Sunday, 19 December 2010

Christmas is for children?

Preacher: Veronica


Isaiah 11:6-9

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

Matthew 18:1-4

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

‘The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’.

How many of you here hate that line? Me too. I think it’s a glaring example of docetism - the belief that Jesus wasn’t fully human but only appeared to be. After all we can’t have God becoming a real child, one who soils his swaddling cloths and yells for hours, can we?

And another thing: it seems to suggest that for a baby to cry is actually a bad thing. But surely crying is the God-given way for babies to communicate their needs. When a baby is suffering severe malnutrition, it stops crying because it no longer has energy to do so. A non-crying baby is not always a good thing.

The other Christmas carol line we all love to hate is that one from ‘Once in Royal David’s City’:

‘Christian children all must be Mild, obedient, good as he’.

Given that the only story we have of Jesus’ childhood is when he gives his parents the slip and goes missing for three days, this doesn’t seem a very accurate description of Jesus as a child, let alone a goal for Christian children to aim for. In a world of child abuse, parents are not always worthy of obedience, and mildness is not always the safest characteristic for a child to have.

So when Jesus called a child to himself and made that child a model for how his followers should be in the world, what aspects of children was he thinking of? The traditional answer is that we should have the innocence of children. I’m not sure however whether we really know what we mean by innocence. We’re very apt to confuse it with ignorance. Which reminds me of a description I once found in the diary of a Victorian gentleman:

‘At the breakfast was an ancient Vicar, who was interesting as a specimen of the fast failing school of “Evangelical” clergymen, the immediate disciples of Wesley and Scott; men who clung to and preached a few strong and effective tenets, and under the honest pretext of “knowing Christ alone”, remained ignorant of most other things.’

Perhaps the writer was a bit premature in proclaiming the death of Evangelicalism, but his comment is one that still rings bells today. Jesus called us not only to be innocent as doves but to be wise as serpents: there is no particular virtue in ignorance.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says explicitly in what way we should be like children to enter the kingdom of God:. He asks his disciples to become ‘humble like this child’. Children in his time had no social status until they were grown up. Child- centred education hadn’t been invented, and our idea that ‘Christmas is for the children’ would seem extremely strange to them, and not only because they would have no idea what Christmas is.

In the other Gospels, what it means to become like a child is left more open, but it’s always in the context of a discussion among the disciples as to who among them is the greatest. In fact in Mark, this incident is the place where Jesus utters his saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” So he’s focusing on the low status of children, the fact that they are dependent on others, that they are vulnerable and defenceless.

In other words, following Jesus is not a way to social respectability, to being looked up to by others, to exercising power over other people’s lives. It’s a way to being of no account, a way to service and suffering - the way that Jesus began to go even as a child when his family became refugees in Egypt.

But Jesus’ parables and sayings are always told in a way that leaves plenty to our imagination. So I don’t think it’s invalid to look at other ways in which children might be a model for our Christian life. I’ll just mention a few.

Children are trusting - and sadly that trust is often abused. Perhaps the worst aspect of cruelty to children is that they lose their implicit trust in adults who are meant to care for them, and become withdrawn from relationships. As adults too we may often be exploited, hurt or insulted. But perhaps Jesus asks us not to lose our trust as a result. Even in an untrustworthy world, we are to think the best of people and expect the best in people - because that’s the only way to get it.

Children are people of the moment. They get totally absorbed in the serious business of play. A normal, well looked after child might spend hours with a saucepan and a wooden spoon, or make a pebble from the beach their most treasured possession. They don’t , or shouldn’t need to, think about whether there will be food tomorrow or a place to sleep. And Jesus asks adults too, not to worry about tomorrow.

Children are intensely involved in the material world. It’s all fresh and new to them - in fact they see the world, as it were, with the eyes of God, as a creation with which God is ‘very pleased’. You’ll have to forgive me for turning yet again to Thomas Traherne, because he’s my hobby horse. Here’s his description of how he saw the world as a child, a vision which as an adult he struggled to recover:

'All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys. My knowledge was Divine. I knew by intuition those things which since my Apostasy, I collected again by the highest reason. My very ignorance was advantageous. I seemed as one brought into the Estate of Innocence. All things were spotless and pure andglorious: yea, and infinitely mine, and joyful and precious, I knew not that there were any sins, or complaints or laws. I dreamed not of poverties, contentions or vices. All tears and quarrels were hidden from mine eyes. Everything was at rest, free and immortal. I knew nothing of sickness or death or rents or exaction, either for tribute or bread. In the absence of these I was entertained like an Angel with the works of God in their splendour. and glory, I saw all in the peace of Eden; Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator's praises, and could not make more melody to Adam, than to me: All Time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath. Is it not strange, that an infant should be heir of the whole World, and see those mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold?

'The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties* and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.'

Should we as Christians seek that same vision of the world as a glorious gift from God? If we believe God created it, then I think we should.

Finally, children are very ready to forgive. Children are wired for relationship, and a happy child will always put its relationship with caring adults above anything the adults may have done wrong or failed to do. Even the abused child still loves the parent or parents who have so betrayed the child. It’s as though children are programmed to love, which is one of the things that makes child abuse so harmful.

Centuries before Jesus came to us as a child, Isaiah’s vision is of a world where humans and nature are in harmony, where children can safely play with wild creatures, and where the way to wisdom is pointed out by a child. Or as Psalm 8 puts it, ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’.

So instead of saying ‘Christmas is really for the children’, putting children (and Christmas) in a marked off compartment labelled ‘Not for adults’, perhaps at Christmas we should be watching children carefully and letting them lead us.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Advent and the environment - Alpha to Omega

Preacher: Veronica

About thirty years ago there was a series in a radical Christian magazine called The Other Side. The series was called The Reversed Standard Version. Basically the writer took a well known passage of Scripture and changed it to mean what people generally seem to think it means. This in many cases totally reversed its true meaning. I found this a very enlightening thing to do. When I read what Richard Bauckham has to say on Colossians in relation to ecology, in his book Bible and Ecology which we are studying, I immediately had the idea of doing the same with the passage he quotes. So here is the Reversed Standard Version of Colossians 1.15-20:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all humanity; for in him all people were created, all people have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all people,
and in him all people hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in humanity. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself some human beings,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Thatʼs how Christians often appear to read this passage. Salvation is about rescuing a select few human beings from the dead world of this planet and taking them to heaven. The destiny of the non-human creation is to be burned up, or laid bare, according to how you translate one obscure verse in 2 Peter; and it will be replaced by a new heavens and a new earth.
Now letʼs hear what Colossians 1 really says - and while you hear it, Iʼm setting you a challenge: count how many times Paul uses the words ʻallʼ or ʻeverythingʼ, or the phrase ʻall thingsʼ :

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers— all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Any answers? I made it eight, in five verses. This is a poem or hymn about the cosmic Christ, a Christ whose reach extends to all creation; and that is why Richard Bauckham, in Bible and Ecology, chooses it as a source for a biblical understanding of Christʼs relation to ecology.


Bauckham begins with some background introductory remarks. He points out that most of the biblical theology of the created world is developed in the Old Testament, and is taken for granted in the New. Bauckham doesnʼt mention this, at least in the chapter weʼre studying today, but I would want to add that Jesus himself does often turn to the natural world for the images in his parables and teaching. As Thomas Hardy said in a poem about himself, ʻHe was a man who used to notice such thingsʼ.

What the NT does do is to give us a Christological, or Christ-centred, rendering of the OT theology of creation. In other words, the NT writers are re-reading the OT in the light of Christ, and in it they discover that Jesus Christ is intimately involved in the whole story of creation. Hence the repeating of ʻall thingsʼ in our Colossians passage - Christʼs work encompasses Godʼs whole creation, earthly and heavenly.

Bauckham sees this as part of a metanarrative, or overarching story, which is about the relationship between God, humanity and the rest of creation. This story is leading to a goal, and the goal is all of creation being taken into eternity. And this goal is being achieved through Jesus Christ, who is active both in the original creation and in the renewal of creation. As Revelation 22.13 puts it, ʻI am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

Lost narrative

Clearly this understanding of Christ’s role towards creation has not always been prominent in Christian thinking, in fact it’s been entirely obscured sometimes. This is because of the intrusion of philosophical ideas from other world views, in particular the world view of Plato, in the early centuries of Christianity. In Platonism, there is a strong dualism between matter and spirit, and spirit is always superior to matter. I’ve seen this expressed in another book as a simple diagram:



Now contrast the Christian view, based on Hebrew thinking, as expressed in another diagram:


When my friend Evelyn, who is normally quite prim and proper, saw this diagram she immediately asked, ‘Where’s the sex in the Christian one?’ Which is a pretty good question, so let’s add it in.

Early theologians tried to combat Platonism by a more biblical view of the goodness of material creation. But there is quite a lot of evidence that over the centuries, the battle was to a large extent lost. You only have to think of a chorus that used to be popular: ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of his glory and grace’. What’s so wrong with the things of earth, which God has created, that turning to Jesus has to turn us away from them? This is exactly the criticism environmentalists have made of Christian theology, that it sets humanity in opposition to nature.

Bauckham says there is a modern version of Platonic idealism, which is our scientific quest to ‘conquer’ nature and bend it to our purposes. This creates a dualism of humanity versus nature, in which our goal is to become completely independent of nature, maybe by some form of everlasting artificial intelligence. In Bauckham’s words, ‘We should be deploying the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body against these anti-human technological aspirations’. Or to put it another way, ‘Salvation is not the replacement but the renewal of creation’.


Against this background, Bauckham explores the Colossian hymn as what he calls a Christological eco-narrative (sorry about all the jargon). It’s constructed in two halves, the first about the creation of all things in, for and through Christ, and then about the reconciliation of all things in, for and through Christ. The two parts parallel each other totally in language and structure, so that the scope of reconciliation is as wide as the scope of creation.

But this is not about some cosmic Christ figure set in eternity, but specifically about the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth, who embodies the universal in a particular human life. This Jesus shares God’s relation to the world: he is both creator and redeemer, and he has begun the reconciliation between God and all of nature. The key verse is, ‘through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross’.

Bauckham says this means that ‘the Gospel story - the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - is focal and decisive for all creation. The fullness of God in him is the intensive presence of the God who fills heaven and earth. His sacrificial death identifies him with the whole of the suffering and perishing creation. His resurrection inaugurates the renewal of all creation’.
He goes on to list some ecological conclusions we can draw from this passage. Firstly, it gives a holistic view of creation, because all creation is integrated in Jesus Christ. Secondly, this vision relates to the actual human figure of Jesus, crucified and risen. This, he says thirdly, is the hidden mystery at the heart of creation. This mystery cannot be discovered in creation itself because creation is full of violence, but it can be seen in the way God transcends that violence in Jesus. By his non-violent, self-giving love, Jesus overcomes the violence of creation.

Fourthly, there is the mention of the ‘powers’ at the heart of the Colossians hymn. This is there to tell us that while earth may appear to be in thrall to powers of violence and injustice, they are in fact already conquered by the cross. And their conquest becomes a practical reality by God working through us as we seek to make a better world.

This brings him to the fifth point, which is really a question: is creation fallen? As modern people we now know that there was animate life long before humans emerged, so we can no longer hold to the idea that nature is corrupted because of some historic human action. In fact violence and death are integral to the processes of nature, and without them the evolution of species could not happen. So where did what we see as evil in nature, come from?

According to Bauckham, the Bible does not really attempt to answer this question fully, but what it does do is to prophesy that through Christ the creation will be liberated from the evils that it now suffers. It is focused on the creation’s future, not its past.
At this point we can turn to the other passage Bauckham examines in the first half of this chapter: John’s prologue to his Gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it....
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him...
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,full of grace and truth.

All four Gospels begin by linking the story of Jesus to the story of the OT, but John goes back the furthest: to the beginning of Time itself. By starting his Gospel with the words ‘In the beginning’, he is offering us a way to read the Genesis story in the light of Jesus. He is also giving a nod to Proverbs 8, in which a figure identified as ‘Wisdom’ tells us:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

Although this describes a created figure rather than an uncreated one, Wisdom in this context is often identified with ‘the Word’ who was with God and who was God in John 1. This is the Word who becomes flesh in Jesus: God incarnate entering into our created world, so that in the end our created world can be taken into God. Notice how that phrase ‘all things’ recurs in this passage: in both the creation and the Incarnation, Christ is related to the whole creation, human, animal and inanimate. This is the world which is to be redeemed, when in Bauckham’s words ‘creation finds its fulfillment in being taken into the divine life’.


Finally, Bauckham looks at some of the nature miracles in the Gospels, such as the calming of the storm, and at the wider meaning of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching. He points out that the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ would have called out Old Testament echoes in the minds of Jesus’ hearers. There are parallels to it both in Isaiah, a book the Gospel writers quote a great deal, and also in the Psalms, which emphasize the kingship of God over all creation. For example in Psalm 95:

For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker

God is the King of all creation, and humans are invited to join in the praise which the animal and inanimate creation already offer. We are also told that creation looks forward to the coming of God to judge and rule the earth. Hereʼs part of Psalm 96:

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

So Jesusʼ nature miracles are a foretaste of the wholeness which will eventually come to all creation, and the Kingdom he proclaims is one that encompasses all creation. Which brings me to my conclusion, which I canʼt put better than Bauckham does: ʻWhen God does come to judge and to rule, all creation will rejoice at his adventʼ.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The community of creation - praising & mourning together

Preacher: Chris

Bible reading: Psalm 148

This afternoon, we will be discussing the final section of the third chapter of Richard Bauckham’s book Bible and Ecology, in which he describes a ‘community of creation’ that both praises and mourns together. During the talk today I would like us to keep in mind the idea of testimony and counter-testimony, as it will be (hopefully) helpful in discussing what appear to be contradictory, even offensive passages. Indeed, I know I have been thinking about the idea of counter-testimony far too much since I first heard the term used. At the flat Tim and I have recently moved into, there were a few scattered dishes and cups that the previous tenant had left. I have a strange compulsion that insists on having matching plateware, glasses and so forth—it’s really weirded out a few of my flatmates over the years. So after a recent trip to IKEA in which we brought back six matching plates and six matching bowls and six glasses, I relegated the old plates and bowls to somewhere under the sink, only to be pulled out in times of dinner party desperation, and called these dishes the ‘counter-testimony’ plates as opposed to the ‘testimony’ plates and bowls which are easily accessible in the cupboards. Faith interacts with real life!

But that aside, I would like to open by re-considering Psalm 148. Baukham discusses the ‘community of creation’ and emphasizes the inter-relationship among humanity and ‘the rest of creation’. One of the ways in which this inter-relatedness is demonstrated is in the concept of ‘praising our maker together’—that is, all of creation joins together in praise: it is an act which unites the natural world. Baukham performs an extended close reading on Psalm 148, the one we read together just a short while ago. Baukham notes that the ordering of the psalm places human praise last, but he does not see this as a sign that human praise is somehow more valuable or necessary; in fact, any talk of valuation seems inapplicable. How are we to compare, for instance, the praise of a mountain—majestic, inanimate—to the praise of a ‘flying bird’? Or the praise of the stars to that of snow? Rather, the psalmist invites praise from the whole of creation, from the angels in heaven to the physical earth and the creatures—including humans—that inhabit it. This praise is not to be taken as some kind of animism that ‘attributes consciousness to all things’, but neither is it to be taken as mere ‘poetic fancy’. Instead, the metaphorical language of the psalm points toward a reality in which, to quote Baukham, ‘all creatures bring glory to God simply by being themselves and fulfilling their God-given roles in God’s creation’. Apart from its rather Lord of the Rings-like injunction (‘Put aside the Ranger. Become who you were born to be!’), Baukham’s statement implies a fundamental self-identity, a joy in creation, a joy in being created that all of creation shares. We join nature in praise, on one level, by simply being, but at the same time our being is not in a solitary or self-serving manner; rather, our being points to a being created—a relational existence tied to a creator.

Yet often we find ourselves distanced from a sense of unifying praise. At home group this week, we were talking about isolation from nature in the urban environment, how even the nature we do encounter is a permitted nature, formed and bounded by human strictures and desire. We permit a commons green to grow, but we place walking paths in it and restrict its shape by the presence of roads and fences. The landscape of allotments is at once natural—plants of all kinds grow in them and creatures make them their home—but at the same time they are a direct product of human conditioning and formation: we command the ground and order it to our using, which is perfectly understandable, but we risk suffering a separation from the land and creatures that, like us, embody or point to praise of God. To quote Baukham at length:

Before the modern period, the praise of all the creatures seems to have been more widely appreciated in the Church. The reasons why it has fallen out of most modern Christian’s consciousness must be urban people’s isolation from nature, which deprives them of a living sense of participation in nature, and the modern instrumentalising of nature, which turns it into mere material for human use. But these reasons also suggest how valuable it might be to recover a living sense of participation in creation’s praise of God. It is the strongest antidote to anthropocentrism in the biblical and Christian tradition. When we join our fellow-creatures in attributing glory to God, there is no hierarchy and no anthropocentricity. In this respect all creatures, including ourselves, are simply fellow-creatures expressing the theocentricity of the created world, each in our own created way, differently but in complementarity. As Psalm 148:13 says, in this worship God’s name alone is exalted: there is no place in worship for the exaltation of any creature over others. Moreover, to recognise creation’s praise is to abandon a purely instrumental view of nature. All creatures exist for God’s glory, and we most effectively learn to see other creatures in that way, to glimpse, as it were, their value for God that has nothing to do with their usefulness to us, when we join them in their own glorification of God.

We normally treat nature as a neighborhood—the physical space in which we conduct our individual and social interactions, but Baukham would press us to think of creation not only as a neighborhood but also as a neighbor. As the expert in the law who tested Jesus by asking ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life’ and then attempted to justify himself by asking ‘And who is my neighbor’ received a life-expanding answer to his question, so too perhaps we could benefit from probing the question of not only who, but also what is my neighbor. How do we treat the world around us in such a way as to acknowledge is co-adulation of the God which we, too, praise? We can—must, really—move beyond a view which simply asks ‘How can this matter before me be useful to me’ since this results not only in resource depletion, but a fundamental lack of respect for our physical reality.

The Bible records, as we have seen in Psalm 148, creation’s praise to its creator, and humanity is included or invited to enter this cosmic praise. Humanity becomes tied to a community through its shared praise. But just as we share in creation’s praise, so too we also share in its mourning. The Bible describes several instances in which nature is said to mourn—nature withers, it is blighted, it suffers destruction. But Biblical passages in the Old Testament connect ecological suffering with human behavior. That is to say, the Bible assumes, much more than we do today, a direct relationship between human action and natural suffering. It assumes humans exist in a tight-knit moral relationship with and to nature. Hence we find passages such as this one from Jeremiah 12:4:

‘How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, “He is blind to our ways”’

Or this longer passage from Hosea 4:1-3:

Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites,
because the LORD has a charge to bring
against you who live in the land:
“There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.
2 There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
3 Because of this the land dries up,
and all who live in it waste away;
the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea are swept away.

This is pretty scary stuff. Human propensity toward evil results in even the fish of the sea being swept away. Nor is ancient Israel the only culture to make such a connection. In Shakespeare we often find evil deeds in the human realm reflected in the disorder of the natural world. After the murder of King Duncan in Macbeth, an old man comments:

'Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd.
And Duncan's horses—a thing most strange and certain—
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turn'd wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind. 'Tis said they eat each other.

In response to the unnatural murder of the king, nature reverses itself. The falcon, the chief aerial predator, is killed by an owl who normally hunts mice for its prey. And elegant horses suddenly ‘turn’d wild’ and reportedly begin to eat each other. Act 1, Scene 3 of Julius Caesar opens with ‘thunder and lightning’. Casca describes unnatural portents, foretelling the (unnatural) assassination that will occur within the ‘two hour’s traffic’ of the stage:

O Cicero,
I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening clouds:
But never till to-night, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Either there is a civil strife in heaven,
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,
Incenses them to send destruction.

I could go on with several examples, in part because nature’s stormy response to the events of humankind is an effective way to increase dramatic tension on stage, but also because, to the Elizabethan mind, in a world in which all nature is ordered and intimately interconnected, the untimely death of a king requires a response from nature. So what are we to make of these passages—Biblical, Shakespearean or otherwise, which form a direct and uncomfortable link between human moral behavior and ecological disaster? Baukham is comfortable enough to say, though not in a terribly straight-forward manner: ‘The natural order and the moral order are by no means unconnected’, which he qualifies by examining Paul’s writing in Romans 8:19-23:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the reaction waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning and in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Creation suffers with us as we await redemption. To quote Baukham again:

Paul and the prophets share what Ellen Davis calls ‘the biblical understanding of the world, in which the physical, moral and spiritual orders fully interpenetrate one another—in contrast to the modern superstition that these are separable categories’. This is not to say that Paul or the prophets understood the connection between human behavior and ecological degradation in the way that we are now able to do, but what modern scientific knowledge makes possible is mainly a fuller understanding of how human physical behavior (burning fossil fuels, over-fishing the oceans and so forth) has extensive and destructive consequences for the ecosystems of the planet. For the ethical and spiritual dimensions that pervade such human behavior it is we who can learn from the biblical writers.

That is to say, science can instruct us in how precisely over-harvesting of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay (near my home), for instance, can lead to destructive environmental consequences. But Buakham points us back to a spiritual search for why such over-harvesting takes place.

To go on a bit of a tangent before closing: To be frank I have been a bit wary of aspects of our entire discussion of creation, especially in dealing with concepts such as ‘the fall’ or this idea that humanity’s moral choices are made apparent in the natural world. I am wary because of the way in which this thinking has been used to blame destructive natural events on certain groups. So, for instance, we have Pat Robertson blaming hurricane Katrina on the prevalence of abortion in America, and, as we discussed last January, sickeningly, the earthquake in Haiti upon a supposed pact the Haitians made with the devil. So I’m interested in probing this question of how we can say ‘humanity and the rest of creation are intimately linked’ because there is a logical benefit of argument in doing so, without wandering into territory in which ideas on teenage premarital sexual activity are bringing about natural disasters. Perhaps this is merely a matter of re-defining ‘moral choice’ away from, say, whether a woman decides to have an abortion or not or whether or not it’s okay for two men to love each other (gay people historically have also been blamed for natural disasters), and to a moral imperative more closely related to human interaction with the earth—how does our ‘need’ for fried (or raw, if you’re into that sort of thing) oysters affect the health of the Bay? Or, perhaps this involves bringing in counter-testimonies—the sun does shine, after all, on both the evil and the good.

It is difficult for me, at least, to fully conceive of being part of a community of creation. Life in London is a bizarre mixture of human manipulation of physical matter—the Tube, for instance—and patches of nature in a more traditional sense—Highgate Wood, etc. I recall a few weeks ago we read together a modernised form of Psalm 148, in which we said something along the lines of ‘Skyscrapers, praise the Lord!’ (or buses, trains and so forth). Sitting on the Tube to come over to the LMC today, I was thinking about this psalm for an urban environment. What does it mean, how can it possibly be that a community of creation can include something like a telephone pole? Does a bicycle or a Tube carriage join in praise of God? I’m not sure what to think, nor could I formulate anything overwhelmingly pointed to say in the trip from Goodge Street to Highgate, but I do think that our interactions with the material world, especially in an urban environment, require some understanding of urban landscape as, too, existing as part of our community of creation, even, paradoxically, as some of the very ‘urbanness’ we co-exist with is demonstrably harmful to other aspects of the material world.

To draw to a close, we have looked at how we are joined in and with the ‘community of creation’ in a shared way—in a sharing of praise together—as well as in a causal way—human actions bring about environmental consequences. As members of a community, we bear a responsibility to our neighbors, both human and non-human. Baukham’s most prescient point perhaps lies in his link between the liberation of creation discussed in Romans and Jesus’ discussion of the Kingdom of God. The realization of both events is set in the future, yet co-exist in the present, or we ourselves act to bring them about. As Baukham says: ‘We cannot achieve the liberation of creation but we can anticipate it’. In so far as humanity’s spiritual struggling ties into nature’s own suffering, we are incapable of setting nature free from its ‘bondage to decay’, yet like the Kingdom of God, we actively can be bringing it about.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The community of creation – sharing the earth

Preacher: Sue

Readings: Ps 104, Matt 6:25-33

This is the fifth in our sermon series on creation and the environment and the fourth looking at Richard Bauckham’s book Bible and Ecology. The theme for today is “the community of creation – sharing the earth”.

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 its not just humans who are encouraged to “fill the earth”. The sea creatures are encouraged to fill the seas and the birds to fill the earth. 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.

So, now for today’s passages. Let’s start with Psalm 104, one of my favourite psalms.

Humans & animals – dependence & empowerment

It is full of a sense of right-ness and order and plenty. Every creature including humans has its place in connection with God, and the earth. I love the picture of the young lions roaring for their food from God, depending on God to keep the universe going and provide food for them. Not that this is a passive dependence. The lions may roar as they seek their food from God but they don’t just lounge around waiting for some tasty prey to drop from the sky – they are busy out hunting all night, the birds are busy building their nests and the people are busy going out to work all day. There’s a lot of purposeful and fruitful activity and freedom here which Bauckham calls empowerment.

Generosity and exuberance

Another thing I love about this psalm is the generosity and plenty of it all. God gives humans not only bread but also wine and olive oil. And Leviathan (maybe an untamed monster or maybe a real animal perhaps a whale) is apparently there partly just for the fun of playing in the sea.

Unique habitats

The psalm is full of good things in great variety and they all come from God. 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”, whatever they are. 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 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.

Animals subjects of their own lives

I guess some of you may be beginning to squirm as I drift towards anthropomorphism here. I admit that it is a huge temptation for me - for which I blame my father who made the most of my vivid imagination as a child to tease me into empathy for even inanimate objects - like a toy car limping along forlornly with a wheel missing.

But I call Bauckham to my defence! Bauckham does allow a little cautious anthropomorphism. It is, he says, the only way we can empathise at all with other conscious creatures. It’s not to say that it’s exactly the same for a dolphin to be excited or playful as it is for us – just that it’s reasonable to talk about a dolphin being excited or playful. So he suggests we can be a bit anthropomorphic so long as we still do our best to understand animals as animals and within their own world.

And I think a little cautious anthropomorphism will allow us to hear a message Bauckham sees here, that the animals in this psalm are all the “subjects of their own lives”. They are all busy being themselves and doing the things a bird or a lion or a Leviathan needs to do. And they relate directly to God, they don’t have to go through humans as a kind of dominion-wielding earth-subduing middle-man. God is at the centre here, with humans dependent on God just as the other creatures are. To use Bauckham’s terms, this is a theocentric vision, not an anthropocentric one. And God delights in all of creation – and the beauty of this psalm invites us to join God in appreciating and respecting our fellow creatures.

The specialness of humans?

But, you may be asking, aren’t we humans special in some way? Made in God’s image, don’t we have some special connection with God?

Well, in Psalm 104 there are only really two concessions to any kind of specialness for humans. One is the reference to cattle and crops which implicitly acknowledges that there are some animals and plants with which humans have a special relationship – which seems to be OK as God provides the plants for cultivation and the grass for the cattle. And the other is the very last verse we’re reminded that there are sinners & wicked people on the earth.

We may have another question as we read this psalm’s vision of a world where everything is working so well and every creature is apparently happy and well-fed. What do we make of this when we know full well that many people are NOT provided for, when in Haiti people weakened by years of not having enough to live on and months of post earthquake chaos are dying of cholera, or closer to home when failed asylum seekers in this country have to try to live on nothing?

That seems like a good point to turn to the words of Jesus in our Matthew passage.

In some ways we are very much in the same world here as we were in Psalm 104. The heavenly Father clothes the grass of the field with flowers and feeds the birds of the air.

What will we eat, what will we drink, what will we wear?

But Jesus knows his listeners are also wondering whether they will be clothed and fed. And for us too there may be real questions about how we will stay afloat financially, what will happen if we don’t find work or if we lose our jobs, how we will manage when we are too old to work and so on.

What does Jesus say to these worries? “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you?” At first sight we may think that Jesus is saying “humans are more important than the rest of creation so God will take care of us”. But, following Bauckham, I think what he is actually saying is “God takes care of all of creation, even the bits we hardly notice or worry about, and that includes us”. Jesus does say that we are of more value than the birds but that’s not the reason we are cared for. The heavenly Father cares for us because we are part of creation and God cares for all of creation.

Of course, the birds’ dependence on God’s care is much more obvious that ours. The birds have to forage afresh each day; human beings can gather what they’ve sown and reaped into barns and then pretty well forget about depending on God till they’ve emptied the barn and are back at the beginning of the sowing and reaping cycle again the following spring. Or in our case we can just pop out to shop in Sirwan or Morrisons – making it even easier to forget our dependence on God. But, whether we have a job or not, a cupboard full of food or an empty bank account, we are dependent on God’s provision just as the birds are.

What about those who aren’t clothed and fed?

Jesus’ clear assumption is that God will always meet the birds’ needs and ours. And some of us may have stories of how God has provided just what we needed just when we were at our most desperate. But we could list plenty of examples where that isn’t true, perhaps even moments in our own lives. Human activity, agriculture, climate change deprive birds and animals of what they need to survive and populations plummet or become extinct. Millions of people live without access to adequate food, clean water, sanitation, clothing & shelter. Richard Bauckham’s take on this is that Jesus is assuming that the people of his time are living according to the OT law which is designed to ensure that even the poorest have enough to eat, for instance by tithing and leaving food in the fields for gleaners to gather up. There is enough for everyone so long as people obey these commandments and don’t greedily seize it all for themselves.

So what does this mean for those of us who may have more than we need to survive?

Well, that’s where I’d like to come back to my title for today: “sharing the earth”. Sometimes for other people to have what they need may require some action on our part, whether directly or through campaigning and humanitarian organisations or by lobbying governments for better sharing internationally. And it may also require us to demand less from the earth ourselves so there is more left for all our fellow creatures, the birds and the animals and other humans. We may need to accept a slightly less comfortable but more generous lifestyle for the sake of sharing the earth with the rest of the community of creation.

So I think Psalm 104 and Matt 6 have a key point in common. They describe a community of creation which is abundant, 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. Sometimes we find this kind of vision in prophecies of God intervening to put everything right some time in the future. The challenge of these passages is that they expect this vision to work here and now.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Job – Putting things in their place

Preacher: Lesley

This is the third of our sermons looking at Bible and Ecology, following the book of that name by Richard Bauckham. Although, traditionally, our relationship to the natural universe is explored through the Creation narratives in Genesis Bauckham says that to get a balanced view of what the whole Bible says, we need to take a broader view and see what attitudes to Creation are revealed in other biblical scriptures. So today we leave the book of Genesis and turn to Job.

It might seem strange to think about Job when we want to discuss Creation. Last week at the weekend away we touched briefly on Brueggeman’s scheme for interpreting the old Testament scriptures: that they basically comprise Israel’s core testimony about God, but also there is a strand of counter testimony. The core testimony is that if God’s people remain faithful to God, obeying all the commandments, then they will be prosperous and happy. If they disobey God, they will have conflict and will lose the promised land.
We saw that last week in Psalm 139 “ You search

But there is another thread that we hear in the Hebrew Scriptures, We heard it last weekend in Psalm 88: “ I am desperate, your wrath has swept over me…O Lord why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?”
Many of us have felt like that over the years, some more often than not. Job is a story which addresses the question of why do the innocent suffer. For it is true that a body of people, who live generously and avoid wasting money on unnecessary things, that strives to maintain relationships and to deal honestly, that does not gamble and not to overvalue material wealth will, as a whole, taken over generations, be prosperous and content. You can see this with the Dutch Mennonites and the Quakers.

But it doesn’t seem to work quite like that for individuals. This is a problem that every religion has to deal with if it believes in a god who is loving or at least just. The story of Job is a fable set in the time of the patriarchs and it seeks to address this question. Job, the righteous, rich man is seen to lose everything that constitutes wealth in his society – his flocks and herds and his many sons and daughters. Finally his health is affected.

Christians who are feeling that God has abandoned them or is even against them are often recommended to read the book of Job, as I was.

So then, imagine the suffering Christian reading through Job. First of all there’s God having a kind of bet with Satan that Job is not a good man only because he’s prosperous. Is my situation some sort of test like that. Then there are pages and pages to plough through of Job’s 3 friends insisting that he must have done something wrong because God doesn’t do things without a cause. These are punctuated by Job reiterating that he has lived blamelessly and calling for some way to put his case before God (that sounds better) Let’s skip some more of this stuff and then the young man Elihu saying that God is just and Job is too proud to listen to him,

At last after 37 chapters – a section headed ‘The voice of God’ Now, some answers for Job and perhaps for me.

So God answers Job out of the whirlwind. ”Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” ?

Reading Job 38 4-7

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone - when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

So here is God, the cosmic architect – building by a careful design that Job never knew anything about. But God is making Job face the reality of his own insignificance.

He goes on to question what Job knows about the control of the sea – a great symbol of chaos in the ancient world:

Reading Job 38 8-11

Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, "Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped'?

God goes on to point out that Job knows nothing about the dawn, which limits the wickedness that goes on in darkness and he asks about Job’s knowledge of the underworld.

Reading Job 38 16-18

"Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this.

God continues in the same heavily ironic vein to question Job’s understanding of light and darkness, of good and bad weather, controlling the stars. Job must be cringing by this time and the questioning of him may seem brutal, but God does not seem to be angry and the poetry shows the huge sweep of God’s imagination and power, in keeping in check all these powerful elements, in ways he cannot imagine. His only response must be humility before these majesties of the Cosmos.

These days we might say, “No I don’t know that, but I can look it up on Wikipedia.” Humanity as a whole does know a great deal more than could be known in the time of Job. But we don’t all know it by any means.

This reminds me of an argument I had with my Mum and Dad one day when I was a teenager. I happened to mention the limitation of the human brain and they both immediately declared that No the human brain isn’t limited. Maybe I remember it because they were both on the same side for once or because it didn’t seem to be rationally possible that any physical structure could be limitless.

The human brain contains trillions of neurons and a great deal of computing power. Peter can tell you all about that. But still no human being can know all human knowledge. Even what is in all our computers does not tell us all about the universe. Those who delve into its mysteries tend to become more humble before the awesome complexity of the Universe.

There are theories saying that we can never know all about the Universe, because that would entail knowing where each atom and electron and proton and quark is at any given time. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is a mathematical law which basically says if we know where an electron is, we don’t know when it was there and vice versa. In other words complete knowledge is a human impossibility. So we could say that God is the one who transcends the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. But even then, if we found some way of getting round the principle, we would still find more layers of stuff we don’t know. God is not just the God of the gaps, providing an explanation for what we don’t yet understand.

God hasn’t finished with Job. He then moves on and asks Job to consider 10 selected animals and birds. The questions are pretty much the same: does Job know, can he understand; can he control? But there is also whether Job can provide for these creatures, as God does. He starts with carnivores:

Job 38: 39-41

"Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their lair? Who provides prey for the raven, when his fledglings cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?”

We often assume that knowledge means power and yet we can make deadly assumptions about the animal world. I heard last week that by the beginning of the 20th century, the large herds of antelopes and other big herbivores in Southern Africa were being wiped out through shooting and the encroachment of farming. So in many game reserves a policy of killing off all the top predators – lions, leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, wild dogs and crocodiles, for instance, was put into practice. But the herds did not recover and it was realized that removing predators affects the whole eco-system. We may be uncomfortable with the idea of God supplying prey for the lions. It summons up ideas of ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ as Tennyson put it. But in the wild, predators don’t have any pride about what they catch. They just go for the easiest meal – the confused or abandoned young one which would not have survived or the old or injured animal. They don’t attack the breeding adults in their prime. But if the old and injured survive longer than they might, it means less food for all when the rains are delayed.

In Job, the words ascribed to God are closely observed descriptions of the way animals behave and especially how they care for their young. They are almost entirely descriptions of wild animals, stressing that their lives are completely independent of humankind and are not subject to human will:
“Is the wild ox willing to serve you; will he spend the night by your crib?”

The exception might seem to be the horse:

Reading Job 39 19-25

"Do you give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with mane? Do you make him leap like the locust? His majestic snorting is terrible. He paws violently, exults in his strength, he goes out to meet the weapons. He laughs at fear, and is not dismayed; he does not recoil from the sword. On his back rattles the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin. With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground; at the sound of the trumpet he cannot stand still. When the trumpet sounds, he shouts ‘Hurrah! ' He smells the battle from afar, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”

But this is a war horse - a stallion whose natural instincts are to fight. Humans could not force him to fight. The poetry makes it very clear that this is an independent being. There is no rider in this stanza; if it were not for the weapons rattling on his back, this could be a poetic description of the stallion going out to meet another horse challenging his dominance.

Some commentators see metaphors in these passages which apply to human beings, using them to underline humanity’s superiority to the animal kingdom. The commentary in my Harper’s study Bible, for instance says:
Underlying God’s comments here is his divine compassion toward the inferior creatures on the planet; he takes tender care of them. Therefore Job has no reason for charging God with unkindness toward him. Later The hawk and the eagle function by the natural power and instinct given them by God…Shall not humankind, the highest of God’s creation confess their own weakness and ignorance and give glory to the one who has made them?

I don’t think that it’s that complicated at all. This comes from the mindset that God could not be concerned about anything that isn’t to do with humanity. But there are no humans in all this vivid picture of the natural world. The seas and skies and land require no intervention from Job – even if he were able to affect them. Even closer to home, there is a whole section of the animal kingdom which goes it’s way without intervention by humanity. Not only does God care for each of these creatures – none of it for human benefit, but in the vivid descriptions of their independence and uniqueness, it is clear that God also loves them as he does humanity.
So not only is Job lacking in knowledge and power – humanity is not the only focus of God’s creation. He is just a created being, looked after by God amongst other created beings, which are not there for his benefit.

Job is speechless but God goes on to challenge Job to assume a mantle of power and to punish the proud and wicked. Of course Job lacks the power to rule even the human world.

God continues with a description of the great land monster Behemoth.

Reading Job 40 15-17, 19; 22-24

"Look at Behemoth, whom I made just as I made you; he eats grass like an ox. His strength is in his loins, his potency in the muscles of his belly! He stiffens his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are knotted together. He ranks first among the works of God, even his Maker can only approach him with a sword.
The lotus trees conceal him in their shade; the willows of the brook surround him. If the river rages, he is not alarmed; he is confident, even though the Jordan surges against his mouth. Can anyone capture him by the eyes, or pierce his nose?”

To us it seems like a hippopotamus – but this is more than any hippo we’ve seen on the documentaries. It is huge and not to be captured. At that time, the hippo was native to the Nile river in Egypt and there was much interaction with Israel. Though sometimes given the form of a God, it’s likeness was also worn as an amulet. But there are also pictures surviving to this day of Egyptian hippo hunts. It seems as if the writer of Job is using the form of the hippopotamus to indicate something much more.

Together with Behemoth goes Leviathan, who seems to be a great water monster modelled on the crocodile, but what crocodile was ever like this?

Reading Job 41 1-3; 13-15; 18-21; 31-34

"Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope through his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he make many supplications to you? Will he speak soft words to you?

Who can strip off his outer garment? Who can penetrate his double coat of mail? Who can open the doors of his mouth? Terror is all around his teeth. His back is a row of shields tightly sealed together. His sneezes flash forth lightning, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. Firebrands pour from his mouth; sparks of fire leap out. Smoke billows from his nostrils, as if from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds. His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth.

He makes the deep boil like a cauldron; he makes the sea like a pot of ointment. Behind him he leaves a luminous path; one would think the deep had white-hair. On earth he has no equal, created as he was without fear. He looks down on all the arrogant; he is king over all who are proud."

These two monsters are supreme over land and water. This is not a return to the previous description of animals. These are mythical beasts of great strength – they cannot be wounded or subdued. Leviathan is found in Canaanite mythology as a personification of chaos. Here he is also king of all the forces of arrogance and evil that defy the creator.

One of the reasons people so frequently give for not believing in, or following God is ‘Why should God allow so much evil in the world?’ The book of Job asserts that yes, there is evil in the world, but, just as we heard that God contained the proud waves that would burst their banks, so God limits the forces of chaos and evil personified as Leviathan and Behemoth. Not only has God restrained everything that works against God in Creation, but Job 41 implies that eventually God will destroy them.

Job 41; 10-11

No-one is so fierce as to dare stir him up
But who can stand before my face
Whoever confronts me I will requite, for everything under the heavens is mine.

Isaiah 27, 1 explicitly says that at the end of time, God will destroy Leviathan.

By the end of God’s speech about Leviathan, Job has been thoroughly put in his place. Not only does he not understand the world and how it was made, he has been shown that God loves other creatures as much as humanity and provides for them as well. Job has neither the wisdom nor power even to rule humans, let alone the forces of the Cosmos. He may complain about evil in the world but is entirely ignorant of how God strives to force back and eventually overcome the forces of chaos.

The message is that Job is simply a part of a Creation he does not understand and over which he can claim no lordship or control. For us, whose power and knowledge have grown since those days, the implication is that if humans aspire to godlike creative power and challenge the divine order, then they share the arrogance of Leviathan and join the proud, over whom Leviathan is king.

I can’t finish there without telling the happy ending. Job’s honour was vindicated and he regained his health fortune – with even more flocks and herds than he had before. And once again he has seven sons and three daughters. So what has changed? This time, instead of the sons having feasts in turn in each others houses and inviting their sisters, the emphasis is much more on Job’s daughters. They are each named (names for women are not common in the Hebrew Scriptures) and Job defies convention by allowing them to inherit as well as their brothers. It is as if in seeing his place as just another creature in Creation, he has also recognized that all humans are made in God’s image – perhaps why there is an emphasis on the beauty of the daughters. Sadly, we don’t hear anything about Mrs Job, who also lost her prosperity and all her children originally and then may have had the task of producing another seven sons and 3 daughters. But perhaps that’s to ask too much of an ancient patriarchy.

We’ve learnt that God’s answer to why the innocent suffer is not a detailed explanation of God’s purposes and plans – we could not possibly comprehend it all. It is to be reminded 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 and join the divine resistance of the forces of chaos and destruction.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Our Creation Community

Preacher: Wayne

Readings: Genesis 1; Psalm 36

From childhood, I have known about God’s creation being good; I was taught to enjoy it; I wanted to study and teach others this same appreciation. So I went to university and got a degree in biology and natural science.

Since then along the way, I received two responses from two groups, but it was the same question: “How can you?”
One = how can you be a Christian & study science? It will destroy your faith.
Other = how can you be a scientist and a Christian? They are incompatible. So many of my scientist friends heard from Xians that they were wrong.

How people read the Bible determines how they will respond to the questions of faith & science. Also effects how we answer the question of the relation of the human part of creation with rest of created world. That is today’s topic. As a congregation, we are studying Bible and Ecology, by Richard Bauckham.

As I understand it, the purpose of science is to describe what is seen, to describe how things work, such as discovering the hidden enzymes which are catalysts for some function of the brain, for example. It is objective. Some understand the Bible as also doing this and it does bring a person to one understanding of the Bible.

For me, the purpose of the Bible is to describe the purpose and the work of God, and our relationship with God. It calls for a faith perspective. I know this is too simplistic, but it is a beginning scheme to help us sort it out.

There seems to be a duality to the way we often see this issue, as if it must be one or the other. It cannot be both, we think. This poem (at end of script) by the British poet, Felix Dennis, describes a duality which is not meant to be in the Biblical accounts.

Key texts for today are Gen 1: 26-28. They describe the role of mankind in the relationships of creation. In the text there are 3 entities to be taken seriously: God, humankind, and the rest of creation. The most controversial term here describing our role is “dominion”.

In my experience I have seen three expressions of this relationship:

-James Watt, Sec of Interior under Reagan, and a professing Christian: human domination is for our benefit; therefore use it or lose it. Christ will soon return, & then opportunity gone. In this expression humankind is dominant over the created world. It is an over-under relationship.

-other activists reverse this order. They see Christians as being part of the problem. Christians like Watt exploit the created world’s resources and spoil it, using faith as an excuse. Many of these “green” folks therefore put animals first; we are to serve their needs. This is also an over-under relationship, with animals put on top.

-Kenton Brubaker, my professor at Eastern Mennonite University. His position was that we were one with creation, serving God as a whole. This is also the point of Bauckham. Humans are part of the community of creation, and to stress dominion diminishes this community.

To get to this point, we need to define the key terms:

-“fill the earth”: This is the same command as is given to animals. The land is assigned to both humans and animals, and humans are not to fill it in such a way that it is at the expense of the other animals. It is to be shared.

-“subdue”: When this word is used with the object “earth”, it has to do with occupy, or use. The land is not an enemy to be forcibly subjugated. Genesis 2 adds to this concept with the words “till and keep”, which seem to limit our use. A preserving element is included in our management of the earth’s resources.

-“dominion”: This is Mr. Watt’s text. The word has to do with rule, and, in this way, it is different than the role given to animals. In fact, this dominion is closely linked with our being made in the image of God. We bear the divine image, and in this way we use this role in a way which reflects God’s own rule over God‘s creation. That is an awesome responsibility, it seems to me. We are to manage on God’s behalf. “It is a delegated participation in God’s caring rule over His creatures”, says Bauckham.

Because we are so prone to forget God’s intention, especially when we become full of ourselves & think we have figured things out, there are limits to our rule. To quote Bauckham again, “Our rule is restricted (it is only over other living creatures), it is exercised within rather than over creation, it may not aspire to divine omnipotence, and, perhaps above all, it is exercised in relation to fellow-creatures.” We are limited in what we are asked to do.

There are other Biblical considerations to help us sort these things out, especially since we wish to take the Biblical account of creation seriously.

1.) As humans, we are part of the flow of creation, part of the order of creation. In that sense we are one with it. Not in the new-age sense of everything being a god, but in the sense of seeing creation as God’s good gift to us and to each other. We are linked to all of it in the best sense of the modern understanding of ecology; each part is related to the other and has a unique niche to fill. If we mess with one part, we influence the rest of creation in ways which can never be exactly measured or perhaps even known. We are part of a whole which we must take seriously. If we do not, we do so at our own peril.

2.) Did you notice the word “good”? After each segment of the creation drama, there are the words, “And God saw that it was good”. I think God had fun, and I believe that God continues to enjoy his created world. I also believe this phrase reflects the heart of God, & which we, as mirroring the image of God, need to imitate. It is indeed good, and we are good, at the very core of our being.

3.) As we humans are given the role of managing on behalf of God, it becomes very clear that God is the owner, & retains that role as owner. That has not been given over to us. Humans, on the other hand, remain simply tenants. Psalm 24, summarizes this clearly when it says “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”. Humans are not demigods (small gods). We are simply tenants.

This theological concept of ownership is a thread which runs throughout the Bible, and undergirds our concern for the environment. This also is designed to lie beneath the concept of Land in Israel, as well as our offerings to God (first fruits). But so easily we forget.

This is rather heavy stuff. How then shall we begin to live within these all-encompassing life relationships? Without presuming to be complete, I offer a few suggestions. You can surely add to the list:

1.) Because we exercise dominion on behalf of God, not instead of God, we must know our own dependence on God. Only as we stay in rel with God & know our own dependence on God, each other, and the rest of creation can we rule effectively. In this way we participate in God’s created order & community.

2.) Appreciate the goodness of creation. We are part of that. Let’s rejoice and praise God as the rest of creation does. So let’s learn about it & enjoy creation with creativity. In that spirit I offer to lend my knowledge to lead a fieldtrip to see & enjoy some birds in the area. We will arrange the details & let you know.

3.) Be respectful of the created order. St Francis of Assisi called the flowers, birds, & animals his brothers & sisters. Francis tells them – including worms, fishes, wolves, lambs, & bees – that by their very existence they give glory to God. This deep respect and sense of community will lead to the next step:

4.) Let us do our part to keep & preserve this creation. This congregation takes this role more seriously than any other congregation I have participated in. Let’s keep it up. Perhaps we could even include teaching in that role, and inviting others to join us.

5.) Live humbly. What we know is very limited, yet what we do know can bring much joy. When Job was acting arrogantly, GOD asked Job whether he knew the foundations of the Earth and other secrets of creation. Let’s accept our finite knowledge and allow God to be the God of creation.

6.) Let nature be a mirror for us of the wholeness of creation & of God’s glory in it. Richard Rohr says there is a healing in our connection with everything that brings us to wholeness, if we allow it. He says that nature can bring that wholeness to us. And help us see God’s glory. He says it’s like the Celtic "knot" (*) which was found on crosses, gravestones, in manuscripts, and on jewelry. It was apparently their artistic way of saying that all is connected, everything belongs, and all is one in God.

That is how I wish to live. I invite you to join me in it. Amen.

Place a Mirror by a Tree
By Felix Dennis

Place a mirror by a tree;
Tell me now, what do you see?

Which of you will feed the earth?
Which of you contains more worth?

Which of you with sheltering arm
Keeps a thousands things from harm?

Which of you is nature’s bane?
Which is Abel? Which is Cain?

Which of you is God’s delight?
Which of you a parasite?

Place a mirror by a tree;
Tell me now — what do you see?

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Bible and Ecology (Richard Bauckham).

Preacher: Veronica


From Genesis 6

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch... For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.

From Genesis 9

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

An old man was working in his garden, and a passer by began to admire it. ‘Isn’t it wonderful’, she said, ‘what God and you have achieved together’. ‘Ah,’ replied the old man, ‘but you should have seen the state of it when God had it to himself’.

This is the second of our sermons on the environment, and the first based on Richard Bauckham’s book Bible and Ecology. The main thesis of the book, is that the concept of ‘stewardship‘ which Christians often use to talk about our responsibility for the environment, is too narrow and takes too little account of the wider Biblical picture. Instead , Bauckham proposes the concept of ‘the community of creation’, a phrase I’m sure will come up frequently as we study the book.

For various reasons we are looking today at the second half of the first chapter, focusing on Genesis 2 and the Flood, and we’ll look at the first half, and Genesis 1, in the next sermon. Genesis 1 and 2 are of course alternative accounts of creation, but Bauckham thinks they harmonise with each other, rather than contradicting each other.


The first point Bauckham makes about Genesis 2 is that it affirms human solidarity with the rest of creation. The man, or to translate it literally, the ‘earth-creature’ is made from what you Americans call the ‘dirt’. In fact there is a linguistic link made in the Hebrew : the (at this point genderless) man is called Adam, and the name for the earth is ‘adamah’. One commentator rendered it as ‘God made humans out of humus’ (not hummus, I hasten to add!). Human beings are intimately linked to the ground we stand on.

If we read on we find that the animals too are made out of the ground, and presumably God breathes life into the animals just as into Adam. This chimes in with Bauckham’s interpretation of Genesis 1, where the structure suggests that humanity and the land creatures, made on the same day, are of the same kind. Humankind is ‘of the earth, earthy’ and there is nothing to suggest that there is anything wrong with that - in fact we know from Genesis 1 that it is ‘very good’.

One of the problems Bauckham sees with the stewardship model is that it sets humanity over against the rest of creation, with a special right to make use of it. This can easily lead to a human fantasy of taking complete control of creation. Indeed some modern scientists talk exactly in these terms, of being able to create artificial life, intelligence and even food, so that humanity is no longer dependent on the rest of creation but it is dependent on us. Genesis on the other hand sets out a situation in which human beings are intimately tied to the rest of creation, with God beyond both and keeping control of both.

This emphasis on our ‘earthiness’ is a valuable corrective to excessive ambition about controlling creation. I think it also speaks about what it means to be fully human. Nowadays we live largely divorced from the processes which bring us our food and our clothes. We have begun to live virtual lives - I now don’t even go to the supermarket to buy my food, I order it online. Genesis 2 tells us that it is inherent in humanity to need a relationship with the physical world around us, to feel its soil and to breathe its air. Not to do so is literally ‘unnatural’.

Job creation

Bauckham’s second point, and this is where we come back to the joke at the beginning, is that humans are given a task to do: to ‘till and keep’ the garden of Eden. There are two terms here, one meaning to cultivate, and one meaning to preserve. So humankind has a mandate to develop the land, but also a duty to keep it from destruction.

Adam’s task of tilling the earth, Bauckham says, gives him the right to usufruct - and no, I didn’t know what that meant either, so I looked it up. Apparently it means the right to derive profit or benefit from property belonging to another. So that’s your word of the day: usufruct. .If you remember nothing else from this sermon you can remember that.

Adam is mandated to enjoy the fruits of the land. But he is also to ‘keep’ it, and that means maintaining it in its fruitful state, and not exhausting it. To put it in a popular slogan, ‘Please leave this earth the way you would like to find it.’ You could almost say, if you only had Genesis 2, that the ‘earth-creature’ or human is created for the sake of the land, not the other way around (and this is my thought rather than Bauckham’s, so I hope I haven’t pushed it too far).

Man gave names

The third point is to do with Adam’s naming of the animals. This has often been interpreted to mean humanity has authority over the other animals and is allowed to use them for any purpose. This is the aspect of the biblical concept of ‘dominion’ that some environmentalists have a big problem with.

Bauckham however says that this is not the only and inevitable way to understand these verses. He sees it rather as the human recognizing the animals as his fellow creatures with whom he shares the world. The ‘dominion’ or rule that humans are given in Genesis 1 (and I’m sure we’ll hear more about this in the next sermon) is a role of responsible care, rather than one of exploitation. Remember that at this point in Genesis we are still in the situation where God has given every green plant to both humanity and the animals - meat eating is not in view. Eden is unambiguously a vegetarian state.

So we could see in these verses an acknowledgement that human life is inextricably bound up, not only with the soil we cultivate, but with the other animals - mammals, birds, fish, reptiles - who live on it with us. Our Genesis 1 task of being fruitful, multiplying and subduing or taking possession of the earth, is not meant to be undertaken at the expense of other creatures, but in harmony with them. Again we 21st century humans are quite divorced from this - for many of us the nearest we get to it is having pets in our houses and caring for them. And perhaps this too can be seen as an unnatural state.

Another try

This brings us neatly to the story of the Flood, which is a story of salvation not just for humans but for the animal creation, and indeed the plants that provide both with food.

We are used to defining the Fall as a single event described in Genesis 3 - whether we take that as a historical event or a mythical story expressing truths about the world. However Bauckham points out that as we read through Genesis 1-9, there is more of a gradual descent into sin, as human culture evolves with all its benefits but also its corruption. So by the time we get to the story of Noah, asour reading said, ‘the earth was filled with violence’.

‘Filling the earth’ was one of the commands, or you might call them blessings, given to humankind in the Genesis 1 account of creation. However instead of being filled with people, caring for the earth and enjoying its benefits, we find that what the earth has become filled with is violence. (This of course is very interesting from the point of view of a peace church, since it pinpoints violence as the core of disobedience to God. ) As Bauckham observes, one of the kinds of violence that has filled the earth is the killing of animals for food. This includes the animals killing other animals, which is not part of the original creation picture.

Noah, in Bauckham’s view, is the epitome of the responsible care that humanity was meant to have for the earth. He is succeeding where Adam failed. He is, if you like, the first conservationist: God’s rescue plan for Noah takes in not only human beings but the whole of the animal creation, and the plants that feed them. We don’t need to ask questions about whether there were fish or birds in the Ark, or whether the lions ate the lambs and how they kept the rabbits from taking over. It’s not necessary to take this literally, in order to learn from it how much God cares for creation.

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 not only with Noah and his descendants, but crucially, with ‘every living creature that is with you’. This is not however a complete return to Eden. In the covenant with Noah,God makes concessions to the way the world has become: we are allowed to eat meat, but not with the lifeblood in it - a rule both Jews and Muslims still keep today in kosher or halal meat.

God also proclaims that the animals will now fear the humans, and Bauckham sees this as a measure to protect humans from wild animals in this new, fallen world. Genesis 9 portrays a world in which the unrestrained violence that reigned before the flood is now kept within limits. So it is a better world, but it is no longer the ideal world that Genesis 1 and 2 describe. Indeed the Noah story can be seen as a salvation story, in which God redeems the creation: a salvation where the animal and vegetable world is saved along with its human inhabitants.

The final point Bauckham draws from this is to say that in our theology of the environment, we need to keep in mind both the ideal world of the original creation, and the real world, red in tooth and claw, that we are now living in. We need to know just how far the world is from what God intends for it; and to do that we also need to have a clear view of what it could be. Which returns us to the joke at the beginning again. God does not want to keep the world just for himself, but has chosen that the world should have human beings in it, with the responsibility of caring for it, not instead of God caring for it, but in cooperation with God’s care.

Joni Mitchell told us that ‘we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. But in fact we are earthdust - which does admittedly come from stars - we are fallen, and it’s God’s job to lead us to the new creation.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Who is our neighbour? The call to be a peace church

Preacher: Marie-Noëlle von der Recke

Readings 2 Chronicles 28:1-15

You might have noticed that one expression appears three times in the story we just heard: the word "countrymen". In other translations we would have found "kinsmen", "brethren" or "relatives". Who are our kinsmen and kinswomen? Our brethren ? Or as we find the question put in the New Testament in the introduction to the story about the Good Samaritan: Who is our neighbour ?

Judah and Israel have been 2 separate states for a long time as war broke out between them. Judah has been defeated and many soldiers have died. Prisoners and plunder have been taken and are being brought to Samaria, the northern Kingdom. There, an unknown prophet of Samaria, Oded interferes and warns Israel for wanting to keep these people and the spoil. The story takes an unexpected turn as the victors take care of the prisoners and give them their freedom back. In this story it is a question of human guilt and of God's anger and judgement but it all ends beautifully. If we look at it closely we discover that it speaks to issues that are quite important even today.

The first issue raised in this story is: Who is the wicked one ?

If we have a conflict we usually sort things out quite neatly:  the others are guilty, they are the problem (Example Duncan Morrow at a Church and Peace international conference in 2007: He described at length the situation in Northern Ireland and showed how all concerned by the conflict speak about "them" as being the cause of all the difficulties). This is the way we function at the personal but also at the political level. Actually it has become a routine way of thinking in the propaganda of the Western world in past years. The world is clearly divided between the good and the bad guys. Here is truth and right, freedom and democracy. There are the rogue states. Here Christian values. There evildoing Islam and terrorism. This clearcut construct justifies war in Afghanistan as it has in Iraq.

What does our text say about this ?

It describes quite bluntly the king of Juda's guilt: he has abandoned the ways of David, he has brought offerings to foreign gods, he has ordered human sacrifices. But the guilt of Israel is shown just as clearly: the rage with which the Judeans have been killed has reached up to heaven. And the guilt of the Israelites becomes even heavier as they take the Judeans as slaves. The Southern kingdom has followed the path of the Nations and run into a catastrophe, the Northern kingdom has been successful at war and has done what people usually do in such a case.  God's judgement falls on both Northern and Southern kingdoms: both people are declared guilty. Both people have deserved to be struck by God's wrath. Our text seems to be saying: the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other, that just does not exist!

Another current issue is also spoken to in our text:
What is God's will ?
And first of all: are wars God's will ?

There are quite a few reports on wars in the Old Testament. In the New Testament Jesus himself says that wars are inevitable. In this story we see that Judah is being held accountable for the war and for the defeat. One might easily think that God wanted this war to happen and wanted Judah to be defeated. Our story contains at two places an important nuance which is to be found at other places in Scripture: twice it is said that this war happened because "God has let Judah suffer at the hand of its enemies". One gets the impression that Judah hasn't been under God's protection any more, that Judah had to bear the consequences of its disobedience. God has not prevented these consequences from happening through some magic device. God has allowed this war to happen but this does not free Israel from its responsibility. Israel has not been allowed to assassinate and turn its enemies into slavery. Israel is being held accountable for its deeds just as Judah is. If the Bible says that there must be wars it is not in any way fatalistic and it is not to say that God wants it that way. It just means: the world is that way. People run to their own loss. That is the reality of war, a reality that reaches to heaven - today more than ever.

But the wonderful thing about this story is that it shows in the words of the prophet Oded what God really wants. It shows the way out of the deadlock. Oded puts his finger on the evil that is happening but he also  gives recommendations as to what the will of God really is:

What is the will of God ?

Prophet Oded says in the name of God: "send the prisoners back". And exceptionally a prophet is heard and the prisoners are not only liberated but they get food and drink, they are clothed and receive medical care. Special attention is given to the weakest. In the end they are brought back home. That is the will of God. Not war, but all these signs of compassion and mercy.

Let us come back to the question we asked at the beginning of this meditation: who are our kinsmen ? Indeed there might be a pitfall in this story: its seems to be saying: Israel, watch out, those people you are taking into bondage are your own kinsmen! Judah and Israel had been 2 states for decades as the story happened but before that, they have been one kingdom, one people... It might well be that the prophet is only saying here: beware, you are taking your own kin into bondage and not your enemies. This would reduce the scope and the impact of the story and weaken its message, because it would then mean: be good to your former friends, do not treat them as enemies. It would be OK to take enemies into bondage, but not your own flesh and blood.

Now, if we turn to the New Testament and read the story of the good Samaritan, we discover how Jesus revisited this story and how doing so he blurred completely the differentiation between kin and enemy. Reading Luke 10 we find in this well known parable many parallels to our passage in 2 Chronicles 28. It is especially striking if you look at the last verse of our text. The Jewish tradition calls such a story that picks up an older one and tries to show its deeper meaning a Midrash. The story of the good Samaritan is very probably such a Midrash. The Samaritan who belongs to a people that the Jews hated in the time of Jesus is the only person in Luke 10 who behaved as a "kinsman" or relative or neighbour or brother  as he found the wounded man on the roadside. In pointing at this, Jesus abolished the  walls of separation that people raise between kinsmen and foreigners and even those raised between friends and enemies. Jesus overcomes all barriers raised between people.

We might be happy to see Europe become a political reality but the Gospel offers us here an even wider horizon. The Love of God is available to all people without exception and this means that the idea of being a kinsman or not is abolished in Jesus. We might want to formulate this first lesson out of the story we read today and out of its interpretation through Jesus as a prayer:

Dear God, stretch our hearts and our minds beyond the horizon of our family, our Church, our country and even the European Union, as great at it is, to see more and more countries join in !

The second lesson has to do with the ideologies which come and go. I'm thinking here about the ideology that tries to make us believe that it is possible to divide the world between the good guys and the bad guys. War and terrorism devastate our world in the name of this ideology. A spirit of self satisfaction reigns over nations and individuals, suggesting that the others are always the wicked one, the others are guilty.

This story is a warning against self satisfaction. A people's guilt is not a license to kill them. Even if some on both sides of the divide try to make us believe that they are acting in the name of God, the God of the Bible is not such a God. We should not put the burden of guilt on others - neither in small nor in big conflicts. We have to learn to be critical about ourselves. Here too we are called to widen our horizon. It is indeed so easy to be appalled about how cruel people can be with each other way over there ( in Africa for instance) and not to see the mechanisms that rule over relationships here, and not to see that our own countries have supplied the means of committing atrocities. It is so easy not to see that poverty there has some of its root causes here. In this area as well we may want to pray :

God open our eyes so that we may see our own guilt and may live as responsible persons and as a responsible Church.

The third lesson of this story is a most practical one:  We have seen what God does not want and what he wants. God does not want wars. This is a disturbing and motivating thought. If we think that God wants war or that wars are just inevitable, it is easy to abdicate and to just feel powerless as we witness events that just overwhelm us. If we dare say that war is not the will of God, that it is not a fatality, then we have to stand up and get involved.

What is to be done is summarized in a few words by the prophet in our story: "send the captives back".

Many situations come to my mind when I hear this sentence : I think of the kind of work CPT has been doing in Iraq, raising awareness about the plight of prisoners there, I am thinking of the refugees that come to our European countries, I am thinking of the people who have disappeared in Bosnia and Columbia. I am thinking about the many many people who live in tents in Northern Iraq in Eritrea and in Chechnya. What does this "sending back" mean ?
It is something very practical: to clothe them, to give them food and drink, to bind the wounds, to take care of the weakest and to bring them home... The good news is: There is enough in the booty for everybody to be comforted. That is the will of God. In Luke 10 the very same deeds are summarized with the word "mercy" which comes from the Hebrew word Rachamim which means the uterus, the womb. Such is the will of God. Of the God who loves humanity as a mother loves her child. We may also formulate this last teaching as a prayer:

Jesus Christ, you have demonstrated God's love in dying on the cross and God in his mercy has raised you from the Dead. Help us do what mercy requires

The story of 2. Chronicles 28 helps us to rethink our thought-patterns about who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, about what God wants  and what he rejects. Jesus’ revisiting of this story shows that the word "kinsman" does not make much sense except if it means that we should behave as kinsmen, as neighbours towards each and every human being, whatever his or her origin.

God's will is compassion. He needs us, his Church, for his compassion to become visible : he needs people like Oded who raise their voices and say "send the prisoners back".  People who open the eyes of their generation, who point to problems and show God's solutions to escape the deadlock. He also needs people who do the will of God very practically, those who actually take care of the prisoners in order for them to experience liberation. God needs his Church to be a Peace Church. She should be a prophet and a deacon who show the way of God's mercy. This is the message Church and Peace tries to convey with its members in today’s Europe.