Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Today is May Day, the first day of summer! (reflection on weather) May Day isn’t something you’ll find in the Bible, it’s not a Christian celebration, but it fits our theme well because we are thinking about the environment, God’s creation.
And it’s also Rogation Sunday – again, not something which you’ll find in the Bible, but traditionally celebrated by the Anglican Church with a procession around the parish boundary known as beating the bounds. The name Rogation comes from the Latin rogare, to ask, and on the walk crops were blessed and prayers said for the protection of the land. Again, another celebration of God’s care for creation.
And I thought we might pause here before we begin to think what the Bible tells us about God’s creation, and pray one of the prayers used in the Anglican Church for Rogation Sunday:
God our Father,
you never cease the work you have begun
and prosper with your blessing all human labour:
make us wise and faithful stewards of your gifts
that we may serve the common good,
maintain the fabric of our world
and seek that justice where all may share
the good things you pour upon us;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
So what does the Bible tell us about God’s creation? Lots! I’m sure most of us are very familiar with the story in the first verses of Genesis which result in God looking at all that he had made and knowing that it was ‘very good’. And all the way through the Old and the New Testaments, images of creation appear, not least in many of Jesus’ parables.
So, let’s look in turn at the three readings we have heard today.
In Psalm 148 we heard that we are partners in praising God with all other living creatures, and with what we regard as inanimate things too. In the 13th century, St Francis of Assisi wrote his song, the Canticle of the Sun based on the ideas in Psalm 148, and called the sun, wind and fire ‘brothers’, and the moon, waters and earth ‘sisters’. Listening to this psalm we cannot help but notice the inseparability of theology and ecology, which leads us to understand that as Christians we need to relate to nature more justly in order that its praise may shine through yet more clearly.
As we move on to Romans chapter 8, I want to say briefly how important this text is to so many people. Tom Wright, onetime Bishop of Durham and whom we shall hear from later, used to ask candidates for parish jobs which two chapters of the bible they would take to a desert island – but he ‘gave’ them John 20 and Romans 8 as a starter! Looking on the internet, I found out that many people would chose Romans 8 if they were only allowed one chapter out of the whole Bible!
So what is it telling us about our theme today?
In the section of Romans 8 which we heard, Paul asks, what does it matter what we go through now, because we will share in the glory of Jesus! It is not very clear in most translations, but the glory will be revealed toward us, into us. It’s not going to be a vision, and it’s not just a thing which arrives in us, it’s a moving, happening glory which we will share with Christ.
And the whole of creation is waiting for that time. When humans first sinned and turned away from God, the rest of creation was in turn ‘subjected to frustration’. God’s plan, Paul says, is that when people are brought into this glory, the whole of creation will be freed too. Humans will be set in authority over the world – and creation can’t wait! It longs for us to be revealed as God’s glorious human agents.
Creation then directs us to the new world which is to come, where its beauty will be enhanced and the frustration it currently suffers will be ended. It groans in anticipation of this happening – and with the many environmental issues we find in the world today, we realise that it quite literally ‘can’t wait’.
Paul sees that the return of people and all of creation to this original purpose has already been accomplished in principle in Jesus, but that it will be accomplished fully when the children of God are glorified. Then both we and the rest of creation will truly know freedom.
This is the ‘now but not yet’ which runs through a lot of Paul’s writings:
We are already children of God, but there is still a part of this adoption which is yet to be brought to fruition.
Salvation is already a reality for us, but there is a future element – we hope in the present time for the ‘unseen’ things to come. In our reading, Paul, in his excitement, uses words which almost contradict themselves: if the portion of Scripture which our Bible gives us as ‘patience’ is translated literally from the Greek, we hear ‘through patience we eagerly expect’!
We have to do what we can, now, even before we are able to care with complete wisdom and healing for all creation. Part of working for God’s kingdom is looking after the whole of creation. The social gospel is hugely important, but science has now shown us beyond doubt what the Bible has always said; that people’s lives are inextricably linked to the health of the whole environment – all things are connected. We can’t help people without helping all of creation.
What Paul has been telling us in the letter to the Romans, and which is reiterated in his other letters, is that the whole of creation is important to God. God wants us to care for creation – that was the original plan – but then we couldn’t fulfil that role properly once we had sinned. So creation is waiting for us. But as I said, it can’t wait for ever.
So it’s clear that just approaching creation as if it could endlessly provide for our comfort, with no thought for its intrinsic value to God, is simply wrong.
How God sees creation needs to be how we see it too.
No matter how small or large your dreams of helping the environment, all of it counts. All of it matters. All of it is important. In the 18th century the politician Edmund Burke said, ‘No man made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.’
Great action can be taken by some of us to help reverse the damage the environment has suffered. But Romans 8 tells us the action which we must all take.
We heard that creation groans. And so do we: we live in the tension between the promise of glory and the reality of the present time. At Easter we heard about Jesus’ tomb being found empty on the first day of the week. The first day of the week, Jesus’ resurrection, the renewal of creation begins. It’s like the first day in the creation story in Genesis: a first day for a new creation.
We groan. Although we have the first fruits of the new creation in us, the full harvest is yet to come.
We groan. Paul speaks of the labour pains of creation – we are part of the creation and we share the pain and hope of those labour pains.
We groan. But we are filled with the Holy Spirit … and in that fact lies the action we can all take. It might all seem too terrible to pray for, we may not know where to begin, but the Spirit can speak through that agony, praying for justice, for peace – for all people and for all creation. In prayer then, we begin to bear the responsibility of being God’s image bearers – we begin to share God’s work.
When I began to speak about Romans 8, I mentioned the retired Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright. He sums up this passage of Scripture as follows, ‘The whole creation, the entire cosmos, is on tiptoe with expectation for God’s children to be revealed. Glory is not simply a kind of luminescence, as though the point of salvation were that we would eventually shine like electric light bulbs. Glory means, among other things, rule and power and authority. God’s people are designed to be God’s stewards, ruling over the whole of creation with healing and restorative justice and love.’
Let us move on to our last reading: Revelation 21. We heard how the New Jerusalem will come from heaven – notice, it isn’t actually heaven, but all that justice and peace for all creation will come from heaven. It’s the new Jerusalem because that is where the Temple used to be, the dwelling place of God among men. It’s not a literal city: like much of Revelation, the images are not to be taken literally. But it’s the dwelling place of God which comes from heaven – earth is not a second-rate temporary place to live, until heaven – God will live on earth among us!
It’s like a fulfilment of what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven…’.
The sea will be no more – again, not literally, but the sea was seen as chaos, a dark force, threatening God’s plans and God’s people. All that will be gone. Earth will be transformed not destroyed.
So our readings have all pointed to the fact that this planet is worth looking after! Clearly our prayers are important – very important – so important that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us!
I pray that God will show each of you your way – both individually and collectively – to work for the sake of creation.
But will this actually hasten the coming of God’s kingdom when all things will be made new?
I said earlier that part of working for God’s kingdom is looking after the whole of creation – which implies that we can work for the kingdom. And certainly we are all involved in kingdom work, bringing glimpses of God’s kingdom across the world. But there has been much debate over the extent to which humans can contribute to the bringing in of God’s kingdom, the realisation of God’s original plan.
As humans we can experience the beauty of creation, and as Christians we have a foretaste of the kingdom. We can’t change things in our own power, but, filled with the Holy Spirit I am certain that we can be channels of God’s grace, bringing glimpses of the kingdom in the mess of the world … and perhaps this will help to bring God’s kingdom to all creation, God’s plans to fruition.