Podcast Transcript | About Abortion with Dave Brennan
The sycamore gap in our thinking | 3 Oct 2023 | Episode 67
Hello, and welcome to this week's episode of About Abortion.
As you no doubt have heard, the sycamore tree at Hadrian's Wall was felled overnight recently by no-one-quite-knows-who, but someone has been arrested. And I number myself amongst those who are genuinely sad about this. I'm not just saying that to gain some sort of common ground with my listeners. Genuinely I'm sad. I've been to that spot a couple of times with my family. It's a beautiful scene, or it was a beautiful scene, and now, much less so. But there's something about this whole affair that makes me much sadder than the demise of this tree, and that's what I want to talk with you about today.
Now it's important when we have these knee-jerk reactions and these sentimental responses, especially as God's people, Christians, that we bring those reactions and seek to submit them to the Word of God. We want to be looking at everything in the light of Scripture, and just because something makes us sad doesn't mean that it necessarily is sad, or that it's right that we are sad. We mustn't be emotionally driven. So, what I want to do first off, is I want to explore some scriptures with you, and move towards something of a theology of trees. We're going to see what the Bible has to say about plants, where they belong in God's design, in His order. And then out of that, think about how we should be responding, as Christians, to what's just happened.
So, let's begin at the beginning: Genesis 1 and 2. We see that the Lord created all things. In the beginning there was nothing, and then God created out of nothing by the power of His word. And we read here,
"Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants, and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds. And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good." [Genesis 1:1-12]
So, here what we see is, as with all of creation to begin with, God says it is good. That's His judgement on what He has made. So, straightaway, we can say that trees are good, part of God's good creation. But already we're seeing hints here of the way in which trees are good. One of their primary functions is to provide food for animals and for humans. So, right off, we can see that plants, yes, are important, but in a derivative way or incidental way. The good that they provide is chiefly for other living things. Of course, plants are living, but according to Scripture, they're not living in the way that animals are, and certainly not in the same way that humans are. And we see this really reiterated again and again. Later in the chapter God says, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth, and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for good." [Genesis 1:29] And then in chapter 2 we read that the garden was full of trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. So, here's another function, another way in which trees and plants and much of creation are good: they're pleasing to the eye. So, it's right and natural that we should rejoice in the beauty of a sycamore tree, and be sad when that beauty is taken away. So, we can see trees, plants, vegetation, they're good for food and they're good for the beauty that they provide.
If you flick ahead now to Psalm 104. As it happens, before I decided to speak on this this morning, this was my reading today. And we see here again, the Lord very actively involved in the growth of plants. It's not as though God just set up creation and then had no further involvement. Yes, He did create things able to reproduce according to their kinds, human beings included. But we also read, when it comes to human beings, (Psalm 139, fantastic example,) how God is intimately involved every time a new humam being is created. He's hands-on involved in that creation. And we see something comparable here from Psalm 104:
14 He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for man to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
15 wine that gladdens the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine,
and bread that sustains his heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the pine trees.
So, again, we see plants being provided as food for the animals and for humans, and also as a place for birds to live. So, vegetation, plants, they're there primarily to serve other living things. So, there's a functionality to the way that plants are good.
But the passage I want to focus on most today is in Jonah 4. I hope that you will see how this relates to recent events for us. For those who know the story of Jonah, incredible story. Well worth a read if you've never read it before, only 4 chapters. You can read it in one sitting. In a nutshell, the story is, Jonah is commanded to go to Ninevah, but first off, he refuses. He doesn't want to go there. Why? Because the people of Ninevah were notoriously wicked. They were so evil. They're similar to what we're like today in the way that they treated human beings. The methods they used for torturing and skinning their enemies, and pinning their enemies up in public places as an example to others - it was a society that almost seemed to relish torturing human beings. And when you compare their torture and execution methods with what we're doing to babies in the womb today, especially late-term abortion, well, we use potassium chloride, saline poisoning... The torturous methods are really comparable. And it's because Ninevah was so wicked that Jonah didn't want to go there in the first place. And of course there's the famous account of how he runs off, ends up in a storm, ends up sinking into the sea, but he's rescued by a fish. He prays to the Lord for deliverance, he's spat out onto dry land, and the word comes to him a second time to go to Ninevah. This time he goes, and he marches through the city declaring the Word of the Lord, and from king to beggar the whole nation/city of Ninevah repents. And the king actually issued an edict saying that everyone was to give up their evil ways and their violence. And there was just that hope that God might have compassion and relent, and indeed He did. And that's where we join the story in chapter 4. Jonah is really in a huff because they've been let off, because they've been shown mercy.
5 Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head and to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
“I do,” he said. "I’m angry enough to die.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Ninevah has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and many cattle aswell. Should I not be concerned about that great city?"
You can see there that the plant has a use. It's good in a certain way. Again, it's primarily good in the way that it serves a purpose for Jonah. It gave him shade. It was a good thing. But there's a bigger point being made here. Jonah has it entirely wrong. Why? He cares more about a plant than he does human beings. If we were to go back to Genesis, whilst we would see that plants are good and have their function, when God made men and women in His own image, that was a special act that distinguished them from all of creation. No longer did He say, "it was good." He said, "it was very good." And throughout Scripture we see a very high premium being placed on human life. In Genesis 9 we read that it's because we're made in God's image that the shedding of innocent blood is forbidden, and God will demand an accounting for every human life that's taken. It doesn't say that about trees anywhere. It doesn't say an account's going to be demanded for every tree felled. But every human life taken: absolutely. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, it talks about how there is no remission for the curse on the land, there's no way to cancel out that, except by the shedding of the guilty's blood - capital punishment in that legal code. Now, of course, we could in another discussion talk about how that relates to what Jesus did on the cross and how that price has been paid. But the point is, that's how seriously the Lord takes the shedding of innocent blood, and that's why it attracts capital punishment in the Old Testament law.
So, Jonah's got it all wrong here. He cares more about a plant than he does about human beings, and these are human beings whose eternal souls are at stake, and if he had had his way, and had witheld the gospel as-it-were from them, the message of repentance, their souls would have been at stake. But also all the violence being done, and the innocent blood being shed, that also in a sense would have rested on Jonah's head had he not delivered God's message of judgement and the offer of repentance. We could also look at when Jesus curses the fig-tree in the New Testament. There's no indication that the tree itself had some kind of value whereby that was punishing it as if it was a person, but rather it was a prophetic sign showing what was going to happen in particular to Jerusalem and the Jewish people at that moment who were rejecting the Messiah, not bearing fruit in time.
So, I hope we can see here that we can categorise God's creation of living things into three - plants, animals and humans. We can talk about angels in another setting, but in terms of here on earth we've got plants, animals, humans. And humans are effortlessly superior under God's authority in value, because we're made in the image of God. Now, what we're seeing, if we compare this biblical account of this to what's happening right now in response to this sycamore tree in Northumberland, is we see that we've got it entirely the wrong way round. We're a bit like Jonah. We're weeping over the felling of a sycamore tree and yet we remain callous-hearted and insensitive to what's being done to human beings made in God's image. We are humanising non-human things more and more, but we're acknowledging the humanity and value of human beings less and less. And there's this gap that is widening.
Let me give you some examples. In the newspapers, on social media, celebrity responses to the sycamore tree, I noticed words such as this: Apparently someone "murdered the tree". People are saying, "rest in peace," to this tree. They're talking about how the tree's irreplaceable, you can't put the tree back up, about how it was a star in a film, as if it was one of the actors, as if it had a personality. Others talked about how the tree kept them company. At one level one can understand these sentiments and the metaphors that may be being employed here, but the reality is, there is an outpouring of grief over one tree being felled in a way that we're not seeing over the hundreds of babies that are being killed every single day. The humanity of human beings is being suppressed, and the non-human objects such as trees are being humanised, and that gap is widening. I even saw a quote from W. H. Auden that said, "A culture is no better than its woods." And a modern-day poet was latching onto that, and saying, "Yes, this is the heart of the nation. How we treat our trees is the measure of our nation."
How have we got to this point? Because this is a problem, but it's not the heart of the problem. It's symptomatic. If we turn to Romans 1 we begin to see more of what's going on here. (We could have looked at Matthew 6. You can look at that in your own time. Jesus talks about how God does clothe the flowers of the field and He talks about the sparrows being provided for, but, "How much more will your Heavenly Father feed you, of you of little faith?") The clear point being made there is that human beings are far more precious and meaningful to God than animals or plants. But if we look at Romans 1 we can see what's going on here. We can begin to understand the spiritual backdrop to the insanity that's at play in our society that there's an outpouring of grief over a tree, but not a tear shed for human beings.
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents;31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, truthless.32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
What this passage reveals to us from God's word is that where all of this starts is with the suppressing of the knowledge of God and the worship of created things. That is at the heart of the malaise in our nation today. We have suppressed the knowledge of God, we know that God is there, He's made it clear. We have that sensus divinitatis, that sense of the divine in our hearts, we have a conscience, we're made in God's image, His glory is clear to see in creation. But we suppress the knowledge of God and we worship created things instead. And what pours out of that is insanity and depravity - insanity in our thinking, depravity in our behaviour. And so we can see there's a futile mind that we have all around us, that cannot judge rightly between the value of trees, the value of human beings, that cannot see biological reality (a boy can be a girl, a girl can be a girl). And there's also the depravity, the wicked behaviours.
And it's no accident that this passage starts by talking about sexual behaviours. This is so key. So often where a nation begins to go wrong is in sexual activity. Very important. It talks about the exchanging of natural relations for unnatural ones - homosexual activities. And then what happens after that, (and if you tune in next week you'll hear about this) there is this unavoidable connection between sexual sin and violence. As night follows day, the shedding of innocent blood follows sexual sin. And sometimes that follows very closely as in the sacrifice of babies, whether that's Old Testament Molech worship or modern-day worship of the self and sexual licence and what we call abortion being the sacrifice of babies. Very closely related to the sexual revolution, but what we can see here is that it all starts with suppressing God and worshipping created things. It often moves them to sexual sin and onto all sorts of other kinds of wickedness including murder and violence.
What is the religion of our day? Well it's becoming increasingly clear that here in the West, one of the great religions of our day is the cult of the climate. It's earth worship, it's worshipping nature. And the other chief idol is the worship of self, the idol of me. I do it my way. It's choice, autonomy. And what's interesting about this is, in a way we're going back to basics. Idolatry today is literally worshipping created things, as in creation, the planet. We're not even making statues of created things or putting different bits of animals together in a statue as various idols have been, including today in Hinduism for example. And likewise, we're not making idols of made-up beings and worshipping them, but we're worshipping ourselves. Not just any particular sin, but sin as a concept, because we're saying, "Whatever I choose it's right, as long as I'm choosing." So we're in a moment in our culture of worshipping creation, the earth, trees, the sky, the sun, and ourselves. And that's what we're seeing at the moment with this sycamore tree. This tree stands for something. And alarm bells should be going off that this has happened and that this is how we're responding to what's happened. People are exalting created things to the level of human beings and then God. And at the same time we're demoting humans made in God's image to be as disposable as a fingernails, or no different from having your appendix out. That's how we're treating unborn children, as if they are just things, inconveniences to be got rid of. We need to pay attention to moments like this. This gap in our thinking, the gap between how we care about a tree and how we care about human beings, it's not just a gap in our thinking. It's a gap in our feeling, in our loving, in our esteeming. It's what we esteem, what we value, what we worship. In a culture that has done away with the knowledge of God we will find that human beings are next on the list of being done away with. And inanimate objects like trees get exalted to the highest place.
So let's return to this question of, Are we sad about this and is it right to be sad? Of course, at one level it is right to be sad about the destruction of something beautiful. It's important when we are sad, when we are angry, when we're offended, to ask, "Why is that? What's going on in there?" Often that's a window into what's going on in our hearts. Often it can uncover some idolatry. So, there are good reasons to be sad, even angry, that this has happened. It can make us look forward to the new creation where there aren't going to be vandalism, and where beautiful things will remain in their place. But I think there are also some other reasons why we might be sad and angry. And they're tied up in the issue of idolatry. Very often when we get sad or angry especially, it's because an idol has been touched. So, what's been touched here in our nation? Perhaps in your heart, listening in, when this tree was felled overnight it reminded me of some other things that have been felled overnight. We don't know who felled this tree. There was one report that it was a teenage boy of 16 years and another claim that a man of 60 years old has been arrested. But assuming it was some teenage boy, what if this young man was a prophet? And I only mean that half-jokingly.
25 That same night the Lord said to him, “Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. 26 Then build a proper kind of altar to the Lord your God on the top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering.”
27 So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the Lord told him. But because he was afraid of his family and the townspeople, he did it at night rather than in the daytime.
28 In the morning when the people of the town got up, there was Baal’s altar, demolished, with the Asherah pole beside it cut down and the second bull sacrificed on the newly built altar!
29 They asked each other, “Who did this?”
When they carefully investigated, they were told, “Gideon son of Joash did it.”
30 The people of the town demanded of Joash, “Bring out your son. He must die, because he has broken down Baal’s altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.”
Gideon tore down an idol overnight and the people went ballistic. He touched a nerve and though what he pulled down was just made of stone, wood, inanimate, useless, the people couldn't handle it and they wanted to kill him. What we've seen in our nation may not be expressed in quite the same way, but there's a lot of anger, and it seems to be that this has really touched a nerve in our nation's heart. And I want to ask, What if this episode is something of a prophetic sign? What is the significance of what's just happened here? Just as Jonah's vine withered, (and the Lord did that), so in our time the Lord has allowed this tree to be felled. Who knows what their motives were? But at a deeper level, what if this is a prophetically significant moment? This tree has been felled, and this tree stands as a symbol for our climate cult, for our worship of nature itself.
The tree has been felled, and the question is, Now what? What are we going to do with that? Are we going to be like the men who surrounded Gideon demanding his blood? Or are we going to see that what's been felled here cannot help us, cannot give us salvation any more than a block of stone or a piece of silver? Will we turn our hearts to God in repentance, and will we value people, their physical lives, their eternal souls? Will we care for them more than we care for things like the air, plants, animals? Or will we, like Jonah, sulk? Will we shed tears over this plant, but continue to be calloused with regard to the unborn child in our day? The issue of created things being exalted and human beings made in the image of God being demoted, this is a problem in the Church.
Something that struck me on Twitter was the response of various bishops to the sycamore tree, expressing horror at what's happened. And these same bishops have never said a word about the genocide of babies in their nation on their watch. They will be held to account on this by the Living God. They're going to have to give an account for this as we all will. What did we do in the time of the baby genocide? Some of these men and women have seats in the houses of parliament, and they heave an opportunity to speak. To my knowledge, not a single one of them has spoken at all against the genocide in recent history. One example is the Bishop of Norwich, my local bishop. He blocked me on Twitter after I made the point that babies matter more than trees biblically. He's an interesting case in point of how this climate cult really is a cult. It's an idolatry that's taken hold within the established Church. His profile picture has Gaia, this massive globe named after a pagan goddess in the background, which was hosted in a large church building in Norwich. On his profile he describes his birth date in terms of some sort of carbon dating system. So he identifies himself and he traces his moment of birth not according to the Christian calendar or Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, but rather according to some carbon calendar. He also is down as saying recently that net zero targets and climate culture ought to permeate every part of our lives. So he's talking about whole-life discipleship, not to Christ, but to net zero. This is the Bishop of Norwich, and he doesn't stand alone.
Even some who call themselves evangelicals are far more concerned about the climate and the environment than they are about living human beings. And this is because of an idolatry that is taking hold and gaining ground by the moment. And there are even others who may not be card-carrying eco-warriors, but we are naïve and we are complacent as to how this is taking hold in the Church. And we don't perceive where this is coming from spiritually, and where it's taking us to spiritually. And we see some superficial similarities between climate concern and what we read in scripture, and we think, That's good enough for me. It's a biblical thing to care about. Let's adopt it wholesale. But it's not like that. Satan is using this ideology amongst many others to draw us away from the word of God and to take us away from the gospel, and to get us to serve other gods. And the mixing of idolatry and the worship of the Living God has never been good enough. There's no way anyone can claim that within the established Church, within the Church at large, there is anything like the amount of concern for the unborn, for the babies being killed daily; nothing like the same level that there is for things like trees and the atmosphere.
There's a moment here for us to pay attention. An idol in our nation has been felled and the question is, What are we going to do next? Great Britain, we need to snap out of his idolatry of non-human things, of created things. We need to snap out of the idolatry of the climate. And that goes for people in the Church aswell, and for Church leaders. We need to snap out of it and we need to see how lethal, how toxic this ideology is.
As I was looking into people's responses to the sycamore tree felling I came across something quite striking. I was already beginnning to be concerned that this was something of an idolatry that was at play here, and I came across this headline: "A deliberately felled tree and an idol." I thought, Goodness, this is interesting. And it was actually the top eighteen best photos from around the world last Thursday. It contains a picture of the sycamore tree felled, a drone shot from above. But then very interestingly the same day, one of the top photos globally was of a huge clay idol from Hyderabad in India, of the Hindu God Ganesha, the hideous elephant-god that's worshipped in Hinduism. And this Hindu god is worshipped for several days in a row and then apparently this huge 63 foot-tall idol is hoisted by crane and dipped into a lake. This is part of this idol-worship in India. Can this be brushed off as coincidence, or are we prepared to see that there's something here, there's a connection that we're meant to make? Just as in India still to this day in Hinduism, statues of elephant-headed gods are worshipped and there's all this ritual and expense and devotion poured out for a statue - that's one of the many idols within Hinduism. Are we prepared to see that what's going on today in our nation is idolatry - no less than that? Different in form, but it's no less an act of idolatry. And are we willing to be as repulsed by the idolatry of the climate as we are, or should be, by the idolatry of statues made to look like human-elephant hybrids?
Again, you're free to dismiss this as coincidence if you like, but it just so happened that I met someone yesterday who was from Hyderabad, and got chatting to him in the park. And then this article pops up this morning - idolatry from Hyderabad in connection with the sycamore tree. I think that the Lord is trying to get my attention on this and perhaps all of us need to pay attention to the idolatry that's gripping our nation. An idol has been felled. Are we willing to turn from our idolatry and come back to the Living God and honour what He honours, love what He loves, hate what He hates, which includes the shedding of innocent blood? Or are we going to go with the tide of popular culture and get no further than outrage that a beautiful tree has been felled and an ever-increasing clamour for devotion to the cult of the climate?