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Environmental Stewardship Commission

Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota

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Lectionary Reflection

Second Sunday After Christmas, All Years Episcopal Standard and Revised Common Lectionary Sermon on Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture) and New Testament Readings

Jeremiah 31: 7-14

Thus says the LORD: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, "Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel." See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock." For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 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. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD.

Ephesians 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,

To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 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. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

Sermon on these Readings by John G. Gibbs, PhD

The legendary Christmas manger opens onto the vast expanse of all Creation. So say two lectionary readings (John 1:1-18 & Ephesians 1:1-14) on the first and second Sundays after Christmas. Christmas is not only for the Community, but also for Creation, for “the fullness of time,” for the gathering up “of all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.”

If there ever was a theological basis for eco-justice and a moral imperative for environmental stewardship, this Ephesians text emphatically states it. The letter opens with a vision of Christ enacting God’s purpose through the Church and into the furthest reaches of the cosmos. Personal redemption and cosmic redemption are “correlative aspects of one and the same thing,” as Allan D. Galloway claimed long before the term “eco-justice” was coined (The Cosmic Christ, p. 240; London: Nisbet, 1951).

That vision of God’s mysterious will, unlike the hidden secrets of “mystery religions” that surrounded the early Church, was openly “made known” to the Church as “a plan for the fullness of time.” It is a visionary plan to embrace “all things,” not just you and me, and not only the Church, but also all peoples on all continents in every nation and every religion. The Church’s vision embraces all centuries and all times unfolding into the future. We see one governing purpose that brings order and meaning “not only in this age but also in the age to come” (1:21).

The Christ of this vision is not an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian, a Lutheran, an American, a Westerner, or an Easterner. He is “the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:22f.). Accordingly, the Christian Community does not exist for herself, but for the sake of all humanity and all creation.

Our vision is not only ecumenical, but also cosmic in scope. This vision provides to Christians a kind of psychic container for this 21st century’s chaotic upheavals and uncertainties on every front: political and geopolitical, economic and ecological, cultural and psychological, even theological.

Here is a vision that invites scientists and theologians into mutually supportive explorations of all that is. Here is a vision that does not attempt to contain God in a box of ideas and creedal formulae, nor enthrone God on an immovable fundamentalist base. To the contrary, this vision portrays the dynamic God of “great power” (1:19) who maintains one forward-thrusting redemptive purpose from before the beginning of time and into the vast reaches of infinity.

The personal details of Christian life--our baptism, our receiving elements of the Lord’s Supper, the race that is ours to run before God--are not private events, but movements in and for the cosmic totality. God’s purpose chose us “before the foundation of the world” (1:4), and persists into “the age to come” (1:21). The same purpose adopts us (1:5), redeems us “through his blood” (1:7), sanctifies us “to be holy and blameless before him in love” (1:4), and forgives us with “riches of his grace” that are continually “lavished” upon us (1:7-8).

Our personal lives linked with the Church are accountable to the God of all being, who is both “throned afar” and closer than breathing, nearer than hands or feet. To praise that God’s glory (1:12) is to welcome the power of the resurrection (1:20) into our daily lives of environmental care and ecological responsibility. The Church, after all, is “the body” of the One who “fills all in all” (1:22f.).

As such, the Church is sent to humanity, both personal and corporate. The Church “exists by mission as fire exists by burning” [as Emil Brunner put it] not only for human persons, but also for human institutions, and for all creatures that are affected by human choices for good or ill. It makes no sense to believe in a Lord “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (1:21), and then live as if this Lord were concerned only about individuals and their personal vices and virtues, especially in private sexual matters.

The Church’s mission cannot serve the cosmic Lord otherwise than by embracing all humanity: both all persons in the wholeness of their personalities, and all human communities in their complicated trajectories of interaction. The Lord of all has the last say over all human enterprises, structures, and undertakings. This vision of Christ’s cosmic work aims to help everyone “see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (3:9). That “plan for the fullness of time” is faith’s context for humanity’s personal and corporate life, and for Community and Creation alike.

Texts either make sense to us within particular historical contexts, or they do not reach us. The dominant context of the world’s consciousness now is 9/11, terror anywhere anytime, and reactions to that terror by the last remaining superpower. We sense that ours is an apocalyptic time that brings danger not only to this nation, but also to all nations, and not only to humanity but to all life.

Within 7 days of 9/11 President Tom Gillespie of Princeton Theological Seminary spoke in his convocation address about “Studying Theology in Apocalyptic Times.” He commented: “Surely Christian theology can never make do, or be legitimate, in this context without the themes of the radical sovereignty of God and the exercise of that sovereignty through the cross and resurrection of his royal agent, Jesus the Christ” (The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Feb. 2002 [XXIII #1], p. 7).

A faculty member there, William Stacy Johnson, on the 65th day after 9/11 concluded his probe into “the ‘meaning’ of Sept. 11” with this observation: “All actions contain consequences that we can neither see nor control. Hence, the human community now waits breathlessly in hope that somehow, by the grace of God, a new cycle of violence and counter-violence can be avoided” (PSB, XXIII, #1, p. 53).

Nevertheless, despite that hope our nation hastily invaded Iraq, thereby establishing the fateful precedent of preemptive war as part of our nation’s foreign policy. Having substituted the image of Saddam Hussein for the image of Osama bin Laden, the President and the majority of Congress led an invasion that most of the electorate understood to be retaliation against the perpetrator of terror on 9/11/01. This is a huge gamble, this new cycle of violence and counter-violence. The triple Pulitzer-winner Thomas L. Friedman named that gamble at the time as “the mother of all presidential gambles” (www.nytimes.com, 3-2-02).

The Christian faith’s cosmic vision offers a psychic container for the gambles, the fears and traumas of our apocalyptic time. It lifts our sight above those horrendous terrorist attacks against the twin towers and the Pentagon, also above the bombing in August 2003 of UN headquarters in Baghdad, and far beyond threats and deeds of more terror around the globe.

Without claiming any justification whatever for terrorist attacks here or anywhere, for there is none, we could be brought by this “plan for the fullness of time” to see to some extent what others see in us, to see what frustrations and grievances gave birth to these attacks, and to see opportunities for us to change our ways for the good of all. We could begin to craft a foreign policy that not only tries to preserve national security in the short run, but also proactively addresses for the long haul economic injustices caused (whether directly or indirectly) by powerful processes of globalization and multinational corporations.

Most importantly, a truly cosmic vision keeps matters in perspective, even weapons of mass destruction. As we leave the legendary Christmas manger on this second Sunday after Christmas, we envision again God’s work through Christ in the vast expanse of all Creation. We know that this immense work includes much more than defeating terror and the fear of terror. The great work of creation continues, recreating what is broken within us and restoring to wholeness what we have broken.

Hans Blix warned, when he retired as the UN’s inspector for WMDs in Iraq, that the gravest danger we humans face is not terrorism, terrible as it is, but environmental degradation from global warming. That long-term prospect disturbs him even more than do weapons of mass destruction in the hands of today’s fanatics. If 9/11 is “apocalypse now,” the climate change of global warming is already becoming the gravest future danger to the whole earth.

The greatest tragedy in this apocalyptic time is not terrorism. It is our own loss of perspective. We have superimposed the terrifying image of collapsing twin towers onto the image as seen from outer space of blue-and-white-orbed earth, that captivating beautiful image that we thought we could never forget, but which we have now blotted out. Those who put priority on waging war, retaliating against terror, and rewarding the rich for the simplicity of their presumed “moral vision” in supporting that reactionary program, have massively set aside mandates for environmental care and the eco-justice which that care builds.

But such a “set aside” cannot square with Christian faith in and service to the Lord of the cosmos who brought to us “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him.” The whole earth, our fragile home, and not only twin towers, is under attack and we consumers of affluence are the attackers. The dominion that was given to humanity to image God (Genesis 1:26), has instead defaced the earth, and all creation suffers.

To conclude: In this time of multiple apocalypses we need all the more the long perspective of our faith’s cosmic vision. We must and we can ride herd on our fears rather than allow our fears to ride herd on us, and on our domestic and foreign policies. The light that escaped so long ago from a tiny manger at the corner of empire brings back into view that blue-and-white-orbed earth, that uniquely verdant jewel of the heavens that God fashioned to be home for us and all fellow creatures.

In that light we find ourselves today in Jeremiah’s company of “the blind and the lame.” In that light we number ourselves among the remnant of Israel “from the farthest corners of the earth.” In a light resplendent for the fullness of time we find ourselves coming with a “great company” of prophetic people to “sing aloud on the height of Zion.” There, contemplating blue-and-white orbed earth, we become “ 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” (Jeremiah 31:7-12).

Once we become radiant over this Lord, who in genuine goodness created and sustains this earth and its environing cosmic totality, we leave no fellow human being behind in pain and poverty, we defer or set aside no compelling care for the creation that nurtures all life, and we allow no fear to overwhelm us. Illumined by that light, we allow no terror to reshape our patriotism into grotesque distortions and denials of the Founders’ vision for this nation. Under that light we do not rob our great-grandchildren to pay for our obsessive fears.

By that light we no longer live for ourselves alone, but “for the praise of [Christ’s] glory” (1:12). In apocalyptic times as always, that “plan for the fullness of times” contains our fears, and liberates us to live “radiant over the goodness of the Lord.”

Copyright Statement

To Reflections on other Standard (Episcopal) and Revised Common Lectionary Readings, All Years, Second Sunday After Christmas:

Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture) Jeremiah 31: 7-14
Psalm 84
no reflection available
New Testament Ephesians 1:3-6; 15-19a
Gospel Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
no reflection available

John Gibbs, PhD, a retired theologian, attended Trinity Episcopal Church, Park Rapids, MN, when he originally wrote this sermon in 2003. It also appears in Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XV, #1, December 2003-January 2004. He and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or additional reflections to John Gibbs or any MEESC member, or mail them to:

MEESC c/o C. Morello 4451 Lakeside Drive Eveleth, MN 55743-4400 USA

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