The Earth Is the Lord’s (sermon 5-30-10)
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.— Genesis 1:26-28
Around midnight on Dec 4, 1984 in Bhopal, India, a highly poisonous gas, methyl-isocyanate (MIC), leaked from a factory owned by Union Carbide. People were awakened by the sound of their neighbors’ screams, as the gas spread through the city choking them and burning their eyes and lungs. Many panicked, taking to the streets to flee. It must have seemed like the end of the world, or a scene from the last days of Pompeii, as families were separated and people began suffocating and dying in the streets from the noxious cloud.
When it was over, as many as 8,000 people, men, women and children, were dead, many of the bodies never identified or counted as the government quickly buried them in mass graves. Another 12,000 have since died from the lingering effects and health issues related to inhaling the MIC. Many believe that had the Union Carbide plant officials been forthcoming about what was happening at the time and shared valuable information about how people could protect themselves (such as covering their faces with a wet towel), many lives would have been saved. But the plant’s initial reaction was to deny that there was any leak at all. It was later found that the safety and refrigeration systems, which would have prevented the disaster, had been switched off– to save money.
25 years later the company still refuses to share anything about the chemical that might help victims who are still suffering. They claim that MIC’s properties are a proprietary secret (just like Coca-Cola). To this day many toxic chemicals abandoned at the plant site continue to leak into ground water, which the local population depends upon for drinking. (1)
In his book Jesus Brand Spirituality Vineyard pastor Ken Wilson writes:
One of the greatest global threats we face is the growing environmental crisis: air and water pollution, ecosystem collapse in developing countries, an alarming increase in the extinction rate of animals and plants (and with the latter, the loss of potentially disease-curing drugs) and the threats associated with climate change. Because the poor are less protected from the vagaries of the natural environment, they are especially vulnerable to the harm caused by environmental degradation. The environmental crisis therefore is a matter of acute concern to the God whose heart is especially tender toward the poor…. (2)
The passage in Genesis 1 quoted above can cause (and has caused) a lot of trouble in interpretation; at first glance the language sounds rather violent. The words “subdue” the earth, and “rule” or “have dominion over” its creatures, sound like the language of conquest. And so, not surprisingly, some have used these verses to justify a highly exploitative, profiteering, slash and burn policy toward the earth. In fact some environmental groups blame the Judeo-Christian God for our environmental problems: if he had not written those verses, we would not be in this mess. It’s nice to have someone big to blame, someone bigger than Union Carbide, but God is not responsible for human sin or our misuse and abuse of his Word.
One basic rule in interpreting Scripture is that we never take a verse out of context and run with it; that is how cults are started. Every word has a context, and every verse must be weighed with its context and against the whole counsel of Scripture.
What does it mean to be made “in the image of God.” Does it mean we look like God, that there’s some kind of family resemblance? Or is it something to do with God’s character, a more spiritual quality? These are important questions, because how we answer them effects everything else we do as human beings. What does it mean that we are made in the image of God?
In the culture and language of the ancient Near East, the phrase image of God had a very specific and recognizable meaning. When people heard it, they would not have said, “huh?” as we do today. To the pagan cultures of that world, there was only one person, a single human being, who was the image, the earthly visible representation, of their god. That was the king, or pharaoh. He was the image of god, the closest thing to god on earth. He was responsible for ruling in the god’s place and for exercising justice, promoting law and order, protecting and bringing prosperity to his people.
Now imagine that you are a Hebrew slave, born in Egypt. You have had it drummed in your ear since birth by your Egyptian masters, “This is Pharaoh. He is the image of god—you are but a slave.” Now suddenly, you are freed from captivity, and your God, the one and only God, informs you that all human beings, not just one, but all, both male and female, are made in the image of God. What would you think? Pretty radical, huh? And what an awesome responsibility! As creatures created in his likeness, you would be responsible for taking care of creation, ruling over it as God would himself. So far from giving us license to abuse and misuse God’s creation for our own selfish purposes, this passage, in its proper context says, yes, we were given the earth to rule and not for ourselves, but for God. We are his vice-regents, responsible and accountable to him, as a viceroy is responsible for keeping order, caring for a country and representing the interests of the king who sent him. So we are responsible for ruling as God would rule.
And how would God rule? Ps 104 shows us that God cares and provides for and watches over every living creature he has made. And blessed are we when we understand that our power to rule is given not as an absolute right but in trust and that our job is to govern as God would govern: benevolently, generously, with special care and concern for the weak and needy.
Let me point out another scripture that helps further establish the context of Genesis 1. “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being….The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2.7,15). To “work “or “tend” in Hebrew means to “serve,” and in this context to “till” or”cultivate.” The verb “to care for,” means “to exercise great concern for, to guard, to watch over”—the same word used to characterize the Lord’s relationship with his people, that he watches over them with care, love and concern. So in this next chapter of Genesis, we have a good illustration of exactly what God means in Chapter 1 by saying that we shall “rule and have dominion over the earth and its creatures.” We are God’s servants, to care for what he has created. That’s context.
I would like to expand on this passage by talking about three untruths, or misconceptions, that seem to have infiltrated the church regarding our relationship with creation. First, that the creation account shows that God gave human beings control of the earth to use and treat as we see fit– in short, that the earth is ours. As we’ve seen already, such an interpretation does not hold water; in fact, it’s blasphemy. Psalm 24 clear states, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who dwell in it.” The earth is not ours; the Bible never says it is. And just how do we treat something that is not ours? If you borrow something from a friend, do you return it broken or dirty? No, you treat it with care and respect. How much more when the person who owns the property is God. Would it have made sense for God to say to Adam and Eve, “Here is the earth, I’ve taken great care in creating it, and I’m delighted with everything in it. Now I’m entrusting it into your hands. Go and ruin it, completely destroy it, make a pig’s breakfast out of the whole thing.”? How can we say we love God and then trash his place? Yes, subduing the earth does involve us in wrestling at times with the wildness of nature, in taming it and cultivating it, plumbing its secrets, but always with respect, knowing it is not ours. If you had someone house-sit for you and you returned home to find the place strewn with garbage and human waste, how would you feel?
The second misconception is the idea that care for the environment is a form of pagan idolatry or earth worship. There are a lot of environmentalists who are not Christian. And there are some who do worship the earth. Environmentalism has in some circles become entangled with new age practices, or neo-paganism. Why is that? Because God’s people, who should be the first to lead the fight to protect the earth from devastating overdevelopment and help species that are endangered, have for too long abdicated their role, too long been silen– and not only silent but at times complicit in the rape and pillage of God’s creation, all in name of the almighty bottom-line. There has been a leadership vacuum, and someone had to fill it. Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California, author of The Purpose Driven Life, says that caring for creation should be a “no brainer for Christians.” It’s just basic. It’s not pagan. Yes, there are people who worship the earth, but that is not what we’re talking about. Caring for something, exercising responsibility for something entrusted to you is not worship. We care for our children, we feed, protect them; we’re responsible for them. Does that mean we worship them?
Third, it doesn’t matter what we do with the earth, it’s all going to burn up anyhow. This idea is so widespread it’s frightening. It comes from what is called pre-millennialism, a 19th-century doctrine that believes Jesus is going to return prior to a literal 1,000-year reign on earth. It is based on a very literal reading of a passage in the Book of Revelation. Now if we’re going to be dogmatic about something, it would be smart if we were dogmatic about something that the Bible is dogmatic about. In other words, don’t build doctrines on one verse in the Bible that is hard to understand or open to various interpretations. Jesus is going to return; there is no debating that. The Bible is clear about that. But exactly when, and is there going to be a literal 1,000-year reign on earth after he returns before the last judgment, we don’t know for sure. Will he return after a 1,000-year reign of his kingdom, as the post-millennialists believe, or is that 1,000 year reign more symbolic of age of the church (as the a-millennialists hold). Theologians have agued over this for centuries. The bottom line is that we don’t know for sure what it means. All we know is that Jesus is coming back. And we need to be careful that how we interpret Scripture does not justify our treating other people or the earth with indifference or disrespect. If it does, that is a sure sign that we are off track, not walking in the footsteps of Christ.
How does God feel about those who plunder and destroy creation? Here’s a verse in Revelation that is frequently (or conveniently) overlooked.
The nations were angry,
and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.– Rev 11:18.
I wonder why they don’t take that literally. They should.
Last fall the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of the world’s 300 million orthodox Christians, visited this country and gave a lecture at Georgetown University. The European press has dubbed him the “Green Patriarch” because he has been so outspoken about environmental issues (and as Kermit the frog tells us, it’s not easy being green). He has come under a lot of criticism from governments and the corporate sector, who complain that he has embraced “the liberal agenda” or that he is against “progress.” This is how his All Holiness responds: “The only side we take is that of our faith– which today may seem to land us in one political camp and tomorrow another– but in truth, we are only and always in one camp, that of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” In other words, caring for the earth is not just a liberal concept, or a political concept; it’s a biblical concept. And we should not be ashamed to carry the banner high and speak out. So what if someone calls us a bunch of tree-huggers?
There is a fascinating but frequently overlooked detail in John’s Gospel. On that first day of the week, when Mary Magdalene stood outside the empty tomb weeping, she met Jesus. Only she did not realize at first that it was Jesus. She thought it was the “gardener” (Jn 20:15). Coincidence? Jesus’ resurrection was the first act of God’s new creation, the renewal of all things. And as the New Adam, Jesus might appropriately be called The Gardener par exellence. How does the Gardener feel about people who trash his garden?
For some reason, God knoweth how, many believe that to be for the environment is to be against progress. If by progress one means the careless and wholesale devastation of the earth in pursuit of profit, then yes, we ought to be against that. But that is not the definition of progress. That’s just selfish greed. Progress is something that brings benefit to all humanity, not just a few; it profits posterity as well, not just one generation. Destroying the earth to line the pockets of a handful of CEOs is not progress.
Speaking of creation care, the Patriarch noted that the church has always held that our relationship with the natural world must involve a “voluntary restraint,” that which ancient Christians called enkratia or “self control”:
By reducing consumption we ensure that resources are left for others in the world….Our sin toward the world – the spiritual root of all our pollution – lies in our refusal to view life and the world as a sacrament of thanksgiving, and as a gift of constant communion with God on a global scale….If human beings treated one another’s personal property the way they sometimes treat the environment, we would view that behavior as antisocial.
When we are in right relationship with God, we treat all of God’s creation, including other human beings, with dignity, reverence and respect. Whether Jesus returns in five minutes or five centuries, we take care of the earth until he returns. “Why?” someone might argue; “it’s just going to be destroyed anyway!” Yes, and if we keep going the way we’re headed, it should be destroyed fairly soon. When I was a little kid and my mother told me to make my bed, I’d say, “Why? I’m just going to sleep in it again.” We take care of the earth out of gratitude, thanksgiving, love and respect because it’s God’s, just as we are responsible for treating our fellow human beings with love and respect because they each bear the divine image.
As Ken Wilson states, Jesus didn’t come just to help us get to heaven. He came to reestablish the kingdom rule of God and inaugurate the renewal of all things. And if we follow him, then we are to act as though the earth is the Lord’s, because it is. (3)
So practically, what are some things we can do? Here are just a few ideas:
We can pray and ask the Lord to show us ways in which we’ve misused his creation, and then repent, turn around, head back in the right direction. We can begin to practice restraint, self-control in our use or consumption of natural resources, water, oil, gas, and products like plastic that pollute the earth and oceans, and paper, which has a high environmental price tag. We can educate ourselves about the real cost of the things we consume. We know, for example, the price of a hamburger, but do we consider the real cost? Producing a pound of factory-farmed hamburger causes more pollution than driving your car for 3 weeks. Cows produce millions of tons of waste, which contaminates our water supplies. You mean you can put a dollar value on all that? Yes, you can. When all is tallied, that burger could well cost hundreds of dollars. Of course, those costs aren’t passed on to us the consumer– until later.
Next we can buy locally grown produce and support local farmers. This not only saves on transportation costs (i.e. pollution); it also supports the local economy. We can use green cleaning products, detergents, pesticides and fertilizers. Product manufacturers are often not required to list ingredients, and for good reason since many are neurotoxic, hormone-disrupting, and carcinogenic. Then they get dumped into our waterways. Lastly, we need to take a stand against greed. James Speth, the dean of Yale’s School of Environmental Studies and the first scientific adviser to the U.S. President on climate change, said,
I used to think if we threw enough good science at the environmental problems, we could solve them. I was wrong. The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change, as I thought once. They are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, something we scientists don’t know much about. maybe it’s time for us scientists, including those who are not religious, to work together with people of faith to help that along. (4)
Sounds like we’re needed, Church. The world needs us to speak up and out. After all, we have the answer, don’t we?
(1) Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff, pp. 90-91.
(2) Ken Wilson, Jesus Brand Spirituality, p. 57.
(3) Ibid., pp. 57-58.
(4) Ibid., pp. 59-60.