The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany in Year B

We are lifted up for the tasks of Earth-keeping!

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2012

                                                                                                                        By Robert Saler

  Readings for Year B 2011-12

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 40:21-31

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Mark 1:29-39


When I teach ecological theology in congregational settings and in seminary classrooms, I have found that it is important to gauge where people are at in their thinking about God, creation, and our responsibility to care for the environment. What aspects of their faith lead them to think that God calls us to care for the Earth? What theological understandings might cause them to obscure or deny that call?

When I ask people in these settings why they think Christians are called to care for the Earth, a common response is: “Because God is the creator, who made the earth.” Often they will quote Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”


The argument that “we should take care of the Earth because God created it and it belongs to God” is a venerable one, and deserves respect as such. However, precisely BECAUSE the argument is so common, we need to question its adequacy for our situation. Here’s what I mean, in a nutshell: if we as Christians are so used to affirming that “we should take care of creation because we love God the creator,” and yet we STILL are so complicit in systems and habits that damage the environment, then can we really say that this common argument is enough? Does it have enough gravitas, enough spiritual force, to equip us for the work that needs to be done?


One of the things that is striking about this week’s readings is that they take this affirmation of God being the creator of all that is and place it within a context far removed from the rosy, rather ineffective “glow” that we often use to affirm God’s ownership of, and care for, creation. Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) does not remind Israel that God is creator in order to paint a rosy “green” picture of how special the Earth is to God. Rather, Isaiah asserts God’s creative agency within the world as a way of calling to JUDGMENT those forces that would seek to deny life to all that God loves—Israel, the nations (see Isaiah 49:6), and all of that God calls “good” (Genesis 1:31).


In other words, to say that God created, sustains, and loves the Earth is a statement that has some “teeth” to it! As Lutherans, we read such statements of “law” first as judgments over us—have our actions towards Earth matched our affirmations that God loves it? And then it provides a guide toward our own loving actions toward others—how can we, as people reconciled to God and God’s creation in Christ, be a part of the world in such a way as to encourage love for creation in others?


In the gospel reading, we see a continuation of a theme that has dominated over the past few weeks. Jesus, whose incarnation stands as a further “yes” on God’s part to created material (flesh), moves throughout his ministry as a force that affirms life and opposes that which would destroy or impede fruitful life. As a healer of dis-ease, and as one who exorcises demons, Jesus carries out a style of being in the world that is biophilic (that is, in love with life). Where fruitful living is threatened, Jesus brings healing.

Joseph Sittler has postulated that the reason why the Gospel’s accounts of healing and exorcism are so episodic—particularly in Mark!—is because the Gospel writer is trying to portray Jesus’ acts of ministry as harbingers of a more comprehensive fulfillment to come. This is a common theme in the Christian tradition; we regard Jesus as “firstborn among the dead” (Colossians 1:18) and as the decisive “event” that indicates God’s intention to bring about “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). I have found that I enjoy picturing—and preaching about—these healing as little “flash points” or “sparks” that indicate a much bigger fire to come. Not a fire that will destroy the earth, but one that will renew creation as God’s beloved work and us as God’s beloved people.


Such a vision, however, must not be preached with less than the full gravitas that Isaiah and the Gospel writers bring to it. Again, as Lutherans, we affirm that word of judgment is an inextricable corollary to the word of grace. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, embodies this well when he utters this famous phrase: Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! Woe to us if we allow the truth of God’s creatorship to become a pious, harmless truism rather than a prophetic call to recognize that God is indeed at work in bringing about a renewed earth—and that our call to participate in that work is as serious as it is honoring to us as God’s people.


To be about the work of Earth-keeping is a privilege. The fact that the tasks ahead are so serious is good news—TO THE EXTENT that we can remember that, in Christ, God has freed us to take on this work with hearts that are confident in God’s sustaining care for us. Christ has indeed “lifted us up,” back into life! Let us be God’s hands and feet in doing the same for God’s good Earth.


The notion that “the Earth is the Lord’s, and therefore we should take care of it” has sufficient force only if it is placed within a context of God’s judgment against that which would deny life in its fullness.


“The Earth is the Lord’s” is a statement that has “teeth” to it!

Jesus is engaged in a biophilic ministry.


Jesus’ acts of healing are harbingers of a greater fulfillment to come.


We are lifted up for the tasks of Earth-keeping!