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Joy to the World: An Environmental Reflection

Christmas is one of my favourite Christian holidays. It’s a time for people to gather together over a meal to remember the day that the Prince of Peace was born.

In light of the season I want to do a quick reflection on the carol ‘Joy to the World’. My aim is to use this carol to reflect on our place in nature and whether this Joy really is for the world, or if it’s just for us humans, or even just for Christians. At the outset I would like to say that 1) I am a vegetarian and a fairly new one at that and 2) you don't have to agree with me.

In case you forgot the carol, here it is:

Joy to the world! The Lord is come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing

Joy to the world! the Saviour reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods
Rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat, repeat the sound in joy

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of his love
And wonders of his love
And wonders and wonders of his love

Joy to the World
One of the first themes I’d like to pick up on is the very title ‘Joy to the World’. Who does the world include? Is it just Christians? Are we ‘the world’ that the message of Jesus is for? Or is it possible that it should be good news even for those who don’t believe? I posture that it should be. If we are to be known for our love, should we not be blessing those around us regardless of their faith or sexual orientation or race or gender? Jesus didn’t come for the cool group. He came for those who were on the fringes of society, and while it’s fun to love the church people perhaps Christ is calling us to love everyone as He does.

But I would like to extend this question of who the world includes, and suggest that it doesn’t just include humans, but it includes all of Creation. That when Jesus died it wasn’t just so that Christians could go to Heaven, but rather that the New Creation could break forth on earth. And maybe, just maybe, animals and plants are to share in that New Creation. In terms of understanding this I would suggest a look at Colossians 1 where Paul says:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
“This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”

It is difficult to read Colossians 1 and think that Paul meant that redemption and reconciliation was only for humans. Rather Paul is talking about a gospel for “every creature under heaven”. 

Romans 8 - "The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God."

Hosea 2 - “In that day I will make a covenant for them, with the beasts of the field, with the birds of the air, and with the creeping things of the ground. Bow and sword of battle I will shatter from the earth, to make them lie down safely.

Then if we are willing to accept that Earth should be receiving her King (as the carol suggests) then how are we as the church allowing our fellow creatures to receive their King? I would suggest that exploiting and abusing Nature is not allowing her to receive her King. We are the only beings on this planet that can make moral decisions that affect the rest of the planet, and I think that comes with great responsibility. Are we living up to that responsibility?

Heaven and Nature Sing
The birth narrative of Jesus is such an interesting one, because it keeps pointing us to this galactic moment with the star shining brightly in the sky pointing to the fact that the King is born. As misguided as some nativity plays may be, I wonder if we really consider the oxen and sheep that would have surrounded Jesus when He was born. When Jesus is born it is as though all of Creation is a part of this moment; from the lowly shepherds, to the stars in the sky, to the wise Magi.

The Psalmist is amazing at talking about nature’s groaning for God and how Heaven and Nature sing about the glory of God.

Psalm 19 - “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

Psalm 98 – “Let the sea roar, and all its fullness, The world and those who dwell in it; Let the rivers clap their hands; Let the hills be joyful together before the Lord”

Psalm 148 – “Praise the Lord from the heavens; Praise Him in the heights! Praise Him, all His angels; Praise Him, all His hosts! Praise Him, sun and moon; Praise Him, all you stars of light! Praise Him, you heavens of heavens, And you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, For He commanded and they were created. He also established them forever and ever; He made a decree which shall not pass away.
Praise the Lord from the earth, You great sea creatures and all the depths; Fire and hail, snow and clouds; Stormy wind, fulfilling His word; Mountains and all hills; Fruitful trees and all cedars; Beasts and all cattle; Creeping things and flying fowl; Kings of the earth and all peoples; Princes and all judges of the earth; Both young men and maidens; Old men and children.”

Isaiah 55 - “For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; The mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 

In light of these Scriptures and the idea that all of Creation is to experience the Joy, how then are we so okay with the destruction of the planet? How are we okay with eating meat and the mass slaughter of animals? How are animals to partake in the Joy of the World? How are they to “repeat the sounding joy” if we keep them locked in torturous farms where their only job is to serve our greed and desire for meat?

If Jesus really is the Joy to the World, perhaps we ought to take the focus off of ourselves and focus on how this message and the movement we are a part of is actually being a Joy to the World. Perhaps we are to take seriously John 3v16, “For God so loved the world (all of it) that He gave His only Son...” and perhaps we, as God’s agents on earth, should finally understand what it means to take dominion over the earth.

This Christmas I will be enjoying a good, vegetarian meal with my family, reflecting on the Prince of Peace whose birth has brought the Kingdom of Heaven to earth and through whose resurrection we are assured that one day a New Creation will be made where the lion will lie down with the lamb.

Be blessed this Christmas. Love and peace.

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