A Sermon for Lent 1, Year B
This week, my writing shed far too cold and the roads a snowy challenge, I spent most of my working day at my daughter’s desk watching birds out the window. I did work, of course. I had meetings on Zoom, I prepared for classes, answered emails, edited webpages, and wrote this sermon. But all the while, I watched the White-throated Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, Red-winged Blackbirds, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees and the myriad of other feathered creatures at our feeders, hungrily gathered around seed and suet as the snow fell. And as I watched, I thought about the time that God was a bird and Jesus was with the wild animals.
A Rufous Turtle-dove, a Laughing Dove or a Namaqua Dove—we don’t know which of the nine species found in Israel—only that the Spirit came as one, some member of the family Columbidae, to announce the arrival of the Messiah. The Life-giving breath of God now embodied with wings then led Christ into the wilderness—the place beyond human control and power where he was with the creatures that resist domestication, the animals that serve no human purpose.
For those worried that I may be slipping into some fuzzy pantheism of nature as god, that’s not what I mean. What I want to reflect is a Biblical theology of creation and God’s relationship to it—a relationship in which God the transcendent sometimes takes on the forms of the immanent. Be it as bird or fire, stillness or human being, God is present as and within the cosmos and yet never contained by the creation.
God’s coming as a dove was different, I imagine, than the Incarnation of Christ as human, but the difference between God and human is far greater than the difference between human and dove. Either is a descent for God; a limiting of Godself to be near to us. We are creatures and God is not. People live and belong to the creature side of reality and God’s becoming small for our sake was as much about House Sparrows as it was Homo Sapiens.
From the beginning, our lives have been within instead of apart from creation. The first human was formed from the humus, adam from adamah, and given the same breath of God as the other animals. When the first people rebelled, it was a revolt against this fact, a seeking to be like God rather than living within the limits of embodiment, the common life of creation. The first humans had been called to serve and keep a small household of life, the ecosystem called Eden, but instead they sought to master and transcend creation. It was because of this act that the earth was cursed, alienation and violence spreading as creation itself unraveled in response.
The violence of human life in the world invited the flood, God unleashing the waters of chaos so that the order of creation could be renewed. God’s mission was to restore the cosmos God had called good, the creation in which human beings were meant to be priests calling forth its holy flourishing rather than tyrants exploiting the earth at every turn. So it is that after the flood God made a covenant, not only with Noah and his family, but with the whole of creation, animals wild and domestic.
God promised to never again unleash the waters of chaos, but what God refused to do, human beings can still bring. The snowstorm of this past week, the floods of a year ago, the extremes of cold and heat—all of these are signs as clear as a rainbow that our lives on earth are out of balance. Extreme weather is no longer an “act of God” as the insurance adjusters say. It is an act of Exxon and Trans Canada and Amazon, an act of all of us who have made our lives of easy comfort more important than the life of creation. If creation is to be healed, the human being and its relationship with the wild must be mended.
This is why God came as a bird and Jesus went into the wilderness to be with the animals. It was there in the wild that Jesus resisted Satan and it was in the wilderness that the angels waited on him. But when it comes to the wild animals, Mark only tells us that Jesus was with them. As the scholar Richard Bauckham writes, “Jesus does not terrorize or dominate the wild animals, he does not domesticate or even make pets of them. He is simply ‘with them’.” Fennec Foxes, Lynx, Wild Donkeys, ravens like those that fed Elijah in his 40 days in the wilderness, doves like those that announced the end of the 40 days of the Flood to Noah—Jesus is with all of them in neighborly communion.
In doing this, he is enacting the messianic promise envisioned by Isaiah—the promise that humanity and the wild world will live in peaceableness, lions with lambs and children playing over the nests of venomous snakes. Jesus is enacting the reality in which humanity moves into harmony with the wild, even the animals that most threaten us. In this, Jesus does not force these creatures into the metrics of human evaluation, but sees them simply as they are—fellow creations of God, living out their lives toward the fullness for which they were made.
In our time, wild animals are rarely dangers to our lives or livelihoods. Most of us do not worry about lions or bears, and when we deal with incursions by the wild they are more annoyance than catastrophe. We have, in many ways conquered nature. We are the danger against which the wilds need to be defended, we are the beasts who need to be brought into healing communion.
As I was working on this sermon I received an email from an ornithologist sent to an Arkansas birding discussion list. He was reflecting on the fact that one of the most important places for migrating shorebirds in Northwest Arkansas is now slated for a suburban development and golf course. He wrote with the tone of lament proper to a prophet: “All fields are being red-dirted that once provided habitat for migrating Upland Sandpipers. It will go down in history: loss of a varied natural world of flowing springs, native Tallgrass Prairie, songs of Eastern Meadowlarks…I am too old to dodge reality. Too old to convince some people in suits there are acres, springs, and whole fields too precious to even consider monetizing.”
The story at the heart this ornithologist’s lament is as ancient as Noah, but its pace moves ever faster. The human way needs to be healed, to be turned toward another kind of life. We need a conversion toward creation so that all being can sing its praise of God in fullness. It is God’s world, made from God’s love and care and wonder. God loves all creatures and even takes their form from time to time, be it as bird or human. When Jesus went to the wilderness, led by the winged Spirit, he went to begin the life of another way, a way in which humanity can be with the wild in the common blessedness of creation. His life from that time forth was a call to join in that way, a call to conversion and repentance.
Outside my window I watched a female cardinal, her body a soft orange, her face black, her tail red. She sat on the branch of an elderberry, in a garden I’ve planted for wildlife. Beyond her was a small statue of St. Francis peaking out of the snow. It was Francis, who long ago created an order for people who responded to the call of Jesus to repent, to change our lives in the midst of a world bent toward power and money. It was Francis who called the wild animals his sisters and brothers, healing through the harmony of creation’s common worship.
In Francis we see that what Jesus made possible in the wilderness we can now begin to live in our daily lives. We can live with other creatures beyond abuse and exploitation, we can cultivate space for the wilds that remain. We can learn, as Wendell Berry has written, to “waste less, spend less, use less, want less, need less.” We can recover the art of being a creature that is at the heart of our human vocation. But to do that we must answer Jesus’ call; we must repent, turning and turning and turning again toward the God who loves us so much that he took on human flesh and even descended among us as a bird. Amen.