Rev. Mark Schaefer
A sermon in The Other Six Days series
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 21, 2013
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Revelation 11:15-18
Genesis 1:1–2:4a • When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night.
There was evening and there was morning: the first day.
God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.” God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. And it happened in that way. God named the dome Sky.
There was evening and there was morning: the second day.
God said, “Let the waters under the sky come together into one place so that the dry land can appear.” And that’s what happened. God named the dry land Earth, and he named the gathered waters Seas. God saw how good it was. God said, “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.” And that’s what happened. The earth produced plant life: plants yielding seeds, each according to its kind, and trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was.
There was evening and there was morning: the third day.
God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will mark events, sacred seasons, days, and years. They will be lights in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth.” And that’s what happened. God made the stars and two great lights: the larger light to rule over the day and the smaller light to rule over the night. God put them in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was.
There was evening and there was morning: the fourth day.
God said, “Let the waters swarm with living things, and let birds fly above the earth up in the dome of the sky.” God created the great sea animals and all the tiny living things that swarm in the waters, each according to its kind, and all the winged birds, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was. Then God blessed them: “Be fertile and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.”
There was evening and there was morning: the fifth day.
God said, “Let the earth produce every kind of living thing: livestock, crawling things, and wildlife.” And that’s what happened. God made every kind of wildlife, every kind of livestock, and every kind of creature that crawls on the ground. God saw how good it was. Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”
God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. To all wildlife, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened. God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.
There was evening and there was morning: the sixth day.
The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation. This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
Revelation 11:15–18 • Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and he will rule forever and always.” Then the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshipped God. They said, “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and was, for you have taken your great power and enforced your rule. The nations were enraged, but your wrath came. The time came for the dead to be judged; The time came to reward your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.
In my preaching career, I’ve tried all kinds of different approaches to preaching. I’ve done the standard exegesis of a text. I’ve done first person sermons. I’ve even done a two-part conversation type of sermon using a telephone prop. But I’ve never really done a fire and brimstone kind of sermon. It was never my style.
But as I was thinking about the best way to approach a sermon about our stewardship of the earth and of the creation, I noticed this verse in the Book of Revelation: “The time came to reward your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.”
To destroy those who destroy the earth.
See, if I were a fire and brimstone preacher, that’d be where I’d start my Earth Day sermon: just start preaching that God would destroy those who destroy the earth. Strip mining? Mountaintop removal? Toxic waste dumping? Poisoning water supplies? Go right ahead, but eternal damnation awaits you for doing that! I could even entitle the sermon “Polluters in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Perhaps I should give that a try. It was my homiletics professor in seminary, after all, who said that the trick to preaching was “never do anything always.” So perhaps, just for the sake of mixing it up I should preach a fire and brimstone sermon. Mess with the earth, go to hell. And it’s right there in the Bible, too.
II. THE TEXT
The verse in the passage from Revelation that I mentioned is in the context of a series of trumpet blasts that herald the coming judgment. And here, the seventh trumpet blows and the kingdom of the world is declared to be the kingdom of our Lord and of his anointed. The judgment of the nations and the living and the dead will take place. The prophets, saints, and God-fearing will be rewarded but punishment and destruction awaits “those who destroy the earth.”
This is not the first time in the Bible that this state of affairs has taken place. In the story of the flood, the world is described as a place of universal sinfulness and lawlessness. So much so that God literally undoes the Creation. The creation that was made by dividing the primordial waters and hammering out the dome of sky is undone by allowing those same waters to rush back in through the windows of heaven and the fountains of the deep. In another sermon, I discussed how the major theme of that story is the undoing of the creation itself as the result of human sinfulness.
So, it would be tempting in light of these passages to preach a fire and brimstone sermon warning about the dire consequences of our sinful behavior. If we continue to sin against God’s creation we will have calamity rained down upon us, perhaps even the destruction of the world itself.
If you have any doubts as to whether we could in fact destroy the world through our sin, the story of the development of the atomic bomb should give you a clue. When the scientists were about to test the atom bomb, there was a debate as to whether the chain reaction that would be initiated would merely extend to the fissile material of the bomb itself, or whether it would continue with every atom in the universe. That is, they weren’t sure whether they would just make a really big explosion or whether they would blow up the entire world. And they set it off anyway.
But we needn’t look to the past to see evidence of this. We here in this time and place have seen the effects on our world of pollution of air and water, the devastation caused by deforestation, the violent changes in the weather owing to rising ocean temperatures and unprecedented high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We have seen hurricanes in October hitting New Jersey and New York City. We have seen violent weather in ways never encountered before. Those of us who were around last summer learned a new word—derecho—for the violent line of thunderstorms that swept through our region in about 30 minutes, transforming a calm summer evening into a wind-swept night of downed powerlines and deaths from falling trees. We have seen winters that are abnormally warm and when snowy dump feet of snow from an atmosphere carrying much more moisture than usual.
There’s enough fire and brimstone in the news that we don’t need to look it up in the Bible. And to be honest, as much as it would be fun to preach a sermon like that, I generally don’t think that fear should be the motivator for Christians who preach a message of God’s love and grace.
No, there should be a different reason for us to care for the creation.
III. CREATION AND NEW CREATION
The Book of Revelation is a powerful text. In it we encounter admonitions for a persecuted Christian community, facing a hostile world of violence and pain. The churches to whom John of Patmos writes are told to endure patiently and to wait; God is coming soon. And God will set everything right.
Now, the visions are at times fantastic, and the declaration of God’s coming judgment is strongly made. Interestingly, the final war between good and evil is never described; it is enough to know that God wins in the end. But the culmination of the entire narrative is found in the 21st chapter of the book, when the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven and we are told that God will dwell with the people.
It is a powerful passage, and one often read at funerals because it describes the wiping away of every tear. But what often goes unnoticed by most Christians is the setting of this final act in history. The story takes place here.
That is, the end game of the Christian story is not in some heaven light-years away or in some other plane of existence. The culmination to our story is here: in the creation redeemed.
One of the biggest problems I have with the idea of the Rapture (other than the fact that it is not at all Biblical), is that it is a theology of abandonment. It is the idea that the best a Christian can hope for is to abandon the world. But the Book of Revelation doesn’t see it that way. The Book of Revelation sees our hope as being about the redemption and restoration of the world by God. Our destiny is not to abandon the earth; it is to live in it, renewed and redeemed.
This, by the way, is the theology of the movie WALL-E. In that movie, humanity has abandoned the earth because of overpollution. They have left behind a team of robots to clean up the mess while they live in fat, lazy luxury aboard cruise-liner styled starships near a giant nebula (not unlike the clouds that heaven is always assumed to consist of). But in the end, their salvation is not in the clouds; it is on earth, in the work or restoring the planet and creating new life. I mean, Peter Gabriel even tells us as much in the song that runs over the closing credits: “We’re coming down to the ground…”
All of this is to say that if God is portrayed as destroying those who destroy the earth it is because intends to redeem the earth, which in turn means that the earth is important to God.
The creation matters. It is not the case, as a former Secretary of the Interior opined, that since the end of the world is coming soon there’s no need to protect the environment. It is actually precisely the opposite. Because we expect the end, we begin to live into that reality by living in ways that reflect what that reality will be like. And so, if God loves the creation, then we should love the creation, too. We should take the destruction of the earth as seriously as it appears God does.
The Book of Genesis was not the first book of the Bible written and the Book of Revelation was not the last book written. But we encounter them where we do for a reason: those who compiled the scriptures believed that we should encounter the stories in this way. We should encounter Genesis first and Revelation last. And there is for us a beautiful symmetry in doing so. For we begin with Creation and end with New Creation. We start with an affirmation of the God-createdness of the world and we end with a demonstration of God’s plan to redeem, restore, and renew the world.
Where the world winds up has everything to do with where the world started. And in Genesis, we read of a lovingly crafted world, fashioned out of grace and love, not out of violence as the worlds of the pagan gods were. We read of an order to creation, a rhythm and a harmony, that suggest purpose and meaning. And we read of the creation described repeatedly as “good.” Of our creation in the image of God, given responsibility for the creation of God. In the second creation story found in the second chapter of Genesis, the human being is created in order to be the gardener for the creation. And so we have a story of the origins of the world, created in goodness, and our role as steward and tender of the creation.
In Revelation, we see the vision of that creation perfected. The world redeemed and restored to its pristine wonder. An affirmation that God does not abandon the creation but abides with it. Faithful to it. Caring for it.
And thus so should we. We might talk about a whole manner of reasons that we as Christians should care about the environment. There are the self-interested ones ranging from wanting to have a nice place to live to ensuring that we have a sustainable world to pass on to succeeding generations. There are the reasons pertaining to fear of punishment, either from a divine retribution or to the consequences of our own misdoings coming back upon us.
But the reason we care about the environement is because of what we are called to do: to be witnesses to resurrection. See, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the sign that the Kingdom of God is being inaugurated in our midst. The sign that the world is in the process of transformation. The world being remade into the vision we encounter in the Book of Revelation. Our task, then, is to testify to that vision by living into the Kingdom in the here and now. If God’s plan is to redeem and renew the creation, then we act now as those who care about the creation. We demonstrate God’s fidelity to the world by demonstrating our fidelity to all living things, ensuring that we care for the world in which we live. We demonstrate God’s vision for the creation by living out that vision through preserving habitats, ensuring clean drinking water, providing agriculture that does not deplete the soil, and ensuring that the byproducts of our industry do not poison the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the soil we need to survive. Our attitude toward the environment should not be one out of self-interest or fear, but out of the same love and generosity that God has demonstrated to the world itself.
If we do this right, we shall be accounted among the righteous and no more will we fear becoming those who destroy the earth.