Lyrical Living: Words to Live By
Finish Then Thy New Creation Click here for audio
Romans 8:18-25, Mark 12:28-34
Pastor Marty Raths
When it comes to hymnody, I confess to being a bit of a traditionalist. While I like most hymns, I do find that some of our modern hymnody is a little lacking in theological substance. On most days, give me a Wesleyan hymn like Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. Now there is a hymn! It is majestic, both musically and theologically. Like many of Charles Wesley’s hymns it is trinitarian in structure, encompassing the fullness of God’s relationship to us and to the world. The first verse speaks of Jesus, the second of the Spirit, and the third of God Almighty.
Then the last verse opens with what I believe to be one of the most hopeful phrases in any hymn, “Finish, then, thy new creation . . . “ In just a few words Wesley evokes a panoramic sweep of salvation history, from God’s creation of the heavens and the earth in the beginning to God’s restoration of all things at the end of time.
In his book, Reaching for the Invisible God, the religious writer, Philip Yancey, sums up this panoramic view in three bold affirmations that our faith makes about the world: creation is good, creation is fallen, and creation is being redeemed. All three of these affirmations are true from the biblical perspective, and all three must be a part of any gospel worthy of the name the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Each one is sort of like a leg on a three-legged stool. Take any one of the affirmations away and we are left with a diminished gospel. “The cycle of goodness, falleness, and redemption applies to everything on this planet,” Yancey writes. “Sex, family, church, economics, government, corporations – everything, in fact, that we humans touch gives off the original scent of goodness and the foul odor of fallenness, and requires the long, slow work of redemption.”
Creation is good. As a lover of the scriptures I get so frustrated sometimes. When it comes to the first chapter of Genesis, we almost never seem to get beyond the creationist and evolutionist debate, which means that we never really get to what matters most about this chapter, its insistence upon the goodness of creation. This is the refrain the runs through the chapter, the goodness of creation. Over and over again it says that God saw what God had made, and it was good, and then at the last God saw everything that God had made, everything, and it was not just good. It was very good.
In Hebrew there are two words for make or create, and one of them, bara, is used only in reference to what God does. Only God baras, and what God has made, all of it is good. No, it is very good. How could it not be? A good and gracious God created it, so it is good, and so much follows from this one affirmation.
The world is good, and we must treat it as such. From our faith perspective ecology is an aspect of theology. The proper use of the earth and its resources is a part of our charge from God to be good stewards of the earth. Our misuse and abuse of the earth is an act of unfaithfulness, and a violation of our stewardship covenant with God. We are not here to do with the earth as we please. We are here to do with it as pleases God. A good earth requires from us good stewardship.
The world is good, and so are we. Again in the first chapter of Genesis it says that we are created by God, and that we are created in the image of God. All of us. We are created with a mind to reason, and a heart to love, and a conscience to know good from evil.
Now this is not in any way to deny the reality of sin in the world, and we will get to that. But our created goodness stands over against what I would call the “what a miserable wretch I am” tradition within the church. This tradition is actually a small stream within the witness of the scriptures, but some have made it the scriptural watershed, in the mistaken belief that the lower we value ourselves the more we glorify God. But how does that reflect upon the One who made us? No, the scriptures are clear on this: we glorify God the Creator by valuing what God has created, the earth and all that is within it, including us.
Let me try to say it a little different way. Our worth as persons has been bestowed upon us by the One who has made us, and there is nothing in this world that should ever take that away. Now there are things that do, I know, take away our sense of worth, and I know that the list of things is long, including the church sometimes. But at least in regard to the church this must is sure, if we ever leave church with a diminished sense of our own worth as ones who have been created in the image of God, then we have not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Now this gospel will correct us and challenge us and provoke us at times, and it will keep calling us to repentance and renewal, but it will never undermine our sense of worth. That is some other gospel because this world is created good, very good even, and so are we, though of course this is not to say that all is well in this good world.
Creation is fallen. Just as good and loving parents allow their children the freedom to make choices, God has created us with free will. Though this means that we are also free to suffer the consequences of our choices, which are often not good, it is important for us to see that our free will is a part of the good creation of God.
Imagine the alternative. We would quite rightly condemn parents who would force every choice upon their children, allowing them no say in the direction of their own lives. The same is true in our relationship to God. We could imagine a world where God somehow made every choice for us. It would be a very ordered world I suppose, a mindless and heartless world, but it would lack what is most important in life. It would lack love. No one can be made to love someone else. Love can only be chosen, and this is what God wants from us, that we choose, freely choose, to love God and neighbor and self.
This is the greatest commandment. Again and again Jesus affirmed this, as he does in our gospel story, and as Jesus says, all the other laws only make sense in relation to this one, love God and neighbor as self.
Granted this was a risky thing for God to do. But then love is risky. And the scriptures tell us that God is love. So God’s relationship to the world could not be anything but risky, and it has been risky for God all along, creating a creature, us, with freedom of choice, entering into a covenant relationship with a troublesome people, being born into a fallen world, being willing to endure the rejection of a sinful people.
Love necessitates freedom, and that complicates things greatly. There is no way around this. As a part of a good world, God has created us with freewill, so we are free to love, and we are free to sin, which is why this good world is a fallen world as well. And what this means then is that not everything that happens in the world, in fact a lot of what happens, is not the will of God. We can, and far too often do, act contrary to the will of God, individually and collectively. Sin happens. The world is fallen.
Now this is not in any way to say that God is not present in the midst of our fallen world. As one wise person of faith has said, not all things have the hand of God in them, but all things have the heart of God. God is present, and God is at work, even in our fallen world. By grace God can bring good out of any circumstance, even the most difficult of circumstances. The world is fallen, and the world is being redeemed by the grace of God.
In fact almost all of scripture is devoted to this, to how the redeeming grace of God is at work in our good but fallen world. That is why the great themes of the scriptures are forgiveness, and healing, and homecoming. These all but sum up the message of the scriptures, and the purpose of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Get this, and we get the gospel. We sin. But God forgives us, and then, and this is a very important then, we in turn are called to forgive one another. We are wounded. But God heals us, and then we in turn are called to become wounded healers. We are wayward and lost. But God leads us back and welcomes us home, and then we in turn are called to offer to others the welcoming gift of hospitality. This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and this is why we believe that a good but fallen world is not the end of the world.
Creation is being redeemed. The world is a work in progress, and so are we. There is a story about the artist, Picasso. It seems almost apocryphal, but it is a wonderful story just the same. Anyway, the story goes that in his later years Picasso was not allowed to roam around art museums unattended because he was once caught trying to improve upon one of his masterpieces. Picture it. Picasso is in the Louvre in Paris standing in front of one of his masterpieces with brush and palette in hand just trying to improve upon it a bit.
It is not a perfect analogy, but as artwork, we are worthy of being in a museum. God is the artist after all. But even like a Picasso masterpiece, we all remain unfinished. We are works in progress, and grace is God’s artistic tool of choice.
And it is a large canvas, as vast as the universe itself. All of creation is awaiting the redemption of God, Paul writes. It is an all-encompassing vision, and a biblical one: what God has created God is intent upon redeeming, and all that is contrary to the will of God will be overcome. The gospel is not just about saving souls. As important as this may be, it is too small a vision for God, and it makes for a diminished gospel.
No, as Paul reminds us, God has greater things in store for the world. God is somehow intent upon redeeming it all, and we are called to be a part of all that God is doing, and this is a part of the richness of John Wesley’s understanding of the Christian life. We are to be about not just the saving of souls, but the redeeming of bodies and minds and spirits and relationships and communities and the whole of the natural world because that is what God is doing.
Some years ago I lead a study on this passage from Romans, and afterwards one of the women stopped into my office. Now I do not recall her exact words, but basically she said to me, “That’s quite a passage.” “Yes, it is,” I said. And then she went on to say, “Is this where people get the idea that dogs go to heaven.”
And she was right. Paul is giving a grand vision here, one worthy of the God of all creation. All of creation is eagerly awaiting what God has in store, Paul says, and this serves as warning to us, never to underestimate the reach of God’s grace.
I am reminded of a story about Francis of Assisi, who was known for preaching the gospel even to the birds. One day Francis was talking with his friend, Brother Leo, when he said, “If only someone would teach the animals to say just the words, “Lord, have mercy.”
“First let’s teach others,” said Leo, “The animals don’t need them. They don’t sin.”
And Francis answered, “That is true, Leo, of all the creatures we alone sin.”
”Yes,” said Leo, “and we’re the only ones who enter heaven.”
“Oh, don’t be so sure,” Francis protested. “For no one knows the full extent of the grace of God.”
No one knows indeed, but God. So who are we to place limits upon the workings of God’s grace? Like Francis, and Wesley, and Paul, better to err on the side of grace. Better to loosen our grip on certainty and to lose ourselves, as Wesley does at the end of his hymn, to “love and wonder and praise.” Paul finds himself here too at the last in his letter to the Romans. After devoting several chapters to what God is bringing about through Christ, Paul bursts into a doxology at the end of chapter 11, and I want to end with these words of Paul, to end with them as both a doxology and a prayer to the God of all creation and redemption. Let us pray:
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of you, O God! How unsearchable are your judgments and how inscrutable your ways! For who has known your mind? Or who has been your counselor? Or who has given a gift to you, to receive a gift in return? For from you and through you and to you are all things. To you be the glory forever. Amen.