(Note: This is the keynote speech I delivered at the Justice Conference Asia 2018. Two location-specific variants of this message were present online, first, in a two-part sermon series for the Zion Bishan Church, Singapore, 2020.10.04; and then at a workshop delivered online at the Mission Week for the Comagape Christian Conference, UBC, Vancouver BC, 2021.01.23)
Good Morning! Bonjour! 早晨! Greetings to you all, on behalf of my colleagues from the A Rocha global family.
My purpose here this morning is not to promote any organization. Still, allow me to say a few words, and perhaps giving you an initial idea where I am coming from. A Rocha, which means “the Rock” in Portuguese, is an international Christian nature conservation organization, working to show Christ’s love and hope for all creation, through scientific research, education and hands-on community-based conservation projects. Currently we have projects in twenty countries and regions, while cultivating like-minded communities and networks in a few others, including Hong Kong.
So, “Good morning”, eh?! For many of us, this morning is good and fabulous. However, for some others gathering here, this morning might NOT be so good: headache at works, troubles with family, unwell in health… For tens of thousands, even millions elsewhere in our deeply troubled world, today is certainly NOT good at all.
The world we found ourselves in
Only a few weeks ago Super Typhoon Mangkhut slammed Hong Kong hard, with severe storm surges in many coastal areas; tens of thousands of trees knocked down; glass façades of seemingly invincible commercial buildings shattered. Some villages on remote islands are still under rubble. The same typhoon hammered northern Philippines badly; scores of miners and their families were killed in mudslides; crucial farmlands providing food for tens of thousands were destroyed. Several years back, another mega typhoon, Haiyan, killed almost 10,000 in the eastern part of that same nation, leaving over a million people homeless. Even developed, supposedly well prepared nations are not spared: Japan was hammered this past summer by heavy downpours and severe typhoons one after another, causing widespread damages. A bit further away, in the Indian subcontinent, severe heat-waves, prolong droughts, increasingly unpredictable monsoons… hitting some areas with unprecedented floods while in others with crop-killing droughts, not just in one but several consecutive years. And this is happening not just in Asia…
Typhoons, droughts, floods, all happen as the earth system functions naturally, but in the escalating severity of all these natural disasters witnessed in recent years, we can pinpoint the “forensic” fingerprints of the run-away climate change, or perhaps more accurately “climate mutations”, caused by relentless industrial activities and excessive consumption of everything in the last 150 years, all by us, the humans.
Last week, when the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their latest report, the scientists concluded that those catastrophic effects of run-away climate change are coming on faster than they had previously predicted, and require quick and drastic global actions in response, on an unprecedented scale. They urge that we have only a bit more than ten years to work on that, before it’s too late to turn the tide.
In addition to catastrophic weather phenomena, the bleaching of coral reef reported in many parts of the world, caused by rapid warming-up of seawater and increasing acidity as the oceans absorb the excess of atmospheric carbon dioxide, is impacting the survival of numerous marine species, and the livelihood of 500 million people in many improvised nations.
Have I mentioned that the Syrian civil war and the subsequent refugee crisis spilling over into Europe, the biggest humanitarian crisis since WWII? Researchers now can trace one of its courses to a four-year-long drought, so severe that it was not seen in 900 years, one of vivid evident of anthropogenic climate change.
And, don’t forget the well documented massive demise of marine lives and sea birds, chocked or starved to death by plastic waste – our plastic waste.
According to WWF International: since 1970, the population sizes of all vertebrate species have dropped more than half… That report continues: ” These are the living forms that constitute the fabric of the ecosystems which sustain life on Earth – and the barometer of what we are doing to our own planet, our only home.“
Have I mentioned the severe water shortage and soil degradation and pollution undergone in many parts of China? Hong Kong plays a somewhat huge part in that too, as majority of the green leaf vegetables consumed here are from some of those most stricken areas. The degrading situations decimated the harvest of many crops traditional to these regions, including soybeans, impacted not only the livelihood of thousands of farmers, but also became one of the recent flash points in geopolitics – the looming Sino-American trade war…
On a slightly different note, there are reports that tens of thousands of small-hold farmers in India have committed suicide in the last two decades, their lands being robbed away, their water and soil gravely polluted, all because of an insidious scheme of multi-national pharmaceutical giants, through manufacturing a high-priced dependence on certain patented seeds which are genetically modified to pair up with their highly-toxic herbicide products.
This list goes on… Bad news one after another, and getting worse…
Wait a second! We Christians are supposed to proclaim the Good News, right? But where is the Good News in all these?
The Good News?
Yes, I am going to unpack to you the Good News, the Gospel, in midst of all the bad news… and I’m not alone doing so. 2500 Christian leaders from around the world gathered in 2010 at the 3rd Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization. Among other important topics, they concluded with this: “Creation care is thus a gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ”. Yes, the dire situation we just glanced over IS a gospel issue indeed!
Wait, how so?? Isn’t the Gospel of Jesus all about “believing in him so that we can go to heaven after death?” Isn’t it all about the “human souls” being saved? What does the Gospel have ANYTHING to do with pollution, climate change, species survival, suffering communities, including human’s?
Here we need to acquire a much bigger, and more accurate, definition of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!! What IS the Gospel then?
The Greek word euangelion was commonly used in the Roman Empire, with a set of very particular meanings attached. The news announcers of the Caesars, the “emperors”, circulated the imperial-dominated colonies and towns, proclaiming: “LISTEN! Here is the good news (euangelion): the almighty Caesar, our Saviour, and his powerful armies have defeated our arch enemies. New territories have been conquered! Peace and prosperity have been finally bestowed upon us!! Rejoice!! THIS IS the GOOD news!!”
Precisely in this very context, the followers of Jesus boldly declared ANOTHER gospel, the good news of ANOTHER Saviour, the one who was condemned to die on a cross, yet, has resurrected, thus defeated the ultra-enemies of all – the Evil one and death; they were declaring the Gospel of the ONE true Lord who came to bring life, hope and reconciliation of ALL THINGS!
Contrary to what we just went through, we often reduce the gospel to something about individual salvation, for a certain spiritual realm or “otherworldly home”; in doing so we truncate the Bible’s teaching as a whole, and therefore reduce our understanding of God’s purposes for the whole creation, and our place in those purposes.
Let’s RE-visit and RE-consider the biblical accounts about the actual scope of the Good News, and along the way examine these two important aspects: God’s purpose – Shalom, and our place in that Shalom – the Royal Priesthood.
The Good News in a much larger Story
The Gospel begins not at the fall of humans, but at the very beginning of everything. Let’s put on the lens, or more precisely, the “ears” of those women and men who first heard the words of Genesis.
These folks were in exile, uprooted from their ancestral lands, enslaved under the Babylonian rule. And the operating principles of that foreign superpower were shaped and reinforced by a creation story called the Enuma Elish. According to this mythology, the very world they saw and lived was the result of a bloody war between self-indulging and raging gods. All humans were merely necessary nuisance – the annoying figurines created to perform dirty and unwanted jobs for these gods. For the Hebrew outcasts there was no purpose, no meaning, no dignity, no good news!
Breaking into this apparent hopelessness there was an extraordinary and highly contrasted story. While the elements of the poem-like Creation narrative we know as Genesis 1 must have been passed down for generations before these first hearers, the account as a whole presents a drastically different picture to them, filling with divine generosity, abundance, community, and purposes. The Sovereign Lord God brings creation into being, in an uncontested and serene manner. The process is harmonious and orderly, first opening up spaces by separating, and then filling these spaces with abundance and diversity. In the ears of these ancient audiences, the whole creation was the royal palace of the Sovereign Lord God, coming into being simply through his verbal commands, no battle, no squabble. Everything was created good, beautiful, purposeful, naturally held together.
What about the people – these enslaved and hopeless hearers?
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the air… So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis 1:26…)
Here the writer of Genesis powerfully reminded them that they were graciously created by the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe, with a noble purpose: thrive and rule as the royal representatives (“the image”) of the Sovereign Lord God in the created order; not out of violence or necessity, but loved and dignified.
How about the human “rule over” or the controversial word “subdue”? Yes, it does imply “force employed”, but definitely not as a brutal ruler like the Babylonian overlords. In essence it was used and understood in an agrarian culture: it’s a word picture of farming: a farmer working on the land with some physical forces – the stones being dug up, collected and removed, soil being tilled and irrigated, so that the land would be fruitful! And these royal representatives were supposed to REFLECT the characters of the Sovereign Lord God in their relations WITH the created order: kindness, generosity, tenderness, love, even sacrifice, which are often echoed in many other biblical passages such as the Psalms.
The poetic Creation account saw its consummation not in the creation of humans, but in Sabbath, an important aspect we will examine in a few minutes.
Moving into Genesis 2, we see the tone and style changed. Here, our ancient hearers were led into a different scene; it’s no longer the royal palace but a place of worship. Yes, the Garden was described in such manner that, to the ancient Israelites it was the prototype of the Tabernacle or later the Temple. Yes, the whole creation is now the Temple of the Lord God. Furthermore, something extraordinary had happened: God himself installed his own representative, Adam, in his own Temple, through a widely observed religious ritual at their time (breathing into the nasal or something similar). And this Adam was installed with a twofold function: work it and take care of it; these two phrases were in fact the very terms describing the priestly functions in the Tabernacle (Numbers 3: 7-8).
Here the man was merely “Adam from the Adamah”, the same kind of “living being” as the other creatures in the sky and in the water and roaming on the lands. Human was part of the created community, no more, no less. Yet, a special call and commission was bestowed upon him, and in fact to all of us: we are to be the Sovereign Lord God’s royal priests in his realm, the whole of creation, reflecting his characters to the world in rule and care, AND bringing forth the fullness of the creation to God the Creator in worship.
The problem, OUR problem, is that, we throw away this call and commission; instead, we tried to enthrone ourselves as equal to God – that’s the very essence of the Fruit of Knowledge on Good and Evil. Therefore, everything went into chaos ever since.
Leaping forward, when the descendants of Abraham were liberated from the Egyptian enslavement, encountering the Lord God as the almighty Liberator, they were summoned to meet the Lord God at the foothill of Mount Sinai. Through Moses, the Israelites were told, in essence: “You have witnessed my mighty deeds rescuing you from Egypt. Now if you obey me and keep my covenant, you are mine, and be a kingdom of priests.” (Exodus 19 4-6)
And with this call, the people were given the Law. Despite the tedious implementation and requirements, these laws could be roughly categorized into three dimensions of reconciliation – between God and human; among fellow human beings; and between humans and the lands. When the people of God, this Kingdom of priests, lived according to the Law, the nations would see that the Lord God was indeed in charge. And the biblical “shalom” would be manifested.
Let’s zero in just one aspect of the Law: the Sabbath.
Sabbath was NOT simply a day of rest; it’s about trusting the Lord: our works paused, productivity was set aside, but the Lord still provides – the Israelites took 40 years in the Sinai Desert to learn just that (Exodus 16)!! And everyone in the household – sons and daughters, slaves and servants, even livestock, even the undignified and undesirable sojourners (undocumented refugees in today’s term) were to pause working and rest for the day. Everyone was on the equal ground; no one would be excluded, not even animals.
And then during the Sabbatical years, the lands were to rest, so that the poor would be provided with food, even wild animals would be able to eat from the lands…(Exodus 23:10-11, c.f. Leviticus 25)
And then every fifty years there was the Year of Jubilee, in which long term debts would be forfeited, life-long slaves would be released…
And in combination of other aspects of the Law, the outcome is Shalom. Shalom is way more than peace or tranquility. It’s wholesome flourishing of everything; it’s well-being in all dimensions: physical, mental, spiritual, relational, social, even ecological; it’s about relationships restored; it’s about justice manifested; it’s about integrity lived and practiced. When the three basic dimensions of reconciliation are accomplished: God with humans; among fellow humans; and humans with the rest of creation, then Shalom there is!
Of course, as we all know now, the Israelites failed to live up to this commission, as the showcase of the true Sovereign’s care to the world. Judges after judges, kings after kings, they failed miserably, not just individuals but the whole nation. So they were expelled from the Promised Land, being chained up into captivity by brutal superpowers.
In the eve of dismay and exile, various prophets spoke up, on the one hand with judgement and condemnation, on the other hand, promises of restoration, return, and good tidings; let’s just sample a few:
“They will return from the land of the enemy.
17 So there is hope for your future,” declares the Lord.
“Your children will return to their own land. “ ~ Jeremiah 31
9 You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm. “ ~ Isaiah 40; c.f., Isaiah 49
“How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!” “ (Isaiah 52:7, c.f. Romans 10:15)
The Lord God will return, bringing his people back to their lands, and he will rule among them again. This is the Good Tidings, Good News, in the Old Testament prophetic fashion.
Leaping forward for 400 years, to the time of Roman domination, when Jesus announced the Gospel of the Kingdom, when the disciples followed his footsteps and preached the Gospel of Heaven, when the early church gathered and witnessed to the world, these prophetic good tidings of God returning as the real Sovereign echoed deeply and profoundly.
As we examined earlier, the “euangelion” – commonly understood as an imperial announcement: “Caesar is Lord and Savior” – was now a proclamation of ANOTHER king, the real Sovereign, but of entirely different class, manners, approaches, and promises. “Jesus is Lord of all and FOR all”!!
When the Gospel of John declares,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth,“ ~ John 1
John the Apostle was essentially proclaiming that the Sovereign Lord God has returned, pitching his Tabernacle among his people, showing forth everywhere his glory, which actually means his all-encompassing presence. As the glorious presence of the Lord God was manifested throughout the Gospel, now in the person of Jesus, the vision of Shalom was invoked once again – turning water into wine, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, restoring the outcast, liberating the possessed, even raising the dead.
Leaping forward to the end of John’s Gospel, this same Word, the Lord Jesus, now resurrected and appeared in front of his fearful but anticipating disciples, told them:
21 … “Shalom be with you! As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” ~ John 20
His disciples were sent “into the neighbourhood”, using Eugene Peterson’s translation, the same way as God sent his only beloved Son pitching the Tabernacle among his people once again; AND they were sent to engage into the mission of reconciliation and shalom-making. They were “installed” into this commission, with a perplexed gesture by the post-resurrection Jesus, which in fact was a powerful reminder of Genesis 2 – the Lord God installing his priestly representative – now not just one but many. The “forgiving sin” reference, very obvious to those first hearers with their deep-rooted ability of scriptural cross-referencing, was simply shorthand of the designated core functions of the biblical priesthood.
In a similar light, Peter the Apostle reminded his congregations once again:
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2)
[New Heaven and New Earth]
And this is not the end of the whole story. The Apostles filled their letters to the churches with hopes of restoration, renewal, New Heaven and New Earth! Just to sample a few…
21 Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago… (Acts 3)
10 …when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1)
17…and in him all things hold together. …
19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1)
They knew well that the End they were anticipating was NOT going to a disembodied heaven that was detached from their physical and spiritual realities. It’s the restored New Heaven and New Earth coming instead; the Heaven, that is God’s realm, will come re-joining and renewing the Earth.
Our roles in that Big Story of God…
Now, let’s return to the Priesthood bit.
If we pay enough attention, we can see that God’s intent for his people to be his royal priestly representatives in the whole of created order is very consistent, perhaps subtle at time, but definitely throughout the Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. And it’s not confined within some religious rituals or spiritual dimensions. It’s a bi-directional vocation of reconciliation, reflecting the Lord God’s characters in all aspects of lives, while speaking on behalf of the creation and bringing forth the fullness of the creation back to God the Sovereign in worship. It’s entailed in the threefold reconciliatory relations: between God and humanity, among humanity, and between humanity and the rest of the created order (the lands).
I know that the terms and concept of “priest”, “priesthood”, like the references to “king”, “kingdom”, “royal”, is archaic, hierarchic and ritualistic, rather restrictive to us the modern; perhaps it’s also problematic, particularly with the astonishing revelations of sexual and racial abuses committed by clergy and the institutional cover-up. How are we going to RE-discover and “modernize” this original and fundamental call for all of us, while appreciating and in keeping with its biblical essence?
There are quite a few suggestions going around already: ambassador, mediator, envoy, etc. They all have their merits. Yet to me, I found another metaphor more appealing and helpful.
Professor Tom Wright of St. Andrews University suggests that humans are created as the “angled mirrors” in the created order – reflecting God’s characters and rule to the creation, while reflecting the creation back to God in worship and advocacy.
How would this work, either we use the archaic “priesthood” or Wright’s “angled mirror”?
The Royal Priesthood in our time…
Let’s imagine: you are a chef; you do not just love cooking but are very talented in the arts. On the one hand, you know well about the various ingredients and their potentials. You do not just know and use them, but go extra length to care for the ways the produces being planted and animals being raised, the farm workers being treated, the soil being taken care of and enriched… On the other hand, you prepare the dishes or the banquets to your patrons or friends or family, presenting to them a wonderful manifestation of how food can and should be, in the meantime, bridging them to see the worlds of those produce and animals and farm workers and soil, which might have been hidden from their sights, now revealed thought your arts and care… This is the work of a “priest”, not necessarily complete, but definitely showing forth many essential aspects of it, nevertheless. Remember, the angled mirror!
Or you are an investment adviser! What on earth does an investment adviser have ANYTHING to do with the gospel, creation and justice? You are not simply dealing with dollar signs, numbers, portfolio, spreadsheet or indexes, but people and places, or perhaps even ecosystems and natural habitats, and the wellbeing of all these on both ends: that is, those who are impacted by the investment you are proposing and managing, and those who are investing through you… This is the work of a “priest” or “angled mirror” in a wholesome fashion.
The parallels could be found almost everywhere, every kind of settings we found ourselves in…
And to be honest, as you could imagine, it will not be EASY but it will be HARD, for sure. Resistance and setback will be a guarantee; and it will be a life-long journey. Nevertheless, this is OUR call, right from the beginning, and now in Christ, it is presented and lifted to a whole new horizon.
My esteemed friend, Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, a world renowned climate scientist and advocate, also a deeply devoted Christian, tweeted a response to a request for advice on addressing climate change and environmental sustainability; she wrote:
“Do whatever you are passionate about; we need all hands on deck! scientists, artists, writers, policy experts, real estate developers, farmers, lawyers, doctors: I work with them all and all have unique contributions to helping us understand and solve this. “
Another good friend of mine, the renounced Latin American theologian Ruth Padilla Deborst says: “Living a just ecological coexistence is a prophetic dimension of Christian mission.“
So, YOU, the “angled mirrors”, ARE YOU ready?
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