Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Life Aquatic

These were the closing years of the eighteenth century, and the young poet – troubled, addicted, and renting a cottage in Somerset – put pen to page. And so, drawing on memories of his tutor who'd sailed with the explorer James Cook, Samuel Taylor Coleridge began to tell the tale of an old sailor, whose cruelty to animals leads to a vengeful curse that chases his ship to an uncharted, windless sea. And there “the very deep did rot,” he says. For the creatures beneath him, he finds nothing but distaste and contempt, that “slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea.” As he watches his comrades claimed by death, relief from his burdensome curse only begins when he gazes into the sea with eyes of appreciation for what God had made. “Beyond the shadow of the ship, I watched the water snakes: they moved in tracks of shining white, and when they reared, the elfish light fell off in hoary flakes. Within the shadow of the ship, I watched their rich attire: blue, glossy green, and velvet black, they coiled and swam; and every track was a flash of golden fire. O happy living things! No tongue their beauty might declare: a spring of love gushed from my heart, and I blessed them unaware!”1

As Genesis unfolds the arrangement of God's creation, now here – at the fifth day – we're introduced to these “happy living things.” Beneath the starry heavens, as the waters under the firmament have been gathered into the seas, God declares: “Let the waters swarm with swarmers of living souls!” (Genesis 1:20). God has a vision and a purpose for the waters of the world, and it's for them to teem with life aquatic. “So God created the great sea monsters, and every living soul that glides, with which the waters abounded, according to their kinds,” we read (Genesis 1:21). From big to little, not a thing that lives in the water is left out of this picture, as simple and short on words as it might be. This is the first time Genesis introduces anything that moves of its own accord – because not everything in the sea does, but plenty of it chooses to move. “Now, for the first time,” said one old bishop, “an animal was created which possessed life and sensation.”2 They're living souls – they've got appetite and desire, sensation and animation. They live and move and have their being in the God who made them, who put them in the waters and told them to teem and swarm and move every which way, according to their kind!

And what incredible things God put there, in all their rich attire.3 His creative work began at the tiniest level, with zooplankton, the tiniest little water creatures like foraminifera and copepods. Foraminifera aren't exactly animals, even by modern terms. They're tiny amoebas that secrete hard shells inside their own protoplasm. No bigger than a grain of sand, they reach out their gooey arms beyond their walls to snag dinner – tinier critters like diatoms, or dead phytoplankton. And when we reached the Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in all the ocean, at pressures beyond our imagining, we found foraminifera waiting for us. Then, over thirteen thousand species of copepods – little crustaceans, so small their whole bodies are see-through. But when God told them to “increase and multiply” (Genesis 1:22), they took it to heart – or would have, but they're too tiny to need hearts. Feeding on bacteria and algae, there are more copepods than any other multi-celled critter in the sea.

God kicked things up a notch when he made coral – over two thousand species' worth alive today. These tiny creatures are polyps, tiny cylinders with mouths and tentacles reaching up and out to prey on copepods by night. Of course, since their mouths aim up, they have to exude little layers of slime to catch unwanted particles and just slough it off. But in many kinds of coral, each polyp also secretes an exoskeleton of calcium carbonate at its base; and since they live in colonies of identical polyps, these merge together to form elaborate structures. In some places, over thousands and thousands of years, coral exoskeletons have built layer upon layer unto huge reefs – massive ecosystems, bastions of life. Near Australia, the Great Barrier Reef, stretching fourteen hundred miles, can be seen from outer space. These reefs provide habitats for a quarter of all ocean life.

God also made coral's cousin, the jellyfish. In them, the polyps take on a mature stage called a medusa, which mostly floats and swims freely despite its soft body. Without a hard shell, they rely on their flexible skeletons of jelly-like mesoglea sandwiched between inner and outer skin layers. On their undersides, they've got plenty tentacles covered in cells called nematocytes – coral polyps have those, too. These are exploding cells with little tubes inside that, in less than a thousandth of a millisecond, can strike with a paralyzing toxin. It's how they hunt and defend themselves. God gave them this incredible way to live as they float with all their colorful otherworldliness through the sea. Steer clear, though, of the Australian box jelly and its dozens of tentacles nine feet long. Usually they won't do too much to you, but if it gets a really good hold on you, make your peace with God, because your heart will stop in a couple minutes, and from its touch like burning oil, you'll be ready to go.

Beyond these cnidarians, God created the mollusks – over eighty-five thousand species of them. And to some kinds, he gave the ability to make shells of calcium carbonate from their mantles, in two halves tied together at a hinge. Think clams, mussels, oysters, scallops. And take the oyster, for example. It's got a muscle and gills and a little heart, all working despite the total lack of a brain. And as they switch between male and female depending on the heat and saltiness of the water, they filter water through their gills and use little threads to grab any tiny food particles they'd like to eat. Some of these have a quirk: the insides of their shells are made of a strong, shiny material called nacre; and if something irritating gets inside, the feathered oyster rubs nacre all over it to isolate it from itself. Over time, rubbing off nacre in layers and layers, it builds beauty: a pearl. Think of it: God gave them the power to turn their irritation and frustration into something that shines!

Speaking of things with shells, there are other crustaceans beyond the copepods. God seems to love making things that look and act like crabs, with their thick chitin exoskeletons and their big claws at the ends of two of their ten legs. The pea crab's barely bigger than a copepod, but the Japanese spider crab can grow its leg span to more than twice your height. And while those are both dubbed 'true crabs,' they're related to families like the king crabs, the hermit crabs, and the yeti crabs. Those yeti crabs live beside deep-sea hydrothermal vents, which release sulfur-rich water at temperatures that could get up to several times boiling. Since no light gets down there amongst the tubeworms, God gave these blind yeti crabs filaments full of bacteria that feed off of the toxic hydrogen sulfide that's all around and use it and oxygen to chemosynthesize carbohydrates and water.

More than crabs, God made shrimp – love me some shrimp – including hundreds of species of mantis shrimp, some of which dig burrows and others live in cracks in rocks. And one is the peacock mantis shrimp, a real marvel. Up to seven inches long, God painted it with the whole rainbow – green bodies, orange legs, blue faces, and spots. They have maybe the best eyes on the planet, and not just because they shine like precious jewels. All the colors we can see, we pick up because we've got three kinds of light-receiving cone cell in our eyes. Some animals, like dogs, have just two kinds. Others, like many fish and birds, have four kinds. And these mantis shrimp? Sixteen kinds! Constantly looking around, they see the world in ways God suffers no creature to see but them. And it's a hunter, and a mighty one. It has smashing clubs on spring-loaded claws that punch faster than any animal, the same speed as some bullets. It uses them to bash through the protective shells of crabs and oysters, but it'll break out of aquariums. God put the power behind that punch!

Back to mollusks, God didn't give them all shells. He made hundreds of species of cephalopods like squids and octopus, with all their many muscular arms covered in suckers, which they can grow back if they lose 'em, and they use 'em to pull food to their beaks. God blessed them, too, with amazing camouflage skin, some able to change not just colors but patterns and textures, thanks to pigment sacs they stretch and squeeze, and a powerful nervous system to run it all. God taught them to suck in water and use it for jet propulsion – some squid can launch themselves out of the water for almost half a football field! And who could forget the power to squirt ink as a screen or even a decoy so they can flee danger? In the low-oxygen waters, God put the vampire squid, with its dark body, glowing eyes, webbed arms, and lines to reel in fish. Then there's the colossal squid that can weigh over a thousand pounds, and the giant squid that can get over forty feet long, maybe sixty.

And then God made fish, over thirty-three thousand living species of fish, with fins and tails and maybe scales, with gills and hearts and stomachs and livers, with mouths and eyes, and so many different wonderful colors! Even our everyday goldfish, a kind of carp selectively bred in China over centuries to get this way, just brings out the tiny possibilities God gave it. God made herrings and anchovies, perch and bass and bluefish, angelfish and tilapia, cod and haddock, salmon and trout, pick and pickerel, tuna and mackerel. He made anglerfish, these deep-sea swimmers of wrinkles and spikes and massive jaws full of dreadful fangs, and from its head it dangles a bulb full of bacteria that use a special enzyme to give off light, which it uses to wait for unsuspecting prey to let their curiosity get the better of them. There are Arctic cod, into whose blood God put glycoproteins that act as a natural antifreeze. For sheer beauty, God made the mandarinfish, a bright blue swirled with vivid orange. And God made eels and sharks – we can't get enough of the 350 species of sharks, so we gave 'em a whole week. The great white shark is an incredible predator, though it rarely attacks us.

God even put some mammals like us in the water, cetaceans like dolphins and whales, breathers of air with lungs and not gills. Think of the humpbacks and blue whales, and the size God gave them – some get nearly a hundred feet long and weigh two hundred tons – but also the music God taught them. Between using their baleen bristles to filter krill out of the water to eat, they sing to each other. We don't know quite how they do it, but it can be hauntingly beautiful. And then the dolphins might be the smartest creatures God put in the sea. We've observed shockingly clever and creative behavior from them, even the use of natural tools; we've also seen them come to rescue other species, like beached whales – or even us, as some drowning swimmers learned.

All these countless creatures God made are as the psalmist says: “Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures beyond number” (Psalm 104:25). About 78% of the total animal biomass on earth is marine life. The first Christians could be fascinated by how differently adapted each kind of sea creature was, that “their peculiar names and different food and form and size and qualities of flesh all differ with the greatest variations from each other,” so that “to mention all these accurately is like... trying to measure the water of the sea in the hollow of the hand.”4 And when we look to the seas and rivers and lakes, and get close with the creatures that swim or jet or rest there, we begin to see how inventive God is in them all. Job insisted “the fish of the sea will declare to you... that the hand of the LORD has done this” (Job 12:8-9). And was he wrong? The blobfish is no less God's creature than the bottlenose dolphin – but in their different ways, each of them is a testimony to God's handiwork. And this same God watches over all their food chains he set them in. “If God has not put the sea urchin outside of his watchful care, does he not have regard for your affairs?”5

So many of these creatures, God made in part for our sake. “Fish are given to man for his use,” as they used to say.6 “Fishing is one of the oldest professions,” with roots deep into the Stone Age – there's scarcely been a day when humans haven't fished for food.7 God also made these creatures for our inspiration and instruction, as recordings of his inventiveness for us to learn from. We based the blades of our wind turbines on the pectoral fins of whales. From fish gliding through the water, we see how to build cars more streamlined and impact-resistant. From shark skin, we invent new fabrics. We're examining sea urchin spines to inspire tools that won't get dull, and the natural glue that mussels use to repair themselves is inspiring new underwater adhesives. Not to mention that mantis shrimp eyes have shown doctors new ways to see cancer cells in their earliest stages.

God invented all these creatures for our livelihood and for our inspiration! But more than that, sea life exists to spread life itself, to propagate itself so that there's no lifeless nook or cranny within the aquatic domain. “Be fruitful,” God told them, “and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas” (Genesis 1:22). Some parts are filled more densely than others – a thriving coral reef is more packed with living souls than the Challenger Deep – but nonetheless, the waters and all that's in them has been obeying God's word, down to our day. More than that, sea life exists for God's glory. “While some things were created for our use, others had this purpose: that the power of their Creator might be proclaimed.”8 “Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps!” (Psalm 148:7). Just by being well what they are, just by obeying in living by the instincts he shaped in them, they worship with their very lives, giving God glory, though it's up to us to put their praises into words.

From the days when God's people were oppressed in Egypt, they lived off of fish (Numbers 11:5). Passing through the sea, they built God a temple not far from Jerusalem's Fish Gate, but saw it fall victim to empires that overfished the world: “You made mankind like the fish of the sea,” one prophet complained, but Babylon “brings all of them up with a hook” (Habakkuk 1:14-15). And we know too well that Death itself treats us all “like fish that are taken in an evil net” (Ecclesiastes 9:12). Even after returning from exile, things weren't going swimmingly – because Death was still fishing with its evil net. Yet prophets looked for a day when even the deadest waters would teem with “fish of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea” (Ezekiel 47:10).

And so God sent forth Jesus Christ, who commanded fish to bring him things (Matthew 17:27), who bade fish swim into Peter's nets (Luke 5:6), who multiplied fish for crowds who came to hear him teach (Mark 6:41-43). Jesus surfaced a gospel more priceless than the rarest of pearls any oyster ever made (Matthew 13:45-46). And he looked at the world as a grand sea full of fish who ought be caught, not by death, but by good news. “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind” (Matthew 13:47), so “follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).

Letting himself be caught by Death's evil net, he ripped a hole through it at last, and surfaced with new life and glory to share. And to prove his resurrection, he both ate fish and served fish (Luke 24:42-43; John 21:13). So, from the earliest times, Christians thought of the fish as a symbol of Jesus – after all, the Greek word for 'fish' was an acronym for the sentence 'Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior' (though that was convenient). And so, from the second century on, Christians drew the sign of the fish, and spoke of Jesus as their Great Fish, the One to whom all the life of the sea pointed. Christians, they said, were conformed to Christ the Fish when they were baptized: “We, being little fishes as Jesus Christ is our Great Fish, begin our life in the water.”9 Some of us are bigger, some of us are smaller; some of us range over great distances in life, others of us have more specialized ecosystems; some of us thrive in bright shallows, others of us plunge to darkest depths to shine our light – but none of this diversity among us Christian fish is any cause for shame; instead, it brings glory to God.

Camouflage in the sea warns us Christians to be vigilant in life: “We should be more aware of those who extend the tentacles of their deceit far and wide, or those who assume various shapes.”10 Predators in the deep show us how not to live, especially because predators are so frequently prey to a bigger fish – and isn't there always a bigger fish? Live by the gobbling up, die by the gobbling up – so don't play the game of greed.11 But over two thousand years of Christian history, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit has built up the Church like a Great Barrier Reef for souls, traditions and testimonies laid down generation after generation as a glorious habitat for all and sundry. Here we make our home, while we look for yet-happier seas on high, to swim on tracks of shining white.

Even when our sojourn brings irritation and sorrow, we're given grace enough to rub all over our vices like nacre till they're converted to pearls of the gospel, of great price indeed. And like the mantis shrimp, seeing more with eyes of faith than the world can possibly know, we're equipped with “weapons of righteousness for the right [claw] and for the left” (2 Corinthians 6:7), punching with “divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4) – so crack the devil a good one! For we strengthen ourselves off heavenly seafood, feed on the flesh of the Great Fish. As one early Christian put it: “Faith led in every place and provided food, an immense clean Fish from a spring, which a pure virgin had caught; and she offered this on every occasion for friends to eat.”12 Fed by the fish-food faith serves with bread and wine, may we be more wise than any octopus or dolphin, but teem ever so abundantly in love, singing our whalesong of gladsome praise. For, to quote Coleridge once more, “he prayeth best who loveth best all things both great and small: for the dear God, who loveth us, he made and loveth all.”13 Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

All These Shining Orbs

Two years ago, truckers from our very own county lugged pieces of gargantuan equipment out to California, where they set out by barge for South America. The pieces belonged to the James Webb Space Telescope, which launched on Christmas Day 2021. Astronomers waited with bated breath as it worked its way to its destination, orbiting the sun in parallel with Earth. And a little over a year ago, the first full-color images generated from its data were published. Aimed deep into a tiny spot of sky, it saw thousands of galaxies. It stunned the world with vivid glimpses of neighbor planets and far-off nebulae. It was an immensity of beauty we'd never seen before.

Humans have, for all reasons, been gazing up longer than we remember. Archaeologists have found stargazing structures from the Stone Age all over the place. Abraham's childhood neighbors had a basic level of scientific astronomy – they studied stars moving in paths above, watched sun and moon – but they used it for horoscopes and idolatry. Every known culture of his day saw stars as spiritual controllers of life on earth below, while the sun and moon were bowed to as important gods. “They worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). No wonder Moses feared “lest you raise your eyes to heaven and, when you see the sun and the moon and the stars..., you be drawn away and bow down and serve them” (Deuteronomy 4:19).

When Genesis switches from narrating God fixing the world's formlessness to him filling the world's void, we hear first of God installing these very things in the expanse. But to help Israel from getting carried away, the scripture undersells what God has made, not even naming 'sun' and 'moon' lest those be taken as divine names, making the stars an afterthought, “emphasizing that sun, moon, and stars are not divinities.”1 They're not gods; they're things, lamps to light this world God made, and created by him to serve his purposes (Genesis 1:14-15).

What are they for? Three basic things. First, they're there to maintain and regulate the flow of time, and help human life to find organization and direction (Genesis 1:14, 18b) – a balance of “summer and winter, seedtime and harvest,” and an aid for navigation and so much more. Second, these things above us are vessels to “give light upon the earth” (Genesis 1:15, 17). Having already invented light, now God makes lamps for sharing it reliably with us. And third, these things are there “to rule over the day and over the night” (Genesis 1:16, 18a; cf. Psalm 136:7-9). From our earthly point of view, sun and moon dominate their respective realms, shepherding these creations called 'day' and 'night' to stay in their structured bounds.2 But they do it as ministers of the authority of God, obliged to serve the earth below, to rule the skies for our sake.3

Not until the gospel's spread had chased away our chronic tendency to worship these rulers of the day and night sky did God let us begin taking a closer look at these wonders – from ancient star catalogues and medieval observatories, to Galileo's gaze through his improved telescope, all the way up through the space probes and landers and crewed missions and space telescopes of our modern era. And as God permits us to step forth and explore his creation beyond our lovely little marble, we could never have imagined what we've already found.

The Bible tells us that “light it sweet, and it is pleasant to the eyes to see the sun” (Ecclesiastes 11:7), “the eye of the world, the joy of the day, the beauty of the heavens, the charm of nature, and the most conspicuous object in creation,” as one Christian teacher called it.4 The sun, on average about 93 million miles away, is big, over a hundred times wider than earth and containing more than 99% of all the mass in the solar system. It's just the right size and distance for Earth to be habitable. Pulled together by gravity pressurizing unimaginable clouds of hydrogen gas until the heat and density force the hydrogen to start fusing into helium, this nuclear fusion reactor throws off light at scales we can't fathom. In every trillionth of a second, the energy it hurls out all around could power society for five thousand years.5 Of course, it takes a hundred thousand years for any photon to get from the sun's core to its surface – but from there, it's just an eight-second trip to get here. I think one old saint said it best: “The greater the sun is shown to be, so much the more marvelous is the revelation of the Creator!”6

And then “consider how God has cheered the darkness of the night by the bright rays of the moon.”7 A quarter as wide as the earth, it's got just over 1% of Earth's mass, and a sixth of our surface gravity. Scientists' best guess on where God got the stuff to build the moon from is that materials got blown off the early earth in a massive collision with another planet. Without any atmosphere to speak of, the moon's rocky, dusty surface is pockmarked with craters a-plenty. Under a quarter-million miles away, on average, it can dominate the night sky to our eyes. It's close enough that it's the only natural off-planet surface where human feet have yet trod – and we hope to send more in the next few years. And not only does the moon's influence cause the tides that keep Earth's seas from stagnating, but it also keeps Earth's axis steady enough to stabilize our climate.

But our planet isn't alone. Our closest twin is Venus, over 35 million miles off. This morning and evening star is the brightest thing in our sky after sun and moon. It's a rocky world about our size and shape, but crushed under clouds of sulfuric acid, leading to atmospheric pressure nearly a hundred times what we've got here and average heat over 850 degrees. Not a popular vacation spot. The other way, we find our planetary brother Mars, right now over 217 million miles away. A smaller planet than ours, with gravity barely more than a third what we feel, its thin carbon-dioxide atmosphere rests over its rusty soil. Yet it's got mountains that pat Everest on the head, canyons that eat ours for lunch. Robots we've sent have sent us pictures of, literally, another world.

Venture further, past the asteroid belt, and you'll find gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. You could cram over seven hundred Earths into Saturn, and thirteen hundred inside Jupiter. But while their cores are high pressure, most of the planet's total volume is a light and low-density gas. God gave Jupiter a storm big enough to swallow Earth, and Jupiter's moon Io hundreds of active volcanoes; he gave Saturn those rings of ice and dust, 170,000 miles wide, and gave Saturn's moon Titan an ice sheet covering oceans of water and ammonia. Each hoards its collection of moons – we've counted 95 for Jupiter, 146 for Saturn.

And then there are a few more planets, and poor Pluto, the dwarf planet in a binary system with one of its five known moons, though Pluto itself isn't even as big as our moon. Pluto falls in the Kuiper Belt, a region of icy objects and dwarf planets at the edge of our solar system – Pluto's not alone. Then there are comets, ice-coated objects knocked onto crazy oval orbits that send them through our backyard now and then. When they get close enough, the solar wind outgasses streams of vapor, hence the tails millions of miles long streaming behind.

But beyond our solar system, which we once thought was basically the whole universe, already by late Roman days, some began to guess that “many of the stars... are equal to the sun, or even greater, but they seem small because they have been set further away.”8 Little did they know! Our sun is a main sequence star, fusing hydrogen into helium; but a big enough star late in its life cycle it might start fusing helium into carbon, and ultimately – along a process called the alpha ladder – combining more and more heavy elements into things like oxygen and more. The carbon in our bodies, the oxygen we breathe – God built those in the heart of a star!

And most stars – not all, but most – are part of a larger system called a galaxy, with gravity working over great distances to bind stars, loose gas, dust, and dark matter into these somewhat cohesive swirls of light. Our solar system is a speck in the Orion Arm of the galaxy we call the Milky Way, and it wasn't until a century ago that we realized there even were other galaxies. Being tens of thousands of light-years across, our Milky Way contains more than the hymn's “million worlds in rhythmic sway” – at least ten billion, maybe up to four hundred billion stars. And some have ten thousand times as many – so, since we've counted and named tens of thousands of galaxies, and suspect there to be a couple hundred billion out there, that's at least a few sextillion stars. Yet our God “determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” (Psalm 147:4)!

We sit a couple dozen thousand light-years from our galactic center, which – as in many galaxies – is centered on a supermassive black hole, as heavy as four million suns, with maybe some smaller black holes nearby. One of the most mysterious objects in the universe, a black hole is the place where, thanks to big enough stars collapsing, gravity's gotten so intense, warping the fabric of space and time itself, to the point that, anywhere inside the event horizon, not even light is strong enough to escape. We can only guess what's inside a black hole. Some secrets, God is still reserving for himself, though he may share them in time.

To look out there and take this all in, it summons us to a profound humility before the universe. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). If the psalmist asked that based on what his naked eyes could see, how much more now should we be amazed that we little things on this puny planet catch God's attention? But we do – the God who made these things loves us, knowing your name no less than each of the sextillion stars! We're powerless to master it all, as powerless as was Job when God asked: “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?” (Job 38:31-33). We know a bit more about those ordinances of physics now, but “the grandeur of the heavens transcends the measure of the human intellect.”9

Job confessed that the Lord “does great things beyond searching out, and marvelous things beyond number” (Job 9:10). Every year we prove it more and more – and it's extravagant, excessive! For our sake, for our life, God didn't have to make so many stars we wouldn't even be able to notice until now, or the ones we've still yet to see. He didn't have to make distant galaxies. Nor did he have to make so many other planets, or give them such fascinating features. But he made all his works dazzling and plentiful and unaccountably great!

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of his hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. … Their voice goes out through all the earth, their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 19:1-3). “Burning sun with golden beam..., silver moon with softer gleam,” and stars, everything from thinnest cosmic gas to the most frightful black hole, in the solemn silence of space these wordless preachers proclaim – unavoidably to all on earth – a testimony trumpeting terrific truth, a gospel greater than galaxy upon galaxy. They themselves are dazzling, but as Bildad mentions, “even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in God's eyes” (Job 25:5). And so, in the end, “the contemplation of the sun is incapable of satisfying us,” and neither are all the countless galaxies and their contents.10 “Do you see the sky and marvel at its beauty, at the variety of the stars, at its utter brilliance?” asked one old bishop. “Don't stop there, but lead your mind on to their Creator.”11 “For from the greatness and beauty of created things, their Original Author is seen by analogy” (Wisdom 13:5). And this is the gospel, because the Original Author “who arranged the stars in the heavens, who lit up the great lights,” is none other than our Savior Jesus Christ.12

And not only do they show us his glory, unveil his extravagance, and humble us in awe and wonder, but they attest to his wisdom and faithfulness in creation. God's promise “shall endure... as long as the sun before me; like the moon, it shall be established forever” (Psalm 89:36-37). “Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above join with all nature in manifold witness to God's great faithfulness, mercy, and love” – don't we sing that? So “sing the wisdom that ordained the sun to rule the day; the moon shines full at God's command, and all the stars obey.” And the more our telescopes take in, the more astronomers find and share with the world, the more “new wonders crowd the eye, the ear, and faith grows firmer every year: 'My God is there controlling!'”

Ours is a God of wonders, who made unimaginable vistas for us to see, if only we'd look up in newer and newer ways from this terrestrial ball to all these shining orbs above. But if we should turn our telescopes to the heaven of space, no less should we aim the telescopes of our hearts at the spiritual firmament God put in place.

“The LORD God,” says the psalmist, “is a sun” (Psalm 84:11). The sun was long taken as a fit (though partial) image for God “by its full light that does not change with the days.”13 And the prophets predicted that “the Sun of Righteousness shall rise” (Malachi 4:2). In this vision, they were seeing Jesus Christ, “whom the other sun [in the sky] foreshadowed.”14 It was as an image of him that “in the heavens... God has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and like a strong man runs its race with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat” (Psalm 19:4-6). So Jesus is the strong-man Bridegroom tabernacled in God's heaven, with nothing hidden from the warmth of his love. He's the source of light and life, without whom we'd all freeze and die, for he “in rising enlightened the whole world.”15 As Earth naturally orbits the sun, so our world is held in place by the gravity of God's glory in Christ – much as we'd like to be a rogue planet, to our detriment. And as the physical sun emits vastly more radiation than Earth can receive, so Christ's super-abundant grace lavishly outstrips a sinful world's needs. There is grace enough beaming off of Christ in any trillionth of a second to save all who've ever lived!

So if Christ is the sun of the spiritual firmament, what's the moon? The Church! The moon is the next brightest thing in our sky, not because of anything done in the moon, but simply because it reflects light it gets from the sun. Just so, “not from her own light does the Church gleam, but from the light of Christ.”16 The moon shares this reflected sunlight with the darkened earth when the earth can't see the sun directly; “so also the Church, when the light of Christ has been received, illuminates all who live in the night of ignorance.”17 The moon stabilizes Earth's climate and moves her tides to keep her seas from stagnating, and so is the Church a pillar of stability as she tugs the tides of culture to stall stagnation, whether the world sees it or not. Like the moon, the Church waxes and wanes over its history of “persecution and peace..., weakened by the desertion of some..., replenished by the witness of her martyrs.”18 The Church is, sadly, sometimes eclipsed when the world gets between her and the sight of Christ – and such a spiritual lunar eclipse can only darken the Church, making her of least use to the world. Then there are times she herself gets in the way of Christ: such a spiritual solar eclipse darkens the world. Yet, thanks be to God, even a rare total solar eclipse can't block out the solar corona or the sun's heat from reaching Earth; and neither – even at the Church's worst – has she ever so fully managed to eclipse Christ as to utterly choke off his light and love from reaching those who wish to see him, know him.

So what other stars dot the spiritual firmament more distantly? The prophet was told that “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness shall shine like the stars forever” (Daniel 12:3). So already from the earliest years, Christians understood that “the disposition of the stars corresponds to the arrangement and rank of the righteous and godly men who keep the law and the commandments of God.”19 Those believers who've gone before us, especially those who excelled – Moses, the prophets, Peter and Paul, other great heroes of faith – they're stars we look to, stars we can navigate by. Paul pointed out that “star differs from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41), “and so each of the saints, according to his [or her] own greatness, sheds his light upon us.”20 We're meant to take cues from them all.

But you too, if you're in Christ, have even now begun to “shine like lights in the world,” like stars in the sky (Philippians 2:15). And when finally united fully to the Christ who balances all the galactic superclusters on the barest point of his love, then “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). So look up! Look and consider all the worlds of wonder his hands have made. Look up and see the mystery of Christ and the Church, look up to the saints who've gone before. Look up and learn to shine, shine, shine. Let no weakening gravity dissipate your fervor for holiness; let no black hole of hell drag you out of place and swallow you you-know-not-where; let no intervening cloud of dust shield the world from your steady circuit. Conformed to Christ our Sun, following the lead of the churchly moon, go forth to blaze wisdom and righteousness and holy love wherever God places you along your pathway into the sky. Thanks be to the Maker of the Stars!  Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

God and His Great Green Thumb

It was a warm June morning in Kenya, and I was in my Father's world. Outside the guesthouse where I and my fellow student missionaries were staying, past the palm trees and the ferns, there was a cluster – small, when I think back on it – of banana trees. I claimed them as my personal garden of prayer in the early morning. Strolling through the grove alone, I felt like the first man in Eden. It was under one particular banana plant that I'd pray, its leaves dwarfing my arm, its green fruit jutting outward in up-curving bunches from the pseudostem from which dangled the vivid purple banana-heart, looking to me like nothing so much as a piece of alien botany transplanted to our earth. Yet it was God's very earthly creation, stranger than I'd ever imagined. And through the wide leaves curling overhead, the morning light blazed down on me with gusto. There, beneath the banana tree, I could feel the presence of the Maker of the bananas, who'd crafted this plant as one of his countless thisworldly wonders. Seldom in my life have I prayed like I prayed beneath the bananas, shaking in the Spirit and praising God with all my soul. It felt like a natural-grown shrine, the perfect place to meet with the God who's always fruitful.

Over these past weeks, we've been leafing through Genesis to meet this ever-fruitful God as he creates a world from nothing – the whole universe, sprung into being at his word. Revealing himself to his creation in light, he forms the earth itself into having three domains, three broad regions of habitat: the sky overhead, the watery seas, and the dry land. But at this point, the sky and sea and soil aren't quite yet ready to host living creatures. They've got defined shape, but before they're hospitable environs, they need to be furnished and ornamented. So God's got to enrich them with the first kinds of life, and to paint new colors onto the canvas of his creation.

So what does God say next? “Let the earth vegetate vegetation... on the earth!” Let it sprout sprouts, let it green with all the greenery it can muster! And God gives instructions for two basic kinds that the Hebrews recognized. First is “the herb that seeds seed.” These non-woody plants sow their own seed directly. And then there is “the tree that makes fruit, fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself” (Genesis 1:11). For the sake of its seed, these woody plants produce a matching kind of fruit that contain the seeds from which more of it will grow. That was God's command, and the earth took to it beautifully. “The earth put forth vegetation: the herb that seeds seed according to its kind, and the tree that makes fruit whose seed is in itself according to its kind” (Genesis 1:12). And as the earth did, “God saw that it was good,” just like when the three realms were finished. So “there was evening, and there was morning,” marking the end to “a third day” (Genesis 1:13).

God's Word declared “a law of nature... with the intent to prescribe... a continuous succession of plants.”1 And as Jews and Christians read Genesis, they pictured Earth here as something like God's Bride, and his Word intimately fills her again and again with life. One early Christian poet preached that “the voice of the command was [Earth's] Husband, and it began to produce new growth from within its womb according to the command of the Lord, its Master. … Her womb was sufficient, and her Husband filled it with every good thing... She received it from him, and her children multiplied along every coast, and every day she produces from the gift that was so abundant in her.”2 And so, even still, “what provides us with the harvest of fruits is not the effort of the farmers... but, before all these, it is the word of God, the same as was directed to it in the beginning.”3

All these different kinds of things, God produced from the earth, calling them forth into the world as a covering of beauty and vitality. And to them, by his instruction, he gave them vegetative life and power, a form that lets them be nourished and grow and reproduce after their own kinds in accordance with his word.4 Early Christians were already in awe at how God had made such a “diversified beauty of seeds and plants and fruits.”5 If only they could have taken a look through a microscope, how much more they could have seen to thank God for!

Because to look at the tiniest cell of a plant, even the simplest and most basic plant, is to see inside it something you don't have in yours. It's a cellular organ called a chloroplast, a little microscopic body that scientists think might've once been it's own creature – a cyanobacterium – that got gobbled up and domesticated. Chloroplasts are filled with a pigment called chlorophyll – that's what gives them a green color. And they use chlorophyll to trap energy from light and use it to power a process called photosynthesis. It splits a water molecule to steal an electron and combines the remnants with carbon dioxide to – (and I'm simplifying) – make a carbohydrate, a sugar or starch storing chemical energy in a form the rest of the plant cell can metabolize. And what's left over is a byproduct called oxygen. The plant's got no use for that, but you sure do! Before plants, you wouldn't have been able to breathe the air of this planet God made. But God gave plants oxygenic photosynthesis so you can!6

Like Genesis says, most of the plants you'd recognize live on the land, starting with brytophytes like hornworts, liverworts, and mosses. A moss is a tiny plant with simple leaf-like structures just one little cell thick. There they get all their water and nutrients. Moss has no roots, but they anchor themselves with little threads called rhizoids. They spread by spores instead of seeds, the same as clubmosses and ferns do. But God made clubmosses and ferns to be vascular plants, which means they've also got specialized tissues like phloem and xylem arranged in a tube system to carry nutrients, waters, and sugars up and down throughout the plant's body – in other words, God gave them stems, a feature he didn't give to moss in its simplicity.

And on their leaves, if you look closely enough, you'll see these little pores called stomata. Some plants have them on one side of the leaf, others on both sides. But cells on each side will press the pores closed or pull them open based on what the plant detects about the environment. These pores are how they take in carbon dioxide, but whenever they're open, water vapor leaks out as wet inner cells are exposed to the drier air. So there's this constant dance of opening and closing pores to balance carbon intake with water loss.7 But because of this, even plants as simple as mosses help fill the sky with water vapor that will come back to them again as rain.8

To other kinds of vascular plants, God gave another gift: instead of rhizoids that had just one purpose, he gave them roots. And not only do roots hold the plant in place, but they can draw nutrients right from the soil. After all, a plant needs more than carbon and water and light. It needs iron for light absorption, phosphorus for DNA and membranes, nitrogen to make chlorophyll.9 And so most plants with roots make a deal with fungus that lives underground: the mycorrhizal fungi will scavenge nutrients like nitrogen out of the soil and fix it into forms the plants can use, and in return the plants will photosynthesize some extra sugars and fats to feed to the fungi at their roots.10 Isn't that symbiosis a truly ingenious strategy? Our wonderful God came up with that idea for them!

Other vascular plants include reeds, sedges, and grasses. You might have seen reeds growing by the water. You might even know about some sedges, like water chestnuts and papyrus. But it's grasses we know a lot better. They're a great big family of flowering vascular plants that put down roots and spread by seeds. Of course, there are the kinds of grass you might find out past our church pavilion, or in your home lawn – plants like bluegrasses, ryegrasses, bentgrasses, and fescues. Then there are the bamboos, over fifteen hundred species. But make way for the cereal grasses, like all the different kinds of wheat, barley, oat, rye, rice, even corn.

Most grasses and ferns are herbaceous, which just means they aren't woody, so the xylem tissue in their stems stays soft, and most of them only grow above ground seasonally. Banana trees, though they're called trees, are actually herbaceous. So are sunflowers, which can turn toward the sun in anticipation even before the sunrise each day.11 And lilies and orchids are perennial herbs whose reproductive structures visibly flower, too – and God must love them, because he made four times as many species of orchid as he did of mammals!12 But woody plants can show forth flowers, too – e.g., a rosebush. One saint of old, Ambrose, pondered: “How can I describe the violets with their shades of purple, the lilies of brilliant white, and the roses with their shades of red? How describe the landscape painted with flowers...? Our eyes revel in this pleasant spectacle as that fragrance which fills us with its sweetness is spread far and wide.”13 After all, didn't Jesus say the commonest wildflowers were given their colors by God, so much so even King Solomon can't compete (Matthew 6:29)?

And then God made the legume family, which includes not just alfafa and clover but also peas, chickpeas, beans – even peanuts and licorice. God made the nightshade family, which includes eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, and chili peppers. God made the amaryllis family, which includes not just daffodils but onions and garlic. He made the cabbage family, which has over four thousand species, just one of which is the species we know as cabbage and cauliflower and broccoli and Brussels sprouts and kale – we bred it like we bred dogs. God made the celery family, which includes a bunch of plants we use as leaves or as seeds like cumin and dill, but also carrots where we eat the taproot. And then there are trees, those taller perennial woody plants. Some, such as conifers like the pines or spruces or firs you might like to see at Christmas, just drop their seeds naked into the world. But others turn the whole reproductive organ into something they drop off, and then it's called a fruit. That's what an acorn is, what an apple is, what an orange is, but also what a strawberry and eggplant and tomato are. (They say knowledge is knowing a tomato's a fruit, and wisdom is still not putting it in your fruit salad.)

God taught those trees how to do that! And he taught most of them, too, to respond to the approach of winter by turning down chlorophyll production and living off their chemical energy reserves until it makes sense to start photosynthesizing again in the spring. The loss of chlorophyll is what lets other pigments shine through – and so the leaves change color. And often the leaves are then just let go.14 That's why we call autumn 'the fall.'

God created all these things with such inventive intricacy! He didn't have to make 380,000 species of plant, but he did. He didn't have to make the flowers so beautiful, but in many cases he did. He didn't have to make each cell so complex, but he did. He did it because he's inventive, and he's a great artist, and his joy bursts forth in superabundance.15 And so God gave plants proteins that can tell what wavelengths of light they get, and adjust the rate of stem growth accordingly. And so God gave plants ways to detect whether they're near related plants, so they behave less competitively. God even taught some plants to release chemicals to attract predators of the pests that prey on their leaves.16 I think St. Basil said it best, when he preached on this passage, that “I want the marvel of creation to gain such complete acceptance from you that, wherever you may be found and whatever kind of plants you may chance upon, you may receive a clear reminder of the Creator. … Even one blade of grass is sufficient to occupy all your intelligence completely in the consideration of the art which produced it.”17

Think about that! How often do you go outside? When you do, how often do you walk on a lawn or in the field? Underneath your feet, how many hundreds or thousands of blades of grass do you press down with each step? And yet just one of those blades of grass, if you got down and really began to look at it, would amaze you and satisfy your mind, if only you would look at it and really see it as God's carefully crafted creation. And if that's true of everyday grass, isn't it true of every flower, every tree, every fruit and vegetable and nut, every patch of algae or moss? All I want is for you to get that sense of the marvel of creation, for you to realize that you can and should be reminded by every plant that there is a God who is great and good and generous, a God of wisdom and art and beauty and delight, a God who summons life and celebrates life and showers gifts on what lives. Oh, if only we were to grow in the grace of that God!

God cares for all these plants he wonderfully made. “He prepares rain for the earth; he makes grass grow on the hills” (Psalm 147:8). “You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it..., softening it with showers and blessing its growth” (Psalm 65:9-10). And he calls it beautiful and good when plants flourish. He made them in part for the benefit of the living creatures he planned to make next, including us. “To every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food,” he said (Genesis 1:30). And not only food, not only materials, but herbs for spices and medicines.18 Early Christians had the conviction that “there is not one plant without worth, not one without use,”19 and that “plants and trees were created for our enjoyment.”20 But even more than all that, first and foremost plants exist to glorify God: “Let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD (Psalm 96:12-13), simply by flourishing as what they are. (And just imagine how different the view from our church would be if there were no plants from door to the horizon.)

And in doing so, they hold up a mirror to ourselves. Like the plant world, humanity is a diversified beauty, gifted and cared for by God beyond all apparent reason, whom he wants to flourish for the sake of his goodness and his glory. But we're also like them in being fragile: “As for man, his days are like grass: he flourishes like a flower of the field, for a wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16). “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field,” yet “the grass withers, the flower fades” (Isaiah 40:6-7). And in these days of our fragile existence, we have the potential – though not the guarantee – of being fruitful in one way or another. Yet not a one of us is without worth.

When God called a nation, he led them “into a plentiful land, to enjoy its fruits and its good things” (Jeremiah 2:7). In fact, to this day, the promised land is famed for “its remarkable abundance of plant diversity” and is “one of the nutritional centers of the whole earth.”21 So it was fitting that God cast Israel as “a choice vine, wholly of pure seed” (Jeremiah 2:21). He “brought a vine out of Egypt... and planted it” in the promised land, where it “took deep root and filled the land” until even mighty cedars were shaded by its branches (Psalm 80:8-10). The teaching of priests and prophets was given “like showers upon the herb” (Deuteronomy 32:2), while the rule of faithful kings would “make grass sprout from the earth” (2 Samuel 23:4). Through kings and priests and prophets, God would “be like the dew to Israel,” allowing them to “flourish like the grain..., blossom like the vine” (Hosea 14:5-7). And with these gifts, Israel could photosynthesize from the Lord's light, be nourished by his word, grow in grace, live up to her mission, and fructify – that is, bear fruit – for the life of the world.

So, as Israel lived off the greenery of the land and worshipped in their cedar-beamed temple toward the acacia-wood box at which God touched earth, a person trusting in God would be “like a tree planted by water” whose “leaves remain green” and who “doesn't cease to bear fruit” all year round (Jeremiah 17:8). In fact, the righteous would “flourish like a palm tree and grow like a cedar... planted in the House of the LORD and “still bear fruit in old age..., ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright” (Psalm 92:12-15). But they were warned that if they were unfruitful, they'd be like a grass “blighted before it is grown” (Isaiah 37:27), for “such are the paths of all who forget God” (Job 8:13). And God's people forgot their God (Judges 3:7).

And so, when the nation had withered like a figless fig tree (cf. Mark 11:12-14), the very Word of God that told the earth to vegetate vegetation in the beginning came himself to be planted in our soil. He “grew up before the LORD like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground” (Isaiah 53:2). This “Branch of the LORD from the sawn-down stump of the kingdom was promised to bear the fruit Israel was always meant to. And he called himself “the True Vine” and invites his disciples to be his branches, abiding in him so that, through them, he can fructify for the life of the world (John 15:1-6). But then he was crowned with woven stems of spiny burnet, and pinned to olive wood to die. They guessed in this manner he'd “fade like the grass and wither like the green herb” (Psalm 37:2), not knowing what he meant when he said: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, then it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus allowed himself to be buried like a seed, for the sake of the full blossoming of the Body of Christ, of which Jesus grew as the firstfruits on the day of vegetation's birth, the third day (1 Corinthians 15:20). And now that he's blossomed in this fuller way, he meets us in his gifts of wheat and grapevine, which provide the necessary matter for bringing us into his body and his blood, his death and resurrection. It's these plants he chooses to mediate himself to us.

And so “let no one, then, despair of his conversion,” as St. Ambrose encourages us: “Wood is frequently turned to better uses. Cannot the hearts of men be likewise changed?”22 Outside of Christ, “our sinful passions... were at work... to bear fruit for death” (Romans 7:5), an evil fruit. But now we belong to the risen Christ, “that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4)! He sowed us children of the kingdom all over his worldwide field for a purpose (Matthew 13:24, 38). He sowed us to die for the sake of life. He sowed us with the intent that we should put down roots, to be anchored, that we should draw in the water of his word and have a stable dwelling place. He sowed us so that, just as so many plants have symbiosis with fungi at their roots who render nutrients accessible to the plants and who can even help plants communicate signals to one another and share resources with one another through their hidden mycorrhizal networks from root to root, we should be strengthened by God through our symbiosis with his angels, who in ways unseen to us make God's gifts available in forms we can receive, and establish networks between us to protect and encourage us in our need, serving the communion of the saints and assisting its spiritual resource-sharing in ways we daren't dream.

God planted us in this world to discern his light with spiritual sensitivity and turn toward it, unfurling the leaves of our hearts at the merest hint of Jesus. He's planted us in this world to breathe in his Spirit, opening to him the stomata of our souls. He planted us in this world to oxygenate the atmosphere of our culture with his grace and his truth. But we know, as we grow, that we're in competition with the cares and concerns of the world, those thorns that entrap our seedling lives and threaten to burden us before we can see God's sky. For “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word” (Matthew 13:22). When plants face such competition, in some cases they practice shade-tolerant behavior – learning to live with less. A lesson we need in material goods, but in the spiritual blessings of God, we can be more inspired by the plants that activate growth-promoting hormones to lengthen their stems and try to outrace their competitors to the sunshine. We, too, when bogged down with worldly concerns and comforting wealth, have to practice a similar “shade-avoidance behavior” – growing beyond them by fighting for joy, fighting for a clear view of our Savior.23

God planted us in this world to show forth the colorful goodness of his diversified beauty in us – with so many shapes, so many hues, so many kinds, yet all reflecting the beauty of the same God, the same Lord, the same Holy One. Consider that the glorious robes of greatest kings aren't so lavishly decorated as the simplest soul in Christ (Matthew 6:28-30)! He planted us, in the words of St. Basil, to “cling to our neighbors with embraces of charity like tendrils of a vine.”24 And he's planted you – yes, really, you“so that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16), the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:2), “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:10).

Now, as we hear these words, we know Jesus' teaching, that every weed that merely counterfeits the useful crop, and “every tree that does not bear good fruit, is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). And that warns us: don't be a weed that merely goes through the motions and does an impression of life in Christ; don't be a tree that succumbs to rot and disease, that yields a place in your life to the gnawing of weevils and the infectiousness of blight; don't wave your lofty leaves in the breeze while refusing to invest yourself in more, in the gospel, in the fruitfulness of righteousness and virtue and love. But it's less out of fear and more out of awe and obedience and love that disciples of Christ “strive to produce the fresh fruit of good works.”25

And Jesus promises us that the branch that abides in him, really abides in him, really is attached to him and is open to receiving what he delivers, can't help but bear fruit (John 15:5). For, in the words of Robert Grosseteste, “each of us bears seed and fruit according to our own kind when we do not slide away from the Supreme Goodness in whose image and likeness we were made, but live according to the generation and the renewal of the image of our Creator.”26

We know that we must eventually be sown in death, but “what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel” (1 Corinthians 15:37). Through the plants God made, “the resurrection is signified, for a proof of the future resurrection of all humans.”27 As our Creator and our Savior, Jesus promises that the fruitful wheat – unlike the weeds – will be harvested to the Father's lands (Matthew 13:30, 43). “I will plant them on their land,” says the Lord, “and they shall never again be uprooted” (Amos 9:15). Jesus promises that he'll plant us in a garden that never dies, where we'll never lack for anything, where we'll flourish before the face of the Father forever, if only our fruit is faithful now. So may our Creator's plantings inspire us to beautifully “bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15) and, ever and always, each day of our growth here below, to “gather fruit for eternal life” (John 4:36)! Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Communion for the Cosmos

In the very beginning of all things, there was God. And with him were his Word and his Spirit, who with him were one God. Then God created the heavens and the earth, and all things in heaven and earth were made by the Word of God. Without the Word, nothing was made that has been made. In this Word was pure life, and that life was the light of the whole cosmos, the entire creation, from the very first day it existed. This Word was the life and light of the first atoms that came together. This Word was the life and light of the first stars to be born. This Word was the life and light of the newborn earth. This Word was the life and light of the first tiny bit of biology on the planet. This Word was the life and light of all that teemed in the sea, all that crawled upon the land, all that lifted itself to the skies. This Word was the life and light of mosses and flowers and trees, of dinosaurs and mammals, and of each and every one of us. Yes, this Word was life and light for this whole great system across the world, down through time, and out into the wide universe. There's not a far-flung world out in the depths of space, galaxies away, where this very Word of our God isn't its life and its light (John 1:1-4).

And then, one day, “the True Light, which enlightens every human, was coming into the cosmos” (John 1:9). And the True Light, the True Life, the Word, came into the cosmos here, in this galaxy, in this solar system, on this planet, as one of our very species. Of all the wide-ranging sorts of things that the cosmos contains, the Word took on the flesh and blood of Homo sapiens and pitched his tabernacle in the midst of the earth and its inhabitants (John 1:14). Because this whole vast cosmos was disordered by our sin, because the cosmos had always been meant to find its unity in and through us, as we offer the cosmos to God and God to the cosmos. It was because of us, because of our failings, because of our refusal, that “the creation was subjected to futility unwillingly” (Romans 8:20), and now languishes in “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21) and is even now “groaning” (Romans 8:22). This whole vast cosmos is in need of renewal, of revival, of reconciliation.

But the Word, the True Light, has penetrated the cosmos and taken on a name, the name of Jesus Christ. And he – the Word become flesh, the True Light of God made a human life – promises that there's a way that the whole cosmos can get the life and light it needs. How? He says that the Bread of God's got to descend from heaven to give the cosmos life (John 6:33). And this Bread of Life, distributed everywhere for the life of the cosmos, can be nothing less than the flesh of Jesus Christ himself (John 6:51). Just so, the blood of Jesus Christ, shed on the cross, is the means of reconciling not just the human race, but all things anywhere in the cosmos – “for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). This is what he died to give.

And so now here we are. And we say that on our altar, by his grace, there will soon be that flesh of Christ and that blood of Christ – the bread-flesh that feeds the cosmos with life, the blood-wine that reconciles the cosmos into a new peace – so that here the True Light who is making all things new will shine in our midst. God made a beautiful cosmos, but it's hurting, it's groaning, it's in bondage to decay, and so when we pray the prayers that offer the Life of the World back to God from the altar, we remember the entire creation, the whole universe, and lovingly lead it back to God in Christ, presenting it in Christ's hands as our offering.1

God made a beautiful cosmos, and you're part of it. When you receive this bread and cup, this flesh and blood, this revival and reconciliation, you receive him not only for yourself and your individual needs, nor even only for the spiritual health of this local church; but if you partake, then – in some mysterious and mystical way that I sure don't understand – you are receiving God on behalf of each and every other thing that exists anywhere. In some way, your mouth is the mouth of the universe, receiving its God within it, furthering the communion of the cosmos within itself in and through Christ who is its True Light and its True Life. As we offer the universe up to God, we receive God for the universe. That's why one theologian said that “the world was created as... the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.”2

When you receive this with thanksgiving, distant galaxies are thankful through you, the mountains and rivers are thankful through you, the birds sing their praises through you, the lions roar with gratitude through you, the tiniest specks of life at the bottom of the sea swell with glory through you. And somehow, in some strange way, they are each and all brought closer to God their Creator, because you are the little universe that bridges the gap, when the flesh and blood of Christ pulse life through you to all creation, bridging all things into a more lively and harmonious communion. Trees and turtles, deserts and deer, oceans and eagles – all in communion through you, and through this offering, this blessing, receiving life and light that outshines all the groaning.

So let's waste no more words. The forests and fields are waiting, the clouds in the sky are waiting, the core of the earth, the sunlight, the planets with their moons, the asteroids and comets, stars and quasars, nebulae and black holes are all waiting. For the life of the world, for the communion of the cosmos, let us give and receive no less than the True Light and Life of all, “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Let us be the mouths the universe needs, for thanking and for eating and drinking glory. Oh, come to the Light!

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Sky and Sea and Soil

I can still remember one of the happiest, most contented moments of my life. It was years ago now. A friend of mine and I were spending a weekend on Mykonos, a 33-square-mile Greek island. It was early morning, shops were barely opening, I was restless. So I ventured out on my own, bought a gyro for breakfast, walked a little further on to a small stretch of beach (or what pebbly shore passed there for a beach). There I stood to eat, firm on the dry land, gazing out over the face of the Aegean Sea. Everything seemed at peace. The sky above was heavily choked with a ceiling of cloud, but the morning light was breaking through in layers of defined rays just above the stark and rugged form of an opposing island, another one of the Cyclades. The orange beams after the dawn glittered across the choppy waters. Looking up to heaven overhead, down at the dry land underfoot, out over the sea ahead, marveling at the sheer artistry of their arrangement, with a thankful heart I saw that what God had made was as really as good, as beautiful, as fearfully and wonderfully made, as Genesis promises.

In our exploration of this Genesis and its good God so far, we've ventured to the doorstep of eternity, trying to sneak a quick peak of God at home alone: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one Eternal Love. We've witnessed the grand outpouring of his love, wooing a universe into existence out of nothing by the authority and allure of his all-gracious Word. All things exist as expressions of the love of God, and to be loved by God as he shares the goodness of existence with them, and so displays the glories of his love. And yet, verse 2 shows us the face of an early universe which isn't ready yet to grasp and proclaim that glory. A raw world has a triple imperfection: it's dark, it's inhospitable, it's void of life. But all the same, the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters, over the matter of creation, nurturing and readying it for what God's about to do.

Last Sunday, we watched as God remedied the first problem, the darkness. “Let there be light!” Light is the basic medium of recognition and interaction, which makes beauty and form shine forth and helps us begin to understand the mystery of the God who saves us. And so, with the alternation of day and night, a framework is set up for the rest of God's works. Now, in today's passages ascribed to a second and then a third day, we'll find God at work addressing the second incompleteness of the raw world: the formlessness, the inhospitability.

So on the second day, we read about God wanting to divide up the waters, the same waters his Spirit has been hovering over (Genesis 1:6). He's going to divide them vertically, hoist some of them up and away from the rest that will be left behind below. And to make this separation happen, he makes what your Bible might call an 'expanse' or, if it's an older translation, a 'firmament' (Genesis 1:7). The Hebrew word refers to something that's stamped or hammered thin, like gold leaf (cf. Exodus 30:9; Isaiah 40:19). After it does its job, being lifted up to separate the waters above it from the waters below it, then he gives it the name 'Heaven' or 'Sky.' And that's the work of the second day (Genesis 1:8). Elsewhere in the Bible, this work is summed up as God “stretching out the heavens like a curtain, and spreading them like a tent to dwell in” (Isaiah 40:22).

On the third day, we read about God turning his attention to those waters left below. So far, they've covered the whole earth, but God wants to gather them together into one place, just a portion of the earth, so that dryness can appear above its surface (Genesis 1:9). That's what God does. And after he does, he gives the dry the name 'Earth' or 'Land,' while the gathered and confined waters gets the name 'Sea' – which, in Hebrew, is always plural (Genesis 1:10). Elsewhere in the Bible, this work is summed up in that, though “the waters stood above the mountains” until then, yet “at God's rebuke they fled.... The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that God appointed for them. God set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth” (Psalm 104:6-9). He “shut in the sea..., prescribed limits for it, and set bars and doors” (Job 38:8-10). So God “spread out the earth above the waters” (Psalm 136:6). From here, the third day marches on, but this is where God sees things as 'good' for the first time since day and night began (Genesis 1:10).

If we go back and listen to past generations of Christians reading these days, we can of course find plenty of wisdom. But we'll also find that, as they read their Bible, they were trying their best to use its language to work out the universe around them in a way matching the science of their time, which shaped their questions and their answers. The trouble was, the science of the fourth century wasn't the science of the thirteenth or the seventeenth or the twenty-first. In theirs, the earth was the sink drain of the universe nestled in concentric spheres for each planet, the basic elements were fire, earth, air, and water, and bugs born straight from decaying matter. In our science, none of that's true, so when we read Genesis, we naturally read it differently.

It'd be possible for us to read Genesis and use it to come up with our own vision of the natural world, which we would then pit against what today's scientific knowledge holds. It'd also be possible for us to read Genesis by correlating its details with today's scientific stories, too.1 But if history's any teacher, Christians have usually gotten into trouble whenever we've tried to either build science out of the Bible's language or to marry it too closely to whatever the latest science teaches. When scientific discovery moves on, the Christians who look silliest in retrospect aren't the ones who most cherish Scripture but the ones who stayed too loyal to yesterday's science as if it were what Scripture taught. God has better things to do in Genesis than explain for us the stuff we're supposed to go figure out for ourselves. And so, in the way he inspired people to write the Bible, he doesn't override some of the assumptions they and their audience shared about the world.

All Israel's neighbors had a common way of picturing the world around them, where “the earth is the bottom of that flat gap in the primeval waters, and over the earth arches the firmament, on which the celestial bodies move along.”2 And so Israel also pictured the earth as a flat disk “spread out” wide (Isaiah 42:5). There's “water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4), as God “has founded it upon the seas” (Psalm 24:2), even as he “hangs the earth on nothing” (Job 26:7) and “on the pillars of the earth... he has set the world” (1 Samuel 2:8). Standing on the earth, there are “heavens over your head” (Deuteronomy 28:23), stretched out like a tent curtain (Psalm 104:2) or else “spread out... hard as a cast-metal mirror” (Job 37:18) and comparable to a “pavement of sapphire stone” (Exodus 24:10), held up by “the pillars of heaven” (Job 26:11). Above this heavenly pavement is God's throne (Ezekiel 1:26) and a “sea of glass like crystal” (Revelation 4:6).3

God, in his wisdom, chooses not to meddle with that, not to give them a medical text or a blueprint for space exploration, not to replace their world picture with a medieval or modern or future world picture, because that wouldn't have been nearly as useful to them as using their natural vision to convey his supernatural message.4 So, when Abraham's hometown neighbors believed that creation really kicked off “when heaven had been separated from the earth, when the earth had been demarcated from heaven,”5 God doesn't waste time in Genesis arguing with it. So in the first three days of Genesis, nearly every work God does is to separate things: day from night, waters from waters, sea from land. And yet day interacts with night, sea and sky interact with land: “for every separation established..., an integral connection is forged,” because only after clear separations can God selectively bring things into contact in constructive ways.6

To ancient people, the sky overhead, the firmament, was like a roof, and the earth below was like a floor. The world was a great big house, a palace protected, a habitat which provides shelter, keeping chaos and danger at bay so that life could be capable of thriving within.7 People in the ancient world were terrified of the thought of it all crashing down – the firmament could crack and crumble, the sea overtake the land.8 If these separations ended, it'd be the end of the world. But Israel lived with an abiding faith that God's love for creatures is too great to let it all collapse without a purpose. And so he's built the house well, and made it a well-ordered place with systems set up to provide diverse environments ready for different kinds of life.9

The Babylonians credited the separation to Marduk: they thought that after he killed the ocean goddess Tiamat, he stretched out her skin to make a firmament that held back the half of her waters above it, and he built her head and lower half into the earth, and then used her tail to make a pulley, and handed this rope to his dad Ea, who lived in the waters under the earth and, holding this rope, would keep the universe from crashing in on itself.10 The Egyptians believed in a god named Shu who held up the sky goddess Nut to keep her away from the earth god Geb, and so held them, his children, apart by his power.11 The Greeks, imagined the Titan Atlas, whom Zeus compelled to “hold the broad sky in his hands..., and on his tireless shoulders and his head he props up heaven.”12 But Genesis says forget Marduk and Ea, forget Shu, forget Atlas – the one true God issues a simple command, and that's enough to make sky and sea and soil and keep them all in their places. Heaven and earth and sea aren't gods, but there is a God in control of all things who holds them where they belong.

And so we hear of God as “the One who by his strength established the mountains, being girded with might,” who equally “stills the roaring of the waves” (Psalm 65:6-7). We're assured that “when the earth totters,” God is the One who “keeps steady its pillars” (Psalm 75:3), and that God “placed the sand as a perpetual boundary for the sea,” so that “though its waves toss, they cannot prevail” (Jeremiah 5:22). “When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens,” says Jeremiah, “and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth; he makes lightning for the rain, and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Jeremiah 10:13). We may now say yes to his question to Job, “Do you know the balancings of the clouds?” (Job 37:16), but does that make the experience of a great storm any less incredible? As exploration expands our knowledge of how this great habitat and all its features works, Genesis reminds us that it's God's power at work through nature.

So “stop and consider the wondrous works of God!” (Job 37:14). He made the mountains. He carved the valleys. He shaped the beaches and the islands. He stirs and calms the seas. His are the storm clouds, the lightnings, the winds. Every framing of scenery – that's his artwork. Isn't it awesome? Look at the Grand Canyon, gaze across the Atlantic at sunset. Survey his work “from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam.”13 Doesn't it inspire your wonder? God made all this for our habitation!

And in his work of creation, he prophesied what was to come. If he made our habitat by dividing sky and sea and soil, how else could Israel emerge as a nation? He divided the waters again and revealed dry land in the sea for the Hebrews' escape from Egypt. Much as our nation was born out of a “separation,”14 so Israel was thereby 'separated' from the other peoples of the world (1 Kings 8:53). Foods clean to eat were 'separated' from those unclean to eat (Leviticus 11:47). In fact, the LORD said it was precisely because he'd 'separated' Israel from the peoples that they had to 'separate' their food (Leviticus 20:24-25). Then God 'separated' the Levites from the congregation of Israel (Numbers 8:14), and the priests were especially “separated to sanctify the most-holy things” (1 Chronicles 23:13). And a major job of Israel's priesthood was to guide them in 'separating' things, drawing right distinctions and boundaries in their lives: “You are to separate between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses” (Leviticus 10:10-11). “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26). Holiness was all about separations, just like the separations that made the world.15

But Ezekiel saw that in the end, the priests “have made no separation between the holy and the common, neither have they made known between the unclean and the clean” (Ezekiel 22:26). And so, where Israel was supposed to be separated from sin for God, Isaiah charged that “your iniquities have made a separation between you and God” (Isaiah 59:2). In the end, not even Ezra and Nehemiah's words could fix it. More was needed.

And so God sent his Word into the world. Just as the earth was buried in the beginning under the deep but then emerged on day three, so that was a picture of Jesus, the True Earth, resurfacing triumphantly from Death's Deep on the third day.16 This One “who fixed the first boundary, who hung the earth, who tamed the abyss, who stretched out the firmament” now became “our high priest, holy..., separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). As our High Priest, he undoes the bad separation between souls and God, and redoes the true one between souls and sin; he unwinds the former separations of diet and of race, and forges a new separation between the new humanity and the old (Mark 7:19; Ephesians 2:14). As he separates us from sin and death, we're “brought together into one congregation of faith,” one Church built on Christ the Rock; and he is the mountain whom we climb to pierce the very skies above in him.17 “Therefore... be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you” (2 Corinthians 6:17).

For “Christ has welcomed you” (Romans 15:7), and “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). He is our sky, our sea, our soil, our hospitable environment. With him as “a shelter from the storm and rain” (Isaiah 4:6), “we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling” (Psalm 46:2-3). Better than the beauties of the landscape and seascape around us, better than the glories of the firmament above, is “to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD,” of the Lord Jesus Christ, “the Holy One” who has also “made you beautiful” (Psalm 27:4; Isaiah 60:19) “with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). For if the gathering of the sea and the land is good, then (as one old saint said) “surely the gathering of such a church as this is more beautiful, from where there is sent out in our prayers to God the mingled voice of men and women and children, as of some wave beating upon the shore.”18

As the gathered church, we look back and read that “the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God” (2 Peter 3:5). But equally we know that “by the same word, the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Peter 3:7), after “the angels... come out and separate the evil from the righteous” (Matthew 13:49). When “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1), then we're promised “a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). And this habitat made new by Christ will be no less protected, hospitable, or beautiful than the first. Just the opposite, it's the promise latent in the sky and sea and soil we do now see. And “he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence” (Revelation 7:15), as they're separated from all former things.

This week, go boldly into the habitat God made for you. Rejoice in faith that he holds everything separate and connected, balancing all things and keeping so many complex systems running so that you can thrive within. And as he separated sky and sea and soil, understand that he separated your soul, set it apart from unclean things like sin and death, and for himself in Christ, to be the abiding habitation of his Spirit. He welcomes you, not just into his world that he so wondrously made, but into his life which is unmade, and into the new creation he's making even now. So be separate. Don't be fueled by unclean habits, but dine only on a clean diet of faith and hope and love, on “all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:9). Draw right distinctions and boundaries in your life, as the Wisdom of God teaches us. “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15), following your High Priest from sea to soil to sky to new creation. And may “God shed his grace on thee, / till souls wax fair as earth and air / and music-hearted sea.”19 Amen.