The Glad Soils Rejoices

by John Paarlberg

A sermon preached on Thanksgiving Sunday, 2003, at the First Church in Albany, New York.

From Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet, edited by David Rhoads. Continuum Press, 224-229.

Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. (Joel 2:21-27)

Some time ago I received an offer from a company for some kind of new computer software. As part of their sales pitch they said that their product was so exciting that others, by comparison, were “about as interesting as looking under a rock.” I was offended. I happen to think that looking under a rock can be pretty exciting. In fact, I think that any human-made invention, no matter how many bytes or rams or bells and whistles, cannot hold a candle to the intricacies and wonders of God’s creation. So I rather enjoy looking under rocks, and I think I stand in pretty good company.

We all know Charles Darwin as the nineteenth century scientist who wrote On The Origin of Species and proposed the theory of evolution. But do you also know that Darwin spent forty-four years of his life, on and off, studying earthworms? He was fascinated by them. He kept them in jars in his apartment. He and some of his contemporaries calculated that on average there were 53,767 earthworms in each acre of land. In many parts of England, he figured, the worm population swallowed and brought up ten tons of earth each year on each acre of land. Earthworms were not only creating the planet’s thin layer of fertile soil; they were constantly turning it inside out. They were burying old Roman ruins; they were causing the monuments of Stonehenge to tilt and topple. In what is a marvelous understatement, Darwin concluded: “Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose.”[1]

And earthworms are by no means the only fascinating creatures beneath our feet. Charles Kingsley once wrote to a friend whom he was planning to visit. “Don’t be anxious to entertain me,” he said, “Put me down under any hedgerow and in two square yards of mother earth I can find mystery enough to keep me occupied for all the time I stay with you.” But we do not need even two square yards of earth; much less will do. The writer Annie Dillard tells us that “In the top inch of forest soil, biologists found an average of 1,356 living creatures . . . including 865 mites, 265 springtails, 22 millipedes, 29 adult beetles and various numbers of 12 other forms . . . . Had an estimate also been made of the microscopic population, it might have ranged up to two billion bacteria and many millions of fungi, protozoa, and algae—in a mere teaspoonful of soil.”[2]

These creatures are not only fascinating; they are creatures whose lives sustain so many other lives on this planet, including our own. Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson reminds us:

The very soils of the world are created by organisms. Plant roots shatter rocks to form much of the grit and pebbles of the basic substrate. But soils are much more than fragmented rock. They are complete ecosystems with vast arrays of plants, tiny animals, fungi, and microorganisms assembled in delicate balance, circulating nutrients in the form of solutions and tiny particles. A healthy soil literally breathes and moves.[3]

“Let everything that breathes, praise the Lord,” said the psalmist. Which means that the very soils beneath our feet, are in their own way, choirs of creatures singing their insect hymns, microbial chants, and fungal anthems in praise to the God who made them.

And how dependent, how absolutely dependent we are upon these creatures! They could live very well without us, but we would perish without them! One spring while I was digging in the garden with my son, I picked up a handful of soil and held it up and said, “Look, David, everything you are or ever will be; all the books that you will ever read, all the music and art in the world, your teachers, your family, your friends—it all depends on this.”

Gary Paulsen said it even more vividly:

[E]verything we are, all that we can ever be, all the Einsteins and babies and love and hate, all the joy and sadness and sex and wanting and liking and disliking, all the soft summer breezes on cheeks and first snowflakes, all the Van Goghs and Rembrandts and Mozarts and Mahlers and Thomas Jeffersons and Lincolns and Ghandis and Jesus Christs, all the Cleopatras and lovemaking and riches and achievements and progress, all of that, every single . . . thing that we are or ever will be is dependent on six inches of topsoil and the fact that the rain comes when it’s needed and does not come when it’s not needed; everything, every . . . single . . . thing comes with that . . . .[4]

What a wonderful, precious gift is the soil beneath our feet! And how good it is to know that ours is a God who loves and cares for the soil. “Do not fear, O soil: be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!”

Today we give praise and thanks to God who provides for us. We give thanks for a creation that delights in its Creator and for a Creator who delights in creation. “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice . . . . Do not fear, you animals of the field . . .” (Joel 2:21-22).

But there is also a more solemn, more challenging word from Joel, and if you were listening carefully you may have caught it. It is in verse 25 where God says through the prophet: “I will repay you for the years that you suffered under the plague of locusts, my great army which I sent against you” (Joel 2:25).

According to Joel, God not only sends the rain and causes the land and the animals to be fruitful; God also sends the locusts that destroy the crops. In fact, the first chapter of the Book of Joel is a rather graphic description of a locust plague that decimated the land, and Joel sees this too, as coming from the hand of God. This plague, says Joel, is a warning, a call to repentance.

It is one thing to acknowledge God as the loving creator and generous provider when things go well—when the soil, the crops, and the animals rejoice. Then it is not difficult to have hearts overflowing with thanksgiving. But it is another kind of faith to be able to say that somehow, even in the bad times, when the rain fails, the crops whither, when sorrow comes on top of sorrow, that somehow behind these events, too, is the hand of God.

This is part of what we mean by the doctrine of providence. One Reformation catechism summarizes it this way: the belief that God “so upholds and rules the world that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but by God’s sustaining hand.”[5]

Now, I am not sure that even the Reformers would assert that every event, every circumstance, is one that God directly wills. It seems to me that God in God’s love for us and for creation has given creation a measure of freedom. There are some things we bring on ourselves through our own folly or ignorance or downright orneriness. And sometimes accidents happen. And when someone we know has suffered a devastating loss, we need to be especially careful not to hide behind the doctrine of providence. Sometimes we can be too quick to say, “I’m sure that there must be a reason for this.” Perhaps there is. But sometimes it is more honest, and perhaps more caring, to admit that we cannot see how this tragedy could be the will of God, and we, with them, at least for now, live without answers and share their pain and their loss.

But the doctrine of providence does affirm—and the faith to which Joel calls us does challenge us to believe—that ultimately God’s purposes for creation are not thwarted, that God created this world in love, that God wills creation’s fruitfulness, and that God made you and me and all creatures, including the creatures beneath our feet—even the locusts!—for good and delight. God wills that soil, animals, and humankind live without fear and rejoice in the God who made them.

For us, this means that, although God may not will every sickness, every loss, we nevertheless trust that through them and from them God is working out God’s purpose—so that even out of the tangled skeins of tragedy God will weave goodness.

That is not a faith we can impose on others. In the midst of our own sorrows we may struggle to affirm it ourselves. I only know that this is the kind of faith that has sustained God’s saints in their darkest hours—and not only sustained them, but enabled them to live thankful, joyful lives. It is the faith that good is stronger than evil, that love is stronger than hate, that light is stronger than darkness, that ultimately, God’s good purposes for us and for all creation will prevail—so that even in the midst of want or sorrow or loss or plague, we trust that nothing, absolutely nothing, will separate us from God’s love.

Rejoice, O soil, in the God who made you. Fear not, animals of the field, for God provides for you. Give thanks, O people, for the God whose abiding love will never let you go.

John D. Paarlberg is a graduate of Hope College and Yale Divinity School. Prior to becoming the senior minister of the First Church in Albany, New York, he served congregations in Holland, Michigan, and in North Syracuse, New York, and as the Minister for Social Witness and Worship for the Reformed Church in America.

[1] Cited by Stephen Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, ed., The Biophilia Hypothesis

[2] Quoted by Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nature, God and Pulpit (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992), p.27.

[3] E. O Wilson, The Diversity of Life, p. 308.

[4] Gary Paulsen, Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass (San Diego, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1992), p. 23.

[5] Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. #27