What Can we Learn From This Pandemic About Science and Nature?
What Can We Learn From This Pandemic … About Science and Nature?
What can we learn?
One of the common headlines we’ve seen, actually right back from the beginning of this pandemic is about what might change as a result of COVID 19.
We’ve changed the way we shop,
We’ve learnt new ways to work,
We think differently about socialising,
And we might never travel quite the same way again.
And of course it’s really good for us to stop and assess;, are there aspects of how we live, think, behave, should be changed, as a result of what we’ve learnt from COVID.
And so over these 4 Sunday evenings, we’re asking the question, “What can we learn from this pandemic?”
And tonight we’re thinking about nature.
Before all this happened we’d probably never thought too much about bats,
About human environments displacing creatures, we don’t particularly like,
We’d hardly thought about airflow and ventilation,
Science and the study of sneezing, let alone how a vaccine gets made.
And so in order not to waste the experience of this last 12 months, tonight we’re going to hear what the Bible says about 3 related issues;, science, nature, and the environment.
1. Creation is beautiful, but spoiled
So let’s start at the beginning. Creation is beautiful, but spoiled. Right after God has created the world, the Bible tells us.
31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good Genesis 1:31
Now, “good” sounds a bit low-key to us.
We do something and describe it as “brilliant” or “excellent!”
But for God to say creation is good means it achieves the purpose for which he created it in the first place.
That is, creation displays and reflects something of God’s glory, his character and power.
We heard that at the beginning of our service in those words from Psalm 19:,
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
Everywhere we turn we’re confronted by the glory of God, the worth, the weightiness of God, reflected in creation.
As David says in that Psalm, creation pours forth speech;, it’s constantly pointing us to God, showing us something of the goodness and order of God’s character.
The Apostle Paul says in Romans 1, that since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.
Creation doesn’t tell us everything there is to know about God.
It tells us nothing about salvation, our need for a rescuer, we need Jesus for that, but it does tell us that God’s powerful,
Careful and deliberate, planned. Not haphazard.
Creation reflects God’s care and order and might;,
We depend on the internal cellular mechanisms of plants for every breath.
The angle of tilt of our planet’s axis, 23 and a half degrees, scientists think is essential to life,
I read an article just this week saying even plate tectonics, the things that give us earthquakes, are essential to life in that they lock away elements that interfere with RNA.
Creation is beautiful;,
But most importantly, it speaks to us of God and his glory.
Back in 1967 a medieval historian named Lynn White wrote an article in the journal Science titled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” which laid the blame for environmental destruction squarely at the feet of a Christian worldview.
Because of what the Bibles says about humans, humans have trashed the world.
That’s the argument.
And no doubt there are some people who do think they’re free to trash the world, with no regard for how God would have them exercise rule over creation.
But to live as I want, without thinking what God wants, is to do exactly what Adam and Eve did, isn’t it?
Ignore God, just serve yourself!
So that’s hardly the direction the Bible encourages us in!
But White has mis-understood the Bible’s teaching about creation because he claims, “no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.” ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis’ Science, New Series, Vol. 155, No. 3767 (Mar. 10, 1967) p 1205
But that’s not true! Creation isn’t just beautiful because it gives me what I need to eat, and to breathe, and to enjoy,
But because The heavens declare the glory of God; Psalm 19,
Because God’s eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen Romans 1.
Creation is beautiful and part of that beauty is in what it teaches us about God.
But creation is spoilt.
We know, Genesis 3, sin enters the world, and it’s not just humans who suffer the effects of that, but all of creation is spoilt by sin.
Writing to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul says We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Romans 8:22
A couple of verses earlier Paul’s described it as creation being subject to frustration. The earth is cursed because of human sinfulness, and it’s frustrated in its ability to achieve its intended purpose.
Because of sin people don’t look at the heavens and become overwhelmed by the glory of God.
Scientists don’t often peer down a microscope at the intricate detail of a human cell, and fall to their knees in worship.
Our friends don’t marvel at an enormous oak tree and immediately wonder at the goodness and power of the God who made it.
Creation is spoiled.
It doesn’t achieve the purpose for which God intended it.
It doesn’t support life in the way he intended it to, in fact our physical world now sometimes takes life.
You might know that famous line from one of the most famous poems in the English language, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, when he writes of “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” The natural world can be violent and deadly.
Writing that poem after the death of a friend, Tennyson’s experience, that nature is spoilt, and violent, and no longer lives up to its intention, mirrors our experience in the past 12 months of this pandemic, doesn’t it?
Nature, viruses, cells, proteins,
Bits of creation turning on us,
Creation is frustrated in its intended purposes, in punishment for humanity’s sin.
But also, we spoil nature through our sin.
Whether it’s something as simple as we’re too lazy to put our rubbish properly in the bin, and so waterways get clogged, and animals ingest bits of plastic,
Or the much larger scale where corporate bottom lines are driven by greed, so shortcuts get taken in industry;,
Polluted water leaks into rivers,
Deforestation is out of control,
We demand cheap food so we turn a blind eye to farming practices that are unsustainable.
In lots of ways, the fact that we choose to put ourselves first, means we spoil creation.
So what should we do?
Don’t be surprised when nature hurts us, but listen to it
Well, first of all, don’t be surprised when nature hurts us. By that I mean, viruses, natural disasters, sickness, cancer.
These are not a sign that the world is out of control, or that evil is triumphing.
They are part of the brokenness of our world, because of sin and because of God’s punishment of sin. Again, not individual sin, please hear me say that, but, sin generally.
The word “unprecedented” has been used more in the last 12 months than I think ever before!
But actually, the pandemic is not really unprecedented.
In God’s kindness global pandemics are few and far between, but this has happened before, and it will happen again.
We’re not used to sickness we can’t control,
But, battling against disease,
Being confronted with death,
Fearful for your life, that’s the daily experience of millions of people.
So don’t be surprised or unsettled by nature, “red in tooth and claw”, but let’s learn the lesson from it.
When nature hurts us, we should say, “something’s not right with the world,
This is not how things ought to be,
Where can we turn for a solution?”
Which takes us to, the second thing we can do,
Recognise that creation will never be unspoilt until sin is done away with
That is, recognise that creation will never be un-spoilt until sin is done away with.
Since the world is spoilt by sin;, our rejection of God and his rule, as long as there’s sin, there’ll still be spoiling.
You may have heard a parent say, “tidying your house while you have children at home, is like brushing your teeth while eating Oreos.”
It’s a good picture isn’t it?!
Nature will never be unspoiled, while we’re still eating the Oreos of sin, rejecting God and his pattern for life.
Enjoy the beauty even in a spoilt creation
But thirdly, Let’s enjoy the beauty even in a spoilt creation
Knowing we’ll never undo the effects of sin on our world, is it worth making any effort to unspoil it?, to preserve and care for nature?
It’s still the world that God made! We still depend on it for life and sustenance! Even broken, it still points us to God.
We’ll come back to this in a bit, but we mustn’t think that because we can’t fix everything, that we don’t do anything.
Remember that Psalm 19 was written after sin spoiled creation. When David says The heavens declare the glory of God, he’s talking about nature in the same sin-infected state as we see it today, and yet it can still proclaim God’s glory.
The church Reformer John Calvin once said in a sermon “There is not one blade of grass, there is no colour in the world, that is not intended to make us rejoice.”
But if we despise creation, if we make no effort to limit the spoiling effects of sin, we’re cutting ourselves off from those opportunities to rejoice and to learn of God’s character.
Now, I’m not really a nature kind of guy. I’m more of a “Oh, I’ve got nature on me! Get it off!” kind of guy.
And yet God intends for nature to teach me something, And God is convinced that even in its spoiled state, it can teach me something.
So I need to make sure I don’t despise nature, but to be deliberate about experiencing it, and learning what God wants to teach me of his character and glory through it.
So that’s our first point;, creation is beautiful, but spoiled.
2. Science is useful, but limited
Secondly this pandemic has shown us both that science is useful, but also that it’s limited.
There’s so much excitement and expectation about life getting back to normal.
Some here have made, kind of COVID advent calendars, counting down the days until various restrictions are lifted!
And mostly that excitement is thanks to science;
Even the understanding of Germ Theory as the basis for disease, which is why we wash our hands and wear masks, and why think it’s rude to cough on people!
This pandemic’s shown us lots about how useful science is. But also it’s highlighted the limits of science hasn’t it?
During lockdown my daughter Heidi and I have been watching all the disease movies!
The Hot Zone,
And in the film 12 Monkeys, there’s the infamous line, “science ain’t an exact science”!
Science is limited.
Even while bookings for summer holidays have gone through the roof, we’re being warned that the new Brazilian variant might bring international travel to a halt. That is, a microscopic variation of proteins on the viral envelope, invisible to the naked eye, might ruin our chances of life getting back to normal this summer.
And of course, the limits of science are seen most clearly and painfully in the death toll.
Every dot on those graphs is a person whom the very best science couldn’t save.
Now, I am not anti-science! I’ve got a health sciences degree. I used to work in the Department of Anatomical Sciences in a university. I’m all for science.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to those of us who are Christian, that science is useful, but limited.
Even the Prime Minister has said several times in the last year, “We must be humble in the face of nature.”
Our ability to understand and control the natural world through science is limited.
Even if, one day, COVID-19 disappears entirely, like smallpox has because of science, that doesn’t mean that life suddenly becomes perfect, does it?
You may have seen the guy in the news this week, recovering from COVID. And he said “If COVID didn’t kill me, nothing ever will.” But that’s not quite how it works, is it?
COVID might not take his life, but something will.
And the reason that science is limited in what it can do against this pandemic, is because death is part of the judgement of God on sin.
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans,
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death came to all people, because all sinned
Death comes from sin.
Here is the hard limit of science.
And even if they figure out a way to thaw out all those people freezing themselves, in the hope they can be revived and cured in the future, there’s still the problem of what leads to death.
What did Paul say? death came to all people, because all sinned.
What we need is, not just something that can defeat the current challenge we face,
Or even the next natural or scientific challenge that comes along,
It’s not even that we just need science to unwind death.
Were death to be reversed, but sin not dealt with, we’d live for eternity, under the right and just judgement of God!
No, even more than an end to this pandemic, or the next one, or even an end to death, we need someone who can bring end to death, because they’ve made an end of sin.
As useful as science is, and as I say, I invested years of my life in it, this pandemic teaches us that what we need most is not better science, but what science is unable to achieve.
Have a listen to how the author of the letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus achieving for us what science, or human effort can never accomplish.
But he that’s Jesus, he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many;
Jesus can offer deliverance from death, because he’s dealt with our sin, our refusal to honour and obey God.
So what do we do?
Some can love our neighbours through science
Well, some among us, will be able to love our neighbours through working in science and healthcare.
Christians make excellent scientists because of the conviction that God stands outside of creation and created in an orderly manner.
That means we expect that there will be such things as laws of nature that are consistent and can be relied upon.
So Professor Paul Davies, one of the leading scientific thinkers of our age, wrote this in the New York Times:
“You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way.”
And to bring these things, which we’re convinced about creation to bear on the lives of others is one of the ways that some here, will be able to love their neighbours.
You could be a scientist, who through discovering something new of God’s design in creation, gives others, yet one more reason to marvel at God’ gory.
But of course we want to love our neighbours, especially with the gospel, the good news of sins forgiven and death defeated.
It’s not really loving to hold that bit back, while we offer the benefits of our scientific efforts to others;, “I love you enough to help treat your illness, but not enough to tell you the message that saves people from hell!” That’s no good at all!
So even those among us who love their neighbours through science or healthcare or research, you’re still commissioned by Jesus to share the good news of the gospel.
Thank God for the benefits of science which we enjoy
Second thing to do is, thank God for the benefits of science which we enjoy.
Thank God for medical care,
For the NHS, for vaccines,
For scientific breakthroughs that have led to better health for us; whether that’s Watson, Crick, Franklin and DNA,
Or simply the invention of the flushing toilet!
In the same way as we saw last week that a government acting as it should means Christians are free to get on with evangelism, the fact that we have good health, and long life expectancy means we have more opportunities to tell people about Jesus!
We should thank God for that, and make the most of the opportunities he’s given us.
When science is limited, look forward
And the limitations of science, when we bump up against that hard edge of what it’s able to accomplish, That should remind us to look forward to the day when we’re no longer fighting against the brokenness of our world.
One day there’ll be a new creation, unspoiled by sin.
When life is pretty good, it’s easy to forget about that.
But when we’re made aware of our powerlessness against sin and death, let’s not waste the opportunity to have our eyes lifted to that day when everything is made new.
See, even the limitations of science, are useful
Science is useful, but limited.
Environmental care is important, but not ultimate.
And so thirdly, that certain future we look forward to, reminds us that environmental care is important, but not ultimate.
Let’s go right back to the beginning;, Genesis 1.
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”,
Genesis 1:27 – 28
And then we’re told in Genesis 2, when the story kind of zooms in on humanity, God had planted a garden, in Eden.
And then he took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
Made in the image of God, humans are to rule the rest of nature.
The Garden of Eden was a bit of a headstart. God saying “here you go Adam, this is what I want it to look like,
Now go and make the rest of creation like the garden.” Eden is kind of the picture on the box of the jigsaw puzzle, “this is what the finished product should look like.
And at the time Genesis was written, the kings of the nations around Israel liked to think they bore the image of their nation’s gods.
But the true and living God says every human bears his image. And so every human is responsible for representing God on earth, including ruling God’s creation under God,
Caring for everything else that God has made.
Environmental care is important, because it’s a task entrusted to us by God.
This language of subdue, and rule is, almost banned these days, and yet the picture here is of exercising rule and authority under God, with him ruling his world, through us.
Obviously any kind of rule or subduing that has no concern for the welfare of whatever it is that you’re ruling over, simply pillaging it for your own benefit, that’s not going to go down very well with God who owns it!
Where I used to live they have a Governor General who represents the Queen.
She can’t be in all her countries at the same time, so she appoints these people who exercise her authority, under her.
How is the Queen going to feel if she finds out Governor General of Australia has imposed his own taxes,
Taken possession of half the real estate,
And treats the country as if it’s purely there for his benefit.
He’s exercising rule!
But not Her Majesty’s rule, which is about well-being and freedom for all her people.
The opening of the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament describes Jesus, the Son of God as sustaining all things by his powerful word.
Creation exists, every raindrop, every leaf, every molecule, because Jesus is actively sustaining and preserving it.
Jesus thinks, creation is worth preserving.
There’s an interesting example in the Old Testament about how God’s people should interact with, and care for this world that the Son of God thinks is worth preserving!
God prohibited a kind of, scorched earth policy.
So in Deuteronomy 20 we read:, When you lay siege to a city, do not destroy its trees by putting an axe to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? 20 However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees
Food miles, and natural resource management, were in God’s mind back in Deuteronomy 20.
A Christian is not free to say “environmental care doesn’t matter.”
As those made in the image of God, we’ve been given a responsibility to care for his world, in a way that reflects his own care for the world.
And yet, we don’t do we?
Because of sin, the image of God that we bear is shattered, and we don’t represent God as we ought,
We don’t care about the things he cares about,
We don’t look after his world as he would have us do.
We are still made in the image of God. But it’s a bit like looking in a mirror that’s broken, you can still see something of what’s there, but you don’t get an accurate representation.
So if we want to know, how we relate to the world, we need an unspoilt image to look at,
Someone who bears the image of God accurately, and without sin.
Which is exactly what the Bible tells us about Jesus. The Son is the image of the invisible God, Colossians 1:15.
Hebrews 1 tells us he’s the exact representation of (God’s) being.
If we want to know what bearing the image of God should look like, how to represent God and his priorities and concerns, we need to look at Jesus.
And what we find when we look at Jesus, is that environmental care is important, but not ultimate.
Yes, this is the Jesus who sustains all of creation, and so we can never be ambivalent towards creation, or worse.
But equally, Jesus says other things have a higher priority.
Environmental care is important, but not ultimate.
That very same verse from Hebrews I just mentioned continues, After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven
Paul continues from that verse in Colossians, that God’s plan is to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
God’s plan for eternity doesn’t centre on Jesus caring for the environment, but on Jesus saving lost and sinful people from hell for heaven.
To bear the image of God,
To represent God, is to be convinced that what matters most is someone’s eternal standing before God.
That’s what Jesus thinks matters most.
When Jesus was asked “what’s the most important command from God? Where should we be investing our time?”
He replied ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’, and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
A right relationship with God is ultimate, and a love for others that they might come into a right relationship God, is to be like Jesus.
Looking after the world matters,
But what good will it do someone, to have clean air and healthy water, and yet go to hell because they’ve lived their entire life as God’s enemy?
Environmental care matters to God.
Environmental care is important, but it’s not ultimate.
So, for the last time, what could we do?
Be on your guard against the constant pressure to make environmental care ultimate.
Firstly, be on your guard against the constant pressure of our world to make environmental care ultimate.
Post-modernism supposedly spelled the end for meta-narratives, overarching views of the world that we could all line up behind, and yet, environmentalism is constantly held out as just about the only thing we’re all supposed to agree on.
Our society, in the absence of any other source of purpose or value for human life, makes caretaking the planet our ultimate cause.
I remember a man telling me once that when he got to heaven, God would welcome him in, because he did his recycling!
And unfortunately, that constant narrative can sometimes come from inside the church.
You might have come across The Green Bible, where passages about nature and the environment are printed in green ink. Green, sustainably developed soy-based ink, to be precise.
Now, I’m a bit wary of printing different bits of the Bible in different colours, but if it helps you remember and think about stuff, fine.
What concerns me about The Green Bible is how the editors want us to approach God’s Word.
This is from the preface; Additional content like
“Essays from respected conservationists and theologians highlight important themes related to God’s care of creation and show how to read the Bible through a “green lens.”
Do you see that? They want us to approach the Bible, through “a green lens.” The environment therefore becomes ultimate, and it determines everything else.
But that’s the wrong way round.
We want God and his priorities as we find them in his Word, to shape all of our lives, including how we think about and interact with the environment.
Guard against the pressure to make environmental care ultimate.
Care for the environment, because God cares for it.
But if God’s word shapes our lives, we will care for the environment, because God cares for it. So, if you’re a follower of Jesus, work out, how do you care for this world, that God cares about,
But care for it in a way that shows you know this isn’t the most important thing!
Imagine if your friends knew you cared for the environment, but they never once experienced your care, for them?
Never experienced you loving them as yourself,
Never knew what it was to be loved with the gospel of Jesus.
Now, do your recycling,
Switch to a green energy plan,
Reduce how much water you use,
Ride your bike instead of driving,
Work out what caring for God’s world looks like for you.
But whatever you do, do it in a way that demonstrates you know it’s not ultimate, that there are other things that matter.
Which I guess impacts things like the time we spend on it,
The money we invest,
How much of our lives get poured into that.
Our world will always encourage us to put more time and more effort in that box, but will ridicule or even try and hinder our efforts to see the good news of Jesus spread and people be saved.
You’ll be constantly encouraged in one, even shamed if you don’t live up to society’s expectations, but pilloried for the other.
Saving the planet is not the greatest need we face.
It’s important, but not ultimate
Father we thank you for the good world you made, which not only sustains and refreshes us, but speaks to us of your glory and goodness.
Help us to see creation and the world around us as good gifts from you, but not ultimate. Please use the time of this pandemic to teach us more of your world, and of yourself, that we might rule over and care for your creation, as you would have us do. Amen.