Living Lightly on God’s Good Earth

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4, Psalms 104:10-24, Romans 8:18-25

On our vacation, Nate and I had the joy and privilege of spending time amidst wonderous natural beauty and marvelous, astounding animals. We hiked up Table Mountain in Cape Town. We spent hours marveling at African penguins that waddled and swam and napped in little rocky nooks. Our breath was taken away by the dark skies of KwaZulu-Natal Province, where the Milky Way shone brightly for us in a coastal town with very little light pollution (and the power went out, which helped us further). The vastness of two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian, was awe-inspiring – and somehow, I can say that even though I was stung by a Portuguese Man-Of-War jellyfish while swimming near Durban.

I can’t mention all of the beauty and delight we had on a river full of hippos, at the sight of Nile crocodiles, at the sound of lions crunching their hard-caught meal, or when driving through the gorgeous green mountains of Swaziland.  

King David, in Psalm 19, wrote that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (vv. 1-4). Our natural world is beautiful, and its vastness and grandeur point humans to the Source of all life and goodness.

God’s Good Earth

God’s story and our story start out with the natural world in focus. In the beginning, the universe was formless chaos. God the Creator took what was chaos and made beauty. In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that God is the Creator and originator of every living thing. The notion of something being made by God inherently imbues it with worth and value. Beyond that inherent value, God the Creator explicitly deems every aspect of creation—night and day, sun, moon, and stars, water, land, plants, animals in the sea and on dry land, and human beings—to be good.

The meaning of “good” here in Genesis 1 is much more than “just okay.” It isn’t “good enough.” For the Hebrew word tov, good is pleasing, pleasant, pure, and delightful. An ancient Jewish commentator Rashbam translated tov as beautiful. We mark Earth Day today because God’s story (and our story) starts out declaring that the earth and every living creature is from God, by God, and good.  

Our Genesis Creation story tells us about the value of our natural world. It also tells us about who we are and should be as humans. We see that humans are created in the image of God and this means that humans have a task in relation to the world.  God blesses humans, calling them to “Be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (1:28). What exactly does this filling, subduing, and dominion mean?

In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis argues that this text has often been misinterpreted, equating subdue and dominion with exploit. Yet to understand it as exploit is to miss the broader biblical message about God’s creation. One way to understand dominion is to think of humans as being given power and authority like God (humans were made in God’s image), to care for everything under their stewardship—just as God cares for both humans, lilies, and the smallest sparrow (Matthew 6:26-31; 10:29-31). Nowhere in scripture does God exploit creation; therefore, the stewards who are made in God’s image (people!) are not supposed to do dominion in that way.

Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann (1982) further adds that “The ‘dominion’ here mandated is with reference to the animals. The dominance is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals… Thus, the task of ‘dominion’ does not have to do with exploitation and abuse. It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition” (p. 32). This interpretation fits well with the parallel account in Gen. 2, where God commands Adam to “till and keep” the earth where God has placed him (Gen. 2:15).

Humans fulfill their God-given purpose when they enable ecosystems to thrive. When we protect and sustain the earth, we live out our role as God’s image-bearers. The big picture from Genesis 1 and 2 is that the earth made by God, the earth is good, and that humans are called to protect and care for it.

In the New Testament, we see Creation as good enough for God to be manifest within (John 1 – the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood) and we read that all created things were made by and through Jesus (Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:2-3). Jesus made and intimately knows and delights in the creeping insect, the budding flower, the newborn kitten, and even the adult human. This “made-by-Jesus” label is something that clearly should impart honor and value to the environment and living creatures.

For some Christians, they can acknowledge that God made the world and maybe that it was originally good, but they don’t want to go further. Those facts aren’t enough to motivate them to change the way they live or to think that caring for the environment is an important calling for the Church. An argument is often made that caring for the environment pales in comparison with preaching the gospel of Jesus, with saving souls and transforming human lives. I believe that this argument is faulty, because it involves an incomplete and shallow understanding of Jesus’ redemption work in our world. It’s not an either/or dilemma. God’s redemption throughout the Bible (from Genesis through Revelation) is actually portrayed as touching every corner of Creation, both human souls and healthy ecosystems. This is the powerful gospel of Jesus that we proclaim.

The Gospel Will Reach Every Corner of Creation

The world recently mourned the loss of the last male northern white rhino in the wild. Around the world, there are many species of animals that are on the brink of extinction or have not been seen for many years. Just yesterday, I saw news that North Atlantic right whales do not have any documented offspring during this breeding season. Pollution, overfishing, entanglement, and blows by passing ships are all factors that are stressing these whales to critical endangerment. While one can talk about the economic, social, and political factors that affect the health of these whales, a biblical perspective leads me to believe that the underlying factor is human sin.

Any time you see ecological devastation in the bible, the cause is human greed or idolatry. If we look from Genesis through Revelation, we can see pictures of sustainability and wholeness as designed by God, we can see destruction and environmental degradation caused by human sin, and thankfully, we can also see God’s vision for the earth’s renewal and redemption.

Starting in the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament, we can see that the natural order designed by God allows for ecosystems to sustain all organisms. There’s a harmony depicted, with God the Creator holding everything in balance. In Psalm 104, God’s hand is over the natural order of ecosystems, animals, and people. Humans and animals are pictured with all that they need, in a world rightly oriented around God the Creator. It’s when people take their eyes off the Creator that ecosystems are shown to go sideways.

In Exodus, when the people of Israel receive the covenant through Moses, following God has direct implications for the well-being of the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 28). Right living in the covenant with Yahweh brings blessing, bountiful harvests, and ecological prosperity. Right living included both right worship and right relationships, caring for the marginalized and vulnerable. Idolatry and oppressing the poor would result in the land drying up and becoming infertile. This eventually comes to fruition.

Later, in the prophets, we see the effects of sin on the land (Hos. 4:1-3; Jer. 12:4). In both Hosea and Jeremiah, the land itself mourns as it and the creatures it sustains begin to die. The prophet Ezekiel chastises the Israelites for trampling the land and polluting the water (Ezek. 34:18). In the prophet Jonah, we also see that animals are part of God’s beloved creation, affected by the consequences of human sin. Yahweh calls on Jonah to preach so the Ninevites repent, to save the population of people and cows (Jonah 4: 9-11). God was not just concerned about the destruction of people, but also the destruction of animals; Jonah’s reluctant message delivered both.

During the days of the prophets, things looked bleak because of the consequences of human sin. But amidst prophetic messages of judgment and consequences, Yahweh also sent images of hope and redemption. The Hebrew prophets pointed beyond judgment to an ecological wholeness that would characterize the final reign of Yahweh; reconciliation with God would go hand-in-hand with a fertile, bountiful, and healthy ecosystem (Amos 9:13-15). Peace in the last days would not only include salvation and freedom from violence, but also ecological peace and wholeness—even peace between people and animals (Isaiah 11:6-1; 65:17-25).

These messages continued as God’s Messiah, Jesus, came to deliver hope and redemption. One of the most famous passages cited about Jesus’ redemption is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” The Greek word for “world” here does not just refer to humans; a Methodist pastor and author Rebekah Simon-Peter explains that “The word world is actually kosmon in Greek—the cosmos… Jesus’ love is not just for humans, it’s for all creation. That’s why he said to the disciples, ‘Go to all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15)” (Passi-Klaus, 2015, April 17). Jesus’ salvation redeems human hearts and everything else. In Colossians, we read that “through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).

One of my favorite passages of scripture illustrates this further: the apostle Paul writes to the early church in Rome, which has been enduring suffering and persecution, and says that it isn’t just the early church that longs for God’s redemption. Not just humans; “all creation waits and groans for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:18-25). The earth yearns for Jesus to reign, for an end to sin and war and violence and greed and destruction.

Some Christians do not see redemption this way; they see God doing a complete purge of everything on earth. The notion that “it’s all gonna burn” can be a rather convenient theological cover for greed and indifference to God’s creation. Most importantly, I don’t think it’s biblically accurate. While some New Testament voices do use images of fire and destruction to talk about the coming of Jesus’ Kingdom, Jewish tradition does not understand these to be obliteration for something completely different. Rather, fire was used for purifying and healing, much like the biblical image of metal purified or the ecological image of new life after a forest fire. When passages like 2 Peter 3:10-13 and Revelation 21:1-7 talk of new heavens and new earth, the cultural context likely means new as renewed and healed. Understanding it this way also makes more sense alongside passages like Romans 8 and prophetic visions of renewal.

The biblical story starts out with God creating and declaring the created world to be “good.” The last book of the bible shows us a Kingdom where Jesus reigns, where the curse of sin is no longer prevailing, and where God’s full reconciliation will define the world—a redemption that transforms humans and all created things. Jesus declares in Revelation 21:5 “Behold! I am making all things new!” Jesus is making all things new.

Living Lightly on God’s Good Earth

So what does this mean for us? We see in scripture that 1) Creation is good, made by God, and humans are to care for it; and 2) that the gospel of Jesus leads to transformation in human relationships with God and human relationships with the earth. If these are the case, then there are several implications for our lives as Christians. We are to

  1. Act in ways that honor God’s creation, protect it, sustain it
  2. Learn about the impact our lives have on the earth
  3. Find ways to live lightly on earth and reduce our consumption, so that we are not trampling God’s creation (to use the image from Ezekiel).

I’m sure we’ve all been overwhelmed by data and guilt about our role in environmental degradation. Talking about the environment can be paralyzing for folks. So, my exhortation for us today is for three things: 1) connect with God’s Creation in a concrete way, 2) explore change as an individual, 3) help us explore change as a church.

How can you find a way to tangibly connect with God’s Creation on a regular basis? Can you walk or sit outside in the sunshine? Can you tend a plant at home (growing an herb indoors can be easy for apartment dwellers) or garden at church (we’ve got a garden you might have heard about in the announcements)? Can you sit next to or walk along the Anacostia or Potomac Rivers. Take opportunity to praise God and to consider that the earth, the sun, the plants, the trees, the water—these good things—are also each declaring their praise for our common Creator. If you do this already, add a new psalm or song to your outdoor routine to deepen the sense of prayer and worship.

How can you as an individual find a way to live more lightly on God’s Good Earth? Can you switch out some disposable, single-use plastic items for reusable items? Bring your own utensils or metal straws? Can you cut out meat for one meal per week? Can you try public transit, cycling, or walking?

How can we as a church find ways to live more lightly on God’s Good Earth? For starters, we do need some volunteers to improve how we recycle and think about sustainability. Can you help us? We need someone to put clearly marked recycling bins in all rooms where church folks and other guests meet. We could use a little extra coordination for our potlucks to try to reduce (and ideally eliminate) our use of single-use plastic items. Maybe it is by finding volunteers to wash metal utensils (whether it’s washing them at home or at church). Can you help us with outreach and communication to better highlight the steps we have already taken to care for the earth, such signs that tell the community about our solar panels, rain barrels, or our gardens?

I don’t have the answers or even all the right questions that we should be asking. Thankfully, one of the beautiful things about community is that we can learn from each other and challenge each other to live in ways that honor and protect the goodness of God’s creation, demonstrating the power of Jesus’ gospel to transform both our lives and this world. Let us journey together as we follow Jesus, living lightly on God’s good earth. AMEN.

References

Brueggemann, W. (1982). Genesis. Interpretation. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.

Passi-Klaus, S. (2015, April 17). Christians and Creation: ‘You can’t love God and ignore the Earth’ Retrieved from http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/christians-and-earth-day-you-cant-love-god-and-ignore-earth

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