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2nd Sunday before Lent, Yr C, St Mark’s, 11.2.07
Gen.2,4b-9, 15-25; [Ps 65]; [Rev 4]; Luke 8.22-25, running a creation theme.
Alternative Collect: Almighty God, give us reverence for all creation and respect for every person, that we may mirror your likeness in Jesus Christ our Lord. (1462-47 = 1415)
The prayer we have prayed today has
outlined our being called to three things: reverence for creation, respect for
people, and to mirror God’s likeness, all three of these as we live in the
Body of Christ. Let’s see if we can put some meat on the bones of these three
things by my telling you a personal story.
Nearly 47 years ago in the summer of 1960 Dorothy and I, with our baby son Stephen, came to England so that I might start my doctoral studies at the University of Nottingham. At this point I had been ordained for three years, and I had become convinced that many people found themselves on the Christian treadmill with little or no sense of really going anywhere.
So I wanted to find out what the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments had to say about the role of man in God’s plan: to put it bluntly, what are people supposed to be good for? Over the years I found three things, with these three things being related to each other and all of a piece.
By 1962 I had found the first piece: Son of God. This is Israel’s calling. In Exodus the LORD says to Moses, "Go tell Pharaoh to let my son go." When I looked at what a son means in the Old Testament, especially in the family, a number of things became clear.
Firstly, a son is anyone acknowledged as such by the father, as God’s voice calls Jesus his son at his baptism and as God has called us in our baptism. This is unlike the Greek and Roman world where sonship was always thought of in terms of who was the biological father. I think this explains why in the Book of Acts Jesus is spoken of as Son of God only twice, and both times by Paul in synagogue where it would be heard with the Jewish biblical understanding.
Secondly, in Hebrew there is the idiom in which to say ‘Son of’ means to have the quality of, as a ‘son of iniquity’ is an iniquitous person. Thus Israel’s calling as ‘Son of God’ was to show forth God’s character as in the book of Leviticus, ‘You shall be holy as I the LORD your God am holy’. In short, the son is to be a chip off the old block.
Thirdly, in the family the son was to learn all things from his father and be obedient to him. In the book of Deuteronomy if he refused to be obedient to his parents, he was to be stoned to death by what we might call the town elders. In summary, Israel’s calling, Jesus’ calling, and our calling as God’s children is to show forth God’s character through total dependence upon God and obedience to his will. This is why in John’s gospel we find Jesus saying ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’.
Fourth and finally, to have a child was very precious. For example, when the rabbis discussed what to do during a famine, they said, "Make sure there are no more babies so there won’t be more mouths to feed." But some rabbis made an exception for the childless couple. They could continue to try for a baby even during a famine - perhaps God would bless them with a child. When Jacob’s sons need to take Benjamin down to Egypt, Reuben tells his father that Jacob may kill Reuben’s two sons if he does not bring Benjamin back safely. Reuben’s sons represent his whole future. And this shows the depth of meaning of John 3.16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son." – It is this depth of being loved and valued by God that we entered into when we were baptized and made his children in Christ.
By the end of 1963 when we were up in County Durham, where I was curate in charge of a daughter church, I had nailed down the second piece: the image of God. This morning we have heard the older creation story in Genesis 2, but it is in the later story in Genesis 1 that God says, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness" and then says "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them." This means that men and women, boys and girls, equally are the image of God. In the ancient world rulers would show that they owned and ruled in a territory by setting up a symbol of this, either a statue of themselves or an inscribed pillar. Thus the Genesis narrative says that God has created a visible symbol of his ownership and sovereignty, a symbol that doesn’t simply sit in one place but walks about on two feet, namely, human beings. Whatever lies around us, wherever we go, belongs to God for his purposes. With this established, God then gives humankind the vice-regency over the creation, that is, he puts the whole of creation into our hands to be used according to his will.
There is a lovely story about Rabbi Hillel the great Jewish teacher who lived a generation before Jesus. One day he said to his disciples, ‘I am going to take a bath to the glory of God.’ His followers were puzzled and asked him how on earth would taking a bath glorify God. He answered, ‘You know how the Roman emperor’s servants honour him by washing and polishing his statues, well, I am going to go wash and polish the image of God.’ We are, indeed, the visible symbols of God’s ownership and sovereignty.
By 1970 when we were in Lichfield at the theological college, and I was working with our students on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, I began to grasp the third item when I asked myself why Paul says, "Look at you brothers and sisters. When you were called not many of you were wise, powerful or wellborn." I kept working on this question while we were in India until I had fully answered it and I have been dotting the ‘eyes’ and crossing the ‘tees’, so to speak, ever since. In fact, I preached on this here at St Mark’s almost exactly a year ago today. In brief, what I ended up with was an ancient and very widespread wise/powerful/well-born model for human beings that runs through the whole of the Old Testament.
Thus, for example, in the 8th century BC the prophet Isaiah, speaking of God’s coming judgement says (3.1-2): 'For behold, the Lord, Yahweh of hosts, is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah stay and staff, the whole stay of bread and the whole stay of water [there goes the well-being] the mighty man and the man of war [there goes the power] the judge and the prophet, the diviner and the elder’ [there goes the wisdom].
In the same century the prophet Micah addresses every individual human being in terms of power, wisdom and well-being when he says, "What does the LORD your God require of you but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?" (6.8).
This three-fold pattern of wisdom, power and well-being runs through the Old Testament and straight into the New, and it is used by Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to present who Jesus is and what our calling is in Christ.
For example, in Mark Jesus is given well-being when God calls him his son at the baptism, he is the one given wisdom, at the transfiguration on the mount when God tells the disciples to heed him, and he is powerful in his powerlessness in the cross when the representative of Roman might, the centurion, says, "Truly, this man was God’s Son".
Every time the emphasis is again and again that these qualities come only through dependence upon God, as Jesus has depended upon the Father.
And so back to today’s prayer:
As God’s image in Christ we stand before the creation as mirrors and ministers of his shalom, his peace and good order. As God’s sons and daughters in Christ we are to show forth to all people God’s love, his very nature. And we can do this only as we grow, in deepening dependence upon God’s love, into that fullness of humanity that we see in Christ Jesus.