Sunday, 15 February 2009

Is the earth telling us something?

One of Australia's worst natural disasters ever
The Victorian bushfires are one of Australia’s worst ever natural disasters. They were so fierce, scientists estimate they expelled up to 80,000 kilowatts per meter of heat just on the first day they burned. This is the same energy as 500 atomic bombs of the kind that landed on Hiroshima. The official death toll so far is 181. But it’s expected to reach 300, as investigators get to properly search places that are off-limits at the moment because it’s still too dangerous to go in.
Is the earth telling us something?
Maybe we need better management. There’s a system where bushfire alerts can be sent to mobile phones. It was available in 2005. But it wasn’t implemented because government agencies have been arguing about who should pay for it. Oops. And maybe we need bigger buffers between built-up areas and the bush.
Is that what the earth’s trying to tell us? We need to manage it better?
Maybe this is Mother Earth’s way of punishing us for global warming. Why should we think we’re the most important creatures on the planet? Why should we think we can manage the planet for our benefit? Maybe we need to admit that the earth’s really in control of us. Maybe we should treat her with more respect.
Is that what the earth’s trying to tell us?

The earth itself knows something's wrong
Romans 8:19-22 says:

19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

The earth itself knows that something’s wrong with this whole created order.
Something so deep, that it can only be solved by a new created order. This is what it means for the creation to be “frustrated” (verse 20). It doesn’t achieve its goal, it falls short. It knows it needs something better—it’s reaching for that something better—nearly, nearly—but no! It’s always missing.
Hmmm. That reminds me of another important verse in Romans. Romans 3:23: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. The world’s fallen-ness reflects our personal fallen-ness; our individual corruption is a microcosm of the world’s corruption. Isn’t that interesting?
This cosmic fallen-ness, this palpable universal imperfection, is no accident: it’s God’s work. Genesis ch 3 has the story of humans disobeying God. But it wasn’t just humans who suffered the consequences: the whole world was put under a curse. At first, the land produced vegetation, and sustained life. Now it produces thorns and thistles, and brings death (Gen 3:17-19). This wasn’t an accident: it was God’s judgment, in response to Adam & Eve turning their back on him.
But it wasn’t mere vindictiveness, either. God didn’t just say “that’s it – you’re all damned – SUFFER!” and stomp off like some bad-tempered child. He judged the world, in order to redeem it. That’s how the word “hope” (Gk: elpis) operates at the end of verse 20. It doesn’t mean uncertainty, quite the opposite: it means a sure expectation, a confident anticipation. We could paraphrase verses 20-21 as “God put the world under a curse of pain and sorrow, with the purpose of freeing it from this curse, and giving the world a share in the blessings enjoyed by glorified, perfected Christians.”
And that’s another interesting thing about this passage. Usually, we’d think that Christians share in the blessings of the new creation – that is, that a new created order is the environment through which God blesses his people. Bible passages that take that view include 1 Corinthians 15:35-56; 1 Peter 1:4; 2 Peter 3:13; and of course Revelation 21:1-4. But here, it’s the other way around: the world wants to share in the blessings that Christians enjoy.
And Christians have that future hope because of Jesus’ past historical work. Because of Jesus’ historical death and resurrection, we can be confident that the consequences of our rebellion against God have been dealt with. If we trust Jesus, we have relationship with God; we have the Holy Spirit living in us (Rom 5:1-5). We can eagerly wait for that relationship to be perfected, when we see God face-to-face.
This is the same thing that the earth is saying, in bushfires and storms and floods. It’s crying out: “come back, Jesus, come back! Perfect your people! That way I can be perfected as well!” It’s the earth’s version of Revelation 22:17: The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!”

Responding to disasters
So what does this mean for us?
First, it vindicates the grief of those who have suffered in the fires. To everyone who cries out “this is not right! Things shouldn’t be like this!” the earth itself responds “yes, I agree. I’m waiting to be redeemed, too”.
Secondly, it gives us a basis to talk about the consequences of sin. Not the usual nonsense of people suffering for their own sin. Exactly the opposite: the cosmic consequences of our historical sin in Adam. Adam, as our representative, rejected God – we all reject God – we all indiscriminately suffer God’s punishment upon Adam: the sufferings of this fallen world.
Finally, we have a message of hope for those who have suffered. We can tell them of a place where there’s no more no more death or mourning or crying or pain, where the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4). For those who have lost their houses and all their belongings, we can say “Jesus knows how you feel. He didn’t have any place to lay his head either (Luke 9:58). But he went to prepare a room in father’s house for you (John 14:2).” And to those who may not have been directly involved, but are just frightened – for the world is a scary, dangerous, deadly place – we can tell them about a new heavens and a new earth, where the lion will lie down with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6; 65:25).
The earth is telling us something: it is telling us the gospel. We are helplessly captured in a world gone wrong. This wrong-ness is no accident: it is the personal, judicial act of a holy God, in response to the equally personal act of his creatures thumbing their noses at him. But this wrong-ness has an end, a goal: sharing in the perfected freedom that God will grant to those who trust in Jesus.
Listen! Can you hear what the earth is telling us?