Sermon delivered on the second Sunday before Lent A, February 19, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio text of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 1.1-2.3; Psalm 136.1-26; Romans 8.18-25; Matthew 6.25-34.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What can we learn from our lessons this morning with their emphases on creation and new creation? For starters, our lessons provide us with a healthy antidote to the gnostic beliefs we all carry around with us. You know, the idea that things spiritual are good and things material are bad. As we shall see, we need to lose those beliefs as quickly as possible. The creation narratives also set the stage for our understanding of what it means to be a human being created in God’s image and how we should interact with God, God’s world, and each other. And as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, many of us need to broaden our understanding of salvation so that it matches the rich view contained in the NT. This is what I want us to look at this morning.
I am not going to offer you a day-by-day interpretation of the creation narrative in our OT lesson (and I see many of you breathing a deep sigh of relief about that). The narrative is pretty straightforward. What I want to do with Genesis 1 is to use it to remind us of who we are and why creation matters. Before we begin, however, I want to make this appeal. Please read the text for what it is instead of for what it isn’t. The writer of Genesis never intended the creation narratives to be a science lesson or to answer all our questions about God’s creative activity. How, for example, was there light before God created the sun and the moon and the stars (Genesis 1.3, 1.16)? The writer of Genesis is not interested in trying to answer these kinds of questions. He is only interested in telling us that God is the author of, and Lord over, all that is.
If you understand this simple appeal, you will stop feeling the need, for example, to enter into pointless and irrelevant debates about “creation vs. evolution.” The writer of Genesis and his ancient audience, along with audiences up to ca. the 18th century, would have been astonished that some of us feel the need to have these kinds of pointless arguments because the text was never written to be a book of science (cf. 2 Timothy 2.23, e.g.,). It was written, quite simply (or complexly), to tell us that God is the Creator of our world and all that lives in it, not to mention the vast universe in which our world exists. We are meant to read the texts with wonder and awe, and to see the goodness and importance of creation itself. Why would God create a physical world with its creatures and pronounce it all good if creation weren’t important to God? Does not compute! If you insist on bringing science into the creation narrative, then consign it to its proper place in seeking to investigate how God’s magnificent creation works so that we can better align our activities to be in harmony with it! When we can relax and start reading the texts for all they’re worth, without feeling the need or pressure to defend their veracity, we will be astonished at what we can learn from them and have our faith deepened in the process.
So what are some things we can learn from the creation narratives? I want to focus on three things. First, we learn that creation matters to God. How do we know this? Because God created it in the first place and God doesn’t create for no reason! Duh. Second, we learn that precisely because creation matters to God, that God is actively involved in his world and our lives. We see no less than our Lord Jesus himself affirm this truth in our gospel lesson. Why are you anxious about food and clothing he asks? Consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. They are not anxious, despite being quite vulnerable to a variety of forces, humans included. They reflect God’s glorious goodness and beauty and God takes care of them because God created them (like you) and God provides for their needs because he cares for them, just as he provides and cares for you. Notice our Lord, contrary to some religious thinkers of his day, did not condemn food and drink. He simply acknowledges that God knows our needs and will provide for them. This does not suggest an absentee or uncaring Creator!
We need a healthy dose of reminders like this because we are constantly bombarded with the old heresy and lie of gnosticism. This worldview goes something like this. Things spiritual are good because they pertain to the realm of God (did you notice in that statement the inherent hostility toward things physical and the subtle denial that God really created things good as the creation narratives testify?). And if you want to know God you need a special gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge, hence the term gnosticism. The deeper the knowledge, the higher the plane of consciousness one can achieve. There are a million varieties of gnosticism, but all make the same basic claim. The world of the spirit is good; the physical world is bad. Of course, to hold this belief is to completely ignore Genesis 1-2, not to mention the rest of the biblical testimony. Perhaps that is why so many in our world today try to discredit those narratives!
So why should we care about gnosticism? Well, for starters, it means that if we drink the gnostic Kool-aid we no longer have to care about God’s world and the things in it, our bodies included, because material things are evil and will ultimately pass away. It’s all about things spiritual and knowledge of God. So who cares how we treat each other and God’s world, or what we do with our bodies? It’s all going to be destroyed one day because all things physical are inherently evil! As we will see in a moment, the NT writers, especially Paul, have something to say about that!
The third thing we learn from the creation narratives has to do with human beings as God’s image-bearers. What does it mean to bear God’s image and why should we care? To answer these questions, think for a moment about the nature and function of a temple. Temples are temples because followers believe they house the deity they worship. Thus, for example, God’s people Israel believed that the Temple at Jerusalem housed their Creator God. In other words, the dimensions of heaven (God’s space), and earth (human space) intersected and God lived with his people there. To be sure, as Solomon acknowledged, the Temple could not contain God, but God dwelt there with God’s people nevertheless. So it therefore wasn’t uncommon for temples to house the image of the deity worshiped there (the Jerusalem Temple excepted).
Now imagine for a moment that the creation narratives in Genesis are telling us that this whole world is God’s temple and that God created us in his image to run his world, so that human beings reflected God’s goodness and beauty and love and truth out into the world as we assumed our role as stewards and rulers over God’s world on God’s behalf. (Why all image-bearers are not beautiful like me and could use a facelift like Fr. Gatwood or Carl or Dr. SAC Collins is a result of the Fall, but I digress.) Notice then in our role as stewards over God’s good world, we assume both royal and priestly functions. We function as royalty because God appointed us to rule over God’s creation (Genesis 1.28). We function as priests as intermediaries between God and his good world. This is why both the OT and NT make the claim that God’s people function in these two roles. Before the Fall, when Adam and Eve functioned as God created them to function, God’s world and everything in it was very good (Genesis 1.31) because we were fulfilling our God-given responsibilities as God’s image-bearing creatures.
Notice too that Genesis tells us about the nature of our image-bearing. God created humans, we are told, male and female. The sentence construction indicates an equality and the need for there to be both male and female for God’s image to be complete. There is no suggestion that males are superior to females (much as I hate to admit it, being the good chauvinist I am). No, God created them male and female to be rulers over God’s world on God’s behalf. If we understand this, two things follow. First, since all humans bear God’s image, there is no excuse for slavery or caste systems or exploitation or murder or anything else that damages or destroys God’s image-bearers. In fact, Genesis 9.5-6 makes clear that because every person bears God’s image, every person is therefore inviolate, making murder a heinous crime that demands the life of the murderer (love your enemies, anyone?). Yet how often do we discriminate and want to subordinate others out of some sinful sense of pride and/or superiority?
Second, when God made humans in his image, male and female, we see the reason for marriage, although the Genesis texts do not use that word. God’s first command to humans was to procreate and God created males and females with complementary sexual organs for that purpose. In our highly sexualized and polarized world today, where sensual pleasure and political rights are king, this critical function has gotten completely lost in the shouting. Marriage—the life-long union between male and female—exists so that humans can procreate and live in an orderly fashion as communities with the family being the essential unit of those communities. In other words, marriage and the family provide the needed structure and stability for our relational needs to be met and for humans to carry out God’s creative commands to reproduce and rule over God’s world. And as Fr. Bowser reminds us with annoying regularity, when we ignore or live contrary to God’s good and original creative purposes for us as God’s image-bearers, we bring trouble and dysfunction on ourselves and our lives. Marriage exists because God created humans male and female, and gave us essential functions commensurate with our human dignity as God’s image-bearers. It is simply not a political or social right, much as some would like it to be.
So if God created everything good and is actively involved in his world and our lives, what happened? What about all the darkness and evil and pain and ugliness in this world and our lives? Two words: The Fall (Genesis 3.1-17). The first humans decided they didn’t want to be God’s stewards. They wanted to be God and this got us kicked out of paradise and brought evil and corruption into God’s good world, along with God’s curse on his creation. To be sure there is much beauty and goodness still in God’s world and our lives. But there is also much pain and sorrow and ugliness. Human sin and the evil it unleashed at the Fall is the reason for things like birth defects and diseases, and puts to rest the lie that God makes people a certain way.
But of course the Good News is that God has acted on our behalf to rescue his good world and its creatures from the destructive effects of the Fall. God’s rescue plan that includes Israel and ultimately Jesus, along with us as part of the reconstituted Israel in the form of the Church, is what Scripture is all about, and here is where many of us need to up our game in terms of our view of salvation. Contrary to what many of us have been taught, salvation isn’t about being right with Jesus so we can go to heaven when we die. That’s a Greek and gnostic view of salvation. No, as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, the NT view of salvation is much more comprehensive than dying and going to heaven. The NT view of salvation proclaims that in the death of Jesus, God has forgiven our sins so that we can once again have a real and life-giving relationship with him and begin to act as God’s true image-bearers. Not only do we have forgiveness of sins, God has broken the power of Sin over us, freeing us to worship the one true and living God again instead of the false idols we love to worship, like money, sex, power, and security. And when God raised Jesus from the dead, God inaugurated his plan to bring about healing not only to us, but to all creation, and this is what Paul is getting at in our lesson today.
God’s plan of salvation means that we are rescued to live in God’s new heavens and earth about which Revelation 21.1-7 speaks. Contrary to what gnosticism teaches, God is going to rescue and restore his good but fallen world and its creatures, and the resurrection of Jesus gives us a preview of what that looks like. When our Lord returns in great power and glory to finish his work of redemption and healing, God’s old, broken and cursed creation will be replaced by new creation. We will be given new resurrection bodies that are compatible with God’s new world. Whatever that looks like, make no mistake about it—there will be new creation, not no creation. We are talking a new physical existence that is no longer sin-marred and evil-infested. Our eternal future is not a disembodied state as the gnostics want us to believe. It is a reembodied state patterned after the nature of our Lord Jesus’ resurrected body. New heavens. New earth. Devoid of sin, sorrow, suffering, and dying. No wonder creation is groaning for the day when God’s image-bearers will rule it in the manner God always intended!
This puts to rest the lie that our bodies are ours to do with as we please because ultimately they are unimportant to God. Don’t you know, Paul asks the Corinthians incredulously, that your bodies are the temple of God’s Holy Spirit who lives in you (1 Corinthians 6.19)? Don’t you know, asks Paul in our lesson today, that your bodies are supremely important to God because God intends to raise our mortal bodies and give us new ones when Christ returns (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.35-57)? Therefore treat your bodies accordingly, along with the bodies of others, because they matter to God and you will be called to account for your stewardship of them. This has all kinds of implications for us in terms of sex, marriage, what we put into our bodies, how we treat each other, and how we treat God’s world around us. God created us to be God’s image-bearers and honors us with these creative tasks. Will we not seek to imitate the one true human who ever lived, Jesus, the very embodiment of God (talk about the ultimate image-bearer!!)?
In sum, God wants us to be truly human because being so means that God will be able to reestablish his creation to its original goodness. God has acted on our behalf to restore us to our right mind and God’s creative purposes for us so that we can begin to live them out right now and fully in the new creation. This is the essence of the Good News we are to live and proclaim, my beloved, now and for all eternity. What an awesome privilege. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.