Read Psalm 19
I prepared and wrote this sermon sitting in the garden at the manse. I am thankful for having a garden to be in during this time and the pleasure of seeing things grow and just sitting out in the fresh air. We have had a changing relationship with gardens during our marriage. Early on when the children were small we didn’t do much in the garden apart from cut the grass, keep it tidy and make sure it was a space the children could play in. As time has gone by and the children left home, we have a new relationship with the garden. Since being at the manse we have developed the garden, cutting out shrubs that were just woody or overgrown and replanting. A garden repays the work put into it. If it is to be a pleasant place in which to relax and enjoy the outside, it needs care and attention.
It is a garden that sets the scene for the advent of humankind and the plan was for people to be in proper relationship with God, each other and the environment in which they were placed. Foundational to this was the fact that creation was and is God’s and the role of humankind was to care for it and maintain the balance, the relationship.
On a grander scale, the whole of creation is said to declare the glory of God, and it was and is this glory that has been entrusted to us. Psalm 19 paints a wonderful picture of God and his creation. It is through the creation that God’s glory is declared and his handiwork made known. The voice of creation is eloquent in declaring the glory of God and that glory reaches across the world and speaks into all languages. There is wonderful imagery for what is perceived to be the journey of the sun, and the realisation that its light and heat reaches everywhere.
Other psalms pick up the wonder of creation and see the glory of God reflected in the heavens. Psalm 8 is an obvious one as it declares
You have set your glory above the heavens
It is the glory of creation that speaks of the majesty of God throughout the earth. And the psalmist assigns the work of creation to God: it all belongs to God,
When I consider your heavens
The work of your fingers
The moon and the stars
Which you have set in place
It also recognises the huge responsibility that humankind has been given as stewards of this creation through the authority given to us.
Other passages also underline the fact that the world belongs to God and is sustained by him.
To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and
everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations – as it is today.
Here is wonder that God has chosen Israel in the light of the glory of creation. As David worships God as the ark is brought to the tent he has set aside for it, he declares that God made the heavens. Nehemiah in his prayer before the people of Israel says:
You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their
starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to
everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.
The second part of Psalm 19 makes clear that God brings order. It was demonstrated in the way creation emerged and is reflected in the giving of the law, to guide the people’s relationship with God, each other and the earth. Within the order there is freedom and security. When order is disrupted there is chaos. When the environmental protests took place in London and other cities, it created chaos for those travelling to and from work and life was disrupted. People didn’t know how to respond and inevitably in those situations, violence occurred. Back in the 1980s, the race riots that hit Britain’s cities caused chaos and fear and it has taken years to rebuild relationships. The psalmist praises the law of God because it enables people to live peaceably; to flourish; to know where they stand, to maintain balance and order.
This question of balance and order is important in relation to creation. At each stage of creation in Genesis God declares that his work is good and in v.31 that it is very good. There is no sense that God then writes off the world as a bad job once Adam and Eve have sinned. He doesn’t destroy the garden but sets a guard on it. I don’t think you will find anywhere that God condemns creation, but humankind is another matter. The flood comes because of the wickedness of humankind. Judgement comes because of the wickedness of humankind. The creation is declared good.
The balance between God, creation and humankind can be seen as an equilateral triangle with everything in perfect symmetry. To stretch the metaphor, when judging Israel, God calls the people back to the balance of that equilateral triangle. It is only humankind who put it of kilter. And yet God comes in Jesus Christ to show his love and commitment to people and the earth he has made.
When we read the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – which are not the easiest read I grant you – we see how the balance of nature and land with humankind is maintained in the laws given.
• There were laws relating to good farming and harvesting, treating the land with respect
and not squeezing every last ounce of profit from it.
• Jubilee was central to the law, if never fully practised, and within that there was provision for the land to lie fallow every seven years in order to revive and recuperate.
• There were laws relating to good animal husbandry as well as how things were taken from the wild.
• The law should have made people think not just in terms of ‘What can I get’ but also the long term impact of how I treat land and wildlife that I live with.
Something to be explored in the Old Testament is how the land was seen as a spiritual barometer – responding to the actions of the people. In 2 Chronicles 7:14 in response to Solomon’s prayer God says that if the people sin, they just need to humble themselves in repentance as they return to God and he will forgive them and heal the land. This healing of the land was a physical thing, not a spiritual.
D L Moody described the world as a wrecked vessel and the gospel as a lifeboat come to rescue people from the floundering ship. He may well have been a good evangelist, but he had a very poor understanding of the environment and God’s relationship with the world he created. Nowhere does it say that God sees creation as wrecked. The lifeboat of the gospel is not to rescue from a sinking ship, but to save people from the righteous judgement of God concerning sin. The sin of humankind is shown in how we treat God, each other and the world in which we have been placed. How do you understand creation? Is it just the backdrop against which the story of fall and redemption is played and that is its only purpose; or is it a reflection of the glory and majesty and wonder of God?
An Old Testament view – a biblical view – understands that God declared creation good; creation declares the glory of God and we have been entrusted with an awesome responsibility. Unfortunately we have gone along with the view and supporting theology that the world is just a huge resource to be used for the benefit of the minority, and used up and thrown away.
Like parents and grandparents across the country, we put up the artwork and creations of our children when they were younger and now our grandchildren. We treasure these things though they are worthless to anyone else. We wouldn’t dispose of them or destroy them. How much more important is the world in which God has placed us and entrusted to us. If for no other reason, we should care for creation, because the imbalance we cause disproportionately impacts on the poor, those struggling to survive and the destitute. Since the Old Testament shouts out justice for those in these circumstances and Jesus tells a challenging parable about the least of one of these in Matthew, we need to take notice and take notice of the environment.
We could learn and should learn from agricultural communities and living close to and dependent upon their environment. We in the West have become industrial and separated from agriculture and the land; the importance of the seasons of the year and the process of seed time and harvest. As Britons, we don’t even want to bring in our own harvest. At one and the same time we want people from overseas to come and do it for us, but don’t want them staying longer than necessary. There is a Tanzanian proverb that says, ‘The forest is our skin; if we remove the skin of the human being, the result is death.’
This expresses very clearly what we know about the importance of trees. Ruth Valerio describes the impact of deforestation. We think mainly about the fact that trees are good for removing CO2 from the air, but removing trees has a wider impact. She says,
The terrible impact of deforestation includes destroying biodiversity, worsening climate
change, disturbing water cycles, disrupting lives and livelihoods and human rights abuses by companies engaging in this work [deforestation].
Global Witness states that it has never been a deadlier time to defend you community from agribusiness. When we remove trees we realise the imbalance that is created, the chaos that is brought, upsetting the order and balance that God has put in place.
Read about Cusco, Peru p.51
However, there is change being brought about through the work of Tearfund and BMS. There is a church in Guildford that is supporting a mission worker in Columbia helping the churches understand the biblical call to care for and nurture the creation of God. Through her work with churches and communities 32000 native trees have been planted in the area of Cusco – part of project to plant a million trees. As we rethink church and our relationship with the environment, what can we do to have this sort of impact?
The Bible makes our responsibility in creation quite clear. Our role is not to bring about the destruction of the earth or the judgement of the earth. God in creation has made us stewards, giving responsibility over what he has brought into being. Care for the environment and concern about global warning is not just a trend, but part of the biblical command to bring justice to the poor and needy. Our own welfare both physical and spiritual are tied up with respecting the earth and all that is in it.
David in psalm 19 says that the heavens declare the glory of God. In psalm 8 he is awed by the love God has for humankind and the responsibility we have been given. Let us treasure the creation like those works of art done by our children and grandchildren.