October 4th is the festival day of St. Francis, patron saint of animals, merchants, and ecology. As we do each year, we will once again be using this festival as an opportunity to bless the animals in our lives. But this year, St. Francis’s Day takes on a special significance. For many of us, our pets have been our primary companions in the past six months. For many of us, nature has been the place in which we’ve found peace and a semblance of normalcy during this pandemic. For all of us, the smoke of the past six weeks has been a reminder that the health of our natural resources directly affects our health.
It’s easy to see how nature matters to us. But as Christians, let us also ask, how does nature matter to God?
The scriptures make clear three major themes about the Creator’s relationship with non-human creation: 1) God cares about the well-being of the natural world. 2) Jesus’ redeems not just people, but all of creation from human sin. 3) All of creation praises God as part of a cosmic congregation.
God cares for the natural world, not just because of the ways it supports human life, but because everything that God created is a delight to God. The very first chapter of the bible is a description of how God makes everything in the universe, from light, to stars, water, plants, and animals, and after each thing, God sees that they are good (Genesis 1). God continues to care for God’s good creation throughout the bible. Psalm 104 is 35 verses praising God for not only creating the world, but for ensuring the well-being of its inhabitants. The psalmist sings, “You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills, giving drink to every wild animal…The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God…how many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures…these all look to you to give them their food in due season.” Jesus affirms that God clothes flowers in the splendor of their beauty and cares individually for each sparrow and will not forget them (Matthew 6:28-30 10:29).
But what is perhaps more surprising to many Christians, is that the salvation that Jesus brings includes that natural world. This is because human sin has direct consequences for the rest of creation. After Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God says, “cursed is the ground because of you’ (Genesis 3:17). The story of Noah’s flood is the story of how human sin brings destruction to the whole earth. God recognizes that the animals are blameless in this sin and yet they suffer the consequences, so God commands Noah to ensure that the various species will survive (Genesis 6).
Human sin continues after the flood and so does the natural world’s need for redemption from it. In steps Jesus. In John 3:16, the word “world” in the original Greek is literally “cosmos.” God so loved the cosmos that he gave his only son that whosoever believes in him shall not die but have life everlasting. Belief is for humans, but the love that sent Jesus is a love that includes the galaxies spinning in deep space. Fulfilling the words of Isaiah, Luke 3:6 proclaims that “all flesh shall see the salvation of the Lord.” The word “flesh” in Greek is “sarks,” which refers not only to human flesh, but animal meat, the fleshy part of fruit, and even more generally the physical or natural order of things. Paul writes that natural world knows about Jesus and yearns for human redemption so that all of creation might also be liberated, saying, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21). Isaiah gives us a glimpse of what redemption looks like for the natural world in the description of the peaceable kingdom, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).
Since the natural world also looks to God as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, it should be no surprise that the scriptures speak abundantly of creation singing praises to God just as we do each Sunday morning. The writer of Revelation proclaims, “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’” (Revelation 5:13). Even “the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). We are part of a vast congregation that includes trees, mountains, animals, and even stars, all of which join us in singing God’s praises. And like the members of any congregation, we can learn from them greater faith. Job writes, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:7-12).
We worship a God who not only cares about the natural world, but who in Christ is redeeming creation from human sin. May our faith lead us to participate in the same work of caring for creation. And now that the smoke has begun to clear, I encourage you to spend time in the incredible natural beauty of northern California. When you do, remember that you are in the midst of a grand congregation singing God’s praises. Join in the song.
Your brother in Christ, Pastor Ben Colahan