How would you picture Jesus walking the pavements of Leeds today? A metro-man, dressed in casual urban chic, with an easy street cred? It’s true he moved comfortably through towns and city sharing his message with rich and poor alike, but the built environment was never his world of choice. No. Jesus was a wilderness person to the core.
Following his baptism in the wild waters of the Jordan river, Jesus is both ‘filled with the Spirit’ and ‘driven by the Spirit’ deep into the wilderness. This was the place he felt completely at ease and at home. For Jesus wild nature was not only an environment of spiritual nurture – and also testing – but somewhere for physical refreshment and joy. Whether on the mountain slopes of Hermon or the rolling hills of the Judean desert, the eastern shores of Galilee or across the Jordan, wild places were where Jesus went to pray, to grieve, to find solitude, to rest, to escape arrest and often to teach.
We find Jesus ‘with the wild animals’ (leopards, bears, wolves, snakes and scorpions to name just a few). For him field-flowers like the anemone, or the pernicious mustard plant (bane of farmers whose land edged wild heathland), each radiated the divine and had profound spiritual truths to communicate for those with the eyes and ears to learn. The same was also true of the humble sparrow or dark-feathered raven, as well as wilderness reeds, rocks, the wind, waves and the very sky itself.
Jesus self-identifies as ‘Son of Man’. In Hebrew this title – ben adam – quite literally means ‘earth person’. His message of good news is earth-based and creation-focused. His prayer to God was, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Interestingly there are 863 biblical references to ‘the earth’, and only 494 to ‘heaven’. We are told that at his birth an angelic declaration about his mission was, to bring ‘peace on earth’. During his crucifixion the very geosphere was convulsed by the traumas involved. Following his resurrection he was mistaken for ‘the gardener’- an interesting link with the original adam in Eden. Among his final words to the gathered disciple community, prior to the ascension, was the instruction, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation”. Liberating the earth was the central purpose of his life. This is what his frequently repeated phrase about the ‘coming of the kingdom’ actually meant in practice.
All this being so:
- Why has so little been written about Jesus and wild nature?
- Why has Jesus’ example failed to radically shape Christian faith and practice over centuries?
- Why has Jesus not become our focus in an age gripped by ecological crisis?
The answers are many and complex. There is value in considering them, but our first priority must be to put matters right.
When Jesus – ‘the second adam’ – rode into Jerusalem astride a young ungentled donkey colt,  to speak truth to power and face the consequences, he was not turning his back on the wild. Rather, he was actively bringing the life and spirit of the wilderness into the very heart of the metropolis, the centre of the urban world.
Biblically, Jerusalem (its name means ‘the dwelling place of peace’) becomes the symbol of the whole earth – in fact the complete cosmos – expressing itself in dynamic harmonious paradise. ‘Paradise’ is a Persian loan word for a large garden or parkland. It was used by the rabbis translating the Hebrew scriptures into Greek (LXX), when looking for a word for the ‘garden’ of Eden in Genesis. It is also used biblically to speak of the ‘future Eden’, which finds its fulfillment in the image of ‘the new Jerusalem’ within the ‘renewed heaven and earth’. This ‘wild city’ imagery is speaking of nature as God first and always intended it to be. Accomplishing the goal of the complete integration of humanity, wilderness and metropolis. This is what Jesus’ whole mission was directed towards, and what today we are called to join him in completing.
I am an outsider, though frequent visitor, to Leeds. Every time I come to the city the wonderful green environment, in terms of trees and grassy spaces, always impresses me. Nevertheless, the reality in 2008 was that if all the people of the world lived in the same way as the people of Leeds we would need 3.3 earth-type planets to sustain our current life ways (the total human population of the earth would then have needed 1.8 earth-type planets to sustain its current lifestyle). I wonder what the reality is today (seven years later) in 2015? However, Leeds is sadly not alone; many of the world’s cities present a similar and even worse reality.
From 30th November to 11th December 2015 the twenty-second annual United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place – this time in the French capital, Paris. To emphasise the importance of this event Leeds Church Institute (LCI) is running a series of events under the title of the ‘People’s Pilgrimage’ (PP) to concentrate hearts, minds and spirits on this crucial UN-CCC 2015 event, and what it should mean for the city. Here are some questions to consider:
- Do we believe that the ecological crisis is first and foremost a spiritual crisis?
- What practical steps can Christians and their communities take to advance Jesus’ eco-vision?
- How can the Christian ‘good news’ become a beacon of wild hope for Leeds?
One of the LCI-PP events will be a, ‘Jesus and Wild Nature’ day at St Chad’s Church, which I will be leading. It will be factual, practical and spiritual. Together we will explore Jesus’ call to eco-discipleship and his understanding that ‘dominion’ is to be understood as ‘meekness’. We will listen to his invitation to experience a deep personal connection with the sacredness of all things, alive with God’s free and feral Spirit. We will examine the biblical roots of wilderness spirituality, ways to nurture a Jesus-centered wild spirit with nature connection, reflection and immersion. We will discuss practical responses to expressing this in an urban world. We will emphasise that Jesus saw his work as calling us back from our estrangement from wild nature into a dynamic life-giving peace with all things; something that is vital if we are to have Christian voice of hope and witness in a world gripped by environmental collapse.
Finally. I am frequently asked why I use the phrase, ‘wild nature’? I do so because ‘wild’ is the very essence of her character. It is exactly how she was created to be: fresh, natural, self-willed, feral and free, utterly independent of humanity, yet totally expressing the person of God. This is why Jesus was so at home in the sacred wilderness. Why he tells us the wild wind is the unique example of how we should live when we are ‘born of the Spirit’. Many find my reference to ‘wild nature’ disturbing, because they are like Lucy in CS Lewis’s, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. On finding out that Aslan is a lion, she asks, “Is he a tame lion”? “Good gracious, No”, says Mr Beaver, “He is wild, but he is good”. The same is true of ‘nature’ and ‘creation’ – wild to the core, yet ‘good’ in abundance. In fact, ‘very good’, but of course not safe – that is where wisdom comes in!”
 See Lk 4:1; Mk 1:12, see Mat 4:1
 See Lk 5:16 (to pray); Mat 14:13 (to grieve); Mk1:35; Lk 4:42 (to find solitude); Mk 6:31 (to rest); Jn 10:39-40 (to escape arrest); Mk 1:45; Lk 9:10 et al (to teach)
 Mk 1:13
 Mt 10:29 (sparrow); Lk 12:24 (raven); Mt 11:7 (reeds); Mt 3:9; Lk 19:40 (stones); Jn 3:8; Mt 8:27 (wind); Mk 4:41 (waves); Mt 16:2-3 (sky)
 It is used 81 times in the Gospels, and once in Acts 7:56
 Mat 6:10; these words explain what his request, ‘Your kingdom come’ actually means in practice
 These numbers are from Jones, J. 2003, Jesus and the Earth SPCK; 8
 Lk 2:14
See Mat 27:45,51 and 28:2
 Jn 20:15; cf Gen 2:15
 Mk 16:15
 E.g. Mat 4:17; 6:10; Mk 9:1; Lk 11:20; 17:20 et al
 1Cor 15:45-48;
 Around 200 BC Jewish rabbis in Alexandria in Egypt translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek to make them more accessible to Greek-speaking Jews. This translation is called the Septuagint (LXX)
 See Isa 51:3; Rev 2:7 also Marshal IH. 1978, New International Greek Testament Commentary: Luke, Eerdmans; 872-873
 See Leeds City Council, ‘Natural Resources and Waste: Development Plan Document – Ecological Footprint’, May 2008; 10
 Gen 1:26,28; Mat 5:5
 Ps 19:1-4; Rom 1:20
 Jn 3:8
 Lewis CS. 1959, The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, Penguin Books; 75, 166
 Gen 1:31 et al