Monday, May 06, 2013

United with Creation - Red Deer Creation Care Conference, Sermon #1

The following is the first sermon in a series of talks I gave in Red Deer on April 12-14, 2013, on creation care. This text provides the gist of what I said, but of course I riffed a bit. I also had PowerPoint images to go along with this talk. Note that when I talk about creation, I am in no way disparaging evolution. One can affirm creation and evolution, without doing too much damage to the definition of either. To read the introduction of this series, click here.


How similar are we to animals? Recently, discoveries in biology have suggested that animals share more in common with humans than previously thought: culture, emotions, humour, long term memory, math, tool use, none of these are considered unique to humans any more. In the past, it was assumed that animals lacked these things, and thus we could do whatever we wanted with animals. But that is no longer the case. Environmentalists use this to declare that humans and animals are equals, and have equal rights.

What is the Christian response to this? Usually Christians respond with a scoff and some statement about how we’re better than the animals. But I would like to suggest that the environmentalists are not all wrong. There is more similarity between humans and animals than Christians like to believe. But I don’t have to base this off of biology – we see it quite clearly in scripture.

We, and the animals, and the rest of this world, are similar in that we are all creations of God. Because we share this identity, animals and the rest of nature, require our protection.

Read Genesis 1 (with pictures)

What an incredible passage. At its heart it is an origin story, and we love origin stories.

If you’ve ever wondered why superhero movies always begin with an origin story, its because origin stories tell us where the superhero came from, and it therefore provides motivation for what he’s doing. The Joker is such a scary villain because he has no origin story. In the Dark Knight, the Joker provides three stories to explain his origin, and all three are different, all three are fabricated, and this is unsettling to us, because we can’t predict his behaviour if we don’t know where he came from.

Its as true for us as it is for superheroes. Without knowing where we came from, we lose an essential component of who we are, and what we are to do with our lives.

Here in Genesis 1 we have an origin story, and this origin story is a call to action.

What we see in this origin story is that we are creations of God.

This simple fact is all we need to begin a creation ethic. Once we know that we are creations of God, once this simple truth becomes grounded in our identity, it must produce action. It must, because there are four implications of being creations of God.


First, we see in Genesis one that to be a creation of God is to be united in substance with the rest of creation.

Consider this: humans are made of the earth. Genesis 2:7 reads ‘And the Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground…’ We weren’t made out of thin air – we are earthy beings. In fact, this earthiness is so essential to who we are, that the Hebrew word for human, adam, is derived from the Hebrew word for earth, adamah.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this. We are obviously earthy creatures. We contain within us elements from the earth. The food that we eat, grown from the ground, becomes a part of us, rearranged into human form. This earthiness means that we rely on the earth for our survival. To destroy the earth is to destroy ourselves. We are made of earth, and this unites us to the earth in a significant way.

To be made of earth is also to recognize kinship with other creatures. In Genesis 1 and 2 we are not the only earthy beings – the plants and animals are also generated from the earth. This means we share similarities with them. It is much easier to kill a living thing if we are spiritual and they are material, but the message of Genesis one is that we are all earthy, and we are united in our earthiness.

This means that we all, plants and animals and humans, have similar needs and require similar resources. It also means that when we harm the earth, we harm both ourselves and our fellow earthy creatures.

Now, you will also recognize that we are creatures of breath. In Hebrew this is read as chay nephesh. The KJV egregiously translates this as living soul, leaving us with several centuries’ worth of misunderstanding. We usually breath is talking about what makes humans different from everything else, this soul that animals lack. But rather the text is saying that humans are different from plants, because we breathe. And we in fact share this property with the animals:     

 ‘And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life (nephesh chay)…’  (Genesis 1:20).

And before you think the order of words matters, here is Genesis 1:21:

‘And God created the great whales, and every living creature (chay nephesh) that moveth, which the waters bring forth abundantly…’

Again, Genesis 1:24: ‘And God said ‘Let the earth bring forth the living creature (chay nephesh) after his kind…’

Genesis 1:30: ‘And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the whole earth, wherein there is life (chay nephesh)…’

Breath in Genesis 1 and 2 has nothing to do with our spiritual identity. It is simply reinforcing this similarity between us and the natural word.

Here then is the ethical consideration: when we destroy the earth, we destroy a part of what it means to be human, because we are united to creation through our earthiness. When we destroy the air, we destroy a part of what it means to be human, because we are united to much of creation through our breath.


Second, in this origin story we see that humans and all life were created for life on Earth. Earth is our home.

This message is particularly seen in the structure of Genesis 1. Consider the order of events in this chapter

1)  Before creation begins, there is darkness. Just as a building cannot be erected in the dark, God shines light to vanquish the darkness and begin the act of construction.

2) But construction cannot begin in a disordered working space. As anyone knows when setting a foundation, you first have to clear a spot to lay the foundation. On day two God separates these waters to provide a bubble of order amongst the chaotic waters, a place in which creation can occur. The formation of this bubble is conceived as a tent canopy being stretched across the heavens, to keep the waters at bay. Indeed, we see the image of the world as a tent in Psalm 104:10 ‘he stretches out the heavens like a tent.’ 

Construction on the home has commenced

3) On day three the base of the tent is constructed, and the larder is stocked with food.

4) On day four beings of light are created – the sun and moon and stars – and they are suspended from the canopy to give light within the home.

5) On days five and six the home becomes inhabited, and this in a very particular order. In Genesis 1:2, the Earth is described as formless and empty, in Hebrew these are the rhyming words tohu wa bohu. On days 1-3 tohu, formlessness, is dealt with, as the foundations of the home are formed. On days 4-6 bohu, emptiness, is overcome, as those foundations are populated with creations. The light is filled with beings of light, the sun, moon and stars; the sky and waters are filled with birds and fish; the land is filled with land animals and humans. And all of this points to day seven, in which chaos gives way to order, and God’s restless hovering Spirit resides in rest. I should also point out that this rest becomes the promise for the Israelites as they seek the promised land: Rest is an essential aspect of being home.

To summarize this structure of Genesis 1, then, we see humans being created alongside plants and animals to dwell in the tent of creation. There are four things I would like us to consider about Earth as home:

1) We were made to live on Earth. There is no sense in scripture that our true home is some pie in the sky heaven – even the future promises of God entail a new heaven and a new earth, with heaven coming down to earth. God did not make this place to be a temporary rest stop before our souls leave our evil bodies. To think that is to be a gnostic, which was an early church heresy. To truly live our origin, to live as creations of God, is to live with the understanding that the things we see around us are home. When we pollute or disregard this earth, we are destroying, not some temporary thing, but God’s intended dwelling place for us.

2) Home is a gift. We did not create this world, it was given to us for us to flourish in. An environmental ethic must begin with this fact: whenever we degrade the environment, whenever we drive a species to extinction, whenever we poison the land such that things can no longer grow there, we are destroying a gift given to us by God. In fact, this is a gift God still actively participates in and rules over, as we will examine tomorrow evening. When I was a kid I made this coffee cup for my mom. It was an ugly thing made of clay and covered in shellacked bits of magazine cutouts. It was by no means a work of art. But I loved my mom, and I did everything in my small power to make her something of beauty. And it was beautiful, despite its inability to function as a cup, because it was a product of love. I gave it to my mother as a gift. It was hers to do with as she pleased, but what a message it would have sent me had she purposefully shattered it on the ground. We all recognize that we can’t do whatever we want to a gift without communicating something to the sender of the gift. Have any of you accidentally regifted something to the person who gave you the gift? Or got rid of a gift, just for the sender to come over and ask to see it? We know that how we treat gifts communicates our respect and love for the giver of the gift. So what do we communicate to our creator when we are given a home to live in, and then destroy that home because we think it is ours?

3) We need to recognize that the world was not made to be a resource to be exploited.  It was made to be a living-space to be inhabited.  That is the main image of creation – as a tent, not as a mine. Anything that degrades the ability of the earth to be a living space, for all of God’s creatures, is a perversion of God’s intended purpose for creation.

4) We see that we are not the only creatures that live in this home. The Earth is as much the home of the birds, fish, and livestock as it is of humans. This means that we have no choice but to consider their flourishing alongside our own, as the world is a gift to them as well as a gift to us.

When we consider the earth as home, there is no hierarchy of rights. Humans are not told that their flourishing is more important than the flourishing of anything else. Home is a gift, to us and to others.

Our call to action then, is to treat earth as a living space given by God to all creation.


So far we have seen that we should live ethically towards the earth because we are united to the rest of creation in substance, and because this world is our home, a gift meant to be respected and shared. We are also supposed to live a life of creation care, because to be a creation of God is to be valuable and valued. That is, to be a creation of God, no matter what that creation is, whether human or worm, is to be good. In recognizing this, though, we also recognize that the thing is not God.

To be a creature is to be good, not God.

This is a valuable insight that Christian theology can offer to the environmental movement. Too often Christians dismiss environmentalism as New Age Earth worship, and too often that is what environmentalism is. In movies like Avatar, nature is represented as in some way divine, and it is its divinity that makes its destruction so tragic. When the tree of souls is under threat, we are asked to feel sorrow, not because the tree is a living thing, but because the destruction of the tree is the destruction of an aspect of divinity. Here in Genesis 1 we see a corrective to this: in Genesis 1:2 the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters. Babylonian creation accounts begin with salt water and freshwater as gods; the Egyptian creation account begins with the god Nun, who is a body of water. The Genesis creation account dares to be different. Water is still there at the beginning, but God is above the water. Water is not God; God is God, and water is water. Similarly, the Hebrew word for sun is very similar to the Sumerian name for the sun god, and so in Genesis 1, unlike in the rest of Genesis, the sun is not called its Hebrew name, but is instead called a ‘great lamp’. The author is taking great pains to avoid confusion: the sun is not God. God is God, and the sun is a great lamp. Even humans are recognized as images of God, and not God. A Christian environmental ethic, then, is not based on protecting Mother Earth. It is based on protecting Earth as God’s creation because it is good, not because it is God.

So creation is not God, but this is not to disparage creation. Repeatedly throughout Genesis one, God declares creation to be good.

This is a declaration of value. Matter is not evil. It is not opposed to spirit. It is a good in and of itself. Even after the fall, the goodness of matter is affirmed, both in the incarnation and resurrection, in which God took on material form and rose again as a body rather than a spirit, and in statements like 1 Timothy 4:4 ‘For everything God created is good.’

Here are the things considered good in Genesis 1: the light of day one, the land and gathered seas under the sky on day three, the plants of day three, the sun moon and stars of day four, the creatures of the sea and sky on day five, and the land animals on day six.

So, on their own, every created thing has value because it is good. But why is it good? Because God said so? No. Creation is inherently good because it is a product of the love of God.

In scripture creation is described as a Trinitarian process – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all given roles in creation. Since the Trinity exists in perfect love, their actions are the result of love. Creation is the outpouring of love, and created things take on this inherent value because they are love embodied. Those mosquitos that annoy you, those worms that disgust you, those pandas that delight you, and those stars that humble you, are all valuable because they are embodiments of love.

At the end of Genesis one we see a new declaration, ‘very good’, or in Hebrew ‘superlatively beautiful’ or ‘of exceeding value.’ God looks at all he has made, including humans, and declares this completed creation to be very good. Notice that humans are not very good, it is completed creation that is very good, but without us, creation is incomplete. Our participation in creation completes creation, elevating it from individual things that are good, to a grand ecosystem that is very good. This is both exciting and humbling. It is humbling because our participation with creation tends to devalue it, but it is exciting because it gives us hope, that our role in the world can be a positive one.

Our call to action, then, is to recognize that all of creation is valuable because it is an embodiment of God’s love. This means recognizing that our food sources are not simply commodities to be exploited, but are loved by the God who created them.


So, we have seen in our origin story that, being created means being united with all creation, being at home in the created world, it means have inherent value simply by being embodiments of love. Being a creation of God also means being blessed.

Genesis 1:28-30 comes with a blessing. God creates humans in his image, and blesses them, saying ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.’

This word, blessing, is a serious word in Hebrew. It is Barak, as in Barak Obama. God’s baraks are acts of promise. They are the giving of gifts of value. Blessing is an important theme throughout the book of Genesis. God’s promise to Abraham and Isaac of numerous descendants is a promise of barak, or blessing. Isaac’s blessing of Jacob instead of Esau was a barak. All the nations of the earth were promised to be baraked, blessed, through Abraham’s faithfulness. This is a rich and important word, and so we need to pay attention when it is first used. Here in Genesis 1, we see this blessing, this unshakable promise, given to humans. We are given the blessing or gift of plentiful food. We are given the blessing or gift of dominion over the animals and the earth, a blessing we will come back to tomorrow. And we are given the blessing or gift of fruitful reproduction. Be fruitful, and multiply, says God, the gift of having a family with sufficient resources to care for that family. These are incredible gifts, they are gifts of a Creator God to his creation. Notice that humans are not alone in this blessing – the animals too are included in the blessing of food, and it is implied that the human rule was as much a blessing for the animals as it was a gift to the humans. But also notice how often these blessings are hampered by human action. Many people do not experience the blessing of food, despite food existing in abundance. There is not the blessing of rule over nature for those who have no land to call their own. There is not the blessing of fruitfulness for those who lack the basic necessities to care for their family. There is something very profound about this blessing, in that it is incumbent on us to ensure that God’s promise is fulfilled.

But also notice that this is not the first use of barak in the Bible. We must go back a few verses to day five to see the first blessing given by God to his creatures. It is a blessing not given to humans at all. Genesis 1:22, ‘God blessed them, the fish and birds, saying Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.’ Here we have animals that humans are given dominion over a few verses later, being given the blessing of fruitful abundance, one of the very same blessings given to humans. Just as we can prevent God’s blessing in the lives of other humans, it is apparent that we can also work against God’s blessing of the animals. How, for instance, does the collapse of the Canadian cod fishery in the 1990s fulfill God’s promise of fruitfulness? This was the single greatest loss of a vertebrate in Canadian history, and it occurred through a combination of technological innovation, consumer demand, mismanagement, and placing economic concerns over biological concerns. But it became rapidly apparent that cod cared very little for politics. There is no negotiating with biology, and when we took more than nature could sustain, the result was a tremendous loss economically, culturally, and biologically. God’s promise was clearly not fulfilled for the cod, and discussions I’ve had with cod biologists indicate these populations will likely never recover. The current extinction rate for all animals is 10-100 times higher than that recorded in the fossil record, and this is primarily due to human activity. Our call to action, then, is to make God’s blessing come to life. Otherwise God’s blessing will look to the world like just so many words, indicative of nothing.

In Genesis one we see a number of descriptors of creation. We see that humans share earthiness with animals and plants and breath with animals – we are not unique in our biological makeup or our dependence on this planet.

Humans, like animals and plants, were made to live on this Earth. This means sharing the earth. Humans are given no special status when it comes to populating the earth or using its resources.

Also, humans, like plants and animals, are given value because they are embodiments of God’s love. God is the Creator of the worm as much as he is the Creator of us. We have no special distinction in this respect. And as creations, we are inherently valuable, but so is the worm. God has given all life his divine stamp of approval.

Humans, like animals, are also given similar blessings: blessings of fruitful abundance and blessings of food. Here we see at least one distinction between humans and animals, and it is not a pretty one: humans have the power to work against the blessing of God. We do not naturally follow God’s will.

An environmental ethic must begin with this identity. We are biological creatures living in a material planet, a planet that we depend upon, a planet created and given to us and to all life to inhabit.  What then does this mean for our ethic? In the case of the cod, had the church stepped up to say that cod are creations of God, embodiments of God’s love, creatures valued and blessed by God that have the right to flourish, and had the church taught others to view cod with that sort of respect, perhaps we would not have thought of cod as a resource to be exploited, but a creature to be respected and treated sustainably. And maybe the collapse would never have occurred.

We can’t live in the past, but we do need to learn from our mistakes. We are creations of God, and this is a call to action, a call to live responsibly and ethically among other creatures also created and loved by God.

Now, you will have noticed in this talk I have ignored one thing: we are made in the image of God, and we are made to rule over the animals and the earth. No other creature has that right. So for all of our similarities with nature as creations, we are also separate. We will return to that tomorrow evening, when you will see that this separation actually reinforces our need to care for creation.

Closed by praying Psalm 104.

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