May 5, 2019

The Earth Is the Lord’s

Passage: Genesis 2:4-25; Psalm 24:1-2

20190505 Sermon Rev

 

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.[1]

 

A story is told of a group of scientists who discovered how to create life out of dirt.  They were quite proud of them­selves and invited the media to come and witness this amazing feat.  God also decided to come and listen in.  After a lengthy introduction, the scientists declared that the creation theory and the need for a God as Creator could now be set aside since they had shown what could be done through the scientific process. As they were about to begin their exercise with a box of dirt they had brought for the purpose of the demonstration, God’s voice boomed over the crowd. “Excuse me – would you mind using your own dirt?” [2]

 

God claims Earth and everything in it, God claims World and all who live on it.  He built it on Ocean foundations, laid it out on River girders. [3]

 

A story is told of a pastor who went to visit the home of a member who was known for his love of gardening. After touring the backyard, the pastor made the comment of how beautifully manicured the lawns and gardens were and what a glorious work God continues to do with creation.  The master gardener considered this for a moment, then quietly responded saying, “Well, you should have seen it when God was working at it by himself.”

 

The earth and everything on it – the world and all who live in it – belong to YHWH.  YHWH built it on the deep waters, laying its foundations in the ocean depths. [4]

 

Today we pick up where we left off two months ago, before the beginning of Lent.  We are continuing our series on stewardship. [5]  Previous topics were time, talent, health, and money.  Today we’ll begin thinking about stewardship of creation.

 

The timing of our discussion this morning is appropriate, coming on the heels of Earth Day which is celebrated on April 22 each year.  On this day, various events are held all over the world to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

 

When the first Earth Day celebration was held in 1970 it was a bipartisan event with over 20 million Americans of various political views participating.  In the U.S. and around the world, smog was becoming deadly and evidence was growing that pollution led to developmental delays in children. Biodiversity was in decline as a result of the heavy use of pesticides and other pollutants.  In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Northeast Ohio “caught fire” when a large amount of surface debris and oil ignited. Acid rain caused an obvious threat to lakes and rivers in the Northeast United States, and the Great Lakes were dying. The consensus on these issues was broad and public response was warranted.[6]

 

The global ecological awareness was growing, and the US Congress and President Nixon responded quickly. In July of 1970, they created the Environmental Protection Agency, and environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.  Earth Day was a response to the obvious environmental issues in the United States and around the world.[7]

 

As is the case with many issues, over time bipartisan agreement on environmental concerns has shifted to wide division between the right and the left on this issue, both in the secular world and in religious communities.  The cause of this great division appears to be more about politics than it is about theology.  Because when we look at the Bible, we find much support of ecological stewardship.

 

Here are a few key points we find in Scripture: [8]

 

First point:  The Earth belongs to God.  We’ve already read this in Psalm 24.  We find it too in Psalm 50 where God says: For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.  I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine. [9]  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, land is a gift that is God’s to give and that binds the receiver to the giver. Leviticus 25:23 cautions:  The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.  This is in a passage legislating Sabbath years and the year of Jubilee.  The laws granted the land proper rest, and ancestral property that had been sold was supposed to revert to its original owners every 50th year.

 

Second point:  All parts of nature are valuable.  Psalm 104—with its roaring lions and frolicking sea monsters—provides a vivid picture of what God's ownership of the earth looks like.  It also demonstrates that all of nature has value, even if humans don’t find it useful. Psalm 104 mentions rock badgers, lions and wild donkeys.  These animals did not have economic value to ancient people. Dangerous animals like sea monsters didn’t either, but in God’s eyes in verse 26, they are playful pets.  When a commercial timber species does appear in verse 16, it is as a habitat for birds. The Psalmist knew that empires fought their way to the cedars of Lebanon and then carted them off by the thousands for building projects.  Forests were strategic military sites, like oil fields are today.  Here, however, their role within their ecosystem takes center stage.

 

Third point:  Creation speaks. Biblical texts attribute dancing and clapping to nature as it both praises and laments. Throughout the scriptures, non-human creatures praise God.  In Psalm 65:13, meadows clothe themselves in flocks and valleys dress up in grain, shouting and singing for joy.  In Psalm 98:7-8, seas roar and floods clap their hands. In Job 38, stars sing for joy.  Psalm 148 exhorts everything from sea monsters to snow to praise God. Meanwhile in Genesis 4, the earth cries out when it is stained with Abel's blood.  In Jeremiah 4 and Hosea 4:3, the land mourns.

 

Fourth point:  Nature teaches us about God. Throughout history, Christians have understood God's revelation as coming to us in two ways: through scripture and through nature. The heavens declare God’s glory in Psalm 19.  In Romans 1:19-20, Paul argues that what can be known about God is plainly seen in the created world. Biblical writers use nature metaphors to speak about God and Jesus—rock, wind, water, lamb, for example.  Their use implies that we can encounter God through the world outdoors. The apostle Paul includes creation in the salvation story.  In Colossians 1:15-20, Paul tells us that Jesus came to reconcile “all things” to himself.  As described in Romans 8:18-25, this is a state for which all creation is eagerly longing.

 

It’s evident that the Bible has much to say about the natural world, its relationship to God, and our relationship to it.  And, of course, our discussion of stewardship of creation is not complete without looking at the very beginning of the Bible, the creation account in the book of Genesis.  Here we discover there are two creation accounts, not just one. [10]

 

The first story (Genesis 1) seems to be a worship liturgy, a form of poetry.  God is transcendent, powerful, lofty, removed.  God creates by proclaiming, “Let there be.”  God creates order out of chaos with the spoken word.

 

The second story (Genesis 2:4b-24) is a narrative.  God is immanent, intimate and personal.  God creates by kneeling, scooping up clay, shaping human forms, and breathing life into them.

 

Both stories talk about the relationship between humans and the rest of creation.  The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.[11]  Many translations use the words till and keep.  Other translations of this verse say work it and watch over it, farm it and take care of it, or tend and guard and keep it.  In these verses, God invites Adam and Eve to partner with him in tending the Garden of Eden.

 

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.” [12]

 

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.” [13]

 

In these verses, the words subdue or dominion are often used.  To have dominion is not to dominate, but rath­er to be a steward. The word dominion has association with the concept of kingly rule.  A king who serves well is one who cares for the subjects within his realm. Domination is a misuse of power, be it over people or over the resources God has placed here to tend and protect.

 

From these two creation accounts, we see that the original role for Adam and Eve (in addition to being God’s companions) was to care for, protect and enjoy what God had created.

 

Another scripture that is important to me when considering stewardship of creation is found in Matthew.  When asked which commandment in the law is the greatest, Jesus said:  “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [14]

 

How we use the earth’s resources is connected with loving our neighbor.  One way we see this is by considering ecological footprints. An ecological footprint is the amount of the Earth’s productive capacity that a person uses to meet his or her con­sumption patterns. If the world’s productive area were divided evenly among the world’s 6-plus billion people, there would be about 4.5 acres per person. The footprint of the average person in the world is around 5.1 acres, meaning we’re already over budget as a human family.

 

But it gets worse: more than 50 of the poorest countries in the world have a per capita footprint significantly below five acres, while North Americans (not including Mexico) draw on an average 23.7 acres per person. Here’s another way to look at it: If all the world’s people lived like we do, we’d need four more planets to provide for us. [15]  Reducing my ecological footprint is one way I can love my neighbor.

 

The way we live now harms our neighbors, both locally and globally. Unusual weather patterns and catastrophic events have been happening around the nation and the world:  floods and droughts, tornadoes and wildfires, sinkholes and earthquakes.  For the world’s poorest people, climate change means dried-up wells in Africa, floods in Asia that wash away crops and homes, wildfires in the U.S. and Russia, loss of villages and food species in the Arctic, environmental refugees, and disease. Our changing climate threatens the health, security, and well-being of millions of people who are made in God’s image.

 

We are all aware of heated debates about the causes of these events and possible courses of action to prevent them.  As I mentioned earlier, religious leaders and communities differ greatly in how to interpret God’s words about creation in the first book of the Bible.  Differences of opinion about the age of the earth, the pace and mechanism of creation, the future of the earth, the end times, and Jesus’ return also influence the discussions about how to care for the earth now.  I am distressed by the vitriol that is spouted by people from different sides of this debate – by those who say the earth is here for our consumption with no regard for future as well as by those who seem to have much greater concern for baby birds than for baby boys and girls.

 

I’m not speaking here as a scientist or as a politician, but as a follower of Christ and as a pastor.  I believe climate change is real, that our decisions and actions as inhabitants of this earth are contributing to that change, and that part of loving God and our neighbor is doing what we can to preserve all of God’s creation.  This includes caring for plants, animals, soil, and water as well as caring for boys and girls, men and women.

 

How we put this into practice gets complicated.  I plan to talk about the practicalities in two weeks.  For now, I invite you to consider a few questions.  Where do you most see evidence of God’s presence in creation?  How does caring for creation connect with loving my neighbor?  How could we improve our church’s ecological impact?

 

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.[16]

 

Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.

 

[1] Psalm 24:1-2, New Revised Standard Version

[2] https://www.everence.com/resources/stewardship-education, Stewards of Grace: Creation, p.46.

[3] Psalm 24:1-2, The Message

[4] Psalm 24:1-2, The Inclusive Bible

[5] https://www.everence.com/resources/stewardship-education

[6] https://www.earthday.org/earthday/

[7] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/june-web-only/three-reasons-evangelicals-dont-advocate-for-environment.html

[8] https://mennocreationcare.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/ECS-Unit-1-partic-2.0.pdf

[9] Psalm 50:10-11, New Revised Standard Version

[10] Marion G. Bontrager, Michele Hershberger, John E. Sharp, The Bible as Story:  An Introduction to Biblical Literature, Workplay Publishing, 2016, p. 43.

[11] Genesis 2:15, New Revised Standard Version.

[12] Genesis 1:26, New Revised Standard Version.

[13] Genesis 1:28, New Revised Standard Version.

[14] Matthew 22:37-40, New Revised Standard Version.

[15] https://www.everence.com/resources/stewardship-education, Stewards of Grace: Creation, p.42-43.  (Numbers likely have changed since this resource was written.)

[16] Psalm 24:1-2, New Revised Standard Version

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