Gen 1:24-31; Ezek 34:1-4
Wendy and I share our garden with a variety of creatures. My favourite is the Jay when it visits – but they are shy birds and fly away at the slightest movement. We also have a very bold robin who will come up quite close when we are working in the garden. We also have squirrels visit from next door – to dig holes in the grass and bury nuts in our pots. Foxes are daily visitors and we can tell the time by them as they use our garden as a route home or out. They also dig up our vegetables and mess in lots of places – so not our favourite animals. And I’m afraid we aren’t friendly to slugs and snails.
We share the whole world with an amazing variety of creatures. Margaret is going to put some up on PP…Notice I said share. When God brought the world into being, all other living creatures were brought into being before humans and land animals were created on the same day as humans.
My argument in this message will be that when God said we were to have dominion and to multiply and subdue the earth, it wasn’t to squeeze out the other creatures of God’s creation, or to exhaust the riches of creation, because he declared it all to be good – and the disobedience of Adam and Eve didn’t nullify the goodness of creation. If we are going to say that, then it also nullified the instruction to have dominion, increase and subdue. For too long conservative Christian theology has seen the world as something we use up and throw away, because God said to have dominion and subdue. I think this is just compounding the sin of Adam and Eve.
I am reading a book at the moment called ‘Erebus: the story of a ship’. It is a historical account of polar exploration in Victorian times. This particular ship was the ship that travelled furthest south under sail and braved the pack ice and Antarctic winter to further exploration and understanding of the poles – as well as claim Antarctica for Britain. They were incredibly brave and survived the worst possible conditions for months on end without the benefits of modern equipment. They were away for from home for about 3 years. However, the attitude of the crew was exactly that of dominate and subdue. The land and the creatures were there for humans to use and consume. There was one naturalist on board who basically shot everything that moved either to eat or to take home as specimens – and then got dreadfully upset because when the ship called in at an island for repairs and restocking, found he might have eaten horse and not beef!
Unfortunately, it is this attitude of the Victorians – and other nations of the West as they dominated and carved up the world – that has been prominent in Christian understanding of the human relationship with the world. I don’t think it is biblical, if we accept that the world belongs to God; he declared it to be very good; that declaration was not and is not nullified by the sinfulness of humankind. I also happen to think that when God came to save the world in Jesus, it was the whole world he came to redeem and not just people.
In the Bible, animals and people are pictured together, working and living together. The sea creatures and birds were brought into being and the instruction to them was to multiply. Land creatures and humans were brought into being on the same day and although v.28 seems to be an instruction for humans, the bit about multiplying would surely apply to the animals as it was given to sea creatures and birds of the air. If not, they would have died out long ago! Humans are made in the image of God and since Adam and Eve were put in the garden to tend it and presumably live alongside the creatures, that responsibility of tending and living alongside can be extended to the whole human race.
The other significant place in which animals and people are pictured together is Noah’s ark and in particular the covenant made as they disembark. God said,
“I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.”
“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
In Genesis 9 God does give permission for animals to be food and says that the living creatures will be in the power of humans, but again we have to bear in mind the stewardship of creation given at the beginning of Genesis, the fact that creation is God’s and we have to ask how are we to exercise right power and authority over creatures on God’s behalf? Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount describes God as a heavenly Father who cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Does this not tell us how we should treat God’s creation?
The passage read from Ezekiel is not about creation or stewardship in creation. Or is it? What is described here as a picture of the way the leaders or shepherds of Israel were treating the people, is an example of an extremely bad shepherd. The assumption is that this is not what you expect of someone who was a good shepherd caring for the herd, and the judgement of God comes on leaders of Israel for the way in which the people have been shepherded. The picture of exploitation and poor government painted in the prophets – the oppression and injustice practised on the people – can be extended to creation. If we treat creation as being purely for the consumption and convenience of a small part of the world, is it any wonder that just as the rulers of Israel were poor shepherds of their resources and the people under their care, the way we treat creation is also extended to the way we treat other cultures and minorities and weaker communities, especially when they have what we want.
When we take the words ‘dominate and subdue’ as a command of God, we have to seek understanding as to what they mean. If we are made in the image of God and are his people on earth, what is the image we are portraying? Genesis 1 and 2 talk of a creator God who brought the world into existence, who saw that it was very good and gave one of his creatures responsibility for tending and caring for the world.
It does not seem credible that God meant us to ravage the world. We believe that God is one of justice, righteousness and love. This should be reflected in the way the image bearers subdue the earth. An American rabbi – and surely we need to hear how jewish people understand the Hebrew scriptures – concludes that
‘The divine mandate for humans to dominate the world is a sacred trust, not a
carte blanche for destructiveness.’
This is where we can learn from those communities we consider to be primitive or less developed who are living in company with the land and its creatures. Even if they don’t know Christ or reflect our Christian worldview, perhaps they reflect more faithfully the instruction of God from Genesis.
Sometimes the way we talk about the environment facilitates us feeling separate from it. The fact that we designate the world around as the ‘environment’ rather than the place and context in which we live, creates a sense of ‘it’ and ‘us’. When God brought the world into being it was created as a whole and not separate parts. There is a strong sense of the unity of creation throughout the Bible but particularly in the opening pages, in the story of Noah and expressed in the Psalms. If we have an understanding that there is a unity in creation and not ‘us’ and ‘it’, we will have a greater understanding of our responsibility within the world in which we live.
The contemporary poet, Luci Shaw describes God as the original artist of creation and that just as each human thumb print is unique, so is the original thumb print of God in creation. If this is the case, the way we have been treating the world is a desecration of God’s artistry. When sites of special historical interest from ancient or even less ancient times are destroyed because of the actions of humans in war, terror, greed or the name of progress, we are outraged because they are lost to the world forever.
When the Taliban destroyed the 165ft statues of Budha in Afghanistan there was outrage. When the treasures of Iraq were looted and despoiled because of our actions in that country, there was despair and anger. These are human creations and not the work of God, and yet we hold them valuable and with preserving. Consider the outpouring of grief in France when Notre Dame burned.
How much more should we be outraged and grieving and acting to restore when God’s handiwork in creation is defaced and destroyed and threatened.
The head of the Indian Orthodox Church Paulos Mar Gregorious says,
‘In taking what is given by nature, we should be careful to give back to nature what
it needs to maintain its own integrity and to supply the needs of the future.’
This sounds more in keeping with God giving the stewardship of the garden to Adam and Eve than the way we have been treating it.
All well and good, but we need hope, not despair; encouragement and not browbeating. What can we do? Well it begins with changing our understanding and attitude towards God’s creation. In a consumerist society, how can I change my behaviour and consumerism? If I make a change and all those in Emmanuel Baptist make a change, that is a bigger impact.
• We can influence others, first by our attitudes and responses and then by our living example, and so the change spreads. Perhaps we need to keep in mind the motto Christian Aid adopted a few years ago: ‘How can I live more simply so that others can simply live?’ This would move us more towards the image of God as stewards, and lead to further change.
• We can explore how we can support and encourage those in a position to make a bigger impact than we can. Look at the work of organisations like Christian Aid, BMS World Mission and Tearfund with communities across the world and see how you can contribute to their work.
• Be prepared to support tree planting projects to counteract the destruction of trees that is taking place particularly in poorer parts of the world where more powerful people are destroying the places where smaller and weaker communities live.
• Be prepared to be political and challenge those in authority concerning the impact of our policies and actions on the world around us.
• Be prepared to make personal sacrifices. We may not think they make a difference, but change starts with one person.
When I wonder what the point the is, I think of the comic song I posted on FB about the rubbish in Gravesend. Often I’ve wondered why we bother with recycling and sorting rubbish when so many people just don’t seem to care. However, as someone made in the image of God and a steward of God’s creation, it is my responsibility to care.
• As a church in thinking about the future and what church will be like as we emerge from lock down, we need to take seriously our own carbon footprint and reduce it significantly.
We believe that the world and life are a gift from God. we know what it is like when a gift we have bought is not appreciated or cast aside. We have been given the gift of being children of God and part of the Kingdom through Jesus Christ. This involves receiving and treating with love the gift of our world in which we have been placed.