· Psalm 8
Thirty years ago this summer I was living in a kind of New-Age commune in the woods of Western Massachusetts and one beautiful afternoon a few of us were eating lunch outside at a picnic table when a great strategic bomber from the air base at Springfield went roaring nearly overhead. Pacifist that I am, I muttered some kind of grumpy comment to my table companions and my friend Bruce smiled and said, “You know, that also is God.” Which kind of stopped me in my tracks, because I did know that what he said was true. I knew it was true, and at the same time, I knew that I didn’t believe it. Because the huge warplane could also be God only in a whole and unbroken world. Which is not the world of my experience.
I live in a world of human artefacts and human enterprise that I experience as separate from and set against the world of natural things. And I am not alone in this. How often have I heard a person say that he or she experiences God most vividly in contemplating “nature,” in places where wild creatures still dwell! How often have I done the same! In such places we can see the beauty and mystery of an order of things that we did not create, and have not yet managed to pollute and destroy. It is as if the wild places awaken in us faint memories of a forgotten language, one we used to speak and understand in a country we left behind long ago. And when we come back from those places to the world we think we know, our world of machines and money and war, of business and government, of working and getting and spending, the language of wild things goes silent.
It slips again into oblivion, and with it goes a part of ourselves. It is a part that we often scorn, as “romantic” and “naïve,” that we tell ourselves has no place in the “real” world, the practical, modern world of human affairs. We say it belongs to the past, to childhood, to prehistory, or to “primitive” cultures that have been swept away by the tide of progress and civilization. We tell ourselves this as a way of denying that we still have a choice. We prefer to believe that the potential in human nature to be in sacred communion with the whole created order of the world has been lost beyond recovery. Because this spares us the pain of knowing that every day we actively, systematically suppress it. We prefer the despair of human isolation in a mute and mindless universe, to the guilt of admitting we have given up hope.
If this is so, it is in part because we have forgotten how to read the Bible. We like to congratulate ourselves for figuring out that the first chapter of Genesis is not a scientifically-accurate chronology of cosmic evolution. As if it ever intended to be that. And yet we have closed our minds to its poetry, to its vision of a whole and unbroken world. It is a vision of a world of which we human beings are an essential part, in which our unique power, our dominion over the fish and the birds, the wild and domestic animals, comes from being made in the image of the creator of it all. Our activity, our filling and subduing the earth, eating the plants and their seeds, and the fruit of the trees, is not innately a crime or a curse against the creation. It was meant as a blessing to the creature who, more than any other, is able to see this world as God does, as good in every particular thing, and all together very good.
Of course we know what’s coming next, in the Second Chapter: how the gift of power and freedom was more than we could handle responsibly; how it was not enough for us to know the goodness of the world, we had to know evil as well; how we found that evil in ourselves and so the world we know began to be, the world of shame, and mistrust of God, of blaming one other, the world of gender inequality, of jealousy and murder, of agriculture and mining and the building of cities, and of exiles wandering over the face of the earth. But our historic obsession with that second story—and it is, after all, the story of us as we are—sometimes has made us forget our first creation story. We have put it aside as if it is a story of who we were, in some irretrievable dream, with nothing to say about who we might be, or might become.
And yet the First Chapter of Genesis is precisely a story of hope. It tells the essential spiritual truth of the world as a living unity, including human nature created in the image of God. And more than that, this story places a gift in our hands. It gives us a way to remember and renew the highest truth of who we are: that we are not simply masters of the earth community, but members of it, with a unique responsibility to love it for its own sake, and because it is the handiwork of God. This story gives us the gift of time, time out from all our filling and subduing the earth, time to celebrate the glorious and gratuitous beauty and goodness of life in this world, to be again like God, as only we can be.
This gift is, of course, the Sabbath. In Genesis 1, God does not create a world in which some places are holy and others are not. But God does create a special holiness in time— every seventh day, hallowed as a day of rest. In a practical sense, however, only one creature is able to number the days and consciously keep the Sabbath. This is how we human beings are unique, as far as we know, among the creatures of the earth—not just that we are clever, resourceful, industrious, numerous, and strong—but that we mark time and set some apart for the rest that comes from God. It is our privilege to enjoy this holy time of rest, on behalf of all the creatures in the world, to share God’s love for all that has been made, to share God’s judgment that the world is very good.
In the fullness of time one came who shared God’s love and gracious judgment perfectly. He is Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, the Lord of the Sabbath. The true human image and likeness of God was perfectly restored in him. And his Lordship, his dominion, is for the sake of making the creation whole again. It was his will, and the will of his Father, to share his true human nature, no longer broken off from God or from the world, no longer male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, with those who became his disciples. This is the gift we hope for when we baptize a person in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as we are doing for little Zane Ra today. But it is not only we who have this hope: “The whole creation,” says St. Paul, in the 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans, “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”
This is the great hope of the Bible, a hope that is always in danger of vanishing from the world—that human nature and the whole creation will be restored to harmony and share in the Sabbath peace and joy of God. This great hope is inseparable from a great responsibility—for it lives or it dies in us. But we do not shoulder this responsibility alone. The Holy Spirit working in us, awakening hope for love and fulfillment, and this turns the struggle and suffering of everyday life into the path of discipleship, of growing into the full stature of Christ. And it is the Son of God who walks beside us, God’s Word of wisdom and compassion, guiding our steps on the journey that leads to the fullness of life. He promised to be with us every day until the ages of creation are crowned with completeness. And because he is with us, we have nothing to fear, for though he is ever active, ever blessing, ever interceding on our behalf, he is also already at rest, already abiding in the eternal Sabbath day.