This post comes from Jenn Hosler, pastor at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. Jenn recently shared this sermon as a reflection on Earth Day.
Daffodils, tulips, cherry blossoms, and magnolia trees. Hyacinths and dandelions, sprouting leaves and singing birds. Friends, spring is here and it is beautiful. Last Sunday was one of my favorite days in DC, when I had the joy of taking my annual visit down to the cherry blossoms in peak bloom. I am always astounded by the magnificence of the cherry blossoms. The sea of pinkish white trees gleaming in the sun makes my heart sing. Each year I go, the cherry blossoms remind me that the world is good and beautiful and that God the Creator is reigning.
You may know that Earth Day is this Wednesday, April 22nd. Because of this, I thought it apt that we should spend this Sunday’s worship reflecting on the Earth. Earth Day, however, does not have a place in the Lectionary, the calendar of readings and scriptures used by many denominations. On that calendar, today is the third Sunday of Easter. Does Earth Day have anything to do with Easter? Should Earth Day be on the church calendar?
What exactly does Scripture teach us about this world in which we live? Do we have a biblical theology of creation? How does creation relate to other parts of theology, like how we understand Christ or salvation? If we look across scripture, we can see three truths that the Bible teaches about creation. First, the earth is created by God and it is good. Second, human sin impacts the earth and all of creation. Third, through Christ, both we and the earth are being reconciled to God and made beautiful.
Created and Good
If we are looking at what the Bible says about the earth, a logical place to start would be at the beginning, at the Creation story presented in Genesis 1. In the Creation story in Genesis, God repeatedly calls the earth “good”. What does it mean to say that something is good? The word “good” has a wide semantic range – we use it for a lot of things. One of my Australian friends found my use of “good” to be very perplexing.
When waiting for him to finish something up so that we could leave and go sightseeing in DC, I asked him, “Are you good?” He replied, “Do you mean ontologically good? Am I in fact a good person, good by nature?” What I meant was, “are you ready?” Are you “good to go?” In North America, we say “good to go” and shorten it to good, which can be a bit perplexing or funny for other English speakers. We use good in a lot of ways: it can mean favorable, righteous, or pleasant. It can mean something is suitable, adequate (or good enough), or even just “okay”.
The meaning here in Genesis 1 is much more than “just okay”. In Genesis, good is pleasing, pleasant, pure, and delightful. “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” God then creates the sun, moon, and stars, calls into existence the sky and land, gathers the waters, makes vegetation, plants, and animals, and He after He is finished each one, He calls each of them “good.”
The Creator gazes upon oceans and rivers and trees and streams and birds and mammals and fish and declares all of them pleasing, pleasant, pure, and delightful. From the beginning of our human story, we see that physical matter, the biological world around us, and the environment—they are all God-designed, God-crafted, and God-approved.
Genesis 1 teaches us that God created this earth and that He called it good. Genesis 1 also details the creation of human beings. Humans are shown to be in unique relationship with God, the only part of creation that is made in the image of God. In verses 26 through 28, we see God speaking humanity into existence: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and 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.’” When God is finished, He looks upon the humans and says that it is “very good.”
Being made in the image of God gives us a special relationship with God—and also a special relationship with the rest of creation. Being made in the image of God brings with it a functional authority: there is a task to keep, guard, and protect the earth under human care.
While the words used in our English translation—fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion—seem exploitative, the biblical understanding is anything but. Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann (1982) describes how “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).
From the start, humans were to have an ongoing relationship with the created world, caring for it, tending it, and protecting the earth and its creatures.
Cursed and Broken
In Genesis 1, the beautiful creation story is presented at a macro level. In chapter 2, we get a closer up look at human beings, with God creating people out of the earth itself, out of dust from the ground. Again, we see humans and the earth intertwined—physically this time. From dust we are made. Things get darker, however, as the book of Genesis continues. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve rebel against God. The consequences of human sin proceed to spread across creation. These consequences include a broken relationship between humans and also a combative relationship between humans and the earth.
In Genesis 3 and other parts of the Old Testament, we see that human sin impacts creation, both directly and indirectly. In Deuteronomy, the Mosaic Covenant between the Israelites and Yahweh contained within it both blessings and curses tied to the Land of Israel. Devotion to Yahweh would bring blessings and the land would produce bountifully. Turning away from Yahweh—and toward idol worship, greed, and injustice—would lead to drought, devastation, and barrenness.
In the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and others, the effects of human sin on the land are described in vivid terms of desolation and brokenness. The land is personified as mourning the sin of the Israelites. Jeremiah 12:4 reads, “How long will the grass mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For [Because of] the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away…”
The prophet Hosea proclaimed something similar in chapter 4, verses 1-3, “Hear the word of the LORD, O people of Israel; for the LORD has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing [oaths], lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish, together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing” (Hos. 4: 1-3).
In the Old Testament, human sin is not just an individual problem. Sin affects the well-being of the community and also the well-being of the environment. If human sin impacts all of creation, it would make sense that God’s story of salvation and redemption would not bring healing to our relationship with God, but also to all of creation.
Flesh vs. Spirit? Reconciling all Things
At times throughout history, Christians have had difficulty understanding salvation beyond what it means for an individual soul. Christians have struggled with strains of philosophy that denigrate the physical world, or think that the physical world is something to get past. In dualism and Gnosticism, to use technical terms for some of these philosophies, the immaterial world is spiritual, while the material world is evil, imperfect, and to be shunned.
Some biblical illustrations, like Paul’s use of the word “flesh” for sinful nature (Gal. 5:19-21; Rom. 8), have given the impression that dualism is biblical or scriptural. They’ve pointed to some scriptures and said, “See, the Bible says the physical world is bad.” One of these scriptures is in Romans 8:5-6. Here, Paul says that “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
This contrast between flesh and Spirit, death and life, can leave us confused and perplexed. Does salvation mean we don’t care for the earth – we only the Spirit? As with many theological concepts, it is important to read widely in scripture to get the full context of Christian teaching.
With Paul’s writings, we hear “flesh” bad and Spirit good and can easily assume that Paul was speaking universally. But Paul used “flesh” to describe the sinful nature, but still maintained that God’s creation was good and part of God’s overall all plan. Looking further just within Romans 8, the same chapter that talks about flesh versus Spirit, we can see that Paul is not a dualist. Paul teaches that it is not only humanity that needs Christ’s redemptive power. The earth and all creatures in it also eagerly await Jesus’ redemption.
Paul writes in Romans that “the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption [as God’s children], the redemption of our bodies” (8:19-23).
This created world, plants and animals and ecosystems, is tied up in the spiritual and physical fate of humanity. God’s plan of salvation does not just lead to souls being saved, but our physical bodies and the rest of Creation are also being redeemed.
Earlier, I asked, does Earth Day have anything to do with Easter? I think the answer is yes. This morning’s passage in Colossians says that Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (1:19). Through Christ Jesus, the Word became flesh and dwelled among us. Through His death and resurrection, God is reconciling to himself all things. He is making all things new. We experience the first fruits through the Holy Spirit now and some day it will all be brought to fulfillment. Destruction, death, and decay will be replaced with wholeness, life, and beauty.
Agents of Reconciliation
So what does this mean for our lives as followers of Jesus? Through Christ, we have been brought from death to life. Because of Jesus’s death and resurrection, we are freed from sin, freed from hatred, freed from greed, freed from our tendency to exploit and consume. It is in this freedom that we learn to love God, learn to love others, and also learn to reclaim our role as shepherds and keepers of the earth. Made in the image of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to be agents of God’s reconciliation. We are called to proclaim and live out and model reconciliation in our relationships and also in how we relate to the earth. God is making all things new – and He’s doing this in us and through us by the power of the Holy Spirit – transforming the broken into beautiful things.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to fixing our relationship with our environment. This is because our culture and our standard of living has emphasized consumption and comfort over caring for the earth. Overconsumption and disregard for the earth pervade much of our lives – how we transport ourselves, how we eat, what we buy, whether we fix things, and more. Transforming our relationship with the earth is a long process, one that we are called to undertake both as individuals and as a faith community.
As a church, we have taken some steps to be stewards of the earth, such as our rain barrel and our rain landscaping. Through the Office of Public Witness, we will soon install a demonstration and kitchen garden beside the church. These are all great steps. Yet if reconciliation is a process, we should be asking together, “What is our next step of in reconciling ourselves to God’s good earth?”
This is a question we also ask in our individual lives: how can I make one step further toward being a good steward of God’s creation. How can I reduce what I send to a landfill, maybe by recycling or composting or just buying less? How can I reduce pollution – can I go meatless one day a week? Can I drive less and walk, bike, or metro more? Can I carpool? There isn’t one set plan for everyone: the key goal is to understand how our actions impact the earth which has been entrusted to our care.
Sisters and brothers, let us rejoice. The earth is good and beautiful. Jesus is reconciling us to God, reconciling us with each other, and reconciling us with this earth. We are not passive bystanders in this plan, but active agents of God’s reconciliation. May we be faithful to our call to guard and protect and tend God’s good creation. Amen.
Brueggemann, W. (1982). Genesis. Interpretation. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.