In the movie “The Raiders of the Lost Ark,” there is a scene where Indiana Jones and his companions are digging in the spot where they have calculated the Ark of the Covenant to be buried. And as they are digging, you can see the sky in the background getting dark, with lightning flashing and the sound of thunder booming. Whenever we watched this movie together as a family, and this scene would come on, my mother would always say, “God is not a happy camper.” From ancient times, human beings would look to signs in the sky to discern whether or not God was pleased with them, and things like comets appearing or solar eclipses have always been taken for omens in the history of human beings. It’s only natural, after all. We human beings are incapable of using our bodies to fly, and so the skies have been assumed to be where God lives, while humans are confined to the earth. When we see something in the sky that we cannot understand, we explain it by saying it is God’s doing, and we often give meaning to whatever the sign is by saying that God is pleased or displeased with us.
Today’s Gospel lesson is no exception. There are many places in the Bible where signs in the sky are explained as God’s pleasure or displeasure—for example, the rainbow in Genesis as a sign of God’s covenant that God will never again destroy the world by a flood. And today, in this excerpt from the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, we see the sky turn dark from noon until three in the afternoon. Modern scientists have tried to explain this phenomenon. Some have suggested that it was a solar eclipse, and indeed in the Gospel of Luke, the Greek wording makes it sound like a solar eclipse is a distinct possibility. However, scientists will also tell you that solar eclipses do not last for three hours; solar eclipses last, on average, about 7 ½ minutes. If this darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion was not an eclipse, then, what was it? It may have been dark clouds, or it may have been a unique phenomenon that scientists will never be able to explain. But, what the Gospel writers, especially Mark, intended by describing the darkness that overcame the sky when Jesus was on the cross, was not to describe a scientific phenomenon. Instead, the darkness of the skies can be interpreted in two ways: First, that God was angry at the rejection of Jesus by humanity and the darkness of the skies showed his anger, and second, that the skies, representing all of creation, mourned at the death of their creator.
I’m going to go with the second interpretation today, and not simply because we are in the Season of Creation. Rather, it’s because I think we can run into all sorts of problems if we say that the skies becoming dark showed God’s anger and judgment, even if that interpretation is in line with some imagery in the prophetic books of the Bible describing God coming down from heaven to judge the earth. If we were to interpret the darkness as God’s anger, then that would give us permission to interpret almost any kind of weather phenomenon as God becoming angry with humanity, and then to name what it is God is angry about. We have seen this with certain evangelical preachers naming Hurricane Katrina as punishment upon New Orleans for loose morality, as just one of many examples. And when we become so certain that we know why God allows these things to happen, then we claim that we know the mind of God and we put ourselves on the same level as God, so that we can decree what we think is right and what we think is wrong, with God always on our side. Our Thursday morning Bible class should recognize this as what’s called a theology of glory. Therefore, I’m not going to go down that road of interpretation.
Instead, let us see today the skies becoming dark when Jesus was crucified as a sign that the creation is mourning at the death of Jesus. In my sermon two Sundays ago, I put forward the idea that the earth is not a dead piece of rock, but is rather alive—the Earth worked in partnership with God at the creation. God commanded, yes, but it was the Earth who brought forth living plants and living animals at God’s command. The Earth itself is alive in a way that we cannot completely understand. The Earth recognized, somehow, that in Jesus was the God who commanded it to bring forth life, and that this life-giver was now being put to death by the very creatures that God had created in his image. And so, the skies became black with mourning. Since, too, God’s realm was supposed to be in the skies, we can also say that God was weeping at Jesus’ death. And before anyone says to me that this interpretation is a little strange, there is another sign of God’s mourning Jesus’ death in this Scripture. “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” Yes, the traditional interpretation is that there is now no barrier between God and humans; that Jesus’ death has stripped away the barrier that was symbolized by the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. And that’s a good interpretation. But let’s also think about this: one sign of grief in Biblical times was for people to tear their clothes. Think of the curtain in the temple, which is God’s house, as part of God’s clothing, and God is tearing his clothes in grief at the rejection and death of his Son by those he created to bear his image. Yes, God and the whole creation mourn the death of Jesus, God’s Son.
So then, if the sky can mourn at the death of Jesus by the hands of humanity, can it also mourn at what humanity is doing to it and to the rest of creation? This summer, forest fires throughout the Western states were awful. The smoke obscured our beautiful scenery, including the sky, and the air quality was so bad in places that people had to stay indoors. And there was no rain. The drought in California, which has gone on for four years, has people praying for rain with little relief in sight. The snowpack in the mountains, which California has depended on to help supplement its water needs, has dwindled due to the lack of snow and rain, and warmer-than-normal temperatures. The dry sky cries out because it cannot help to give life to the creation, as God designed it to do. And we humans are, in part, responsible for the sky no longer being able to help us as it once did. The sky cries out in protest against what we have done, and God hears those cries.
But God does not leave us without hope. In the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, the darkness lasts only until the moment of Jesus’ death. And out of the darkness of death, God creates a new thing. In Jesus’ death is the promise of new life, of resurrection out of death, echoing the promise of the life that God created out of the chaos at the beginning of the Earth. Just as God brought light out of darkness when he created the world, God brings light and new life from Jesus’ death on the cross. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we will have new life with God through him.
If, then, God is ushering in a new age and a new creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we, too, are part of that new creation. Now, to be sure, that new age is not completely fulfilled yet, and will not be completely fulfilled until Jesus returns to this Earth. Yet the apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” I would like to suggest that part of what Paul is saying here is that, since there is a new creation beginning in us already, we ought to try to live as if that new creation has already been fulfilled. And that means not only caring for one another, but caring for the creation, including taking care of the sky.
In speaking of the care of our common home, Pope Francis writes in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, “Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. People take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating.” Those, of course, are not the only pollutants out there. I remember that, after spending 2 ½ years living in Taiwan, when I came home to Virginia (where my parents were living at the time), I was able to take a deep breath of clean air for the first time in those 2 ½ years. I still wonder sometimes if my time over there will one day catch up with me and result in breathing problems. So let’s think about this: even as we give to worthy organizations such as ELCA World Hunger, and the ELCA Malaria Campaign–which, by the way, reached its $15 million fundraising goal this week–, are we thinking of how we can help people in nations that don’t have as high of an air quality as we do to breathe in clean air? For air is just as necessary for people to live abundantly as is food and a lack of disease. What can we be doing to help promote use of cleaner energy that would help some of our brothers and sisters across the globe who are not as well-off as we are? We are, after all, connected: what we put into the air here in the United States will flow to many other places in the world.
Pope Francis writes that “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’. . . . We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth . . . our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” Just as creation mourned at the death of Jesus, so creation is mourning and is groaning at what we are doing to her, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. But just as Jesus’ death on the cross was not the last word, our damaged and groaning creation is also not the last word. God has given us hope through the death of Jesus: we are a new creation, and even though that new creation has not yet come to fulfillment, we have the opportunity every day to, as Luther said, drown the old Adam in Jesus’ death and rise a new creature, forgiven and able to live as though that new creation were already fulfilled. And part of that rising from the waters of baptism includes caring for the creation, and, in so doing, caring for those around us. Let’s not be afraid to do this, but let us go forth, helping all people to breathe fresh air, and working to help those around us see the beautiful skies shining down upon us. Amen.
skies shining down upon us. Amen.skies shining down upon us. Amen.last word. God has given us hope through the death of Jesus: we are a new creation, and even though that new creation has not yet come to fulfillment, we have the opportunity every day to, as Luther said, drown the old Adam in Jesus’ death and rise a new creature, forgiven and able to live as though that new creation were already fulfilled. And part of that rising from the waters of baptism includes caring for the creation, and, in so doing, caring for those around us. Let’s not be afraid to do this, but let us go forth, helping all people to breathe fresh air, and working to help those around us see the beautiful skies shining down upon us. Amen.