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A Publication of

From The Ark No. 192 - Winter 2002

Of God and Pelicans

Jay Moses is the Associate Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Redlands., California. This is part of a sermon in which he talks about the place of animal life within God’s creation and specifically how that can affect our connection to the world, and deepen the compassion and empathy Christ has for all who suffer.

Jay Moses

The most basic and important of the early Christian beliefs - that of Creation - can be a beautiful aid to our view of life when used correctly, and an abysmal void in our spirituality when ignored. The environmental crisis has made us think of the future, not only of endangered species, but of all. As followers of Christ, there is an added danger before us - that of our spiritual health.

I can remember one morning, when I was about seven, waking up to a foggy San José. My family had a rather large pool in the back garden, complete with diving board and a cool slide that shot water down the middle. I heard a strange noise as I woke up, like a squawk, but it had a great deal of urgency, more than usual for bird noises I heard around the house. I looked out of the window, and saw to my horror, in the middle of our pool, a crow, a black crow, squawking and trying to stay above the water ... I didn’t know what to do. The bird was in trouble. I have to admit that I had some help from my mother, but I managed to scoop the crow out of the pool with a net and place her on the edge of the pool slide. The crow seemed extremely scared, and frightened of me. Again, to my horror, the crow began slipping down the slide to the water. I quickly grabbed a towel and wrapped it around the crow and it stopped slipping. I stayed home that entire day and watched periodically to see if the crow would fly away. I wasn’t sure if it had a broken wing. Finally, I saw the crow in the late afternoon, stand up, fluff its wings, and fly into the sky.

I was relieved and happy, because my rescue efforts had not only saved a life, but stopped the fear and terror that I saw in the crow’s eyes. The innocent eyes of the crow, whose comprehension of the danger tore at my conscience.

It was not the predicament so much, as the realisation that the crow was confused and helpless, in search of a miracle. I can tell you other stories from my childhood, of nursing premature baby kittens, of squirrel funerals, of saving dogs from motorways, but you could dismiss all of these as ‘kid stuff’- I mean, let’s get real! We live in the real world, we eat animals!

Take the pelican. I mean could there be a more awkward looking creature. I used to sit at Santa Cruz and watch the pelicans dive into the water. It was so interesting, but I would be hard pressed to say these animals had any connection to my salvation or spiritual well being. I mean, salvation is about God’s love for humanity, sending the Word of God, Jesus Christ to earth to reconcile humanity through the cross - isn’t it?

That about sums up the theology. And of course, as I watched the pelicans dive, every once in a while, one of those pelicans would not return; they would not surface; they would die. I would stop and wonder. Did God care right there? Did God know that a part of creation just slipped away? Does animal suffering disturb God? Do animals have souls? Will there be animals in heaven? I know! Childish questions.


The Scripture passage today comes from the Gospel according to Mark 1:9-13:

‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with You I am well pleased." And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited upon him.’

The imagery is strong; Jesus goes out to the wilderness. There were three places that were extremely dangerous in the ancient world; the seas, any place at night, and the wilderness. The wilderness was a dangerous place because it was where bandits hid out. Think of the story of the man attacked on the way to Jericho who is rescued by the Good Samaritan. It was also a place of desolation which was not hospitable to human life. Finally, it was dangerous because there were wild animals lurking about; untamed and savage.

Interesting that among the Kosher or ‘food’ laws of the Old Testament, those animals cleared for sacrifice were always ‘non-predatory’ animals - the ox, the dove, certain birds, a lamb - those not found in the wilderness. The desert was a symbol of chaos and of nature gone astray; of animals opposed to the will of God.

Now the biblical view of animals has traditionally been seen this way. What was once in harmony, is now destroyed by sin and off kilter. The relationship between humanity and wild life, while once a good thing, is now despoiled and in a fallen state. So actually animals are affected by sin: ‘the whole creation groans’ Paul states, for what can best be seen as a restoration or salvation of their own. When the ancient Jews looked at nature, and the circle of life, with its beauty and violence, its innocence and atrocities, they saw something that was in need of God’s restoration. I’m sure everyone here remembers the famous phrase from Isaiah of ‘the lion will lie with the lamb’. That was the imagery used to describe what life would be like under God’s final rule. When God finally comes to town, all will be freed, restored, (the actual Hebrew word is Shalom) - peace will be restored among all creation - among all things - all in Christ.

Shots of the Messiah

Well, here in the midst of this disarray, in the midst of the chaos and danger of the wilderness, of bad weather, Satan and wild animals, is Jesus of Nazareth, the Good Son. And he is suddenly at peace. The war ends and Jesus is with the wild animals and with angels ministering to him. When Messiah comes, he will usher in a realm of peace - shalom. This looks like a little slice of that Messianic peace that Jesus brings or will bring. The tradition of the Messiah’s role in bringing peace to all is well founded in Scripture - a holy person, a prophet of God was able to restore what had been broken in nature. You see that in the healings of the prophets (think Elijah), or the control of dangerous weather (see Jesus) and look what we find in the book of Job in describing a servant of God at work: Job 5:22-23:

‘At destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the wild animals of the earth. For you shall be in league with the stones in the field, and the wild animals shall be at peace with you.’

Now you tell me, when early Christians read the story of Jesus at peace with the animals in the wilderness, what image would come to their minds -prophet, holy man, Messiah? Maybe something more. It’s no wonder that many of the so called ‘additional’ stories of Jesus that circulated after the New Testament was formed spoke of Jesus’s relation to nature and animals in a positive light. Somehow deep in our gut we know that for someone to be from God, they must also be healing to the world of nature as well. To be compassionate to their plight. Think of St. Francis.


Let me get practical here. When you receive Christ in your life, he brings peace. But part of Jesus’s peace was with nature because everyone pondered why horrific things happened in nature. C.S. Lewis stated ‘I know there are times when the desperate helplessness of animal suffering makes every argument for the existence of God appear hollow.’

In the passage from Mark, Jesus brings peace and harmony to the natural order perhaps just for a moment; a slice of time, but a wonderful moment of what will be. The problem today is that right alongside the troubling animal violence we see in nature, is the even more brutal and barbaric treatment of the animal world by humans. With our increase in technology and ‘conveniences’ we also abuse and destroy the creation in a wanton way. When we turn our backs to the plight of creation, to God’s creatures, we are missing a golden chance for Christ to change us, to change our view, to see things as God sees them, to view life with compassion and justice, to see the connection and big picture.

Christian Examples

Too far-fetched? The great Reformed Minister of England, ‘the prince of preachers’, Charles Spurgeon didn’t think so. He said that ‘a person is not a true Christian if his dog or cat were not the better for it.’ The treatment of the animal world was a test case for conversion. John Wesley, another Englishman, was so transformed by Christ’s love of the innocent and least, that he demanded that animals be treated humanely and started an organisation for it. Transforming our lives to the image of Christ, who stooped down to those lower than he, can transform our own walks [of faith] as well. To the least of the least; to those who are innocent and oblivious to their fate; to those with no voice, and yes, to the world of nature. God’s grace overflows the cup of our lives and spurs us to spread it to any sphere imaginable.

The Lamb of God

Jesus Christ, the lamb of God. The imagery of the lamb, the innocent lamb, that suffers at the hand of useless cruelty, has shaped the Christian imagination. Our time here is not just to memorise Scripture and doctrine, but to be continually changed to the image of Christ, to see life from the side of the weak (the lamb), the innocent (the sheep), and the gentle (the dove) - all biblical imagery.

As Christ intercedes for us at our weakest moment, may we intercede on behalf of the victims of exploitation and the suffering of wildlife. May the face of Christ, God incarnate, the innocent suffering lamb, shape our spiritual view to see the lessons that are given in the gift of our animal neighbours; and to learn.

As the mythic pelican feeds her young by pulling from her own flesh to feed her struggling infants, in self sacrifice may we, as a people, become changed by the sacrifice seen in our Saviour and mirrored in Creation.

Return to The Ark No. 192

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