(Note: This is Part One of a sermon series delivered online for the Zion Bishan Church, Singapore, 2020.10.04. Part Two Renewing Our Home – Sabbath Keeping can be found here. The general preaching framework in this sermon is based on the keynote message I delivered at the Justice Conference Asia 2018 in Hong Kong, modified and updated with additional materials and relevant references. Another location-specific variant of this message was present at the Comagape Christian Conference, 2021.01.23 & 01.28)
Good Morning! Greetings to you all from Vancouver Canada, on behalf of my colleagues from the A Rocha global family. Thank you very much Pastor Daniel for inviting me to speak to you all.
Before going into the topic today, allow me to say a few words, perhaps, to give 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 Singapore. With my combined background in urban planning, pastoral ministry and mission, my role at A Rocha is to encourage the churches to take serious about creation care as an essential dimension of Christian faith and calling.
So, “Good morning”, eh?! Let’s be honest, we are living in a deeply troubled world, politically, economically, and environmentally. And I have not even mentioned the word “pandemic” as we are all still in the thick of the Covid-19 crisis globally. This morning, let’s zero-in on the environmental front.
The world we found ourselves in
A couple of weeks ago, Vancouver was covered by an intense layer of smoke with burning smell for several days. The key air quality indicator, PM2.5, was above 110. I remember the last time I experienced similar horrific air pollution was during my last visit to Singapore back in 2015, when the wildfires in Indonesia was rampaging; back then the figure was 140, and I was told it was much worse a few days before my arrival. This time the smoke in our region was from the wildfires burning south of the border in the States of Oregon and Washington. Today there are at least fifteen large-scale wildfires still burning in California alone. A news headline even puts it: the entire west coast of North America was on fire!! And we might have already forgotten the severe wildfires burning through eastern Australia merely 10 month ago, with millions being impacted and thousands of homes destroyed. It seems this kind of disasters has become a normal part of our lives. Yet, wildfires are merely part of the stories.
Almost exactly two years ago these days, Super Typhoon Mangkhut struck Hong Kong; tens of thousands of trees knocked down; glass façades of seemingly invincible commercial buildings shattered. I was there for a conference a couple of weeks afterward and still saw many debris and fallen trees around town. Several years further back, another mega typhoon Haiyan killed almost 10,000 in the Philippines, leaving over a million people homeless. Even developed, supposedly well prepared nations are not spared: for the last several summers, Japan has been hammered by heavy downpours and severe typhoons one after another, causing widespread damages. [Slide 06 – blank] Meanwhile, for over a decade, severe heat-waves, prolong droughts and increasingly unpredictable monsoons have been hitting the Indian subcontinent continuously, in some areas with unprecedented floods while in others with crop-killing droughts. Similar phenomena can be seen all around the world …
While typhoons, droughts, floods, even wildfires, are all natural functions of the earth systems, their severity and frequency have drastically escalated in recent years; and in all these we can pinpoint the “forensic” fingerprints of the run-away climate change, or more accurately “climate mutations”, caused by relentless industrial activities and excessive consumption of everything in the last 150 years, all by us, the humans.
Again, exactly two years ago this week, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their special report, Global Warming of 1.5oC. The report concludes that these catastrophic effects of run-away climate change are coming on faster than scientists had previously predicted. Quick, drastic and massive global actions in response are required. We need to cut our greenhouse gases emission in half by 2030, and then net-zero by 2050, before it’s too late to turn the tide.
In addition to catastrophic weather phenomena, climate change is also the reason of the massive bleaching of coral reef reported around the world. Not only the survival of numerous marine species is at stake, this affects 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 the latest edition of The Living Planet Report, just released a few weeks ago by World Wildlife Fund International, the populations of all mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians have dropped almost 70% since 1970. That report reminds us, ”these are the living forms that constitute the fabric of the ecosystems which sustain life on Earth… We destroy our planet at our peril – because it is our only home.“
I could go on with this list… 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?
Yes, I am going to unpack to you the Good News, the Gospel, in the 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!
A Gospel Issue??
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, and suffering communities?
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, in a very particular way. The heralds (official messengers) of the Caesars (“emperors”) traveled to the imperial 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! Peace and prosperity have been finally bestowed upon us!! Rejoice!! THIS IS the GOOD news!!”
Precisely in this 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 Jesus 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, destined 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 beginning of everything. Let’s put on the lens, or more precisely, the “ears” of those women and men who first heard the stories 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. In that story, the 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 story – the poem-like Creation narrative of Genesis 1 and 2, inherited from their ancestors. These biblical accounts as a whole present 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 and no squabble. Everything was created good, beautiful, purposeful, naturally held together.
What about the people – these enslaved and desperate 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… 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 created by the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe, with a noble purpose: thrive and rule as the royal representatives (“the image”) of the Sovereign 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”? To a lot of people including critics of the Bible, these words mean violence, domination, and boundless exploitation. But look carefully and in proper context, while “subdue” does imply “force employed”, it is definitely not an endorsement to act as a brutal ruler like the Babylonian overlords. In essence 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; these characters 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 next week.
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 ears of 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 breathing into the nasal, which was a widely observed religious ritual of the ancient time. [Slide 16a] And this Adam was installed with a twofold function: work it and take care of it; these two phrases were in fact the same terms describing the priestly functions in the Tabernacle (Numbers 3: 7-8).
Here the man was merely “Adam from the Adamah” (dust of the earth), 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 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 by the Lord God – the almighty Liberator, they were summoned to meet Him at the foothill of Mount Sinai. Through Moses, the Israelites were told, “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 priestly kingdom, lived according to the Law, the other nations would see that the Lord God was indeed in charge. And the biblical “shalom” would be manifested.
What 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; [Slide 20] 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:
9 You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, …
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 in the person of Jesus throughout the Gospel, the visions of Shalom were 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 resurrected Lord Jesus, appeared in front of his fearful but anticipating disciples, and 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” (in the translation of the late Eugene Peterson), 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 of “breathing on” the disciples by the resurrected Jesus; in fact it was a powerful reminder of Genesis 2 – the Lord God installing his priestly representative – now not just one but many. The “forgiving sin” reference was simply shorthand of the designated core functions of the biblical priesthood.
Remember Peter the Apostle says something similar in his letter to the churches?
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)
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)
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. I hope I have more time to talk about this New Haven and New Earth, but it’s not ease to break the long-held myth of immaterial heaven in a few words; it belongs to at least another sermon series, even better when it is taught in a continuous, biblically faithful teaching in this subject.
Our roles in that Big Story of God…
Now, let’s return to the Priesthood bit. By now I hope you can see that God’s intent for his people to be his royal priestly representatives in the whole of created order is very consistent throughout the Bible. And this Priesthood is not confined within 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; perhaps it’s also problematic, particularly with the astonishing revelations of sexual and racial abuses committed by clergy and the institutional cover-up. How could we 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.
The Royal Priesthood in our time…
How would this work? Let’s imagine: you are a chef; you do not just love cooking but also 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…
Now I hope you would be able to see that, for Christians, creation care is not just about recycling or changing to LED lighting… it’s about something way more profound. And to be honest, as you could imagine, it will not be EASY but it will be HARD. 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 has been lifted to a whole new horizon for every one of us here.
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