The First Earth Day
Text: Revelation 5
Some politicians adamantly deny the reality of “climate change” today, while adamantly demand that we address the problem before it is too late. For Christians, though, caring for creation has never been an issue; it is written into our biblical and theological DNA.
Open the first pages of Scripture and you will hear about the first Earth Day, “God created humankind in God’s image . . . God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’."
Sadly, over the centuries, some Christians have read “have dominion” as God-given permission to ignore our responsibilities to the created world, to consume all we want as if it were our God-given right, to strip large tracks of land in the most fragile environmental areas because they are desirable, to dump untoward amounts of carbon into already polluted air because it costs too much to retrofit our businesses and homes, to use the world’s waterways as collecting pools for plastic because who will ever notice, to engage in unchecked land development because it is our patriotic right. When we do all these things, not only do we endanger the planet given to us for our care, we violate a sacred trust from God.
I wish I could say that I learned to be a good steward of God’s creation in church. I didn’t. I rarely heard anything about caring for creation in Sunday School room or from the pulpit. My environmental awareness began with my high school biology teacher, Mr. Garvin, whose love for creation was contagious. My care for creation grew when I met the late Dr. William Mellon, a ridiculously rich disciple of Jesus who was told by Albert Schweitzer to go use his gifts in Haiti.
Mr. Garvin road his bike to class back in the 70s when gas was cheap. He also taught most of our classes outside and introduced us to flora and fauna, animals, and the water and air with which humans co-exist. While visiting with Dr. Mellon in the village of Deschapelles, I unconsciously swatted a mosquito on my arm. He stopped his speech to our group, looked directly at me, and told me with clarity and conviction, “Young man, please do not do that.” “Do what?” I responded innocently. “Kill one of God’s creatures.” I can’t say that at that embarrassing moment I was immediately converted to Dr. Mellon’s view of creation, but I was reminded of the fragile interdependence of all living things.
Fast forward almost fifty years later and the Presbyterian church is beginning to think folks like Mr. Garvin and Dr. Mellon were not so odd. On the church calendar published by our denomination, there is even an italicized notation at the bottom of April 23 that celebrates this Sunday as “Earth Day.”
While most Christians who observe “Earth Day” turn to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, for their inspiration, I recommend that we turn to the last book. Yes, I am aware that the book of Revelation has often been the landing pad for loonies who don’t give one whit for all things created. Their sights are heaven bound and whatever happens to this earth is of minor consequence. These loonies will tell you that the earth is on the way out, so why make all this fuss about saving it? If earth is on the way out, then why not drill wherever we can recover one more drop of precious oil? Why not produce what is the cheapest and creates the biggest profit and stop fretting about its impact on species of animals that we can’t even see with the naked eye?
There is another way to read Revelation, though, that leads us to treasure and to be loving stewards of God’s creation. In the final chapters of Revelation, we read about a vision of the first Genesis garden now well-tended. It is a vision that holds out hope of God’s dream realized, a vision of a world where children are not shot because they push the wrong doorbell, a vision where atrocities do not happen with haunting frequency in Ukrainian villages, a vision where world leaders do not speak of such nonsense as a “limited” nuclear strike, a vision where the sky glistens as if it were sprinkled with glitter because all the pollutants are gone, a vision where the smallest and most obscure bush lives joyfully with the largest and most dominant animal.
The text for today, though, happens long before the final vision in Revelation. In today’s text, bombs are still exploding, guns are still sounding, species are still endangered, and the air still creates asthma in too many children.
Chapter Five begins in a time about which you and I are all too familiar, a time of lament. No one in heaven or earth is worthy to break the seal, to open the scroll that will unfold what the future holds. Finally, a mighty lion appears only to morph into a slain lamb, and this apparent weakling has more strength than any creature in heaven and earth. This slaughtered creature is the only one capable of opening the scroll to reveal God’s future.
All that is fine and curious, but what do these ancient, cryptic convolutions have to do with Earth Day 2023? In Revelation, there is an ongoing battle between the powers of the world and the power of God. Revelation never underestimates the power of evil at work in us and in the world. The powers of the world are the powers of the serpent in Genesis, tempting us to see the world as ours to do with it as we so please; after all, God wants us to be happy. Their mantra is “the earth is ours and the fullness thereof.”
The powers of the world are as seductive as the primal serpent. They praise us when we recycle or ride a bike to work or buy more efficient light bulbs or drive electric or hybrid vehicles or use environmentally sensitive detergents or put solar panels on our churches. They seduce us into thinking that such solitary acts are enough. The powers of the world want us to consume all our time and energy in solitary efforts to care for creation, because they know that if we do, we most likely won’t have extra time or energy to build coalitions to seriously confront their demonic and toxic power.
The powers of the world are not only seductive, they are sneaky. They produce compelling commercials calling all to recycle while they mass produce materials that cannot be. They post billboards warning about the dangers of smoking and vaping while marketing their products to the youngest and most vulnerable across the world. The powers that be are happy for us to celebrate an annual Earth Day and then to go on living as if the earth is ours to do with as we choose.
Chapter Five of Revelation asks us to believe the ridiculous claim that the power to redeem and reclaim creation belongs not to us, but solely to God. For John, the Slain Lamb is a symbol for the ultimate impotence of violence and the inevitable defeat of the powers of this world.
Chapter Five of Revelation begins with a loud wailing of lament, but it ends with a louder Hallelujah as the Slain Lamb of God reveals true power. As an exile in prison on Patmos, John laments the destructive work of the powers of the world, but somehow, he still sings of a greater power at work in heaven and earth.
Alan Boesak, a Reformed pastor in South Africa, wrote these words while the powers of the world still had the stranglehold of apartheid on his country: “Black people in South Africa have made freedom songs part of the struggle; in fact, the struggle is inconceivable without them. Marching down the streets, facing the police and army troops of the South African government, they sing. In jail, they sing—songs of defiance and faith and freedom . . . We sing because we believe, we sing because we hope. We sing because we know that it is only a little while, and the tyrant shall cease to exist” (Boesak, Comfort and Protest: The Apocalypse from a South African Perspective, pp. 6-61).
On this Earth Day 2023, sing as you join our nation in grieving the senseless loss of human lives in almost daily mass shootings since January 1; sing as you demand an end to the killing fields in Ukraine; sing as you demand that legislators and business leaders put creation concerns over profit margins; sing as you teach your children and grandchildren that the earth is not ours, but that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”
On this Earth Day, don’t hesitate, don’t blink; stare the powers of this world in the face, and sing! And, do not stop singing until every day given to our precious care is “Earth Day.”