Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Second Sunday of Advent.
The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free.
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
I grew up in the Blue Ridge mountains. Some people in this sanctuary who have lived near the Rockies and who shall not be named might call them hills, but I assure you they are mountains. Perhaps a little stooped and softer with age, but as beautiful and majestic as any you’ll find, at least in my eyes.
The mountains have a music, once you get up into them. The rustling of leaves and snapping of branches, the strange way sounds can bounce and echo, or muffle and die off, the birdsong and squirrel chatter, even, at night in the summer, the bellow of what we call tree peepers—frogs that live in the trees around my grandmother’s pond.
And so it does not strike me as odd that Isaac Watts wrote about the song of the earth—fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains. He was only echoing the psalmists, after all, who remind us frequently that the natural world praises its creator. The ancient Israelites saw themselves as only one voice in the whole earth’s choir dedicated to singing God’s glory, and perhaps not even the biggest or best or most important voice. The people are to sing with the mountains, with the storms, with the oceans, with the animals, blending their voices in harmony with the world God so lovingly and carefully created.
I am a Christian, and I love the incarnation—God who came to walk among us as a human we call Jesus. But I think our love of Jesus, with body that looks like ours and voice that sounds like ours, has blinded us to glimpses of God in the natural world. The Israelites, after all, saw God in a burning bush; in a pillar of smoke and fire; in a descending dove; in the brightness of light. They spoke of the mountain of the Lord, where God lived. They refused to make idols of wood and stone, but stood in awe instead of the trees and rocks, just as God made them, without alteration or improvement.
They had the courage—the audacity, even—to see God’s hand in the natural world even when it did them harm. The ancient Israelites wrote about the floods singing God’s glory, the snow and frost, the gale winds, the vast deserts and wildernesses where nothing grew. They loved God’s creation not just because it was pretty, or useful, or because they got something out of it. Even when it made their lives harder, they glorified creation because they knew who created it.
It is a spirituality I find hard to imagine, as I grumble at the cold temperatures and skitter from heated home to heated car to heated office, walling myself off as best I can from the natural world whenever it is inconvenient to my own comfort.
In 1719, Isaac Watts could easily imagine the hills and fields beyond the city of London echoing humanity’s joy at the return of Christ. He could not have imagined what would happen to those landscapes in the century to come. The year Watts wrote Joy to the World, John Lombe opened up the first English silk factory; in the next two hundred years, factories with their plumes of smokestacks would come to dominate the English landscape, while train horns replaced birdsong and the bleating of sheep. There was certainly pollution before the Industrial Revolution; certainly not every person before then treated the earth with care and reverence, but the rate at which cycles of pollution and destruction have increased in the last 300 years is devastating.
Sometimes scripture seems so ancient we cannot make it out, but sometimes it seems as fresh and relevant as ever. Paul wrote to the Romans, those masters of remaking the earth to their own liking, paving roads and sending slaves into mines to die. He encouraged them to think beyond themselves and their own salvation, to the entirety of the world God made.
“The whole creation waits,” he told them, “breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now.”
We can hear those groans now, louder than ever. In 2007, I took my first mission trip to deep Southwest Virginia. I am from that region, but the very northwest tip of it, and I really had no idea what deep Appalachia was like. I remember as we drove in, the mountains—my mountains—my beautiful Blue Ridge—stripped down to sheer brown cliffs. There was no mountainsong there, just dull echoes of the cars and bulldozers.
Coal mining—and in particular, strip mining or mountaintop removal—is a highly contested practice. In mountaintop removal, instead of burrowing in to extract the coal, mining companies simply remove the mountain layers on top of it. It leaves the mountains bare and habitats destroyed. Companies are allowed to blast within three hundred feet of homes; floors shake, windows crack, and rocks fly through roofs. At least one toddler was crushed sleeping in his own bed by a boulder that got away from a bulldozer. His life was determined by the lawyers to be worth 15,000 dollars.
Coal mining was, and in many places still is, the economic heartbeat of Appalachia. It allowed miners to build homes and support businesses, feed and clothe and educate their children. I don’t want to downplay that. But those same children are suffering now.
“Dorothy Taulbee has lived in the old Wise County coal camp of Stonega for more than 20 years. She’s lived around mines and mining all 67 years of her life. She said the strip mine up her hollow and the problems that radiate from it have grown in the past five years.
“It’s just so much, it’s hard to explain,” Taulbee said, describing the speeding coal trucks, the dust that coats her house and yard and the indifference she feels from mine operators.
“It’s hell up there now,” she said. “It was such a beautiful place.”
Coal trucks rumble by Taulbee’s house day and night, pausing only when trains of coal cars block the dirt road, leaving lines of coal trucks idling two feet from her porch. Now that another section of the nearby mountain is being clear-cut to accommodate new mining operations closer to Taulbee’s house, logging trucks are sometimes caught in that line, too.
Taulbee said she saw bears wandering along railroad tracks and around her house all winter. The bears should have been hibernating. But even if they could find a place to hunker down among the mines, Taulbee said, blasting wouldn’t let them settle in.
I tell you this story because it is a story from my home. It is the piece of the earth that I have seen with my own eyes. When Christ returns, I want the mountains there to sing his praise and I want the people there to have lungs unchoked by dust or cancer, unwearied by poverty, unstrained by tears, with which to sing too.
The stories are different in other parts of the world. In Oregon, there’s an art teacher turning the mountains of plastic that wash up on her beach into life sized sculptures of the marine life that trash is killing. In New Delhi, the air pollution has been so bad this month that the chief minister referred to the city as a “gas chamber.” In the Amazon, an amount of land more than 12 times the size of New York City was destroyed just this year. Just this one year.
I know it is a difficult proposition, balancing the needs of our society with the needs of God’s creation. I am well aware of the role of coal in the heat that I so crave this time of year, of the natural resources I consume each day without regret or apology. I am well aware that there is a hypocrisy whenever we speak about caring for God’s creation. But I also know that scripture calls us to love God’s world the way God loves it, and it tells us that if we are silent, the rocks themselves will shout.
In his poetry, Isaiah offers us a different vision of creation, one of peace and harmony, where predators change their behavior so prey can live in safety, one where the mountain is considered holy, and where no one harms or destroys. God longs for this day, when peace shall reign, not just between peoples, but throughout the whole earth.
The people of deep Southwest Virginia are generally people of deep faith. They know their Bibles. They pray. They believe in the sovereignty of God.
When the coal mining companies leave, sometimes they try to help the mountains regrow, even scared, even smaller when they were. Sometimes they tout the economic value of the stripped land, land to house malls and pave wide, flat roads.
Dink Shackleford, who represented Virginia’s coal mining industry, once lamented that sometimes the mountains aren’t as flattened by coal mining as they could be.
But others of his neighbors disagree, and it is their faith—their love for the Creator—that compels them to speak.
“That’s a blasphemous statement to me,” [one man said.] “The mountains are sacred to me.”
Pete Ramey, a retired miner living in Big Stone Gap, thinks it’s just plain wrong to do so much damage to God’s creation.
“It doesn’t belong to us as some people think it does,” Ramey said. “It belongs to Him. It belongs to future generations.”
Paul saw the creation groaning in labor pains, waiting for Christ’s return, waiting for those groans to be turned to singing, the singing the Psalmists remember, the singing Isaac Watts longed to hear, from fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains.
Jesus loves us, this we know. But not only us. We are not the only salvageable race in a disposable world. God has tenderly made each blade of grass and grain of sand, set in motion each gravitational field and pressure system, breathed life into each whale and elk and capybara. The whole world is God’s for the making, and will be God’s for the saving.
In our gluttony for comfort, for convenience, for cheap, disposable joys, have we stripped the earth of its voice? Can we learn to sing harmony for it once again? Scripture assures us that Christ will return to this world, to walk among us once more. What kind of world will we have created for him, when he returns?
In sure hope of the power of God to change lives,
and redeem all of us—
every bit of this world God called good,
I say now,
let it be done.