–This sermon begins a series on the Bible and ecology.–
Here once more this declaration from John 1 verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
The Word, what we sometimes refer to as God’s Wisdom, became flesh and lived among us. What if we think of the ‘us’ here as not just the human ‘us’, but as the creaturely ‘us’? John loves the big picture. An expansive reading of verse 14 finds support later in the same gospel account, when we read (3:17) that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Whatever the ‘world’ might mean in this verse, it is certainly bigger than just the human soul.
Let’s say this: Jesus is God’s ‘Yes’ to creaturely life.
This might seem like a simple thing—a no-brainer, as we sometimes say.
But in fact, creaturely life receives a lot of ‘Nos’. There are those who would love nothing better than to live forever as a collection of data. That is a ‘No’ to creaturely life.
We are often drawn overly much to life online, a life insulated from the discomforts for creaturely life. That is, at least a mild, ‘No’ to creaturely life.
Often what we call ‘development’—commercial development, housing development, social development—smuggles in a rejection of creaturely life. It’s smuggled in underneath nicely paved parking lots and forms of knowledge disconnected from local realities. This is a ‘No’ to creaturely life.
We all, at one time or another, thrash against our physical limits and think of profits disconnected from ecology. That too is a ‘No’ to creaturely life.
But John says that, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This is a ‘Yes’ to creaturely life. Jesus is God’s ‘Yes’ to creaturely life. Jesus is a ‘Yes’ to life that includes all the frustrations, limitations, disappointments, and vulnerabilities implied in being alive.
Jesus is an act of divine solidarity with creatures. To enact solidarity is to take the interests of another as our own. We and they are joined such that there is no space between what they want and what we want. That is solidarity.
Jesus is God’s solidarity with the frustrations, limitations, disappointments, and vulnerabilities of creaturely life—our life, but also the life of the vulture, the polar bear and the water snake.
John says, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the father’s heart, who has made him known.” God made known through creaturely flesh, a free choice of God’s, a ‘Yes’ to creaturely life. We call this the Incarnation.
Think about this for a moment from the long view. Life began on earth something like 2 billion years ago with single-celled organisms. Now we have identified and described over 1 million different species. The true number of species on earth is probably that number multiplied by five, six, or seven. Going from single-celled organisms to millions of species involves a whole lot of pain and death. Long before humans emerged on the scene, not only individual animals, but whole species came and went. The intricacy of life as we know it is a product of death and vulnerability.
Christian theology hasn’t always allowed us to take this seriously. We have read the Bible too woodenly, placed ourselves at the center of the story, and identified the onset of death with human choices. Or we have looked at nature too serenely and ignored the suffering of creatures beyond ourselves. Guided by this myopic vision we have tended to identify the Incarnation with the placidity of the Bethlehem stable and the gentle clutch of a newborn’s hand.
Let’s take a longer view: think of how the early church sung of God’s ‘Yes’ to creaturely life. In Philippians 2 Paul quotes what we think was an ancient hymn. Here’s my version:
“Think like God’s Wisdom, who though one with God, did not regard this as something to be exploited, but gave it up, took on the form of a slave, was born in creaturely form, and in an act of radical solidarity, became obedient—even to the point of death—even to dying as one despised.”
God’s act of solidarity goes to the depths of creaturely experience—death itself, even ignoble death. This is, to steal a phrase from the Danish theologian, Niels Gregersen, “deep incarnation.”
“The Word became flesh”—not a dream or an idea, but creaturely flesh. Jesus’ death on the cross might not be just a sign of God’s solidarity with humans but with all creaturely life. Creaturely flesh, the frail medium of life on earth. Herons and snowy owls. Trout and dachshund. Angler fish and nematode.
In the Incarnation God expressed a love for creation that goes beyond concern for human creatures. In the Incarnation—the birth, life and death of God’s flesh-bound Wisdom—God joined creaturely life. God said ‘Yes’ to it, saying that even here, in transit from birth to decomposition, the truth of God’s identity can be made known.
Colossians 1 tells us that in Christ, “all things hold together.” And through Christ, through Wisdom Incarnate, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
It was John Muir, the famous naturalist, who said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” My suggestion, and I’m contending that it is the Bible’s suggestion, is that this is true, not only in ecology, but also with respect to God. Through God all things are connected. Therefore, through God’s radical solidarity in Christ all things are reconciled. This is no mere vertical reconciliation. It is reconciliation of 360 degrees.
Last week one of our worship texts came from Psalm 148. A few lines will remind you:
“Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!
Let the praise the name of the LORD.”
What this biblical poem suggests, and there are others like it, is that we are not the only ones who have a relationship with God. Other creatures worship. Other creatures have a place in the web of life that God knotted together. Romans 8 tells us that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” We are not the only creatures who desire reconciliation.
Jesus is God’s ‘Yes’ to creaturely life. An affirmation and an act of reconciliation. And we are swept up in this, but as objects and subjects—as recipients of grace and as sharers of grace.
Remember those key lines from Genesis 2? They go something like this: “And Adonai planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the human creature (the earthling) whom he had formed.” That was verse 8, here’s verse 15: “Adonai took the human creature (the earthling) and put him (her/them) in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Gardeners . . . from the very beginning, tilling a spirit of grace and blessing.
In the verses that follow, Genesis tells us that the human creature proceeded to name the animals. I don’t think our ancestor got the whole way to 8 million, but the disposition is there: to understand and to appreciate the web of life into which we have been place.
God’s ‘Yes’ to creaturely life, enacted in the journey of Jesus, reconnects us to our original calling—a calling to be gardeners. “To till and to keep,” to cultivate and to protect, to understand and to conserve.
Many ‘Nos’ are now being said to creaturely life, especially to the lives of the vulnerable creatures: the pollinators, the unseen residents of our lakes and streams, the tiny inhabitants of our soils, the birds that migrate across national boundaries. Among these murmured ‘Nos,’ God’s ‘Yes’ is a thunderclap.
What I want to leave with us are two simple thoughts, two hopeful thoughts that flow from this divine ‘Yes’:
The first simple thought is this: The Bible and the Christian faith have much to say about our relationship with the earth and its creatures. Yes, the Christian faith has been used to support some of our basest desires: the desire to rule over, to separate from, to pillage and run, to profit without care. Yet if we listen to the scriptures with greater sensitivity, we find a powerful story of God’s radical solidarity with life on earth. We find that the Christian faith has resources for those who are looking for a different way of being in the world. This faith has a critical edge—an edge we need get to know.
The second simple thought is this: We were made for this. We were made to “till and keep” like Genesis says, to be gardeners caring for the spaces that we steward. The blessing is that this is not drudgery. This is one of those places where the biblical vision invites us to something joyful and satisfying.
Think about your experience with animals. I bet you find animals fascinating in some way. Maybe you feel kinship or amazement or interest in these other creatures. Scripture tells us that God takes delight in them too. To be true to our calling is to find a renewed joy from within the web of creaturely life.
Think of a landscape that grabs you. Maybe you feel truly yourself beside a lake or on a familiar road under a broad prairie sky. For all the good stuff that humans have built, there is still something about natural landscapes that breath life into our souls. Scripture suggests that part of our role on this earth is to care for these places, to treasure them, to share them, to pass them on—to join God in saying “this is good.” Being true to our calling is a joyous thing.
Jesus is God’s ‘Yes’ to creaturely life. As followers of Jesus, we echo that ‘Yes’ with joy because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”