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

Pandemic reflections

This has been a strange summer. The global pandemic has forced faith communities around the world to find new ways to “be the church.” I believe that this time can transform and grow us as followers of Jesus if we accept the invitation.

When the pandemic gained momentum in the United States I became curious about theological lenses  for viewing this unique time. I attended a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Veritas Forum called Coronavirus & Quarantine: What Big Questions Can We Be Asking?  I was inspired by the idea that the Judeo-Christian narrative makes meaning out of suffering by attaching it to “a narrative of redemption.” They discussed this idea in the context of the theological journey of Israel in exile and Jesus’s own plea, “let this cup pass from me” (Matt 26:39). One speaker suggested that “lament is the seedbed of creativity.” In other words, how can the limitations and pain of social distancing spark creative ideas for connection?

During the pandemic we feel distant and disconnected. We find joy from phone calls, socially distant gatherings and perhaps more time with loved ones. But relying on fleeting bits of connection is not God’s intention for humanity. We are meant to live in community: to be with and beside people, to perform acts of kindness and generosity. We long for the ability to connect with people again, in more fulfilling ways. During the pandemic I have wondered how our angst during the social distancing might be parallel to the eschatological hope that God will make all things new. We see only fragments of God’s rule and reign a care for humanity and creation. We long for God to make all things new through the resurrection of Jesus, until that day when we relationships  between God, humanity and creation are fully restored, sustained by the river of life and the tree of life, whose leaves are for “the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2).

A closely related lens for the pandemic is that of apocalypse. As in every generation, Christians identify current catastrophes with images in Revelation or even claiming it as God’s judgement. But the word apocalypse does not mean “the end of the world”. This is a modern misunderstanding, particularly in American Christianity. Scholars Tim Mackie explains that the Greek word for “apocalypse” means “uncover or reveal—to make something visible”.  Thinking about an apocalypse as an unveiling of things that were previously hidden forces us to acknowledge buried realities that have come to light (Luke 8:17). In the United States, the reality of systemic racism has become more apparent by the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on communities of color and rampant police brutality, both of which have stamped out Ruach Elohim, the breath of God.  According to John the visionary the blood of all who are unjustly murdered will be accounted for (Rev 18:24). In this way, we see apocalypses as opportunities to “pull back the veil” and more fully understanding of underlying realities and pursue justice.

I have come to see that the Gospel, the good news about Jesus is inherently political. The word “politics” means “the affairs of the city” and deals in the welfare of its people. The Old Testament prophets had harsh words for those perpetuating systemic injustice: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees” (Isa 10:1). Jesus spoke about God’s government – the kingdom of heaven – more than any other topic: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)  I believe Jesus’s jubilee mission to free the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19) presents a marching order for white Christians to pursue racial reconciliation.

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

What to expect at MSU this fall

Masks, social distancing, and a lot of encouragement to keep yourself and others safe are all part of what we can expect as we move back to campus in a little over a month.

MSU has put together a compact that they are asking all those who are part of the MSU community to agree to. It begins with the acknowledgement that, “In return for being part of the MSU community, by this Compact, I am taking personal responsibility in order to protect the health and safety of myself and others.” Furthermore, “I acknowledge the risks of COVID-19 and returning to campus, and I acknowledge that I will do my part to protect myself and others.”

Playing our part means wearing masks, both inside and outside, physical distancing, self-monitoring for symptoms, and practicing extra hygiene and healthy safety measures. Further details on what exactly that all means are found online as part of the MSU Initiative of ‘Together We Will’ and ‘Keeping Spartans safe.’

Please pray for all those affected by the university’s plans for the fall:

  • Students who are making decisions of whether they will be coming back to campus or learning remotely (if that’s even possible – and if not how to do so in a way that’s best);
  • Administrators making decisions about what is good for as many people as possible
  • Professors pondering how best to teach – online, in-person, and everything in between;
  • All of us anxious about the well-being of everyone in the MSU community, whether that be physical or mental health, or even managing the challenges of so much uncertainty.
  • All those of us who minister to and encourage those at the university.