So, this is our second installment of the creation series, and today we get to focus on ‘Land.’ And I can’t help but think of a song many of us learned growing up: “This Land is Your Land.”
This land is your land;
This land is my land,
From California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters:
This land was made for you and me.
And the verses continue on about the beauty of our country and its voice singing that this land was made for you and me. And while that’s true—it’s the story in Genesis—the original premise is in error. This land is NOT my land. Nor is it your land. Neither is it land that belongs even to the Native Peoples. In fact, if one were to ask God, no one owns or CAN own the land. The land is God’s. All of it. It doesn’t stop at the Great Lakes or require permission to enter the Texas border. The land is God’s and all that is in it.
And yet, it is made for you and me. We are the creatures placed into creation to till and keep the land, to care for the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, to work the ground and eat the fruit of the trees. The earth and all that is in it was created for us—and we for it. All of it created by the work of God’s hand, blossomed through the Word of Christ, sustained by the Holy Spirit.
So, now that that’s settled, what happens next? If this land was made for you and me, what do we do with it? Well, God had a plan for that—a plan we hear in the passage from Leviticus. As the Israelites wandered through the desert, God called Moses up to Mt. Sinai to give him instructions on how the people were to live, what they were to eat, how they should worship, and how to care for one another and the rest of creation.
They had lived for so long as slaves in Egypt that they need someone to help them learn how to live freely and independently. Ironically, they needed structure, especially as liberated people. You see, liberty is NOT what so many Americans think it is. We tend to think that liberty and freedom means that we can do whatever we want whenever we want—that we have the right to be as selfish and stupid as we want and no one is going to make us responsible if we don’t want to be responsible.
But all that that kind of thinking gets you is a different form of slavery. That kind of ‘liberty’ is like having everything you could want but not wanting anything you have. It’s called ‘destination sickness’—being sick and lonely and ultimately miserable because though you can do anything you want, nothing you do can fulfill what you need. That kind of liberty is a waste and lays waste to the soul—and, as we’ll see, lays waste to creation.
Instead, the liberty that God offers to the Israelites in the Promised Land and to us through Christ is the opportunity to be redeemed and freed from that inner bondage. It means regaining what has been lost, making whole what has been broken. Walls are torn down, divisions dissolved, debts forgiven, and all things put right. It is a reset button on life—a Sabbath.
And if we need a reset button—if God ordains that we take a Sabbath for ourselves, our bodies, and our souls—why wouldn’t God also ordain a Sabbath for all other living things? So God tells the people that every seven years, they are to refrain from planting or harvesting or pruning or tilling. They just leave the land and the plants alone.
Can you imagine? Scientifically, we understand the need for this as we rotate crops so that different minerals are allowed to replenish before the next year’s growth season. But we’ve never left ALL the fields fallow for a whole year. And neither did the Israelites.
For 490 years, they refused to obey the Sabbath law. That would have included 70 sabbath year cycles. They planted and reaped and pruned. They demanded more and more of the land around them. And, for many more reasons than this, God allowed Babylon to take the people out of Israel and into exile. And for 70 years, the land of Israel was essentially left fallow to rest and recover from all that the people had reaped from it. Only then were the people allowed to return.
Four hundred ninety years—seventy times seven—the number of times Jesus tells Peter he is to forgive. And what is forgiveness if it isn’t release from demands? In fact, though Peter uses the words ‘sin’ and ‘forgiveness’—and we naturally begin to think of something done against another—Jesus’ parable reflects more of an economic relationship—a debt owed.
And how often should we forgive that debt owed us? As often as God has forgiven our debts. As often as God has released us from the toil and the demands of this world and set us free. Problem is, we tend not to receive that gift or we receive it begrudgingly. We don’t take our Sabbath as it is offered. And because we find ourselves running the rat race of life, we tend to begrudge others of their Sabbath, as well—even the land.
I remember a conversation about sabbaticals as I was preparing for mine several years ago. One hard-working individual said in no uncertain terms, “I don’t get a sabbatical. I don’t know why you should.” And I get it. I’m sure I don’t work nearly as hard or as many hours as that individual. My response: “You should. And I’m sorry you don’t. Everyone needs a Sabbath.”
Everyone needs rest. Everyone needs a reset button. Everyone needs to experience the release from the demands we become convinced are necessities of life. Everyone needs an opportunity to simply stop and live fully in the faith and love of God. Everyone—including creation. But as we run around like rats in a cage and produce until we’ve forgotten what it is we’re working for, we make the same demands of creation. We rape the land, seeking deeper and darker and more dangerous places to find oil and coal and diamonds and gold. We farm the land, only to let so much of 5ye produce rot while we begrudge nations the food over policies and politics. We think that reaping more of what the land provides will somehow make our lives better and richer. But instead, as we deplete creation of its bounty, we also deplete ourselves of our soul.
Did you know that Hawaii’s state motto is: “The life of the land is preserved in righteousness.” Did you also know that there are fewer and fewer places for produce like pineapples to grow because the limited landscape continues to be developed for housing for all the people looking for their paradise? There is no land left to preserve in righteousness because it’s all being eaten up. Look at how Lincoln continues to sprawl in every direction, taking up more and more farmland—farmland that had once been part of the Breadbasket of the nation. We’re always looking for bigger and newer houses. People want to live in the country without being bothered by country living.
When will we release the land and let it rest? When will we release ourselves and let us rest? When will we forgive the many, many debts and demands and expectations and finally say, “Enough?” When will we realize that we don’t own anything—not the land, not the trees, not the rivers or streams, not the crops or the animals—that all belongs to God? What a relief that would be to know that we are God’s handiwork, God’s beloved, God’s stewards placed here to tend and care for all things. What a gift to be reminded that God provides. Period. Do you wonder…what if Israel had actually followed God’s command to give the land a Sabbath? How would they eat?
Later in the chapter, God tells Moses that God will provide an extra-abundant harvest on the sixth year—enough for the people to eat that year, the Sabbath year, and the following year as they plant and care for a new harvest to come. God will provide because it’s God’s land.
This land is God’s land…and only God’s land;
But this land was made for you and me.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church