The Earth is the Lord's: Service planning for Ascension and Pentecost

These four services celebrating God's creation have been designed to fit into the liturgical calendar on the Sundays between Ascension Day and the first Sunday in Ordinary Time. The services would be equally appropriate as a freestanding series on creation sometime during the summer months.

A quick glance at the Creation/Providence section of any hymnal will provide you with many wonderful hymns in addition to the ones listed here— hymns written either to extol God's majesty as displayed in creation or to highlight God's tender care for us. Far fewer are the hymns of stewardship that speak of human responsibility to creation. In an attempt to remedy this deficit, the Hymn Society of America and the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, a Christian environmental studies center, cosponsored a hymn competition in 1993. Two of the best submissions are included here (see box).

ASCENSION SUNDAY

Scripture

Colossians 1:15-20

Related Scriptures

Psalm 24
Proverbs 8:22-31
John 1:1-5

Background

Colossians 1:15-20 provides a slightly different slant on the lordship of Christ than the more common Ascension Day choice: Ephesians 1:15-23.

The words ta panta ("all things") occur as a refrain throughout these verses. Christ is the one by whom and through whom and for whom all things were created. Christ was before all things. In Christ all things hold together. And Christ is the means through whom all things are reconciled to God. Clearly, by using the phrase "all things," the apostle Paul intends to assert that Christ is Creator, Reconciler, and Lord of both human and non-human creation.

This simple premise is a challenging view in our day. It says that through Christ everything that is came to be, and that through Christ everything that is finds itself reconciled to God. We find here echoes of the Old Testament refrain that "the earth is the Lord's, and everything in it" (Ps. 24:1). It tells us that we presume too much when we claim that non-human creation is ours to do with as we please. It reminds us that our Christ is too small when we refuse to acknowledge his lordship over animals and plants, rocks and streams, stars and planets. And while humans are the image of God in a special way, all creation has as its blueprint and architect the Word of God, Jesus Christ (see Prov. 8:22-31). In Christ we discover the source, the means, and the purpose of creation.

In addition to this theological understanding, there is also an ethical dimension. We are shamed when we act with impunity towards the world. Degradation of this creation, whether by pollution or extinction of species or any other abuse, is nothing less than a challenge to the rule of God and the ascension of Jesus Christ as Lord over all things.

Liturgical Resources

Opening Hymn Suggestions

"Lift Up Your Heads, O Gates" PsH 163, SFL 157
"Christ Is Alive! Let Christians Sing" PsH 413, PH 108
"Jesus Shall Reign" PsH 412, PH 423, RL 233, TH 441

Call to Worship

Jesus Christ, alpha and omega,
Jesus Christ, creation and completion,<
Jesus Christ, once descended, now ascended,
Jesus Christ, by whom, through whom, and for whom all things exist,
Jesus Christ, you are worthy.
Jesus Christ, we come to worship you.

Hymn of Praise

"The Earth and the Riches" (Psalm 24) PsH 24

Prayer of Confession

Lord Jesus Christ, the earth and everything in it belong to you. Yet we often act as if it were ours to do with as we please. We treat your artistic masterpiece of creation as if it were disposable. We waste the precious goodness of this valuable world. In doing this, we offend you and cut ourselves off from the goodness of creation.
You are the great reconciler. Forgive us for not also living in peace and reconciliation with our neighbors and with the earth. Help us to treat animals and plants, rocks and trees, minerals and materials as precious in your sight. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Hymn of Confession

"O God, the Wounded Earth Cries Out" (see box)

Hymn of Response to the Word

"Christ, You Are the Fullness" PsH 229, PH 346, SFL 232

PENTECOST SUNDAY

Scripture

Romans 8:1-27

Related Scriptures

Genesis 1:1-2
Psalm 104
Acts 2

Background

Pentecost marks the dramatic new beginning of an empowered church, the occasion on which the followers of Jesus became a "Spirited" community that would spread throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. Likely to get lost in the shuffle, however, are other tasks of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost should also remind us that the Spirit is the ongoing activity of God in creation, and that God pursues life in a spirited way.

At the dawn of creation, the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep. When God created human life, this Spirit was infused into the sculpted dirt, and it became a living soul. When the Spirit moves, life comes to be (Ps. 104:30). In Romans 8, Paul's great celebration of the Spirit, he identifies the Spirit as "the Spirit of life," and he explains that creation's longing for release from the bondage to decay is cued by our own adoption as children through the Spirit. As Stuart Briscoe says, "The Holy Spirit is given many titles in Scripture, but there can be none more exciting than 'the Spirit of life.'" Once again, there is both a theological and an ethical component to this understanding. In our theology, we understand the Spirit to be God's active presence in the world by which God upholds and sustains all things. That this involves creative activity is part of the reason that contemporary theologians refer to what was traditionally called "providence" as "continuous creation."

Ethically, this understanding means, first of all, that scientific study of this world and life within it is a sanctified endeavor. Science has been described as an attempt to "think God's thoughts after him." Perhaps a better way to think of it is as a way of "tracing the movements of the Spirit of God."

Second, the Spirit's movement in creation does much to explain creation's resiliency. But just because rivers and lakes recover from abuse, and rain seemingly washes the air clear of pollutants, we are not warranted in assuming that the created order can handle anything we throw at it. Our culture has succeeded beyond anyone's imagination in nearly bringing the Spirit's creative power to a standstill.

Finally, we may not take the Spirit's prolific power to create forms of life (some twenty to thirty million species of plants and animals) so for granted that we toss away individual species as if they mean nothing. With the destruction of the rain forest and other habitats, we find ourselves enmeshed in the greatest period of extinction of life forms that has ever shamed our race.

Liturgical Resources

Opening Hymn Suggestions

"Creator Spirit, By Whose Aid" PsH 425
"Your Spirit, O God" (Psalm 104) PsH 104
"O Worship the King" PsH 428, PH 476, RL 2, TH 2

Call to Worship

Come, Creator Spirit, and move over this
chaotic world.
Come, Creator Spirit, and bring life to this
world.

Come, Creator Spirit, and move over the chaos
of our lives.
Come, Creator Spirit, and bring us new life.

Hymn of Thanksgiving

"For Your Gift of God the Spirit" PsH 416, RL 382, TH 339

Prayer of Confession

Lord Jesus, you ask that we do not grieve your Holy Spirit, yet by our actions in this world we risk just that day after day. We see life all around us and consider it disposable. We extinguish the lives of animals as if their lives did not matter in your sight. We toss away species of plants and animals as if their existence were happenstance and not the result of your creative activity. Lord Jesus, give us a reverence for life and help us to see your Spirit at work in this world. Amen.

Hymn of Confession

"Thank You, God, For Water, Soil, and Air" PsH 437, PH 266, RL 22, SFL 97 (also see litany and refrain on p. 29)

Hymn of Response to the Word

"Spirit, Working In Creation" PsH 415

TRINITY SUNDAY

Scripture

Psalm 148

Related Scriptures

Genesis 9:8-17
Job 38-40
Matthew 12:11-12
Luke 12:6-7

Background

In the two preceding services, the themes of Ascension and Pentecost undercut one of the misconceptions of Christian thinking: that creation is primarily the interest and province of God the Father. This misconception is one of the unwelcome side effects of the structure of the Apostles' Creed, in which the only mention of creation occurs in the first article: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth..."

This week's liturgy should celebrate the trinitarian relation to creation-—the truth that Father, Son, and Spirit are all intimately connected with this created order. The emphasis in the service will be upon the praise that creation directs back to its Creator. It might be good to plan a time in the service to sing three or four creation hymns of praise.

The most eloquent expression of creation's praise occurs in Psalm 148, which calls all of creation to praise the Lord. This call divides creation into inclusive pairs (sometimes triplets), in which two parts are used to describe the whole: Heaven and earth. Sun, moon, and stars. Rain and snow, and so on. Notice that "fruit trees and cedars" takes in all plants, from those that require careful cultivation to those that grow splendidly in the wild. "Wild beasts and cattle" encompasses all animals, wild and domesticated.

Note that even wild things with next to no relationship to humans have a relationship of praise to God. Sometimes we make the mistake of believing that only those animals and plants that are useful to humans have any value, If an animal has no human usefulness, we consider it a pest or vermin; if a plant is useless, we call it a weed.

Value to humans, however, should not be equated with value to God. In Job 38-40, God lists a variety of creatures who have no usefulness to Job, but who nevertheless stand in relationship with God, and for whom God cares. In Matthew 12 and Luke 12, Jesus reminds us of the high value of humans against the backdrop of the value of sparrows and cattle. Creation is of such value to God that God even covenants with creation (Gen. 9). Creation's response to God's care is praise.

There are some excellent musical settings of Psalm 148. One of my favorites is William Billings' "O Praise the Lord of Heaven" in the Continental Harmony. (This anthem is currently out of print, but Malechi Music, Inc. has eighty copies; call (800-253-9692.) Its imagery is enlivening, particularly the lines

Ye dragons, whose contagious breath
people the dark abode of death,
change your dire hissings
into heavenly song, and praise the Lord.

If you have musicians who are comfortable with folk music, you might also consider "A Place in the Choir" by Bill Staines (arr. Ed Harris for two parts; Hope Publishing Co.), an excellent song for children (and adults).

Liturgical Resources

Opening Hymn Suggestion

"Let All Things Now Living" PsH 453, PH 554, TH 125

Call to Worship

Blessed are you, O Lord, and blessed be your
glorious, holy name.
We praise you and highly exalt you forever.
Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord;
sing praise to God and highly exalt him
forever

Heavens and earth; sun, moon and stars;
winter cold and summer heat, winds and
storms;

mountains and hills; fields and forests;
seas and rivers; lakes and streams.
fish and fowl; cows and horses;
dogs and cats; wolves and bears.
Bless the Lord, men, women, and children.
Sing praise to God and highly exalt your
Creator forever.

Creation Hymns of Praise

"All Creatures of Our God and King" PsH 431, PH 455, RL 4, SFL 86, TH 115

"All Things Bright and Beautiful" PsH 435, PH 458, RL 33, SFL 98

"Earth and All Stars" PsH 433, PH 458, RL 33, SFL 98

"The Lord Almighty Spoke the Word" PsH 283

"Creating God, Your Fingers Trace" PsH 605, PH 134

Prayer of Confession

God of creation, we bring you words of praise against the background of a world of praise. The morning stars sing for joy, the spheres make music, birds sing, crickets chirp, the wind hums and sighs through branches, thunder booms, and glaciers crack the percussion. Help us to sing the words to creation's hymn of praise.
God of salvation, we also bring you words of repentance. At times we think ours are the only voices you want to hear. We mute creation's voice with pollution. We callously silence individual voices of plants and animals, with no justification other than human convenience. We have turned much of your well-tuned choir into off-key accompaniment. Forgive us, Lord, and give us ears to hear all creation praise your name. Amen.

Hymn of Confession

"Wordless, Ancient Earth's Foundations" (see p. 19)

Hymn of Response to the Word

"Praise the Lord, Sing Hallelujah" (Psalm 148)
PsH 188

ORDINARY TIME, FIRST SUNDAY

Scripture

Isaiah 5:8-10

Related Scriptures

1 Kings 21
Proverbs 30:7-9
Luke 12:15-21

Background

How much land does a man need? In a short story by that name, the Russian author Tolstoy tells of Pahom, a peasant who'd always dreamed of owning his own land. He hears of a country where a man can own as much land as he can walk off in a day; the only requirement is that he return by the time the sun sets to the place where he started at dawn.

Pahom travels to that country and sets out on his walk at dawn. He is just about to turn around at noon when he spies a particularly fair valley ahead. Just beyond that valley he finds an even nicer place. So it is well into the afternoon before he turns and starts running back toward the starting point. Will he make it? He pushes himself to the limit and beyond as he struggles to reach the place from which he set off that morning. Just as the sun disappears, he arrives at the starting place—only to collapse and die from the exertion.

How much land does a man need? Ultimately he only needs a body-sized rectangle six feet deep!

The greed for land is a timeless one, known already in ancient Israel, as the story of King Ahab and Naboth's vineyard grimly reminds us (see 1 Kings 21, a passage you might want to use during the time of confession). The laws of jubilee were intended to prevent unwarranted accumulation of land and unnecessary poverty among the Israelites, but even God's law couldn't prevent greed from gobbling up ever greater quantities of real estate. "Why do you join field to field?" asks Isaiah. Well, because more is more and bigger is better.

The message of Isaiah and Luke 12 is much needed in our day, when human hunger for real estate and development has reached a fever pitch. We strip the forests bare. We collect farms into short-term, mega-sized agribusinesses. We waste the richest farmlands in the world by converting them into housing developments with one-acre or four-acre minimums. In a land blessed with rich variety and detailed ecosystems, we choose to replace these systems with ranch-style homes and Kentucky bluegrass monocultures.

How much land does a person need? Perhaps we ask the wrong question. How much land do all God's creatures need, and how much land is a just wage for the caretakers?

Liturgical Resources

Opening Hymn Suggestion

"This Is My Father's World" PsH 436, PH 293, RL 14, SFL 95, PH 111

Call to Worship

O God, who created us in love,
create us anew in love as we worship you.
O Jesus Christ, who redeemed this world in love,
reclaim our hearts as we worship you,
O Holy Spirit, who moves this world towards its
God-appointed end,
move within us as we worship you.

Hymn of Praise

"For the Beauty of the Earth" PsH 432, PH 473, RL 5, SFL 89, TH 116

Prayer of Confession

Lord Jesus Christ, foxes have holes and birds have nests, but you had no place to lay your head or to call your own. Yet the whole world was yours; you didn't need to stake a claim to a piece of this earth. We pray that you will be our place of rest and that we will find contentment in making our home in small places of this earth.
Give us contentment, so that we will not measure our worth by the numbers of acres we own or the number of square feet in our homes. Help us to protect the richness of the earth, so that the land can grow food for all people. Help us to protect places where foxes may have their holes and birds may nest. We ask this in your most holy name, for we know that you rule all the earth. Amen.

Hymn of Confession

"God of All Living" PsH 604

Hymn of Response to the Word

"As Stewards of a Vineyard" PsH 611

Excerpts

O God, the Wounded Earth Cries Out

O God, the wounded earth cries out
against her graceless guests;
the ravaged land, the poisoned streams
her grieving voice protests:
"O creatures, born of God's design
and formed from humble dust,
how could you rise in pride and greed
to break your holy trust?"

O God, the patient earth still yields,
in spite of cruel abuse,
the wealth of forest, field, and sea
beyond our need or use.
A mother's care she lavishes;
she shames our carelessness,
and waits for wanton, wasteful hearts
to bow in thankfulness.

O God, the groaning earth still waits,
though hope be long deferred,
to host a race renewed, reformed
by your redeeming Word.
Teach us, your vast creation's crown,
a servant's robe to wear;
and help us heal creation's wounds,
its bounties freely share.

O God, a joyous earth shall live
in Christ, creation's goal.
Her voice shall rise in grateful song
for brokenness made whole.
The sea, the air, the fertile land,
from blight of sin set free,
shall be a home where you will host
a new humanity.

Words: Herman G.Stuempfle, 1993
Suggested tune: KINGSFOLD PsH 430, PH 308, 434, 602, RL 356, TH 79
© 1994 The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. For permission to reproduce this hymn, contact Hope Publishing Co., Caroi Stream, IL 60188, (800)223-1049.

Wordless, Ancient Earth's Foundations

Wordless, ancient earth's foundations,
cradled fragile in your palm;
speechless, boundless constellations
voice their awe in soundless psalm:
alleluia, alleluia,
you are all-creating, One.

We, our earth's stored treasures spending,
foul its soil and stain its seas,
we, our human grasp extending,
landscapes bruise, proud towers raise.
Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy,
lead us home from wasted ways.

Heal us, feed us by your Spirit:
all earth's torment is your own.
name us, send us each as servant,
working, bearing Christ's shalom.
all creation, all creation
labors, prays, "Christ Jesus, come."

Words: Andrew Donaldson, 1993
Suggested tune: PiCARDY PsH 341, PH 5, RL 188, 289, TH 193
© 1994 The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. For permission to reproduce this hymn, contact Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188, (800) 323-1049.

A CHILD'S VIEW

The banners on these pages were created by the children of First Christian Reformed Church in Langley, British Columbia and submitted to RW by Jenny De Groot. De Groot explains that church leaders at Langley planned a trio of services on the creation theme in June. "It seemed only right," she said, "to go to the children for artwork to go along with the theme."

The children and their leaders spent two Sunday evenings filling paper with colorful images. Later, they cut out these images and arranged them on two seven-foot circular backgrounds. The two filled circles were then hung on the walls on either side of the pulpit area and remained there during the creation series.

HELPFUL REFERENCES

DeWitt, Calvin. Earth-Wise. Grand Rapids, MI: CRC Publications, 1994.
DeWitt, Calvin (ed.). The Environment and the Christian: What We Can Learn From the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Granberg-Michaelson, Wesley. A Worldly Spirituality: The Call to Take Care of the Earth. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
Moltmann, Jurgen. God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Wilkinson, Loren (ed.).Earthkeepingin the'90s. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

Rolf Bouma (rbouma@umich.edu) is a pastor at Campus Chapel Ministries, Ann Arbor, Michigan.