As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
— (Rev) Andrew Jensen
“A New Earth” or a Renewal of the Earth?
We begin this season of Creation Time with some challenging lessons. The Isaiah lesson is really quite cheerful; I always liked the song that quotes this passage:
♪♪ “You shall go out with joy
and be led forth with peace
the mountains and the hills will break forth before you
There will be shouts of joy
and all the trees of the field will clap, will clap their hands:
And all [the trees of the fields will clap their hands (3x clap)
As you go out with joy.” ♫
I always like the image of the trees clapping their hands. It is a wonderful image of the renewal of the land: thorns replaced with more productive plants.
The thorns are a clue to an ancient image: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. One of the curses against them was the curse of hard labour and the way that the ground would produce thorns instead of the plants the humans would need to survive.
I have remarked before on the way that the Christian bible gives us a grand sweep: running from Paradise, the garden of innocence, to the second of our readings – the New Jerusalem, the ultimate city which manages to combine urban living with the tree of life, previously locked up in Eden and forbidden to humans.
The tension between rural and urban is a major theme of scripture, although not stated explicitly.
The Hebrew people were originally nomadic, travelling around with their flocks, taking advantage of the best water holes in a dry land. When they invaded Canaan, the promised land, they were warned about cities. They destroyed Jericho and were told that whoever worked to rebuild the walls of that city would be cursed. Then the Bible shows us how that curse was fulfilled.
Generations later Jerusalem was conquered by king David and that’s the first really positive mention of a city we find. It becomes the holy city.
There’s a lot of praise for Zion, for Jerusalem, and it grows over the centuries as the nation slowly shifted from an Agrarian base to a more urban life. Even Jesus, who grew up as a carpenter in Nazareth, a city, regularly used agricultural references in his lessons.
By the time you get to the book of Revelation the idea of the city has become quite polarized. The city of Rome (code named Babylon) is reviled as the source of all evil. It serves to contrast with God’s perfect city, the new Jerusalem, brought to Earth from Heaven with the tree of life at the centre. There, God is the only source of light anyone needs and a river flows through the centre of the city.
It’s still an urban image but the vibrant, growing trees keep the people connected to the soil.
I wonder how the people of that age would react to what has happened over the intervening centuries: people living in cities paved from pillar to post and really unaware of where their food comes from. When I started out in ministry I was concerned about urban kids who had no clue about the connection between milk and cows and now I learn that a lot of them have grown up without learning a thing about that reality.
In many ways, it is worse than what they imagined 2000 years ago.
You can understand how they developed the theology we find in the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. By the time that was written a full-on persecution of Christians was happening and it appeared that the only solution was for God to step in, overcome the power of the Roman Empire with worse plagues than had been used on Egypt and re-start the world with a New Heaven, a New Earth with all the bad stuff swept away and the people God has rescued living in God’s presence in the New Jerusalem.
They were desperate and they were counting on God to overcome this great evil in the best way they could imagine.
Sadly, this theology has influenced the Christian attitude to the Earth for the hundreds of years that have followed. We have had a sense that everything will be wiped out and then restored by God.
In recent decades we’ve moved away from that understanding, but it has been hard. Biblical Literalists will still insist on this being a prediction of the future. But even for those of us who reject that understanding, the attitude that has been part of this package has never released its hold on us and we can still imagine the “end of the world” and hope for something good to come out the other side.
This didn’t fit the original vision of scripture, like our vision of a renewed earth shared by Isaiah or what was taught by Jesus or what Paul shared with the first churches outside of Judea.
Jesus always talked about the Kingdom of God breaking into the existing world, not wiping it out and replacing it. Paul imagined Jesus arriving in the air like a conquering hero, bringing in God’s reality to the existing world.
The resurrection was always to happen on the earth because humans didn’t belong in heaven. This world was the place for us; why would we want to abandon it?
The good thing our Revelation passage adds to the image is the idea that God dwells with us; that the distinction between Heaven and Earth is removed.
But we would do well to remember that this last book of the bible was written for a desperate people facing horrible persecution. The image of a destroyed planet would be welcomed by those who had suffered so much if they had the promise of a new world.
We live in a reality that isn’t like that. We are coming to terms with the fact that this Earth is the one we’ve got, which fits with the message that is consistent through all the other books of the Bible.
This season of Creation Time is an ideal opportunity to remember that in Genesis God said that Creation was very good; an attitude that was never revoked, and to work towards a renewal of the earth we have, instead of hoping for God to give us a new planet after this one has fallen apart.
We have centuries of misinterpretation to overcome and a lot of bad theology still at work in the 21st century. Our world may look fallen because of the dumb decisions we’ve been making for a long time. But the image of renewal, of restoration, new life, new growth has been a constant message of scripture since before the time of Jesus.
We don’t need a New Earth: the one God created is amazing already. But we do need to work to renew this Earth that is our home, to rediscover the good that God saw in it and to bring it back to vibrant life and health.
May we use this season of Creation Time and that newly renewed love of gardening that so many have discovered because of the pandemic to inspire us to work for a renewed Earth with fresh energy.