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Creation Groans

June 17, 2008

Prepared by the Eco-Concerns committee as a sermon for Environment Sunday on June 1st

Psalm 104; Mt 6:28-30; Romans 8:18-25

God's creation is all around us. Even in the cities built by human beings, it is present everywhere: in the flowers we keep on our windows, in the birds visiting our balconies and in the grass and trees of public parks.
We tend to think of Hong Kong as a 'concrete jungle', so we enjoy whatever bit of nature we can find. However, anyone who investigates the city's natural resources will quickly discover some amazing facts.
Despite its small area and high population density, Hong Kong boasts incredibly rich and surprisingly diverse flora and fauna.

Did you know that Hong Kong has:

  • 21 Country parks and 3 Special Areas, covering 40% of HK's total land area
  • 400 known native species of trees (compared to 33 in the UK)
  • Over 2000 native species of flora (compared to 30,000 in all of China)
  • Almost 300 species of butterflies (compared to 55 in the UK)
  • Almost 500 species of resident and migratory birds
  • Over 80 species of hard coral (more than the Caribbean!) and
  • Over 300 coral reef associated fish species?

  (information from Civic Exchange Hong Kong)

These statistics seems almost unbelievable even to nature lovers. Most of us simply aren't aware of the incredible wonders in our own backyard. We're so preoccupied with the man-made that we miss what's happening to the things that God made.

The Biblical writers were much closer to nature than we are today. The word 'creation' appears 55 times in Scripture. For example, in Psalm 104 the author marvels at the diversity of creation. He praises God who created the world and living creatures, provides for them and sustains life by His spirit. Listen to what the Psalmist says:

"O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great…These all look up to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground." (Psalm 104:24-25,27-30)

Jesus pointed to the beauty of nature to emphasize God's care for human beings. In Matthew 6, he says: Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?(Mt.6:28-30)

Our faith today is indeed small. Even though we live in the most technologically advanced era the world has ever known, our real understanding of the planet is still so limited. We can get satellite images, maps and 3D photos of any place on the globe, thanks to the Internet. We can literally go to the 'ends of the earth' thanks to modern communication and transportation. But still we don't comprehend what's happening to God's creation and how we are responsible. 

In Romans 8:22, St Paul speaks of the "groaning" of creation. It's a powerful metaphor depicting the pain of a universe longing for salvation. "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only have the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."

We tend to think of humanity as the center of God's saving act, but the apostle recognizes that creation's suffering is even greater than ours. J. Mark Lawson says people of earlier times understood their place in the scheme of creation. They respected the limitations placed on them by nature. They were so aware of the natural world that "they would naturally think of creation's existence as primary to their own, for they depended on it and lived within it."

In fact, we still are dependent on nature. We still have to live within its limits. And until we can accept this basic truth again, there will be no lasting peace on earth or goodwill among people.

Creation groans. But we don't want to hear it. We cover our ears, we close our eyes, we run the other direction.

Yet, if we dared to listen to the cries of nature, this is what we'd find:

  • Death in the forest– We've been cutting down forests at the rate of 120,000 sq km a year. An area of forest equal to 12 football fields is lost every minute.
  • Death of the land – The world population is around 6 billion. This is expected to increase to 8 billion by 2030. There will be a steady increase in land permanently occupied by housing, industry and infrastructure.
  • Death of diversity – Virtually all the earth's eco-systems have been dramatically changed through human activity. It's estimated that between 17,000 and 100,000 species vanish every year. Almost a quarter of the world's mammals face extinction within 30 years.
  • Death in the skies - Greenhouse gases caused by human activity play a major role in global warming – activities such as burning fossil fuels, agriculture and the use of chlorofluorocarbons in refrigeration systems. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts more droughts, heat-waves and heavy rain in some parts of the world, and a steady rise in sea levels as a result of temperature increases of 1 to 6 degrees C by 2100.

Creation groans. And though the cries of death are real and heartbreaking, Christians believe that death will not have the last word. Just as we await a new heaven and a new earth in Jesus Christ, so creation eagerly awaits to be set free from its bondage to decay. In Lawson's words: "The same glorious liberty that we await for our own lives is also in store for the landscape, the seascape, plants, and animals."  Just as creation suffered due to Adam's sin, so God intends for creation to share in His "final beatitude". Our destinies are linked.

Those living in affluent places, like Hong Kong, have been able to avoid the worst impacts of environmental disasters so far. But that time is quickly coming to an end. There is now more than ever a global sense that things are not right in nature – scorching heat waves, melting polar caps, choking air quality, filthy waters, toxic food.  The groaning of creation has finally reached everyone's shores, and we need to be part of the solution to turn this situation from a curse into a blessing.

We have a responsibility to take action so that our living doesn't lead to the planet's dying. Our consumer-oriented lifestyles are killing the planet, and in the process, threatening the survival of those who can least defend themselves – the poor. Though the environmental crisis affects all human populations around the globe, those living in poverty are hit hardest. The poor of the world are the ones most dependent on the physical environment to supply their daily needs. The poor living in Africa, Asia and Latin America are the most vulnerable when lakes dry up, crops fail, and disease spreads. By UN estimates, the additional number of people affected by malnutrition could rise to 600 million by 2080. Another 1.8 billion could be living in a water scarce environment. And an additional 220-400 million people could be exposed to malaria.

God hears their cries too. And that's why Christians are called to live out their faith – to protect the vulnerable and take care of God's Earth. We are the ones that creation is waiting for. We are the ones who reveal ourselves as children of God when we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our Creator to reverse the damage now.

In the words of the ecumenical church, "Christ died so that we may have life, and participate in the saving of this world."  What are you doing to bring salvation to a dying planet?

Sources:

  • Earth Day Sunday: "The Poverty of Climate Change" (2008), National Council of Churches of Christ USA Eco-Justice Program www.nccecojustice.org
  • "Our Place – Our Time, Hong Kong's Unique Asset: Our Rural Land" by Civic Exchange and Living Islands Movement (2006) www.civic-exchange.org/eng/upload/files/200611_RuralLand.pdf
  • "Romans 8:18-25 – The Hope of Creation", J. Mark Lawson, Review and Expositor, 91 (1994), pp. 559-565

In Christ,
Judy

Judy Chan serves with the Hong Kong Christian Council.  She is responsible for communications for the Council.  She is also in charge of ecumenical radio broadcasting ministry, English publications and ecumenical partnerships in Hong Kong and overseas.

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