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Genesis 1.1 – 2.3  &  Romans 8.18-15

When my daughter Alison announced the acquisition of her first tattoo, I was a bit taken aback.

Taken aback, not by the fact that she wanted a tattoo – part of being a parent these days is about getting to expect the unexpected – no, I was taken aback by her choice of subject matter for the tattoo.

She didn’t want any words – love, joy, peace; mum, dad, Milo.
She didn’t want a heart, or a star, or a butterfly.
She wanted an image of Darwin’s First Tree of Life!  

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(She’s studying zoology!)

This ‘branching out’ of different species from a common ancestor lies at the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  One species will, as it were, split into two, one going one way and developing in its own way, the other going another way and developing in its own way.  So the natural world diversifies, and the myriad different forms of plants and animals emerge.

This accords perfectly with the biblical reflection on creation in Genesis!  Each of the six days of the story are about a ‘branching out’ of creation, a separation of one thing from another, the beginnings of ‘diversification’ within the natural world…

1.     light & darkness
2.     water & sky
3.     sea & land
4.     days & nights
5.     ‘swimmer’ & ‘flyers’
6.     animals & humankind

This is not, of course, where the problem lies for those who don’t accept the whole evolution thing.
It’s not the description of what happened that is a problem, but how it happened, what caused it to happen.

Evolutionists would say it was due to ‘natural selection’; and creationists would say that it is  ‘the will of God’ (To simplify things greatly!).

My problem with the creationist’s view is that it is fine if we are talking about bunnies and butterflies, about spider’s webs and crystals formations…
– but what about the cancer cell or the mad dog?
– or the terrorist or the earthquake?

Why would God create (or allow to be created) all the destructive things we so often come across in life?
Are they meant to be a test? …or a challenge? …or a punishment?
Are they a reflection of humanity’s ‘fallen’ nature?

You could begin to think that this creator God may not be the kind of God we would want as a friend (never mind an enemy)!

Leaping forward to Romans 8, we can see some of these contradictions being aired by St Paul:

  • the ‘sufferings of this present time’ being contrasted with the ‘glory about to be revealed’
  • the ‘subjection to futility’ and the ‘bondage to decay’ contrasted with ‘obtaining the freedom of the glory of the children of God’
  • the ‘groaning in labour pains’ contrasted with the ‘first fruits of the Spirit’ and the ‘redemption of our bodies’

There is an acknowledgement here that the process of creation might not yet be finished and that the story has still not yet ended.

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.”

This does not mean that we look like God, or that God looks like us!
It means that we share with God that thing that makes God God; – that that ‘God thing’ is reflected in us.

But what is the ‘God thing’?  What is it that makes God God?  What is it about him that is most typically God-like?

Power?  Wisdom?  Remoteness?  Invisibility?  Knowledge?  Love?  Strength?  What do you think?

I think it’s ‘freedom’.  I think that it’s God’s ability to ‘do what he wants’.  I think that the most God-like thing about God is that he answers to no-one else, and that there is nothing else anywhere that can stop God being God.

This is reflected in the Biblical creation story in the words: ‘And God said…’

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”
And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’
And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’
And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night;
And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’
And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’
Then God said,‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;

God ‘said’, ‘And it was so’.

What God says, happens!  And nothing can stop it from happening!  Total freedom from any restraint.

And that, I think, is his ‘image’, his defining characteristic.

And it’s that freedom that he imparts to his creation, the freedom to ‘be’, the freedom of a human body cell to be cancerous, the freedom of a person to take another’s life, the freedom of the earth’s tectonic plates to shift, and cause earthquakes.

Now that would be scary, if it were the end of the story.  But we’re not at the end, we’re just partway through the process.

And the process is driven, not by randomness, not by whim, not by accident, but by love.

God’s word is spoken in love – his will is achieved by love – and creation is perfected through love.

So, I’m with St Paul on this…              (Rom.8.18-21)

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“On entering the house, [the Magi] saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
Matthew 2.11

I don’t know how familiar you are with Monty Python’s Life of Brian – a spoof loosely based around the life of Jesus.  It was released in 1979, with some controversy – it was even ‘x’ rated at one stage by quite a few local authorities!  I remember seeing it in London not long after it came out.  I had to cross a picket line of Christians in order to get in!

It starts with a star, moving across the sky, followed by three men on camels; and continues with these three riding down a dark back street, and arriving at a hovel, with mother and child.

“Whad do yu want?” screeches the mother (played by Terry Jones).
 “We were led by a star”, say the first wise man (John Cleese).
 “Led by a bottle more like”, retorts the mother.

Eventually the three wise men get around to offering their gifts to the child: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The mother is not to sure about the myrrh. The third wise man (Michael Palin) has to explain that it is a valuable ‘balm’, which she immediately thinks is some kind of wild animal – until the wise man explains that it is an ointment!  She gladly accepts the gold and the frankincense – but is diffident about accepting the myrrh.

Anyway – the three wise men worship at the manger, and exit, only to re-appear almost immediately: to reclaim all three gifts, and dash back out!

The camera follows them… – as they cross to the other side of the alleyway to another hovel, this one surrounded in light, and peace, and with the baby Jesus, meek and mild, asleep on the hay.

But the film continues to follow the mother, Mandy Cohen, and her son Brian.

“What is myrrh, anyway?” Mandy screeches in those opening moments of the film.
 ‘What and why?’, we too may ask.

It seems that St Matthew was playing a little fast and loose with the Old Testament in his story of the wise men.  Gold and frankincense were to be expected, as was the wealth of the nations, as indeed were the camels – we have it all in the first Epiphany reading, from Isaiah 60.

Gold and frankincense were both in themselves powerful symbols:
gold, of kingly wealth and earthly power (recognised even today);
frankincense, of priestly worship and prayer rising up to God;
– but what about the myrrh?

Why did Matthew feel he needed to add that extra detail into his story?

If you read a biblical commentary, it will tell you that it represents Jesus’ future death and burial.  Myrrh was indeed used by the Egyptians when embalming bodies; myrrh is offered to Jesus on the cross as a sort of pain-killer; and myrrh was brought by Joseph of Arimathea to Jesus’ tomb as part of the burial.

All very plausible.  But all neatly evading the fact that, in a Hebrew context, myrrh was all about love – and not just spiritual love!  It was the Old Testament equivalent of Chanel No.5!

Myrrh is mentioned in one particular book of the Old Testament, exactly TWICE as many times as in all the other 38 books put together!

And that book is the ‘Song of Songs’ – sometimes called the ‘Song of Solomon’ – a love song, and quite clearly a love song!  Could myrrh be a symbol of that love?

You are unlikely to hear any of the Song of Songs ever read at a Sunday Eucharist – it just doesn’t figure in the Sunday lectionary scheme.  But part of it IS one of the readings set for the feast of St Mary Magdalene!

Now, I’m not trying to get all Dan Browne-ish – there is no DaVinci Code, Magdalene, plot in all this.  But I do think that there is a misreading here of the significance of ‘myrrh’ in the Epiphany story.  There is a much more obvious meaning.

In the traditional Epiphany hymn, ‘Earth had many a noble city’ , one verse runs

“Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:
incense doth their God disclose,
gold the King of kings proclaimeth…”

I am happy with that – but less convinced by the final line:

“…myrrh his sepulchre foreshows.”

I think the myrrh may be an affirmation of Jesus’ down to earth humanity, of his intimate involvement in the life of this world, of his immersion in love with the humanity of us all – rather than a reference to his death!

“Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:
incense doth our God disclose,
gold the King of kings proclaimeth,
myrrh his love for us he shows”

“You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice.” – Isaiah 66.14

Sometimes we do look at things, and people, and what we see does make our hearts rejoice – but not always.

The recent re-emergence into the news of Jon Venables,  one of Jamie Bulger’s killers, from all those years ago, also brought out again those eerie photographs of both of the killers, aged 10.  Eerie, because to look at those photographs again, knowing what we know now, is really quite disturbing, and certainly not something that would make our hearts rejoice.

And yet they are two human beings, created by God, two human beings who have committed a terrible act – but is there anything left there to make our hearts rejoice?

It is one of the great clichés of the Christian faith, that “We should hate the sin, but love the sinner!”, but can we do that with Thompson and Venables?  Or, indeed, with Peter Sutcliffe or Myra Hindley or Harold Shipman?

Sin obscures our vision of the person of the sinner, so that when we see them, we see not the person, but the sin.  The sin ‘clothes’ them with a new identity, disguises them.

This is obvious (and understandable) in the case of Thompson and Venables (and Sutcliffe/Hindley/Shipman), but it’s also true of all people.  We all carry our own sins and shortcomings with us, our own loads.  And these ‘loads’ become part of our own ‘self-image’, and of our image of other people.  We become ‘clothed’ what we have done, the good as well as the bad, but especially the bad!  We see the sin, in ourselves and in others, and that obscures our vision of the person beneath.

But God sees all!

This is, more often than not, seen in negative terms:  “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires know,
and from whom no secrets are hidden…” – God seeing all our innermost faults, all our ignoble thoughts and words and deeds.

But God is not fooled by what he sees!  He sees the sin, but he does not let that obscure his vision of the sinner.  He sees through our ‘clothing’, our mantle of sin, to the person beneath.

And he sees in that person infinite possibilities – possibilities for growth and renewal and life.

And seeing, he loves.

And loving, he gives substance to those possibilities.

It is that clear-sighted love, made real, and given substance in the person of Jesus,  and through the mystery of the cross – it is that unobscured love of God that rids us of our outer garment of sin and allows us to stand before him as his beloved people.

He sees and his heart rejoices – even though it is that heart that also knows the pain of the cross.

Our vision of what is real and what is not real, of what is true and what is not true, both in ourselves and in others, makes us what we are.

Increasing clarity in our vision, our awareness, draws us further along the path to God.  It changes us.  “We shall be like him [God]”, writes St John, “because we shall see him as he really is.”

Our vision is clouded by sin, so clouded that we find it hard indeed to see through that cloud in order to love what we see.

But we give thanks that God is not so blinded:
 – that he sees clearly…
 – that he knows completely…
 – that he loves totally…

Father,
grant us your vision,
that we may see,
and our hearts rejoice.

So runs the strapline for William Paul Young’s ‘The Shack’.shack

I wouldn’t have dreamt of reading it – had it not been the subject of our local clergy book club.  But I’m glad I did.

Eugene Peterson writes that “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.  It’s that good!”  I’m not sure about that – but it was good.

It’s a book about God, and the Trinity, and suffering, and judgement, and forgiveness, and sacrifice, and above all about relationships: God’s with him/her/themselves (you have to read it!), our’s with God, and our’s with one another.  I don’t think it says anything new about any of that – but it does use some novel and interesting metaphors and images to convey it all.  And you can ready it all in a day!

The author uses the quote from the book: “If anything matters…everything matters” as the strapline on his website. 

My own ‘keynote’ quote would be: [Papa (God), to Mack (the central character)] “…just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies.  Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes.  That will only lead you to false notions about me.  Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”

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