Moses foresees what will take place if the people forsake the covenant:

the next generation, your children who rise up after you, as well as the foreigner who comes from a distant country, will see the devastation of that land and the afflictions with which the Lord has afflicted it—all its soil burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Amah and Zeboiim, which the Lord destroyed in his fierce anger –they and indeed all the nations will wonder, “Why has the Lord done thus to the land?  What caused this great display of anger?” (29:22-24).

Moses also foresees an alternative future, however, in which “the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you . . Then [they] shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you  “abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil” (30:9).

The contrast is thus sharply drawn:  people and environment either thrive or languish together. In accordance with Deuteronomic theology, the consequences described here are attributed to the divine wrath as punishment for their idolatry, or divine favor for their obedience. We would rather see a more directly causal relationship between their behavior and the consequence.  As Terry Fretheim explains, “The law is given because God is concerned about the best possible life for all of God’s creatures.” The intent of the law is to serve life, in accordance with God’s overriding interest that the creation as a whole should be served well by those who have responsibility for it.  There are three aspects to this concern. First, “the law helps order human life so that it is in tune with the creational order intended by God.”  Secondly, “because life in creation is not free from all threats, law is given for the sake of both the preservation of God’s creative work and the provision of the most welcoming context possible for ever new creational developments”. The law calls for “basic human respect for the earth” because “’the earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24:1) and the animals and land belong to God.” And thirdly, “law is given to serve the proper development of God’s good but not perfect creation.” There are “creative capacities built into the order of things and the charges given its creatures. . . God’s creation is also understood to be a work in progress.” Thus the law reveals God’s will for the creation God loves, and it is the God-given vocation of God’s image-bearing animal creature, the human being, to love the creation as God does, with an eye to its future perfection, not only its past integrity and present condition.  Failure to obey the law thus carries with it the destructive consequences of what might be deemed opposition to God’s creative love. (See his discussion of ‘Creation and Law,” in God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 133-56).

The choice Moses has placed before the people, we might therefore observe, is an affair of the heart, both God’s heart and the human heart. The decisive issue, as the text says, is whether or not the people “love the Lord their God, walk in his ways, and observe his commandments, decrees, and ordinances” — the choice of life — or turn their hearts away – the choice of death:  love God and so be sustained in their life in the land for generation upon generation, or refuse to acknowledge God as giver of the gift of the land and the law by which they shall live in it, and so perish from the land as the land itself dies beneath them. So choose, says Moses.  “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (30:19-20).”

We are familiar with a similar choice today, albeit one framed in much more secular terms.  Our relationship with the land in America is defined for our culture mainly in terms of the rights and freedom to take and dispose of it according to the contracts we have struck regarding possession of it, versus a deeper relationship with the land that is part of an older agrarian ethos that regards the land as living habitat for ourselves and the other non-human creatures with whom we share it.  For the one, the land has values to be exploited for our commerce; these values are assigned values, determined by those who have control over it.  For the other, the land is valuable in and of itself, a fund of value which can be drawn upon to sustain the life of the animal communities that are dependent upon it, as part of what makes it valuable, but which really do belong to the land itself.  For the one, the concern is to protect those rights of possession, and to preserve the self-interest of its owner; for the other, laws are sought that set out general principles developed within the interdependent community on how to safeguard and conserve the land’s inherent value.  The one relationship is in fact predominantly a matter of self-interest or self-love on the part of the people who own it; the other is a “love affair:” a love of that which is other than oneself.  For the one, loss of value in the land due to ecological degradation is at best a loss of wealth or potential wealth to the owner.  For the other, loss of value is destruction of some or all of life’s generative possibilities.

Aldo Leopold, a founder of the modern discipline of ecology, is well known for his formulation of a “land ethic” which acknowledges the inherent value in land:  “A thing is right”, he holds, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (From his Sand County Almanac).  Adherence to this ethical principle as a guide through the complex and difficult decisions our society faces might be one way of responding today to Moses’ challenge to “choose life.” It is a principle, we contend, that is genuinely “Earth-honoring.”  The choice of life, in this sense, leads to a way of living that exhibits consonance with the ecological and evolutionary relationships inherent in nature.  But attending to those relationships is not simply a matter of following scientific rationality.  As Leopold himself said, “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value.”  It is for him, too, fundamentally an affair of the heart.  (See Norman Wirzba’s The Paradise of God, pp. 100-111 for the discussion that underlies this comment.)

When Moses finished his address to the people, we read in the closing chapter (34) of Deuteronomy, God led Moses from the plains of Moab, up another mountain to show him all the land promised Abraham’s descendents, and there Moses died.  God had let him see the land with his eyes, but said: “you shall not cross over there.” Thus did Mount Nebo become the resting place of the prophet whom “the Lord knew face to face,” the like of which has “never since arisen in Israel” (34:10).  Never, that is, until Jesus, according to Matthew, who was baptized at the Jordan, and coming away from the river, “went throughout Galilee” and, followed by great crowds from “Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan,” went up the mountain with his disciples, where he sat down and taught them (Matthew 4:25 – 5:1). Jesus has accordingly entered deeply into the land, and now from a new mountain, within the land, he returns to the law and commandments of Moses, as the section of his Sermon on the Mount assigned for last Sunday made clear: as he said, “whoever does [the commandments] and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (5:20).”  And indeed, far from abolishing Moses’ teaching, in the verses we read this Sunday, he lifts up selected provisions of that teaching to “radicalize” them, in Robert Smith’s term. Not only murder, for example, but anger, insult , and disparagement” are condemned. Not adultery only, but lust.  Not only false oaths, but any oaths at all, “either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King” (5:21-37).  His teaching at this point calls us, as Smith puts it, to “look into the depths of the human heart.”  At the same time, however, he “shares with us his vision of new human community.” (New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 158.)

The character of that community has been sketched out in the previous beatitudes. As we have seen in our discussion of earlier sections of the Sermon, he calls for a disposition of meekness (the meek give place to others in the community of life); he creates a thirst and hunger for righteousness (the purpose of his mission is the fulfillment of all righteousness); he promises mercy for the merciful. And to the “pure in heart” (those who render inwardly held conviction of God’s love visible in outward service to the cause of God’s love for the creation) he has promised nothing short of the vision of God.  But in the depths of the human heart vigorous forces of opposition fight against these provisions.  Refusal to give place to others, which leads even to murder, the absolute disrespect for life, bursts out of the deep dispositions of anger, hate, or disparagement of the other. Lust manifests itself in the drive to possess and dominate the other, as in the adulterous exploitation of women.  Deception of the other by calling on either heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem destroys the possibility of righting these relationships by making claims to sacred status, earthly power, or political privilege. Jesus’ vision of a new human community is one in which these destructive “habits of the heart” have no place.   Smith describes this community in a way that must give us pause at this point in American political life: it is a “wondrous world where personal and corporate transactions no longer require batteries of lawyers and reams of documentation, where such safeguards are no longer necessary, where deceit and half-truths and downright lies are unknown, where our speech is simple, direct, and completely honest (5:33-37)” (Smith, p. 159).

The relationships discussed here are obviously social and interpersonal. Is any of this understanding relevant to relationships with non-human others of God creatures?  Choose life, pleaded Moses, and the governing principle here is clearly the loving service of the life of the other.  Domination of every form, physical, sexual, verbal, has been displaced, as next Sunday’s gospel makes explicit, by genuine love for the “other,” even the one who is “the enemy”  (5:43-44). All actions are understood to involve love of the other, as love of relationships that God loves.  Such love of the other moves, not easily but faithfully, in the face of earth’s destruction, from the human community to that of the whole creation. Thus the life of the community becomes a demonstration project of the power of God’s love lived out in community relationships, including our relationships with our habitat, the earth. The reading from 1 Corinthians illustrates the point. The Apostle Paul’s challenge to the conflicted parties dividing the congregation in Corinth strikingly employs the metaphor of one who plants and one who waters, to characterize a relationship of interdependence between participants in the community:  “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.  For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (I Corinthians 3:1-9).   What is said here of the congregation, could, and should, be said with reference to our relationship to of all God’s creation:  we are God’s servants, working together, in God’s original field, God’s original “building.”

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 4-10) in Year A (Ormseth)

Meeting  the “Creational Need” of Nature Dennis Ormseth reflects on salt and light in this Sunday’s readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Matthew 5:13-20

As the reading of the Sermon on the Mount continues for another eight verses this Sunday, we extend our exploration from last week’s comment, to see whether Jesus’ teaching provides further support for an “Earth-honoring faith” (See that comment for a statement of what such faith requires, following Larry Rasmussen’s description in his book by that title). Although this Sunday’s readings do not offer us an “Earth-honoring” metaphor comparable to last Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Micah’s “trial before the mountains,” there are nonetheless strong echoes here of themes we found significant for such a faith.

In the first reading, for instance, the prophet Isaiah similarly announces Jahweh’s rejection of the pretense of the wealthy who come seeking God’s presence, while they do nothing about removing the “bonds of injustice” and the “yoke” of oppression, poverty, and homelessness they place on the those below them.  The text thus again rejects the master and slave ethic, which, as Rasmussen suggests, in the industrial age has been extended from social and economic relationships to “other-than-human nature” in a “paradigm of domination that renders nature essentially a slave to humanity, its steward and master” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 100).  Those who choose to break with this pattern of domination and the false worship to which it is coupled, will be, in the prophet’s image, “light” that “shall break forth like the dawn” (cf. the Psalm, 112:4); they will share in a restoration of both body and habitat (The Lord will … satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”  58:8, 11).  Their relationship with Yahweh will be fully restored, and as they “take delight in the Lord,”  Yahweh will make them “ride upon the heights of the earth.”  Thus in the end, here, too, with their abandonment of their rebellion over against God, the mountains receive them on behalf of the Earth. Their city restored, the people will be “called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (58:12).  Restoration of the people’s relationship to Yahweh is accompanied by restoration of the relationship with the creation in which they live.

The second reading, in turn, brings back the theme of the power of God.  Paul disavows human wisdom and power in favor of “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that [the Corinthian congregation’s] faith might rest, not on human wisdom, but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).  He speaks “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden,” he writes, which ‘none of the rulers of this age understood…, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”  The wisdom and power of the crucified Christ, revealed by the Spirit, is accordingly contrasted to the wisdom and power wielded by the politically and socially powerful in pursuit of their imperial interests. With respect to our concern for care of creation, this contrast relates to perhaps the greatest imbalance of power in the modern world, that involving control over the development and flow of energy in the global fossil fuel industry, access to which, along a long chain of investor and consumer connections, is a major source of conflict and oppression in the world, much to the destruction of habitat for both humans and other-than-humans.  The development of climate science over the past century has brought about a revelatory disclosure of these great power imbalances and their destructive impacts on the communities of creation.

So how do the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount relate to this situation?  From last Sunday’s beatitudes, this is how:  blessed are the poor in spirit, who despair over their powerlessness to liberate the earth they love, no less themselves, from the domination of the fossil fuel industry; they know themselves enmeshed and even enslaved to it by virtue of their inescapable participation in the global economy. The power of God’s presence restores them. Blessed are those who mourn, and thus do not hide or deny their grief over such terrible losses to habitat and species. God shares their pain. And blessed indeed are the meek, who do what they can in their own place, to secure space for their neighbors, both human and other-than-human, that is free from all such diminishment of their shared well-being. Theirs is the future of the earth.

Turning to this Sunday’s teaching, in so doing, the followers of this way will be regarded as “salt of the earth.”  As Warren Carter points out, the image of salt has considerable polyvalence in scripture: “Sir 39:26 identifies ‘salt’ as one of ‘the basic necessities of human life.’  It seasons food in Job 6:6.  In Lev 2:13 and Ezek 43:24 salt and sacrifice are linked.  Elisha uses salt to purify drinking water (2 Kgs 2:19-23).  In Ezra 4:14 sharing salt seems to suggest loyalty (so also ‘salt of the covenant’ in Lev 2:13 and Num 18:19.)”  As “salt of the earth,” Carter suggests, “the community of disciples, not the ruling elite or the synagogue, is to live this flavoring, purifying, sacrificial way of life committed to the world’s well- being and loyal to God’s purposes (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 137). Building on the image’s polyvalence, Robert Smith suggests that it is precisely “the people who hear his words and follow him” that are “‘salt of the earth,’ and that means salt for the earth” (New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 148.  Emphasis added).  This is the second time the Earth is mentioned in the Sermon, the first being the reference to Earth as that which the “meek” will inherit (5:5). “Salt for the earth” can then in turn be understood as pointing to those who are loyal to the earth and help to sustain its life in all its rich diversity and beauty.  The Earth, Carter emphasizes, is where the “disciples live, in the midst of the poor in spirit, the mourning, the powerless, and the hungry and thirsty, dominated and exploited by the ruling elite (5:3-6).”  It is where the community embodies God’s empire as opposed to human empire, in mercy, purity, peacemaking and persecution, as it lives out its alternative existence (5:7-12; Matthew and the Margins, p. 138).  And as we’ve seen in our second reading, restoration of this “saltiness”, this “Earth-loyal” faith happens by drawing on the wisdom and power of God, as disclosed by the Spirit in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Just so, according to the Sermon’s teaching, with this Earth-loyal, Earth-honoring faith, the followers of Jesus “are the light of the world” (5:14).  For the second time, Jesus unexpectedly applies to the disciples an image that we have seen Matthew and the other evangelists use primarily for Jesus himself.  They are to continue the task first given to Israel, as our first reading reminds us (“light shall break forth like the dawn”; Isaiah 58:8, cf. Isaiah 42:6), and then assumed by Jesus as “light shining in the darkness.” The point of these two images of salt and light is clear:  as Robert Smith writes, “Through Jesus, God is laying healing hands on the world to make it ‘all right’ and to summon us to live lives of ‘all rightness” (Smith, p. 150). Those who follow Jesus up the mountain are called to manifest, for all to see, the life that leads to the fulfillment of all righteousness for all creation.  With this as his goal, the teaching of Jesus does indeed fully conform to the nature and purpose of the law and the prophet, as he claims in the closing verses of our reading (5:17-18):  gracious gift of God, fundamentally personal and inter-relational in character, meeting the needs of all creation, not a matter of abstract rules but rather grounded in the narrative of Israel’s experience with God that itself provides both guidance and encouragement for such action (For a description of these several aspects of Torah, see Terry E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 148 – 150). 

It is also shown, importantly we might add, to be highly consonant with the contemporary ecological understanding of life, which is likewise fundamentally inter-relational in character and meeting “the ‘creational need’ of nature. “

Christmas (Nativity of Our Lord) in Years A, B, and C

All of Earth Rejoices at the Birth of Jesus – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011)

Readings for Christmas Eve (all years)

Psalm 96
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Readings for Christmas Day (all years)

Psalm 97 or 98
Isaiah 62:6-12 or 52:7-10
Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Introduction

The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share, namely,  that “all the Earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially.  As we shall see, first the good news for Earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat, is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and, secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve

“O sing to the lord a new song;
sing to the lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (96:11-12). We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we had occasion to note the reasons for the joy Mary expressed in her song of praise. Her Magnificat celebrates the expectation of the “radical reversal of the fortunes of the unjust powers that dominate human history, so that God’s intention with the creation might at the last be completely fulfilled.” A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is the way in which the story opens up this expectation. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan read Luke’s story of Christmas within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (The First Christmas, p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.” Borg and Crossan again comment aptly: “For Augustus and for Rome it was always about peace, but always about peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence” (Ibid., p. 65).

In our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, we noted how destructive this “peace” was for the Palestinian countryside; whole hillsides were stripped of forests to produce lumber for Roman constructions. The treacherous character of this imperial peace is further suggested by how the Roman legions enforced “peace” in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest:  either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. “They make a desert and call it peace.”

Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been taken by Mary his mother to the top of the Nazareth ridge and told the story of this destruction, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

Contrast this Roman peace, then, with the vision of peace from Luke’s Christmas story: the night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory” (Ibid., pp. 46-53).

The stories, as Borg and Crossan aptly characterize them in their recent book on The First Christmas, are “parabolic overtures” to their gospels. With great economy and literary creativity, they serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole” of each Gospel narrative. Affirmations concerning the creation found in them, we think, while seemingly of minor significance, are highly suggestive of grand themes of the Gospel stories, which are to be explicated more fully in the full narrative of each Gospel. As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one whose armies turn the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—and the singing trees, safe from imperial destruction, do make for a grand chorus!

Christmas Day

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: What exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

In the readings for Christmas Eve, we have seen, contrasting visions of peace by violence and peace with justice and righteousness provide the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. Now in the first lesson for Christmas Day, the vision of peace with righteousness is extended so as to include specific reference to the restoration of the land. The land clearly benefits from a covenant of marriage between God and the people of Israel, the image provided by Isaiah in 62:4-5. (The reader may want to include these verses in the reading, to help the congregation understand the connection.) There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-9). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196)Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day extend the scope of the significance of Christmas for creation more broadly. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: the Word that is from the beginning is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation.

So as we anticipated  in singing Mary’s Magnificat, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we are invited to see in her child the glory of God incarnate, the “glory a of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14; see our comment on the Fourth Sunday of Advent). With her, we are through her child given new orientation to the creation as finitum capax infiniti, capable of bearing infinity. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online). So, yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for the non-human creation no less than for the human.  In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

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