A message presented to the congregation at St Andrews UC, Creek Street, Brisbane yesterday by
Dr Mike Pope,
Professor of Environmental Mission, Missional University, Ethos Environment Coordinator, Ethos: EA Centre for Christianity and Society
A sermon on Romans 8:19-23 preached by Dr Mick Pope at St
Andrew’s Uniting Church, Brisbane, April 7 2019.
I’d like to begin by thanking you for the invitation to
speak to you this morning. But I also have to have to brag at your expense. For
those who follow Rugby Union, the Melbourne Rebels were up here a couple of
weeks ago and beat the Queensland Reds. There is something else Victoria beats
you at, although I am less proud to speak about it.
We had our hottest summer on record, along with four other states.
However, as a consolation prize it was your hottest January on record, with
rainforest damaged by fire, and record breaking rains in Townsville. All of
this consistent with long term warning trends, and the warmest Australian
summer on record. Now I know that some in the churches are unwilling to accept
that climate change is real, but I want you to suspend your disbelief if that
is you and come along on a journey with me.
Recently, roughly 150,000 Australian school kids participated in
the school climate strike, and I attended during my lunch break in support. I
was very proud of them. The strike is an expression of their anger at
politicians on both side of the spectrum, whom they believe are not delivering
enough on climate change. This generation is growing up in a different climate
to the one you and I have, and they have fear and anxiety about the future.
When I went home, a friend of mine who writes for Eternity News, a
Christian website, asked me to jump onto their Facebook page and answer some of
the comments on a piece they had published. The article spoke about two
Christian schoolgirls who had attended the strike. After 45 minutes of
responding, I was despondent and had a stress headache. There was so much
outrage, with comments of ‘fake news,’ poorly understood science, and poor
What would you say to the youth of today? Particularly those
within the church? Do you respond with denial, or simply say that God is in
charge and not to worry about it? How does the church become more pro-active and less re-active on climate change?
Our text for this morning reads
20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly,
but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation
itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of
the glory of the children of God.
Straight off the bat, Paul
is making two big theological statements that say ‘God is in charge’:
- God has subjected creation to futility
- God will set it free
So doesn’t that wrap it all up? Can’t you say ‘Mick, there’s
no more to say, just sit down?’ We I think that this passage begs three
- What is the nature of this futility?
- How will creation be set free?
- Is there anything we can do?
So let’s look at each of these questions in turn.
1. What is the nature of
It is best to start at the beginning. If ever like me you
have tried to read the bible from cover to cover, you would have started with
Genesis. We learn about the beauty of creation and its great blessing, and
human responsibility in Genesis 1-2. In Genesis 1 we learn that to be made in
the image of God means to be fruitful and multiply, and subdue the earth, which
means to engage in agriculture and feed ourselves. In Genesis 2 and verse 15,
we learn of our vocation to care, tend, and keep the earth. We have an intimate
relationship with the soil, the pun from the Hebrew being humans from the
hummus. And then in Genesis 3, it all goes pear shaped, or better still apple
shaped. Our relationship with the soil becomes cursed. We see the same thing at
end of the book of Deuteronomy where Moses warns the people of Israel to remain
faithful. Human disobedience leads to broken relationships with the soil.
So the subjection to frustration in Romans is due to the
fact that God has let us run it – and what a fine job we’ve done of polluting
the air and water, cutting down trees, warming the climate, and killing all the
animals (60% of all living things in less than 50 years).
In Rome, Paul could also see the devastation that human
misrule brought. He could see the regular silting up of the Tiber River because
all of the trees had been cleared, and it needed to be dredged regularly.
Although Paul and the ancients did not understand this, this swampy ground was
the ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. In 452 AD, those brave Huns were
afraid to enter Rome because of the bad air, or malaria. There is evidence to
show that malaria was one of the factors that was involved in the collapse of
Rome. The air quality was also poor. Philosopher and Senator Seneca (4BC – 65
AD) wrote that
“No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of
the city and the reek of smoking cookers, which pour out, along with clouds of
ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated … I noticed the change in my
condition at once.”
Paul was making an observation then not in the abstract, but
in the particulars of how Roman misrule produced damage to the world around
him. In Romans chapter 1, he identifies the root of these problems, that we
make idols out of things like wealth and power. Reformer John Calvin identified
the heart as an idol factory, and Paul would agree, and link that idolatry to
damage to creation.
In our day, Pope Francis notes in the encyclical Laudato
Si’ that “the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical,
cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity.” In other words, the worship of
progress, technology, consumerism and individualism, which may have once been done
in ignorance, is now done in full knowledge of the consequences for our world,
God’s good creation. This is recognised both within and outside of the church. Environmentalist
Gus Speth says “The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and
apathy … to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation …
we scientists don’t know how to do that.” But we in the church do! We know
about repentance. What is needed by the church is to join the dots between sin
and repentance with issues of the environment.
2. How will creation be set free?
The answer to my second question, how will the creation be
set free, is found in verses 22-23.
22 For we know that the whole
creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the
Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our
Creation is suffering now in birth pains, but that suffering
will one day give way to joy. Any woman here who has carried a child will know
what this is like. I can remember watching my own wife with her distended
belly, it getting hard to get comfortable at night. But the suffering is all
worth it when a child is born. What Paul is saying is that creation is longing
for the resurrection of the dead like a pregnant woman groans for the baby to
come out. Renewed humanity at the resurrection means a renewed relationship
with the Earth, and not the abandonment of it. Christianity is not just about
going to heaven when you die like some Christians believe. Anglican theologian
Tom Wright has said that heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the
world. The future of us and the future of the creation are entangled together.
What this means is that we have a message of hope to offer the world. But what does that mean for the here and now?