Caring for Creation until End Times

Waterfall(Creative Commons Image by Samuel Fowler on Flickr)

When can we get to the future? Are we there yet?

Few readers of Working Preacher advocate a “quick and easy” rapture for Christians, followed by massive devastations for others. But some parishioners, having imbibed such theologies from the surrounding culture, may yearn for a dramatic day when all is set to right before their eyes. Though dissatisfaction with the present is natural, Scripture never supports passivity.

What the lectionary offers instead, as one liturgical year ends and another begins, are visions of earthly restoration, set over against stern exhortations to persist in faith and effort. These are particularly pointed on the lectionary texts for November 17:

Isaiah 65:17-25 (semi-continuous 1st Reading), the most overtly ecologically themed reading this month, speaks of the earth’s restoration as a place where people may joyfully live out their natural lives, planted and not uprooted: “for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands” (v. 22).

Isaiah 12 (semi-continuous psalm) similarly envisions salvation as deep wells of water from which worshipers joyfully draw refreshment.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, following a chapter that postpones apocalyptic hopes, addresses a more pressing problem, berating idleness and exhorting readers not to grow weary in doing right.

Luke 21:5-19, written in view of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 C.E., offers no clear timetable concerning the world’s end, but instead encourages disciples to steadfastness even in upheavals.

One of the Christian enemies of environmental sanity is the hope for escape from this world because, as the “Countdown” song goes, “Somewhere in outer space God has prepared a place for all those who trust him and obey”: the hope that it doesn’t matter what we do to this earth, since we will be gone. Ronald Reagan’s controversial secretary of the interior from 1981 to 1983, James Watt, has frequently been quoted as saying during his term that the earth is “merely a temporary way-station on the road to eternal life.”

Like Watt and the rest of us, Jesus himself was born into a tempestuous world that some, despairing, thought was better left behind. But Jesus cautioned against such fixations, instructing his disciples to live as if this world would go on, because no one, not even he, could predict its end (Mark 13:32). He said our job is to care faithfully for our home, to be at our post, tending this house, neither neglecting nor destroying it (Mark 13:34-47).

Even though Isaiah 65 proclaims “new heavens and a new earth,” it actually describes a renewed earth. It offers this-worldly hope, portraying a world where people are born and live and die, but do so naturally and peacefully. Such a world does not break in on idle bystanders to rescue us from trouble and bother. It comes through the steady efforts of faithful people drawn by hope for peaceful prosperity for the earth and its living creatures. Such efforts begin in our household habits, and extend outward publicly, as we guide ecological awareness in the church community and in parishioners whose vocations — as teachers, engineers, scientists, policy-makers, farmers, and corporate workers — can contribute to ecological healing.

Other themes found in the lectionary this month offer opportunities to remember our rootedness in the natural world. While most of the readings reflect on steadfastness, many, especially Psalms, offer striking images drawn from creation:

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 (Nov. 3 semi-continuous) and Isaiah 1:10-18 (Nov. 3, complementary) both lament the perversion of justice that allows the strong to prey upon the weak. Habakkuk concludes with reassurance of the coming of divine righteousness. Isaiah assures even sinners of God’s mercy, which can make them pure as wool and snow.

Haggai 1:15-2:9 (Nov. 10, semi-continuous), despite discouragement, encourages the people to maintain their zeal to work for God’s ends.

Job 19:23-27 (Nov. 10, complementary) offers a testimony of faith in the midst of deep suffering.

Malachi 4:1-2a (Nov. 17, complementary) foresees the fate of both arrogant and humble in metaphors drawn from nature: stubble to be burned, and by contrast, calves leaping in joy.

Jeremiah 23:1-6 (Nov. 24, both semi-continuous and complementary) envisions the people as a flock of sheep whom God tends and protects.

Psalm 119:137-144 (Nov. 3, semi-continuous) expresses reverence for God’s decrees, finding comfort in their guidance.

Psalm 32:1-7 (Nov. 3 complementary) compares distress to the heat of summer and the rush of mighty waters.

Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 (Nov. 10 semi-continuous) extols the unsearchable otherness of the Creator, yet God’s nearness to all who pray.

Psalm 17:1-9 (Nov. 10 complementary) compares God to a bird sheltering its young under the wing.

Psalm 98 (Nov. 10 semi-continuous and Nov 17 complementary) bids the sea to roar, the floods to clap their hands, and the hills to sing over God’s equity and justice.

Luke 1:68-79 (Nov. 24 semi-continuous) describes the dawn from on high breaking in “to give light to those who sit in darkness.”

Psalm 46 (Nov. 24 complementary) celebrates confidence in God even in the midst of natural and international turmoil: the earth changing, mountains shaking and trembling, waters and nations roaring, kingdoms tottering.

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 (Nov. 3) extols the steadfastness and faith of the Thessalonian Christians.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 (Nov. 10) calls the Thessalonians “first fruits for salvation.”

Colossians 1:11-20 (Nov. 24) claims that everything in creation was made through Christ, the firstborn of all creation.

Luke 19:1-10 (Nov. 3) narrates Zacchaeus’ change of heart over his ill-gotten wealth, and his pledge to give restitution and to share his resources.

Luke 20:27-38 (Nov. 10) shows Jesus rebuking idle speculation over the afterlife.

Luke 23:33-43 (Nov. 24) describes Jesus’ crucifixion, and the humility of the one dying next to him, who recognized the distinction between suffering for one’s own mistakes and suffering for those of others.

Patricia K. Tull’s Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis provides a scriptural basis for thinking differently about our ties to creation. Its nine chapters explore our relationships to the earth itself, to plant and animal life, to one another, to our descendants, and to our Creator. She offers candid discussions of current ecological problems such as consumerism, overuse of energy resources, destructive food systems, toxic waste, and climate change. Each chapter ends with reflection questions for study groups and practical exercises for individuals. Inhabiting Eden goes on sale Dec. 2, 2013, from Westminster John Knox.