How many of you like to find God in nature? Yeah, a lot of people like that. As a matter of fact, having a spirituality that is more out-in-nature centered is considered today equally valid by most folks as an in-church centered spirituality. I mean, it is a heck of a lot easier. You don’t have to deal with people, and budgets and committees and all that.
And what people mean when they talk about the nature spirituality thing is being in a space of calm, silence, natural beauty. They like sunsets and rainbows and mountain vistas. They aren’t talking about tick bites. Nobody finds God in that. Poison ivy. Plague. Cancer. Raging wildfire. That’s all nature, too. We like to find God in the safe, cozy stuff, where we are not under threat, where we are in control. But there’s an aspect to nature that’s very uncomfortable. We don’t have the best relationship with nature.
And yet when I look at the texts today, especially Isaiah, the new world to which God is pointing is one where our relationship with the natural world is much improved from the one we have now. Babies playing with snakes. Predators no longer a threat.
Isaiah is probably being poetic, but I’d like to say there’s something literal as well. God created human beings in God’s image and placed us within creation to steward over it. The task for human beings was, and is, to cultivate, lead, manage, steward, God’s creation, to start from wherever they were living and to fill the earth and make the whole planet, and possibly beyond, a place where creation lives in harmony, where humanity thrives and flourishes, and where God is glorified and worshiped. We are to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. And somehow, by walking humbly, we learn how to cultivate human societies that both live in harmony with this wild earth, and to also change it and shape it in ways that increase human flourishing.
Even the psalm for today depicts human leadership as being an important and beneficial part of the ecosystem, like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
And we human beings have done that, because we are good, in spite of ourselves, but sin also has messed things up. We don’t live harmoniously with creation. We aren’t awesome at doing justice and loving kindness, and we definitely don’t walk humbly with our God all that well. But our giftedness as human beings is still there and still powerful, and just like we have the power to steward over creation towards good ends, we also have the power to really mess things up.
Fundamentally, the sins at the bottom of all that are hubris and greed. We convince ourselves that we need more that we do, and we need more than they do. And we fight over resources that are scarcer than they need to be, because we don’t manage the earth properly. Six inches of fertile topsoil. That’s why we’re alive. We have to use it and maintain it properly. But we fall short. Pride. Exploiting the earth. Short-sightedness. Neglecting the proper distribution of resources. Separating value from labor. This is not what we were created for, and as in the story of Adam and Eve, brings about the curse, where stewarding the earth becomes toil, with much fruitless vanity, until we die and return to the earth. Creation is maybe where we see the Divine in those good times, so we tell ourselves. But let’s get real. Nature is a threat that must constantly be put at bay, and that’s what’s in the back of our minds more than pretty sunsets and rainbows.
We have become more and more alienated from nature, and we’d like to believe we’re less dependent on it. Most of us don’t know what we’re doing with it, but live technologically and civilizationally insulated lives. If you or I were living on the American frontier 200 years ago, we would not survive a winter. Or even a summer, really. When the grid stops working, when the thin veneer we call civilization starts getting porous and torn, could we make it?
As always, in Bible times as now, those who cause the most damage to the ecosystem do so for gain, and they use that gain to insulate themselves from the disasters they unleash, while the most vulnerable people bear the brunt. It’s not fair.
Of course, what is the backdrop for us in our context that we are worried about? Climate change. It fits that narrative. Due to largely using nature to get what we want today from it, taking stuff that’s been underground for millions of years and putting it all in the atmosphere in a couple of centuries, yeah, we’d expect that to mess with life on planet earth quite a bit. That’s a hot-button issue I know, and there are certain places I won’t go with that because there’s a lot I don’t know for certain.
I do know that there is an overwhelming consensus of researchers around the globe who say the global temperature is rising, especially in the Arctic, along with levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, largely due to human caused activity, and that it has had and will have a major impact in extreme weather, flooding in low-lying areas, habitat loss, and refugees from places that are becoming no longer habitable or sustainable. That’s a very simple and mild way of describing it. And it is a crisis. And there are suggested ways that humans can at least slow it down and mitigate it. That scientific consensus could be wrong, but it does make sense to me.
Here’s what I don’t know. I don’t know exactly what to do about it, and I am trying to learn and am open, but it’s difficult for me to spend a lot of time thinking about how to adjust everything in my personal life around it. I suspect a lot of people are in that same boat. Just a confession. I think governments and corporations even more have a role to play, but that sure is a slow and difficult and frustrating process. And another thing I don’t know is how bad it is going to get. There are a range of projections, some more dire than others. Since we don’t know, they are all possibilities. It’s not going to make humanity extinct, but some areas could get hit bad, actually already have.
Now, I’ve had conversations with other folks who remind me, in my propensity to be more doom-and-gloom, that in many ways, the world is great and getting better. Life-spans, quality of life, defeating diseases, there are also many good metrics out there. There’s always a reason to be afraid. But there’s never a reason to only be afraid.
And God sends prophets, like John the Baptist, a very elemental guy. Lives off the earth. Preaches fire. Dunks people in water. Talks about the coming wind to be brought by one who is more powerful who is to come after John. And John pulls no punches. Fire is coming. The ax is already the root of the trees, and the trees that don’t produce good fruit are going to be used as firewood. Creation, humanity, maybe what it needs is a nice good, control burn, purifying the landscape, so that a more fruitful creation and humanity can emerge from the ashes. But then again, God tried that once with the flood and it didn’t work, and God promised, never again. Maybe we can move from the cursed creation to become a part of the new creation by baptism and repentance.
Here is the question we ask when encountering John the Baptist: Do we need to become like John? Obviously, John is living life in such a way that he can say that he’s not part of the problem anymore. Lives out in the wilderness, off the land, away from society, completely focused on God. Lives within his means, does not exploit or oppress anybody. Some would say that’s the answer. Live like John. But John never tells anybody that the way to be saved is to live exactly like him. No, but like then as like now, the way to salvation is through baptism and repentance. And when people asked in Luke’s Gospel, “What should we do?” John’s recommendations to them always had to do with living simply and peaceably with others. Not taking a position of dominance over other people unnecessarily, and not being greedy for two much for yourself at the expense of others. When we were baptized, we were called to a new life like that, recalled to the original human call to care for creation.
There are many things I don’t know for sure, but what I will preach is what I do know:
One thing I know for sure is that we are called to steward creation. We are to know the state of our flocks. Discipleship requires becoming aware of what is going on in our climate and to be working, individually and through public advocacy, for ways to address the issue. We have a responsibility as Christians, even if we have different opinions about things. It’s better than being totally disengaged and only having a gospel of sentimentalities and the afterlife.
I also know that human beings are certainly capable of enormous devastation in creation, as well as enormous prosperity and flourishing. And yet there is still a limit to either one. We are dust. We need not get too big for our britches. Live in respect for God’s creation. Make sure everybody’s okay. When some are climate refugees, and when some are not enjoying the fruits of the earth in the same way we are, we ought to feel that pain as people who are of one body with them.
I know that we have a hope in God’s enduring presence and commitment to creation, in spite of human sin, natural threats, and entropy. A God who brings life from death. God is committed to us, and God’s grace has a habit of creating beauty out of ugly things. This does not mean we throw up our hands and avoid responsibility, but our call is to participate with God in the creating of beauty out of ugly things.
This is not a time to put our heads in the sand or to act as if we’re doomed. This is absolutely a time for humans to get out there and shine and live life to the full and make more humans and work as if we are going to find a way by God’s grace to live more harmoniously with creation as its caretakers, loving it to the very end, bearing witness as disciples of Jesus Christ that life is indeed worth living and that we can still make it the way it needs to be.
And yet still, death and disaster do come. John warns that trees are going to get cut down. Yet Isaiah promises, from the stump of Jesse, new life will come. This is the mystery of faith in which we and all creation participate in from the beginning: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This Christ is the Word from which this creation was made, in which there is this great cycle of paschal mystery over and over again – death, resurrection, new life.
Part of the problem is that humans are always thinking short term, which is important – how will we survive the winter? And we need to think more long term – what about next winter? What about our children’s planet? But the ultimate salvation may come in even more short-term thinking. It’s about the kind of human beings we are to become, more so than whether or not our plans succeed, and if we survive, and all of that. That’s in God’s hands. But we would do well to be present. To ask for our daily bread. To be present to this day, to these people before us, to the creation around us, beneath us, above us, as the presence of God. As gifts. Not to be exploited. To live in mutuality.
What would it look like for us to live more simply? To be thankful for the animals and the land that give us life? To do our part in helping the world live more sustainably? To see the presence of God in all things and people? To ask God what our role is as humble people, specks on this tiny speck in the universe?
The waiting we do in Advent is waiting for Christ to come and set things right. Things being set right means that we do not have an antagonistic, fearful, or exploitative relationship with the natural world, but learn to delight in every aspect, with respect, humility, and careful management. We look for Christ’s coming, and yet Christ is here to guide us today.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”