1 Cor 12:12-31
by Rev Dave Bookless PhD, Director of Theology, A Rocha International
NOTES ON THE READINGS
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 9-10: The earlier chapters of Nehemiah mainly concern the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its walls. Here we see Ezra, a ‘teacher of the law’ (v.1, 4, 9) and ‘priest’ (v.9), reading God’s law to the gathered people. There is a spiritual revival at the heart of the geopolitical events surrounding the return of the exiled Jews to Jerusalem. In exile, God’s people had forgotten God’s word and the rhythm of worship and festivals that tied them to the land and its seasons. They rediscover and keep the Feast of Tabernacles (later in the chapter). Their first response to hearing God’s word is to weep (v.9) but Ezra and Nehemiah instruct them to feast and celebrate, ‘for the joy of the Lord is your strength’. We can see parallels today between the hard work and practical organisation of rebuilding Jerusalem, and the busy activism of tackling climate change and ecological collapse. Like the Israelites, we need to stop, listen to God’s word, and be reminded of eternal and unchanging truths. Amidst our climate grief and lament, can we find times to rejoice in God’s unchanging word and promises? This will ground us in a rhythm of worship and sustain us as we build for God’s Kingdom in tackling ecological crises.
Psalm 19: This beautiful short Psalm celebrates two key ways in which God communicates with us: God’s works (vv.1-6) and God’s word (vv.7-1). These have sometimes been described as God’s two books: Nature and Scripture. Nature, or Creation, gives us glimpses of God’s creativity, power, beauty and relational nature. Scripture gives us an account of God’s purposes and calls us to respond. Without nature, scripture may sometimes seem dry and abstract. Without scripture, nature’s glimpses of God are confusing and vague. In Psalm 19, the focus is particularly on ‘the heavens’ (v.1). The Hebrew parallelism in v.1 shows the Psalmist means the physical sky and its contents, rather than a spiritualised ‘heaven’. When we look at the vastness of the night sky, or the constancy and warmth of the sun (vv.4-6, described poetically as a bridegroom and an athlete) we are put in our place (NB. Psalm 8:3-4) and driven to worship God. The second half of the Psalm is equally poetic, using multiple images from nature to describe God’s word (refreshing [water] v.7; light v.8; gold and honey v.10), as well as other terms from human life (trustworthy, joy-giving, pure and reliable). There is no either / or between nature and scripture: God’s character and purpose are woven through both, and a healthy Christian life involves immersion in both.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a: The body of Christ is a familiar metaphor for the Christian community, the Church. It is, of course, an organic image, one of many times the New Testament uses the patterns and structures of God’s creation to illustrate spiritual truths. Amongst the key truths that Paul draws out of the body imagery are those of diversity and interdependence. A human body (like an ecosystem) has many different parts, each with different functions. How ridiculous for an eye or an ear to claim it can survive or thrive or be important without the other parts! Yet, that is effectively what humanity often does with regard to the rest of God’s creation: we act as if we are all that matters, and our behaviour destroys the very parts of ecosystems that we depend on for our own wellbeing. God calls us humbly to know our place and our need of each other, both within the church as a body with Christ as its head, and also within creation which also has Christ as its head (Colossians 1:18, Ephesians 1:22-23).
Luke 4:14-21: Jesus, recently baptised and tempted in the wilderness, reads in the synagogue at Nazareth from Isaiah 61. The reading summarises the manifesto for his ministry. It is a Spirit-filled charter for an integral understanding of mission and the Gospel, not only as spiritual salvation but as recognising God’s liberating Kingdom rule for the poor, prisoners and oppressed. Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God never separates spiritual and material, or justice in this world and judgment for the age to come. Although the passage is entirely about justice and liberation within human society (thus including ‘climate justice’ and the way environmental changes affect most those who have done least to cause them, and can least afford to tackle them), there is an implicit relevance for creation care too. Both Isaiah’s Messianic prophecies which Jesus reads from, and Jesus’ own teaching on the Kingdom of God, have an ecological dimension. The promised Messianic age will include peace / shalom throughout creation. God’s Kingdom is to be ‘on earth’ as it is in heaven.
DRAFT SERMON/SERMON OUTLINE
GOD’S TWO BOOKS: Psalm 19
Over 20 years ago, I had the privilege of hearing the famous bible teacher, John Stott, preach in the middle of a muddy field in England. The occasion was the ‘British Birdwatching Fair’ where tens of thousands of birders converged on a nature reserve to buy, or enviously look at, binoculars, telescopes and brochures of wildlife holidays, and to listen to talks on wildlife and birds. Each year, the organisers invited A Rocha to hold a Christian act of worship on the Sunday morning in a tent, and those who attended were a mix of the committed, the curious and the cynical. John Stott, himself a life-long birder, chose Psalm 19 for his text, and spoke simply and clearly of how God communicates with us through his Works (creation / nature, including birds of course!), and through his Word (the Bible).
Sometimes we create false divides. That audience at the British Birdwatching Fair included ‘bible people’, committed Christians whose inspiration and guidance was the written word of God, and ‘nature people’ who never attended church or read the Bible but experienced joy, wonder and mystery in nature. John Stott explained how Psalm 19 challenges both groups. It begins with how creation ‘declares’ God’s work and ‘proclaims’ God’s glory. As Romans 1:20 reminds us, creation is God’s first evangelist: it clearly demonstrates God’s eternal power and divine nature. We should not dismiss those who claim to feel nearest to God in a garden or a forest, watching birds, on mountain tops or swimming in the ocean. Often our churches (both the buildings and the worship) fail to reflect the beauty, majesty and scale of who God is, and it’s not surprising that people reject what feels like an abstract, wordy or other-worldy religion. Could we find ways to consciously connect more with God’s self-revelation in nature? Maybe we could sometimes hold worship outdoors, walking, listening, observing and seeking God’s voice that does not need speech (19:3-4).
Yet, nature on its own leaves us with a vague and confusing picture of God’s purposes. We need the great story of God’s dealings with the world, and with humanity, to make sense of life’s big questions, and for that we need scripture. Psalm 19 does not see God’s word (to the Psalmist, the law of Moses; to us the whole Bible) as mere words on a page. God’s words are refreshing, wisdom-building, joy-giving, enlightening, pure, reliable, precious, and warning us how to avoid being ruled by our faults. Is this how the Bible feels to you? If it has become dry and over-familiar, why not read it outdoors, allowing God’s two books, nature and scripture, to act as commentaries on each other? Take a short passage, perhaps even a single verse, and treat it like sweet honey – hold and savour it, repeating and enjoying the words – and use all your sense to allow God to bring it to life, through the Spirit interpreting creation to you.
- If the weather or your location make it difficult to enjoy nature, why not watch a beautiful nature documentary whilst reading and re-reading Psalm 19? Make note of what God says to you through it.
- find a local nature conservation group / project, and see if you can develop links from your church to it. Perhaps have a volunteer day to help out, and once relationships are established, organise a wildlife weekend at your church, inviting local nature / wildlife / environmental groups.
- Hold a time of prayer, ideally outdoors, where people call out the ways in which they see God’s glory or gain knowledge of God through aspects of God’s creation.
by PhD Dave Bookless, A Rocha International, London