Genesis 1:1, Genesis 1:28; Psalms 24:1
There has been subject matter that God has heated up in my heart that I’ve talked to you about, sometimes repeatedly. Then there are other subject matters that I don’t even know why they took a little while to get heated up in me; and I feel badly about that because God has heated up this subject matter in some of you, and you’re ahead of me. So I’m really glad that we’re going to invest this weekend the way we are. Again, I apologize for not bringing up the subject matter earlier.
You all know that Genesis 1:1 (NIV) says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Then God asked us to take care of the earth. He said, “I still own it; I’m just asking you to take care of it until I build a new one.” Psalms 24 puts it this way: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalms 24:1).
The oceans, forests, plains, rivers, lakes—all of that—it all belongs to God. You heard the old hymn earlier, “This Is My Father’s World.” In the early chapters of Genesis, God gives instructions as to how we’re supposed to take care of this planet. There are really four key instructions that He delivered. He said He wanted us to subdue it, rule over it, work it and take care of it.
What does God mean when He says, “Subdue the earth”?
A few years ago at the Leadership Summit, I was giving a final talk to close the conference. A woman got out of her seat and started coming down the aisle. I could tell she had that look in her eye: She was going to make her way up onto the stage.
Now we have security people in every one of our public services, and I was confident that our security folks would intercept her. Just before she got to the stage, sure enough, one of our security people slipped out of the row and kind of put his arm around her and he subdued her. Now that doesn’t mean he man-handled her. It doesn’t mean he took her into the lobby and beat her. He didn’t Taser® her. He didn’t mistreat her in any way. All he did was bring her into conformity with the behavioral standards of the event. He walked her into the lobby, and calmed her down.
The ironic thing—this is a bit of an aside—but just as he intercepted her, she turned to the whole crowd and she said, “What you’re hearing Mr. Hybels say is from God. Every word of it is from God.” I was like, “Stop subduing her; give her a microphone!”
To finish the story, her medication had just gotten off. She was a delightful woman really. I had a chance to interact with her via e-mail after that. She apologized, and I told her worse stuff has happened before and will in the future. But the security guys just subdued her; they brought her into conformity with some standards.
That’s what the imperative in Genesis is. God says that whatever gets unruly—if vines overgrow the pathways, if trees require trimming–that stuff should get subdued, brought under control.
Rule Over It
“Rule over it” connotes having authority over it. Parents are told in the Scripture to rule over their children, which simply means they’re to bring them into orderliness; they’re to provide them with safety; and they’re to develop them consistently over a long period of time. The New Testament also says, “Parents, you better not rule over your kids in an abusive way. You’ll incite rebellion, and they’ll hate you.”
It’s the same kind of idea here. We’re to have authority over the earth, but not in an abusive kind of way.
The next phrase says we’re to “work it.” For any of you who have gardens, you know that if you’re going to grow stuff, if it’s going to yield produce, you have to work the garden. You have to till it. You have to plow up the ground, seed it, weed it, water it and work it. Then it will bear fruit. That’s the sense of that.
Take Care of It
The fourth instruction is “take care of it,” and the sense of this word is to keep it safe. More than that, it’s to protect it from any kind of harm. Don’t let bad stuff happen to it is kind of the sense of it.
So those are the four key instructions: Subdue it, rule over it, work it, take care of it. Don’t let anything nasty happen to this world that God’s entrusting to us.
The earth is whose? The Lord’s. This is my Father’s world.
Now beyond Genesis, there are some pretty cool things that happen. In Exodus 26, God rebukes his people for not resting the land they were farming. He accuses them of soil-abuse, which is what they were doing. God had established rhythms of how land was supposed to be used. Land, by His decree, should lie fallow, get rested and refurbished and then farmed again. God’s people just said, “Nope, we want to work it and not rest it appropriately.” God went after them and said, “No. You rest My land. No soil-abuse.”
In Deuteronomy 20:19, God instructs soldiers not to damage fruit trees when they’re attacking an enemy city. God says, “Those are my trees. I gave them to you so you could eat from them. Whatever skirmishes you’re having down there, it isn’t the fruit trees’ fault. If you want to rough up each other, that’s one thing; but don’t mess with My trees.” Kind of an interesting passage.
In Proverbs 12:10, God instructs those of us who own animals to treat them respectfully. There’s quite a colorful little proverb about that. Many years ago I was teaching through the Book of Proverbs, and I read that text almost for fun; you know, how righteous people treat their animals kindly. I made a little joke about it, and I could spot a guy in the crowd who got very upset. I thought, “Wow, I wonder what’s going on there.”
Sure enough, he was the first person to greet me down in the bullpen. He said, “I feel so guilty. I couldn’t hear anything you said the rest of your message, because we have this new little puppy and he just ate my wife’s Italian shoes. They cost me a fortune, and I grabbed a newspaper and I hit him.”
I said, “You’re out of the will of God. I’d hate to stand in your shoes come Judgment Day!” I was thinking what I used to do to my dog, the one I never liked. Proverbs 12:10 says you’ve got to treat animals respectfully.
There should be no soil abuse, no tree abuse, no animal abuse. God says, “Everything in My creation is mine. I want you to treat it respectfully. Subdue it, rule over it, work it; but protect it and take care of it. No abuse allowed.”
Now let’s push this all a little further. Romans 1 says the power and beauty of God’s creation is exhibit A to whom? To atheists. The text says any logical, honest person who beholds the creative realm has to conclude there was an intelligent, powerful designer/creator behind it. The text says people would have to lie to themselves to say there wasn’t a powerful, intelligent designer/creator who did all this.
Creation itself is an apologetic for the existence of God. It’s a powerful witness. Remember Psalms 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God. The heavens shout to any and all about the glory of God. The firmament shows His handiwork.”
I was on a sailboat one time with a guy who was quite cynical, and we saw a sunset. I’d been talking to this guy for years about Christ and about the existence of God. Finally I just worked up the boldness and said to this guy, “Now you look at this sunset. You look at that skyscape. You look at the water that guys like you and me love to sail on. Are you telling me that’s a cosmic accident? All of this?” Without talking for about 30 to 45 seconds, he just looked at the sunset, and he says, “Yeah, you’re right.” I said, “Well, let’s talk about that God then, because He loves you.” It wasn’t long thereafter that he committed himself to Christ. He’s walking with Christ still to this day; but it was that sunset moment that changed his inner world, when he started to open up himself to God.
Let me give you yet another thought to process about creation and why God places such a high value on it. God knows that some of us need to be in the context of His created splendor in order to quiet ourselves enough to open up to Him, to be chilled out, to be tranquil enough for times of deep spiritual reflection and sometimes to be able to hear His voice clearly.
Let’s just do a hand raise: How many of you can think of a time when you were in a forest or in the mountains or by the ocean, by a river, under the stars, and you had some kind of defining moment with God or a moment of deep meaning because you were in nature? Yeah, almost every single person in this auditorium. Things happen powerfully when we go into the beauty of God’s creative realm.
I think Scripture would argue that great stuff probably wouldn’t happen if you were standing next to a toxic waste dump—it might alter your reflection capabilities—or if you were standing by a polluted river with dead fish a foot deep.
One of the most powerful conversations I’ve ever had with God happened out on Lake Michigan. I’ve told you about it many times, when I was in a time of deep pressure, and God gave me that sentence I still say to myself almost every day: “Bill, you’re a treasured child of the most high God.” I’m a water guy, and I knew I had to find the presence of God; for me, it’s a lot easier if I can get out near water someplace. So I got out on the water that day, and that’s where God spoke to me.
Some of our best writers and best communicators and poets get motivated when in the presence of God in nature. Do you see where I’m going with that idea? Creation itself does powerful things to those of us who know God.
I’ve only been to the Holy Land one time; when I traced where Jesus spent His discretionary time, a light went on in my head, because most of His discretionary time was spent by the Sea of Galilee, which looks about like Lake Geneva. When He had other times when He wanted to pray, He would go into the mountains or find quiet places in nature. When He was in His Father’s world, He could relate to His Father very closely.
So God’s creative realm has intrinsic value, but it also adds value to our lives in some unexpected ways. It sets the context for defining moments; it calms our spirits; it stimulates creativity; it increases our faith.
We understand why God values nature, so let’s ask ourselves the question that has to be asked: Are we, in fact, subduing, ruling over, working and taking care of the created realm in the way God had in mind when He gave us those instructions? Would we give ourselves an A, B, C, D or F when it comes to creation care? Let’s just be honest about a few things:
Did you know that about a third of the earth’s soil is now unfit for growing food because of the overuse of fertilizers and waste disposal practices? Soil abuse.
Did you know that 20 major cities around the world have air pollution indexes so high that government officials are encouraging citizens to wear breathing masks to and from work? You don’t see it as badly in the United States as you would see in the developing world. I was going to say it would take your breath away, but it actually does.
Did you know that rain forests that once covered 14 percent of the earth and are key to the entire global ecosystem have been reduced to 6 percent, and that the number goes down every year?
Did you know that every year more oceans, rivers, lakes and streams are polluted, compromising the drinking water of up to a billion people?
Did you ever connect the dots to understand that the poor, especially the poor in the developing world, suffer disproportionately and exponentially when the environment starts to go bad?
On balance it would be tough, in my view, to give our generation a straight A for how we’ve stewarded the planet, but I am really happy to say there is a groundswell of people all around the world who think our Father’s world deserves better care. Through their efforts, in large part, the awareness level of the average American is going up and up and up; and we’ve been making some changes [during] the past decades.
Some of us can remember very clearly the days when automobiles had no pollution controls and no catalytic converters, and they spewed pollution out of their exhaust pipes. That’s gotten a little better.
Some of us remember the days when in our neighborhoods we not only burned all of our leaves at the edge of the driveway, but a lot of our neighbors burned their garbage every night. It looked like a bad movie set when you went through some neighborhoods because of the smoke all over the place. People didn’t think anything of it. That’s changed, and that’s good.
I remember the days when driving from Michigan to Chicago you’d almost need a gas mask to make it through Gary, Indiana. You remember those days? You’d have to wash your car when you got through there. That’s changed.
Some of you are old enough to remember the Chicago River when it was so polluted you could almost walk across it with no supernatural help. That’s changed.
So there’s been a groundswell of people who are saying, “We’ve got to turn this around.” Some are motivated by spiritual values; some just understand intellectually you cannot continue to abuse the place where you live. It’s the only planet we have, friends. So some are really motivated by God, and some are just motivated by good old common sense and a true concern for the world. These days those groups are starting to get together, and some interesting change is going on.
There’s a lot of going green these days, and I’m really hoping that some of us, motivated by God—this is our Father’s world—will begin to make some different choices.
For instance, here’s a regular light bulb. You all have them in your houses. Here’s a compact fluorescent bulb. Just out of curiosity, how many of you have any of these in your home? Oh, more than I anticipated. That’s encouraging to me. A compact fluorescent bulb uses 75 percent less electricity. If every home in the United States replaced just one light bulb with a compact fluorescent, we’d save enough energy to light more than 2.5 million homes per year. It’s unbelievable what these will do. They cost about two bucks; a regular bulb costs about 85 cents. The fluorescent will last a lot longer, and they will burn much less energy.
Next is bottled water. Can we talk about this for a second? This will blow your mind. People who are going green say we ought to drink water in washable bottles so we’re not throwing away all of these plastic bottles. Did you know that 38 billion plastic bottles are put in landfills in the United States every year? Staggering, isn’t it?
If you turned your thermostat down just a few degrees, your fuel consumption would go down by as much as 10 percent. If you put water-saving faucets in your house, the average family of four would save 20,000 gallons of water a year. Insulate your attic and it reduces energy loss by 20 percent.
All I’m trying to do is say these things matter. They’re a part of the mandate to subdue, rule over, work and take care of our Father’s world.
This is my closing thought, and it’s a challenging one, I forewarn you. The poor really suffer when those of us in the developed world get careless with our energy consumption and pollution. When we consume a lot of energy, it drives prices up all over the world.
When the poor get to a point where they no longer can afford energy at the price where it comes to them, then they go outside and they cut down trees. They cut down trees not to build homes; they cut down trees for cooking and to keep themselves warm at night. If you’ve ever been to Haiti, almost the entire island of Haiti has been deforested. It’s destroyed their country. This happens all over the world.
The poor—if they’re downstream from a factory that’s polluting their rivers—they just keep drinking out of the rivers because they can’t afford to dig wells, and they can’t afford to purify their water. So they drink this rancid water, and their kids die of diarrhea by the tens of thousands because some factory upstream is polluting the river. The factory revenues are going to some wealthy people somewhere, and the poor die.
When soil gets worn out, the poor can’t afford to let it lie fallow; so they overwork it, and then they have nothing to eat.
My wife showed me a picture of a young, obviously starving, African child squatting on the ground; and in the background was a vulture watching the child. That vulture’s just waiting for what it knows is going to happen, and then it’s going to do what vultures do. That picture is just too much for me.
In the last several months, for the first time in my life, I’ve had all these dots kind of line up and get connected. I thought, “Wait a minute. I not only have a stewardship responsibility for creation care of this wonderful world that God created—I’ve got to take care of it because it’s my Father’s world—but every energy decision I make, every pollution decision I make, downstream in the developing world, affects the poor. That’s had a huge impact on me. It has done more to change my behaviors and my energy consumption than anything else that’s ever happened to me.
Can I ask you to take what you’ve heard in this service, reflect on it, and ask God how His Spirit would touch you and talk to you about what you should do?
I don’t think there’s any need to run out to our parking places and compare who’s driving gas guzzlers. That’s not the spirit of this. We don’t have to visit each other’s homes and check each other’s thermostats. That’s not the spirit of this, but it is our Father’s world. It matters that we steward it, and it certainly matters to the poor.
Copyright © 2008 Willow Creek Association. Used by permission. All Scripture texts are NIV unless otherwise noted.