A sermon preached at St Mary’s, Kidlington, 23 February 2014
Readings: Genesis 1.1–2.3; Romans 8.18–25; Matthew 6.25–34
I moved house just before Christmas, and we now live out in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside. One great advantage of this is that we are surrounded by open countryside. We are blessed by the beauty of creation all around us, including an abundance of wildlife: foxes, deer, numerous birds, and rabbits big enough to frighten the cat!
Many people in our society today have a great appreciation of nature. I suppose this is because, on a day to day basis, we feel ourselves a bit cut-off from it, so when we have the chance to encounter the natural world up close, it feels very special. Many people who have little or nothing to do with religion will talk about finding something spiritual in nature. And we do have a spiritual connection to the natural world. We’re a part of it, after all.
But it’s a sad fact that as Christianity grew and developed over the centuries, the value and importance of creation within the context of our faith has been downplayed. As what we might think of as Christian societies grew into industrial nations and more and more emphasis began to be placed on the individual, so the Christian faith also became more and more about the individual and individual salvation. Within that framework, the natural world came to be seen as little more than a source of raw materials, with no value beyond what it could contribute to meeting individual needs and wants, and to economic development.
But this is emphatically not what the Bible teaches. Creation is there at the beginning and the end. Salvation has nothing to do with rescuing individual souls from the earth, but is instead about the redemption and renewal of all creation – human and non-human alike. God did not make the rest of creation in order that we might exploit it to our own advantage, but created us, beings capable of understanding the impact that our actions have on others, capable of moral thought and decision making, to take care of the rest of creation.
Sadly, the beautiful creation story that we’ve heard this morning has often been used to justify the exploitation and destruction of the natural world. We have been given dominion over the earth and its other creatures, and so, the argument goes, we can do with them what we like. But that’s not dominion, that’s domination. Dominion is all about being God’s representatives on earth. It’s a concept that crops up elsewhere in the Old Testament – notably in relation to the kings of Israel. For them, dominion, or rule, over God’s people meant that they had responsibility to create and preside over a just society; to be good shepherds of God’s flock. Most of them failed miserably, of course, but that’s not the point. The point is that dominion meant exercising God’s just and loving rule. That’s the dominion we are to have over creation. Presiding over a world of peace and justice for all creatures and the earth itself. Sadly, like the kings of Israel, humanity has mostly failed miserably in this task.
St Paul understood this. The creation has been subjected to futility, not by its own doing, but by human sinfulness. Currently, many parts of the rest of creation are subject to appalling bondage and futility. Wild creatures suffer from loss of habitat, climate change and the effects of pollution, or are being hunted to extinction to satisfy human whim and folly. Millions of domesticated animals suffer cruelly in factory farms. Intensive farming is damaging land and rivers, while industrial fishing is killing our oceans. And what is at the root of all of this? Humanity’s love of money, by and large. Our desire to have ever more at less cost. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that the situation is grim. But there is hope, for us and for all creation, because God’s plan is that all will be set free from death and decay, and be restored and renewed.
“Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” That’s a very famous line from this passage of Romans, but how often do we stop to think about what it means? Many would say that it is a reference to the end of time, when we are revealed in what Paul elsewhere calls our spiritual bodies. Possibly. But I think it’s more immediate than that. Creation waits for us to be revealed as the people God made us to be – those careful, loving stewards of creation, exercising benign dominion that benefits all. Creation waits for us to manifest the fruits of the Spirit – love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. That doesn’t have to wait until the end of time. We can be those people today, if we can live by the grace of God’s Spirit within us, sacrificing those things in our lives which cause harm to creation, and embracing things that will be a blessing to the earth and its creatures.
But why should we make sacrifices? Jesus himself said, “are you not more valuable than [the birds]?” didn’t he? He did. But exactly what he meant by this remains open to interpretation. It is likely that Jesus was making reference to the relative value that human society put on humans and birds. If God values and cares for what we dismiss as practically valueless, then surely we can trust him to care for us, too. This same sentiment is present in his comment about the lilies of the field – to human society, they are valueless, good for nothing but fuel for the fire. And yet, God treasures them. But even if one wants to assume that the reference is to the relative value of birds and humans in God’s eyes, we need to remember from where our value comes. Human beings do have a particular value to God, in that we are the ones who are made in his image so that we can act on his behalf and in his name. Our value comes from our ability to protect and care for the rest of creation – the creation that God made, loves and declared to be good.
One of the positive developments that has occurred in Christian thinking in recent decades is that we have rediscovered the goodness of creation. For many centuries, the natural world was seen as dangerous, defiled, even evil. But Genesis reminds us that the earth and its creatures were made by God and declared by him to be good (in fact, in the creation narrative of Genesis 1, the only things created by God and not immediately declared to be good were human beings – there’s something to think about). And when all parts of creation are living and functioning together in harmony, God looks and sees that it is very good.
We look at this Genesis story in many ways. Some want to read it as a literal account of how the world and everything in it came to be. Many, on the other hand, read it symbolically, as a way of understanding God’s relationship with creation. And a very few (and I’m one) think that, at least in part, it can also be read prophetically – as a vision of what God intends creation to be; what creation is striving and groaning for; what we, as God’s stewards, are charged with bringing about: a world without predation, where all creatures live peacefully together and the whole earth proclaims the glory of God the creator. When that day comes and the creation reaches its fulfilment, then God’s work will be complete and he will have his day of rest. On this understanding, the Sabbath is both a reminder and a foretaste of what’s to come, what God has planned and what we are to be aiming for.
The Sabbath points us towards that day of creation’s fulfilment, when there will be rest and refreshment for all. In the meantime, God has called us to be his co-creators, to work with him in shaping the world to be what he intended from the beginning that it should be: a place of harmony, beauty, goodness and peace for all creatures.