First came Dante’s classic poem Divine Comedy, which takes readers on a trip to hell in the section called “Inferno.” Then Dan Brown wrote the best-selling novel Inferno, which features his globe-trotting hero Robert Langdon on a quest to stop worldwide genocide. In October of 2016, the movie Inferno was released, with Tom Hanks once again playing Robert Langdon. He followed clues in Dante’s Divine Comedy as he attempted to stop a criminal mastermind from unleashing a biological weapon. Langdon hopped from Florence to Venice to Istanbul on his quest to solve riddles and save the world.
The villain in the story is a scientist who threatens to halt the growth of the human population by use of a bioweapon. He believes that the global population will soon overtake Earth’s scarce resources, so he creates an invasive disease to infect a large portion of the world’s population. In short, he wants to save humanity by eliminating millions of people.
For Langdon, the imperative is to locate the bioweapon before it is unleashed. You can bet that the movie included thrilling chases, hidden passageways and clues tucked away in pieces of classic art. Langdon raced through the streets of Florence and visited the underground cistern of Istanbul, unraveling mysteries and seeking to save the day in spectacular fashion. The New York Times praised the book as being “jam-packed with tricks,” while the New York Daily News loved its “coded messages, art history, science and imminent doom.”
At the heart of Inferno is the question of whether the earth can continue to support its people. The scientist who developed the biological weapon is focused on scarcity, as are other characters who share his concern. One says, “Our current path is a pretty simple formula for destruction. Population growth is an exponential progression occurring within a system of finite space and limited resources.” In less technical language: “We are quickly overwhelming our planet.” “The end will arrive very abruptly,” says the character. “Our experience will not be that of slowly running out of gas . . . It will be more like driving off a cliff.”
A scary thought. One that is grounded in a focus on scarcity. The Bible takes a very different approach, however. Psalm 65 is a thanksgiving for the bounty of the earth, a song that praises God for giving us everything we need for life. The psalmist says to God, “You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it” (v. 9).
God visits the earth, waters it, and enriches it. God fills the river with water and provides people with grain. From start to finish, Psalm 65 is filled with the vocabulary of abundance. “You crown the year with your bounty,” says the psalmist. “Your wagon tracks overflow with richness. The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy” (vv. 11-13).
Bounty, richness, overflowing pastures, joyful hills, meadows clothed with flocks, valleys decked with grain – with everything shouting and singing for joy. Instead of worrying about scarcity, Psalm 65 celebrates abundance. What a contrast this is to the scientist of Dan Brown’s Inferno who fears the power of unchecked population growth. He predicts that Dante’s vision of hell will come true when we see “huddled masses wallowing in their own excrement.”
In his mind, dangerous epidemics can be a good thing, because they control the global population. But God supports life, not death. Health, not disease. Abundance, not scarcity. “By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,” writes the author of Psalm 65. “O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth” (v. 5).
Here’s the preaching point – the takeaway, if you will: For us, God’s eternal imperative is to shift our focus from earthly scarcity to divine abundance. When we worry about scarcity, we become self-centered and fearful people, like the scientist who plots to save humanity by killing humanity. But a focus on abundance opens us up to new possibilities, challenging us to care for others and to be good stewards of what God has given us.
Faith in God’s abundance doesn’t mean we ignore population issues and consume as many resources as we can. Rather, each of us is challenged to be a good steward of what God has given us, working hard to protect our precious water, land, and air. Caring for creation means that we take care of what we have, as well as being willing to share with those who don’t have what they need for life. Contrary to the message of Dan Brown’s fiction, we don’t have to live in a hellish place like Dante’s “Inferno.” Instead, through an intentional focus on abundance, we can make our world more like Dante’s heavenly “Paradiso.”
Such belief in God’s generous goodness is not limited to Psalm 65. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says that the Bible begins with a song of praise for God’s generosity in the very first chapter of Genesis. Brueggemann writes: “It tells how well the world is ordered. It keeps saying, ‘It is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good.’ It declares that God blesses – that is, endows with vitality – the plants and the animals and the fish and the birds and humankind.”
Genesis offers us a beautiful vision of abundant life, but so often we miss it. Instead, we look around us and we see scarcity. We want more money, more time, more energy, more resources. We fail to see what Brueggemann calls “the overflowing goodness that pours from God’s Creator Spirit.”
Overflowing goodness: That’s the reality of our abundant world, as created by our gracious God. Such goodness is seen when “wagon tracks overflow with richness,” according to Psalm 65, and when “the pastures of the wilderness overflow” (vv. 11-12). A world of overflowing richness is where we live, and it’s the place we are challenged to care for God’s gifts and share them with others.
Such an attitude of abundance carries over into the New Testament as well. In a Scripture lesson read as part of many fall stewardship campaigns, the apostle Paul says, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. [. . .] God can provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:6, 8).
The apostle Paul was not a farmer, but he used an example from agriculture when he said that the one who sows bountifully will reap bountifully. This illustration makes perfect sense – you must sow a lot of seeds if you want a bountiful harvest. And sowing bountifully is a conscious decision that each of us must make. “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind,” says Paul, “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (v. 7).
Giving is a conscious choice, an act of the will. It’s not something we stumble into unwittingly. It’s not based on luck. Instead, it is a definitive choice we make based on our decision to focus on abundance. Fortunately, the choice to give bountifully becomes easier when we realize that God has already given bountifully to us.
Good things happen when we share abundantly, in response to the divine abundance found in God’s eternal imperative. This is true not only in the church, but in the larger world. Think about the attitude that Abraham Lincoln had at the end of the Civil War. At a time when people were angry about the losses of the war and focused on scarcity, Lincoln promised to show “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”
Later, after the Second World War, both Democrats and Republicans threw their support behind the Marshall Plan, which provided billions of dollars of economic support to help rebuild Western Europe. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, George W. Bush adopted a generous attitude toward the Muslims of the world and affirmed that Islam’s “teachings are good and peaceful.”
When Barack Obama started his first term in the White House, the preacher at the Inaugural Prayer Service reminded the president that we live in “a land of abundance guided by a God of abundance, generosity, and hope. This is our heritage.” And the preacher was right: This is our heritage. We live in a land of abundance created and guided by a God of abundance. We serve a God who can provide us with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, we may share abundantly in every good work.
In a world that so often focuses on scarcity, we become better people when we focus on abundance. We also become a stronger church and a stronger nation. So, let’s respond to God’s eternal imperative by celebrating God’s abundance, caring for the earth’s resources and sowing bountifully as we share with others. If we do this, we will always have enough of everything that we truly need.