Psalm 104 (selected readings)
Ecological activist and author Bill McKibben suggests that “environmental devastation stands as the single great crisis of our time, surpassing and encompassing all others.”[I] If he’s correct, or even close to being correct, then Psalm 104 may be more important now than in all its centuries of existence. In a word, McKibben’s proposal for beginning to move toward solutions through Creation Justice is this: “Humility, first and foremost.”[ii]
Psalm 104 puts humankind, as it were, “in its place.” To be sure, biblically speaking, humanity occupies a special place in the created order, but not the only place! Psalm 104 is an eloquent reminder that we human beings share our space with a vast array of God’s “works,” including an “earth … full of [God’s] creations,” Humility then, lays at the heart of the Psalm that we have before us.
And it is with a humble spirit that we are invited to approach one of the Psalmist’s greatest creation poems. Psalm 104 reminds its early readers and us still today, that the Bible has a deep interest in the wondrous creation of God. And this is an important reminder, especially in this time of environmental peril and continued cosmic destruction.
When I was in elementary school, we paid very little attention, if any, to matters of the environment. I do remember, however, the first time we observed Earth Day in our school. We went out to the “back-forty” and planted trees, which was a good thing, but it was also an all-too-brief time concern. Other concerns crowded saving the planet out of our minds. Our newly planted forest became just a backdrop to a newly-constructed baseball field.
Society seemed to forget also. The “Me-Generation” of the 1980s, the rise of non-state terrorism in the ’90s, culminating in the attacks of 9/11. We were, of course, concerned about and aware of all those crucial events, and rightly so. But all the while the environment and this emerging understanding of global climate change, got very little attention from Western Culture as a whole.
But, a few years back, something interesting began to happen. Some of us in the faith community, clergy and lay alike, began to understand climate change as a theological and as a justice issue. We began to understand that this planet, and all that lives upon it, are beloved by God. We began to understand that while climate change is a problem that will affect all of us, it will devastate the poor of this world disproportionately. And we began to understand that if we, being the good people of this earth that we are; that if we do nothing, then, as Edmund Burke warned, “evil will triumph.”
Unfortunately, more broadly, the Church still paid very little attention to climate change and ignored the Biblical mandate to care for creation. I read somewhere that this was because pagan devotion, as found among the Canaanites, the Babylonians, and the Egyptians of the ancient world, was focused on nature. Their centeral theme was on the changing seasons, and the life-giving or life-threatening weather that these seasons produced. So, in an attempt to “not-be-like-them” it was concluded that the Israelites should primarily worship a God of history, the One who saved Israel from exile, and who finally, through the new covenant, gave humanity the gift of Jesus. All good things! But as a result of this historical focus, nature was reduced to a backdrop in the human saga.
But here we are in 2019 and the landscape is changing, quite literally. So, it’s time now to shelve this truncated idea about God’s relationship to nature. God is not only the creator of human beings, but God created the whole world; its plants, its hills and forests and oceans, its wild and domesticated creatures, everything! That’s why this “updated” way of thinking is called a cosmic understanding of God. Cosmic in the sense that God is in, around, and through all things.
Now, we don’t have to look very far to see that the Bible reinforces this idea. Let me give you some examples. Do you remember John 3:16? John’s famous football verse that seems to flash between the goalposts at every NFL game. Well, John 3:16 isn’t only about you and me. In fact, the most accurate Greek rendering of that verse is, “God so loved the cosmos that God sent God’s only son in order that all might be ‘made whole’ again.” And it’s no coincidence that we find this same cosmic concern in Paul’s epistles to the Romans and the Colossians. And even in the final chapter of infamous Book of Revelation we see the natural world play a primary role.
Which leads us back to Psalm 104. It’s a virtual catalogue of the wonders of Divine creation. It’s a cosmic overview of the world’s wind and water, and plants and animals; from birds, to cattle to mountain storks, and of course – goats. Goats are awesome!
Annie Dillard, the author of a wonderful book called A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, says that “God, loves pizzazz!” I like that thought. Indeed, God loves, adores creation, all of it, all the clacking and the buzzing, the whistling and the howling, the shouting, the laughing and the weeping, and yes, the pizzazz of it all. And so should we.
If we are to help save our aching earth, if we are to repent, which literally means “turn around”, and make the necessary life-changes to begin to restore this beautiful creation that we have been blessed with, then we must first love it, as God loves it.
Do you remember when God said to Job, in a glorious, but at the same time, frustrated response, “It is not all about you, Job! It is about mountain goats, (there’s goats again) and ravens, and even ostriches.” You see, Job had demanded that God execute Job’s version of justice, and God’s response was, “Have a look at my ostrich!” Now, even though it might seek like God’s answer came out-of-left-field, it actually didn’t. I think it’s important that we all take a longer look at God’s ostrich, at God’s soil, at God’s mountains. And we must love them all. Because if we don’t, God’s great gift of creation will wither, and retreat, and dry up, and we will have destroyed our home. [iii]
One final thought, climate change is a local issue and it’s a global issue; it’s an individual issue requiring a personal response, but it’s also a community issue, calling for a unified voice of responsibility. Unfortunately, global climate change has also become a political issue, and therefore by definition in our time, a divisive issue.
But, even so, the time to deny climate change is now past. There’s no debate on whether global climate change exists and whether or not humanity has played a significant role in causing these changes, it does and we have! So, instead of denying the problem it seems to me that we should face it head-on. The actual debate should be “who will go the furthest?” Who can go the farthest in working to transition our society to new forms of energy, and methods of production in both manufacturing and agricultural settings? Who will go the furthest in changing their everyday living habits? Who will come up with the most innovative and imaginative ideas about how to move forward? Who will honor God, and God’s creation by loving the earth? And finally, who will restore hope to our grandchildren and our grandchildren’s children? The question is finally rests with each of us my friends, and the question is this: “How far will you go?”
Amen and the people of God said, Amen.
[i] Bill McKibben, The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2005), 15.
[ii] Ibid. 32
[iii] John Hobart. A Song for Creation (www.pathos.com) 2011