Tuesday, 6 December 2016
| Mick Pope
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Advent is the time we remember the mystery of the incarnation. Among some people I know, it’s a time to reopen debates about Christology, the nature of that incarnation. For those of us willing to take it as a given and think about the implications, it should be a time to jump to the end of the book of Revelation and pray, ‘Come, Lord Jesus’.
Of course, there is all manner of debate and confusion over Jesus’ ‘second coming’ as there is over his first, but it’s always worth grounding the later in the former. And I mean so quite literally. We are used to thinking of Jesus as a man. And he was (is) a male human. Sadly, often in our imaginations and movies it is a blue-eyed Jesus we see, rather than a dark-skinned Galilean Jew. We can all too readily press Jesus into whatever mould we want. Scholars as well as laity are not immune from this.
John’s Gospel goes to great lengths to affirm Jesus’ divinity. More particularly, he is identified with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not some abstract conception of deity that might find home in the debates of philosophers, less still the rain-sending ‘Hughie’ of popular thought. For John, Jesus is the One who pitches his tent, or tabernacles, among his people, just as God did in the wandering in the wilderness. He is the Word who was present at creation, through whom all things were made. The echoes with Genesis 1 are quite clear.
What might sometimes escape our notice is that Jesus becomes flesh. John could have said that Jesus became a human like Adam, or a man. To be sure, God became a human being, but John doesn’t just emphasise the divine identification with humanity, but with all living creatures. This is a radical step for some, but this idea of deep incarnation means that God has more than just a passing interest in the state and fate of the material creation. When we think of Jesus’ second coming, we need to be reminded that his identification is with all that is made.
At the other end of John’s Gospel, there are more signposts to this idea and to our own vocations. It is the first day of the week, a sign of a new beginning. Early in the morning, Jesus is found in a garden, initially identified as a gardener, by the woman Mary who is his partner in sharing the good news of the new creation. All of these echoes are very deliberate. Through Jesus’ resurrection, our vocation as ministers of a new creation is set. To be sure, there is nothing explicit here about what we have come to understand as ‘creation care’. However, this new beginning or reboot means that all of the old concerns have a new focus. Go and preach the gospel, but don’t do so in a way that disconnects it to what was always intended, as if now only the ‘spiritual’ mattered.
This bookending of John with creation and new creation can possibly help us with debates over the meaning of ‘the world’ in John 3:16. Although ‘the world’ in John in general, and in 3:16 in particular, is best read as meaning the human world, it isn’t a step too far to see that embodied in God’s love of human beings is also his love of the whole of creation.
I write at a time when we really are facing a crossroads. More and more I find myself praying ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ so that the suffering and loss will be minimised. As the world apparently goes backward, humanity reverting to tribalism and the creation continually trashed, it’s all a little too awful to bear. When I look at the result of the US presidential election, I understand how Donald Trump polarises Australian as well as American Christians. Clinton did the same, but for me Trump embodies many of the things that concern me.
With centuries of direct observations, millennia of proxy data, two hundred years of basic science and decades of computer modelling, human-caused climate change is real, it’s immediate and it threatens all we hold dear. So when I read of a climate change denier being put in charge of the EPA, of threats to climate science done by NASA, of national parks being open to fossil fuel exploration, I’m struck by a dual existential crisis. On the one hand, as a trained meteorologist, there is the horror of knowing that four years (and possibly longer given political system inertia and infrastructure commitments) of environmental vandalism can make retaining a safe climate near impossible. On the other hand, as someone who reflects theologically, I’m aghast at the socio-political system, with its thin veneer of theology (I say thin because of the gnostic, dualistic, creation denying nature of so much of it) that has given birth to this.
So human society is broken. Who knew? Running toward a climate precipice, the claims that some Christians make that God won’t allow it to happen ignore the fact that clearly he is allowing us to affect the climate as well as other parts of the Earth system, and this is punishment for our idolatry of money, growth, power and progress. Likewise, the feigned humility of ‘how can humans be powerful enough to ruin the planet?’ founders on the fact that clearly we are. With the great power of being the image of God there has always been great responsibility, which we have more often than not shirked.
So will the last Trump sound soon? I have no idea. I don’t cave in to sectarian predictions of when this might happen, I just find myself praying for it more and more. And Trump is more symptom than disease. He’s not the Messiah American Evangelicals were hoping for, just another naughty boy in a long line. And while politics can’t save us, we can at least vote for candidates with a greater sense of responsibility to the poor and not just the rich.
So in this time, as we pray ‘Come, Lord Jesus’, we don’t just pull up stumps waiting for it to happen. Instead, we keep our lamps lit, working, praying and speaking prophetically to power about all of its shortcomings, and its responsibilities. We care for the poor, the needy, the creation, our broken political system. And this all in mind with being found faithful and, hopefully too, effective. Now, more than ever, the world needs the church to be the church, and the church needs its Lord to return.
Mick Pope is Ethos Environment Coordinator and Zadok Reviews Editor. He heads up the Ethos Environment think tank, blogs at http://ethos-environment.blogspot.com.au/ and about.me/mick.pope, and is the author, together with Claire Dawson, of Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World (Melbourne, UNOH, 2014).