PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION Psalm 19:14
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
SCRIPTURE LESSON Genesis 2:4-22, GOD’S WORD
4 This is the account of heaven and earth when they were created, at the time when the Lord God made earth and heaven.
5 Wild bushes and plants were not on the earth yet because the Lord God hadn’t sent rain on the earth. Also, there was no one to farm the land. 6 Instead, underground water would come up from the earth and water the entire surface of the ground.
7 Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the earth and blew the breath of life into his nostrils. The man became a living being.
8 The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east. That’s where he put the man whom he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all the trees grow out of the ground. These trees were nice to look at, and their fruit was good to eat. The tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil grew in the middle of the garden.
10 A river flowed from Eden to water the garden. Outside the garden it divided into four rivers. 11 The name of the first river is Pishon. This is the one that winds throughout Havilah, where there is gold. 12 (The gold of that land is pure. Bdellium and onyx are also found there.) 13 The name of the second river is Gihon. This is the one that winds throughout Sudan. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris. This is the one that flows east of Assyria. The fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to farm the land and to take care of it. 16 The Lord God commanded the man. He said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden. 17 But you must never eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because when you eat from it, you will certainly die.”
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is right for him.”
19 The Lord God had formed all the wild animals and all the birds out of the ground. Then he brought them to the man to see what he would call them. Whatever the man called each creature became its name. 20 So the man named all the domestic animals, all the birds, and all the wild animals.
But the man found no helper who was right for him. 21 So the Lord God caused him to fall into a deep sleep. While the man was sleeping, the Lord God took out one of the man’s ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. 22 Then the Lord God formed a woman from the rib that he had taken from the man. He brought her to the man.
SERMON Our Place in Creation
As we head into a season of Thanksgiving, among the things for which we are thankful are the gifts of creation. We should show our thanks not only with prayerful words but also with prayerful action that some call creation care.
The poetry I am using for much of our liturgy is Dorothy Darr’s contribution to that cause, calling us to stewardship of God’s creation. This past month I’ve been reading not only research data but also a theology of creation care in various essays and books. Over three Sundays we’ll look at past, present, and future in terms of original paradise, the world now and our stewardship responsibility, ending with God’s intentions for a new heaven and new earth.
We begin today by looking at God’s original intentions from the creation stories of Genesis 1 & 2. Remember that these are 2 separate oral traditions. One is poetry that could even be liturgy. The other is a narrative folk tale. Their purpose is neither science nor history but theology. Their intent is to tell us about God’s relationship to creation and our place within it.
You know Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” (NIV) The poem lays out the stages of creation in 6 days and a 7th day calls for rest. God calls forth light, separates the waters, reveals dry land, brings forth plant life, then animals each in their environments of water, air, and earth. Everything that is needed to sustain life has been provided. Intrinsically interconnected ecosystems are delicately balanced. God is the master artist of the universe, and God’s intentional work and design is behind everything that science seeks to understand. This God declared each stage of creation good. God created humankind in God’s own image, male and female, and placed them in this perfect paradise we have called Eden, declaring the whole thing very good.
Christopher Wright speaks to the goodness of creation in his essay, “The Earth Is the Lord’s.” (In Keeping God’s Earth edited by Noah Toly & Daniel Block, Wright’s’ essay begins p. 218) First, Wright points out that this insistence on creation as good is in contrast to other ancient near east traditions in which the world was created out of malevolence. The goodness of creation in Biblical perspective also reflects the character of God, the Creator. Second, each part of creation was declared good before humans were added, therefore the goodness of creation is independent of us. Creation itself is valued by God not just for our sake. Third, God has a purpose for creation, both aesthetically and functionally. Others have pointed to creation worshipping God, as we read earlier, for example, in Psalm 19, “Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork.” Fourth, creation has a future. James Nash claims, “Creation is not yet all that God planned for it to be…Creation is going on to perfection.” (Wright quotes Nash from Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility. The quote is in Wright’s essay, p. 219.)
Now we come to the theological problem that some environmentalists blame for humanity’s abuse and destruction of creation. In English it has often been translated as dominion, but not everyone agrees on what authority or responsibility is intended by that word. Wright ties together the concepts of being made in God’s image and having dominion. “By making us in the image and likeness of God, he equipped us to rule.” (p. 227) Hebrews words used in the text, kabas and rada, imply exertion and effort…but not violence or abuse.” (p. 228) On the one hand we are able to “utilize [the] environment for life and survival” (p. 228) as do all species. This is what is meant by subdue. But on the other hand, God gives us the unique role of dominion. “God…passes on to human hands a delegated form of his own kingly authority over the whole of his creation.” (p. 228) Several authors along with Wright hold this concept, that the divine image in which we were created and the role of dominion which we were given both relate to representing God’s kingly authority over creation.
We’ve talked before about the biblical concept of an ideal king. Wright suggests it is one who serves his people or leads them like a shepherd. Jesus would then be the best example of king. Biblically, a king should seek justice for those who cannot speak for themselves and defend the rights of the destitute. (based on Proverbs 31:8-9) In terms of the environment, this also means “to do biblical justice in relation to non-human creation.” (p. 231)
Now, turning to Genesis 2, we are given further hints of our role in creation. In particular verse 15 helps us see that dominion is not about lording it over creation, but is indeed a servant role. God placed the first human in the garden of creation to tend or farm it and watch over or keep it. This implies care for all of creation: water, soil, air, minerals, plants, animals, all of it! It also implies preserving creation.
I learned a general rule whether camping with church groups or scouts not just to do no harm to the environment but to leave it in better shape than we found it. Earth was designed to sustain us, but it is our responsibility to be sure the earth can continue to sustain future generations, both human and non-human, life in all its varied forms.
Adam, made from adamah which means soil, is not a name as much as a representation of the first of all humankind. He was given the task of naming all the creatures, establishing a relationship with them. (This concept comes from Paul Young’s theological novel, Eve) We continue this naming process as varieties of species are discovered and categorized. But first Adam was assigned the task of tending the garden. The clearest modern equivalents are to be a gardener or a farmer.
Douglas Green, in his essay “When the Gardener Returns” says we may think of Eden as “a botanical garden or park with a rich diversity of exotic plants and trees…The name describes a well-watered garden of lush vegetation.” (Green’s essay is also in Keeping God’s Earth; this quote is on p. 271) Even referring to Adam as a gardener in the ancient near east had a royal connotation. From Assyrian and Ammonite kings to Israel’s King Solomon, kings were remembered for orchards, vineyards, and gardens they planted and even for irrigation projects.
Daniel Lagat, a professor in Kenya, wrote Christian Faith and Environmental Stewardship, just published and available last month. In it he writes that we “were created to act as true representatives of God in the garden.” (p. 7) “This awesome responsibility comes with authority but also with consequences.” (p. 8)
We are all aware of the consequences now faced: polluted water and air, contaminated food sources, melting ice caps and sinking islands, diminishing forests, extinct species, and so much more. In the past week there was disturbing news that in the 40 years since the first World Climate summit, things have gotten worse instead of better. Some Canadian cities have more lead in their water supply than Flint MI did. Rules in the US to protect our water supply from disposal areas related to coal plants have been given longer to put into effect which means more years of toxins entering that ground water.
It’s time to wake up and reclaim our assigned task, to clean up what we can of the current mess and by changing our attitudes, habits, and lifestyles wherever possible, to leave our planet in better shape for the future. In this way, we will honor God and fulfill our purpose as caretakers for God’s creation.
SCRIPTURE LESSON John 17, selected verses from NIV
17 Jesus … looked toward heaven and prayed:
“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. 4 I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.
… I gave them the words you gave me, and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. …
13 “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. …15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. … 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Romans 8:26-27, NCV
26 Also, the Spirit helps us with our weakness. We do not know how to pray as we should. But the Spirit himself speaks to God for us, even begs God for us with deep feelings that words cannot explain. 27 God can see what is in people’s hearts. And he knows what is in the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit speaks to God for his people in the way God wants.
SERMON Prayer Connections
Among my many favorite passages of scripture, I am fond of Jesus’ discourse sharing his heart and trying to reassure the disciples as he spent one last evening with them before the crucifixion. It’s found in John 14-17 and ends with prayer, most of which we just read. This is Jesus’ farewell to his disciples, comparable to Moses speaking to the Hebrews before they entered the Promised Land, a place he could not join them.
This time of teaching follows washing the disciple’s feet and sharing the Last Supper. Judas has departed. Peter has been warned. Jesus has given them his new commandment, which is really a rephrasing of what he had already identified as the second greatest commandment from Leviticus 19. Now Jesus commands them, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Some scholars also see this as a corollary to the Golden Rule. All of this happened back in Chapter 13.
What will follow in Chapter 18 is Jesus’ arrest and trial. But in this chapter 17, Jesus prays for his disciples and for us. Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus prays, since rather than going somewhere alone, this time Jesus wanted them and us to overhear his words.
Dr. Gary Burge teaches this lesson in Deeper Connections: The Prayers of Jesus. His overview of the passage is that Jesus wants the Church then and now to succeed, to obey, to show love, to survive the world’s hatred, and to be one in and with himself, the Christ who is already one with God whom Jesus calls Father. I see two key themes in this text, unity and glory.
Burge divides the prayer of John 17 in 3 parts. The first 5 verses show us the relationship between Jesus and the Father. There is shared glory in exchange with each other. There has been a task given and authority to do it. That task is now almost complete. There is a desire for believers to see that glory and know that relationship eternally. There is the reminder that this shared glory has belonged to Jesus since before the world began. The task Burge identifies this way. Jesus let people see God in and through himself, reflecting God’s glory and giving God’s Word to them. In his death, Jesus will show his integrity and glorify God.
In the second section, Jesus prays specifically for the disciples with whom he has shared the last three years, teaching them about God and training them for ministry. He will no longer be able to protect them as he once has, so he asks God to protect them with his name. Proverbs 18:10 reads, “The Lord’s name is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and find refuge.” Remember, that a name represents the person. More on that in a bit. Jesus prays that these disciples will hold tight to his Word, to study and obey the teachings. He prays that they will be protected from Satan. Think how Jesus was tested by Satan as he began his own ministry; Jesus knew what the disciples would be up against as they began theirs. Jesus prayed that they would be sanctified which means to be made holy. The Holy Spirit would do this in them through the truth of God’s Word.
In the final section, Jesus moved beyond praying for those with him yet in the Upper Room. Now he prayed for those who will come to believe through their work, and that extends down to us. For the community of faith Jesus prays “that they may be one.” I remember from my study and internship in college that this has been a key verse for the United Church of Christ.
The unity of Christian believers is a major aspect of my work appointed to “ecumenical shared ministry” here. It is reflected in any Ministerial Association, shared missions, and the newly formed Pastors & Leaders Prayer Network here in Clinton. I can tell you from my own experiences that it is not always easy. We don’t always believe, practice, or pray for the same things. At times we may totally disagree with each other; we are still imperfect human beings going on to God’s perfection. The Holy Spirit is still working in us to sanctify and perfect us. We are not yet fully of one mind in Christ. But we reach for that goal by accepting each other in love, by working together, studying together, worshipping together, and praying together when we can.
This unity is also on my mind as we explore our options for the future. We are only one of many small struggling congregations here and everywhere. As Session plans for our congregation to continue into the future we know that may mean sharing space, sharing staff, sharing missions or study groups with other congregations. All of these possibilities fit so well with what Jesus prayed. If Jesus wanted us to be one in him to continue his work, then it makes all kinds of sense to work together.
Jesus never intended for Christianity to be as divided as we have become. When our diversity becomes divisive, it makes it hard for the world to take us seriously. Jesus wants us to work together and support each other.
I think of the words in “They’ll Know We Are Christians by our Love.” The verses suggest that we walk with each other hand in hand, work with each other side by side, and expresses that our unity is in praising Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is our example of unity.
As some of us discussed this lesson we were reminded of two other studies we have done. In The Shack by Paul Young we loved a scene around the kitchen table where God as Papa, Jesus, and Suraya (Holy Spirit) are sharing devotions, which for them meant expressing their devotion and love for each other. Mac, who is the human witnessing this, is welcome to participate. He is part of the fellowship around that table. In The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr, we learned that the Russian icon for the Holy Trinity, in which they are also seated around a table, once had a tile that was a mirror. Viewers were to see themselves as part of the fellowship, invited into the divine relationship. In John 17 Jesus wholeheartedly expressed this desire on which these images are based. Jesus as the Son and God as the Father/Mother/Creator are in full spiritual relationship. They are one in each other, and the Holy Spirit is part of that unity which Jesus prays we will join and share.
Jesus also prays that we will see his glory in heaven and be with him forever as one.
Jesus is eager to return to heaven, but Jesus also wants us to have a “spiritual anticipation” as Burge puts it. Jesus looks forward to our own reunion and is “eager to join us” in heaven.
But in the meantime, Jesus requests that we love each other as a witness before the world. We are to exemplify not human love but of the love of heaven, the agape that is unconditional, selfless love, such as God has for us. Burge expresses what he believes the Church is called to be: a place where the reality of God is present. This is something he says post modernity longs for but doesn’t always find in the Church. This is also what Jesus is praying for wanting the Church to be filled with the Holy Spirit, the authentic presence of God. Burge says, “that is what humanity is looking for today.” But he also points out that seekers must grow in wisdom and knowledge, not just have the experience. To grow we must remain in the vine as in John 15, follow the Shepherd as in John 10, and return to Jesus’ teachings, the obedience called for in John 14.
We’ve explored what Jesus wanted for us as he prayed for the disciples and future believers the night before his arrest and crucifixion. Now let’s look at what else Jesus wanted to teach us about prayer in that final discourse. It includes staying connected in unity with Chris and talks about obedience and truth. We hear Jesus’ desire to share glory and what Jesus promises in his name.
Listen to these verses from John 14 (v. 11-14) 11 Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. 12 I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. 14 When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.
As Jesus said to his disciples then, so he speaks to us now. Trust and believe that Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus who taught and preached, who stood up to authorities in this world and the power of evil, who healed the sick and cast out demons, who stood for both justice and righteousness, promised that we would do even greater things if we believe. Jesus said he would do whatever we ask, “in his name.” How is that possible? Because Jesus will be in the seat of heavenly power right next to God the Father. Why would Jesus do this? So that the Father can be glorified by what we do.
With such a powerful promise we need to consider what is meant by asking in Jesus’ name. I’ve said before I was taught this by Mrs. Krueger, my 2nd grade teacher, that we should always pray in Jesus’ name, but until wrestling with that phrase recently, I don’t think I had much more than a 2nd grade grasp of it. I was smart enough to know it wasn’t a magic formula as some might think. For me it was just a “‘sposed to.” It’s what I was supposed to say when I prayed, maybe not that different from learning the Lord’s Prayer without thinking too hard about it.
From Dr. Matt Williams’ lesson in The Prayers of Jesus, I learned the promise made twice in John 14, that Jesus will do what we ask in his name is repeated in John 15 and twice again in John 16. That makes it another major theme of the last evening’s teaching.
First, put this in the context of Jesus saying we can do greater works than he, because he will help us from heaven. Williams stresses that the works we are doing then should be in line with the work Jesus did. In other words, this promise is not about our selfish or greedy personal agendas. It is about continuing God’s work in the world. What Jesus said in John 14 is echoed in Ephesians 2:10, “God has made us what we are. He has created us in Christ Jesus to live lives filled with good works that he has prepared for us to do.” Our prayers should be aligned with Jesus’ teaching and followed by our action.
Second, Jesus is promising to help us. Williams talks about his sons when they were little calling out to him, “Daddy, hep!” when they couldn’t reach something or couldn’t do something on their own. Now think about asking God for help, and God looking at us with a parent’s heart. When the request for help is to do something good, healthy, and safe, then a parent will respond with a smile and give assistance. But when the request is for something wrong, something that could bring harm, then the response is more likely a shaking of the head and the word ‘No.” When we ask for help with things that are pleasing to God, it will bring glory to God’s name. Consider this prayer from Psalm 79:9 “Help us, God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake.”
Third, it was common in Jesus’ day to pray in the name of a deity or even a demon. As we said before, the name represents the person. There was a belief that knowing the name and saying it aloud bound that being to you almost as a servant to a master. Myths, fairy tales, and even anime carry this theme. But that belief is not appropriate for Christians. I’m amused by the story Williams shares from Acts 19. There were Jews trying to exorcize demons “in the name of Jesus whom Paul talks about.” (v. 13) One demon responded, “I know Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” Jesus is the most powerful name in the universe, and to speak Jesus name is meaningful, but let’s be clear about who is the master and who is the servant. When we speak Jesus’ name it should be an act of worship to honor God and his Son, not seeking our own glory even when we are praying and acting for a good cause.
The main point of praying “in Jesus’ name” is that we must remain connected to Jesus. This is emphasized in John 15 with its vine and branches imagery. Listen to a few verses: 4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything…7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit, and in this way prove that you are my disciples.” Did you catch the same promise of Jesus doing what we ask? But this time instead of the phrase “in my name” we have “if you remain in me and my words remain in you.” This is how Williams deduces the true meaning of “in Jesus’ name.”
If we stay connected to Jesus, through his teachings and God’s Word, and the truth brought to us by the Holy Spirit, then we will know what Jesus wants and our prayers will be aimed in the right direction. Williams explains it as being like having “power of attorney.” Praying in Jesus’ name is as if we are signing Jesus’ name to a check or a document. When someone is given power of attorney there is an expectation that person will use this authority with the best interest of the one who gave it. So when we pray in Jesus’ name, there is an expectation that we will have Jesus’ interests in our hearts.
As you continue to practice and grow in your own prayer life, consider the things we have talked about these past few weeks. Remember Jesus’ example in a lifestyle of prayer in an intimate relationship with God. When you pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, don’t just repeat it, think about what you are saying in each phrase. Use it as a pattern, and put your prayers in your own words. Be persistent in prayer, trusting that God does hear, does care, and does answer, but in God’s choice of way and time. Know that prayer isn’t about changing God, it’s about the relationship, and pray can change us. Know that Jesus has prayed and continues to pray for us, for the Church, and the Holy Spirit is always with us to help us pray when we don’t have the words. Remember that to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray in line with what Jesus wants, and Jesus wants God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.”