Monday, April 24, 2017

The Mystery of Creation

Preached at Newberg Friends Church
April 23, 2017

I went to see Beauty and the Beast with grandkids recently; this is the third movie version I’ve seen. The first, a surreal black and white directed by Jean Cocteau, had Belle say sadly after the beast is transformed into a ordinary handsome prince, “Where is my beast?  Ou est ma bête?” Today I want us to think about the creation we are part of without the sentimentality of turning the beast into a prince, without the need to attribute the aspects we fear to the Fall depicted in Genesis, without the need to prioritize comfort so that we cannot glorify God for what inspires discomfort, awe, disgust, and even terror. Even as we never want to lose sight of the love of God that knows us intimately and cares to make us whole, we want to remember that we are a small part of the astonishing creation that God loves and has called good.

The God we know personally is also infinite, and thus unknowable to finite beings, which we are. We can infer this by looking around us at creation. We are still learning about creation; thus we are still learning about the Creator. This is a cause of hope, not despair.

Even when God became human, we could not understand or contain Jesus; we could just a bit better understand how God loves us. We are now companioned by the Spirit who lives within us but who also sweeps us off our feet and blows down some of the things we cherish. Our recommended posture before our Creator, our Sustainer, and our Redeemer is humility and meekness—accepting that we are who we are, and God is who God is. No matter what we try, we cannot bring God down to our size. 

Some of the verses that underlie our understanding of the relationship between creation and our Creator:

And God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good (Gen. 1:31)

You wove me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise you for I am astonishingly and individually made. (Psalm 139:13-14)

All creation waits expectantly, longing for God’s children to be revealed; for the creation was subjected to frailty, not because it willed itself to be so, but because God so willed it, with the hope that creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and be included in the glorious freedom of God’s children. (Romans 8:19-21)

Blessed are the meek, the humble and gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. (Psalm 37:11, Matt. 5:5)

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. (Rev. 21:1)

These verses celebrate the creation: both the creation that has been completed and the creating that is going on right now. God is Creator not once but always. And God is creating good out of the materials to hand, even as we speak. All good gifts come to us from the Father of lights (James 1:17).

We can ask the question, how can God be good and call creation good, and yet humans—and other parts of creation--suffer pain and terror. This may be a question we can ask without being able to understand and contain the answer. The question “why” always takes us back to our belief structures if asked repeatedly, and we must admit to ourselves that we take God on faith—God’s goodness, God’s love for us and creation, God’s work to redeem us and make us whole, God’s long-term purposes. Some of the most powerful words about creation are placed in God’s personal conversation with Job:

Job—why am I suffering?
God—look at the world around you
This is not an immediately helpful answer, particularly since God makes it clear that creation is far more than the humans who are part of it. Its processes operate independently of humans, much of it cares not a whit for humans, humans cannot inhabit much of it, and some of it is hostile to humans.

God asks Job what he knows about the beginning of the universe: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … Who determined the measures of the earth, if you know? Or who stretched the measuring line upon it? Upon what were the foundations of it fastened, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors when it broke forth and issued out of the womb?—When I made the clouds its garment, and swaddled it in thick darkness, and marked its appointed boundary and set bars and doors, and said, Thus far shall you come and no farther; and here shall your proud waves be stayed?

God asks Job what he knows about the reasons for day and night: “Have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it may get hold of the corners of the earth and shake the wicked out of it? The earth is changed like clay into which a seal is pressed; and things stand out like a many-colored garment. …

God asks Job what he knows about the oceans, what he knows about light and dark: “Have you explored the springs of the sea? Or have you walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Or have you seen the doors of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth? Tell Me if you know it all. Where is the way where light dwells? And as for darkness, where is its abode, that you may conduct it to its home, and may know the paths to its house? … By what way is the light distributed, or the east wind spread over the earth?

God asks Job if he can control (or even predict) the weather: “Who has prepared a channel for the torrents of rain, or a path for the thunderbolt, to cause it to rain on the desert, where no human lives, to satisfy the waste and desolate ground and to cause the tender grass to spring forth? Has the rain a father? Or who has begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice? And the frost of heaven, who has given it birth? The waters are congealed like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen. Have you entered the treasuries of the snow, or have you seen the treasuries of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that an abundance of waters may cover you? Can you send lightnings, that they may go and say to you, Here we are? Who can number the clouds by wisdom? Or who can pour out the bottles of the heavens when the dust has run into a mass and the clods have hardened together?

God asks Job if he can organize the constellations: “Can you bind the chains of Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the signs of the zodiac in their season? Or can you guide the Great Bear with her young? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule upon the earth?

God asks Job if he can provide food for predators: “Can you hunt the prey for the lion? Or satisfy the appetite of the young lions when they couch in their dens or lie in wait in their hiding place? Who provides prey for the raven when its young ones cry to God and wander about for lack of food?

God asks Job if he knows the life cycle of prey animals: “Do you know the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? Do you observe when the deer are giving birth? Can you number the months that they carry their offspring? Or do you know the time when they are delivered, when they bow themselves, bring forth their young ones, and cast out their pains? Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open field; they go forth and return not to them.

God points out that not all animals exist to serve humans, and asks Job if he can control the untamable wild donkey: “Who has sent out the wild donkey, giving him his freedom? Or who has loosed the bands of the swift donkey, whose home I have made in the wilderness, who dwells in the salt land? He scorns the tumult of the city and does not obey the shoutings of the taskmaster. The range of the mountains is his pasture, and he searches after every green thing.

God asks Job if he can tame the wild ox: “Will the wild ox be willing to serve you, or remain beside your manger? Can you bind the wild ox with a harness to the plow in the furrow? Or will he harrow the furrows for you? Will you trust him because his strength is great, or will you leave your labor to him? Will you depend upon him to bring home your seed and gather the grain of your threshing floor?

God points out to Job that not all of nature cares well for its young, but it nonetheless has its own beauty: “The wings of the ostrich wave proudly; are they the pinions and plumage of love? The ostrich leaves her eggs on the ground and warms them in the dust, forgetting that a foot may crush them or that the wild beast may trample them. She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers; her labor is in vain because she has no sense of danger, for God has deprived her of wisdom, neither has he imparted to her understanding. Yet when she lifts herself up to run, she can laugh to scorn the horse and his rider.

God points out that horses, even tamed, are combative: “Have you given the horse his might? Have you clothed his neck with quivering and a shaking mane? Was it you who made him to leap like a locust? The majesty of his nostrils is terrible. He paws in the valley and exults in his strength; he goes out to meet the weapons. He mocks at fear and is not dismayed or terrified; neither does he turn back from the sword. The quiver rattles upon him, as do the glittering spear and the lance. He devours the ground with fierceness and rage; neither can he stand still at the sound of the trumpet. As often as the trumpet sounds he says, Ha, ha! And he smells the battle from afar, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.

God asks Job if he understands how the hawk flies: “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars and stretches her wings toward the south?

God points out to Job how amazingly the eagle sees prey: “Does the eagle mount up at your command and make his nest on high? On the cliff he dwells and remains securely…. From there he spies out the prey; and his eyes see it afar off. His young ones suck up blood, and where the slain are, there is he.

God celebrates the monsters of the dry land: “Behold now the behemoth, which I created as I did you; he eats grass like an ox. See now, his strength is in his loins, and his power is in the sinews of his belly. He moves his tail like a cedar tree; the tendons of his thighs are twisted together like a rope. His bones are like tubes of bronze; his limbs or ribs are like bars of iron. Behemoth is first of the works of God. God who made him provides him with his tusks; only God can master him. Surely the mountains bring him food, where all the wild animals play. He lies under the lotus trees, in the covert of the reeds in the marsh. The lotus trees cover him with their shade; the willows of the brook compass him about. Behold, if a river is violent and overflows, he does not tremble; he is confident, though the Jordan swells and rushes against his mouth. Can any take him when he is on the watch, or pierce through his nose with a snare?

God celebrates the monsters of the ocean: “Can you draw out the leviathan with a fishhook? Or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope into his nose? Or pierce his jaw through with a hook or a spike? Will he make many supplications to you? Will he speak soft words to you? Will he make a covenant with you to take him for your servant forever? Will you play with leviathan as with a bird? Or will you put him on a leash for your maidens? Will traders bargain over him? Will they divide him up among the merchants? Can you fill his skin with harpoons? Or his head with fishing spears? Lay your hand upon him! Remember your battle with him; you will not do it again! … No one is so fierce that he dares to stir up leviathan. Who then is he who can stand before Me?

“I will not keep silent concerning leviathan’s limbs, nor his mighty strength, nor his goodly frame. Who can strip off his outer garment? Who shall come within his jaws? Who can open the doors of his mouth? His teeth are terrible round about. His scales are his pride, shut up together with a tight seal; one is so near to another that no air can come between them. … His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. Out of his mouth go burning torches, sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goes forth smoke, … his breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth. In his neck abides strength, and terror dances before him. … His heart is as firm as a stone, indeed…. When he raises himself up, the mighty are afraid; because of terror and the crashing they are beside themselves. Even if one strikes at him with the sword, it cannot get any hold, nor does the dart, nor the javelin.

“He counts iron as straw and bronze as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make leviathan flee; he treats slingstones and clubs as stubble; he laughs at the rushing and the rattling of the javelin. His underparts are like sharp pieces of broken pottery; he stirs up the mire. He makes the deep boil like a pot….. He makes a shining track behind him… Upon earth there is not leviathan’s equal, a creature made without fear, fearless. He looks all might in the face; he is monarch over all the sons of pride.

And then God asks Job what he knows about himself: “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts? Or who has given understanding to the mind? Who has first given to Me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heavens is Mine.”

Then Job said: “I know that You can do all things, and that no thought or purpose of Yours can be restrained or thwarted….I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

So we can now know who created our reality. The whole Trinity: God, God’s Spirit, and the Word of God—Jesus. The Spirit brooded over the waters at the beginning, there was nothing created apart from Jesus, the Word, and God pronounced it good. We also know who continues to create—God has begun a good work in us, we are the dwelling place of God’s Spirit, and God will continue this good work  until the day of Jesus Christ. Jesus said that God is still working, that he does only what his Father says and what he sees his Father doing. Even as life continues to be generated on the ocean floor, God continues to generate spiritual life in humanity and in individual human beings. Please be patient; God is not finished yet.  

We also have faith that from God’s perspective, God who sees beginning and end and exists outside time, God’s works of creation, redemption and reconciliation are completed.  When we share God’s perspective, we may well see Komodo dragons and frilled sharks as beautiful and good. Creation will be reconciled with itself as well as with God.

As part of creation, we humans live and move and have our being in God, who holds all things together. AND God makes space for our freedom to exist.

Human free will is responsible: we are responsible to our neighbors and to God for what we choose—human history and the way God moves through time are a mystery. It is scandalous to justify human atrocities to each other by saying they are the will of God.

And God exercises God’s free will toward us by loving us while we are yet in error, entering our experience of creation, receiving the actions of human free will, and in every sense rising above it, bringing us along. God exercises free will in taking what we have broken and weaving it together into something useful and good.

God’s perspective is bigger than humans, bigger than planet earth, bigger than the solar system, bigger than the Milky Way galaxy, bigger than our universe, and also includes mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, cells, atoms, chemical reactions, electricity, fractals, time. Let’s work to appreciate God’s perspective that values both the leviathan and the individual human being.

Let’s be humble in the face of what we do not know, humble before the God whose love we do know in part, and gentle with each other, so that we can be the blessed meek, who inherit the earth.