Real hope for the planet
Sunday before Lent, February 23rd 2020
Readings: Genesis 8:20 – Genesis 9:17 en Colossians 1:15-20
Speaker: Embert Messelink, Director of A Rocha Netherlands.
Do you have any hope for planet Earth for – let’s say – the next fifty years? Will the earth still be okay? According to the news, there are many challenges. Look in any newspaper and the items are there: about climate change, loss of biodiversity, excess of nitrogen, contaminated soils, plastic islands in the oceans. It wouldn’t take much effort to talk this whole service now about how our environment, the living planet, our common home suffers from … ourselves, the impact we have on the earth. And this news is impacting us. I think everyone has a strategy to deal with this inconvenient news. We can ignore it and keep thinking that it is not too bad. Or simply don’t read the stuff. Or we can radically change our lives, do what we can, live more sustainably and rescue the earth.
Can we also be hopeful? Really hopeful, not just pretending. But for real. I don’t meet many hopeful people. I recently heard a lecture by Mathijs Schouten, environmental philosopher, who asks his new students every year: who of you still has hope for a good future for the earth? Less hands are raised every year. Less hope, less positivism. Less sense that it matters whether we do something or not. And recently I noticed that it can happen to us in the church as well: that we lose our hope, that we become worried. I spoke in a Reformed church in the center of the country, where a very environmentally-minded young woman told me that she had decided not to have children. She was convinced that the situation on earth would not improve and she did not consider it justified to have children. She had lost hope.
Can we live in these times and still have hope? Real hope? As Christians we live with the gospel: the good news of Jesus. Does that good news have anything to say about climate change? Is the gospel good news for polar bears as well? For albatrosses who feed their young with plastic, the reason they die in their nests? For people who can’t believe any more that striving to a cleaner, greener world is meaningful? For conservationists who see birds and plants disappear despite their hard work? For men and women who don’t dare to have children?
In the church, we live with the gospel: the good news of Jesus. A hopeful message from God for the whole of his creation. What is that message? And how can we live that message? I want to study those questions with you this morning.
Let’s start with the verses we read from Genesis 8 and 9.
I realize the story about the flood can raise many questions about God’s judgment on people. I won’t be able to treat them all. I will pick up the story after the flood and look at what God’s response is after this astonishing story of judgment and rescue.
Most people know what God’s promise is after the flood: there will never be a flood like this, a flood that destroyed everything. But have you realized that God’s promise not to destroy the earth is not only for humans? It is for all living creatures, for the whole of creation. That is important: God values his creation, his covenant is with all creatures. It is mentioned here at least five times. It must be important.
However, there is more in God’s promises. At the end of chapter 8:22: God’s promise is that there will always be a time to sow and plant, a time of harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night. That is interesting. God doesn’t only promise not to destroy the earth again. He also promises that he will keep the earth suitable for life. That he will take care of his creation. That the earth will forever be a home to live and a good place for mankind.
So God promises to restrain from destroying the earth and to do what is needed to keep life on earth possible.
Well, that is a first reason to be hopeful, isn’t it? God will be faithful to his creation. Notice that this is not a mutual agreement between God and the people. It is his promise, his covenant with the whole of creation. He doesn’t expect an answer, nor cooperation in advance. This is what he does. People don’t even need to keep him to his covenant. God himself places the rainbow in the clouds as a reminder. God is the guarantee of his own promises. This is the solid ground of our hope. Our hope is in God alone.
There is another interesting sentence at the end of chapter eight. God says: “never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood”. Interesting! You might say, very humanly: after the flood, there is a huge sense of reality in God. He realizes people will continue to do wrong. And he realizes that another giant remake of the earth could be necessary. However, he decides deliberately not to do that. People will do bad things again, but God keeps the earth suitable for them. No matter what people do, whether they do good or evil. God is even convinced they will do evil, however he doesn’t withhold his blessing of a good earth for them.
That is a hopeful message – very hopeful. However, it raises a question. Does God then accept the wickedness of men? Does it no longer affect him?
That is of course not true. The whole old testament is the story of a God who wants to continue with a part of mankind. He called Abraham, Isaak, Jakob. He chose Israel as his people. Indeed, he keeps his creation alive for all people. But his goal, his ambition reaches further. He longs for people who give up evil. Who appreciate his blessing and accept that he is their God. He wants a people who are his image bearer. Who respect God’s good rules of life. Who look after orphan, widow, stranger. People who appreciate that God sustains his earth and who will also reflect that caring attitude for the earth itself.
Yes, caring for God’s earth is part of the life with God. Look for example at Leviticus 25: the Old Testament laws to protect the land: the sabbatical year and the jubilee. Each seventh year, the land should not be cultivated. A rule with an important positive ecological effect. We have seen the prove of that in The Netherlands in the eighties. Grain prices were extremely low. Farmers got paid when they took their fields out of production. The results were spectacular: insects, small animals like mice and different species of birds of prey found a place again. The rare montagu’s harrier returned as a breeding bird. Partridges and sky larks did well. The goodness of this old testament rule was clearly visible.
God sustains the earth, but he invites his people to cooperate. We are to be his image bearers on earth. He enjoys his creation; he wants people to enjoy it as well. And the people of Israel did, as we can read in the psalms. For example, the beautiful creation song, psalm 104. Or Psalm 8. In those psalms, people reflect God’s love for his creation. They enjoy the wonder of creation and worship him as Creator.
However, they did the contrary as well. It is very likely the sabbatical year and the jubilee were never kept. And the prophets tell us that when God’s people didn’t obey his good rules, creation suffered. Hosea writes: “Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away.”
Unfortunately, that is what has happened throughout the centuries. And nowadays, the damage to creation is worldwide. We are well on our way to a serious ecological crisis.
Let’s turn back to the question: are you hopeful? I think the story from Genesis 9 is a story of hope. It is a story about God’s mercy: the earth will be preserved, whatever people are doing. And at the same time, I can see it is not the whole story. People keep making bad choices – our inability to take good care of creation is visible everywhere on the planet now. It seems obvious that it is completely out of our hands. Does God consider that as well?
Yes, he does. God maintains his creation every day. But in the meantime, he has set up his profound rescue plan. Already before the flood took place. We have read a beautiful song about Jesus in Colossians. He came to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by his blood on the cross.
In those few verses the word ‘all’ is mentioned eight times. Consider the full scope of that reconciliation. Everything. All things. Where is struggle, disharmony, disruption visible in your life? In the relationship with God? Jesus came to heal it. Is it as well in your relationship with other people? Jesus came to heal it. Do you struggle with yourself, for example with your self-image? Jesus came to heal all things. And do you realize that your relationship with his creation is not as it should be? Is it a disturbed relationship, are you harming creation? Jesus came to heal all things. He is the Savior and the Renewer. The good news of the gospel is that God makes everything whole again, he restores all things: also that difficult, crooked relationship that we have with creation nowadays. His mission is to makes us his image bearers again.
Are you looking for hopeful news? The best news in times of climate change and loss of biodiversity, pollution and pesticides? Here it is. God has pursued a two-track plan: he maintains the earth every day. And at the same time, he came with his profound rescue plan that will be enough for once and for all. For the whole of his creation.
On an event last year, called Groen Geloven, meteorologist Reinier van den Berg spoke about climate change. Let’s stop telling each other that it is two to twelve, he said. It is much worse, it is five past twelve. We are too late to turn the tide, we have to think about damage control now.
It made me think about a famous conversation in The Lord of the Rings. If you have seen the films, you most likely remember Gandalf and Pippin, talking to each other in the night before the big fight. ‘Is there any hope, Gandalf’, Pippin asks. ‘There never was much hope, only a fool’s hope’, is the answer.
Whoever takes serious what is going on today, may agree. It seems foolish to have hope about a greener, cooler, more sustainable world. There is hardly any reason to believe that things will improve. But let this be the foolishness of the gospel. There is hope for the whole creation. Not only now that everything seems to go wrong. God’s story has no plot full of suspense, with a total turn of events in the last episode. Thanks to God, there is hope from the beginning, already for millennia now. All will be well in the end.
So if this is what answers the question of how God’s people can live full of hope in times of climate change and all kinds of other threats to life on earth, how then do we live from this hope?
I think it means not only accepting the gospel as good news for the whole creation, but embodying this good news. The hope of Scripture is something that touches you. It is not something to only agree with. It is an invitation to be Gods people, to be a people of hope. An invitation to be Gods image bearer, and let you be guided by his Spirit in everyday life on earth.
If you hope for this better, healed creation of God, if you reach out to it, if you pray for his kingdom on earth, you also want to live according to your prayers, don’t you? You start to expect and to long for this new era of peace and righteousness, this new kingdom, in which his creation will flourish. If you long and pray and reach out to this kingdom, you will want to act. You can start to care for the poor, for your neighbour, for the restoration of natural habitats, for creation. You can start becoming an ambassador of Gods kingdom. A hopeful ambassador, but not one who thinks he has to rescue the earth himself! Small steps can be signposts to this new kingdom. That means that the steps of a beginner are perfectly fine: simple and practical things that diminish our negative impact on the earth. There are – I think – hundreds of possible steps. As we are all different people, with different responsibilities, I won’t mention them. However, as A Rocha, we brought the most important together on the so called ‘Sustainable Bucketlist’. An example is available on the table, however you can download it for free. Easy to find with google.
God is reconciling, bringing peace in all things himself, through Jesus our Saviour. That has already taken place. Now, I think God’s longing is for a world full of ambassadors of his kingdom. Can our hands become healing hands? Can we create signposts of his kingdom? Can we, again and again, strive to be his image bearers? And, if we are not able to do that fully, shall we never forget to live as a hopeful people of God?
Sermon by Embert Messelink, director of A Rocha Netherlands, All Saints Amersfoort, 23 February 2020.
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