Monday, April 19, 2010

Sermon: The Bible and The Environment (or, Shane Becomes a Tree-Hugger!)

Introduction.

According to the calendar this Thursday is Earth Day. Normally, Earth Day is something that I would either ignore or ridicule. There are lots of people and beliefs connected with the environmental movement that I frankly do not want to be associated with. But over the last year I have noticed some passages in the Bible that I have never given much attention to before, and I have had to re-think my overall views about the environment.

This is one of those subjects that quickly divide people into two extremes. On the one hand, there are those who essentially worship the natural world, confusing the creation for the Creator. If you happen to see the movie Avatar, the worldview of the inhabitants of the planet Pandora was essentially that the planet they lived on was also their mother goddess. There is a fringe of the real-life environmental movement that worships earth as the mother goddess, Gaia. This is idolatry, and it defies the most important and profound truth of Scripture: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God existed before the creation and is never to be confused with the creation. He is the Creator.

But just as it is wrong to confuse the creation for the Creator, it is also wrong to deny there is any relevance between believing in a Creator and how we view the creation. If we truly believe the environment - the planet, its plants and animals – is the work of God’s hands, then there should be a respectful concern for nature, as there would be for any work of God.

So my goal in today’s lesson is to examine what the Bible says about God and the environment, and to understand what our obligations to the natural world are as believers.

The Bible and the Environment

So let’s begin with the most basic truth of all - God created the environment.

At the end of the creation account, the Bible says:

Gen. 1:31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

The entire universe – the stars and planets, the plants and animals, and humanity itself – was made by the power of God, and the Lord was enormously satisfied by the work of His hands.

God’s majestic power is so clear in creation, that in Israel’s book of praises the created order itself is said to rejoice in God’s work:

10 Say among the nations, "The LORD reigns!
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity."
11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12 let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy (Psalm 96)

Consider Psalm 104. It begins with a summary of God’s craftsmanship in creation:

5 He set the earth on its foundations,
so that it should never be moved.
6 You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
7 At your rebuke they fled;
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.
8 The mountains rose, the valleys sank down
to the place that you appointed for them.
9 You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
11 they give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

Notice how God’s providence for His creatures is comprehensive:

12 Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell;
they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
14 You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth
15 and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
16 The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has her home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.
19 He made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the beasts of the forest creep about.
21 The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
22When the sun rises, they steal away
and lie down in their dens.
23 Man goes out to his work
and to his labor until the evening.

Such a benevolent and thoughtful Creator deserves praise!

24 O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.
27 These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
28 When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.
31 May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
may the LORD rejoice in his works

The Lord rejoices in His works! His creation rejoices in His providence! The natural world resounds with praise for God. This is the message of Psalm 148, which is the basis for the song “Hallelujah Praise Jehovah.”

All you fruitful trees and cedars, all you hills and mountains high,

Creeping things and beasts and cattle, birds that in the heavens fly,

Kings of earth, and all you people, princes great, earth’s judges all;

Praise His Name, young men and maidens, ag├Ęd men, and children small.

Doesn’t the fact that the world is God’s workmanship have enormous implications for how people who love God should look at the environment? If the natural world is a testimony to God’s greatness, we should be concerned about how we treat it.

But before we get to our responsibilities, I want to make a second point from Scripture. Not only did God create the environment, He deeply cares for the environment. This divine concern is expressed in passage after passage, some of which are very familiar to us.

For instance, when Jesus taught against anxiety in the Sermon on the Mount, remember His illustration?

26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Matt. 6)

God feeds the birds; God clothes the grass of the field. God cares for His world.

Later, Jesus said this care extended to even the smallest birds:

29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. (Matt 10)

God is intimately aware of what happens in the environment, and cares for His creatures.

This care was encoded in many of the laws God gave to Israel. Certainly the most important of these was the Sabbath law itself. God wanted a day of rest for all of creatures – not just man.

8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Ex. 20)

Not even the livestock were to work. They needed time to recover just like people. This is explicit in the restatement of the command in Ex. 23-

12 Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.

God wanted a Sabbath for man, animal, and even for the land itself. Every seven years the people were to let the land rest.

2 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. 3 For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, 4 but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5 You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. (Lev. 25)

Centuries before conservationists ever warned about soil erosion or the loss of topsoil, God instituted a provision for the land to be left alone to recover. Think about what a sacrifice this was in an economy like ancient Israel’s in which everything depended on agriculture. How tempting it would be to ignore this command. Perhaps that is why on the next chapter of Leviticus God warned the people what would happen if they failed to keep the Sabbath year for the land. Israel would be invaded and exiled…

34 Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. 35 As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it. (Lev. 26)

And this is exactly what happened. Israel did ignore the command, and God deported them to Babylon. The Chronicler explained the captivity in these terms:

20 He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, 21 to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years. (2 Chron. 36)

God’s care for the natural world can also be seen in other statutes in the Mosaic code. Here’s an interesting command, taken from the instructions God gave for how to engage in warfare in Deuteronomy 20:

19 When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? 20 Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.

I had never noticed this command until Andrew asked to study Deuteronomy with me last year. It reminds me of the scene in Tolkein’s The Two Towers, where tree-like creature called Ents—usually a very patient, deliberate people—become angry at Saruman, whose armies are cutting down large numbers of their trees and march on Saruman's fortress at Isengard. Israel was forbidden to engage in such indiscriminate destruction of trees.

Or how about this law, quoted in the New Testament:

4 "You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain. (Deut. 25)

When a beast of burden was hard at work, it wasn’t to be muzzled so it could eat and sustain itself while working. And of course this passage is quoted twice in the NT by Paul to establish the case for the financial support of preachers, arguing from the lesser to the greater.

Three times the Law contains this command:

Ex. 23:19 You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.

This is the basis of the kosher principle which forbids eating milk and meat at the same time, but the precise reason for the command is a mystery. The best guess really is that it would be cruel to boil a young goat in that which should be life-giving. It is therefore a display of compassion.

That may also explain this directive from Lev. 22-

27 "When an ox or sheep or goat is born, it shall remain seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as a food offering to the LORD. 28 But you shall not kill an ox or a sheep and her young in one day.

And it certainly explains the reason for this ordinance in Ex. 23-

4 "If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. 5 If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.

All of these commands illustrate the great consideration the Lord has for the land, for animals, and since these commands maintain sustainable natural order - ultimately His consideration for us.

These laws also illustrate the important role we play in God’s care for the environment. That is the third key point to draw from Scripture - God delegated care for the environment to humanity.

In Gen. 1 God said:

26 "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."

This dominion God delegated to us is based on our creation in His image, status that no other creature has. As the psalmist reflected on this he was amazed:

4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas. Psalm 8

This is the reason the radical fringe of the animal rights movement is so misguided. Not only does trying to equate animal life with human life end up devaluing human life, it is precisely because mankind is superior to animals that we can provide shelter, care and protection for animals. Animals don’t build hospitals to care for people! People build hospitals to care for animals!

That is our duty as God’s delegated authority – to care for creation. This was true even in the paradise of Eden.

15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (Gen. 2)

This was before the entrance of sin into the world in Gen. 3, so the work laid out here in Gen. 2:15 is not a punishment – it is a divine mandate. Adam was to work and keep the garden. And in a nutshell, that is what Adam’s offspring are to do.

This holy work of careful stewardship of nature is seen all through the Law of Moses, in many of the passages we have already looked at. Just let me show you two more.

In Lev. 19 the Lord set forth a law regarding the use of trees-

23 When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten. 24 And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the LORD. 25 But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, to increase its yield for you: I am the LORD your God.

God did not want the people to pick fruit from trees until they were mature. The issue was not that it was wrong to eat the fruit – the issue was responsible use of the trees.

And consider this passage in Deut. 22-

6 If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. 7 You shall let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, that it may go well with you, and that you may live long.

Again, the issue was not that it is wrong to eat eggs. The issue was proper management of the food supply. God designed the environment to provide sustainable life for His people, provided they followed His laws and used the natural world responsibly.

That is why failure to care for the land and for animals was such an offense to God. It revealed a heart that was irreverent and disrespectful for the Creator.

There is such a strong connection between our character and the way we use creation that the wise man wrote:

10 Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast,
but the mercy of the wicked is cruel. Prov. 12:10

I realize that many of the passages we have looked at were specific laws for the people of Israel in the specific context of living in the land of promise, the land of Canaan. While these laws must be kept in their original context, they display a broad divine regard for the natural word. What should we as Christians take away from what the Bible says regarding the creation?

Some Applications

1) We must live in a way that reflects gratitude for God’s creation.

It is easy to be grateful for the beauty of the environment in this part of the country! I know that many of you are enthusiastic campers and hikers, and relish the glory of God’s creation. He made it for us to enjoy! But you don’t have to be Grizzly Adams to be a nature lover. If you eat you are a nature lover, because we can’t separate food from the environment. And that is why we all have reason to be grateful for God’s goodness.

4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Tim. 4)

We must be grateful.

2) We must live in a way that reflects wise stewardship of God’s creation.

In 1 Tim. 6 Paul writes-

6 Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.

Think about the implications of verse 7. Look at everything you have on, think about everything you have at home. You came into the world with none of it, and you will leave the world and all its stuff behind. That means everything we have is on loan; it doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to God. That is what stewardship means – to take care of someone else’s stuff. The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains – so we need to take good care of it. That is the biblical basis of stewardship of creation.

The ally of stewardship is contentment, which Paul defines in verse 8.

8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.

A steward sees material blessings as a tool to use for God’s glory, and is humbly grateful for the provision God has given. But in a wealthy country like ours, it is easy to be overcome by the enemy of stewardship, which is greed.

9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

So how do we discern the difference between contentment and greed in the way we use the creation? Do you remember the Aesops’ fable about the goose that laid the golden egg? There was a farmer who had a goose, and one day he went to gather her eggs, only to discover that she had laid a golden egg! Each morning he went to the henhouse, and each morning he found a golden egg. But one day he decided that one egg wasn’t enough, and he killed the goose to get all of the golden eggs out of her. But when he killed her, there were no more golden eggs.

God created an environment that produces lots of golden eggs - food and clothing and shelter. If we are responsible stewards of creation, His provision is sustainable. But whenever people are overcome by greed and try to exploit the natural world, the result is disastrous. The golden eggs run out.

Good stewardship means that we do our best to take good care of the little plot of this planet we live on, and learn the virtue of living within our means, using what God has loaned us to glorify Him and serve others.

3) We must live in a way that reflects love for our neighbor.

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Gal. 5

Simply put, we have to think of the consequences of our actions not only for us, but also for others – including the choices we make in how we use the natural world. It is hard to think of a manmade environmental catastrophe that doesn’t involve at its core a failure to follow this principle.

It would be great if companies, corporations, and countries all lived by the golden rule, but they don’t. But you and I can choose to be different than the world, and do what we can in our own little world to treat others like we want to be treated in the way we use the resources of nature.

Conclusion.

I am convinced that part of what drives a lot of the radical environmental movement is the belief that this life is all there is, that we have to save the planet because this is the only place we’ll ever have. Christians though have a different belief, that this world will end some day, that there is a new heavens and earth yet to come.

But this belief doesn’t relieve us of the duty to be good stewards. Think of it like this. Here is a dollar bill. How many of you believe we ought to be careful and prudent in the way we use these pieces of paper? We all do – even though we all believe a day is coming in which the world – including its money – will be no more. Yet we think we should handle money responsibly. If that is true of money, it is true of the trees from which the paper this money is printed on comes from, and the ground the trees grow in, and the water the trees use, and so on.

What complicates life for us now is that we live on a cursed planet. Sin has invaded our world, and it is under a curse. God in His mercy still allows us to enjoy creation in so many ways, but the thorns and thistles and diseases and disasters, the toil of labor by the sweat of the brow, the pain and heartache of this life, all remind us of sin’s curse.

Through Christ we each can have a new start; we can become in the words of 2 Cor. 5:17 a “new creation.” And when Christ comes back we will have new bodies designed for a new heavens and earth, which is described like the Garden of Eden. It will be paradise as it was intended to be, and it will be forever. What a great day that will be, one eternal day, one joyous day with God and Jesus and one another.

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