The Promise to Abraham

June 24, 2019

Whereas the empire of Babel determined to make its own name great, God decided to make Abraham’s name great.

This contrast illustrates the two paths humanity might pursue. Babel chose ambition, pride, and self-actualization, but humanity’s authentic path is found in God’s promise and gracious work. Abraham heard God’s call, believed God, and trusted God’s leading.

When God called Abraham to leave his home country in Mesopotamia and led him into an unknown land, God initiated a new story to redeem humanity’s tumble into imperial violence and idolatry. God called Abraham to inaugurate a new humanity in a new land. Rather than giving up the goal of communion with human beings, God renewed the mission to effect that goal. God chose Abraham; God chose redemption rather than annihilation.

But how will God do this through Abraham? While there are different ways to parse out God’s promise to Abraham, there are three essential components.

First, God will multiply the descendants of Abraham so that they will be as innumerable as the sand on the seashore or the stars in the sky. Second, God will give the descendants of Abraham a land to inhabit where God will dwell with them. Third, God will bless all the peoples of the earth through the descendants of Abraham.

When God called Abraham, this mission was not exclusively for Abraham or his children. It was for the sake of the nations as well. Abraham is blessed so that he, through his descendants, might bless all peoples. God was never simply concerned about Abraham; rather, God chose Abraham for the sake of the nations. Embedded in the Abrahamic promise is a mission with both universal and cosmic purpose.

As we rehearse this promise, we see a new act of divine creation. What God promises Abraham is present at the beginning in creation. There God blessed humanity that it might be fruitful and multiply. There God gave humanity land not only for their own habitation but also as a divine dwelling place. There God intended to fill the earth and include all humanity. The Abrahamic promise is the continuation of God’s purpose in creation. 

The Abrahamic promise seeks to redeem what had previously degenerated into evil and violence. Ultimately, the promise will bless the nations through the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, prepare a new heaven and new earth as a home for the righteous, and include all nations and peoples within the redeemed community. The Abrahamic promise finds its fulfillment in the work of Jesus the Jewish Messiah.

The Abrahamic promise is, well, a promise. It has no conditions; it is God’s commitment to humanity through Abraham. God will accomplish what God had always intended to achieve, that is, the communion of God and humanity through life together upon the earth.

God promised Abraham gifts, Abraham believed God, and God remained faithful to those promises. God’s faithfulness is the rest of the story.

Humanity Degenerated: Creating an Alternative Story

June 20, 2019

It seems God is a realist when it comes to humanity. The power of sin is deeply entrenched in human hearts. Even when God rebooted the creation through a flood, it did not cure the human heart of its ancestral sin. God knew violence would reappear because of sin’s strong grip. God, therefore, issued a warning: whoever sheds blood, their blood is at risk as well. Jesus offered a similar caution: whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword. Violence is a dead-end. No one wins.

But violence continued in many forms. Ham raped his father Noah. Civilizations rose and fell, and empires emerged. Babel is one of those ancient empire stories. The people decided to build a monumental city with a tower reaching to the heavens in order to establish their reputation.

The tower is no military lookout. It is a Ziggurat.  Many still exist in modern Iraq. They began to appear no earlier than the fourth millennium before Christ and were continuously built into the first millennium before Christ. The great city of Babylon, Babel’s namesake, featured a massive Ziggurat dedicated to the god Marduk.

These structures were religious sanctuaries. They were temples for the gods where earth touched the heavens. The problem with the Tower of Babel is neither its technology nor the unity of its people. Rather, they erected a new sanctuary for the gods, gathered themselves around that sanctuary, and divested themselves of the divine mission to fill the earth. They replaced Eden with a Ziggurat. Babel stays put, builds an empire, and stokes its own ego. They committed idolatry, and God, therefore, ended their cohesive civilization.

Humanity hit rock bottom. They reversed the divine mission to serve their own interests. Whereas God’s words were “let us make humanity in our own image,” Babel said, “let us make a name for ourselves.” Whereas God’s mission was to fill the earth, Babel wanted to fill the heavens with its own presence. Humanity moved from violence to overt idolatry, from destroying fellow-imagers with the sword to substituting themselves for God. They progressed in their depravity. Sin did its work, and humanity tumbled further east of Eden until it hit its nadir.

We all live east of Eden. Death reigns over us, and sin lurks in our hearts. Violence continuously erupts, empires still rule the earth, and idolatry is pervasive. In some sense we are still tumbling as violence and idolatry are perpetually invigorated by the power of sin in our lives. We stumbled out of the Eden and tumbled from anger to violence, and then from violence to idolatry. We find ourselves mired in the muck of our own moral chaos despite God’s persistent presence, coaxing, and mercy.

Due to God’s mercy, however, hope is not lost. God’s mission is still in play, and we create art and literature as well as new technologies, build cities, marry, bear children, domesticate animals, grow crops, and spread across the globe. God’s grace still empowers us with gifts and tools even though sin often distorts them.

The mercy of God persists, and the story is not yet finished. God’s mission has not reached its goal. By God’s grace, the creation will realize its full potential, humanity will flourish, and the glory of God will fill the earth. That is the rest of the story, and it has only just begun.

Humanity Tumbled: Violence Entered the World

June 17, 2019

East of Eden death lies ahead for everyone in Genesis except Enoch. It seems we’ve already hit rock bottom with nowhere to go but into the grave.

Death isn’t good, but it isn’t the whole story. There is more to this picture. Things can get worse. Some things are worse than death.

Sin is worse than death. This word was not used to describe what happened in Eden. The word sin first appears when God confronts Cain about his anger.

Cain is angry with God and envious of his brother because God did not accept his offering from the produce of his crops though he did accept Abel’s offering from the flock. We don’t know for certain why God didn’t accept it. Whatever the reason, Cain’s anger puts him at risk. “Sin,” God says, “is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Sin, like a predator, stalks our hearts. It is an indwelling alien power. Sin wants to take hold of us, enslave us, and render us powerless. Sin wants to dominate, even devour, us. We all sense this; it is why we sometimes do things we don’t want to do and perhaps never thought we would actually do.

When sin overpowers, we lose sight of God’s purposes. We miss the mark. We fail to image or represent God in the creation. Sin turns our purpose and vocation toward something or someone other than God.

Sin makes things worse. Cain moved from anger to violence because sin mastered him. When anger is conceived, it gives birth to violence. Jesus understood this. Whoever is angry with another, he said, has already committed murder. Sin erupted in violence when Cain’s angry heart lashed out at Abel, whose name means futility or nothingness. Cain made his brother’s name come to life when he killed him. In the wake of Abel’s murder, frustration and futility hovered over life east of Eden.

Violence breeds violence. Cain feared this. He thought others might take matters into their own hands and kill him. His fear recognizes the inner dynamic of violence. Fueled by anger and generating fear, violence has no stopping point.

Yet, hope is always present within God’s good creation though it sometimes dims beyond recognition. We heard hope when Eve gave birth to Cain and gave him a name which expressed vitality and life. She blessed God with her confession, “I have created a man with the help of the Lord.”

Adam and Eve were not bound over to evil by their exclusion from Eden. By the grace of God, they bore children, raised crops, herded flocks, and worshipped the Lord. God did not remove grace from the creation. The Lord did not execute Cain but protected him; the Lord showed mercy. God’s blessing continued, even in Cain whose marriage produced children, and Cain built a city. Though living east of Eden, God’s purposes for the world were still at work, and humanity not only multiplied but also created music, smelted metals, and built cities. Cain’s violence did not end the story any more than Adam and Eve’s immature choice did. The story continued, and God continued to pursue them.

Two Trees: A Wisdom Story

June 10, 2019

Within God’s cosmic temple, God created place called Eden, and this holy sanctuary had a garden. But don’t imagine backyard tomatoes, but visualize something like the garden of Versailles, a royal garden with manicured trees, flowers, and water. Agriculture and horticulture are not the point. God planted this garden for communion, joy, and rest. It is the holy of holies of the cosmic temple, and the place where God walks with humanity.

Humanity, created out of the dust of the earth, is placed in the Garden to protect it and serve it, much like the priests of Israel protected and served the temple. This is another aspect of our human vocation: we are priests and priestesses. We lead the creation in the praise of God, and we serve God in God’s holy space and protect that space.

In the heart of the garden are two trees:  the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. One tree gives life, and the other, if eaten before its time, leads to death. These trees are symbols in Hebrew wisdom literature. The tree of life represents the wisdom to live long upon the earth. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents a maturity to live wisely in the world by discerning the difference between two paths, between good and evil, between life and death. Children, or the inexperienced, do not yet have this wisdom, and therefore they must not eat from it too quickly.

Eden is like a wisdom play. Adam and Eve are inexperienced, like children who do not know how to live wisely in the world. They lack maturity, knowledge, and discernment to make appropriate life-giving decisions, like what Proverbs calls the “simple.” What they need is wisdom. As children, learning to grow into wisdom, Adam and Eve are not yet prepared for knowledge. To download that knowledge without wisdom learned through life experience is like giving a ten year-old a nuclear weapon. It leads to disaster. God, therefore, forbids eating from the tree of knowledge. They are not yet mature enough for such knowledge.

The garden is a safe place but it has risks. One is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why is this tree in the garden at all? It represents both choice and the goal of maturity, that is, to be like God. Adam and Eve are free to choose; they can grow into the likeness of God by trusting, listening to, and walking with God, which ultimately leads to the knowledge of good and evil, or they can act foolishly by eating too soon, and that leads to death. The choice is theirs.

The story of Adam and Eve is our story. We all begin innocent, inexperienced, and immature. We grow by making choices, and we each, in some sense, have this freedom. These choices have real consequences.  When we listen to wisdom and trust God’s direction, there is life. When we listen to folly and distrust God’s wisdom, there is death. This is the human condition. Life and death lie before us, and we must choose a path. When we build on the sand of folly, our lives will collapse. When we build on the rock of wisdom, our lives will flourish. Alas, we typically don’t know how to build well, and that is the next part of the story.

A Pentecost Sermon: Race, Slaves, and Women

June 9, 2019

Acts 2:17-18

Only seven weeks ago the future looked bleak. The one whom they thought was the Messiah was dead. The disciples of Jesus hid in fear, and their spirits were broken. They had lost all hope.

But that changed when God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus began to appear to his disciples on different occasions over a period of forty days. When he appeared to them, he ate with them, studied the Hebrew Scriptures with them, and taught them about the good news of the kingdom of God.

At the end of these forty days, Jesus told them to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father, which was the Holy Spirit. The disciples, who had listened to Jesus teach about the kingdom of God over those past forty days, recognized that the coming of the Spirit is also the coming of the kingdom of God. They knew God had promised to restore the kingdom, and the promise of the Spirit meant that God was about to inaugurate it.

Jesus did not say their expectation was wrong or misguided, but that they should not concern themselves about the timing of its coming. Jesus told them to wait, and God would send the Spirit in God’s own good time.

Then Jesus left. He ascended to the right hand of the Father. While we tend to think of this in spatial terms (as in “Jesus went up to heaven”), the primary point is not spatial but royal. Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, was escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days by the angelic hosts and was given authority, glory, and a kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus was enthroned at the right hand of God, and now ruled over a kingdom that would never end. He will reign until all the principalities and powers upon the earth are defeated, and the last enemy he will defeat is death itself.

But the disciples must wait. We must all wait for the final defeat of death. But the disciples, one hundred and twenty of them (including Mary, the mother of Jesus), waited in Jerusalem for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel though the gift of the Holy Spirit. They waited for the promised descent of the Spirit from the one who ascended to the throne.

They waited, and God waited…until Pentecost. God decided to restore the kingdom to Israel during the festival of Pentecost. This harvest festival celebrated God’s gracious provision. Pentecost actually begins on the second day of the Passover celebration, continues for seven weeks, and is celebrated in a climactic way on the 50th day of the festival, which is the eighth first day of the week since the beginning of the Feast of Weeks (or the Pentecost Festival). In Acts 2, Pentecost happened on the last day of the Festival, the first day of the week.

On Pentecost, God, through the enthroned Messiah, poured out the Spirit upon these disciples. They reaped the harvest of the resurrection and enthronement of the Messiah. Though Roman power and Jewish authorities, with the consent of a mob at Passover, killed the Messiah, God had raised him from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father. In this way, God restored Israel through the reign of Jesus whom God declared both “Messiah and Lord.” God had restored the Davidic dynasty, a son of David now ruled in Israel once again. And the harvest of this new reign of God is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

Israel had hoped for this moment for centuries. The prophet Joel, centuries earlier, wrote a word of hope in the midst of Israel’s lament. Their land had experienced a horrific destruction. So much so that even the land lamented. And Joel injected a word of hope, a hope for the restoration of Israel.  Joel prophesied (Joel 2:28),

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh,

            your sons and daughters shall prophesy,

                        your old men shall dream dreams,

                                    your young men shall see visions.

            Even on the male and female slaves,

                        in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And Peter, on the day of Pentecost after the Spirit had descended on the disciples, announced, “This is that!”

The significance of this moment is difficult to overestimate. Whatever we say about it is less than what it fully means. It is a surprising work of God that explodes all expectations, anticipations, and limitations. What Joel envisions is the veritable shaking of the cosmos to its core; it is as if the universe has reversed its course. The light of the sun has been darkened, and the light of the mood has become blood red. Heaven and earth are on fire! What has ignited the cosmos?

At Pentecost, God poured the Holy Spirit upon Israel!

But what, exactly, does that mean in the light of Joel’s words. This Pentecostal moment is too significant, too important, and too meaningful to encapsulate in a single, brief homily. For this moment, I want to simply focus on Joel’s words, which Peter quoted and said, “This is that!”

But before we focus on Joel, an important piece of Israel’s history needs attention as part of the context of Peter’s pronouncement.

During Israel’s journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Canaan, God gave Moses some help. God took “some of the spirit that was on [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” (Numbers 11:25). Surprisingly, some thought this was a threat to Moses, and they objected; even Joshua wanted Moses to stop them from prophesying. How did Moses respond? He anticipated Joel’s words: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”

Now, that day had come. At Pentecost, God pours the Spirit upon Israel, all of Israel. On that day, everyone who committed to Jesus as Lord, repented of their sins, and was immersed in water for the forgiveness of their sins received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). God gives the Spirit to everyone in Israel who follows the Messiah.

But Joel’s words say more than this. Not only does Peter declare that all Israel now receives God’s Spirit, he also—even without his own full understanding—announces the seismic change that has begun on this day.

God now includes “all flesh” within the kingdom of God. Though Peter could not see this very clearly in the beginning (as we learn from his experience at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10-11), Joel envisioned a moment when God would pour out the Spirit on “all flesh,” which includes the Gentiles. It includes all nations, all races. In fact, this is part of the purpose of Israel itself. The promise to Abraham was that his seed would bless all nations, and that promise is, in fact, the Holy Spirit. Paul, for example, wrote in Galatians 3:14 that “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham” came “to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14). All flesh includes all nations, all ethnicities, all colors, and all cultures. That God pours out the Spirit on all flesh means that God includes all, no matter what their race or nationality. The kingdom of God includes all languages, peoples, and nations.

This was difficult for Peter to see, and it is still difficult for us to see. Hundreds of years of racism in the church testify that it has been difficult for the church. There was a time when some believed black people had no human soul and the native Americans were but savages. There was a time, during the Jim Crow era, that black Christians were told to worship in separate congregation, and I myself have seen Christians walk out of an assembly the first time an African American lead singing. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it has taken over 1900 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of racism. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The Gentiles are now included! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

God also makes no distinction between slave and free in the pouring out of the Spirit. Slavery, from the beginnings of human culture, was part of human economic and governmental systems. The social fabric of both the Ancient Near East and the Roman world was a top-down system with emperors and kings sitting at the top and slaves at the bottom. Slavery was not something the church could abolish in the first century; it was at the heart of the imperial system and the church was powerless to rid the empire of slavery.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of slavery. Even slaves will receive the Spirit of God, and they will be empowered to minister in the power of the Spirit just as any free person would be. In this principle, we see how the presence of the Spirit subverts cultural norms and rails against the empire. Slaves are people, too, and because they are Spirit-empowered and Spirit-indwelt human beings, the Spirit sows the seed of slavery’s destruction. The Spirit will teach us that slavery is a great evil, and no human being may steal another human being, own another human being, or exploit another’s labor for their own selfish interests. When God poured out the Spirit on slaves, it spelled the end of slavery even though it only ended in this country a little over 150 years ago and still exists in various forms throughout the world today, particularly in the sex slave industry. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1800 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of slavery. How could we have been so blind? Are not still blind to economic and social injustice, which are also forms of slavery?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The slaves are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

And there is a third group in Joel’s words. God makes no distinction between male and female in the pouring out of the Spirit. The oppression of women, so dominant in the Ancient Near East and the Roman world, was an accepted reality. We don’t have to look very far in the ancient world to see how men abused, used, and marginalized women. They had little to no power, and the only exception would be those whose husbands had wealth and power. Even in Judaism, women were outsiders. They could not be disciples of Rabbis, even though they could be disciples of Jesus. They were marginalized, but Jesus empowered them. They could not testify in court, but Jesus told the women at the tomb to testify to other disciples. The women were the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of the marginalization of women. Women are empowered by the Spirit. God gifts women with the Spirit, and by the Spirit women, like men, prophesy. They dream dreams and have visions. In other words, God communicates with women in the same way God communicates with men. There is no distinction here; there is no hierarchy here.

There were occasions when women prophesied in Israel’s Scripture. Miriam, for example, prophesied alongside of Moses and Aaron as one of the leaders of Israel (Exodus 15:20; Micah 6:4). Indeed, she led all Israel in worship after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:21, Miriam sang to them [where “them” is masculine]). But such women were few though not rare (we could add Deborah and Huldah, for example, and Anna in Luke 2).

But now women will prophesy and experience visions alongside of men; and just as all men are included in Joel’s prophecy, so are all women. Philip’s four daughters prophesy (Acts 21:9), and women in Corinth prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:4-5). In this we see, in principle, how the Spirit’s presence is a planted seed within oppressive human culture. God intends to liberate women from past oppression, exploitation, and limitation. Unfortunately, and to our shame, the church has participated in this evil. Did you know that many among churches of Christ used 1 Timothy 2:12 to oppose women’s suffrage, the right to vote? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used silence as a way of denying women any kind of public voice whether in the church or in society (including opposing their entrance into legal and medical careers)? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used some texts to silence women from praying even in the presence of their husbands? When God poured out the Spirit on women, it spelled the end of their marginalization even though women only gained the right to vote in his country a hundred years ago. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1900 years for Christian people to recognize how their view of women limited their opportunities and careers as well as their voice in the church. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” Women are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

Peter says, “This is that!” All races, slaves, and women will prophesy. Surprise! Prophesying is not a minor gift.

Lest some minimize the gift of prophecy or think it a subjective and private matter, let us remember that this gift is ranked above evangelists, teachers, and elders in Ephesians 4:11, and Paul explicitly says it is first apostles, second prophets, and third teachers in terms of the importance and significance of their gifts within the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:28). Prophets speak the word of God in ways that transcend evangelists, teachers, and elders. God gifts prophets with encouraging words, and God gifts all races, slaves, and women as prophets.

Over the centuries, the church has had to learn and tease out the meaning of Pentecost. We have had to learn that God includes all races and nations, though many Christians throughout history have oppressed and subjugated various nations and races. We have had to learn that God intends to free the slaves, though many Christians throughout history have owned slaves, traded in the buying and selling of slaves, and defended slavery as a moral good. We have had to learn that God intends to empower women to prophesy, though many Christians throughout history have silenced that gift in their assemblies so that women have had no voice and could share no word from God.

It is time, it seems to me, to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all nations and races. God has poured the Spirit upon all flesh. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all believers and free all slaves and liberate people from every form of slavery. God has poured the Spirit upon the enslaved as well as the free. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of women in the church. God has poured the Spirit upon women as well as men.

Paul said it long ago, and we can’t say it much better. In the spirit of Joel 2 and in the spirit of Pentecost and in the light of God’s promise to Abraham (which is the gift of the Holy Spirit), Paul announced the meaning of Pentecost in a surprising and culture-shattering statement (Galatians 3:28-29),

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus the Messiah. And if you belong to Messiah, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise

Today is Pentecost, and today the Spirit fills the church, and the Spirit is still at work within the Church to illuminate our blinded and troubled hearts to free all people—all nations and races, slaves, and women—from their exclusion and oppression, even at the hands of church people.

May God have mercy!

Human Vocation: Rule the Earth

June 6, 2019

As the image of God, we represent God in the world, and therefore we are called to partner with God in what God is doing in the creation. Our identity shapes our vocation.

We are called to multiply and fill the earth with the glory of God, and we are also called to continue the divine work of creation by ordering the remaining chaos within the creation. And, thirdly, we are invited to share God’s dominion over the creation, that is, to rule the earth. This is humanity’s royal vocation.

Too often we hear “dominion” in tyrannical, oppressive, militaristic, or manipulative ways, but this is not how God rules. As images of God, we rule in a way that mirrors God’s own rule.

For example, Israel’s royalty, though they did not always effectively do so, represented God to the nation. God wanted them to rule with justice and mercy. Psalm 72 reminds Israel what this “dominion” means. It is the humble exercise of power in the service of mercy for the sake of others. Their rule was supposed to be more like how a shepherd rather than like a dictator. Far from exploitation and abuse, God’s imagers rule as servants who give life and empower life. They benevolently care for the creation rather than exploit it.

This gains greater clarity when we recognize we are co-rulers with God. God shares God’s own dominion with us. We are co-workers, junior partners, in God’s enterprise.

Our mission is to develop the full potential of creation as we lovingly care for it and gratefully enjoy it. We pursue familial, social, and communal peace as we embody the justice and mercy of God within creation.

People are called into multiple kinds of work or different careers. As co-rulers with God, we choose particular careers. We choose these careers as ways to love God, serve our neighbors, and shepherd the earth. Through these careers, we participate in the mission of God.

Medical professionals partner with God in healing the sick. Teachers partner with God through imparting knowledge and wisdom. Debt collectors partner with God as they mediate justice for creditors and mercy for debtors. Sanitation workers serve the earth and the human community through its care for a clean earth. Professionals in the legal community partner with God as they pursue justice. Environmental biologists partner with God as they preserve and care for the creation.

Partnering with God toward the fulfillment of the mission of God is ministry in the kingdom of God as God reigns over the creation. We share God’s rule, and we exercise dominion or power within the creation. We use this power to serve rather than dominate. Nurses, teachers, counselors, biologists, sanitation workers, and, yes, even lawyers co-rule with God. Through our careers, we are ministers and royal priests in the kingdom of God, which is  God’s creation. 

We are the image of God, and as imagers we partner with God in filling the earth with the glory of the Lord, ordering the remaining chaos within the creation for the sake of life, and shepherding the earth so that life might flourish.

Human Vocation: Subdue the Earth

June 3, 2019

As the image of God, we represent God in the world, and therefore we are called to partner with God in what God is doing in the world. Our identity shapes our vocation.

We are called to multiply and fill the earth with the glory of God, and we are also called to continue the divine work of creation by subduing the earth.

To subdue the earth is humanity’s creative function. As Creator, God brought order out of chaos.  Hovering over the waters enclosed in darkness, God brought order to an uninhabitable earth, which was a chaotic void at the time. God subdued the earth to provide habitable space, and then God filled that space with life.

Part of our human vocation is to continue this creative work, which Genesis calls, subduing the earth.  Unfortunately, some believe “subdue” empowers humanity to exploit the earth and deplete its resources. But to “subdue” is not a destructive task where the earth is scorched but a creative one where the earth is ordered and its habitable space is enriched so that life might flourish.

The seven days of creation did not rid the cosmos of chaos. Even after the seventh day of creation, darkness still existed, the waters still existed, and a chaos figure—the serpent—entered Eden itself. God called the light good but not the darkness, God did not remove the waters but gave them boundaries, and outside of Eden, the universe was yet unordered. In fact, not until the new heaven and new earth appear will chaos disappear from the earth, when there will be no more waters or sea and no more night.

Until then, we partner with God to subdue the remaining chaos. This ordering includes things as diverse as domesticating a field for crops or goats for milk as well as developing software programs to bring order to a mass of data. We use technology to enrich our lives while, at the same time, we do no permit it to destroy the earth.

This vocation extends to every aspect of human life. The arts (from music to literature to fine art) are expressions of human creativity that bring beauty and order out of what was previously unordered or even chaotic.

To subdue the earth means to partner in God’s creative work; it does not mean abusing or exploiting the creation. Whatever chaos remains in the creation, humanity is called, in partnership with God, to subdue it and order it so that life might flourish.

This means no work is secular as if it were disconnected from our missional identity and vocation.  Every good work participates in the mission of God if it is engaged in the process of ordering the chaos. Technology manages resources; medicine serves wholeness; and social structures shape community. This is our human vocation. We co-create with God.

Human Vocation: Fill the Earth

May 30, 2019

As imagers of God, humanity represents God within the creation, and that is our identity. And that identity includes a vocation, a calling.  God invites humanity to participate in God’s mission. Our identity equips us to partner with God as we execute that mission.

In the beginning, God blessed humanity as male and female and directed them to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth, and also to subdue the earth, and exercise royal dominion over every living thing upon the earth. That is our human vocation.

Our first calling is this: God blessed humanity so that we might fill the earth.

This is a biological function, and it is most often heard as a divine invitation to have children. It means, of course, that sex is good, and creating children is good, and God wants to populate the whole earth with human beings. Consequently, we partner with God through procreation as we co-create children with God’s help.

Moreover, God wants to fill the whole earth, and the diversity of the earth entails the diversification of humanity. For example, people who live in Alaska cannot wear the same clothes, eat the same foods, or even develop the same rituals as people who live in Guatemala. The spread of humanity across the globe meant the rise of diverse cultures and people groups. This, too, is good.

At the same time, there is something more going on here than population explosion and geographical expansion.

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill” is important language in the rest of the Bible’s story. When God called Abraham, God multiplied his descendants and filled the land of Palestine with them. While this involved biology, it’s also significant that as Israel filled the land given them, they became a witness to the glory of God among the nations. God filled the land so that the glory of the Lord might permeate it through a people who imaged or represented God in that land!

God’s goal is to fill the whole earth with that glory, and that glory is not found in mere population explosions but is found in human flourishing.  As the late second century Christian martyr Irenaeus wrote, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  When we live out our identity as divine imagers, when human beings flourish and fill the earth, the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.

Later in the Biblical story, at Pentecost God will pour out the Spirit upon Israel, and Israel will begin once again to be fruitful and multiply. As Israel grows and includes the nations in their community, the glory of the Lord will fill the earth. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, will, one day, fill all things with the glory of God.

Our human vocation is to fill the earth with God’s glory. When humans image God and flourish, God is glorified. And this is our vocation, our first calling.

Human Identity: The Image of God

May 27, 2019

Every temple needs an image.

The creation, which is God’s cosmic temple, is no different. At the climactic moment of creation God placed an image in that temple. Humanity is the image of God. This is our fundamental identity as human beings.

But what does that mean?

At one level, it involves our embodied existence. We are the walking, talking, breathing, presence of God in the world. We don’t live in the heavens or walk around in celestial bodies. We are earthy, made of the dust of the earth. We belong to the earth; we live material, physical lives. We are not made of gold and silver, or wood and stone, like the idols that populate other temples; we are flesh and blood, and it is as flesh and blood that we image God.

At another level, it involves our capacities for relationship, creativity, rationality, morality, spirituality, among a host of other qualities. We are equipped to mirror God’s own life. When we create, we mirror God’s creative activity.  When we live in intimacy with another, we mirror God’s own community of love. When we act in love and seek justice, we mirror God’s own nature. We are created to be like God, and God gave us the capacity to participate in that life.

God forbade Israel to make any idols or images of God. Those images have no breath in them. God does not want any human-made images because God has already made God’s own image. God does not need an image because we are the image of God.

As divine image-bearers, we represent God within the creation. Everything about us images or mirrors God’s own life. It is not one or two aspects of us that image God but our whole selves represent God. Whether it is our creativity, our intellects, or our relationships, we are designed to represent God in every respect and equipped to participate in God’s mission.

This is our human identity. This is the status God gives us. We are God’s representatives on the earth.

This means every human being participates in the life of God. We share the divine nature to the extent that we participate in God’s own nature. We love because we are the image of God. We reason because we are the image of God. We know intimacy because we are the image of God. Our every breath is the breath of the Spirit of God who gives us life, dignity, and status within God’s good creation.

This means that every human person, no matter their ethnicity, nationality, gender, or age, has intrinsic dignity and worth. Every human person is crowned with glory and honor as the image of God. Everyone possesses royal nobility.

Every human being is valuable because they are God’s representatives. Consequently, we love every human being because we love God, and we honor every human being because we honor God.

From Empty and Void to Good, Very Good

May 23, 2019

The first line of the Bible is a bold confession, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

The earth began, however, as an uninhabitable mess. The earth was a chaotic void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, as the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.

At first, God created a mess. This is no moral judgment; God does not create evil. Rather, the mess was unordered, lacked arrangement, and was unsuitable for life. It was empty, void of all life and characterized by darkness and the waters, which are terrifying images to ancient peoples.

Though the darkness and the waters covered the earth in the beginning, God was not absent but present. The Spirit of God, who is the giver of life, hovered over the waters like a mother bird over her nest. The Spirit moved over this chaos in order to bless it and pour life into it.

God created space for life by introducing the light of divine presence, by separating the sky from the waters, and by separating land from the waters. God ordered the mess so that there was light, a sky above the earth, and dry land upon it. God created habitable space where life might flourish. The Spirit of God, the giver of life, ordered the chaos.

Then God filled the space. God filled the sky with luminaries: the sun lit up the day, and the moon and stars illuminated the night. God filled the waters with life, and God filled the land with creatures, including human beings.

According to Genesis, God created the original chaotic mess, and then God formed, ordered, and crafted it into something good, very good.

God is a royal architect and artisan. God commanded, and it happened. The word of God accomplished whatever God intended. God erected a new structure, a cosmic temple, and filled it with life and everything that makes life possible. God weaved the cosmos in such a way that it is a diverse, vibrant, and beautiful place. And what God erected and weaved was good, that is, a space where life could flourish.

Good, however, does not mean complete or even perfect or ideal. God wanted the cosmos to grow and progress. New species would emerge, and humans would have children, fill the earth, and develop multiple cultures. The creation is a dynamic rather than a static reality. Change is built into fabric of the universe, and that is good.

The creation is good, but God is not yet done with it.  When God came to rest within this cosmic temple, God invited human beings to participate in the work to come. Though God finished creating the space and filling it, God was not yet done with what the creation was yet to become. The creation had a future, and that is the rest of the story.