Hope for all creation
Today we come to the end of our series for the Season of Creation, and we’re deviating from the principle that I set out at the start of the series, when I spoke about the challenge of taking the lectionary readings and trying to hear the voice of creation in texts where we would not normally look for them.
But today I picked the readings. Because I thought it was important that we finish this series with hope.
Because, let’s face it, the subject of the state of creation isn’t one that is normally filled with hope. The World Health Organisation has noted that the increasing degradation of ecosystems – through global temperate changes, deforestation, pollution of land, air, and water, loss of biodiversity, salination of arable land and so on – is having a measurable adverse effect on mental health and wellbeing.
An effect both direct and indirect. In a few weeks we’re going to be celebrating the work of Frontier Services. The Bush Chaplains of Frontier Services know all too well the deep mental health challenges arising from struggles with the environment – whether it be from the increasingly frequent and severe droughts, or from bushfire, or flooding; our partner Churches in the Pacific speak of the mental and physical stresses arising from depleted fish stocks, rising sea levels, and the salinization of once fertile land.
And climate anxiety, especially amongst youth and young adults, is such that both the Australian Psychological Society and the Australian Medical Association have identified it as a central mental health concern for the nation.
So, no, “hope” and “the state of creation” are not ideas that seem to go easily together.
But, as Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church: these three remain – faith, hope, and love.
I’ve been watching the Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” – there’s a scene in which the main character, Morpheus, faces Lucifer, who challenges him “I am the dark at the end of everything. The end of universes, gods, worlds… of everything. And what will you be then, Dreamlord?”. And, after a long silence, Morpheus replies simply “I am hope”.
Hope remains. But how?
Where do we find the hope that led Jeremiah to “buy the field of promise when the farm is sold”, as our opening hymn put it? The hope that persists despite the overwhelming forces that would overcome it?
Perhaps we should start just with something that hope isn’t. Hope isn’t denial, or ignorance. Hope doesn’t come from pretending the problem isn’t real, or serious. Addressing the World Economic Forum in 2019, Greta Thunberg said:
Adults keep saying, “We owe it to young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis.”
The hope that she argued was being offered to her generation, was a fake hope; a hope not based on a realistic assessment of the situation, or on actions that would reflect that realism – the sort of hope James condemns in his letter:
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
Hope is not burying your head in the sand and hoping the problem will go away. Jeremiah knew that the title to the field he bought was worthless, the land occupied by invaders. Hope wasn’t ignorant of that fact – hope bought the field anyway.
So where does our hope for creation come from? I’m going to suggest (and I really feel like I’m channelling Stuart here) that when it comes to hope and faith in the face of any crisis – whether personal or global – there are two extremes we need to avoid; each of which holds elements of truth, but both of which need to be held, acknowledging the tension in so doing.
The first of these poles, these extremes, is to base our hope on “God will fix it”. “God will fix it” takes two common forms in Christian thought. The first is often referred to as “Noah theology” – based on God’s promise at the end of the story of the flood – to never again destroy the world. It’s a theology understandably popular amongst those who have less power in the world: faced with impotence compared to nations and multinational interests it is appealing to simply say “but my God is bigger still”.
And the second “God will fix it” I think of as “Revelation theology”. This is the mindset that says there is no need to protect the environment, because Jesus will come back and replace it all with a new heaven and a new earth. This is a theology popular among the wealthy, for it absolves us of any responsibility to rein in our destructive over consumption.
And if “God will fix it” is one pole, the other is “Humanity will fix it”. That combination of arrogance and magical thinking that assumes future technological advances will enable us to repair any damage that we might be doing to the environment today.
Somewhere between those two poles, between the abdication of responsibility to reply solely on a miracle, and the arrogance of trusting solely in human ingenuity, lies a path that I think Paul is pointing us towards in Romans chapter 8.
Not that Paul was talking about our contemporary environmental issues. But he didn’t need modern science to see creation as being in pain. Subjected to futility. In bondage. Groaning. Waiting with eager longing.
But what creation is longing for is not a simple act of God, waving a metaphorical wand; nor is it the triumph of human activity. It isn’t just God, or just us.
Creation is waiting for the revealing of the children of God.
…the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God
It’s not God that creation is waiting for, and it’s not humanity – at least, not in and of themselves. Creation is waiting for humanity to be revealed for what they really are, or could be, should be, will be: unveiled as the children of God.
Creation is waiting eagerly for the time when we are finally seen to be what God always intended us to be: God’s children. Co-creators with God, stewards in partnership with God in the care of God’s creation. Waiting to see what God has been doing in and through humanity in the work of the salvation of all this.
The work of God in Jesus is the salvation of all things. For God so loved the world, Jesus said, that God gave God’s only son: but he didn’t say the “world” – he said “cosmos”. God so loved all creation that God gave God’s son.
Or, as Paul put it in the letter to the Church at Colossae: through Jesus God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
So to describe the waiting of creation, Paul writes:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now
Paul describes the suffering of creation as labour pains – something that will pass, and from which something amazing and new will come. Now I share with Paul the advantage of never having experienced labour pains; and I do wonder if a female author of his day, who had faced the significant dangers of pregnancy (it’s estimated that one in three women in Roman times, who reached childbearing age, died delivering a child) would have chosen the same image.
But the image is chosen because the pain of labour is a pain that comes with a hope, an expectation, a pain which is endured and is ultimately creative.
The hope for all of creation is not that God will just step in and fix everything; or sweep it all away and replace it with heaven and earth 2.0.
Nor is the hope for creation that humanity, in all its wisdom and creative genius will always be better at finding solutions than at creating problems – seriously, that’s not a bet I would take.
The hope for all creation is that what God has begun in and through and with us, what God has begun by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, that what God has begun will be revealed in its finished form. It is the
hope that the creation itself … will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God
The hope that creation will receive what we have been given.
It’s a Biblical principle I often refer to – that we are blessed so that we might bless others, loved that we might love, shown grace so that we might share it, set free so we can liberate others.
That is the hope for which creation is longing; that we, God’s children, will so reflect the glory God has given us; the love, grace, freedom that God has given us. That we will fulfill our calling, become who God has made us.
And that the whole of creation, the cosmos loved by God, will then reflect God’s glory.