Jeremiah 1:4-10, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
‘You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.’
by Rev. Canon Dr. Kapya John Kaoma, Massachusettes
“Climate-related disasters – heatwaves, storms, floods, landslides, soil erosion, wild-fires, droughts and famines among many other environmental disasters – constantly international headlines, yet humanity is deafened by such catastrophes.”
These words opened my 2015 Gunther Wittenberg Annual Lecture on Earth Theology at the University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Before his passing, Gunther Wittenberg employed his outstanding biblical scholarship in South Africa to explore environmental issues as they relate to South Africa and the world as a whole. One of the papers I found enriching was Prophecy in a Time of Global Crisis, in which he warned that “it is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problems facing humanity in the twenty-first century.” He went on to link these problems to socio-economic issues in which the majority of young people find themselves in South Africa.
Whereas his paper spoke to South Africa, Wittenberg spoke about the exploitation of the poor nations by the West and now China, while we watch the earth and the poor die. He writes:
We live in a time of species extinction, the rapid depletion of the oceans’ bounty, deforestation and desertification with large parts of drinking water disappearing; a time of exploding world population and dangerous climate change.
It is from this context that he explores prophesy in our time – there is need to speak truth to power.
We are all living at the time of untold human carelessness, as a small minority hold the entire earth community in captive. Behind this crisis is our fate – we are all witnessing our own demise, yet our lifestyles, and human greed blind and deceive us into thinking we can exist without God’s Earth. Behind this crisis are powerful nations and individuals who have held God’s Earth and God’s poor captive. We now exist at the mercy of the powerful–powerful enough to destroy God’s creation for money. It is not that they do not know, but they value money over ecological integrity and the wellbeing of the poor.
As for those who seek to stand in their way, they are trampled down. The arrests, persecutions, and assassinations of environmentalists across the globe testify to vulnerabilities of all those who seek to speak against the ongoing destruction of God’s Earth. Like in ancient Israel, power buys justice, while truth telling sends one to the grave.
Earth-killing multi-national companies are making money on the backs of the poor and the earth. It is within this socio-economic crisis that God invites us to speak truth to power. This invitation, however, is not easy. It demands gracious courage from God’s prophets called to disturb the status quo with strong moral case for earth care. As Christopher Wright writes, “Christians should persistently present to authorities moral arguments with persuasive force and practical relevance. This should characteristically be on behalf of the weak, powerless and those wronged by injustice or callous neglect.” In his later writings, Wright has extended “the weak, powerless and those wronged” to include God’s creation. We all have a moral responsibility to speak on behalf of the earth, we are not just brothers’ and sisters’ keepers but earth keepers too.
The prophetic movement in ancient Israel were purposely meant to protect and morally enforce the covenant between the people, the creation and Yahweh. This is because the people of God existed on God’s land. This conviction is central to the biblical story, God created the Earth but humanity did not own the Creation. If anything, humanity lived as a landless tenant of God’s land. In order to ensure love and justice at all levels, God called on humanity to serve as gardeners; they were to become servants in God’s vineyard. The failure to keep Yahweh’s covenant led to extreme injustices, the situation that created a socio-economic, political and eco-religious crisis for the people of God. To address this need, Yahweh raised up individuals who sought to remind God’s people to obey Yahweh’s demand for social, political, ecological, spiritual and economic righteousness.
The call of the prophet Jeremiah is one example, Yahweh went on to say, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Jeremiah’s response is telling: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” This response reminds one of the encounter of Moses with God – the Creator has seen the crisis of the oppressed Israelites in Egypt and chose Moses to rescue them. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?,” Moses responded. Despite many excuses, God still sent him to do the impossible. With God on our side, we can liberate the oppressed Creation and the poor.
Prophesy comes from God in the time of crises. God’s word to Jeremiah, for example, suggests the divine agenda for God’s sacred Creation. In fact, prophesy flows out of God’s love and care for the Creation. It is not Jeremiah who chooses to become a prophet but God makes him one. In short, he is now the voice of God: “You shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” In missiological terms, Jeremiah was invited into the Creator’s prophetic mission or what I have termed the missio creatoris Dei, the mission of the Creator God. He had to courageously stand up against the forces of injustice, “Do not be afraid of them, for I will deliver you.”
There is something to be said about this divine assurance. Of course, God promised to protect him, but telling by what Jeremiah went through, it is safe to argue that divine protection does not mean a free ride, it is a costly venture. Yet with God on his side, Jeremiah is empowered by divine grace to see beyond the physical tribulations brought about by the crisis of the time.
Yes, he has a choice, to trust the source of his word and the mission or to reject it. But human disobedience cannot stop God’s mission, should Jeremiah refuse to speak, by divine initiative, “the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). Modecai’s words to Queen Esther somehow speaks to prophecy in our time, “…who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Est 4:14). As Christians, our generation must listen to Modecai’s wisdom, it is by divine initiative that we are here today.
Jeremiah’s task is thus laid down for him despite his low status, he now must do God’s work. He appointed
“over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.
What I find fascinating in this encounter is the power that Jeremiah holds, he must speak the words of God to nations and kingdoms in a dialectic tension, he must work to ensure the establishment of God’s reign on earth. This role is also reflected in the Lord’s prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” As Christians, we must not just pray for the kingdom to come, but must speak out against powers that are behind the destruction of the earth community. As God’s missioners, we possess the power “to build and plant” a new world in which the rights of the poor and the Earth exist in sacred harmony.
The epistle to the Hebrews seems to point to this when it speaks about God’s Word, we “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
Indeed, the blood of Abel spoke about the injustice of humanity, but the blood of Jesus extends justice and righteousness to all Creation. As we were reminded weeks ago, Christ Jesus is the first-born of all Creation (Col. 1:15; John 1:1-4). In “The Earth in the Mission of the Incarnate God,” I make a Christological argument that “through the Incarnation, God became earth (adamah). Just as humanity was formed from adamah, it is through the Incarnate Word that Creation was made – thus nothing exists without the Incarnate Word. In other words, Jesus’ life-blood and DNA exist in every biokind – suggesting that every creature shares his divine essence.”
It is here that African theological frame of Jesus as our ancestor can inform our understanding of the sacredness of, and our relatedness to the whole Creation. We are kith and kin the Creation–thus prophetic lenses of justice must extend to how we relate to God’s earth.
It demands courage to speak for the poor, and the earth. Jeremiah’s response is our responses: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” This is understandable, the forces behind the crisis are powerful and we like all biblical prophets, we are faced with the David and Goliath crisis, who am I to stand up against the powerful countries, companies and the rich? How can a person who is not a politician stand up against government activities that destroy the earth in the name of job creation? How can ordinary land dwellers stand up against big multi-national companies that destroy and pollute the land in the names of job creation? Given the politics and powers driving climate change, we are likely to be forced to retreat, even when we know that creation care is the fifth mark of Christian mission.
To some extent, Jesus’ healing of the woman on a Sabbath and the opposition it received from the leader of the synagogue points to how those in power view prophetic ministries of earth care. In some parts of the world and Christian theological traditions, standing up for the rights of God’s Creation is viewed as a secular thing. I remember when I shared my topic of research with some bishops years ago – “what is that to do with Christianity? Our duty is to preach the gospel”, they told me. Indeed, taking people to heaven ignores that events of the end times occur on earth too, something the book of Revelation outlines. And as Archbishop Welby rightly observed, earth care is “an opportunity to find purpose and joy, and to respond to our creator’s charge. Reducing the causes of climate change is essential to the life of faith. It is a way to love our neighbor and to steward the gift of creation.”
If we interpret the incarnation ecologically, then the imprisonment of the poor and earth’s natural goods by the evil spirit of capitalism is within the reach of Christology. Capitalism puts profits above human and the Creation’s rights.
Generally, Western nations are highly protective of their lands, trees, and waters. In fact, many have strong environmental laws that protect the earth in their countries. Sadly, the same nations hypocritically exploit poor nations, pollute the waters, and even displace the poor in the global South. As green prophets, we can shame such nations and companies by paraphrasing Jesus’ words, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you in your care for trees, protect waters, avoid using land-killing chemicals, protect the rights of people to ancestral lands, and protect endangered species? Do you not have laws that demand higher environmental standards in the mining and processing of heavy metals like lead and Uranium? And ought not poor and heavily indebted nations and communities, whom evil forces of capitalism and colonialism have bound for centuries, “be set free from this bondage” in our time?
by Revd Canon Dr Kapya J. Kaoma
Gunther Wittenberg, “Prophecy in a Time of Global Crisis: Hosea 5:8 – 6:6”, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 146 (July 2013), 139-169.
Justin Welby, “Our Moral Opportunity on Climate Change”, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/opinion/faith-climate-change-justin-welby.html
Kapya J. Kaoma, The Creator’s Symphony: African Christianity, The Plight of Earth and the Poor (Dorpspruit, RSA: Cluster Publication, 2015).
 Gunther Wittenberg, “Prophecy in a Time of Global Crisis: Hosea 5:8 – 6:6”, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 146 (July 2013), 139-169, 139.
 Christopher Wright, Walking in the Ways of the Lord (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press 1995), 286.
Alternative preaching suggestions: Healing on the Sabbath
The Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is Luke 13:10-17. That is about what to do or not on a Sabbath. In terms of sustainability this is becoming more and more important. Should we step into the daily traps of capitalism or should we argue like the leader of the synagogue in V14? Here you can find some Anglican reflections about Sabbath – find your own point of view when preaching about Lk 13:10-17!
How do we translate Jesus arguments into the challenges we face today?
Not only oxes and donkeys need water on the Sabbath. People living in water poverty across the globe also need to drink on the Sabbath too.
And what about our life-style choices? “Relaxing” by using your smartphone on Sundays is not passive at all. Smart phones use cobalt which is mined in places such as the DRC by under aged children. Should our Sunday choices cause hurt to other people?
The first reading (Jer 1:4-10) helps us to find a way forward: ‘You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.’ (V7) We have our job to do!
The Gospel reading in the Roman Catholic Lectionary is Luke 13:22-30. Here we find the well known sentence: ‘ Those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last’. This brings to mind lots of issues related to sustainability, for example ‘America first’ and the Paris agreement on climate protection …