Creation Care and the Incarnation

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Environment/Joy
December 20, 2015

Today is the fourth—and final—Sunday of Advent. During this Advent season, we have been considering how our God of life is speaking and acting against forces of death that seem so prevalent in our world today. We’ve talked about gun violence, the death penalty, war—yes, indeed. Fun times here at Peace Mennonite. And this morning on the final Sunday of Advent, we turn our attention to environmental degradation.

I don’t think many of you need to be convinced that we are in the midst of an environmental crisis. There are many steps people can take and are taking to address environmental problems:

–Global discussion, policy, and action such as those engaged in at the recent UN Climate summit in Paris are important aspects of our human response to the dangers of climate change. What is our goal for the global average temperature increase? What is our time line? What are the responsibilities of industrialized nations vs. developing nations?

–Policies at the national, state, and local levels are also significant. How will our tax structure incentivize lower energy use? What public transit systems will decrease carbon emissions? How will our community promote recycling?

–Even our personal and household practices can make a difference: What food do we eat? Where do we set the thermostat? How to we manage our transportation?

Discussions about addressing our current environmental crisis hinge both on questions about what to do and questions about why we need to do it. There are lots of books and web sites and groups you can explore that address the specifics of what to do. This morning I’m more interested in looking at the why—the underlying factors that motivate our what.

Science alone makes a pretty convincing argument for why we need to reduce our carbon emissions sooner rather than later. Rising temperatures are leading to severe whether events, species extinction, the spread of disease, decreased agricultural production, and a host of other problems that directly and indirectly affect human life on this planet.

As people of faith, we should pay attention to the scientific arguments for creation care, but we shouldn’t need those arguments to convince us to honor the world God has created. Even beyond the practical, scientific reasons for caring for creation, there are theological reasons.

Most faith traditions have some aspect of their belief system that encourages people to care for the earth.

My friend Lisa King, who has edited a book on teaching American Indian Rhetorics, explained to me that “Native peoples understand themselves as part of a network of relationships; it is understood that one can have a relationship with all other beings – the trees, the mountains, the birds, the animals. Humans are not above creation. They are part of it, and bound by reciprocal relationship to their relatives of all kinds.”

In Hinduism, according to Dr. Pankaj Jain, “nature and the environment are not outside us, not alien or hostile to us. They are an inseparable part of our existence, and they constitute our very bodies. The five elements – space, air, fire, water, and earth – are the foundation of an interconnected web of life. Hindus worship and accept the presence of God in nature. For example, many Hindus think of India’s mighty rivers – such as the Ganges – as goddesses. Through belief in reincarnation, Hinduism teaches that all species and all parts of the earth are part of an extended network of relationships connected over the millennia, with each part of this network deserving respect and reverence. In Hinduism, protecting the environment is an important expression of religious duty.

The Buddhist teacher, the Dalai Lama, has said: “Because we all share this planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. This is not just a dream, but a necessity.”

And the Abrahamic religions, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, share an understanding that the one, all-powerful, God has created the world. God is understood as Creator and ultimate owner of all of creation—including humanity. As Psalm 24 says: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” Humans hold a unique place in God’s creation and therefore have a responsibility to care for the earth and its creatures.

As Christians, we share much of our environmental theology with Muslim and Jewish people. The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective draws on this shared understanding of creation when it claims that: “As stewards of God’s earth, we are called to care for the earth and to bring rest and renewal to the land and everything that lives on it.”

But we also have one unique theological concept that encourages us in our respect and care for the physical world. It is a concept that we contemplate and celebrate particularly this time of year—the incarnation.

I think we are so used to the Christmas story that we hardly pay much attention anymore. We hear about the angel visit to Mary, the almost-broken engagement, the inconvenient birth—Mary and Joseph traveling away from home with no room in the inn. It’s all so familiar. A birth scene we see depicted over and over again in light-up plastic lawn figurines and high-glaze ceramics and hand-carved olive wood. We made our family nativity scene this year out of Playmobile pieces, with a new piece to add each day until Christmas. You can find lists of the worst nativities that include portrayals of the holy parents and child as cats, dogs, penguins, chickens, mice, frogs, monsters, mermaids, meerkats . . .

When we see various nativity scenes . . . OK, I’ll just speak for myself here. When I see various nativity scenes, I think “Christmas” and very rarely consider the theological implications of the over-familiar tableaux.

Probably the most familiar, the most discussed, theological controversy associated with Christmas is the virgin birth. Scripture tells us that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus. Some people, even some Christians, don’t buy that story. Personally, I do believe in the virgin birth. Because I do. No really good reason except—Why not?

Because the real controversy of Christmas, the truly unbelievable part of the story, is the incarnation. God becoming flesh. God. Becoming. Flesh. Next to that, the virgin birth is about as remarkable as a cardboard box.

Now I realize that not every Christian fully embraces the concept of the incarnation. Believing that Jesus is God made flesh—fully human and fully divine—that is a pretty high Christology. I believe it. Some of the writers and theologians I most respect don’t. Probably some of you don’t. But our individual beliefs on the divinity of the baby in the manger are not the point.

What? I’ve rambled on so long about meerkat nativities that you forgot exactly what the point was? The point is that our Christian tradition and theology provides a strong basis for our commitment to care for creation. Regardless of your personal beliefs, the incarnation is a fundamental aspect of orthodox Christian theology.

So yes, we should care for creation because God made it. We should care for creation because God has placed us in the role of being stewards of the earth.

And we should care for creation because God has been part of creation.

Emmanuel. God with us. Really. In the flesh.

The incarnation means that in the most real and concrete way, God is connected to the physical reality of this planet. God has inhabited a human body with skin, hair, blood, bone. God has had dirt under fingernails, has drunk thirstily from the offered cup. God has been soaked by rain and scorched by sun. God has picked wildflowers and caught sight of fluffy fox tails disappearing into the woods.

Emmanuel. God with us. Really. In the flesh.

Take a breath.

You just inhaled over four and a half trillion molecules that were once inside Jesus’ lungs1. . . . Or maybe, if we assume that some of the air Jesus breathed has been trapped and is inaccessible to us, even if we assume that, say, 99% of the air Jesus exhaled is trapped somewhere, you still inhaled about 46 and a half billion molecules of air that Jesus also breathed. With every breath.

Emmanuel. God with us. Really. In the flesh.

Among the many, many reasons to care about our planet is our Christian belief in the incarnation. Our claim that this baby in a manger in Bethlehem was the embodiment of the Divine in a unique and incomprehensible way. God, in Jesus, has been a real, physical part of creation; somehow Creator and created; made of the stuff of earth; interconnected with all other living things from the past through this very moment. . . . And this one.

In terms of orthodox Christianity, we move onto shaky theological ground if we claim that the stuff of this earth is divine; that any earthly, human thing is God. But we can proclaim loudly what seems to me to be an even more bold claim: that the Divine became the stuff of earth.

So may we faithfully care for the stuff of this earth, this earth on which God was pleased to dwell, this earth in which the molecules of God’s very breath flow even now through our lungs. Amen.