‘The Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth ‘(12.38-42) An ecological and environmental reflection on the lectionary readings from Matthew’s Gospel for Advent 2019
At the time of writing, vast swathes of South Yorkshire are covered in the waters of the overflowing course of the River Don, after weeks of heavy rain – and as an outworking of the climate crisis in our own lives. Globally, the waters of the oceans are rising and small low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean are disappearing gradually beneath waves. This is no longer a dystopian dream, or rather nightmare, but a reality. In the beginning is our end.
From time to time Christians set aside time to reflect on their spiritual life, to concentrate on awareness and the presence of God and perhaps make changes in their lifestyle. The four weeks of advent offer this opportunity. We believe that God has given us this planet earth, to provide a home for all God’s people. We have a responsibility to treat it wisely, acting as caring stewards of God’s creation. In today’s world of extreme weather events, drought, flooding and the loss of species, it appears that we are abusing this responsibility. We are creating a world where some are consuming too much of the earth’s resources and many are vulnerable. The climate crisis is not an easy topic to think about, but we can find guidance from scriptures. Dr Emily Colgan from Trinity Methodist Theological College when discussing an article published in 1967 by a scientist named Lynn White, argues that a causal relationship exists between Christianity and the contemporary ecological crisis. Dr Colgan said: “I believe that the ecological crisis is a religious crisis. Alongside what scientists are telling us, there is a need as Christians for us to rediscover our place in the world. We need to rethink who we are in a theological sense. We are not going to act differently until we think differently. We are not superior to other-than-human communities, we are all interconnected and we need to make different moral and ethical choices that respect that.”
Matthew’s gospel is the lectionary focus for the coming liturgical year. At Advent, this gospel builds up the picture slowly and patiently, reminding us not only of the importance of waiting, but how long God’s people had been waiting for this moment, in the preparation for the coming of the Son of Man, of the Christ Child into this world. Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy and historical focus on Jesus’ roots. Jesus is presented first and foremost as the long-awaited Messiah, who was expected to be a descendant and heir of King David. Abraham, the father of a nation, heads the genealogy in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ forebears. Abraham is followed by David, a royal king , an exemplar ruler and peace builder with subsequent royal kings coming after him. Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus as a new Moses, and possibly the Gospel itself as a new Torah. There are parallels between Jesus’ birth and that of Moses ; parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and the giving of a new law to the followers of Jesus , and the story of Exodus, of Mount Sinai, and the giving of the law to Moses, the great builder of the Israelite nation.
This portrayal as the new Moses, points his followers to a radical way of being Jewish which centres not on the Temple nor on the Torah but on Jesus Christ, as a radical new leader; with Jesus as the fulfilment of the law, which begins not with himself but with creation. The Son of Man is coming, is already here , and life as we know it will be swept away. Here the cosmic and the ordinary belong in the same sentence. Jesus, speaking to his disciples of cataclysmic and cosmic events when the Son of Man comes, puts his warning in very domestic terms – working in the fields, grinding meal, securing the house against a thief. This is down to earth stuff. Jesus is the Son of Man: Ben Adam, the one hewn from the earth. He has come for the restoration of the earth. ‘The Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth ‘(12.38-42) Matthew’s gospel has many earthquakes, and we could include the storm on the lake here (8; 24.3,8; 24.7,8) and thus connect with the passage from Romans 8.22 , where the whole of creation goes into labour, seeking release from its bondage to decay. Decay, degradation, pollution and human neglect abound. War too is the most ecologically destructive of all human activities. We need to wake up to what is going on around us; wake up to our responsibilities.
How should we interpret this in our own context? How to discern the Word of the Lord this advent? How can we find our story in God’s story? John the Baptist calls us to discipleship. He calls from the wilderness of our empty places, the wilderness of today’s complex world and challenging life. He calls us to repent: the Kingdom of God has come near, bringing a new citizenship, a distinctive way of life. There is an urgency in this call; we now have to speed up, to ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’. But with a jolt, we slow down again as John the Baptist is taken from the freedom of the wilderness into prison for going against Herod. It must have been a hard jolt for someone used to the wide open spaces to be now shackled in a dungeon. He was learning patience again, the hard way. It’s the same for all of us.
Encouraged to keep our eyes fixed on hope, our job like that of John the Baptist, is to draw out people from where they are so that they, and we, can truly prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. Let’s return to the flooded valleys of South Yorkshire. Signs of hope appear in the gathering of the village communities in the flooded valleys as they work together to provide shelter, food, comfort and eventually the restoration of their homes. This is still ongoing, this will take time. The usual busy daily routines are disrupted, time slows down, everyday essentials come full focus – food, warmth, shelter, friends and family take over. Here the ‘fruits of repentance’ are expressed as we live in harmony with one another, welcoming each another. The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins (9.2-8). Advent’s promise will enlarge our hearts , so that more and more we can delight in the way of walking, in the way of running in the paths of God’ s commandments. Christians are those who believe that the flourishing of individuals and of communities, the possibility of neighbour loving neighbour, and of peace between humans and other species in their dwelling on the planet is possible. The advent readings end with a new beginning. The advent readings end with the birth of the Messiah. In Matthew’s gospel, the focus is on Joseph, from the royal lineage of David, and a carpenter, woodworker and guardian of the baby Jesus. Joseph was given his task in a dream, in a vision. Revelation, dream and vision still play their part. ‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’(1 21). Joseph’s line provides a place in a nation and a place in history, with its promises of land and promises of future generations. Mary provides the future: her conception is of the Holy Spirit, and it is through the Holy Spirit that the good news of Jesus Christ will grow from a particular nation and history to the Gentiles and into the whole world ’to the ends of the earth’.
Just how Jesus saves is a theme throughout much post Gospel writings and if there is a definitive New Testament understanding of salvation Ephesians 2 8-10 is probably the strongest contender. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life ‘(Ephesians 2 8-10). We need to be a people who do energy and ecological audits of their buildings, lands and investments, engage groups of children and adults in conservation projects and wilderness experiences, and encourage others to insulate their homes, drive smaller cars, walk or cycle or take the bus when they can, recycle whatever they can and source as much of their food locally as they are able. ‘The Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth ‘(12.38-42) Perhaps each Advent God is doing something new in all our lives; in times of awkward questions and times of silence, we need that faithful trust in what God is doing. Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of God; a renewal of his presence with us; a time to pay attention to the clues that God is active, to notice the meaning of things we might take for granted, a time to practice that faithful trust, so that we too can ‘ play the new music; ’ even as ’ the Son of Man ( is) at the heart of the earth’, so as the angels appear unexpectedly in the night sky, we say: ‘Emmanuel, God with us’. We need to get used to his continual coming each year, a little further into our lives until that great Second Coming, the Parousia, actually occurs.