Sermon delivered on the 2nd Sunday before Lent A, February 16, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 1.1-2.3; Psalm 136; Romans 8.18-25; St. Matthew 6.25-34.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We normally follow the Revised Common Lectionary for our weekly Scripture lessons but today I am using the Church of England’s lectionary because the lessons focus on creation. Why do I want us to focus on creation? Because most Christian denominations, at least those in the West, have done a pathetic job in teaching their people about why creation matters. So this morning, I will add to the carnage. No wait! That’s not right. I meant to say that I want us to start working on developing (or refining) our creational theology because creation and its redemption is one of, if not the, central themes of the Bible.
Our OT lesson, which is emphatically not a science lesson so please don’t try to make it what it isn’t, tells us the beautiful story of how God created this entire universe out of nothing. In each of the six creational periods, whatever they were, however long or short they took, we see God creating out of nothing and imposing order on the chaos of uncreation. After each creational period, the author tells us that God declared that particular activity to be good. With the imposition of God’s created order over the chaos of uncreation, we see God creating so that the living things he created had the ability to procreate and in each instance, God tells the living creatures, whether they be land- or sea-bearers, to be fruitful and multiply. Notice carefully the complementary binary nature of all creation: light and darkness, night and day, land and sea, heaven and earth, male and female, irrespective of species. And then finally God creates humans in God’s image, male and female (there’s that binary nature again) to—you guessed it: be fruitful and multiply so we could subdue, i.e., bring further order to the earth, and rule the earth on God’s behalf. That’s why God’s creativity reaches its climax when God created humans in his image. Humans are to play a central and essential role in God’s creation: We were created to rule in the manner of God. We can also read Genesis 1 as the story of God building his cosmic temple (the universe) and then placing his image-bearers in his temple to rule things wisely, i.e., when we serve in creation we serve in God’s temple. As we will see, St. Paul and our Lord Jesus himself tell us essentially the same thing in our epistle and gospel lessons respectively. To sum up our OT lesson, we can say that God created creation (including its creatures) good, i.e., creation matters to God, and God intends creation to be beautiful, life-giving, and sustaining, as well as orderly. But this can only happen to the extent humans, God’s image-bearing creatures, imitate God’s goodness, justice, and love to impose God’s good order on his creation.
So how should our creational theology (the study of God’s creation and intention for it) be shaped by all this? I don’t have the time to plumb the depths of this question (but you should) nor do I suggest there is a rigidly uniform theology that all Christians must follow. Having said that, there are some definite patterns and themes to which we must pay attention if we are going to live faithfully as God’s image-bearers. The first and most obvious component of Christian creational theology is that we must all be environmentalists and advocate for the wise care of God’s creation and its resources. After all, God has promised to redeem his creation. Why should we not care for it wisely on his behalf? This doesn’t mean we are tree huggers because we don’t believe God is in the trees. But we do believe God made the trees for God’s good creative purposes and our enjoyment, and therefore we must be wise in how we use (or don’t use them). Likewise with coal and gas and other forms of energy. Likewise with what and how much of something we consume because the commodities we consume have their origin in God’s creation and what we put or don’t put in our bodies is important because our bodies belong to God, not us (1 Cor 6.13). We are not to rape the land like we did in strip mining but nor are we not to use resources if doing so would impede our human flourishing. There are no easy answers to this issue of (non)usage and here again we must be wise and seek balance in our decisions, considering what the rest of Scripture, especially the gospel, has to say about being good stewards. This is why Christians have always advocated for education and the sciences as well as the arts and humanities. Most of the earliest modern scientists were Christians. They and their disciplines have helped us explain how and why things work, how to better our standard of living and the way we manage health and well-being; they’ve helped us explore the nature of beauty and truth in music, the arts, and literature, all for the purpose of human flourishing. Creation matters to God. It had better matter to us and these disciplines can help us be faithful stewards of God’s world. Of course, theology is important as well because good theology, studied and practiced together, helps us better understand God’s revelation to us and what God considers to be faithful image-bearing stewardship.
Our creational theology must also guide our thinking about love and sex. While our culture tells us today that sex is primarily about pleasure and our goal should be to seek as much pleasure as we can, this is not the reason God gave his living creatures sexual desires and instincts. God gave us sex to procreate so that we could rule his good creation wisely and in an orderly fashion. To do that, God gave us marriage and the family in which to enjoy sex and procreate. This theme is developed further in the second creation narrative found in Gen 2, especially Gen 2.18-25. Here we find the beautiful story and theology of how God created woman from the rib of man and the kind of equal and intimate yoking that stemmed from God’s creative activity, completing God’s image in humans. Again, notice the binary pairing involved here: man and woman coming together as husband and wife to enjoy sexual intimacy and union for the purposes of creating the family unit, the primary unit by which God intends humans to organize, so that we can rule God’s creation wisely and on his behalf. Whenever humans follow God’s created order for sexual activity and family, we find flourishing and thriving. When that order is not followed, we witness the chaos and disorder that arise from ungodly unions and human-constructed attempts to form families not in accordance with God’s creative will. The effects of divorce and family disruption, for example, not to mention fatherless homes, are well-documented despite the attempts of some to deny the chaos that inevitably results when humans attempt to follow their own disordered will instead of God’s. This is a conversation the church needs not only to be having but leading. If we are to be God’s image-bearers, we must not be ashamed to proclaim a faithful creational theology and its ramifications for all aspects of our life so that as many as possible can flourish, along with God’s world over which we rule.
Our creational theology also informs us in matters of money and power and how we treat others. If we think we are responsible for providing for ourselves instead of God providing for us, we will tend to be greedy and self-serving. Money will have primary importance because that’s the medium we need to get stuff for ourselves and we’ll do what it takes to get it. Who cares who we run over or cheat or lie to or steal from? Who cares if we destroy the lives of others in pursuit of our needs? We’ve got our right’s, don’t we? But our rights look starkly different in a world where we own nothing and God owns it all. This alienated, self-centered thinking categorically rejects the generous heart and provision of God in the creation narratives to ensure that his creation and creatures will thrive. This doesn’t mean we sit around and wait for manna to fall from the sky (although my wife serves me manna regularly at our dinner table, but that’s another story). That’s not how it works. God gave us work to do as his image-bearers and from that work God provides for us, and generously. When we believe this, we must always be open to the needs of others and have a generous heart just as God the Father has a generous heart and track record for us. This gets at what Christ was talking about in our gospel lesson. Seek God and God’s creative purposes/order and you will thrive. Seek your own selfish desires and you will not. You will be anxious and sick.
This brings us to the darker side of creation because we all know that the world I have been talking about doesn’t exist today. To be sure there is great beauty and all kinds of evidence of God’s goodness and power in our world (if you’ve ever seen a breathtaking sunset or the vista of a mountain range or the beauty of blue ocean/lake water or a well-kept garden or the power of roaring waves or color photos of the cosmos, you know what I mean), but it is hardly good in the manner Genesis 1-2 describe. Why is that? Because of the Fall, a term used to describe what happened when humans rebelled against God in paradise by seeking to be gods instead of being content to be God’s creatures (Genesis 3.1-19). When that happened, our sin allowed the powers of Evil to enter into God’s world to corrupt and distort it, and it also brought God’s curse on the whole of creation. Because of the Fall, the original goodness of God’s creation was lost. Not totally but enough to make our lives miserable at times. Human sin along with God’s curse on his good creation is why, e.g., we have genetic defects and ugliness of all sorts and wicked diseases to name just a few. Our sin interrupted our perfect relationship with our Creator and introduced anxiety and alienation and loneliness and madness and chaos of all sorts into God’s world and our lives. To be sure, much of our suffering comes from the madness of our own folly and myopic selfishness. But much of what we suffer comes from external forces over which we have no control. We all have our stories. I just buried a young mother last week who died from cancer and was taken against her will from her family. She didn’t do anything to deserve that. Closer to home, we are holding our first healing service today and some of you will come for prayer and healing only to go away empty-handed. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the reality. God sometimes refuses to answer our prayers for healing and deliverance, at least in the way for which we ask. There’s an injustice in the world that isn’t fully explainable by human sin and folly and it frightens us. This is what St. Paul is getting at in our epistle lesson when he talks about all creation groaning in travail while it awaits liberation from its bondage to decay—a reference to God’s curse on it—when God liberates his children. We too groan in travail from the emotional, mental, physical, social, spiritual, and personal bondage in which we find ourselves. It makes us want to cry out in desperation to God, asking why God allows this to happen and/or why God has abandoned us (cf. Psalm 130 for example).
Here too our creational theology can help us because it allows us to see a bigger picture than our own individual salvation. We know from Genesis 1 what God’s gold standard for creation looks like, even if we have never experienced that standard personally. This longing for God’s gold standard—beauty, truth, love, health, life, vitality, happiness, flourishing to name just a few—makes us long for God to rescue us from his curse and the alienation, folly, darkness, sickness, sorrow, and death that our sin and God’s cursed world has brought about. It is precisely here that we must turn to the death and resurrection of Christ as St. Paul does in our epistle lesson because in Christ we are set free from our bondage to Sin and in our Lord’s resurrection we get a glimpse of a future even more spectacular than God’s creation before the Fall. When God raised Christ from the dead, God declared in this mighty act of power that he intends to rescue his good creation gone bad and us, restoring everything to its original goodness (and beyond), including our task as God’s image-bearers. That’s why God in Christ had to deal with our sin so that he could heal us and equip us to rule his new creation when Christ returns to raise our mortal bodies from the dead and bring in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth. God’s power and promise is what allows St. Paul to declare our current sufferings are not worth comparing to God’s promised new creation. At first blush that is a very irritating and off-putting statement. But St. Paul doesn’t mean that our sufferings are unimportant or trivial. He means rather that God will release us from them and give us a world forever devoid of suffering and sorrow, sickness and alienation, crying and death. This is our Christian hope, not yet realized. If we have a healthy and biblically-based creational theology, we get a glimpse of the astonishing possibilities that God has in store for his children, for those of us who are united to Christ in his death and resurrection in and through our baptism. And here is where we must be unabashedly bold in our proclamation and living out Christ’s death and resurrection. The world desperately needs to hear there’s a remedy for what ails it and we have that remedy: Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead to initiate God’s promised new world, with the promise to return to complete the saving work he started.
So how do we respond to all this? I offer the following summary conclusions for your faithful consideration. I don’t know why God allows all the suffering and bad things that happen in this world. I don’t know why the woman I buried had to deal with the evil of cancer that she did. I don’t know why she had to suffer so mightily and why her family was saddled with that terrible burden of caring for their dying loved one. None of it had to go that way, yet it did. I don’t know why some of you don’t get the healing and relief you so desperately seek while others of you do. It breaks my heart to watch—I’m talking here about those of you who seek healing and relief and don’t get it—and frustrates me when my prayers for you ostensibly remain unanswered.
But I do know this. You and I have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross and made fit to stand in God’s holy presence forever. We will be clothed one day with a new body patterned after the body of our Lord Jesus and set free to love and use our talents in spectacular new and old ways that honor God and others forever. I know that on the cross our sin has been dealt with once and for all. I know that Death will be abolished in God’s new world because Sin will be abolished and Death is the result of Sin. Both will be absent in the new heavens and earth. I know all of this because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. Do you believe this? Do you?? If you don’t, I can promise you the darkness of this world and your life will overwhelm you sooner or later. But if you believe the promise, like St. Paul you will have the power to endure and even thrive in the midst of your travails. I believe this because I believe the promises of God and I believe the promises of God because I know Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. That’s all that is really important in this life, my beloved—Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. The God who created this vast universe surely has the power to rescue you. Will you not trust him by giving your life to him and living in ways that are consistent with God’s good created order?
The promise is mind-boggling. But the God we worship is mind-boggling. We worship the God who has the power to raise the dead and call into existence things that don’t exist (Romans 4.17). Jesus’ promise that he is the resurrection and the life is ours, not because we are deserving, but because of who God is, the God who created us to have life with him forever, and who is embodied in Jesus Christ raised from the dead. That’s part and parcel of having a solid creational theology; and if we do, we can rejoice today, even as we groan in travail. Because of our faith in Christ who loves us and who has claimed us from all eternity, we can embrace our hope of God’s promised new creation, the ultimate Gold Standard for which we long, and let it sustain us so that we can find joy even in the midst of our sorrows, a joy based on the love of God who promises to heal and redeem us fully when the new creation and the resurrection of our mortal bodies are finally revealed. That’s called real hope, my beloved. Embrace it. Let it heal and sustain you. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.