When we lived in Palmers Green and I commuted every day into the City of London I came to believe what is sometimes claimed, that if you go due East from there, across Essex and the North Sea, the Lowlands and the German plain you do not come to anywhere else as high above sea level until you reach the Ural mountains. Whether that is actually true I don’t know but what is true is that in the winter, when the leaves are off the trees, there is a very spectacular view from outside the station across London, which from there lies before one in a great bowl. At those times of the year when I got home just as the sun was setting it was breathtaking. A huge sky, in the amazing hues of a winter sunset, and the great city spread out with its lights on.
When people say, as they often enough do, that they experience God in “nature” that view is what comes into my mind, more than the mountains or the sea. The only thing that has ever come close to me was standing at the top of Schiehallion in Scotland looking over a steep drop as a strong wind blew clouds over us so that it seemed we might be the only people in the world but that had less impact than the sight of that great mass of human endeavour, made material in buildings and roads, machines and light, dwarfed by the immensity of a sky that drew one outward into space, as the first stars began to show through. How minuscule our greatest achievements seem, when set against the background of the universe as a whole, with its countless stars and unimaginable distances.
What my personal version of this experience shows is that, for me, “nature” does not exclude humanity. When I see the city and the sky together they both seem, to me, part of nature. Nature includes the vast reaches of interstellar space and the bustling activity of London. Both are part of creation and together they tell us something about what God intends in it. Our experience of “nature” is only an experience of God if it includes the human. It is us, after all, who are created in the image of God, we who represent God in creation by being after his likeness.
As our reading from Romans reminds us though, it is also us who have brought about the division of creation from God such that it has been groaning in travail until now. With human sin came about a fall from that communion not just for us but for all God’s creatures and with our redemption in Christ come about a renewal of all things that, as Paul says, are “set free from slavery to decay”.
We who are joined to Jesus in the Spirit but who are also waiting in expectation for the completion of our salvation in eternal life are left with three kinds of connection to nature that are all somehow to be kept in mind and in our hearts at the same time: a memory of our place in God’s original creation; the reality of our experience of a fallen world not yet fully redeemed; and the promise of the new creation in the coming of the Kingdom for which we pray.
Our reading from the Psalms reminds us of the first, God’s good creation as he intended it:
“Thou dost cause the grass to grow for cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart.” We are set in a creation that will nourish and sustain us, where joy is to be had. Creation is not indifferent to us, as it can sometimes seem, we are made to be a key part of it and to flourish in it. We are no more alien to nature than it is to us. We are to be its fulfilment and completion, the very image and likeness of God in and for it.
Romans reminds us of the second aspect of our relationship to creation. Part of the consequence of our being separated from God in sin is a disruption of our role in the created order. Where we should be in harmony with all that is, sustained by it and representing God to it, instead we try to make ourselves the centre of our own existence, displacing God, and to put the rest of creation to use in serving us. All things become “subject to decay” and we are put at odds with all nature, including our own. Insofar as we are still under the rule of sinful selfishness we have to deal with this.
Finally, however, the beautiful words we have heard from Matthew’s gospel remind us of what Jesus has done for us in returning us to our proper place in God’s world.
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
In our lives as they are meant to be there would be no anxiety, no need to plan, to worry, or to strive. In harmony with our God and with the rest of creation we would be fed.
“Look at the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”
In God’s redeemed order our lives will be full of order and beauty as we work out our nature as the lily does when it flowers.
When we have moments of insight and inspiration where God’s work in making all things comes into focus for us we should never forget that we are part of that work. We should neither fall into the arrogance that separates us from nature nor the false humility that denies the goodness of God’s work in us. We should never ignore the reality of what divides us from God and from nature but we should recall that in us Christ is overcoming that division and embrace the glimpses of the redeemed order we are given.
Our experience of God is always OUR experience, that is, I think, part of what it means to be in God’s image, that we are that part of creation that is able to enter fully into a relationship with God, to communicate with him, to see and to sense some of what he is and what he does.