This sermon was preached at the 6:30 service at Redland Parish Church on the 15th of September 2019. The text was Job 39.
Before I start, I want everyone to take a moment. Do you know what your name means? Now turn to the person next to you or behind you and talk about what your name means, if it means anything at all.
Most of you won’t be aware that one of my middle names is Steuart, which derives from the role of a Steward, a person who had the responsibility of looking after the property of a more senior figure, usually a lord or monarch. The steward would represent their master when they were away and would govern in their name.
The reason for this little etymological diversion? We are all called to be stewards of God’s creation, which, affects our attitude towards creation care.
This chapter of Job and the previous one that Clare spoke on last week are two parts of the same long conversation. Prior to this, Job has been calling out God for the Lords actions in the earlier part of the book. Here in a section appropriately entitled “The Lord Answers Job” the Lord issues his response. In chapter 38 God challenges Job over his control of the natural world asking him, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
In chapter 39 God turns his attention towards living creatures, asking “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?” and Do you give the horse its might? Do you clothe its neck with mane?” Now you might be asking what is the point that God is trying to make? Well the answer is fairly simple. He is reminding Job and by extension us, that it is God who made the heavens, the earth and all that live on it, and he maintains sovereignty over it, not humanity.
Way back in Genesis chapter two we are told how “the Lord God took the man (Adam) and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it.” The phrase keep it, is very important. Adam has been put in charge of what God has made, but has not, been given the right to treat it as he wishes. He has been tasked with keeping it on God’s behalf. As John Stott puts it in his book The Radical Disciple, “the earth belongs to God by creation and to us by delegation. This does not mean that he has handed it over in such a way as to give up his rights to it, but rather he has given us the responsibility to preserve and develop the earth on his behalf.”
If you were asked to housesit for someone and look after their garden, you would do your best to care for it and return it to them in the same state that they left it. You wouldn’t fill their pond with takeaway containers and cover their lawn with crisp packets because that would not be respectful either to the person or to their home and property. That is the equivalent of our situation with God’s creation. He has asked us to care for it on his behalf. He has not asked us to treat disrespectfully. Just as you would treat someone’s house that you were looking after with respect, (even if they did tell you to make yourself at home), so we must not treat the earth as if we made it and can do with it what we like. We must respect God’s ownership of it.
A good steward will know plenty about his masters business, his estates and its operation. But he will also remember that it is not his estate to do with as he pleases but his masters to tend and care for. I think that is what is behind some of God’s comments in this chapter of Job.
Job we know from the beginning of the book had a lot of livestock. We are told he possessed, “seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys.” From this we can infer that Job probably knew something about livestock and animal husbandry. So why the question at the beginning of chapter 39 about the mountain goats and the deer? I believe he is trying to get Job to understand that no matter how much he thinks he knows about the world, he does not know it as well as God.
The same is true of us and I think we perhaps have failed to remember that. This passage along with Psalm 104 that Steven preached on last Sunday morning, remind us that God made everything, and however much humanity may uncover about the natural world, however much we may explore it, and uncover its secrets, we will never know as much as the Creator. We will never know how to treat it as well as he would treat it, and we will never understand it as deeply or intimately as he does, so the best we can do is respect it.. Any love we have for this planet is just a fraction of the love that God feels for it, and however disappointed we are about its current state is only a fraction of God’s sorrow at its present condition.
The other thing to remember about a Steward is that they only have authority for as long as the master is away. The authority is delegated, but the delegation is not permanent. In Return of the King by J.R.R Tolkien, Denethor the hereditary Steward of Gondor has forgotten that the role of the Steward is to rule until the King returns. He has come to view himself as the true ruler, forgetting that he is merely the place holder.
Humanity is in many ways guilty of the same thing. We have forgotten that we hold this planet in trust for our Lord and master and should be preparing for the day when he will return to take control of it again. Instead we have used it as we see fit, without remembering that it belongs to someone else. We have acted as though we are the king not as the steward that we are.
Before I move on to how stewardship should affect our attitude towards creation care, I want to dig into the animal imagery in this passage a little more. I said before that I believe God is trying to get Job to understand that as much as he thinks he knows about the world, God knows more. But I think there is something more to it. When God talks about the mountain goats giving birth, or how the wild ass scorns the city, he is reminding Job and us that the animals he has created our beings in their own right.
As John Goldingay puts it in his commentary on Job, humans are “not the centre of the animate world. It exists in its own right.” God may have given humanity “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” But as with any property left to a steward, having control over it means it must be treated as the master would himself treat it. God still loves these animals that has made, and watches over them, even if like the ostrich their actions seem not to make sense. We too must treat the creatures that we share our planet with, with love and respect.
So how does this idea of stewardship, caring for God’s creation on his behalf, have a bearing on creation care?
On the one hand it would seem very simple. We must seek to treat the environment and other living things with the respect that God would treat them with. We must seek to ensure that we each live within our means and not take more from the earth than we need. We should seek to buy sustainably, avoid plastic, switch to sustainable fuels, perhaps think about meat free days. This may seem very simple, but, as the Tesco advert goes, “Every little helps.”
But it is more than that. The Church is God’s representative to the world and our message is not just about the coming kingdom of God but about how we should all be living now. That includes trying to encourage others to treat the planet in an appropriate manner, both via our words and our deeds. However, we should be sure not to act like Job’s friends do, and make others feel bad or shame them when they do not act in what we deem to be environmentally friendly way. It might not always be easy or practical (or healthy) for people to shift to a completely environmentally friendly lifestyle and we must encourage people to do the best they can, rather than chastise them for not doing as well as we think they should. Once again, every little helps.
As I have mentioned several times, the main thing to remember about a steward is that their rule is delegated, until such time as the master returns again. We know that one day, at a time of his choosing, God will come again, to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. And while the story that begins in a garden, may end in the new Jerusalem, at the centre of that new city will stand the tree of life, next to the river of the water of life. A garden at the heart of the city of God. God cares for the world he has made, just as much as he cares for the people he has made and he is not and will not be pleased if we continue down this path and one day find that we have “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
As stewards of God’s creation, we must seek to care for that which he has put under our control, so that when he comes again we can return it to him in good order, having served him well. Creation is a great gift that he been left under our control. We must not squander or abuse it.