Tag Archives: year B

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Jan. 31) in Year B (Ormseth15)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth12)

It’s Time to Break with Business as Usual and Tend God’s Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on what we can learn from fishermen.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

It’s Time!

When it’s time, it’s time. And, indeed, it is time for Christians to reorient their lives to God’s creation in crisis. The readings for this Sunday provide occasion for making this call. From Mark’s Gospel we have heretofore heard the announcement of a new beginning. We have encountered John the Baptist at the Jordan and shared in his expectation of the arrival of one who is more powerful than he. We have undergone baptism with water, and await the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And now the word comes: John has been arrested; Jesus is on the move. “The time is fulfilled,” he proclaims, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14). So with Simon and Andrew, James and John, we are invited to “break with business as usual” and enlist in Jesus’ campaign to restore God’s creation (“breaking with business as usual” is Ched Myers’ apt characterization of these verses from the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel; see his Binding the Strong Man, p. 132)

The Kingdom of God is the Restoration of Creation.

What does the drawing near of the kingdom of God have to do with the restoration of the creation? A lot, if not everything, we would urge. We have anticipated this assertion in our commentary on the lectionary lessons for Advent and Christmas: the coming of Jesus, we have suggested, represents the relocation of the presence of God from the temple at the heart of the Jewish state to the person of Jesus, who is the servant of God’s creation. A succession of symbolic associations through these two opening seasons of the church year has provided confirmation of this perspective: the fig tree (First Sunday of Advent), the wilderness (Second), the light (Third), the incarnation (Fourth), the praise of all creation (Christmas Eve and Day, and First Sunday of Christmas), the assembly of God’s people for the meal (First Sunday), and the water of baptism (Baptism of our Lord). These are all signs of the immanence of God in the creation, which we argued in our comment on the readings for last Sunday is the presupposition of the call to discipleship from God. Now on this Sunday that God is seen in the person of Jesus to draw near and call into specific relationship those who will accompany him on his mission, and so be prepared to carry it forward in his name. But it is only with this Sunday that we first see how crucial the creation itself is to the fulfillment of the time and the drawing near of the reign of God.

Myers shows us why choice of location and occupation of the first people called as disciples is significant for understanding the nature of Jesus’ mission. Sea is important, along with wilderness, river, and mountain, he notes, as primary topological sites in Mark’s narrative. Here in the first part of the gospel, “the sea (of Galilee) is a prime positive coordinate; by it the discipleship narrative commences (1:16; 2:13), and consolidates (3:17)” (Ibid., p. 150). It is, obviously, the context in which fisherman, who are recruits for Jesus’ following, could be expected to be found. That the nature of their work is important is clear, both from Mark’s emphasis on it—“he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen,” and from Jesus’ use of that vocation in describing their future role in his mission: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (1:17). The image, Myers emphasizes, “does not refer to the ‘saving of souls,’ as if Jesus were conferring upon these men instant evangelist status.” The image is rather

“carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahweh’s censure of Israel. Elsewhere the ‘hooking of fish’ is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Amos 4:2) and powerful (Ezekiel 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege “(Ibid., p. 132).

Following Jesus requires a reordering of socio-economic relationships.

Belonging as these men do to an independent artisan class for whom “the social fabric of the rural extended family was bound to the workplace,” the call to follow Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the “world” of the disciple: in the kingdom, the personal and the political are one. These concrete imperatives are precisely what the rich—Mark will later tell us—are unable or unwilling to respond to. This is not a call “out” of the world, but into an alternative social practice.

No more business as usual.

Thus, this “first” call to discipleship in Mark is indeed “an urgent, uncompromising invitation to ‘break with business as usual’” (Ibid., pp. 132-33).

The fishermen’s dependence on God in fishing leads them to follow unconditionally.

What Myers’ exposition leaves unanswered, however, and indeed, even unasked, is the question as to why these fishermen are apparently both able and willing to respond so positively to Jesus’ call. What exactly is it about fishermen, to pick up on Mark’s emphasis, that renders them open to Jesus’ call and able to make the break? Our view, admittedly somewhat conjectural, is that it is in the nature of their work and its domain, the sea of Galilee, to foster such readiness and courage. Theirs was a daily encounter with both the great bounty and the threat of the sea. While harvesting that bounty, they move at the edge of chaos. Contrary to the rich people dwelling in the cities of the land, for whom their wealth was a guarantee of continued well-being and purchased safety and therefore a cause of resistance to Jesus, the fishermen’s entire dependence upon the sea for their livelihood could make them acutely aware of their dependence upon God for both their sustenance and their safety. We can imagine them singing with firm resolve the psalm appointed for this Sunday: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:5-8). People of this spirit could be quite ready to respond quickly and affirmatively to Jesus’ summons.

Work and play rooted in God are holy activities on behalf of creation.

This is to suggest, accordingly, that the fisherman’s relationship to the creation plays a significant role in the unfolding of this narrative. Their entire lives are so oriented to the unfettered dynamic of creation that “business as usual” in the socio-political realm of the temple-state has very little meaning for them. This suggestion is supported by Norman Wirzba’s argument in his book, The Paradise of God, that one of the keys to restoring to modern life a “culture of creation” is the reformation of our patterns of work and play, to bring them into proper relationship with the patterns of creation. Fundamentally, he argues, “work and play . . . are our responses to God’s own work and delight in a creation well made. They show, when most authentic, a sympathetic attunement to the orders of creation and their divine goal.” Meister Eckhart, Wirzba suggests, found that

“[i]n returning to our “ground,” as he put it, we come upon the experience of the grace of creation and there find our proper bearings for action. We learn that work is not foremost about us, but is instead the holy activity through which creation as a whole is sanctified. Work, rather than following from divine punishment, becomes the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart, and head.”

Human work, rightly understood and well-practiced, promotes entry “into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality” (Wirzba, pp. 154-155). This, we suggest, is how the Galilean fishermen lived.

This reading of Mark’s narrative is provocative, we think; contrary to our usual concern to show how Christian faith might help foster and sustain care of creation, we find here that a particular orientation to creation helps to form and foster a relationship of faith to God and commitment to God’s purposes.  Aware as they would have been of changes in their circumstances due to Roman domination of the seas and due to Jerusalem’s collaboration with Roman authorities, their relationship to creation renders the fisherman ready to see in Jesus God’s messiah. They agreed with Jesus: the time was fulfilled. As we have come to expect by virtue of our practice of baptism, water and the Spirit of God together stir up faith in God, so that  even the “unclean spirits” amidst the great crowd that eventually gathered by the sea, when they saw Jesus, “fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God” (Mark 3:7-11).

But perhaps this is not so provocative, after all, at least in more extended biblical perspective. That the creation itself assists in the stirring of faith and consequent action would actually seem a lesson to be drawn from the fabled story of Jonah, revisited in our first reading for this Sunday. It is the great fish’s role, after all, to redirect the reluctant Jonah to his calling. Is it not congruent with this “natural fact,” perhaps, that the animal population of Nineveh quite freely joins the human population in donning sackcloth and ashes?

Nature and God are telling us: It is time to repent like Jonah.

The lesson is timely for us: With benefit of only the slightest prompting on the part of the prophet of God, the ancient, sinful city of Nineveh repents of its alienation from God because of the sign of the fish. The reluctant prophet of God will himself eventually repent of his reluctance, but the change does not come easily. A parallel might be seen in the slowness of God’s church to attend to the crisis of creation, while the secular community of the world, educated about nature by the sciences of ecology and climate change, turns from its hugely destructive ways, and begins to do the hard work of restoring God’s creation. It is time; nature is telling us that it is time. And those Christians who do live close to the Earth and know themselves to suffer with the whole creation, need to leave their boats—or automobiles, electronic toys, or whatever—and, breaking with the spiritual authority of “business as usual,” follow Jesus.

It’s Time!

 The Kingdom of God is the Restoration of Creation.

Following Jesus requires a reordering of socio-economic relationships.

No more business as usual.

The fishermen’s dependence on God in fishing leads them to follow unconditionally.

Work and play rooted in God are holy activities on behalf of creation.

Nature and God are telling us: It is time to repent like Jonah.

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

Third Sunday after Epiphany (Jan. 24) in Year B (Ormseth15)

This Changes Everything: No Longer Business as Usual Dennis Ormseth reflects on Jesus inviting the common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

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

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14). Jesus is on the move. So this Sunday, we are invited with Simon and Andrew, James and John, to enlist in Jesus’ campaign to restore God’s creation. To be sure, that Jesus’ mission had to do with the healing of all creation was not clearly envisioned by the author of the Gospel of Mark. His focus, as Ched Myers proposes, is more properly understood as “a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships.”  And here at the beginning of the Gospel, we have before us only “the first step” of that reordering, the crisis in which the “world” of Jesus’ disciples is overturned with an “urgent, uncompromising invitation to ‘break with business as usual.’” But make no mistake: as Myers puts it, “The world is coming to an end, for those who choose to follow. The kingdom has dawned, and it is identified with the discipleship adventure.” It is that “moment which reoccurs wherever the discipleship narrative is reproduced in the lives of real persons in real places. This disruption represents the realization of the apocalyptic ‘day of the Lord’” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988; pp. 132-33). And so for us “who are in Christ” at this moment of earth’s all-encompassing ecological crisis, it is indeed a moment which calls for an entire “breaking with business as usual,” yes, precisely “a fundamental reordering of socioeconomic relationships” which, if it encompasses both human and ecological systems of our planet together, could lead to creation’s restoration.

In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2014), Naomi Klein also calls for an end to business as usual in a thorough reordering of socioeconomic relationships from the bottom up. She describes the moment in which we live in the terms of a “stark choice: “Either we “allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate.” The challenge, she continues,

“is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and change a lot of policies; it’s that we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible. Right now, the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious efforts to respond to climate change. Cutthroat competition between nations has deadlocked U.N. climate negotiations for decades: rich countries dig in their heels and declare that they won’t cut emissions and  risk losing their vaulted position in the global hierarchy; poorer countries declare that they won’t give up their right to pollute as much as rich countries did on their way to wealth, even if that means deepening a disaster that hurts the poor most of all. For any of this to change, a worldview will need to rise to the fore that sees nature, other nations, and our own neighbors not as adversaries, but rather as partners in a grand project of mutual reinvention” (Klein, pp. 21-22).

The “thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing,” Klein insists, “is that it changes everything. It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders.” The actions required, she argues,

“directly challenge our reigning economic paradigm (deregulated capitalism combined with public austerity), the stories on which Western cultures are founded (that we stand apart from nature and can outsmart its limits), as well as many of the activities that form our identities and define our communities (shopping, living virtually, shopping some more). They also spell extinction for the richest and most powerful industry the world has ever known—the oil and gas industry, which cannot survive in anything like its current form if we humans are to avoid our own extinction.”

We are, she concludes, “locked in—politically, physically, and culturally”—to this “world” of ours, and “only when we identify these chains do we have a chance of breaking free” (Klein, p.63).

Kleins’ description of our situation is, of course, entirely secular. Her analysis is not that of a person of faith. It is, however, one to which a Christian understanding of creation and human responsibility can respond helpfully and powerfully. Our reading of this Sunday’s texts, we believe, substantiates this claim. An intriguing feature of Klein’s analysis is that “climate change represents a historic opportunity” to build a social movement on the scale of the New Deal or the civil rights movement which would advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up”—a “People’s Shock” as it were,” which unlike the corporate world’s exploitation of the earlier crises which she documented in her book Shock Doctrine, would “disperse power into the hands of the many rather than consolidating it in the hands of the few, and radically expand the commons, rather than auctioning it off in pieces.” The transformations she describes would, she claims, “get to the root of why we are facing serial crises in the first place, and would leave us with both a more habitable climate than the one we are headed for and a far more just economy than the one we have right now” (Klein, p. 10). To the extent that this is true, we believe that there is consonance between her call to action and that of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Because Jesus’ call to discipleship is pitched to the “real people and real places” of first century Palestine, as Myers shows, it also speaks powerfully to the crisis of our people and our moment in history. As we shall see, with the promise of a whole new world to replace the world whose “present form is passing away (I Corinthians 7:31b), Klein’s transformations do anticipate the new creation which those in Christ envision and hope for.

Already in this season of Sundays after Epiphany, we have seen that Christian discipleship includes care for creation (See our comments in this series on the readings for the previous two Sundays). This Sunday’s readings deepen this perspective by showing how certain social and cultural factors support an expectation that followers of Jesus might join the movement to “break with business as usual” with respect to care of creation. Ched  Myers shows us that the location and occupation of the first people called as disciples is significant for understanding the nature of Jesus’ mission. Sea locales alongside wilderness, river, and mountain, he points out, are primary topological sites in Mark’s narrative. Here in the first part of the Gospel, “the sea (of Galilee) is a prime positive coordinate; by it the discipleship narrative commences (1:16; 2:13), and consolidates (3:17)” (Myers, p. 150). It is, obviously, the context in which fishermen recruited for Jesus’ following could be expected to be found. That the nature of their work is important is clear, both from Mark’s emphasis on it—“he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen,” and from Jesus’ use of that vocation in describing their future role in his mission: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (1:17).

But the image, Myers emphasizes, “does not refer to the “saving of souls,” as if Jesus were conferring upon these men instant evangelist status.” The image is rather carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahweh’s censure of Israel. Elsewhere, the ‘hooking of fish’ is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Amos 4:2) and powerful (Ezek 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege (Myers., p. 132.)

Belonging as these men do to an independent artisan class for whom “the social fabric of the rural extended family was bound to the workplace,” the call to follow Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple: in the kingdom, the personal and the political are one. These concrete imperatives are precisely what the rich—Mark will later tell us—are unable or unwilling to respond to. This is not a call ‘out’ of the world, but into an alternative social practice. Thus this ‘first’ call to discipleship in Mark is indeed “an urgent, uncompromising invitation to ‘break with business as usual’” (Myers, pp. 132-33).

What Myers’ exposition leaves unanswered, however, and indeed, even unasked, is the question as to just why these fishermen are apparently both able and willing to respond as positively to Jesus’ call as they do. What exactly is it about fishermen, to pick up on Mark’s emphasis, that renders them open to Jesus’ call and able to make the break? Isn’t it that it is in the nature of their work and its domain, the sea of Galilee, to foster such readiness and courage? Theirs was a daily encounter with both the great bounty and the threat of the sea. While harvesting that bounty, they move at the edge of chaos. Contrary to the rich people dwelling in the cities of the land, for whom their wealth was a guarantee of continued well-being and purchased safety, and therefore a cause of resistance to Jesus, the fishermen’s entire dependence upon the sea for their livelihood  could make them acutely aware of their dependence upon God for both their sustenance and their safety. Indeed, we can imagine them singing with firm resolve the psalm appointed for this Sunday: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:5-8). People of this spirit, it seems to us, could be quite ready to respond quickly and affirmatively to Jesus’ summons.

This reading of Mark’s narrative is provocative, furthermore, because contrary to our usual concern to show how Christian faith might help foster and sustain care of creation, we find here that a particular orientation to creation helps to form and foster a relationship of faith to God and commitment to God’s purposes.  Aware as they would have been of changes in their circumstances due to Roman domination of the seas and Jerusalem’s collaboration with Roman authorities, their relationship to creation renders the fisherman ready to see in Jesus God’s messiah. They agreed with Jesus: the time was fulfilled. Business as usual could no longer continue for them. As we have come to expect by virtue of our practice of baptism, water and the Spirit of God together stir up faith in God, so that  even the “unclean spirits” amidst the great crowd that eventually gathered by the sea, when they saw Jesus, “fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God” (Mark 3:7-11). But perhaps this is not so provocative, after all, at least in more extended biblical perspective. That the creation itself assists in the stirring of faith and consequent action would actually seem a lesson to be drawn from the fabled story of Jonah, revisited in our first reading for this Sunday. It is the great fish’s role, after all, to redirect the reluctant Jonah to his calling. Is it not congruent with this “natural fact,” perhaps, that the animal population of Nineveh quite freely joins the human population in donning sackcloth and ashes?

The lesson is timely for us: With benefit of only the slightest prompting on the part of the prophet of God, the ancient, sinful city of Nineveh repents of its alienation from God because of the sign of the fish. The reluctant prophet of God will himself eventually repent of his reluctance, but the change does not come easily.  A parallel might be seen in the slowness of God’s church to attend to the crisis of creation, while the secular community of the world, educated about nature by the sciences of ecology and climate change, turns from its hugely destructive ways, and begins to do the hard work of restoring God’s creation.

This is to suggest, accordingly, that the fisherman’s characteristic relationship to the creation plays a significant role in the unfolding of this narrative. Their entire lives are so oriented to the unfettered dynamic of creation that “business as usual” in the socio-political realm of the temple-state has little hold on them. It is interesting that as Naomi Klein surveys our society in the search for willing and ready participants in the movement beyond the culture of “extractivism,” as she characterizes our industrial, fossil fuel dependent economy, she ruthlessly rejects a number of significant players: big green (collaborators with big business), green billionaires (messiahs with broken dreams), geo-engineers (“the Solution to Pollution Is . . .Pollution?”). The problem with these big boys, she thinks, is that they really do not want at all to break with business as usual. Their strategies persist in the illusion that we are called to “save” the Earth, “as if it were an endangered species, or a starving child far away, or a pet in need of our ministrations.” It is an idea that “may be just as dangerous as the Baconian fantasy of the earth as a machine for us to master, since it still leaves us (literally) on top.” The truth lies elsewhere: “It is we humans who are fragile and vulnerable and the earth that is hearty and powerful, and holds us in its hands. In pragmatic terms, our challenge is less to save the earth from ourselves and more to save ourselves from an earth that, if pushed too far, has ample power to rock, burn, and shake us off completely” (Klein, p. 284).

In the place of these collaborators with business as usual, Klein would accordingly nominate as her “climate warriors” participants in what she calls “Blockadia”—’not a specific location on a map but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines.” United in resistance to mining and fossil fuel companies as they push “relentlessly into countless new territories, regardless of the impact on the local ecology (in particular, local water systems)” these are basically local groups of shop owners, professors, high school students, and grandmothers. But they are building a ‘global, grass-roots, and broad-based network the likes of which the environmental movement has rarely seen” (Klein, p. 294-45). Generally speaking, these people live in the “sacrifice zones,” formerly the traditionally poor, out-of-the-way places where residents had little political power, but now increasingly also located in “some of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world,” to the immense consternation of “many historically privileged people who suddenly find themselves feeling something of what so many frontline communities have felt for a very longtime: how is it possible that a big distant company can come to my land and put me and my kids at risk?” (Klein, pp. 312-13). New alliances are thus being formed across traditional social barriers. Corporate assurances are no longer accepted on blind faith. The language of risk assessment is being “replaced by a resurgence of the precautionary principle,” as blockadia insists “that it is up to industry to prove that its methods are safe,” something that “in the era of extreme energy . . . is something that simply cannot be done” ( Klein, pp. 315-335).

Particularly striking is Kleins’ observation regarding two “defining” features of these groups. There is, she notes,  a “ferocious love” of “an identity, a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their granchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice” (Klein, p. 342). And secondly, especially significant is a common concern for precious sources of water; in Kleins’s view, this is the “animating force behind every single movement fighting extreme extraction”: “Whether deep water drilling, fracking, or mining; whether pipelines, big rigs, or export terminals, communities are terrified about what these activities will do to their water system” (Klein, p. 345-46). The reason for this is clear, of course: “extreme energy demands that we destroy a whole lot of the essential substance we need to survive—water—just to keep extracting more of the very substances threatening our survival and that we can power our lives without.” Coming at a time when freshwater supplies are becoming increasingly scarce around the world, people are becoming more and more aware of certain disturbing truths of their experience:

Growing in strength and connecting communities in all parts of the world, [these truths] speak to something deep and unsettled in many of us. We know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backward; it behaves as if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels, and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions) while insisting that there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that human institutions manufacture, and that, if imagined differently, could build the kind of caring society we need (Klein, p. 347).

From the divestment movement which seeks to defund the companies that enforce this imprisonment, to local groups seeking to democratically recapture power over their communities, and indigenous tribes defending their rights to land and a way of life grounded in it, it is their relationship to the earth itself that inspires and empowers their liberation from bondage to business as usual. Perhaps most significantly, their love for their habitat and their deep concern for water put them in touch with what Klein calls the regenerativity of nature’s processes:  we can become, she concludes, “full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.” There is in their company a “spirit” that is already busy at work promoting and protecting life in the face of so many life-negating and life-forgetting threats (Klein, p. 447-48).

Can the church join this movement with integrity? Yes, because disciples are called to serve creation, and it is the creation itself, in its newness, that is giving supportive voice to that call.

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

Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth12)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

God is everywhere and in all times present.

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

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

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

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

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

The fig tree confirms the link with caring for creation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is everywhere and in all times present.

The fig tree confirms the link with caring for creation.

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

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

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

Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth15)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth12)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

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

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

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

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

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

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Utphall21)

God’s Plan –  Nick Utphall reflects on the order(s) of the universe and a baby.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Second Sunday of Christmas, Years A,  B, and C 

Jerimiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12 
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21 
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

“What has come into being in him was life…but [they] did not accept him” (John 1:3-4, 11).

We’ve spent months explicitly close to and aware of the sense of not accepting what makes for life. It has been a persistent reiterated theme of the pandemic. How many times have you been told to wash your hands? Remember nine months ago when you were constantly told to sing happy birthday twice to fulfill the proper precaution? And how much has that continued to influence your practice? Or consider recommendations from Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. Coronavirus Task Force member and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that are repeated ad nauseum on social media about the beneficial health impacts of mask-wearing. All of that eager-emphasizing of a simple and yet possibly life-saving practice seems not to do any good in convincing those who would resist and rebel. Or, to dig a bit deeper, we recognize that the long-trending erosion in our funding of public health infrastructure leaves us closer to death. We end up not accepting life that is right in front of us, practically begging for us to understand.

Those might seem like an echo of the line from the Prologue to the Gospel of John.

As we’re considering that, I suggest we don’t fall into a ditch on either side. There are plenty of examples and instances portraying faith and science antagonistically, as opposed to each other, with a big VS between in the fight. But on the other side, there is also the risk of making faith and science synonymous, equating them with each other. Following Jesus is not identical to following health guidance, nor is the coming of life the same as the arrival of a vaccine. The Gospel of John will go on to convey that life is not just a biological characteristic, not just having a pulse, not a prescription for an exercise regimen, not a doctor’s visit for a clean bill of health. Death is not the end or absence of life, not a failure. Even through death, still there is something of life.

That means that some of the knee-jerk reactions in the face of this pandemic need to be held faithfully and not simplistically or secularly. Faith is neither so separate from health guidance that we ignore it because life and safety are assured by Christianity, nor is faith so combined with science that obeying protocols to keep the coronavirus at bay mean we’re living faithfully.

To glimpse this through another lens, this is the first Sunday of a new year. It’s a new year for which people have been especially yearning and wishing. But, of course, there is nothing that magically changes with turning to a calendar page that restarts simply because it now is labeled “2021.” There is no finish line or lap marker in earth’s orbit around the sun. It is arbitrary. On the other hand, this isn’t the start of a new year for church. This finds us in the 2nd Sunday of Christmas. And in some way while much of the world has moved on, we are still celebrating the 10th day of this short season, marking not a default reset attitude of January but what a certain birth long ago means, what that change and reset meant for our world to have God born among us, as the Word became flesh.

The reading from Ephesians marks this epochal distinction as “the fullness of time” (1:10). That phrase is paired with one of the passages that point us to a notion of the “cosmic Christ,” that God’s plan is to “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). If all things are gathered in Christ, that includes calendars and masks and anti-maskers and COVID-19 deaths and disturbed Christmas traditions…as well as, of course, the orbit of planets and expansion of the universe and light and dark and sheep and storms and irrigated gardens and wilderness areas.

The impact of Jesus includes but far exceeds wellness tips for living. It includes but is not limited by scientific understanding. It ranges far beyond what we know of life.

There’s an old book by J.B. Phillips called “Your God is Too Small.” I’ve not read it and cannot comment on the approach or contents, but the title alone is applicable with today’s readings. God is not restricted to our pet projects, neither about morality or physical fitness. God isn’t out to save a few individual souls who have conformed to a religious framework. God isn’t conveying blessings that are about us having an easier day, feeling more satisfied and happier, making a profit.

The immensely unbelievable import of our faith is that God has been working for you to be brought up into all of God’s pleasure and love and goodness since “the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), “in the beginning” (John 1:1), since creation began, since the Big Bang or whatever came before that. How can we imagine or begin to conceive of that? How can we get on board with implications of this vision of life that out-stretch all spacetime?

Some of that is the sense of the organizing principle for all creation – the Logos, the Sophia, the Wisdom of God that is mentioned in these readings. That’s especially the theme of the alternate first reading from Sirach, of Wisdom herself (also as a spoken word/Word in 24:3) that preexists and is beyond all the created order.

That logic of God’s Wisdom in the alternate psalmody from Wisdom sees a goal of exodus and freeing God’s people from slavery and oppression. There is a guiding plan that the weak and injured and disabled are not lacking life or left to die, but rather are especially singled out to be brought along, and that includes helpless infants and their vulnerable and anguishing mothers (Wisdom 10:21 and Jeremiah 31:8).

With a nod to the awareness that the Logos underlies all our studies and –ologies, there’s been a sense for a couple hundred years of the so-called Enlightenment defining our perceptions of zoology and biology (“life” studies) and even cosmology. We subscribe to a saying that nature is “red in tooth and claw” (in words from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson), with survival of the fittest. Now, first of all, if we’re looking at evidence around us and thinking that is the order of things, the planned logic of creation, then either that makes God our Creator a brute or else it plain doesn’t square with a Lord who came as a frail baby, who was willing to die on the cross, emptying himself in love, in which case nature would (as the old poet had it) “shriek against [the] creed” for those “who trusted God was love indeed.”

So how do we compare our scientific and natural understandings of competitive and violent predator/prey perspectives with what our Bible readings today tell us is God’s order and plan and Wisdom, which binds up the broken and cares for tiny children and seeks not to leave any behind?

Maybe we at least need to be willing to incorporate the sort of understanding and wisdom that comes from Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” or Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass,” which identify how species cooperate and thrive by symbiosis (living together) and practice mutual sustenance, and how even trees may share with the weaker and needier.

Or maybe such conflicting accounts merely confuse us on God’s intended order of things, obscuring rather than elucidating our studies and logic. Are volcanoes and forest fires creative or destructive? Is a lightning storm a sign of God’s violent power or life-giving potential in fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere? If God intends to give snow and cold (Psalm 147:16-17), is winter a time of stark, severe lifelessness or a moment of preparation and continuance of life? Or should we not try to categorize in binaries of good/bad, either/or?

If that can indicate the challenge of trying to discern God’s Wisdom and not being stuck with a God who is too small, then the next part of the paradoxical challenge is that we also strive to make our God too big, where the Prologue of John very specifically wants us to zero in on a small God, a God who is maybe about eight pounds when his diapers aren’t wet, a God who is not far beyond our finite comprehensions but is very locally contained to a crib in Nazareth.

Ignoring the scandal of particularity, we constantly go searching off to discover and peel back divine masks, making our own efforts at apocalypse (revealing, unveiling) of the mystery of God (Ephesians 1:9), conjuring our self-made spiritual fantasies, all the while creating God in our image. But much more mysterious is that this proclaims it is only Jesus, God the Son, who makes God known to us; the rest we simply cannot see (John 1:18). Are we willing to accept that the truth of God’s mystery and its impact on our existence has been or is being made known to us in Jesus, as a baby and on through his life and death?

For me, as much as I love studying and learning science and noticing these connections, at the heart I need to cherish that this is not about my understanding or acceptance, but is that we’ve been chosen (Ephesians 1:3), given the Holy Spirit (1:13), a pledge to be brought along in redemption with God’s people (1:14) and all those things in heaven and on earth. Toward the end, I trust that the one who is close to God’s bosom (John 1:18 in the closer and more maternal translation) also brings us into that proximity, that intimacy of love and life.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2021. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Mundahl15)

Coming Home Tom Mundahl reflects on a return from exile.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

“Coming home” is at the heart of the Christmas season. To gather with family, friends, and congregation members, to celebrate the wonder of the incarnation, to share good food with its many traditions around a common table, and to tell stories sustains us and forges our identities.

This is true even when coming home is not possible. A recent PBS documentary, “American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered,” made this clear. When, to the surprise of the producers of the 1942 film, “Holiday Inn,” the song “White Christmas” became a “hit record,” Crosby was initially reluctant to sing it as part of his many appearances for military personnel serving overseas during WW II. He thought the song’s inherent nostalgia would be too much for those with no hope of celebrating Christmas at home any time soon. What he found was just the opposite: that the longing for home was so central to human being that these “exiles” in this horrible war had  special need for just such a song.

The power of home and homecoming is certainly a unifying theme in this week’s readings. It is especially so in the “song” we call Psalm 147, one of the doxological psalms (Psalms 146-150) that close the Psalter. The psalmist shows us a God whose creative power is so comprehensive that not only are the heavens covered with clouds and the hills covered with grass, but this Holy One also “builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts of Israel” (Psalm 147:2, 8).

This week’s reading from Jeremiah echoes that homecoming. In this section from the Book of Consolation (30:1-31: 37), the prophet delivers a message of comfort, promising all who are in exile that nothing is surer than that the LORD will gather those dispersed “from all the farthest parts of the earth” and “lead them back” (Jeremiah 31:8-9).

This new exodus and homecoming takes place in the context of altered terms of relationship. No longer is the focus on lost Davidic kingship or on the destruction of the temple. Now it appears that what is primary is bringing the exiles home and restoring them to the land (R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 186). Land now becomes a covenant partner producing amazing abundance in response to the human return. “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.” (Jeremiah 31:12)

That this homecoming should suggest the land as a covenant partner is no novelty. Even the compilers of Leviticus made this clear: “I shall remember my covenant with Jacob, and yes, my covenant with Isaac, and yes, my covenant with Abraham I shall remember—and the land I shall remember” (Leviticus 26:42). Since the ancestry is stated in reverse order, it stands to reason that the land is the first ancestor! (Ellen Davis, public lecture, Prairie Festival, the Land Institute, Salina, KS, September 27, 2014)

But this celebration of homecoming also reminds us that the gifts of the land—grain, wine, oil, and meat—also depend upon the most disciplined care of the soil and attentive shepherding. The model for this servanthood is none other than the Creator. As Jeremiah announces in the boldest prophetic speech:

Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it to the coastlands
far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him
as a shepherd a flock.” (Jeremiah 31:10)

It is precisely homecoming that will bring a renaissance of attention to the land and the breadth of relationships its fertility implies. As the canticle suggests, “Like a garden refreshed by the rain, they will never be in want again” (John W. Arthur, text, “Listen! You Nations,” Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Canticle 14).

Following a conventional salutation, this week’s reading from Ephesians is characterized by a hymnic quality that may have its origins in the berakah of synagogue worship. However, the content has been transformed to emphasize strong Trinitarian elements (vv. 3, 5, 13).  This structure, concluding with “the praise of God’s glory” (v. 14), strongly suggests liturgical song.

Confirmation of blessing is found in the emphasis on Gentile election manifested in baptism—“adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). One of the core themes of Ephesians is creating a “new family” through “breaking down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14) between Jew and Gentile. This architectural image involves building a new home for a newly-extended family of faith.

The expanding scope of this home-building (traditionally described with terms such as “election” and “reconciliation”) is revealed in the unveiling of the mystery of God’s will “set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him . . . .” (Ephesians 1:10). This powerful statement—crucial to the centuries-spanning work of Irenaeus and Gustav Wingren—builds a new foundation.

“The nature of that plan is now stated.  It has as its grand objective the summing up of all things in Christ.  The verb anakephalaiosthai is difficult. The root meaning is ‘to sum up,’ to gather under a single head as a tally at the end of a column of numbers or a conclusion in an argument (kephalaion) and so present as a whole (cf. Romans 13:9). Here it probably means that in Christ the entire universe will one day find…its principle of cohesion” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Louisville: John Knox, p. 17).

In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend the phrase, “God’s plan,” in a helpful way? It is crucial to remember that the Greek word translated as “plan” is οικονομια, a word that implies a form or law for the household and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s intention for the “earth household” is a harmonious gathering so that all creation can be “at home.” This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond ethnicity (Jew and Greek), past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12, to include all creatures in a cosmic hymn of blessing that frees us to see ourselves “as a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12).

On this final Sunday of Christmas homecoming, we hear once more the marvelous prologue to John’s Gospel (it should be read whole, not dissected!), a poem that continues the song of Christmas. As is widely acknowledged, this is prologue is likely crafted after a familiar hymn from the Johannine community (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I – XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 20). Because this is a hymn from the community, the emphasis on response is necessary and unmistakable: “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14) and “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16).  In fact, the very incarnation implies shared social experience: “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us….” (John 1: 14a; Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, pp. 130-131)

If we have used this text at Christmas Eve midnight or on Christmas Day, perhaps this time its communal nature can be highlighted. Certainly, the sense of the Incarnate Word “dwelling” with us has deep implications for being “at home” in God’s creation.  As Norman Wirzba suggests:

“In the Christian traditions the presence of God in creation is made even more striking in the teaching of the incarnation. 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” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Oxford, 2003, p. 16).

Because of the incarnation, the promise of the end of our exile, the community responds with psalms, carols and hymns—even, and especially, on the last Sunday of Christmas. One of the most alarming indicators of social isolation in American culture is the decline in community singing. We need to learn once more the joy of singing together—and there is no time like the season of Christmas.

No matter whether we are “at home” or not, singing what is familiar, or even what newly tells the familiar story, gives us a sense of rootedness. As we sing, we also learn to hear the good news of the season in relation to the song of the earth—”let heaven and nature sing!” As Larry Rasmussen suggests, “This time, however, the song we sing must learn humbly and deeply from the changing Earth we inhabit. Its melodies and harmonies must be earth-oriented in ways matched to our sober responsibility for a contracting planet in jeopardy at human hands” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 7.).

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.

Second Sunday of Christmas in Years A, B, and C (Ormseth12)

Giving, Receiving, and Giving Again Dennis Ormseth reflects on the fullness of God.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas, All Years 

Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-2
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

With the texts for the Second Sunday of Christmas, the bells of Christmas ring out green themes yet one more time. The salvation for which we praise God here at the end of the Christmas season is decidedly ‘down to earth.” The repetition of the reading of the prologue to John’s Gospel from Christmas Day underscores the deeply incarnational character of God saving work (see our comments on the readings for those days). But there are a couple of new notes to the music here in these texts. In the first place, if human beings have a vocation to care for Earth, they show that non-human creatures in turn have a vocation of care for the humans (see Terry Fretheim’s discussion of “The Vocation of the Nonhuman” in his God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 278-284). The psalm praises God for the extraordinary care he shows to the people of Israel, in granting peace within their borders and directing the powers of nature so to fill them with ”the finest of wheat.” The prophet Jeremiah looks forward to the return of the people to the land, when “they shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden and they shall never languish again.”

Nonetheless, it is God’s restoration of the human vocation in Christ that evokes the final praise of the season. Some did not know him, John reminds us, and some still do not receive him. But those who receive him and believe in his name are empowered to live as children of God. Indeed, “he destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” This was God’s plan for the fullness of time, our second reading from Ephesians suggests, “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10.)

The accent in both the reading from Ephesians and the reading in the Gospel is on “fullness,” the pleroma: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Commentators seem reticent to instruct their readers as to the meaning of this pleroma, the term occurring singularly here in John, and only somewhat more frequently in Pauline literature. It clearly has to do with the giving and receiving of gifts, activity inherent in the event Christmas celebrates (and reflected more or less appropriately in the characteristic practices of the celebration), and prompts the following theological reflection.

In his book on “The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetic of Christian Truth,” David Bentley Hart describes the gift of God within the Trinitarian narrative in a manner that possibly illuminates the meaning of pleroma. “In the Trinity,” he writes,

“the gift is entire, and entirely ‘exposed’:  The Father gives himself to the Son, and again to the Spirit, and the Son offers everything up to the Father in the Spirit, and the Spirit returns all to the Father through the Son, eternally. Love of, the gift to, and delight in the other is one infinite dynamism of giving and receiving, in which desire at once beholds and donates the other.”

This infinite dynamism of giving and receiving, we would suggest, is the “fullness” from which we have received “grace upon grace,”—that is, we would additionally interpolate, the grace of redemption in Christ upon the grace of creation. Creation, Hart explains,

“is always already implicated in this giving of the gift because it is—in being inaugurated by the Father, effected by the Son, and perfected by the Spirit—already a gift shared among the persons of the Trinity, in transit, a word spoken by God in his Word and articulated in endless sequences of difference by the Spirit and offered back to the Father. . . . Creation is, before all else, given by God to God, and only then—through the pneumatological generosity of the Trinitarian life—given to creatures: a gift that is only so long as it is given back, passed on, received and imparted not as a possession but always as grace. “

Creatures participate in this “infinite circle of God’s love” simply by being creatures. As such, it is “all but impossible for them not also to give, not to extend signs of love to others, not to donate themselves entirely to the economy of agape.” Only when the gift is actively withheld is it not given, and this “suppression of the gift” is sin. There is, however, the knowledge that in God “nothing is lost and the substance of hope lies in the knowledge that God has given—and will give—again” (p. 268).

Thus, we conclude that the divine “fullness of grace and truth” is ample enough to embrace and enfold the cosmic fullness of “all things,” which are to be gathered into Christ “in the fullness of time,” “things in heaven and things on earth.” God’s infinite grace is inexhaustible, and allows no final limitation by any creaturely categories, sexual, ethnic, political, nor even the most basic differentiations of living creatures, the being of species, and the non-living physical creation. The significance of this fullness of grace for both the human and the non-human vocations lifted up in these readings is this: if non-human creatures participate in the divine circle of love by naturally fulfilling their vocation of service to humans, then humankind’s refusal of its vocation of care for the non-human creation does interrupt the dynamism of giving and receiving. But that refusal will not stand. It cannot bring that dynamism of God’s fullness to a complete halt, not with respect to any creature, considered in terms of either its corporate or its individual reality (See Christopher Southgate’s discussion of human and non-human “selving” and “heaven for pelicans” in his The Groaning of Creation). God’s giving and receiving and giving again of creation is finally not to be denied.

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

First Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Ormseth11)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

“All Nature Sings”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God moves from the temple to the creation at large.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ, God is in solidarity with suffering creation.

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

All nature sings.

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

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

God moves from the temple to the creation at large.

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

In Christ, God is in solidarity with suffering creation.

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

First Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Mundahl14)

Join the Hymn of All Creation Tom Mundahl reflects on ministering to creation as priests of God.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

The Coming of God in Christ at Christmas changes everything.  It should be no surprise, then, that the psalmody for Christmas Eve echoes the joy of all creation:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and everything that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord….  (Psalm 96: 11-13)

In a greeting to the 20th International Ecumenical Conference on Orthodox Spirituality focusing on ecology, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote, “If humanity is in God’s image, and if that image is fully realized in the coming of the Word in the flesh, humanity’s calling is to love and nourish the true meaning and form of every aspect of the creation, not to try and subordinate it to some passing version of what seems to be the interest of humanity in isolation.” (Monasterio di Bose Blog, September, 2012)

That is, far from being a “free pass” to dominate non-human creation, to live out the “image of God” must mean to begin a long listening session. Perhaps “imaging God” is an apprenticeship for learning servanthood to the rest of creation, a lifetime of being opened up “to multiple avenues of reciprocal interaction between human beings and other species” (Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, London: Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 267). We may even come to understand that, during this season of Christmas, it is we humans who are the latecomers in joining  nature’s chorus.

We certainly hear “heaven and nature sing” in Psalm 148. As the centerpiece of the final five “Hallelujah psalms” (Psalm 146-150), it divides the chorus of praise into “the heavens” (vv. 1-6) and “the earth” (vv. 7-14). Given this division, the psalmist seems intent on providing the greatest variety of voices from each sphere. Angels, sun and moon, and even the waters above the firmament, comprise the heavenly choir. In the earthly chorus, sea monsters from the deep lead the voices of “mountains and hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!” (Psalm 148:8-10). To these are added, finally, the human voices ranging from royalty to men and women, young and old.

Why? As appropriate as this psalm is for the Christmas Season, it certainly predates its celebration and points to a continuing melody.  Elizabeth Johnson suggests a simple answer to this question: “Because God commanded and they were created” (Psalm 148:5). All exist as the fruit of the powerful good will of the Giver whose name is exalted beyond heaven and earth” (Johnson, p. 276).

This “choir festival” is echoed in today’s First Lesson from Isaiah. The prophet, drawing on the earlier Isaiah, revisits the marriage imagery from Isaiah 52:1-2. When creation is spiced with this celebration, “righteousness and praise spring up before all nations” as naturally as the seeds in a garden sprout (Isaiah 61: 11).

Yet, as Paul D. Hanson suggests, “The optimism conveyed in the reaffirmation of Second Isaiah’s vision of restoration in chapters 60 and 61 is tempered in chapter 62 by another motif. Somber intimations of impending crises begin to lead the prophet to a different posture, a more aggressive stance vis-a-vis those perceived as doubting God’s purposes” (Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 228). The prophet vows not to “shut up” until “vindication” and “salvation” are completely expressed by the giving of a “new name” (Isaiah 62:1-2). To fully appreciate this change of mood and prophetic response, it is necessary to consider Isaiah 62:4-5.

“Third Isaiah follows Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in utilizing the marriage metaphor to express the new name, that is, the new status of the people in relation to God” (Hanson, p. 229).

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married (Isaiah 62:4).

Even though they have completed the return from Babylon, the people have a long way to go. This new journey finds its climax as the people appropriate their new name, a name that pronounces renewed blessing on both people and land. With the new name, not only is the past forgotten, but the bloom of life spreads before them. Despite past exile and an uncertain present, the future is as hopeful as that of a newly married couple, or of a new CSA gardener planting her first crop of kale.

Like the Isaiah prophet, Paul also writes to a community that needs the terms of its  freedom and hope reinforced. Not only does this week’s Galatians text provide one of the earliest textual references to the nativity, it continues Paul’s argument for unity between Jewish and Gentile believers. It is preceded by his reminder that before faith came (“when we were minors,” all were “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (Galatians 4:3). These “elemental spirits” are no shaggy Druidic forces to seek woodland harmony with. Instead, they were widely thought to be “demonic entities of cosmic proportions and astral powers which were hostile towards man” (Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, Hermeneia Series, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979, p. 205)

But because in the fullness of time, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5), the situation has changed. The first purpose clause (“in order to redeem those who were under the law”) clearly refers to Jewish members of the community. Since Paul commonly uses the formula “Jew first and then Greek,” it is likely that the second purpose clause (“so that we might receive adoption as children”) encompasses all in the early Galatian community (Betz, p. 208). Not only does this incarnation provide unity for the group through the Spirit, but it affirms that slavery for a Christian of Jewish or Gentile origin is over.

Surely this liberation must include freedom from being “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.” Instead of desperately trying to alter the course of “fate” through a laundry list of sacrifices, astrology, and magic—all part of the old and widely syncretistic worldview—now it is possible to live in freedom. Once more, humankind is freed to deal with the whole creation with the respect and service that is fitting.

Just as our readings from Isaiah and Galatians demonstrate the wholeness God intends for creation, so the new freedom brought by the incarnation is demonstrated dramatically in the life and lyric of Simeon. That Simeon’s entry onstage is vital is signaled by the opening words “And behold” (και ιδου). While there is no evidence that Simeon was an older man, he is described as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2: 25b). This “consolation” (παρακλησις) is related both to the “comfort” of Isaiah 40:1-2 and to the Spirit of God (cf. Acts 9:31), which we learn “rested on him” (Luke 2:25b). The Spirit had assured Simeon that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (Luke 2: 26)

That Simeon is painted in the prophetic tradition inspired by the Spirit is clear. Now, in the tradition of Jeremiah’s “symbolic actions,” he takes the child into his arms and praises God in the final “song” of Luke’s birth and infancy narrative, “the Nunc Dimittis” (from the Latin translation of the first words, “Now dismiss….”). In fact, Simeon is celebrating his “manumission,” being released from his patient service as a “slave” (δουλος) by the divine “master” (δεσποτης) after a long wait. As prophesied by Isaiah, this celebration takes place “in the presence of all peoples” (Luke 2:31, Isaiah 40:5). Just as Paul wrote to bring unity to Jew and Gentile, so Luke ensures full inclusion: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

If God is fully present in the child in the lap of Mary, this One is also present in the arms of Simeon. Similarly, “this child is also fully present in the waters of Baptism and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and so known by the faithful, whenever these sacraments are shared according to the cosmic Word” (Paul Santmire, Nature Reborn: the Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000, p. 84). Certainly it is just that “cosmic Word” that faithful Anna shares with the faithful people coming to the temple.

But there is more to Luke’s narrative. Following the blessing, the prophet Simeon shares a hard truth with Mary.

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, (and a sword will run through your life also)so that the calculations of many hearts may be exposed (Luke 2: 34-35, author’s translation).

At first, this warning seems to echo Mary’s own song, the Magnificat, which describes a reversal that includes the fall of the powerful and the lifting up of the lowly (Luke 1:52-53). But it moves beyond this sense of reversal by identifying “this child,” in the words of Isaiah 8:14-15, as a “stone of stumbling” which breaks to pieces everyone who falls on it. What’s more, this one is also “The stone that the builders rejected (who) has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). Both senses of meaning are used to interpret Luke’s crucial parable of the landlord and the tenants (Luke 20:17-18). When Jesus’ opponents hear the parable and its interpretation, immediately they seek” to lay hands on him . . . .” (Luke 20:19). Simeon’s warning, then, exposes the “calculations” of the “scribes and chief priests” and prepares us for Jesus’ passion. No wonder Luke comments parenthetically to Mary, “and a sword will run through your life also.”

Have we lost the celebratory tone of Psalm 148 and our Christmas carols entirely? Of course not, but neither are we so naive as to claim that the age of wonders and fulfillment has completely arrived. In fact, we know that the incarnation of the Servant of Creation still exposes “the calculations of many hearts.”

A recent e-mail from the people who put together the fine short film about consumption, “The Story of Stuff “ reminded me of this. The message referred to the so-called Pacific Garbage Patch created by the interaction of the North Pacific Gyre currents and gross human plastic dumping. The size of this “patch” outstrips the very word used to describe it: estimated to be anywhere from the size of the state of Texas, on the small side, to the size of the continent of Africa (cf. Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, New York: St. Martin’s, 2007, pp. 121-128).

While the vast majority of this atrocious mess comes from marine vessels, the problem of disposing of plastics is global, but most intense in so-called developed countries. However, since plastic containers have a long life and can be reused many times, there is an opportunity simply to return empty shampoo bottles or olive oil containers to co-ops to be refilled. Unfortunately, refilling options are not always available and, “to expose the calculations of many hearts,” this often requires personal effort. But to move this ‘cardiac exposure’ to the public level, are there not public policies that would both educate and regulate to confront this problem? But what is the level of political contributions of plastic manufacturers in the U.S., so intimately connected with the petroleum industry?

We continue to sing Psalm 148. All creation sings the song of God’s praise together. But we also are called to remember our priestly role in mediating the vision of the intention of God’s creation, priests who both imagine and serve (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2003, p. 135). But, in a way, that continues our listening to God and the whole creation.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.

First Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Utphall20)

Divorced, Together –  Nick Utphall reflects on the connections in the family of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for First Sunday of Christmas, Year B (2020, 2023) 

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

For creation connections, it doesn’t get much clearer than the Psalm for the day, Psalm 148. I reprint it here just to refresh and maintain your contact with these globally, cosmically full words:

Hallelujah! Praise the LORD from the heavens;
    praise God in the heights.
Praise the LORD, all you angels;
    sing praise, all you hosts of heaven.
Praise the LORD, sun and moon;
    sing praise, all you shining stars.
Praise the LORD, heaven of heavens,
    and you waters above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
    who commanded, and they were created,
    who made them stand fast forever and ever,
    giving them a law that shall not pass away.
Praise the LORD from the earth,
    you sea monsters and all deeps;
    fire and hail, snow and fog,
    tempestuous wind, doing God’s will;
    mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars;
    wild beasts and all cattle,
    creeping things and flying birds;
    sovereigns of the earth and all peoples,
    princes and all rulers of the world;
    young men and maidens,
    old and young together.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
    whose name only is exalted, whose splendor is over earth and
    heaven.
The LORD has raised up strength for the people and praise for all
    faithful servants,
    the children of Israel, a people who are near the LORD. Hallelujah!

For a sense of “let all creation praise,” this Psalm voices it all! It covers the whole of creation, top to bottom. It reminds us that the creatures joining our praise are not just the tweets of sparrows or the submarine songs of whales, but that even creatures we’d consider inanimate (note: a word that means “without a spirit” or “without a soul”!) are still joining the hymns of praise and fully in relationship with God—the weather, the rocks, the solar system, and all!

It may be reading into it to a degree (anything is liable to be an interpretive framework, anyway), but I also appreciate that the Psalm isn’t promoting one standard order in creation. Plato instilled in us a sense of the “Great Chain of Being,” which was a hierarchy to rank creatures, including indicating a sense of proximity to God. So God was at the top of the staircase, and angels a step lower. That was followed by humans—generally with a presumption that males were higher than females (or a boss higher than the workers, a pastor higher than the congregation members). Depending on your preferences and debate abilities, maybe subsequently following were dolphins or dogs or chimpanzees or some other mammal. Eagles or chickens came next. Lower still were ensuing lizards and fish and those belly-crawling apple-offering snakes. Then maybe insects, which were at least higher than immobile trees. And those, in turn, must be higher and have more connection for the life and soul in them than water or asteroids or dirt.

But it seems to me that the Psalm doesn’t follow the descending staircase of that hierarchical value. When it does descend, it’s more a matter of sightline and observation, from looking up to the skies, and the clouds, and the hilltops, on down to those of us wandering about at ground level. It doesn’t see separated status; it sees community together. If this is the hymn of all creation, it strikes me that it’s less about the ego of a superstar lead singer who’s got backup singers and a band for accompaniment than it present a choir in fugue, trading off the melody from section to section and voice to voice, supporting each other in mutual harmony and rhythm.

Of course, for all of that, it may well be that the Psalm gets little attention in your worshipping gathering this weekend. It may be a preference to make more room for the limited opportunities of Christmas carols. It may be that you don’t particularly feel you need the Psalm’s echo of the gardens springing up in Isaiah 61. After all, Isaiah is a direct echo of Isaiah’s own self, since we hear some of these words just two weeks ago on the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

But for the more Christmas-focused direction, you might still tie in Psalm 148 and notice the typical “star of Bethlehem” fits as one of those voices of praise. The same for the angels that arrived to proclaim glad tidings not just to shepherds but also sheep (though the Psalm has a limited translation of “cattle,” instead of the broader and probably more-intended “livestock” or domesticated animals). And we should be sure that those sheep almost certainly went to meet and praise the baby Jesus, because the shepherds weren’t just going to leave them in the fields at night!

Slightly more focused on our personal neighborhoods of creation (at least as we commonly conceive or attend to), and yet keeping within the song of community together, today’s readings might point us to the broad expanse of human family.

Where the Psalm spans classes and generations, we might also expand across geography and remember that Black Lives Matter and hear Indigenous voices, and notice those who have been historically oppressed.

Not to be too abstract or broad, we should also really notice depictions of the scope of our families—and quite quickly see that that’s not limited by biological family.

Of course, there is the newborn child and the parents. We remember them; they’re not done just because we’re through Advent and the feast of the Nativity. Indeed, most often we think of the expectancy and the arrival, the time of pregnancy and the night of birth. Today’s Gospel reading tells us a short time later of the new family, as the parents are trying to figure out the right things to do now that they have a baby.

And in this reading, as they are going about their business (perhaps in the details of the days like other parents of newborns navigating shopping aisles for diapers), they encounter two others who happen to be there in that same space. Two old people—at least we regularly presume that age about Simeon, with the note that death was being kept temporarily at bay, and for Anna we’re told that she had lived a long time. Simeon and Anna are strangers, but did not remain strange for long. These two who encounter the baby and the new parents resemble a familiar category in many of our churches: they are adoptive grandparents. They scoop the infant into their arms, congratulate the parents, cherish and celebrate the birth, claim its goodness for their own or relate dearly to it.

The family has expanded. It has crossed the generations. It is no longer just those who will live together in a household or can claim to be related to each other. There are new relatings and relationships. New bonds are formed. The kindness of the kin-dom finds more kin.

As we’re noticing all these relationships, the 2nd reading continues to expand our awareness. By a rare Pauline highlight of human birth, of a very real mother, Paul also points to other adoptive relationships. Not just those out of kindness as church family cares for each other, but of legal adoptions.

In this, we might begin by observing the identification of Jesus as the Son of God. He rightly and directly calls God “Father, Abba” (Galatians 4:6). On the one hand, that means that of those parents who took him to the temple, Jesus maybe would come to call Joseph something more like “stepfather,” one who legally took on care for Jesus at the same time he was taking Mary as his lawfully wedded wife. It became official that Jesus was Joseph’s adopted son.

And there’s a happy exchange, a blessed swap that occurs with that pair of relationships, according to Galatians. Jesus received a human adoptive father, and we who are under the law receive God as an adoptive parent. Through this expanding family, Jesus became our sibling and brings us to be lawfully connected to his Abba who is in some way legally obligated to the care of us!

(Note a clear reminder that caring for creation also includes laws and legal structures for how families are maintained and children cared for!)

For our lives being bound up into the family of God, I also want to observe one verse from the song of Simeon. In the phrase about “now you are dismissing your servant in peace” (2:29), the word for “dismissed” occurs in the New Testament almost only in the Gospels and Acts. At its most basic, the Greek word apoluo just means “release.” It is used when Jesus sends away crowds. It is for releasing from debt and for forgiveness. The biggest concentration for this verb is around the debate about releasing Jesus or Barabbas from arrest on Good Friday.

But one of the most common uses for the verb is as the word for divorce, because a husband was “dismissing” his wife or releasing her.

It’s playing with—or a play on—words, but let’s take Simeon, holding the baby Jesus and the fulfillment of God’s promise, with him then being “divorced” in peace.

Divorce is frequently a hard reality in our families, and usually characterized by animosity more than peace, and with forgiveness maybe almost more than could be hoped.

But here, the divorce is exactly about being incorporated into God’s family, being connected in these human relationships, including for all the peoples, all nations, the whole earth (Luke 2:31-32). The odd character of this divorce is that it only binds Simeon closer to the families of the earth, and simultaneously us with him as we sing his song and welcome this baby into our embrace and are welcomed into his circle.

Again, that is care for creation, not in some abstract sense, but in the very daily reality of our families—families that may be separated and have conflict in a normal holiday season, and also families that are separated and distanced through this year of pandemic. Even as we can’t care for that in the way we might like to, this sense assures us that God binds us closer together than we’ve been able to manage.

One final practical thought on how we attend to our human lives and relationships during this time:

The parents in the Gospel reading were following a common ritual after the birth of a baby. There are also markers for the other end of life, as Anna and Simeon find a rite of passage in their old age. Perhaps this commends to us a question of what we are doing about such transitions during times of quarantine. How can we be intentional about marking rituals and celebrating very real and regular moments of life, and not leaving them isolated? When we can’t gather babies into our arms while milling about the aisles of our religious gathering places, and as we are unable to join in visitations after a death and share a funeral service, how will we properly observe these very real and regular changes in our relationships in this human family?

Perhaps one answer could include something from the practice of the liturgical rhythm of the song of Simeon. Each of the three occasions of daily prayer takes a song from these early chapters of the Gospel of Luke. Morning prayer joins the song of Zechariah after the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:67-79). Evening prayer repeats the song of Mary, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). And the prayer at the close of the day (compline or “night prayer” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship) joins the chorus of Simeon’s song, which has also been used as the canticle after a communion service as the congregation is about to leave from each other and rejoin the rest of the world.

Just as a day may close, marking the finality and transition, with this song of divorce and of connection, maybe we echo it and reverberate with this reality where in our separations we are still bound together. In our song of fulfillment, completion, and transition, we join the hymn of all creation, even in our release and sending away still finding that we are ever more united in the relationships of all life in this grand family.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Christmas Eve (Nativity of Our Lord) in Years A, B, and C (Utphall20)

Displaced and Found by God –  Nick Utphall reflects on the place of baby Jesus in a pandemic.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Christmas Eve (Nativity of Our Lord), Years A, B, and C

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

At worship planning in early November, some members of my congregation raised the idea of renting a barn for our Christmas Eve worship services. Here in Wisconsin, some location that could offer a little shelter from the cold of the night probably seemed like a good idea. And maybe the ambience was intended as much as the practicality.

In this year of the pandemic, we prepare to celebrate Christmas with physical distancing at the very least and perhaps many other alterations to Christmas traditions. I’ve also been hearing about drive-thru living nativities and candle delivery routes. My uncle’s congregation got a grant so that their barn worship could also have heaters and porta-potties. Not quite the cozy feel of a congregation in their usual church building, dressed up around Christmas trees with an organ softly playing Silent Night!

While many are lamenting that Christmas this year will not be what it should be, I can’t help but reflect that maybe it’s more meaningful this year and grounding for us. More meaningful not in a we-really-cherish-it-extra kind of way for finding more appreciation in the loss. More meaningful because somehow it seems closer to its origins, to a night in the little town of Bethlehem when a baby was born, and in that we came to understand God with us.

Those ideas of worshipping in a barn aren’t just because it can be outdoors and we might be able to gather more safely with our aerosols and droplets dispersed. A barn was the natal place (or, more accurately, probably one of the limestone caves around Bethlehem, where shepherds could corral their sheep). Even a porta-potty is fancier than those origins of human life mixing with animal waste. Nicholas Blincoe’s Bethlehem: Biography of a Town reminds us that the village was barely a rural outpost, a crossroads for livestock more than offering human population or resources or culture. The location was less about what it WAS than about what it WASN’T. And it is there, to just such a place, that our attentions are turned when we observe Christmas.

In the central point of the festival of the Incarnation, our God comes to be with us. It is worth celebrating with all the cheer and gladness we can muster. Certainly that can be reveled with fancy clothes and joyous gatherings and offering cheery gifts. But it is far from dependent on that. Just the opposite.

Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of life-as-it-should-not-be, times of loss and death. That is precisely when we need a counselor and bringer of peace (Isaiah 9:7). Miracles aside, even a birth, a child born for us can be a sign of new beginnings, of God’s continuous work on behalf of life, a marker that it is not the end, no matter how bad things are.

Jesus was born in a time of oppressive forces, forcing behaviors and practices that wouldn’t have otherwise been chosen. This year, we may feel confined at home, restricted in what we can do. Joseph and Mary, similarly, were restricted, but in their case it meant they couldn’t stay home and had to travel. Oppressive reality may be an empire or it may be a contagion; either way still impacts our ordinary lives.

And when the baby Jesus arrived, it’s good to remember it wasn’t in a cozy birth suite. In these days when we hear much about medical systems at a breaking point and elective procedures postponed and not enough doctors and nurses to staff the hospitals, we also know that Mary’s delivery didn’t come with assurances of insurance and ready amenities to care and assist. Maybe we understand something more of her reality.

For our limited gatherings in days where we may not even gather with family and are told not to have guests into our homes to minimize the spread of the virus, we may better recognize circumstances of the ancient lonely birth when the family was not welcomed into anybody’s home but had to make due on their own. Clearly, it was a less than ideal environment.

In this year when all of our standard accretions are swept away, maybe it can offer the opportunity to focus on what is left, then and now.

There isn’t a guest list. There isn’t apparent assistance and aid. There isn’t freedom and ease for what we wish life to be. There aren’t the eventual festivals and crowds and bright lights.

There are sheep. There are stars. There is hardship. There is a child given to us.

God comes to be in our real reality. Not our wishlist reality, our ideal. Not just where everything can feel right and is briefly decorated and dressed up.

Of course, that’s the case in our other real Christmases, too. When baking is a frustration of imperfection and burned edges. When family squabbles and sometimes cries. When arguments don’t just get in the way but define. When songs are off-key. When lights burn out. When somebody is missing. When it doesn’t feel alright. Christmas is never about the ideal, but about the real. Because our God comes for our real lives.

Maybe this year we notice more our need, our longing, our lack.

This is an odd commentary, because it is about the intersection of ancient details with everyday details for life now. I can, then, only comment generally. You’ll observe for yourself and your congregation. But whatever you faithfully and compassionately observe, remember that the need and the lack is not a separation or diversion from what is supposed to be; it is at the very heart of Christmas and why God intends this.

I also hope there is a silver lining, one of those rare pandemic benefits, that as other things are swept away or are not possible, maybe we also notice what remains. There are sheep. There are stars. There is a child given to us. There are parents. There is hay. There are the realities of governments and roads and human life (and maybe essential workers, in those shepherds and the reporters who come to them).

In an example of rare incidents of noticing what remains, I almost never give attention to the psalmody assigned for Christmas. But maybe this is its time. This year, state parks and outdoor activities and enjoyment of nature have found a new and cherished place in our lives. So, again, as other things are cleared away, we might particularly notice in the psalmody a location away from our familiar sanctuaries and cozy living rooms. Here it is broadly proclaimed that all the earth is a special location as God comes to be with us and with all creation. This can be an occasion for us to attend to verses of the Psalm where it is not about our decorations or festivities, but is that all creation has decked itself and leads the hymn of praise.

The lectionary proceeds sequentially through three Psalms for Christmas (the only time it is set up that way).

First, from Psalm 96:

Sing to the LORD a new song;
   sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Let the heavens, and let the earth be glad rejoice;
   let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
   let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
    at your coming, O LORD
    for you come to judge the earth (Psalm 96:1, 11-13)

Second, from Psalm 97:

The Lord reigns!
Let the earth rejoice;
    let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness surround the LORD;
    righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne.
Fire goes before the LORD,
    burning up enemies on every side.
Lightnings light up the world;
    the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
    before the Lord of all the earth.
Light dawns for the righteous,
    and joy for the upright in heart (Psalm 97:1-5, 11).

Finally, from Psalm 98:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
    the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
    let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord,
    who comes to judge the earth (Psalm 98:4, 7-9a).

Or maybe you are ready for Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 98:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive its king;
let ev’ry heart prepare him room
and heav’n and nature sing…
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy.

In a year when we can’t do much of that to which we’re accustomed and with those with whom we’re familiar, maybe we find especially the opportunity to tune our songs and our attention to the joy of the world, joining with fields, rocks, seas, clouds, dawn, sheep, and all of the realities. It is here that God comes to be.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

God raises the dead and creates something out of nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

God breaks out of the temple to be available everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The finite creation is capable of bearing infinity.

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

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

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

With Mary we are bearing God into the world.

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

God raises the dead and creates something out of nothing.

God breaks out of the temple to be available everywhere.

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

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

The finite creation is capable of bearing infinity.

With Mary we are bearing God into the world.

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

Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Courage Tom Mundahl reflects on beholding versus seeing.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46b-55
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

While there is no doubt of the significance of Davidic pedigree (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16), or of the evangelical energy with which Romans concludes (Romans 16:25-27), this final Sunday in Advent belongs to Mary. Both the Annunciation and the Magnificat reveal the power and mystery of the coming of God.  As poet Denise Levertov writes:

Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage, unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
(Denise Levertov, “Annunciation,”
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov,
New Directions, 2013, pp. 836-837)

As he narrates the births of John and Jesus, Luke clearly favors Mary.  Zechariah  finds the message from the angel that his elderly and “barren” wife, Elizabeth, will bear a child more than a little ridiculous.  With understandable skepticism he asks, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18) But the lack of faith demonstrated by his cross-examination guarantees there will be no more questioning. He is struck dumb until the birth.

What a contrast Mary provides!  She is very young in a world that values age, a woman in a male-dominated culture, and poor in a highly-stratified economy.  All of these are intensified by her lack of a husband, a situation made all the more precarious by Gabriel’s announcement (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 39).

That this is a visit of great moment is made clear by Gabriel’s greeting, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28)  From the Rosary’s “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” to  “Grace be on you, en-graced one,” the message is unmistakable: this is the one to bear the long-expected child.  Unlike Zechariah, who doubts the very possibility of this enterprise, Mary’s only question is procedural: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34b)

Gabriel’s response goes far beyond any obstetric explanation. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you….” That this is a movement of deep meaning is made evident by the “overshadowing” (επιςκιαζω) of the Most High.  This sense of the looming presence of God appears in the Exodus story (Exodus 40:34-35) and it also occurs in the Transfiguration narrative (Luke 9:34), where the presence of the Holy One “overshadows” the disciple group, making any suggestions about “marking the occasion” with traditional wilderness “booths” ridiculous.  What’s more, the scene reminds us of the “wind from God” overshadowing the “face of the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2). Here the evangelist suggests we are dealing with nothing less than new creation that, with this “deep incarnation,” includes the life of all creatures (Niels Henrik Gregersen, Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology, Fortress, 2015, pp. 20-21).

That his birth brought on by the “overshadowing” of the Most High transcends all notions of status is  made evident by the fundamental reversal demonstrated by Luke’s language.  Instead of being named the “Queen Consort” of the divine, brave Mary calls herself “the servant of the Lord.” (Luke 1:38) This theme blossoms with Mary’s song, the Magnificat.

Luke Timothy Johnson and other commentators remind us that Luke uses a compositional technique common to Hellenistic historians (cf. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War) by recreating speeches given by major actors to advance the narrative (Johnson, p. 43). Whether the speeches are given by Pericles or Cleon, there are few orations in this technique that match the Song of Mary in richness of poetic image. Not only is the Magnificat full of Hebrew parallelism, but the fact that it has been set to music  throughout history suggests that it is, at minimum, lyric poetry.  To paraphrase the old hymn, when we hear these words, “How can we keep from singing?”

Part of that impulse to sing comes from the simple fact that we are in the realm of what Walter Brueggemann calls “the theology of the impossible” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., Fortress, 2001, p. 141). This stems primarily from Gabriel’s assurance, “For nothing will be impossible with God”(Luke 1:37). As he continues to reflect on the struggle of the earliest church to begin the birth story, Brueggemann writes: “The beginning must be just right, for there is something new here that can scarcely be articulated, and the articulation must match the reality of the newness” (p. 102).  This cannot be done in prose, the language of royal decree, or even with forms of Greek historical rhetoric; it must be done in lyric leading to song. So we have the “Song of Mary”(Luke 1:46b-55) following the annunciation; the “Benedictus,” the “Song of Zechariah” (Luke 1:68-79) following the birth of John; the “Gloria,” or “Song of the Angels” (Luke 2:14) following the birth of Jesus; and the “Nunc Dimittis,” or “Song of Simeon”(Luke 2: 29-32), following the presentation. Is it a surprise that all of these are still part of the musical treasure of God’s people?

Even a piece of lyric poetry like the Magnificat contains structural elements.  The poem begins with the reversal of Mary’s condition from humility to blessing (1:46-49), moves to a wider statement of God’s mercy for the faithful over the generations (1:50),  continues with a vivid description of the reversal of social positions between the poor and arrogant (1:51-53), and concludes with a reminder that all of this fulfills promises to Abraham and descendants (Luke 1:54-55, Johnson, p. 43). This schema is reinforced by an additional pattern that “emerges from the repeated use of strong action verbs at the beginning of clauses.” For example, “magnifies,” “rejoices,” “he has looked,” “has done great things,” “shown strength with his arm,” “has scattered,” “has brought down,” “has lifted up,” “has filled,” “has sent the rich away,” and “has helped;” all serve to stress that this is, without question, God’s action (Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, pp. 26-27).

This narrative structure in no way compromises lyric freedom. Here is no royal decree, no official administrative order.  As Brueggemann concludes, “The event will not be contained by the rationality of kings, ancient or contemporary. Rather, there is here a brooding, a wondering, and an amazement” (p. 104).  “For nothing will be impossible with God”(Luke 1:37).

The wonder of this  may be signaled by the use of the word that used to be translated “behold” (ιδου) three times in the annunciation — vv. 31, 36, and 38.  The first two uses, by Gabriel, are rendered by NRSV as “and now.”  While the desire to avoid language of “excessive holiness” that communicates with contemporary listeners and readers is understandable, isn’t this just a bit too weak?  It may be that returning to “behold” may restore a bit of the necessary authority of messengers like Gabriel, and help us to recover a sense of mysterium tremendum with its sense of awe and overpowering urgency (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford: 1958, pp. 12-24).

Maggie Ross suggests “Hebrew and Greek authors are careful to distinguish bodily seeing from beholding or inward vision….To put this more simply, ordinary seeing is analytical; it discriminates, grasps, and controls.  Beholding is organic, ungrasping, and self-emptying” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p. 11). Joseph Sittler agrees, and goes on to claim that the biblical view of reality is particularly ecological — an ontology of creation community– that requires a “beholding of actuality” (“Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Bouma-Prediger and Bakken, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 79).

Sittler goes on to suggest: “‘To behold’ means to stand among things with a kind of reverence for life which does not walk through the world of the nonself with one’s arrogant hat on….To stand ‘beholding’ means that one stands within the Creation with an intrinsically theological stance” ( p. 80). Ross puts it more practically: “It was in the context of beholding that we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the context of distraction that we have mismanaged it.” (Ross, pp. 11-12)

The final use of “behold” in the annunciation is Mary’s most moving affirmation, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).  While it may not be in reaction to a personal visit from Gabriel, it may be that as we share in Mary’s servanthood, we will be “overshadowed” by the power of the Most High and given the courage (Levertov) to build justice and health for each other and the earth household.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014; edited and revised by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

Waiting for the coming of God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent—joyful anticipation of liberation and transformation.

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

Waiting for the coming of God.

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

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

Advent—joyful anticipation of liberation and transformation.

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

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the desert?  As Belden Lane suggests:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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