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The Earth is the Lord’s: Restore It!

The Creation Care Preaching Challenge submissions are in! Watch Do Justice this week to read more submissions. Thank you to everyone who participated for helping us to reflect on the Bible's teachings about creation care. 

Texts: Colossians 1:15-20, Psalm 24 

The Earth Is Broken

When I was in college, I had a professor who stressed the total depravity of humankind. He would warn his students about Hollywood catchphrases that celebrated “the triumph of the human spirit”. This was code for human arrogance and pride which stood against God himself and sought to assert itself over and against God’s rule in the world. In those early, formative years, I was thoroughly schooled in the pervasive nature of human sin and how it stains every molecule of human experience. I learned that we were, if nothing else, completely and utterly broken. I have to say, though, that this doctrine of total depravity was not applied to the rest of creation as much as it was to the human condition. Sure, the Bible teaches that all of creation was stained by human sin but it was never taught that the same shattered condition that I have to confront is shared by this world.

When I was in college, I had a professor who stressed the total depravity of humankind.

What I’ve learned since, though, is that if earth care is to be a priority then one must be convinced of the “total depravity” of the earth itself. We know the biblical record on this from Genesis 3 where God pronounces sin’s curse on the ground to Romans 8 where Paul says that the world is groaning as in the pains of childbirth as it waits for in eager expectation for the restoration of all things. I came across a quote from renowned New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce, who said, “the universe has been involved in conflict with its Creator and needs to be reconciled to him; the conflict must be replaced by peace.” This is a profound understanding of the effects of human sin – that even the universe challenges the rule of God in Christ Jesus and stands in need of restoration.

Of course, too, there’s the historical record of the earth which reels from the effects of human sin. These effects are documented in new and disturbing ways all the time. The Associated Press just put out an article about research which has determined that pollution from diesel vehicles globally is 50% higher than levels shown in government lab tests. The human cost to this pollution translates to 38,000 more deaths from soot and smog in 2015 than what was originally thought. Over half of these deaths took place in India and China where regulations on diesel emissions are not tightly controlled. This is just one study about one particular form of pollution but we know from recent headlines that the earth suffers the effects of total depravity in grave ways. Whether it’s stories about polluted drinking water in Flint, Michigan or melting glaciers in the Arctic, there’s no questioning that the earth is truly broken.

It matters when, as the church of Jesus Christ, we confess that our world is broken and is being restored in Jesus’ name and for the glory of God.

Think about how restoration matters so urgently to those who are convinced that, apart from Jesus Christ, they are completely and irreparably broken because of their sin. When we know the extent of our brokenness, we come very quickly to the conclusion that we need the Savior because of the restoration found only in him. When these same dynamics of redemption are applied to the creation, we become convicted of the desperate need of the Savior’s restoration for our world. We know that the matter is urgent and not just a subtitle in the story of God’s redemption through Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul says (Col. 1:20), what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ is the restoration of “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” Even more, when know that our world is broken and that Jesus restores it, we get serious about our role as vice-regents in this world who are commissioned in Christ to be agents of reconciliation and shalom. We take on an active role in extending the restorative work that God has won through Christ our Lord. It matters when, as the church of Jesus Christ, we confess that our world is broken and is being restored in Jesus’ name and for the glory of God.

Restoration Is Reality

I say this because it’s very easy to slip into a theology of caring for the earth that’s moralistic. We end up saying things like, “We really should be concerned for the environment because that’s a responsibility God has given us.” This is true enough but it’s not very compelling. There are a lot of things that we SHOULD be doing but we don’t always do them. After all, there’s only so much we can get to! Saying that we should be stewards of creation leaves us either with a guilty conscience because we aren’t doing it or with just more work to be doing because that’s what we should be doing. But if we begin with Jesus then we discover that the restoration of all things is reality and that it’s being worked out in us and in our world. We have this theology for people who follow Jesus because we say that we are being “sanctified” by the Holy Spirit. We don’t say that we should be restored as sinners but that we ARE restored because of the risen and ascended Christ. This same truth holds for the creation which is being restored to God and to us through the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. The restoration of our world IS the reality because of Jesus Christ! It’s not a “maybe” or a “could be” or a “should be”; instead, it’s a FACT of God’s redemptive work in Christ and it IS being worked out, one way or another.

The restoration of our world IS the reality because of Jesus Christ!

The concept of “fact-checking” gets used a lot in today’s political climate; but what if we take Colossians 1 and used it like a fact checker? I’ll just read through Colossians 1:15-20 as if it were fact-checking; you can follow along if you like.

FACT: Jesus is the image of the invisible God and the firstborn over all creation. That is, Jesus is the God-Man who is the only being/creature/thing in this entire world that is without sin’s brokenness and, as such, he is singularly qualified to be both Savior and Lord of creation.

FACT: All things were created in Christ Jesus and all things hold together in him.

FACT: All things, whether on heaven or earth, are reconciled through Jesus Christ. These facts bring us to the unmistakable conclusion that the restoration of our world is our reality and not just a secondary possibility. Another quote from F.F. Bruce shows that he reached the same conclusion: “Everything in the universe has been subjected to Christ even as everything was created by him.”

Stewardship Is Ours

Stewardship of the earth isn’t a new concept. We’ve had this theology a long time. But in order to move away from being just moralistic about stewardship, we must begin with the rule of Jesus Christ in our lives and our world. We must see as the psalm writer does that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1). Even further, we must see that, as restored image bearers of God, we serve as vice-regents in this world. What this means is that, in Jesus’ name, we extend the rule of Christ in our world and with his authority take up the work of restoring a broken world. Earth stewardship isn’t just something we can choose to do if we feel like it; instead, the work belongs to us. It’s what the Apostle Paul calls (Phil. 2:12) “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.” We can’t escape this work because it’s built into our very identity as those who belong to Christ. In fact, restoring our broken world is what it means to be saved! It’s what forgiveness looks like!

We’ve had this theology a long time.

The Apostle Paul puts the restoration of all things in terms of peace-making (Col. 1:20). By means of the shed blood of Christ, we are restored to make peace with the world that we inhabit. This is a fascinating concept and one that I’m still trying to work out. What I know about peacemaking is that, in the first place, all peace (shalom) belongs to Jesus Christ who has restored us back to our God, to one another, and to our world. Secondly, I know that all peacemaking requires the work of forgiveness and the establishing of justice. For example, after the abolition of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, a Truth & Reconciliation Commission was established so that both the victims and the perpetrators of apartheid could tell their stories and receive either vindication or amnesty. A pathway to peace in South Africa would not be possible without a way for the mechanics of forgiveness and restoration to be worked out. In the same way, neither is a pathway to peace with the creation possible without actively pursuing forgiveness and restoration. Pollution and wasteful squandering of the earth’s resources must be named and repentance must quickly follow. New habits of conservation and efficiency must be learned, practiced, and shared. Making peace with our world means that we pursue climate justice, which has to do with restoring what’s been lost and giving a voice to that which cannot speak for itself. It means speaking up for and acting on behalf of the air, water, earth, and creatures that we steward as vice regents in Jesus’ name.

Making peace with our world means that we pursue climate justice which has to do with restoring what’s been lost.

We miss the heart of the gospel if redemption is just an algebraic formula for theology. If being redeemed is just “Jesus + the Cross = I’m forgiven” then we miss the transformation of living out forgiveness. Actively stewarding and even fighting for the creation is a way for Jesus’ followers to BE ministers of reconciliation in a world that’s clearly hurting. We have been given this place and even this time to demonstrate that our God is forever tied to the work of his hands through Jesus Christ. We do this by being tied to the creation as advocates and stewards. Redemption isn’t just songs about the “sweet bye-and-bye”; instead, it’s intimately tied to the here and to the now; to flesh and blood; to dirt and water and air. The whole world belongs to our God through the rule of Jesus Christ. We live in it to extend that rule down to every grain of sand and every blade of grass.

Praises to the Triune God. Praises to the Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. Praises to our God who redeems and restores us and our world both now and forevermore. Amen. 

[Image: Flickr user Bernat Casero]

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