Revelation 21: 1-4; 22: 1-7

The Reverend Phillip Blackburn

September 18, 2016


Tasha has always made fun of me for how much my mom and I pay attention to the weather.  She seems to think it is something of an idiosyncrasy that I am hyper vigilant to what is going on in the sky.  But when she points this out to me, I always reply with a simple explanation for my fascination with the weather. I grew up in tornado alley.  For the first 18 years of my life I lived smack dab in the middle of our nation’s most active tornado region, Oklahoma City.  I remember it well.  Each spring, a night or two would come along where I would be happily playing with my toys, minding my own business, when I would notice the mood of the house change.  My mom would sit in her chair, focused on the weather man who had cut into the TV show she was watching.  I would go about my business, but I would hear words like, “wall cloud,” and “rotation” with increasing frequency. Then I would start to hear places in town that I recognized. “Western Ave.,” or Memorial Road would be mentioned, and then I would start to pay attention as those streets were near my house.  And then, finally, if it was going to be one of those nights, I would hear this fateful combination of words, “wall cloud,” “Lake Hefner,” “take shelter.”  Then the sirens would go off and mom and I would grab the pets and pile into the closet in the hallway and hope for the best.  In the springtime we always made sure the floor of that closet was free of clutter.

Humanity has always lived in a sort of harmonious tension with the created world.  As Genesis reminds us, we have dominion over the earth, and boy have we used that dominion.  We have domesticated animals, dammed rivers and built lakes.  We have created “unsinkable” ships to sail the oceans and we have harnessed many of the world’s resources to give us energy.  But while nature has always tolerated our “dominion” it has never given in to us completely.  We are reminded of this annually, when earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts, tornadoes and hail storms make themselves known throughout the world.  Each event reminds us how fragile all of this “control” which we allegedly wield is in light of the power of nature.

It seems ironic, then, that we should have a conversation on any given Sunday about being stewards of nature.  It is one thing to talk about being stewards of our money or this church, or some other such thing over which we largely have control.  Talking about being stewards of nature is a bit like my wearing my lucky shirt when OU plays football.  It may sound good and might even convince me that I have some say in the outcome, but in reality bears little influence on victory or defeat.  So we may feel foolish imagining that somehow we could be stewards of something as vast as God’s good creation in which we dwell.  Yet there is a long Christian history of just this idea, and Scripture speaks frequently to the special relationship we humans have with nature.

Take the Bible’s end, for example.  At the conclusion of the Book of Revelation, John talks about the world as it will be after Christ’s second coming, after recorded history finally comes to an end.  And what happens to the this crazy, chaotic world in which we have lived for millennia?  Does it get cast away as we all glide up into heaven?  By no means!  Creation still has a role to play.  God, you see, meets the end of time with a final act of creation.  There is a new heaven and a new earth.  And God comes and dwells with all of humanity in the new Jerusalem.  And what makes it new?  Is it just the buildings?  No, but the walls and the temple are described in some detail.  No, the final marker of God’s good creation is nature.  It is the crystal clear river which flows from the throne of God.  It is the tree of life which produces 12 kinds of fruit each month!  Not just one kind of fruit, no, but 12, for variety is the spice of life.  And what of the leaves of this tree?  Well, they are for the healing of the nations of course.  Imagine that; a shining city with a beautiful, clean river slowly meandering through it.  A river which is lined with lush fruit trees, with the best fruit you could ever want.  Imagine these things.  Do you see the role nature plays in this new creation?

There are no more roiling oceans.  There is no more tornado alley.  There are no more rising sea levels or hurricanes or droughts or floods.  There is none of that.  The peace of nature is the symbol of the peace of the world as it rests in perfect harmony with God.  And all things are set right with the world.  Now, this vision is important. In fact, it is vital.  And we play a role in that.  We do.  There has been a tradition of late, oh let’s say over the last couple hundred years, to cast nature aside.  To simply use it and not think twice.  We were given dominion, after all, so what’s it really matter what we do with all this stuff?  But here is the thing we forgot, our relationship with nature can be a powerful symbol of our relationship with God.  In many ways, to be in conflict with nature, to constantly be fighting it, is a powerful reminder of the ways in which we are separated from God. It is a reminder that we live in estrangement from God.  But harmony with nature, harmony foreshadows the end.

I got a call this last week that perplexed me.  An unidentified woman asked me if we had finished our construction.  No, I replied.  And then she identified herself. She was a local photographer and she had a bride who wanted to take her wedding pictures in our garden.  Now, this is not an uncommon situation.  Over my four years here I have seen countless people having their photos taken in our garden.  Why?  I mean, why that garden?  There are lots of pretty places and things in Fort Smith.  Why not have a picture taken in front of our Sanctuary doors, those are pretty nice?  Why not have a picture taken at the amphitheater down by the river?  That’s a nice setting.  No, people like our garden.  And that garden, that garden is an example of the type of relationship about which I am speaking.  In the garden we have showcased nature at its most beautiful but also its most peaceful.  Even if a storm rages around us, the garden is still tranquil, sheltered as it is on three sides.  Even if we are in a drought, the garden still blooms, watered as it is.  And it’s not perfectly natural.  There are benches and a fountain and our building in the background.  That garden is a little spot of harmony where nature and us live in peace.

And because it is a place where we live in peace with nature, it is attractive to people because that is what we all long for inside ourselves, that place where we can live in harmony with nature.  And every time we are able to capture that, that harmony, we point not to ourselves and to our great skills, but to a future time in another place, the same place to which John pointed his congregations in his Revelation.  We point to a place where we are in perfect harmony with nature, and, therefore, in perfect harmony with God.

We think this stuff doesn’t matter, but it does.  It matters instinctively to almost every human being. To be a steward of nature is to constantly seek those moments and to constantly seek to create those places where people and nature live in harmony with one another, as we will on that distant day.  A crystal river.  Lush fruit trees with leaves that heal.  That is the vision God has cast for us, and it is a vision we can usher in during our lives in small places of harmony.  Amen.