Care (sermon)

Psalm 104; Genesis 1:26-28; Isaiah 65:17-25; Revelation 22:12-15, 20-21


The world in which we woke this morning is an astonishing and awe-inspiring place.  It is a wonderfully balanced biosystem.  It has the capacity to provide resources of untold variety for us to consume, to continually renew itself, and to absorb the wastes we create.

There is no way in which the world relies on us for its being, yet we are completely dependent on it for life.  And the rise of consumer culture is straining the capacity of the Earth to continue doing this.

Climate change is a significant factor, but only one of several dangers that fundamentally threaten the fragile balance of the ecosystems on which we depend for our existence.  In 2009 a group of eminent earth scientists wrote a paper titled, “A safe operating space for humanity.”[1]

In the paper, they argued that there are nine environmental boundaries that, once crossed, will significantly reduce the capacity of the earth to function as a safe operating space for humanity.  They propose that we have already crossed three of those boundaries (climate change, loss of biodiversity, and disruption of the nitrogen cycle), and are perilously close to crossing another three boundaries (ocean acidification, change of land use, and disruption of the phosphorus cycle).

The prospect of humankind heading down this broad road leading to destruction, and gathering pace as we do so, careless of the dangers that lie ahead, and of our responsibilities to each other and to future generations, is bad enough in itself.

But what of the Christians among us, who claim to know God as Creator and Sovereign and Judge, and who have a sacred commission to serve as stewards of all the Earth’s natural resources and systems?

And what of God, who spoke the Earth into existence, who shaped it and wove its atoms into intricate systems within systems, and created this vast biodiversity in all its splendour and complexity?  What does God, the author of life, think of the impact of the footprints of seven billion jackboots in the face of his sacred creation?

When American poet John Crowe Ransom published his first book in 1919, he titled it Poems about God.  Psalm 104 is another poem about God – one of the most majestic and profound reflections on God and his works ever penned.

American theologian Walter Brueggemann describes this psalm as “an extended celebration of the goodness and awesome character of creation.”  Nineteenth century Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon cast the psalm as “one of the loftiest and longest sustained flights of the inspired muse.”  When the Anglican preacher and pastor John Stott wrote his Favorite Psalms, this was among them.[2]

Psalm 104 is a song of sustained praise to God, celebrating and revering his worth.  It commences with a call to praise (v 1a); suggests how God reveals himself in the natural environment (vv 1b-4); describes some of the ways in which God created and sustains the universe (vv 5-30); and closes with a prayer that God will rejoice in his creation, and a commitment to lifelong praise of God (vv 31-35).

Unlike many of the biblical psalms, “while praise psalms are filled with the speaker’s emotions, we do not look at the speaker.  Instead we look with the speaker at God.”[3]  See, for example, verses 1-4, 10-15, 27-28.  The psalm extols the wisdom, power, creativity, benevolence, generosity, freedom and love of God.  And it witnesses to the dependence of all life on God, and the interdependence of different forms of life.

Now nothing takes God by surprise, but I am sure he is deeply saddened by the ways in which our greed and carelessness have trashed his creation.  Perhaps we have even kindled his holy anger against what we might call “ecological sin” – our failure as a species, divinely commissioned, to care for the Earth.

But there is another aspect to the divine displeasure, beyond our calling of duty, that I want to suggest to you this morning.  My colleague at Mercer University in the U.S., Professor David Gushee, who presented the annual John Saunders Lecture at Morling College in 2010, observes that, prior to the 1960s, “Western Christianity had lost touch with the resources for a creation care ethic that were present within the Bible and scattered in our theological tradition.”[4]

He says that recently, more and more Christian thinkers have considered the issues associated with the growing environmental catastrophe, and searched for “a Christian-theological-ethical posture adequate to address them.”  There are three main approaches: theocentric, anthropocentric, and biocentric – which he outlines well but I will not go into today.

Gushee notes the central moral norm of “sanctity of life,” with which we are all probably familiar, which we apply to human life made in the image of God, giving it particular reverence and respect, “beginning with a commitment to the preservation, protection and flourishing of [human] lives.”[5]

Then he asks whether this biblical doctrine of the sanctity of life may also be applied to other parts of creation.  Now there’s a thought!  His reasoning is as follows:

What makes creaturely life sacred is God’s own relation to it, not any particular characteristic we might claim for ourselves or any other creature … All creatures bow before the majestic Creator who alone gives them value.  In this way, a reframed sanctity of life ethic pulls together all of the themes we have been considering.  It is simultaneously biocentric and anthropocentric because it is so deeply theocentric.[6]

There are several important caveats to his proposition, but I think he is right.  What makes human lives “sacred,” if we may use that term, is God’s action and declaration toward them.  Other creatures, and the plants and ecosystems that sustain them, are also highly valued by God, although probably not “sacred” to the same degree, or in the same way, as humans are “sacred” (cf Luke 12:6f).

So why should we treat animals, plants and ecosystems with a high degree of reverence and respect?  God has created them (Gen 1-2), he declares them good (Gen 1:31), he feeds and sustains them (Ps 104; Mt 6:26), he makes covenant with them (Gen 9), he protects them in divine laws (Lev 25; Deut 6:14), he hears their groaning (Rom 8:28), and he promises their ultimate liberation, through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, from bondage to decay (Rom 8:29) in the renewal of all things (Mt 19:28).

And that leads us to a beautiful passage in Isaiah 65:17-25, paralleled in Romans 8:18-25 and Revelation 21-22, where the prophet and the apostles describe men and women with redeemed bodies, hearts and minds, living on an Earth that is bountiful, shared and free from disease and disaster, in communities that are safe, just and welcoming, and where God is present with immediacy and intimacy.

That is where we are going.  That is the climax to which history draws us.  That is the future that God in his grace and mercy has intended for us – for all of us, people, plants, animals and ecosystems.

But I would not be doing justice to the revealed word of God if I did not also point out that there are moral boundaries to this renewed Earth, and there are people whom God justly excludes, forever, from this new Eden he is in process of creating for his eternal glory and pleasure and praise (Rev 22:12-15, 20-21).

The world around us, in which we woke this morning, is valued and loved by God, and by working in partnership with God for its healing now, we witness to the greater healing to come.[7]


Sermon 613 copyright © 2012 Rod Benson. Preached at Eastwood Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 25 November 2012. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[2] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984), p. 31; Charles H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David Volume 2 (Peabody MA: Hendrickson, n.d.), p. 301; John R.W. Stott, Favorite Psalms (Chicago: Moody, 1988).

[3] “Praise psalm,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (ed. Leland Ryken et al; Downers Grove: IVP, 1998), p. 659.

[4] David Gushee, “Environmental Ethics: Bringing creation care down to earth,” in Noah J. Toly & Daniel I Block (eds), Keeping God’s Earth: The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010), p. 246.

[5] Ibid., p. 259.

[6] Ibid., p. 264.

[7] See page 27 of the booklet by Scott Higgins titled The End of Greed: Consuming as if God, People and the Planet Matter (Sydney: Baptist World Aid Australia, 2011) for five good ideas we can all employ to help care better for the Earth, its life, and its ecosystems as we await the final resolution of all things.

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