What hope does the Christian gospel offer an unjust world facing ecological crises?
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series C: 2012-2013
First Sunday of Advent in Year C
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
The readings for the Sundays in Advent stir up afresh our hopes for the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. The narrative here at the beginning of the new church year is a familiar one: We watch the skies for signs in the heavens, we go out to John the Baptist at the Jordan River, we hasten with Mary up into the hills to find Elizabeth, and we rejoice in Mary's Magnificat. Each part of the story redirects our attention forward into the future from which we expect the coming of our Lord. We are delighted to return to these beloved stories of the season—so delighted, indeed, that we may not notice that the scene in which we wait has shifted, if ever so slightly, with each year's beginning. Because we have been working to discover the meaning and mandate of the lectionary readings for love and care of creation, however, it has been important to take note how the setting relates to and, perhaps, even shapes the narrative to come. In year A, the readings placed us before the mountain of Zion; and mountains did prove to have a signal place in the unfolding narrative of the year, much of it from the Gospel of Matthew. In year B, on the contrary, we were drawn by Mark's narrative out away from the mountain and its great temple to the river Jordan, to await Jesus there, a reorientation that persisted throughout the year, as Jesus and the gatherings of his followers for meals replaced the temple as the lens for our relationship both to God and to God's creation. And so also now in Advent of year C, our lead gospel of Luke sets the scene in its special way.
Our attention is directed immediately in the Gospel for this first Sunday to the heavens, to signs in “the sun, the moon, and the stars,” but also to the “distress among nations” who are “confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (21:25). The entire cosmos, it seems, is stirred up in anticipation of the coming of the Son of Man. The scene of this narrative is opened up to include all “the inhabited world” (oikoumene) (21:26); as Luke Timothy Johnson observes, “The things now being described no longer concern the history of the believers or the fate of the city [of Jerusalem], but the world-wide experience of humans at the judgment.” There is no “temporal reference or time-table” here, no reference “to any tumultuous events in Palestine.” The signs are not the kind that can be localized, such as “those of wars and revolutions (v.10) or even of earthquakes, famines, plagues and portents in the sky” (v. 11) or armies around the city (v. 20), but entirely of cosmic events in sun, moon and stars (v. 25), the tumult of the ocean (v. 25), shaking of the heavenly powers themselves (v. 26)” (Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, pp. 330, Johnson's translation of v. 26). When this takes place it will be seen by everyone, everywhere: it will be as obvious as the budding of “the fig tree and all the trees” that marks the approach of summer (21:28-29).
What accounts for these shifts from Gospel to Gospel? We suggest that they have to do with differences in setting and date of the composition of the lead Gospels for each year. Matthew was, in Warren Carter's view (Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Relgious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, pp. 14-16), written after the destruction of Jerusalem for a marginal Christian community in Antioch, which might explain the author's interest in mountains other than Zion that are significant sacred centers in the history of Ancient Israel. Mark was, in Ched Myers's view, written on the eve of the revolt that led to the destruction of Jerusalem for a community caught up in that struggle, but seeking to find its way beyond both mere reform and radical overthrow of the political establishment; the great question was the community's “nonaligned” and nonviolent relationship to that establishment (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, pp. 64-87). For Luke, it was written, in Luke Timothy Johnson's view, after the fall of Jerusalem sometime in the years between 80 and 100 C.E. for a predominantly Gentile community as an apology for the spread of the Christian movement throughout the Roman Empire (Johnson, pp. 3-10): the entire "inhabited world" had become the setting of choice; and the sacred mountain lies desolate, allowing for a thorough dispersal of the sense of God's presence, which leads in turn to an intense competition with the gods and sacred centers throughout the empire. The Holy Spirit will in due course be put forward as a primary actor in the combined narrative of Luke-Acts. Although none of these orientations was driven by a specific interest in the care of creation as such, the shift of scene which results does nevertheless provide for significant differences in the orientation of the narrative to the creation, differences that serve to ground our interpretation of the texts of the lectionary in the history of the early Christian community.
What happens “in the heavens” is, in any case, of special interest here, along with the response of all the nations. The response of the nations, as we noted, will be “confusion” and “distress” (or better, "anxiety," as Johnson translates v. 25). “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the oikumene, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (21:26). With this dramatic vision, this first gospel reading of Year C draws us into the realm of the apocalyptic end times or the eschaton. While setting aside both the fundamentalist interpretation of such material as a revelation of how the end of time will unfold, and the progressive understanding of it as an expression of hope in prophetic and poetic images by minorities oppressed by the dominant political powers of the first century C. E., we acknowledge that the reading serves to remind us that the Lord who is coming into our lives in this season at the end of the secular calendar year 2012 is the Lord of all time. The contrast between the nations and the community of Jesus' followers is absolutely clear: for the church it will be a time to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (21:28), a condition of hope and confidence reflected in our lessons from Jeremiah 33 and 1 Thessalonians 3 as well. These texts encourge us to be alert, praying for the strength to escape all these things, and to “stand before the Son of Man.” “Those who endure, who bear witness, who remain alert in prayer,” as Johnson comments, "have nothing to fear from the coming of the Son of Man. For them there is no distress or confusion or dread. For them it is the time of “liberation” (Johnson, p. 331). The psalm likewise encourages us to place our trust in God; and the apostle Paul bids us “abound in love for one another” and to “strengthen [our] hearts in holiness that [we] may be blameless before our God” (1 Thessalonians 3:13).
We are thus once again put on notice that Christ’s coming into our world entails a radical reversal of the fortunes of the unjust powers that dominate human history, so that God's intention with the creation might at the last be completely fulfilled. People of faith will be oriented anew to the cosmos of which we are members as the creation of God that moves toward completion and even perfection, not on the basis of its own inherent powers, but by virtue of the will of its creator. At the same time, however, we think it is important to notice that the narrative of the lectionary in Year C opens up to a scene that invites consideration, truly for the first time in human history, of a global experience of crisis in which all the nations are called to judgment without exception (Cf. James Gusave Speth's argument in his Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 11-73). Although obviously not part of the author’s understanding at the time the Gospel of Luke was written, such is nevertheless the not unimaginable crisis in this century of the ecology of the earth. If we were to adopt this vision as an expression of the devastation and accompanying anxiety that would attend the culmination of our comprehensive destruction of Earth and its living inhabitants, how might the readings for year C then address us in our anxiety and despair? When we see such things taking place as the global rise in sea temperatures, the worldwide increase in the incidence of storms, the acidic poisoning of the waters of the oceans, and the massive extincton of species both in the seas and on the land, where would we look for the non-metaphorical equivalent of the fig tree and the righteous branch? How might the poetry of the prophets move us to confront our vascillation, in the face of scientific uncertainty, concerning the consequences of our changing of the very material conditions of life on earth? What hope, finally, does the Christian gospel offer a world in such a crisis? What reason do we who fear for the future of planet Earth have to “stand up and raise our heads” at the coming of our Lord and Savior into our lives in the coming year of 2013?
For care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288