August 1, 2021

Desolation: Climate Change Sunday Number 3 in 2021

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler Climate Change Sunday 3: Desolation Sunday 1st August 2021 Isaiah 5:1-10 This is the third of four climate change Sundays at St Mary’s…

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Climate Change Sunday 3: Desolation

Sunday 1st August 2021

Isaiah 5:1-10

This is the third of four climate change Sundays at St Mary’s in prayerful preparation for the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November.


This – the third of four climate change related sermons in 2021 – takes the theme of desolation. And that could not be timelier, could it? Things are very serious indeed.

In the Pacific Northwest a temperature of a shade under 50 degrees was recorded last month.

Across Turkey and California, enormous wildfires rage destroying areas the size of small countries.

In Western Europe catastrophic floods lay villages waste and obliterate homes and lives.

And that’s just the immediate effect. Who knows what the ongoing cost will be?


The scientists have reminded us only this week that all that we see now is “baked in”. It’s as irreversible – at least in the foreseeable future – as the butter and flour in a cake. And, with a high degree of confidence, the statisticians can now say that this is not a flash in the pan. Imagine, one said on the BBC World Service yesterday, imagine playing poker with someone who regularly gets a full house; if it happens once, you can put it down to chance; but if it happens almost every hand, you begin to believe the deck is stacked. The climate change deck is stacked against the planet with the frequency of hottest, wettest and sunniest years. The chance of the Pacific Northwest reaching 50 degrees Celsius is now one year in 50; in earlier times, the chance was one year in 20,000.

But then there are the predictions – what is yet to come. The World Meteorological Organization predicts that a 40% chance of the annual average global temperature topping 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels at least once in the next five years. At the same time global energy use, on current projections, is set to increase by one-third by 2050, with fossil fuel use dropping from 80% to 70% of the energy we generate. Even with that modest change in the right direction, on current projections, the median warming of the planet by the middle of the 22nd century is 4.1 degrees Celsius. And the median is the middle projection of them all.

None of us will be around by the middle of the 22nd century but, if we are to take seriously what previous generations have “baked in” to our current climate challenges, the ability we must make the planet a place where human and other life remains rich, enjoyable and diverse is in our hands. Just as previous generations have inflicted on us – often through ignorance – the climate crisis we face, so this generation – without the excuse of ignorance – face a clear choice about what sort of world we will bequeath to the coming ones.

When you read the prophets of the Old Testament – like Isaiah we have heard today – we need to remember that they offer both judgment and hope. They are not fortune tellers: they are those who warn and encourage. “Change your hearts and your actions”, they say, “or these will be the consequences – and if you do,” they add, “these will be the blessings.” Maybe the truth is that we have become so accustomed God’s word to us as good news, we forget that it comes with clear elements of judgement. In Isaiah 5, the Lord warns his people using the image of a fertile vineyard gone wrong, failing to produce good fruit. Despite what the Lord had done in tending Jerusalem, she has failed to be fruitful. And so, God declares, it will be torn down and reduced to waste ground.

The difference, of course, between this ancient prophecy and us amid climate change and all it threatens, is that our living has not only has failed to be fruitful in terms of creation, but it has also begun to be destroyed by humanity, not by God. God cannot be blamed for this mess. And, with all the “baked in” element of the climate crisis, there is nothing we can do to stop some of it.

But not all of it. We are not yet condemned to the full consequences of the climate crisis. Some of the statistics I quoted earlier came from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Global Change Outlook for 2021. But listen to their conclusion, reflecting on the Paris Agreement target of keeping the global temperature increase below 2 degrees above preindustrial levels. They say, “We find that those targets remain achievable, but in general require much deeper near-term reductions than those agreed upon in Paris.”

In a few months’ time, scientists, activists and most importantly, politicians and other decision-makers, will gather in Glasgow for the COP26 conference. Faced with all that the world has been through in the past eighteen months, there will be a moment this year when the Paris Agreement can be improved upon. The goals are admirable: global net zero carbon by 2050 and a 1.5 degree increase in global temperatures; adaptation to protect communities and ecosystems; mobilising finance to make good on the 2020 promise to bring at least $100bn dollars per annum; working together to respond to climate change, chiefly by finalising the Paris Rulebook which makes the Paris Agreement operational. But they will be challenging: vested interests, short-termism and international geopolitics will conspire to work against the achievement of these vital goals.

For those whose worldviews remain closed to the possibility of the divine, the matter is entirely in our hands. And we should respect them because, at one level, they are right. It is in our hands. People of faith – of all faiths – are not immune to climate change. God is not going to whisk the righteous off to heaven to avoid the catastrophe.

But, if we have faith in God, we have faith in a world where there is the possibility that, beyond our human capacity to deal with this desperately serious crisis, there lies a wellspring of love and compassion, of justice and mercy, that can give to us not just the faith to believe we can reach these ambitious goals, but that there are better ways of living on this planet that have been at the heart of religious faith for much of the long eras it has been part of our human identity. What that means, I think, is that prayer can play a huge role in helping us in the climate crisis. For when we pray, we connect ourselves with these divine wellsprings, and with the divine power that helps us to act to make real changes. There’s a prayer we sometimes use in church – it’s the Collect for the Third Sunday of Lent. Listen to its wisdom in the context of the climate crisis:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen  

Friends, if we want to play a part in the climate crisis, but don’t think we can make a difference, faith in God tells a different story. For, in prayer and communion with God, we connect with a power that can help us, and a power which not just keeps us in our bodies and souls, but gives us strength to act to change. When we pray, it seems to me, we don’t just engage in wishful thinking and warm thoughts, but we connect with the One who can give us strength to change, to act, and to mobilise. We may listen to the depressing and frankly frightening statistics I recounted at the beginning and feel powerless to make a difference, but that is not the way for people of faith in the living God. For us, armed not just with a vision for a better world, and with the source of the power and energy that we need to make that world real, I think we above all people should be at the forefront of praying, of acting and campaigning over the next few months. Join a campaign, get yourself informed, let politicians know what they need to do, speak up for the climate in your workplaces, and do all of this because you believe in a universe created and loved by God, and because you know that this world is, in the end, not ours to ruin, even if it is in our power to do just that.

We’ve taken some baby steps to become an Eco-Church at St Mary’s and we will continue to work to do that. I invite you to start taking some more conscious steps to change the way you lead your life in the coming years. Start now, time is of the essence. The food we buy needs to be more local, the energy we consume needs to be greener, the travel we make needs to be informed by the climate crisis. Don’t worry about what the Chinese or the Americans are doing; worry about what you and your neighbours are doing; worry about what the people of Battersea or the place where you live are doing. As the old phrase goes, Think Globally, Act Locally.

But above all, pray for all attending COP26. Pray for all those for whom the climate crisis is happening in their neighbourhood now. Pray that we might start acting as stewards of this creation and not those who make it desolate. And start today. Amen.

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