Sunday lectionary and environment

Environmental lectionary notes – Advent and Christmas year C

November 28th - Advent Sunday – reading the sings of the times

Today’s Gospel provides several difficulties in translation and interpretation. On the surface this passage, and the similar passages in Mark 13 and Matthew 24 seems to be focusing on the ‘end of the world’. This then creates a problem with the saying ‘this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place’. Some have argued that the early church was expecting a quick return of Christ after the ascension and this saying may reflect that. However, it is not clear the passage is talking about the ‘end of the world’ or focusing on the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. Other accounts of that time like Josephus Jewish Wars, and records in Tacitus and Eusebius all record the destruction of Jerusalem accompanied by portents in the sky and earth, events very much like the Gospels. Jesus coming on the clouds makes more sense as a description of the ascension to take authority at the right hand of God than of a second coming. It is possible that Jesus is alluding directly to the fall of Jerusalem and wanting the Christian community to leave the city, and telling them in earlier verses to realise this is not the end of the world. Indeed, there is a strong stress on not being fooled by false messiahs or people saying the world was ending when it wasn’t. If this is how the passage should be read, then of course the events described happened within about 40 years’ time.

Yet other parts might suggest Jesus whilst primarily focusing on the siege of Jerusalem and not being fooled into thinking this was the end of the world, he also wants his disciples to be discerning of the signs of the times as they are of the seasons of the year. This might include other events beyond those of AD70. It is interesting that Jesus uses the signs of the seasons changing to make his point. The natural year has within its seasonal changes lessons for life and it’s seasons too. This call to discernment is a call to knowing how to respond to what is happening. In the case of AD70 it was to flee the city, but other times call for other actions. In our day it is easy to read a passage like this in terms of climate crisis and extreme weather events. If so, this passage reminds us God is in charge and that ultimately the times are in God’s hands. Yet that is not an excuse to do nothing and trust in God, rather we are told be discerning of the times and act and do so promptly. Indeed we are called to act promptly to protect creation in God’s power because we trust and hope for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Lastly, we have the phrase ‘heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away’. Does this question the idea common in the New Testament that the earth and heaven will be renewed and God’s Kingdom come on earth?  The phrase is in fact a common figure of speech often used for instance in Isaiah to speak of the permeance of God’s will and decrees. The permanence of God’s word is being compared to the apparent permanence of the heavens and the earth. The idea being conveyed is that even if the heaven and earth pass away which seems so unlikely God’s word will never pass away.

5th December – prepare the way of God in the wilderness

The focus of the Gospel reading is the ministry of John the Baptist, seen as fulfilling another prophecy in Isaiah 40 of one n the wilderness saying, ‘prepare the way of the lord’. The Malachi prophecy is more associated with Jesus cleansing the Temple of the money changers, but is echoed in John’s call for people to repent. John’s ministry of calling people to change how they live and prepare for the coming of God is something that we are also called to as followers of Christ. They are many things we might prophetically call into question within our world, but one of them is clearly the way humans are treating the environment. This requires repentance, not just recognising the wrong of the damage we are doing but to change how we live. The idea of a voice calling for the way of God in the wilderness is particularly powerful in a world of global warming.

December 12th – being content with what we have and generous with it.

Luke’s Gospel continues with the call to repentance by John the Baptist. Very practically the people ask him ‘what should we do’ and John’s gives concrete suggestions. These suggestions are about power, wealth and possessions. Power is not to be used for personal gain, we are to be content with what we have and generous in giving it to those with less than we have. This is very much not the value system of a consumer society in which we are told to strive after more and more possessions and make more and more money to buy them with. This is a society which produces large amounts of waste, uses natural resources at unsustainable rates and generates large inequalities of wealth and power. We need to hear John’s message of a simpler way of living, not striving after new things and being generous towards the poor of the world.

December 19th – God’s radical world order.

Jesus often in his teaching declares a reversal of power and status as part of the coming of God’s Kingdom. This is idea is also expressed by the prophets, but one of its most powerful statements are the words of Mary which are intended either to be part of the Gospel reading today or said as the Magnificat. God raises up the weak and humble and puts down the proud and powerful. He feeds the hungry but sends the rich away. In tackling climate change we see conferences of the rich and powerful talking about how much they are prepared to change how they live in order to stop environmental damage and give justice to the world’s poor who are suffering from its effects. God’s values as expressed by a young middle-eastern woman are so much more radical than our leaders. But in part if so, that is because those they represent are not prepared to be radical either. What kind of example do we as those who have turned Mary’s words into part of our worship set?

Christmas – the God who comes to earth and is the light of the world

At various Christmas services these are two themes reflected in readings that might be used. Old Testament prophecies read cite God as the one who comes to us as do the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. John’s Gospel picks up the idea of Jesus as the light of the world shining in the darkness. This idea is also present in the reading in Isaiah 9 often read as part of Christmas services.

December 25th was in the old Roman Calendar used before the introduction of leap years the date of the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day. Many cultures held a mid-winter festival at this time to bring light into the darkest time of the year, and the Christian adoption of this date to mark Jesus’ birth, who John describes Jesus as the light of the world shining in the darkness worked really well for a Church then based entirely in the northern hemisphere. This becomes a sign of hope, that the darkness will pass, and this links not just to the remembrance that spring will come but that God’s kingdom will come. As such Jesus is a sign of that coming God-shaped reality ahead of time to encourage us to look for and work for that future reality. Jesus is the promise of the world transformed.

The Eastern Church has often placed more significance on the incarnation, God becoming human and as the message bible puts it ‘moving into the neighbourhood’, than the Western. In Eastern theology this moment is the centre piece of the work of salvation, the point in which creation and creator become united in the Jesus birth. This moment is God’s ‘yes’ to the physical world, to bodies and landscapes as opposed to the disembodied future of other forms of religious speculation that often also invade popular Christian thinking. Christmas tells us that we are not going to heaven, but heaven is coming to earth. This is ultimately the reason creation care cannot be anything but central to Christianity.


Page last updated: 18th November 2021 2:28 PM