logo Practical Dreamers

Creation - Masters or Servants

A Sermon by Donald Phillips

Here is a challenging sermon preached by Donald Phillipps on March 11,  raising huge current issues in a sound biblical context.  



' ... so the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do.' - Isaiah 55:11

There's no great likelihood that someone will take an old sermon of mine and publish it – there being  almost no market for such - by their very nature sermons are, or should be, birds of passage - as  Jesus said, “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."
I do sometimes, however, look back at what I once said – on the principle that, with the lectionary, what goes around, comes around - so the readings set down for 21 years ago included these same passages that we have read this morning
I was almost astonished to find that I was then talking about the same thing that is at the heart of our thinking today - the international community was in 1986 unable to agree on an Antarctic Treaty
There had been that appalling oil-spill on the Alaskan coast, and what was going to be done about it –  it still happens
There was outrage about the fishing methods of some north Pacific countries – nothing has changed – we have just witnessed the end of the confrontation between Japanese whalers and Greenpeace – and it will happen again
In 1986 a Tv weatherman tried to explain that average temperatures had risen by something like 2oC – he was talking about the breakdown of the ozone layer
At the recent Academy Awards presentations the former Vice President of the United States received an Oscar for his highly acclaimed film An Inconvenient Truth – about climate change, which he described as being not a political but a moral issue
20 odd years ago I remember reading that just one Sunday edition of the New York Times consumed something like 30 acres of Brazilian rain-forest – I wonder whether the statistic has altered
What has changed radically is the degree of urgency in our search – not just in New Zealand but throughout planet earth – for ways to stop the gross waste of resources and the gross abuse of the natural world
If there is one single picture that illustrates our rapidly changing world it must be that of the icebergs floating north just off the Otago coast – not melting away until they were somewhere north of the Akaroa Peninsula
And if there's one thing that marks off this stage in human history  from any other it is the belief that it's in our hands to change things before it's too late – we can even change the course of history
It's not just that political leaders have climbed on the bandwagon of conservation and care – at last we, and they, are, belatedly, listening to the scientists who have been pleading for acknowledgment and action for so long

What we have come to realise, painfully and humiliatingly, is that the future of the world is in our hands – and in so saying I might have brought down on my head accusations of blasphemy less than a century ago
I want to put it even more clearly to you here this morning – so that there can be no doubt about what I am saying
The world view of both Isaiah and Jesus is separated from our own by an unbridgeable gulf of both knowledge and belief
We know more about our world than the people of those times could ever have dreamed – why on earth should we doubt that Jesus thought the world was flat and that the sun revolved around it
That was what the people of his time and place thought – let's not imagine that somehow he knew things that no-one else did about the natural world – his teaching was not about clearing up that sort of ignorance
It has been a long and slow and bitter and sometimes even fatal pilgrimage that the human mind has made towards a better understanding of the natural world, and of the place of our particular world in relation to the universe as a whole
If that pilgrimage has led to the abandonment of faith by many fine minds then let us admit that such rejection has too often been as a result of the ignorant and arrogant rejection by the Church of new discoveries of truth and new understandings of reality
But what I want to explore is not that negative attiutude to science, a negativity that has kept us in chains – rather, what it means if we assert that we are free to accept from God the care of this world
We don't any longer leave the world to God – I can't believe that was ever what the creator God wanted - instead, God has, it should be said, left the care of the world to us
I suggest to you that in that last phrase is to be found the the real meaning of the word 'freedom' – what more noble task is there for women and men than this – and what more daunting responsibility can there be
I hope this does not sound as though I have removed God from the picture altogether – that is not what I am talking about – in fact I want to stand firmly within the tradition of Isaiah who believed quite simply that this is God's world
In spite of all that modern science has done to help us understand the origins of the universe and the development of human existence I am still perfectly able to think of God as Creator
The debate about this is as lively now as it has ever been – the existence of God has been the subject of several recently published books with titles like "The God Delusion", "The End of Faith", and "Breaking the Spell"
But I am informed in an article I was reading this week that there is another and much quieter debate going on among some scientists about the human propensity to believe in God
There are those who say that it has been part of the 'architecture' of the brain from the very earliest stages in human evolution
But, and it's a big but, there are those who, from the evidence they have amassed, suggest that the fact that we have the mental capacity for discerning God points to God having put that capacity within us in the first place
I don't think I'm competent to take you through all the pros and cons of what evolutionary scientists are saying – but I'm prepared, at this moment in time, to nail my flag to the mast
Our scriptures begin with the utterly bald statement, 'In the beginning, God ...' - I still find meaning in those words
What has changed is my understanding of what then follows in the story of creation, particularly the words that occur in the account of the creation of humankind – God said, "Let them be masters ..." of all living things
For thousands of years humans have dominated the natural world – within  God's framework of regular seasons, rain and sunshine, humans have stripped the hills of trees and the rains have washed the soil down the rivers
God's gift has become our possession, to use and abuse as we wish – we have lost any sense of the world being God's gift to us, something for which we must take responsibility – something for which we must care
For thousands of years humans have done this, and if things went wrong they simply said it was God's will – Isaiah would have said something of this sort – God was all powerful – whatever happened must have been determined by God
I imagine it is still true within our modern world that a majority of people shrug their shoulders or compose their minds with the explanation that bad things happen because God wills them to happen   
How else can one account for the loss of a quarter of a million people to a tsunami – how else can one justify the daily slaughter of hundreds of one's neighbours except by insisting that it is done in the name of God
It's not like that at all - we let ourselves off the hook by leaving it all to God – we so slowly learn that if God's will is to be done on earth then we are the means by which it happens

Which brings me to those two strange little stories, and a parable, from Luke's Gospel – all them about retribution – each illustrating just how radical and uncomfortable is Jesus' teaching, even today
The first story concerns an event during Pilate's time not elsewhere recorded – there was an uprising of some sort among the Galilean people which the Governor had put down with characteristic ferocity
What Jesus calls the Tower of Siloam might well have been one of the pillars of an aquaduct leading to the Pool of Siloam – whatever the case quite a number of people had been killed when a tall structure collapsed
Two examples of the age-old question – why do bad things happen to good people? - the typical answer of that time was that they must have been sinners to have been punished by God in such a way
Jesus' response to this riddle is that it's nothing to do with God - such things happen because the world is flawed – people are flawed, that's part of their nature - but they can do something about it – they can repent, Jesus said
Possibly the little parable refers to Israel – it was often enough likened to a fig tree – the simple message is that you don't punish a barren tree for not bearing fruit – you water it and manure it so that it can bear fruit
Underlying these stories is a disturbing question – when bad things happen it's not a matter of guilt - what are the victims of chance guilty of – what sort of a God is it who would punish people in this?

Jesus consistently paints a picture of a very different God – a God who is a gracious God – a God who from the very beginning loves what God has created – that's the meaning of the grace of God
This loving God is no tyrant – rather, he is like the father of the lost son, always waiting for that wayward, careless, selfish child to come to his senses and to return home to a loving father
Never abandoning the son, and yet not interfering in his life so that he  doesn't get into trouble – always repecting his son's freedom, even to do what is plainly wrong and hurtful - not punishing the son on his return for his sins
That is the God whom Jesus calls abba – the most intimate name a child can have for a parent – it's not a matter of distance, but it is a matter of difference – a loving father and a loved though often unloving child
If our understanding of God is dominated by pictures of judgment we are not of Jesus' mind – we are not free and we cannot escape a crippling sense of guilt
If we can hear what Jesus is saying about a loving God then we can rejoice in our freedom – even though it is a two-edged sword - we can choose to be what we want to be, with all the risks that entails
God does not manipulate us – in fact God's leaves the care of his creation to us – we are free to do as we wish with it  - and we know  now better than ever how we have abused our trust
For good or ill we are what we are – but we are accepted by God as we are – even with such a history of thoughtless or wilful ignorance
But our belief and hope is in a God who has given us such freedom as to turn to or turn away from God – and yet a God who is always there, waiting and yearning for us to turn to him







>>>   Home Page


>>>   Site Index