Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, 13 March 2019
“The Wisdom of Creation”
Job 12.7−10; Mark 1.9−13
A sermon preached at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies on 13 Mar 2019
As I’m sure you all know, we are now in the season of Lent, when many church denominations prepare, through fasting, prayer and acts of service, for the celebration of Easter. For individual Christians, Lent is often used as a time of reflection and self-examination. It is also a time of self-denial and remembering how Christ suffered for our sake.
The problem of suffering has always been a major theme within theology. How can a good, loving and all-powerful God allow suffering in the world? Some people have, of course, used the problem of suffering as evidence that God does not exist. Others would argue that suffering is a consequence of free will. That to be truly free, we have to be free to make mistakes, to hurt ourselves and others. Hurting ourselves or other is not ideal, and we all hope to learn how to live in ways that avoid causing harm and suffering, but if we didn’t have that freedom, we couldn’t be fully alive. But what of the suffering that comes, not from wilful action, but from circumstance – the suffering caused by illness or natural disaster. That, too, is a result of the freedom that God gives. In this case, the freedom given to the creation to develop in its own way, the freedom to be what it will be. This is not an easy thing to accept. Human beings like to understand why things are; we like to be able to see a clear cause and effect. We would, I suspect, prefer a universe in which only the wicked suffer and bad things never happen to good people.
We desire that so much, that societies have often believed it to be true. The argument made by Job’s friends when they see his suffering is a case in point. His friends try to convince him that he must have sinned in some way. Why else would God allow him to suffer? And they suggest that if only Job will stop deluding himself and confess his wrongdoing, God will make everything right. Job, of course, is having none of that. He knows that he is suffering unjustly. The passage that we heard read this morning is part of a much longer argument that Job makes to his friends in his own defence. In pointing to the animals and the plants and the fish of the sea, Job is suggesting that these have more wisdom and knowledge of God than his friends do. The creatures of the earth know that their power to control the world and even their own lives is limited. All things are in God’s hands, and God can act or not act as he chooses.
God can allow Job to suffer, for reasons that Job cannot know and does not understand, which makes his suffering feel undeserved.
That might make God sound harsh and uncaring. But, in the case of Job, God has set limits on the suffering he’ll be allowed to experience, and he − God − is trying to prove a point; not to Job, but to Job’s accuser, Satan. And the end result of the whole episode is that Job gains in wisdom and grows in his relationship with God.
I find it interesting that Job points to the creatures of the natural world as repositories of wisdom relating to God. There is the sense here that despite our great intelligence and our claims to wisdom, the plants and animals have a closer relationship with and better understanding of God than we do. This should, I think, give us pause. Do we consider the relationship that God has with the earth and with his creatures when we engage in behaviours that damage the environment, or use other creatures for our own ends?
We don’t just have to take Job’s word for it that there is wisdom and knowledge of God to be found in the natural world. After Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit didn’t lead him into towns and villages to begin his ministry. We’re told that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness, where he was with the wild animals and angels. That forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, that we commemorate in this season of Lent, was, it seems, a time of preparation, discovery and testing for Jesus. By going into the wilderness and fasting, Jesus prepared himself for the hardships that he would face in ministry. But this was more than just physical and psychological preparation. It was also spiritual preparation. By withdrawing from human society and immersing himself in the natural world, Jesus was able to be more fully in the presence of God his Father, the Creator of all things. During this time, he discovered what it meant to be God’s Son and the Messiah. And at the end of that period of preparation and discovery, he was tested by Satan, to see if he really was ready.
People have interpreted ‘he was with the wild animals’ in different ways. Some have suggested this indicates just how wild the place was. Others have suggested it was a way of God demonstrating that he was protecting Jesus. Still others have seen it as an indication of Jesus’ identity as the new Adam; a return to Eden, where humans and wild animals live peacefully together. It might even be an indication that Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation and redemption was not for humanity alone, but for all creation.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus was in the habit of going into lonely places to pray and be with his Father. Is it any wonder? In the wilderness, away from the human distortion of creation (as we might describe things like farms and towns and roads), was a place to draw closer to the Creator;
to gain insight into his nature and the relationship that exists between God and creation.
It is this idea that led to the creation of modern science. The natural philosophers, or early scientists, of the 17th and 18th centuries were, by and large, men of faith. They saw their explorations of the natural world and their desire to unlock its mysteries as an expression of their faith. They examined the creation in order to understand the Creator. They believed, and I think they were right, that just as we might discover something about an artist from examining his paintings − from his technique we can infer things like the importance he placed on perspective or colour or subject − when we look at the created universe, we can infer things about God’s character.
When those early scientists began looking at nature, they discovered pattern, order, predictability. I think we’d all agree that those things do seem to be reflections of the character and nature of God.
We, human beings, are made in the image of God. However you understand that, I think we would probably all agree that it includes having the capacity to create and be creative, and to influence the natural world. All creatures, to some degree, influence their immediate environment, but none so much as human beings. Right now our influence on the world is so great that some have taken to calling this geological era the anthropocene – the age of humanity.
If there was ever a time for us as a species to be listening to the wisdom of creation, it is now. We know that species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate, and human activity is a main driving force behind this, through climate change, habitat destruction and hunting. Creation, in its wisdom, is showing us that we can’t continue in the way that have up to now. I’m sure you’ve all heard in the news of the various extreme weather events that have been occurring with surprising frequency in recent years – droughts, wildfires, an increase in the number of Atlantic hurricanes each year and evidence that hurricane intensity is also increasing, just to name a few. Our world is warming dangerously and quickly, and this is being driven by human activity. Just yesterday on Radio4’s ‘Today’ programme they had a piece about climate change in the arctic, where temperature has already increased by 4 degrees C in the past 50 years. Creation is crying out – as St Paul put it in Romans, “the whole creation is groaning.”
As Christians, we should care deeply about the sufferings of creation, both our fellow creatures and the earth itself. Not only is it part of our duty to God – it is his creation, after all, and we are God’s stewards, looking after it on his behalf − but it is central to mission. Mission is more than just telling people about our faith. It is about showing God’s love to the world. Making visible God’s love for the natural world is no less missional than showing his love for human society and individual human beings. At the end of Mark’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus instructed his disciples to spread the good news to all creation. Not all people. All creation. We can’t do that with words. We have to be good news to the rest of creation.
When it comes to climate change, species loss, and even how we treat individuals of other species – wildlife, farm animals and domestic pets, science can give us the knowledge about what problems exist and what we need to do to solve them; science can inform us about the sentience, intelligence and emotional lives of non-human animals, and how they should be treated so that they can flourish. Our faith tells us why all these things are important, and should motivate us to do what we can to care for our world and its inhabitants, both human and non-human. Scripture shows us clearly that God’s desire is for the mutual flourishing of all creation. As God’s people, following his desire should be central to our lives.
If we spend time listening to the wisdom of creation, recognising the relationship that the natural world has with its creator − as Job suggests, asking the beasts to reveal something of the truth of God to us − we will develop a better understanding not just of the world and its creatures, but also of the love that God pours out on the whole of creation. And that understanding should trigger in us a desire to reflect and imitate that love, out of our own love for God.
Before the start of his ministry and mission, Jesus withdrew into the wilderness to fast, to pray and to be tested. The season of Lent, which recalls those forty days, is a perfect opportunity for us to withdraw, to refrain from the consumption that our society has made seem so normal; to take time to find a lonely place, away from the busyness of life, and to seek to discover something of the nature of God in the rhythms, the beauty, and the rich diversity of the world he has made. In this penitential season, we should allow ourselves to hear the groaning of that world, the groaning of creation, lament our part in it and find ways to ease creation’s burden. In this season of reflection, let us give ourselves time and space to listen to the wisdom of creation and hear within it the echo of the wisdom of God through which all things came into being.