Bible and Ecology 8: Wild Places.


2011-01-16 by Jeremy Clarke

Preacher: Sue Haslehurst
16th January 2011
Readings: Genesis 2:1-15; Isaiah 34:8-17, 35 (referenced/quoted later in sermon)

Today we continue our sermon series on creation and the environment, using

Creation – solidarity & care
Veronica started this series with a look at the Genesis 2 creation story. She pointed out that the man is made from the dust of the ground – just as the birds and other animals are a few verses later. Humans and all the other creatures are made of the same stuff – they are all part of the “community of creation” that Bauckham talks about throughout the book. And humans are commissioned to cultivate and preserve the earth – not to cultivate it intensively till it gives way to dustbowl and desert but to cultivate it in such a way that it is also preserved.

Flood – violence, chaos, creation re-made, violence contained
Veronica then looked at the flood and memorably observed that one of the main symptoms of creation’s gradual descent into corruption and alienation from God was that it was full of violence.

Bauckham defines the Flood as a kind of ‘de-creation’, a return to chaos. But at the end of the story there is a ‘re-creation’ in the covenant that God makes with Noah and his descendants and, significantly, with ‘every living creature that is with you’.

Creation – tenants and fellow-fillers
Wayne also talked about the “community of creation” and pointed out that it’s not just humans who are encouraged to “fill the earth”. The birds are also urged to fill the earth and the sea creatures the seas. We have to bear that in mind when we interpret ideas like subduing the earth and having dominion over it – as well as remembering that the earth belongs to God and we are merely tenants.

Lesley looked at some passages from Job which remind us that we are simply a small part of God’s creation, a part about which God cares, no doubt, but part of the community of created beings, who are not less important. Our task is to respect them, to accept that God is working ultimately for our good (however painful and puzzling life may be at times) and join the divine resistance against the forces of chaos and destruction.

Sharing the earth
Then I looked at Psalm 104 and Matthew 6 which describe a community of creation which is abundant, ordered but diverse and beautiful. There is enough for every human and every creature as they all depend on a generous God and none takes more than they need. And the animals relate directly to God, they don’t have to go through humans as a kind of dominion-wielding earth-subduing middleman. God is at the centre here, with humans dependent on God just as the other creatures are and animals as creatures in their own right and “subjects of their own lives”.

Praising and mourning together
Chris echoed this when he spoke on the community of creation and how all creation praises & mourns together. He quoted Richard Bauckham: ‘all creatures bring glory to God simply by being themselves and fulfilling their God-given roles in God’s creation’. Chris described the rest of creation as not only a neighbourhood but also as neighbours – and fellow worshippers.

Chris gave examples of the obvious concrete interconnectedness of all creation, for instance in the way that greedy land use, intensive agriculture or overfishing on the part of humans have disastrous environmental consequences. But he also touched on the more puzzling question of the spiritual connection between human choices and consequences in the natural world. He highlighted the danger of talking too simplistically about these connections, for instance saying that hurricane Katrina was the consequence of the easy availability of abortion in America. Bauckham mentions the deep connection between physical, moral and spiritual orders in the biblical world view. But he doesn’t talk concretely about quite what he means by this – at least not here, but we’ll come back to this…

Alpha to Omega – the cosmic Christ
Veronica reminded us of the temptation to substitute “humanity” for “creation” as we hear or read Colossians 1, so that Jesus Christ is not the creator, firstborn and reconciler of all creation as the text tells us but just of all humanity. Bauckham talks about human fantasies of a world in which we have subdued nature, maybe even become completely independent of it. The vision of Colossians is the very opposite: all creation is integrated in Jesus Christ.

And Veronica’s sermon offered one way of dealing with Chris’s struggle with the questions about the fallen-ness of creation and what that means. According to Bauckham, the Bible does not really attempt to answer this question fully, but simply prophesies that through Christ the creation will be liberated from the evils that it now suffers. The bible focuses on the creation’s future, not its past.

Alpha to Omega – Jesus and the renewal of creation
Judith preached on Jesus and the renewal of creation, drawing on passages from the gospels, Philippians 2 and Revelation. Bauckham talks about Jesus’ calming of the storm which echoes God’s calming and containing of chaos at creation and the way God continues to confine chaos to create stability for creation, as seen for instance in Job and Psalms 89 & 104. It also gives a foretaste of transformed and peaceful relationships between humans and t non-humans in the renewed creation.

Judith reminded us that this will be a renewed not a replaced creation. She drew attention to the parallel with Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5, “So if anyone is in Christ – new creation! The old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new!” When someone becomes a Christian they are transformed and renewed now in the same way as the whole of creation will one day be transformed and renewed.

Wild places
And so we come to today’s theme, wild places. Jane will be preaching our last sermon in this series at the end of January when she will look at wild animals.

Let’s start with a reading.

Genesis 2:1-15 (NIV)

1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.

3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground,

6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground.

7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.

9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10 A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.

11 The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold.

12 (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.)

13 The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush.

14 The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

The garden of Eden
In this passage we are far from the extremes of wilderness we’ve just been thinking about. We’re in the garden of Eden, gentle, luxuriant, fruitful, beautiful. Bauckham suggests that in the bible a garden is usually a vegetable garden or an orchard, and with all the trees mentioned here, presumably this is an orchard. According to Bauckham, as they toiled away at ploughing, sowing and reaping, Israelites dreamed of being able to live from vineyards and orchards alone – much less hard graft, digging and bending involved. So in some ways this is the ultimate fantasy for an Israelite – a beautiful orchard planted by someone else with a little light pruning and maybe some gentle irrigation to be done from time to time and plenty of time to hang out enjoying the cool and beauty of the orchard. But there is more about this garden that is special.

Humans and nature – made for each other
In verse 5, there is no-one to till the ground. So God makes a man. Then God plants a garden, full of every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. And then he puts the man in the garden, to till it and keep it, and gives him permission to eat from all the trees but one. It’s a marriage made in heaven: the garden gets someone to care for it and protect it; the man gets a ready source of easy and delicious food. As Bauckham says, the garden and the man are made for each other. There’s a harmony and mutuality here that are lost with the man’s expulsion from the garden. Ever since then there’s been a potential tension between human beings taking care of themselves and taking care of nature. As technology becomes more powerful there is more and more scope for neglecting the care of creation as we seek to take care of ourselves.

Fear of wilderness?
So we have in Eden a clear illustration of the harmony and mutuality intended between humans and nature, but don’t we also find in the bible some more negative views of nature, in particular of wilderness? Indeed, Bauckham reports that some critics of the bible consider that its negative view of wilderness has contributed to our ecological crisis. Certainly the wilderness is the place where the Israelites wander frustrated for forty years, desperate to get away from its perils and into the safety of the promised land (Deuteronomy 8:15) . And the wilderness is what takes over after the disastrous fall of a once great city, the ultimate sign of failure and God’s judgment.

Before we go any further, I’d like to ask you to think for a moment about a favourite wild place – or if you don’t like wild places, a favourite place where you experience nature. Imagine yourself there. What is the weather? Who else is there? What else is there? What is it you like about it? Is there anything about it that is frightening or threatening? Now picture it in its extreme of bad weather – driving rain or snow and wind, storm & high waves, flood, extreme heat. How do you feel about it now? What do you long for in these extreme conditions?

And now let’s think a bit more about wildernesses and wild places in the bible. We started with a garden, God’s garden which for a time is also home, workplace and larder to the man and woman. As well as gardens and orchards we find in the bible arable land, land that can be grazed but not cultivated, forests, deserts and wasteland or wilderness. Bauckham suggests that anything other than garden or arable land is frightening for the Israelites, a place where they might encounter wild – and dangerous – animals. That some of us apparently feel differently reflects perhaps that over the centuries (particularly in the UK) we have “tamed” the wilderness and also live at a greater distance from it, often exiled from wild and raw nature in lives lived in paved streets, supermarkets and largely weatherproof homes. But for an Israelite the definition of wilderness is largely to do with survival: wilderness is desert where lack of water makes it hard for humans to survive and forest, where a hungry wild animal could also make it hard to survive…

So it’s not just expulsion from the garden that opens up a rift between humans and non-human creation. The Israelites’ pattern of agriculture also creates a division between hospitable productive land and inhospitable barren land. [Interestingly this isn’t quite a division between humans and non-human creation – in the hospitable productive portion of the land, domestic animals are included along with the humans. They too rest on the Sabbath and they too, in Nineveh (Jonah 3) are expected to fast and wear sackcloth as a demonstration of the city’s repentance.]

So in many ways the negative views of wild nature are a logical result of a life lived close to the land – and quite close to the edge too. Bauckham picks out a number of passages where the wilderness is described as an eerie threatening place but also one rich in other life, particularly bird life. Let’s hear an example.

Isaiah 34:8-17, 35 (NIV)

8 For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
a year of retribution, to uphold Zion’s cause.
9 Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch,
her dust into burning sulfur;
her land will become blazing pitch!
10 It will not be quenched night or day;
its smoke will rise forever.
From generation to generation it will lie desolate;
no one will ever pass through it again.
11 The desert owl[a] and screech owl[b] will possess it;
the great owl[c] and the raven will nest there.
God will stretch out over Edom
the measuring line of chaos
and the plumb line of desolation.
12 Her nobles will have nothing there to be called a kingdom,
all her princes will vanish away.
13 Thorns will overrun her citadels,
nettles and brambles her strongholds.
She will become a haunt for jackals,
a home for owls.
14 Desert creatures will meet with hyenas,
and wild goats will bleat to each other;
there the night creatures will also lie down
and find for themselves places of rest.
15 The owl will nest there and lay eggs,
she will hatch them, and care for her young
under the shadow of her wings;
there also the falcons will gather,
each with its mate.

16 Look in the scroll of the Lord and read:

None of these will be missing,
not one will lack her mate.
For it is his mouth that has given the order,
and his Spirit will gather them together.
17 He allots their portions;
his hand distributes them by measure.
They will possess it forever
and dwell there from generation to generation.

Celebrating wilderness
But I think we can also read this as a real affirmation of wilderness, one that it is important for us to hear today. The wilderness is not good for human beings – but that’s fine because they are not meant to be there. There are other creatures who do belong there and the wilderness is meant for them. I think this is a salutary message for a culture that all too easily thinks all the earth is there just for us.

Psalm 104 gives a similar picture. God gives different habitats & has different creatures in mind to occupy them. So for instance “the high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys”. I think that’s important to hear in an age where human activity is destroying habitats directly by building on top of them or indirectly through climate change, pollution, fragmentation and so on. It challenges us to ask whether difficult-to-cultivate wildernesses are a technical challenge to be overcome by ingenious agriculture or development or are actually areas intended for other creatures to enjoy.

And there is affirmation in the bible of another form of wilderness too, the forest. The garden of Eden, the ideal garden and the place of perfect relationship between God and humanity and nature, is, according to Ezekiel 31, not only an orchard but also a forest planted by God. So God’s garden is also wild nature, in Bauckham’s words “the original, glorious heart of wild nature”. Along with Psalm 104 I think this tells us that however unnerving wild places may have been for the Israelites or may be for us, God delights in them. And, in the chapter where Isaiah imagines God’s people returning from exile, the blossoming of the desert wilderness is described in terms of a majestic forest growing up. Let’s hear the passage – and you’ll need to know that Lebanon and Carmel are famed for their lush forests and woodland.

Isaiah 35

35 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God.

3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10     and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Notice the very strong echoes in verse 2 between the glory of the forest of Lebanon and the majesty of the woodlands of Carmel and Sharon and the glory of the Lord and the majesty of our God.

So all in all I think we can say that the bible is full of positive messages about wilderness. In God’s garden the man and the woman and comparatively wild nature dwell harmoniously together, each made for the other.

With the loss of this harmony, humanity’s relationship with nature becomes more fraught as people are haunted by fear of the wild animals which may roam wild places, but they still affirm the value of those wild places to God and to the animals to which God has given the wild places. And in visions of God’s future rescue of his exiled people one wilderness – the desert – is transformed into another wild place – the forest. So I think we can take from that a challenge to safeguard wild places as the rightful home of the species that live there and as parts of God’s much loved garden. And a calling to value wilderness for its place in God’s heart, for its value to other species and in its own right, not just for our enjoyment or recreation. 

One thought on “Bible and Ecology 8: Wild Places.

  1. […] This summary of the sermon is excerpted from Sue Haslehurst’s summary of the series so far in Bible and Ecology 8: Wild Places. […]

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