Creation, Exile, and the Pandemic

Inspired by our chapel series last fall called “Hope of All Creation,” I have been increasingly interested in how the creation itself reflects the actions of God and the relationship between humanity and God in the Bible.

One idea I wanted to explore is the way in which the good news of Jesus is not just about redeeming human souls, but all of creation. The entire cosmos will be restored to right relationship with God. Paul beautifully describes this cosmic hope found in Christ:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation 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 in labor pains 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. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:18-25

With any eye towards the “universal restoration” (Acts 3:21) promised in the gospel, I am curious how creation imagery in the Bible reveals a broader picture of God’s creative actions. Our theology often emphasizes the relationship between God and humanity to the exclusion of humanity’s relationship with creation and God’s relationship with creation. In an age of unprecedented climate change that threatens the well-being of the vulnerable throughout the world, I believe it is crucially important to highlight these relationships in our faith communities, drawing from a deep well of biblical ideas about creation.

The book of Isaiah is filled with creation imagery that reflects God’s intentions and the people of Israel. The prophet sings a love song depicting the nation of Israel as a vineyard that produced the wild grapes of injustice and bloodshed (5:1-7), but will one day make peace together with God (27:2-6) and “fill the whole world with fruit” (27:6). God’s salvation will be known in all the earth (11:9, 12:5; c.f. Hab 2:14) by way of a Messianic seed: “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (11:1).

One key text that discusses the state of creation in response to social injustice is the so-called “apocalypse of Isaiah” (ch. 24), in which the economic and social upheaval present in Israel (24:1-3) associated with the destruction of the environment:

“The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.”

Isaiah 24:4-5

I’d argue that, in most of the Old Testament prophets, the state of creation seems to reflect the relationship between God and God’s people. In our time, human-made climate change, brought about by needless consumption (and made possible by exploiting the poor), has ravaged the environment. In this way our world is experiencing “ecological consequences” of injustice, which are found throughout the book of Isaiah.

Without downplaying the devasting human impact of Covid-19, I believe that the pandemic can lead us to reflect on our relationship with the environment. Recently scientists have noticed an unprecedented drop in C02 emissions as much of the industrialized world “shelters in place” to control the spread of the pandemic. According to the historian of 2Chronicles, one purpose of the exile was “to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.” (20:31) In other words, while the people are not presents (and are away in exile), the land itself is finally able to rest after Israel had neglected the commandment to care for the land (observing a weekly Sabbath rest).  I am struck by the parallel.

As we come to terms with the destruction of the environment, we lament. We might be inspired by the language of the prophets, who personify land that “mourns” the exile (Hosea 4:3, Jer 12:4) In the NRSV Bible, Joel 1 has the header “Lament over the Ruin of the Country” and plainly observes that “the fields are devastated, the ground mourns; for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails”(Joel 1:10). In my estimation, all of the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible (save, perhaps, Obadiah and Daniel) describe the destruction of the earth. If the exile (the subject of the prophets) is about a fall from grace due to social injustice, then injustice and the destruction of the earth are deeply intertwined.

Through sharing the gospel, Christians see themselves as being agents in God’s plan for the redemption of humanity. But I wonder how much “building the kingdom” also involves caring for creation.  I am currently reading The Green Gospel which seeks to provide an agricultural context to the time of Jesus and how this might prompt us to redesign food systems to be more sustainable and equitable.  

Despite the destruction evident from exile, the hope of the gospel spreads further, to the far reaches of the cosmos:

  • “By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.” (Psalm 65:5)
  • “For in [Christ] 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.” (Col 1:19-20)
  • Like the lovers in the Song of Songs, in which creation is animated by love and mutuality, we long for the day when “the flower appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (2:12).

Perhaps one of the most poignant messages of hope for our time is expressed in Habakkuk 3. Despite destruction during the Bible and destruction now, God’s saving work continues:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.”

Hab 3:17-19

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Hope for all Creation: Ezekiel 47

As part of our chapel series on Hope for all creation, I gave the following short reflection on Ezekiel 47:1-12.

While I have grown to love the book of Ezekiel, I often find it strange. And this passage, despite the beautiful image of life-giving water that it presents, is no exception. It is filled with odd repetitions and details. Why does it matter to us, the readers, which directions the water is coming from? Why are we given measurements?

Going back a few chapters in Ezekiel, there are more measurements. Measurements of doors and walls and rooms and instructions for priests. These chapters look like building instructions for a temple, and many people over the centuries have interpreted it that way. If we build the temple, then Christ will return – and the vision presented here of the water that gives life – will finally come true. It’s one interpretation of Ezekiel 43, which says that these words are written so that people might be ashamed and turn to God, and then they must follow these instructions. And God will dwell among them. And who of us doesn’t want God to dwell among us?

I find something deeply appealing in the idea that maybe – if we just follow this formula or these instructions – then everything will be the way it should be. The water of life, as depicted in this passage, will overflow: “the fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”

Except experience and history have taught us that God cannot be contained or controlled. I – we – cannot do enough to make and ensure God will come to dwell among us. Any effort we might make to build the temple pictured here actually can’t work: the text doesn’t give building materials, the dimensions are too large to fit on the temple mound, and probably most noticeable, it’s lacking a roof. The temple isn’t meant to be built. It isn’t meant to be one more thing to do; instead it’s a vision of what already is. It’s a vision that is calling us to turn to God, to turn away from our own efforts to control God – or even try to control and run the world around us. The temple is a vision of God’s presence and another reiteration of God’s repeated refrain throughout Ezekiel – I will be your God and you will be my people. I will dwell among you.

God will dwell among us because that’s what God does. God dwells among us. Genesis 1 tells the story of creation but many scholars recognize that the language is more than just a description of the world coming into being. It is a description of a world that has been formed as a temple: God’s temple where God dwells. Since creation, God has dwelt among us, inviting us to see God through the beauty and power and wonder that creation instills in us.

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s presence was shown to the Israelites through the temple in their midst, but God’s presence was hardly contained to the temple. And this vision of a new temple here in Ezekiel makes that even more clear: no roof, after all, could hold God’s presence when God’s presence is throughout all of creation.

Because God’s presence is not always obvious, despite the beauty of creation, God came among us in the form of Jesus, and today God is present with us in the Holy Spirit. And we can take great comfort that it is not on the basis of our own efforts that God dwells among us, but simply because that is who God is. It is part of how God formed creation. And since then we have been given many gracious reminders of God’s presence: a vision of life to its fullness, full of the water of life.

Creation or evolution: what Christians can agree on

A somewhat recent article in Christianity Today highlighted some of the things that Christians can agree on in terms of how the world came into being, irrelevant of their position on whether God formed the world more through creation or evolution. Todd Wilson provides “ten theses on creation and evolution that we believe (most) evangelicals can (mostly) affirm.” The following are a few of those theses:

  • the doctrine of creation “addresses some of the fundamentals of our faith—the reason for and nature of the world God has made, as well as the reason for and nature of the creatures God has made, not least those creatures made in God’s image.”
  • “Whatever Scripture teaches is to be believed as God’s instruction, without denying that the human authors of Scripture communicated using the cultural conventions of their time.”
  • Genesis 1-2 is “historical in nature, rich in literary artistry, and theological in purpose.”
  • “There is no final conflict between the Bible rightly understood and the facts of science rightly understood. God’s “two books,” Scripture and nature, ultimately agree. Therefore Christians should approach the claims of contemporary science with both interest and discernment, confident that all truth is God’s truth.

Last of all, Wilson argues that “The Christian faith is compatible with different scientific theories of origins, from young-earth creationism to evolutionary creationism, but it is incompatible with any view that rejects God as the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Christians can (and do) differ on their assessment of the merits of various scientific theories of origins,” even moving to the point where more Christians are now okay with saying that God used evolution to form the world as noted by another recent Christianity Today article.

Because there are so many differing views on origins, Wilson argues that Christians should be humble about how they approach their own understanding of the formation of the world (and how they dialogue with others about it). As a pastor, I wish this last point was something all Christians would be willing to acknowledge, especially as I think too many people have been hurt by not doing so.