I recently discovered a verse from the book of Revelation conveying an ecological message on a Mary Engelbreit T-shirt. The quote was from chapter 7: "Do no harm to the land or the sea or the trees."

Since the authors of apocalyptic works aren't known for their ecological concerns, I quickly looked up Ms. Engelbreit's citation. She had quoted the passage correctly, but judiciously used only the first 12 words of the verse, stopping when she reached the word "until."

The divine "no harm" command, given to four destroying angels, is temporary. Once God's servants are properly "sealed," total destruction of land, sea and trees begins!

Coming disaster

Those who live in an apocalyptic environment always worry about impending disaster. They constantly fear being wiped out by forces beyond their control. Modern readers of Scripture often forget that Jesus' first followers lived their faith against such a background. That's why the first three evangelists have Jesus explicitly address their communities' apocalyptic concerns.

Of course, such fears weren't present only during Jesus' earthly and risen ministries. Anxiety about a Babylonian invasion also drove Jews to the brink, six centuries before Jesus. Jeremiah, the peoples' conscience during that period, frequently addresses their fear of destruction (Jer 33: 14-16). On one hand, he assures them it'll certainly happen; on the other, he tells them about a terrific new faith environment which will arise from their experience of pain and exile.

Of course, the new is always the past for prophets. They constantly call people to return to the beginnings of their faith, to that relationship with Yahweh which the first Israelites experienced. Jeremiah faithfully condemns those religious practices, institutions and traditions which keep his people from going one-one-one with God. His basic message: "Return to Yahweh."

So it isn't surprising that the prophet here not only encourages his people to focus on a day when they'll have a king leading them down the right path, but also describes the path they'll travel. It's in the name he gives to the rebuilt Jerusalem: "Yahweh our justice."

In Scripture, "justice" always refers to relationships. It describes the ties which exist both between God and us, and between us and others. True faith centers on these two relationships; false faith relegates such relationships to a distant fringe.

Deep ties

Jesus, the prophet, also demanded that His followers center on relationships. He did such a good job of it that His first disciples realized that they should likewise develop a relationship with Him, a relationship which automatically deepened their ties with God and one another.

Paul zeroes in on this concept in the earliest Christian writing we possess: I Thessalonians (3:12-4:2). "Brothers and sisters:" he writes, "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we have for you, so as to strengthen your hearts, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His holy ones."

On other words, "If you're developing your relationships, nothing can shake you, not even the Parousia."

Luke puts the same message into Jesus' mouth (Lk 21: 25-28, 34-36). No matter what terrors the future holds, Jesus will be present, caring for His followers. Though others will be "in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves...dying of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world," Jesus' disciples will be strengthened when they "see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory."

If some in our communities fear the future, it's simply a sign that we've been doing a lousy job of teaching justice.