Don't Look Up

“Don’t Look Up” sermon   Rev. Stephen Milton January 22, 2022  

Don’t Look Up is a modern satire, and also an allegory. The plot is simple. Two nerdy scientists, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio discover that a massive comet is heading for Earth. When it arrives, it will wipe out civilization, and probably render humans extinct. They take their discovery to the government, which initially ignores them. The president is Trump-like, played by Meryl Streep. In time, the white house decides to act, DiCaprio’s character becomes a celebrity, and it seems like the world will be saved in time. But a billionaire social media guru intervenes and convinces the government to delay the mission until a later mission can be launched to mine the comet for precious metals. This venture fails, and the Earth is destroyed.  

In Don't Look Up, the government and corporations are the villains who dupe a gullible public. The film is clearly a thinly disguised allegory of the frustration of climate change scientists, who have found society slow to heed their warnings. It’s no surprise that in the end it is the old billionaires who get on a spaceship to find another inhabitable world, not the scientists, or common people. The elite, including the media, are too self interested to really care about the world.  

Don’t Look Up has proven to be a controversial movie.    

Critics haven’t liked it, although it was a hit with audiences. It is the second most watched movie in the history of Netflix[1]. Critics have said that it all feels too on the nose, a transparent allegory of climate change.[2]  

Leading scientists have been warning that the Earth is in deep trouble for many decades, and yet corporations have set up dummy public interest groups to cast doubt on their findings. Governments have dragged their heels to cut down emissions. Even last year’s critical COP 26 in Glasgow concluded with too few promises to cut emissions. Climate scientists’ day the film has captured their frustrations very well. [3]   

But something funny happened to the movie as it was being made. The film was set to start shooting just as the pandemic began. So, the shooting was put on hold for six months. During that time, the writer and director of the film Adam McKay started getting texts and emails from his cast and crew. They were amazed at how so many things in real life were as ridiculous or worse than what was contained in the script. A president who suggested using bleach to cure covid 19; people who refused to believe the virus was real; those who thought the vaccines would cause more harm than good. The Big Lie about the American election being stolen. The director became worried that his film had become irrelevant, taken over by the real world. So, he rewrote parts of the script to make it even more absurd and extreme.[4]   

One of the key themes of the film is that the people in power are greedy, deceptive, and refuse to take responsibility for their actions. People in power lie about everything. A general charge the scientists for snacks at the White House, even though they are free. Billionaires and politicians lie to the public about the risks posed by the comet and the rescue mission. The public is portrayed as gullible dupes, who buy the idea that mining the comet could create jobs for all. When the mining mission backfires, the people responsible simply hide. The Billionaire and President quietly slip out of mission control, claiming they need to go to the washroom. The President gets on a spaceship with a few thousand old billionaires to escape Earth, and she leaves her son behind on Earth. The rich and powerful want what they want and take no responsibility for their actions.  It all seems terribly possible, just barely more ridiculous than real life itself. And it poses the question: what would it take for anyone to take responsibility for a worldwide crisis like climate change? At what point do we agree to listen to our prophets who predict a disaster we have helped to cause?    

In our scripture reading today, Jesus appears in his hometown of Nazareth to read scripture in the synagogue. He declares that he is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.   

His declaration surprises the locals – isn’t this Joseph’s boy? They have known him his entire life, and now he claims to be the Messiah? Before they can say anything more, Jesus says, you probably want me to do some healing miracles for you, like I have done in other towns. That seems like a nice thing to do for the hometown crowd. But then Jesus changes the mood. He reminds them that in the past, prophets like Elijah and Elisha refused to cure anyone in their hometowns. Instead, they cured people in far off cities. This enrages the people in this Nazareth synagogue. Jesus is snubbing them, and they get so angry that they try to run him off a cliff.   

What’s going on here? Jesus has the gift of being able to read the room, really, really well. He knows these people, and he knows what they are thinking. He has correctly surmised that they have doubts about whether he could be the messiah, but they would like him to cure their sick.

They want the good stuff, what’s good for them, without dealing with the full consequences of the messiah’s message. Jesus is suggesting he knows their sinning ways very well. He’s not going to help them unless they start admitting to themselves, they have some work to do. But not one of them gets up and asks what did we do wrong? They have no interest in exploring whether they may have sinned, that they have committed acts they may be responsible for. Instead, they get enraged. Like us, they don’t want to talk about the things they may have done wrong. Issues like climate change and our role in bringing it about. They’d rather shoot the messenger or run him out of town.   

Why are we talking about climate change in church? Isn’t it a public policy or scientific issue? It is, of course. But it’s also an issue which affects all of us. Scientists estimate that in the last 40 years, half of all the animals on Earth have perished[5]. That has happened because of our lifestyle. Habitats have been destroyed, animals have been hunted to extinction, the oceans and rivers have been poisoned. Scientists now predict that by 2050, half of all species on Earth could go extinct.[6]  It is possible that the interconnected system of bugs, earth, animals, and plants will collapse, and endanger all species, including our own. That’s on us as humans for creating this unsustainable lifestyle.   

So how do we react to this? We’ve been hearing about this for a long time. Al Gore warned us back in 2006 in his academy award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth.[7] Canada’s David Suzuki has been warning us for decades. We’ve known, but we haven’t wanted to face it. There are many ways to react when faced with a sin this enormous. One is to simply deny it. The scientists are wrong. Climate change either doesn’t exist, or it isn’t caused by us. That’s one approach – to shirk responsibility all together, and people do that. Increasingly, people are accepting that the scientists are right, but since it is all so overwhelming, we refuse to let it sink in. We want to have happy lives, so we agree to a bit of change to our lifestyle, like the slow introduction of carbon taxes and putting out our recycling, but we’re not going to change a lot unless someone forces us to. That attitude is what the movie is criticizing – we want to change a little, but not enough to fix the problem. But that’s like not fixing it at all, the same as not looking up. We prefer to act as though it’s really someone else’s problem to solve. Until big countries like China get on board, there’s not much we can do anyway. It’s a form of moral denial, where we may be guilty, but we refuse to really face the scale of what we have done.   

There is another possibility: we fully accept our responsibility for the destruction of life here, past and future. That’s the truly moral position. As individuals we believe maturity is measured by the willingness to take responsibility for our mistakes. The problem is, the scale of this crime, this sin against the world is so huge. This is far worse than killing a deer with your car – it is like killing all deer, all owls, all caribou, and thousands of other species.  It’s simply too big, and we’re too small to handle it. Our sense of morality gets short circuited. Yet, that is what a truly moral response to this crisis would look like. If you really felt guilty for all the species we’ve helped kill, you wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. I suspect all of us know this, and it is why we protect ourselves from the bad environmental news – we don’t want to be paralyzed. Yet, logically, it is only when we can connect the dots between our lifestyle and the damage to the planet that we can hope to take effective action to stop what’s coming.   

In today’s scripture reading, Jesus denounces the people of Nazareth, saying he will not heal them. No one stands up to ask what they have done. They take no responsibility; they aren’t even curious. They just get angry and drive him out of town. In fact, they want to throw him off a cliff to kill him. They would rather kill the messenger than face their sins. The choice of a cliff is significant. In ancient Israel, every year, during the celebration of Yom Kippur, the priests would lead the people in a time of repentance for all the sins they had committed that year. These would then be ritually cast into a goat, who would then be thrown off a cliff as a gift to Satan.[8] This is the origin of the term “scapegoat”. It was a way of expatiating the people of that year’s sins. In today’s scripture passage, the people of Nazareth treat Jesus like a scapegoat, but without repenting, or even asking about their sins.   

But there is good news in this strange story: Jesus slips away.  He isn’t ready to die yet. He wants to have a few years to teach us about what love looks like, how we can become compassionate. Eventually, he allows himself to be captured by the authorities, to be nailed to a cross. He has warned his disciples over and over again that he will do this. As God in human form, he agrees to be killed by humanity, to bear all of our sins, everything we have ever done, so we can be forgiven. He willingly becomes the world’s scapegoat. On the cross he says, “forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus allows himself to be killed as a gift to all of us. When we have sinned, and we realize our responsibility, he looks down from the cross and says, I forgive you. Now get on with your life and follow me. Let’s fix this. You can realize the full weight of your mistakes and not be paralyzed by them. Jesus takes that weight for us, gives us a way forward beyond crushing guilt for what we have done.   

That’s why we need to talk about climate change in church. Because we are taught that we have the option of taking full responsibility for what we have done, and we can still have a good life. We can admit our sins and go forward to act on that knowledge. We can have the courage to connect the dots and act. We can listen to the scientists, believe what they have told us, and try to help, without crushing guilt or denial. This is one of the greatest gifts of the spiritual life – it offers a path to mature action. It offers a way to accept responsibility and work for the common good, unlike the billionaires and politicians in the movie who run out of the room when their plan fails. Our faith, which seems so unrealistic in its foundation on a death and resurrection, provides the means for adults to move past sins to make their lives and the life of the world better. We can take up this cross of climate change and walk with it, rather than trying to deny it or throw it off the nearest cliff. We dare to look up without fear. We can look up with vision and courage and decide that we are willing to be part of the solution. We can look up to God and say, ok, how can I help? And that is a blessing – not just to us, but to the whole world.   


The Lord’s Prayer  

Loving God, through the Spirit’s revelation, may Your true nature be honored everywhere.
May Your reign of love come.
May desire of Your heart for the world be done, in us, by us and through us in the power of the Spirit
Give us the bread we need for each day. Forgive us.     
Enable us to forgive others.
Keep us from all anxiety and fear.
For You reign in the power that comes from love which is Your glory forever and ever.



[1] [2] [3] Climate scientists like it: [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]