A Tale of Four Colours: From Creation to the Golden Age

Some novels waffle for pages to warm up.
Others hit the main theme in the first line.
Who can name these books?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
About the turbulent best and worst of the French Revolution period.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a …”

The Hobbit!
Who left his homely hole,
ventured into dark world, and came safely back at last.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.
About the social maneuvering to get those single men hitched.[1]

Here’s a tough one:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Is this just a waffly prologue we can skip?
Or is it the main theme, the big idea of the whole Bible?
It’s the first time we meet the main character:
What he is doing?
Could this be his most characteristic activity?
God created.

Today, we are going to sweep through the biblical story,
from the first creation in Genesis to the new creation in Revelation.
We’ll see that creation is God’s purpose from first to last.
This is God’s super story – the context that gives
purpose and direction to our individual sub-stories,
the chapters where we make our brief appearances.
We’ll compare this story with two rival stories we often hear.

Many stories fall into a three-part structure.
For example, your typical romance:
Boy meets girl, they fall happily in love – part one.
Tragic separation – part two.
Maybe torn apart by social class and snobbery – like in Jane Austen: pride and prejudice.
But, at long last, the couple is reunited, marry, live happily ever after – part three.

An average chick flick, I suppose?
For the guys, take a Hollywood action movie.
People are going to work or chilling out, their normal lives – part one.
Suddenly, the sky turns dark:  it’s an alien battleship, we’re under attack!
Or, at the beach, a surfer screams, he’s dragged under.
It’s a shark – Jaws!
Chaos and turmoil.  The struggle begins.
Will humanity survive? – part two.
But at last, the bugs are blown up, the shark is slain,
Peace and order are restored – part three.

In short: good-bad-good; or harmony-conflict-resolution.
Like a symphony in three movements:
The first in a major key,
the second minor, more dark and sombre.
And the third movement again a cheerful and upbeat major.

This three part plot is the story of the Bible.
A three act play of Creation, fall, redemption
As we’ll see, it can be read as a divine romance or a cosmic battle.

To help us remember the key chapters of the plot,
I’ve recalled an old Sunday school lesson: the gospel in colours.

NZ Ferns

NZ Ferns – Credit: Jorge Royan

Act One: Creation – Clean and Green

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
The first two chapters of Genesis give the details.
The central take home message is this:
Creation is good, but it is not God.

That might sound obvious, but actually it’s not.
It rules out major rival stories.
Ever since the ancient Greeks like Plato,
many people have believed that creation itself is the fall.
Our souls are trapped in sinful physical bodies like a prison.
We gotta break out and float back up to the light.
The story still floats around today.
Some eastern religions, new age thinkers, and even in the church.

By contrast, when our God made the world,
the morning stars sang for joy (Job 38:7).
The chorus on every day of creation resounds, “God saw that it was good.”

As for human beings, we are very good:
We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).
One thing this means, is that God put us in the garden
to look after it as his representatives.
Humans are to be “priests of creation”.
Like kings and queens, wisely ruling the earth to the glory of God.

In the Garden of Eden, humanity lived in a rich network of relationships:
close to God, each other, and the good fruitful earth.
It was God’s first intention and plan, and it hasn’t changed since the first line.
It was the best of times, the original Golden Age.

Act Two: Creation and Fall – Blackout

But, as we know, Adam and Eve were tempted.
Creation is good but it is not God.
Humans are in the image of God but we are not gods ourselves.

So there are two ways we can be tempted to go wrong.
We can treat creation as if it were God – idolatry.
Or we can write it off as worthless – what an insult to its maker.

I can act as if I am God, claim I am the author of my story.
Or I can despair and forget my infinite value as an image of God.

In Genesis chapter 3, Adam and Eve
tried to become like God in their own strength (Genesis 3:4-5).
So they became less like God than they were made to be – full of shame.
That rich matrix of relationships shattered like a broken mirror.

Humans are the crown of creation, so when we fell, all creation fell with us.
Even the ground was cursed with thorns and thistles. (Genesis 3:17-18)
The clean and green creation was darkened.
The worst of times.
Now, there was death.

Dead Roses

Dead Roses – Credit: HumanSeeHumanDo

Creation and Fall: Take Two

One of the neat things about the Bible, is that,
like a good novel, the more you read it,
the more you discover images and themes that reappear, combine, contrast,
deepen the meaning in new ways.

So here’s a different take on Creation:

Genesis 1 began with God’s Spirit blowing over the dark waters.
In many ancient near eastern cultures,
this primaeval ocean was a symbol of chaos and evil.
The creator god fought the sea and killed its monsters.

The Bible uses this idea.
God sets boundaries of the sea, so it can come no further (Proverbs 8:29).
There are even monsters like Leviathan and Rahab.
Imagine a sort of spiritual, super-sized Jaws.

  You Lord rule over the surging sea;
when its waves mount up, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like a carcass;
with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.
The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth;
you founded the world and all that is in it.
Psalm 89:9-11

Creation as a marine battle,
defeating the waters of chaos and nothingness.

This picture appears at the Exodus,
when God rescued his people Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
God defeated Pharaoh, the dragon in the seas (eg Ezekiel 32:2).
He blew back the Red Sea, to make dry land – just like Genesis – so his people could pass through.
It was a new creation – the birth of Israel.

  Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,
who pierced that monster, the Dragon?…
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
who made a road in the depths of the deep
so that the redeemed might cross over?
Isaiah 51:9-11

40 years later, they were in the Promised Land,
a sort of new Eden.
Again, the presence of God.
People lived in harmony.
The fertile land flowed with milk and honey.
It was the Golden Age of Israel.

It didn’t last.
The rest of Old Testament history is like a slow motion replay of Genesis 3.
The fall stretched over centuries.
What happened with Adam and Eve,
happens all over again with the people of Israel.

Many of them forgot that creation is not God.
They worshipped idols.
Again, things fell apart.
By the end,
Jerusalem was in ruins, the earth infertile.
The land itself spewed them out (Leviticus 18:28).
Like Adam and Eve, the people were driven out into exile.

Adam and Eve, then the people of Israel, and it’s really the same for us
It’s the same old story.
God blesses us, but we rebel and turn away.
Our relationships suffer.
Like never before, today we can see the literal physical impact of human sin on creation.
This week I read a Christian poem lamenting the oil spill:
“Poisoned Sea, Impoverished Soul”[2]

The fall isn’t just an ancient myth: it’s our story today.
It didn’t just happen, once upon a time, it happens (Rob Bell)

Looking Forward: Two Future Stories

So here we are.
Paradise lost.
Creation and fall.
Green and black.

For chick flick fans, the romance has turned sour – get out your hankies.
The Old Testament portrays God as a heartbroken husband,
pleading with his beloved people, who dumped him, to come back.
For blokes, the aliens have landed.
Like evil monsters, sin and death slithered up from the seas and invaded God’s good world.

Where does the story go from here?
Which side will win?
How will it all end?
Will our hero win back his bride?
Will we beat back the aliens, or will humanity perish?
When we look to the future, for what can we hope?

There are a few big stories that people tell.
Who here is an optimist?
Here’s a story for you.

Story One: Onwards and Upwards
Every day, in every way, we’re getting better and better.
Look at the stunning progress of human knowledge, science, technology, exploration over the last centuries.
Man, we’re good!
We’ve escaped the bad old days, the dark ages,
We can defeat disease, solve our problems, cure the curse.
We don’t need God now: we ourselves can bring in the new golden age.

That sounds pretty cheerful, but let’s not forget the cynics and pessimists.
Here’s a tale for you.

Story Two: Doom and Gloom
Every day, in every way, the world is getting worse and worse.
It’s all downhill from here.
The marriage – it’s over.
The monsters have won.

There’s a (Conservative) Christian version:
God’s not interested in the material world.
It’s fallen, so he’s going to trash it on judgment day.
The best we can do is save souls for heaven,
get a few people into the lifeboat before the ship of creation goes down

Remember those two basic ways we can go wrong?
Act like we ourselves are God, we are the author of the story.
Or deny that creation is good.
Here they are again.

Do you think we sometimes slip into one of these mindsets?
On one hand, we can think everything depends on our Christian programs,
our church growth strategies, our human efforts.
On the other, we can get spiritual tunnel vision and forget
that all of creation, all of life, matters to God.

By contrast, the people of Israel told a third story about the future.
Unlike the second sad story, it gave them hope for this world.
Unlike the first story, it’s a hope that is not based on us.

Let’s play spot the plot in these verses from the prophet Isaiah.

Israel’s Third Story: God’s New Creation

 The LORD will comfort Zion
and will look with compassion on all her ruins;
he will make her deserts like Eden,
her wastelands like the garden of the LORD.
Isaiah 51:3

  The mountains and hills
will burst into song,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Isaiah 55:12

On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Isaiah 25:6-8

What a vision!
What a hope!
It’s not about Israel manufacturing a new golden age – that first story.
It’s more than individual souls getting to heaven – that second story.

The biblical hope is for
Restoration of the whole person – body and spirit together (the Bible rarely makes a distinction),
as part of the whole community of God’s people – the great feast,
within the whole good creation.
God saves wholes, not just souls.

But as the Old Testament draws to a close,
this hope had not yet been fulfilled.
Which brings us to Act Three of our drama.
Creation.  Fall.  Redemption.

Act Three: Creation and Christ – Redemption

Sometimes we think God the Father first made the world.
But that didn’t work out, so God switched to plan B:
Jesus Christ came to save us from the world.
Creation and salvation are split apart.

But look at what Paul says in Colossians 1:15-20

By Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created…
Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven…

All things are what Christ made – and what did he come to save?
All things – in heaven and on earth! (Ephesians 1:10)
Maybe creation and redemption are part of the same package,
God’s same ongoing plan.

Reinforcing this idea,
Paul called Christ the second Adam – the first new man.
He is the true image of God, what we were meant to be.

The first Adam failed to look after the garden,
but Christ puts creation right, freeing it from sin and death.
In the Gospels, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise.
Again the raging waters threaten human life
– the disciples bobbing in their fishing boat, as the storm sweeps in.
Jesus walks all over the waters, he rebukes the wind and stills the waves.
Like God did at creation and Exodus.

But it wasn’t an easy victory.
The Sunday school story has red for salvation
Act Three is blood red for the cross.
To free creation from the curse, Christ suffered its worst effect: death.
What was the sign of the earth’s curse?
Thorns: how appropriate that Christ died, crowned with thorns.

When he rose, more echoes of Eden.
This is from theologian Tom Wright’s Easter Sunday sermon this year.
On that Sunday morning:[3]

Mary in the garden becomes for a moment Eve, weeping for her lost innocence and her lost Lord, and then discovering that the one she thinks is the gardener really is the gardener, the one through whose healing stewardship the whole creation will be dug afresh and planted with the Tree of Life.

Christ is picking up the job the first Adam walked away from.
The true gardener.
Weeding out thorns and thistles and sin.
Tending the green shoots of God’s new creation.

A mediaeval legend even said Adam was buried at Calvary,
and the wood of the cross, that brought us new life,
came from the tree of life in Eden.
Mystery plays in the middle ages
used the same actor for both Adam and Christ. (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22)

Yes, creation and redemption go together.
In God’s story, green and red are intertwined.

NZ Pohutukawa

NZ Pohutukawa – Credit: Wei

Now we approach a twist in our tale.
Christians believe that
“if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Others may well ask, “Where is this new creation?” (2 Peter 3:3ff).
Look around you: the vision of prophets like Isaiah has not arrived.

It’s a problem.
It’s the tension that split apart Judaism and Christianity.
Early Jews and Christians both believed that at the end of this age
God would raise all the righteous from the dead.
So Martha says to Jesus after her brother Lazarus has died,

“I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  (John 11:24)

But then, Jesus rose from the dead.
Not on the last day, but now.
Christians realized the expected final act of the three part drama had split into two stages.
Stage one: the resurrection of Christ.
Stage two, still to come, what Martha was waiting for:
When we rise from the dead to join him.

This is why Paul called Christ the first fruits,
the “beginning and the firstborn from the dead”, “within a large family”
(Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 15:20, Colossians 1:18).

The Hollywood plot had three parts: good-bad-good.
Because of this two stage resurrection, our Christian drama is four acts.
In effect, Hollywood part three has begun before part two is over.
Parts two and three of the story, sin and salvation, currently overlap.

Our present has been invaded by God’s future.
The resurrection, the last days, have begun.
One person, Jesus Christ, has been raised in advance
like fresh green grass growing through a crack in blackened old concrete.
Like a golden glow on the highest mountain peaks, that shows the sun is rising,
even though down here in the valley things are still pretty dark.

Right now, we are in Act Three of God’s story.
Christ is already risen, but we are not yet.
That’s the source of the bittersweet tension we so often experience
It’s like an agonizing dissonance,
a musical chord that cries out for resolution.
We’re waiting for Act Four – pure gold.

Act Four: Creation and New Creation – The Golden Age

So what will act four bring?
What exactly is our future hope?
Here’s the Christian answer in one sentence:

“One day, God will do for the whole cosmos what he did for Jesus at Easter.”

That is from New Testament scholar Tom Wright.
If you want to know more about the biblical hope, I recommend his book.
“Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” (2008)

“One day, God will do for the whole cosmos what he did for Jesus at Easter.”

I love that line, but what does it mean?
Much more than disembodied souls.

At Easter, God raised Christ with a physical body – both similar and different to what we have now.
Jesus barbecued fish on the beach, he ate it.
He said to his disciples, “Touch me – see, I’m not a ghost!”  (Luke 24:39)

And yet, his body was different.
Glorious, powerful, imperishable as gold (1 Corinthians 15).
Like figure skaters in the Winter Olympics
What strength and grace and beauty!
When he returns, Jesus will transform our lowly bodies to be something like that. (Philippians 3:20-21)
That’s why the Apostles Creed says, I believe in “the resurrection of the body.”

What’s more, Christians can say we believe in “the resurrection of all creation.”
In Romans 8, Paul says all of nature is groaning as in labour pains,
longing for the day when

“the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-23)

It’s the exodus of the universe.
All creatures reconciled.
The entire creation set free.
The restoration of all things (Act 3:21).
That’s the grand scope of salvation in Christ!

C.S. Lewis had this vision
Remember The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
The White Witch’s curse held all Narnia frozen in deathly winter.
When Aslan returned, the snow melted and everything came to life.
Streams flowed again, flowers blossomed,
all good creatures rejoiced and danced and feasted.

One day, what happened with Jesus on an individual scale will occur on a cosmic scale.

In part, the world is so beautiful, because it is

designed to be filled, flooded, drenched in God, as a chalice is beautiful, not least because of what he know it was designed to contain or as a violin is beautiful, not least because we know the music of which it is capable. (NT Wright)

NZ Kowhai

NZ Kowhai – Credit: Alan Vernon

The Significance of Stories

The stories we tell matter.
Especially the super stories, the big picture frameworks,
that give purpose and coherence to our lives.
Like the punch line of a joke, the end of the tale shapes its whole meaning.

A 2005 CBS News poll found 78% of Americans believe in life after death.
But a 1997 survey in Time magazine (March 31), showed that
two thirds of Americans who claim to believe in life after death reject a bodily resurrection.

They’ve lost the plot of God’s big creation drama.
They’ve forgotten that God said creation was good.
They’ve written off all those Old Testament prophecies –
the whole people of God rejoicing with the whole good creation.
If that’s your story, it has some implications:

Fighting injustice or poverty or corruption?
Protecting the environment?
Waste of time.
Salvation’s not about this world – God’s going to wipe it out.
We are going up to heaven when we die.
Evangelism is all that matters – just save souls.
Lifeboat theology.
Maybe this is why Karl Marx said religion is the opium of the people
– it stops them fighting for a better world.

But if we get a grip on God’s great saga,
The polychromatic chronicle of the cosmos.
We’ll see the mission of God is far bigger.
We are saved as wholes, not just souls.
It is not just “spiritual” work that is valuable to God.
It’s not just pastors, evangelists, missionaries, professional Christians,
who are building for the kingdom.

We are all called to participate
With whatever talents we’ve been given.

Think of a mediaeval cathedral.
A stonemason chips away at a statue, an artisan carves wood,
another works on stained glass.
A cook feeds the workers, a tailor clothes them,
a priest encourages them, an accountant pays them.
An architect dreams of soaring spires.
An engineer calculates the strength to carry them.
A whole community with all their different abilities,
building together over generations for the glory of God.

That sounds like Paul’s body of Christ to me (1 Corinthians 12).
Imagine the joy workers would feel if resurrected centuries later,
when the cathedral was complete,
and they could see the part their work had played.

Hey, look up there on the façade – there’s that little statue I carved.
Look at the sun shining through that stained-glass window – isn’t that glorious?
That was made by a guy who was so down he was going to give up, but I encouraged him.

Everything we have done to honour God and bless others
will be taken up, perfected and resurrected with us in the new Jerusalem.
Nothing good will be wasted.

Remember Paul’s great chapter on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15.
If Christ was not raised, he says,
He’s wasting his time and our faith is futile.
But Christ has been raised, (1 Corinthians 15:58)

“Therefore, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”

Never at any point do the Gospels or Paul say Jesus has been raised, therefore we are we are all going to heaven. They all say, Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do….  What the New Testament really says is God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell.
N.T. Wright

Conclusion: the Golden Ending

The Bible’s big picture is framed by Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22.
Like matching bookends they form the prologue and epilogue of our saga.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
In the end, God is still creating:

“I saw a new heaven and a new earth,
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.”
Revelation 21:1.

The old creation passes, and the new is born.
As Jesus’ old body died, and was transformed into his new risen one.

“And there was no longer any sea”
That’s bad news for literalistic surfers.
But very good news for poetic theologians.
As we’ve seen, the raging ocean is a biblical symbol of evil,
Out of it even comes, in Revelation, the anti-Christ beast.
Now the monsters of the sea that try to dissolve and destroy God’s creation,
have all been overcome.  (Revelation 20:2)

Death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54).
Green, black, red.
Now at last, the truly best of times, the Golden Age is here.
The new creation is come.

Green-black-red-gold flowers

The Golden Age.
It’s the last part of that threefold Hollywood story,
or the final act four of God’s drama.
The Hobbit is safely home.
The evil aliens are smouldering corpses.
Jewish tradition teaches that God will serve Leviathan in the feast of the new age.
Shark meat sizzling on the barbecue.

For the less macho version, here’s Revelation 21:2

I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

Everything that kept them apart,
pride and prejudice, sin and suffering, are now overcome.
After the long long wait,
wedding bells are ringing: Christ and his church, God and his people, together again.

It’s the day when God will resurrect the whole created cosmos,
just like he raised Christ at Easter.
It’s happily ever after in the city of gold.

Your dead will live;
their bodies will rise.
You who dwell in the dust,
wake up and shout for joy!
Isaiah 26:19

This is the gospel story, the Bible story, God’s story.

And God is inviting us to become characters in it.
To join him in working for the new creation,
start practising the tunes we will sing in the Golden Age.
Plant seeds of the resurrection throughout this world.

Our vision of the end of God’s great story,
Should revolutionize and transform every sphere of our lives here and now.

“The goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present”
Jürgen Moltmann

I think God’s story is a much better story than those alternatives:
mere human optimism, or drowning in despair.

What about you?
Which story are you living in?
Which tale do you want to be part of?

Wake up O sleeper!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
Ephesians 5:14

[1] See 100 best first lines from novels.
[2] http://blog.sojo.net/2010/05/27/poisoned-sea-impoverished-soul-a-litany-of-lament-over-a-despoiled-ocean/
[3] http://www.ntwrightpage.com/sermons/EasterMorning2010.htm