September 18, 2016

3rd Creation Sunday

Psalm 18:6-18

Romans 8:18-25


Since I moved to Australia, I have often had the privilege to live quite close to the beach. And when you live close to the beach, the obvious question that people often ask is, “Do you spend much time on the beach?” Well, I do walk or jog along the beach. But, if they mean swimming, I can’t swim. And, I know you’d probably told me to learn how to swim because it’s a pity to live close to the beach and don’t swim there.

But, in all honesty, friends, even if I could swim, I would most probably still do not attempt to swim on the beach. It’s just you never know what is lurking beneath the surface of the water, especially those creatures that would be happy to take you as their lunch.

Now, I’m not trying to scare people who do swim in the sea. And many people would quickly remind me that, statistically, there are many more people who get killed in road accidents than get eaten by sharks. That means, I’m more likely to get killed in a car accident than get attacked by a shark. That’s true.  But, also statistically, there are many more people driving on our roads than swimming in the beach on any day!

My point, friends, is that we live in a paradoxical world. We only need to look at the beautiful beaches and creeks and bush lands and gorges around us to know what a beautiful place Australia and the rest of the world are. But, we do know that this beautiful world can also become a dangerous and unfriendly place to live.

When I was in Singapore with my wife recently, the television channel of our hotel room played the movie, The Martian, a number of times that I think I now have become an expert of the movie. The movie tells the story of an American astronaut who gets stranded for over a year in the Planet Mars. In the final scene of the movie, years after he is rescued from the planet, he leads a class of young astronaut candidates. He tells this group of young people that they need to learn the art of survival because the universe is not a friendly place; it does not cooperate.

Now, we don’t have to go to the planet Mars to know that the universe can become a dangerous place. Last Sunday, we talked about the natural disasters that hit different parts of the world this year. They remind us that there is not a single place on this planet Earth that is completely safe.

Indeed, according to the book of Genesis, the world where we now live has fallen from its original condition. In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, he had in his mind the passage about the fall of humankind and the rest of creation in the book Genesis. “The creation is now subjected to futility,” he said in his letter. The Greek word that is translated as futility here also means emptiness, purposelessness, even frustration. It has the sense of being without a result or ineffective. In other words, for Paul, the creation is no longer able to fulfill its purpose.

“The creation is also subjected to decay,” he continued saying in his letter. Here, the Greek word for decay has the sense of perishable. Indeed, for Paul, creation is now held in bondage. It is in a state of corruption that it has no power whatsoever to free itself from the cycle of death and decay.

As it was common in OT and Jewish literature, Paul then talked about nature as if it was a person, but not any kind of person. In his letter, he imagined nature as a woman who was in pain while giving birth. “Today, the whole world is groaning in labor pains,” he said.

Now, it is important to note that he talked about birth pangs and not death pangs. He wanted to remind us the pain would not be in vain; a new life would be born out of the pain. Therefore, despite of his negative assessment regarding the current state of creation, Paul still held hope for its future. For him, the creation was waiting for the time when we, God’s children, would finally be redeemed. And, as humans are redeemed, creation too would be redeemed. Creation would be returned to its original state: the state that God intended in the first place.[1]

So, the world, for Paul, was not a perfect place. Just like us humans, it contains many flaws and is in the state of needing redemption. And, seeing creation in this state could help us better understand the terrible natural disasters that have cost many human lives in the history of this planet. It could help us not to quickly judge those disasters as God’s act or, even worse, as God’s act of punishment.

Many of you would still remember the monster earthquake and tsunami that left around 15,000 people dead in Japan in 2011. Immediately after the disaster, the Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, called it as a tembatsu. Tembatsu is a Japanese word that means ‘divine punishment’.

It reminds us of the remarks made by the then Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, after the Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005. He said, “Surely God is mad at America. He sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane."[2] Michele Bachmann, a Republican Presidential candidate in 2012, made similar remarks about the earthquake and hurricane that hit the Eastern coasts of the US. She saw the natural phenomena as warnings, given by God to the American politicians.[3]

Now, linking natural phenomena to God’s act is nothing new. Many people in the biblical time had also done it. The psalmist of Psalm 18 was one of those. 

Psalm 18 seemed to be written by a distressed person who went to the temple to seek for God’s help. For a Hebrew like him, the temple was a sacred place where God was present and could be encountered. There, he cried out loud to God and God listened to his cry.

We are then invited by the psalmist to imagine God’s response to his prayer through the forces of the natural world. If we liken the psalm to a movie, the camera takes us from the inside of the temple to the outside world. There, God is like a giant who is awaken by the distressed ‘000-call’ made by the psalmist. And, as God stands up and moves, the earth trembles and quakes. Smoke billows from God’s nostrils and fire burns in God’s mouth. Indeed, this depiction of God’s face reminds me of the mythical depiction of a dragon.

God then comes down from the sky, riding on a cherub. Now, the biblical cherub is nothing like the popular image of a cherub as an innocent little chubby boy with wings on his back. No. The biblical cherub is a terrifyingly powerful mythical beast whose physical appearance is like a mixture of a lion and an eagle.

And, as God comes down from the sky, with this scary looking beast as His chariot, the clouds become dark. A dreadful thunderstorm erupts, complete with powerful twisters, thunders, and lightning. The water in the ocean is scattered, and beneath the deep ocean, the ancient image of the foundations that supported the flat earth are revealed. Indeed, this description of the scattering of the ocean brings back to memory the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus that delivers Israel from slavery in Egypt.

So, in Psalm 18, these terrifying manifestations of God through the forces of nature are not meant to bring punishment, but to rescue the psalmist. Indeed, these fear inducing powerful natural phenomena are not symbols of punishment, but salvation.

In the last verses of the psalm, the psalmist likens his situation to being drowned in the ocean: the symbol of chaos and destruction in the Hebrews’ worldview. But, God rescues him from the water. Indeed, in the Hebrews’ proclamation of faith, God’s power and majesty in the universe could not be separated from God’s personal love and care. The psalmist assures us that our very being in the universe is cared for by no less than the Lord of the universe.

So, friends, the psalmist of Psalm 18 did see natural phenomena like powerful earthquake, thunderstorm, or lightning as manifestations of God in the world. But, for him, God did not appear through these phenomena to bring punishment, but to show God’s providence especially to those who called upon God.

Creation, therefore, can still become a terrifying and dangerous place to live. But, its fear-inducing and dangerous power is not beyond God’s love and care. The Lord of the universe, who controls the mighty ocean and mountains, is not indifferent to our lives. The Creator cares deeply about us, however insignificant our existence is in the entire universe.

Indeed, friends, nature can invoke various feelings within us. For some, nature is like a servant. The purpose of nature, for these people, is to be used and exploited for our benefits. Others see nature as untamed and vast reality that dwarfes our very existence. For these people, standing in the face of the powerful forces of nature invokes the feelings of both fear and awe. Indeed, nature can fascinate us with its unmatched beauty, but it can also make us fearful of its danger.

Regardless of what feeling nature creates in us, we are reminded today that we are not insignificant in the midst of these powerful forces. The Creator of the universe cares deeply about us. So, the next time a terrible natural disaster happens, let us remind our selves that somehow God is in the midst of all that. And, let us hold on to our trust that God is there not to punish, but to somehow bring redemption to a broken world. Amen.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] The Birth Pangs of Creation: The Eschatological Transformation of the Natural World in Romans 8:19-22 by Harry A. Hahne Tyndale Seminary, Toronto.

[2] Adam Hamilton, Japan’s Earthquake and the Will of God, on (21/03/2011; updated: May 25, 2011)

[3] Daniel Burke, Bachmann’s Natural Disaster Prophecy, Joke Or Not, Has Lots Of Company, on (30/08/2011; updated: Oct 29, 2011)