Note to the reader: I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 10, 2019 at University Church of the Nazarene, at the close of “Green Week” at Africa Nazarene University.
Text: Genesis 2:15 — “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.”
On my last birthday, my younger son gifted me with a black Cross™ pen. For me, it has sentimental value, besides being a sleek pen. Now suppose that Simon (the interpreter) had no pen, and asked to borrow mine. Then a week later, he brought it back to me. But instead of returning the pen to me as he found it, in good condition, it is badly scratched. The eraser is bitten off and the ink cartridge is missing. How would I feel? You’re right. I wouldn’t feel very good about it all!
OWNERS, OR STEWARDS?
God has loaned us something far more important than a pen. God as the owner of all creation has loaned us the Earth. It doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to God.
Psalm 24:1-2 (CEB) affirms:
The Earth is the LORD’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, too. Because God is the one who established it on the seas; God set it firmly on the waters.
Turn to your neighbor and say: “The earth is the Lord’s.”
If God is the owner, then what does that make us? We are the caretakers, the stewards.
This becomes clear in the second creation account. Michael Lodahl calls it the “worm’s eye view.” No longer is it the “bird’s eye view” of Genesis 1, with God high above the creation. In Genesis 2, God is down in the dirt. It is there that God creates the human being (Adam) after he had previously created everything else.
And now in Genesis 2:15, God – the owner of the trees and the birds, the animals and the fish – entrusts their care into the hands of the steward, the human being:
The LORD God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it (CEB).
To take care of something that belongs to someone else is called stewardship. We’re accustomed to hearing that word in relation to other things. Often, we say that our money, time, and talents are on-loan to us from God. In fact, 1 Corinthians 6:20 goes as far as to say that even our bodies belong to God:
You have been bought and paid for, so honor God with your body (CEB).
Yet we may forget that besides money, time, talents and our bodies, God has entrusted something else to us as stewards. God has entrusted to us the Earth. That’s why we speak of “Creation Care.”
Sadly, we have sometimes used the Bible as an excuse not to care for the Earth but to exploit it. The old King James Version of Genesis 1:28 speaks of “having dominion” over the Earth and “subduing” it. And historically, some took that as a license to exploit nature, to cut down trees without replanting, to pollute the Earth’s waters and foul its air. But modern translations are better. The New Living Translation says:
Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the seas, the birds in the sky, and the small animals that scurry along the ground – everything that has life. And that is what happened (Gen. 1:29-30, NLT).
To “govern” is not to exploit. God calls humans to practice good governance, a benevolent reign.
So there you have it. We are not the owners. God is the owner of the Earth. Turn to your neighbor and say: “God is the owner.”
AND GOD SAW THAT IT WAS “SUPREMELY GOOD”
We usually point to the last verse of Genesis 2 as a way to set human beings apart from the rest of the creation. It is true that only once human beings are created does God not only pronounce creation “good” (Genesis 1:12, 1:18, 1:25) but “supremely good” (Gen. 1:31, CEB). Yet the connection between humans and the rest of creation should not be lost. The first part of verse 31 says:
God saw everything he had made; it was supremely good (CEB, italics added).
It is not only human beings who are supremely good. He describes all of creation that way. We are part of what is supremely good, but not the sum total.
God sees great value in all of creation, from the largest of elephants to the tiniest of insects. Each has an important role to play even if we don’t often think about it.
ALL CREATION IS GROANING
In Romans 8:20, Paul says that all creation was “subjected to frustration.” In verse 22, he says that it is “groaning,” waiting to be set free from slavery and decay (v. 21).
Nature around the globe is under tremendous stress. One sign of that is the diminishing number of insects. When Amy and I were teenagers, we could drive with our families on a long trip. Every time we stopped for gas (petrol) you’d have to clean off the windshield (windsreen), there were so many bugs that had splattered against it. That was in the late 1970s. Is the same still the case today?
In Germany, the Krefeld Entomological Society has been measuring insect density for many years. They will go in the forest and set out net traps to see how many insects they can catch. Between 1989 and 2013, can anyone guess what percentage decline in insects they recorded?
The number of insects declined by 80%.
Similar experiments have been done in the forests of South America, where they’ve recorded a 60% decline. I don’t know what the figures are for sub-Saharan Africa, but wherever we are in the world, the fact remains that we need insects. Insects (including bees) are what pollinate our crops. The sukuma wiki and ugali that are the staples of our diet come from plants pollinated by flying insects and birds. What happens to birds when the number of insects decline? So do the number of birds, since birds eat insects. Scientists think that the insects are dying off in part because of the pesticides that we spray and also because the Earth’s temperature is rising due to carbon emissions from human beings. The rise in temperature means that insects are less fertile than they were.
But these are just insects and birds. How does that affect us? Sooner or later, it will. We must constantly be reminded what ecologists have long known:
To take care of nature is to take care of ourselves.
As Genesis 1:31 affirms, calling all of God’s creation “supremely good,” all of life on Earth is interconnected.
CALL TO ACTION
Walking across campus today, I found this empty water bottle that someone had just tossed aside. The least that we can do is place our bottles in the recycling bin. Here in Kenya, we’ve had a good start with reducing plastic waste. Today, if I came into the pulpit with a plastic shopping bag, I might get the chance to start a prison ministry! We all know that such plastic bags have been banned and you can be fined or imprisoned for having them. But we have a long way to go. We still need to find alternatives to plastic straws, for example. Plastic collects in our oceans, sometimes even killing off sea turtles that otherwise would have lived to be over 100 years old, older than most humans will live to be.
A few months ago, I came to church and saw that there was a large, hairy spider on the steps. Someone had discovered it while sweeping out the sanctuary. She was about to kill it, but I asked for her broom and instead swept it into a bush where it could harm no one. The pastor saw what I’d done and laughed. He told how they were taught as children to kill spiders. And for most of my life, that’s exactly what I’ve done, too. But maybe it’s time for us to rethink our actions. Spiders (even snakes) also have a God-given role to play on Earth. They, too, are part of our ecoystem that we share.
The late Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner from Kenya and founder of the Green Belt movement, was Roman Catholic. But in her book, Unbowed, she talks of when she was a little girl living near Mt. Kenya. The forests were thick and the water in the streams was pure. She blames (in-part) the coming of Christianity for changing how people thought about nature. With misunderstandings of verses like Genesis 1:28, people now exploited nature rather than taking care of it. If Wangari Maathai were to see Kenya again, what would she say? I would like to think that she would change her critique, that whatever Christians might have done before, that now she would see that we have a new attitude, that our outlook is different, more ecofriendly.
In Revelation 22:1-5, we discover something amazing. Not only did everything begin in a garden, as mentioned in Genesis 2. We are also headed for a garden, an urban garden in the New Jerusalem. A river with life-giving water runs through the city, and on each bank are trees of life which produce a crop every month. If we’re going to end up in a heavenly garden, shouldn’t we take care of the earthly one that God has already given us?
ONLY ONE EARTH
Last week, news sites released a stunning photo. A Chinese satellite caught a rare view of the back side of moon. We’re accustomed to seeing only one side since the moon does not rotate on its axis. But in this photo, what is more amazing that this rarely seen face of the moon is what appears in the right hand corner, almost like it’s photo-bombing the shot. Like a tiny blue marble, here is where we live. That’s the Earth. That’s our home. We only get one. Are we taking care of it?
Mrs. Crofford helped me rethink some of the words to the well-known chorus “This is the Day that the Lord has Made” (by Les Garrett, 1967). Let’s sing it together, as our commitment together going foward.
This is the Earth (2x)
That the LORD has made (2x)
Let us give thanks (2x)
And take care of it. (2x)
This is the Earth that the LORD has made.
Let us give thanks and take care of it.
This is the Earth (2x)
That the LORD has made.
Leaf — Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Adam and Eve — painting by Katherine Roundtree, via Pinterest
Moon and Earth — AMRAS/MingChuan Wei (HIT), CAMRAS, DK5LA, featured at NBCNews.com