Sunday, October 29, 2023

Crown of Creation

I'd like to invite you to imagine a scene with me. It's set twenty-six centuries ago now.  Just past the north wall of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar has ordered a second palace to be built for himself, deeming the massive one already standing inside the city walls insufficient to do justice to his own royal majesty.1 Among the thousands of workers building for the king with all their might, I picture three laboring by carrying baskets of baked bricks to the bricklayers. And they begin to talk amongst themselves. Tarību, born and bred in Babylon, says to the others: “Can you really be surprised that this is what we do? In the beginning, the Igigi-gods did this sort of labor, until they grew weary of it and threatened to wage war against the higher gods. So the decision was made to 'create a human being, let him bear the yoke..., let man assume the drudgery of god.'2 And thus the gods imposed their slaving toil onto humans, 'and set the gods free.'3 We are merely slaves before these gods, mass-produced like these bricks from the kiln so that the gods might have leisure and joy. But the king is not like us. Is he not, like Tukulti-Ninurta, 'the eternal image of Enlil'?4 Is he not 'the image of Marduk,' and is not his 'word... just as final as that of the gods'?5 As we are slaves of the gods, and as the king is the image of a god, what could be more natural than to toil at Nebuchadnezzar's new palace, a great shrine for this living image of a god?”

The second man, Pa-Isiri, answers him: “Friend, you know that I was taken here captive from the battlefield, that I was born in Egypt. We had a saying when I was a child, that all of us men of flesh and blood are simply the cattle of the gods. Like cattle they raise us, like cattle they tend us, like cattle they view us, like cattle we may be slaughtered at their pleasure. This is only right. But the pharaoh, like your Nebuchadnezzar, he is not like us mere men. He is 'the living image of Amun.'6 To the pharaoh alone it is said by the god Amun-Re: 'You are my beloved son who came forth from my members, my image whom I have put on earth; I have given you to rule the earth in peace.'7 So what could be more natural than to build great pyramids like his slaves, we cattle who bear these burdens to serve the image of the god?”

Through all this, the third man had kept his silence. But after a pregnant pause, Shelemiah, taken into captivity from Jerusalem, begins to speak: “It is not as you say. In the beginning of the creation, when the eternal LORD God made humanity, he did not make us merely to be slaves, merely to be cattle. For God has no needs to be met. Nor did he one day make the commoner and another day form the king. For it is written: 'God created the human in his own image. In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them' (Genesis 1:27). And all heaven resounded with the cry: 'Adam – in our image, after our likeness!' (Genesis 1:26). It was not the Son of David in Jerusalem who alone heard, 'You are the image of God.' This word is for the farmer in his field, the digger in his ditch, the mother tending her children, the merchant peddling his wares, the slave dreaming of freedom, the infant drawing that precious first breath. For Adam, in whom was every human – Adam, whose life lives on in every child of every nation – was created in the image of the God higher than highest heaven, the God before whom your Marduk and Amun-Re are but dreams of dust. We humans fall but an inch short of godhood on the earth, offspring of a Creator who crowned us with glory (Psalm 8:5). What you say in awe of your mightiest kings, I dare – in the name of God – to say of myself and my children, and of you and yours. What you deny yourself in fear and trembling, I call you freely and openly, in common with all from highest to lowest, of every tribe and every tongue. Honor your king, yes, but know we are all of royal blood, created not to toil in slavish abjection but to reign in honor by each other's side. Shake off these chains that bind your souls, take my hand, and come walk in the light!”

Let's take leave of our three men now, and return to ourselves. For weeks we've been learning about what it means to be human – not just what we are, but who we are and why we're here. In a world where phrase 'image of a god' was a way of setting the king apart as the keystone of human society whom all subjects were bound to serve, as being the one man who had absolute rights, and who ruled his world with the authority of the gods... well, it's in that world that Genesis snaps us out of their royal spell. Because what they said to distinguish the king from all other men, Genesis proclaims boldly for all human beings.8 It's quite a revolutionary declaration, don't you think?

Humanity, as such, is fundamentally the royal species, set apart from the nearest others as much as the king on his throne was sacredly set apart from even the noblest houses. And we are a royal species, an image-of-God species, as “the most godlike... of the creatures.”9 It's a sharp contrast to the way Babylonians and Egyptians saw us. It's also a vast contrast to all the modern ways of thinking that see humans as interchangeable units of production or consumption, or as self-authored individuals, or as empty intersections of identity classes.10 We are so much more than all of those reductive, demeaning lies. As one scientist puts it, humanity is “a species... both trivial and terrifying..., the only linguistic and industrial species with the power to save or destroy our environment.”11 In a way no other creature on earth can be, “the entire human race is God's royal stand-in,”12 “the image of the highest glory and the representation of divine authority on earth.”13

And as royalty on the earth, you and I have tasks that are both powers and responsibilities. No sooner did we get proclaimed as God's image than God blessed us and said to us, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). It's that last bit we're talking about: 'subdue the earth.' The verb for 'subdue' in this verse literally means to put something beneath your foot. A related noun was used for the golden footstool attached to Solomon's throne (2 Chronicles 9:18). The prophets use this verb to show what God does with our sins: he crushes them underfoot, stomps them to little bits (Micah 7:19). More generally, it means to tread down the land, laying claim to it as your own. When Israel invaded Canaan at God's direction, the goal was for “the land will be subdued before you” (Numbers 32:29). And so, when they assembled at Shiloh under Joshua, “the land lay subdued before them” (Joshua 18:1). It could also apply to conquering a neighbor nation to put them in a subordinate position, as with “all the nations David subdued” (2 Samuel 8:11).

This is a surprisingly militant verb, “the language of conquest.”14 When we get to Genesis chapter 3, we'll get a better clue why the language here is so militant.15 For right now, we can say that subduing even a peaceful earth isn't necessarily effortless. To take possession of the earth, to make it part of the human kingdom, might take real work. We're born by nature with assertive impulses, but those innate passions are to be turned not toward conflict with each other, competing over land or vying for power over our fellow man, but – first and foremost – toward achieving God's will in making this world a most proper habitat for humanity.16

In practice, how would Adam and Eve have done that? Most likely by farming – tending, shaping the land and its growth, harnessing its fertility in healthy ways – and also clearing modest space for settlements, quarrying stone and mining metals, diverting the course of rivers, and various other ways of shaping the earth that lay open around them.17 They would have marched as glad-hearted warriors of hope, claiming their global home armed not with swords but with seeds. After all, when God subdued the earth by his word in creation, he made it green with life – so how could his images subdue earth otherwise?18 For the earth we're called to subdue is the same of which it's said, “The earth is the LORD's, and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). Nor are we called to monopolize for our human selves that Lord-owned earth, which by God's word of command we share with so many other species as our natural neighbors (Genesis 1:20-25).19

And so each of us, in our own little place, is to make our royal mark in God's name and in God's way, claiming our home, stewarding its resources, cultivating it, bringing order to chaos.20 One way ancient kings laid claim to greatness was that they planted the prettiest possible gardens in their capital cities, proving the king was gardener-in-chief by subduing the earth to shape a space of supreme beauty.21 The proof of human greatness is for us to be God's gardeners-in-chief, subduing the earth to shape spaces of beauty and benefit. Israel's mission to subdue their land was a trial run for subduing the promised earth to make it all fruitful and flourishing.22

If we're supposed to make the earth fruitful and flourishing, sadly we often achieve the opposite in practice, but there's no doubt we've certainly subdued the earth. One biologist called us “the first species to become a geophysical force.”23 We've reshaped the earth into “a world created by human energies and activities.”24 As one modern environmentalist confessed, “ours is the only species in all the long period of life on earth that has ever spread around the entire world, occupying every continent and nearly every island, effectively subjugating all the animals and plants natural systems it has encountered, and, over a relatively short period of time, establishing itself in vast numbers as the single most dominant species of all.”25

Speaking of 'dominance,' that brings us to the second royal task Genesis tells us about. When God plans us, he plans us for a purpose: “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26). And as soon as we show up and hear God tell us to subdue the earth, he explains that that includes achieving and exercising dominion over the animals of sea, sky, and soil (Genesis 1:28). This word, 'exercise dominion,' could apply to the relationship between a boss and his workers (1 Kings 5:16), or between a master and his servants (Leviticus 25:43), between a king and his subjects (1 Kings 4:24). At heart, it's a political term, “the language of government,”26 a rule ideally imposed on those who welcome it and see its wisdom, but imposed regardless, whether embraced or resisted.27

As the royal species, the psalmist says to God about us: “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet” (Psalm 8:6), that “nothing on earth is greater than the human being, under whose authority everything falls.”28 And so we “work with, breed, and care for plants and animals in ways only hinted at in other species,” making us “a species marked by its ability to tame and domesticate other species.”29 

A tall order! It's easy to see how we have dominion over horses, sheep, chickens, cats, any of the few dozen species we've truly domesticated.  We rule by caring for our pets and livestock, in training and protecting them and, to what extent we employ them, using them humanely; and because of our care, not a single domesticated species is endangered.30  It might be a bit harder to see how we exercise dominion over lions, tigers, and bears (...oh my...), but we keep predatory wild animals at bay, yielding them their natural food chains away from our pets and livestock; and as for the creepy-crawlies of the earth, our buildings from barn to bedroom are aimed at keeping them out, not always as successfully as we'd like.31 The beasts, birds, creatures of the deep, even species we've yet to discover – we'll have dominion (Psalm 8:7-8).

James wrote that “every kind of beasts and birds, of reptiles and sea creatures, is subdued and has been subdued by humankind” (James 3:7), and now it's been said “even the insects and the bacteria fall increasingly under human control.”32 In the words of one conservationist, we're “the sole superdominant species.”33  Even Darwin conceded that the human being, at his least technologically advanced, would still be “the most dominant animal that ever appeared on earth,” such that “all others have yielded before him.”34

But Israel's kings were condemned when they “exercised dominion over” Israel “with force and harshness” (Ezekiel 34:4). In Israel, a king's first act on taking the throne was to write out God's Law, reminding him how he too was under authority (Deuteronomy 17:18). He was warned “that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers” (Deuteronomy 17:20), that is, not to take his special position as a cause of prideful boasting but to consider it a ministry of service in leading and guiding those who were fundamentally his family. And he was charged not to acquire excessive horses, wives, silver, or gold (Deuteronomy 17:16-17), that is, not to exploit his position for personal enrichment at the expense of his subjects or the cost of his mission.

And if that's the rule for David's dominion, then why would Adam's look any different? We may be the royal species, but we remain a species under authority. The authority we have over creation is a gracious gift of God, to whom we're accountable and whose character we're meant to reflect. As animals animated by a spiritual soul, our dominion is exercised over creatures who are partly our brothers and sisters, born of the same creation at the call of the same Creator. We merely have “a natural vocation of headship that guides and governs so that things can flourish according to their proper purposes.”35 “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his animal” (Proverbs 12:10). We aren't meant to puff ourselves up for being the image of God in a way ants and eels and apes ain't. Nor are we to exploit the earth to enrich ourselves at the cost of our calling. In the same breath God grants us our food, he grants all creatures theirs (Genesis 1:29-30). “Every beast in the forest is mine,” he says (Psalm 50:10). So they therefore are “not at our disposal for unbridled greed or the pursuit of pleasure.”36

Even the pagans, at their best, recognized a king was there to care for his subjects, in the likeness of a god “who like a shepherd cares for all living creatures.”37 One such king said his “shepherdship of his nation” was given by his god to “care for the living ones like a shepherd, to make their land safe, to establish water in their midst, to make their days long.”38 Well, if we're all in the image of a Good-Shepherd God who rules his creatures by feeding them, sheltering them, delighting them, and blessing them (Psalm 104:27-28; Psalm 145:15-16; Genesis 1:22), then our dominion is given us for making earth safe, providing food and water and delight and shelter, promoting life on the earth and blessing it.39

Born of the special love of God, humankind was created the crown of creation, “God's supreme creature, capacitated and blessed to control and dominate the natural world” for the world's own good and God's own glory.40 Of course, we know we've smeared the dust of death all over our glory – a sad truth we've yet to reach in Genesis, but it's coming. By our refusal to subdue the serpent, sin and death laid claim to dominion, for death-birthing sin was enabled to “reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (Romans 6:12). And only once we have dominion each over our own hearts and bodies, only once we subdue sin and death underfoot, can we at last unveil the shining crown of creation again.

And so God sent into the world his Son, taking up the human calling to overthrow these false dominions. If you want to know what it means to be human to the utmost, God's image to the utmost, to subdue and rule beyond all Adam lost, just look at Jesus Christ. “To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever!” (1 Peter 4:11). And “if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12), restored to the fullness of all we were meant to be. So go, shake off your chains, take Christ's pierced hand, walk into the light, and abide there. Live like the crown of creation you were and, though now opposed, still are. Govern well the slice of the world where you've been put. Subdue it, cultivate and harness it for God's glory. Reign over the creatures not with cruelty but with the compassion of Christ. Embrace the royal family being even now restored in him. For it is written: “They will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5)! Amen.

O Lord, our Lord and Father, how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavenly heights.  But when we stand in awe of your shining heavens, we can't help but wonder what we humans are, that you would bother being mindful of us.  And the answer you reveal is that in you we are more than we think.  You crowned us in the beginning with glory and honor, you put all things below your heaven under our feet, you gave us dominion over all these works of your hands, from the monumental to the microscopic.

Amidst them all, you made us the royal species, images of your authority, and you commissioned us to conquer and control, but only ever in your name and only ever in your way.  For if we be governors of this worldly realm, yet you are King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  We may be the crown of creation, crowned with honor, but we cast our crowns before you, lost in wonder, love, and praise for your creating and shepherding and redeeming love.

You sent your Son to save us, to be for us all we were meant to be and more, for from the beginning humanity was modeled after him, who is eternally the True Image of the Invisible God.  He is the Son of Man in humanity's unbroken fullness, and to him belongs all dominion on earth beneath and in heaven above.  He sends forth his Spirit to subdue our hearts and banish sin, to make righteousness rule and reign in those who believe.  So not only birds, bugs, and beasts bow now before him, but we spiritual animals, with all angels also, crown him with all the crowns we can, our Matchless King, our Perfect Man.

We thank you, Father, that he is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters, we who are being redeemed, we who are being prepared for our fuller dominion yet undreamt.  We thank you for the hope that, by enduring these days of death's dominion, we may yet share with the Son of Man the human kingdom as it becomes at last the kingdom of God and of his Christ, whose praise can never fail throughout eternity.  Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Holy Offering

In this past month of exploring Genesis, we've learned some pretty surprising things, I think. Genesis taught us to look at the entire world, not as just any ordinary place, but as a temple God built for his own habitation. God indwells his universe to rest and rule and reign. This God beyond the world fills and claims the world, down to each and every subatomic particle, field of energy, measure of space-time. And in planting a garden as a special kind of sanctuary on earth, there, after a long process of anticipation, he set up material images of himself so that he could properly be reverenced by his creation. But no mere statue could represent the liveliness of the God who is pure act, the God who's all life. No, only a thinking, perceiving, feeling, moving animal, a body animated with rational mind and spiritual soul and breath of life, would do the trick. So he created humanity, alone among all species of his material universe, to be his active images, holy icons of his life and love.

Not only that, but God ordained these humans – and therefore every human – to a priesthood, giving humanity a special priestly calling, to be the priests of all creation. It is our most fundamental work, as human beings, to be the mouthpieces and messengers of all the visible creation's worship to God. We were put in the garden for the sake of serving the Lord in worship and guarding the holiness of his temple, which leads us to work on his world in his name and to tend it carefully and lovingly according to his vision for the flourishing of its beauty.

As those who share in the common priesthood of humanity itself, we were made to bring to God all manner of praises and prayers, all sorts of oblation and adoration, and to turn back toward creation with instruction and benediction. These worshipful actions weave together in a liturgy, an orderly pattern of worship that shapes our hearts through our bodies and bears witness to the holiness of God. And the liturgy was meant to vary from morning to evening, from day to day, in accordance with the calendar God wrote with the sun and moon and stars. Through the varieties of ritual and celebration, there in the garden we were meant to worship our Maker in feasts of day and week and month and year, season after season, in holy communion with the Holy One.

And part of those liturgies, at least some of the time, would have been the worship action of oblation, offering some kind of gift to God. What kind of exterior oblation Adam and Eve could have given, we can only guess. Maybe they would have gathered the finest firstfruits of all the trees of the garden which God had made so lovely and so tasty, and, before eating any of it themselves, would've brought it to the LORD when he descended in the breeze of the day (Genesis 2:9; 3:8). Could there have been any higher offering than to pluck fruit from the Tree of Life, just to lay it at the feet of the Life of Life as a holy offering?

Outside the Garden, where the wrong tree put us into this torn-up world, the same LORD God came to once more dwell with humanity. He replanted the garden in their midst, and called it the tabernacle. He gave them once again a chance to worship before his very face, and that meant oblation – offerings and sacrifices. Through a holy offering of food and drink, it was possible once again to encounter God.

In the humble tribute offering we read about this morning, an Israelite would bring a bowl full of oiled-up flour seasoned with fragrant frankincense (Leviticus 2:1-2). One handful with all the frankincense would be burned up, its aromas rising toward heaven; the rest was added to the food of the priests (Leviticus 2:2-3). The tribute offering showed personal love and loyalty to the LORD in a gift, but the one who brought it couldn't eat from it.

But then there's this peace offering we read about. And its purpose wasn't merely a one-way expression of love and loyalty. It moved beyond that to declaring peace between God and man. It was an opportunity for actual fellowship, for festive communion with God.1 Unlike the tribute offering, this one had a bloody cost. In order to declare peace with God, to enjoy fellowship with God, something would have to die. In Israel, an animal received the laying on of hands, being set apart for this special purpose; and only then was its life laid down as a victim by sacrifice (Leviticus 3:1). Its fat and organs were taken out and burned up, barbecued into smoke that could ascend to heaven (Leviticus 3:3-5), while its lifeblood covered the sides of the altar (Leviticus 3:2).

And in the case of a regular peace offering, that was enough. For everyday fellowship with God, it was enough that the life had been laid down, that Israel have peace with her Lord on the back of that harsh surrender. But there was a special version of the peace offering that took more. That was the special case of the thanksgiving sacrifice, the thank offering. And here, the body of the victim had to be augmented by holy bread – unleavened wafers, unleavened loaves, and even leavened loaves of bread (Leviticus 7:12-13). Leavened bread seldom had a place in Israel's worship, and the inclusion of both leavened and unleavened bread together was strange and rare, suggestive of “rich communion between God and worshipper.”2 One of each kind was given specifically to the priest who had slain the sacrificial victim (Leviticus 7:14). But the rest of the holy bread, along with the body of the victim that was slain, was shared and eaten on the very day of the offering (Leviticus 7:15).

This wasn't just a meal for the ordained priesthood of the sons of Aaron. This was a meal for every Israelite who would come, so long as they came in a state of cleanness. “All who are clean may eat the meat, but... if anyone touches an unclean thing... and then eats meat from the sacrifice of the LORD's peace offerings, that person shall be cut off from his people” (Leviticus 7:19-21). This communion was not common. And yet, to the clean, the table was no less open, the invitation was no less universal. All who were clean in the sight of God were free to receive, free to fellowship, free to feast with the Lord of Love.

And then Christ came, the true “high priest appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices” (Hebrews 8:3). And what he gave was nothing less than his whole self – Christ the Victim, Christ the Priest. “He appeared once for all, at the end of the ages, to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26), “a single sacrifice for sins” on the cross (Hebrews 10:12). He is the flesh of an eternal sacrifice; he paid the bloody cost. So “through him, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). 'Sacrifice of praise' was how Greek-speaking Jews translated the term for a 'thanksgiving sacrifice.'

From the beginning, Christians brought Christ's sacrifice forward, week after week, as part of their holy liturgy of worship, and they laid down their lives with him, and the fruit of their lips, on the altar. And we've done that by bringing there the holy bread – the bread of peace, bread of fellowship, bread of communion.3 Israel had her thank offering, her sacrifice of praise; and so do we now in Christ. He already offered his body and blood; we offer it up with holy bread and wine in thanks. We do it because we are, in the words of one early Christian, “already, without a doubt, conscious of [our] own salvation.”4 And because we know the salvation we have in Christ, we crave to taste that salvation on our tongues, to taste and see the infinite depths of the Lord's goodness – to consume and be consumed by that glory of holiness that burned before the first dawn of creation.

And so we raise this holy offering to the Lord – the thanksgiving sacrifice in Christ, the eucharist, in which the Lord Jesus Christ is himself the flesh and the blood. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” no peace and fellowship with God (John 6:53). But in this holy offering, all of us may have the joy of eating and drinking our holy communion with God and with his holy people. And all we must do, all you must do, is believe and come in cleanness. Thanks be to God!

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Feel That Holy Rhythm

Over these past few weeks, Genesis has been shedding some light on a few mighty good questions. Like, who did God intend for us human beings to be? What's our purpose for living? We began to unravel what it means to be made in God's image: to be the physical way he makes his living presence manifest in his temple which is the world, especially in the garden. At heart, you and I are here to worship. Last week, as we explored praise and prayer, adoration and oblation, instruction and benediction, we found that these priestly works of worship can combine together in regular patterns we call liturgy, “an ordered means of engaging with God.”1

But now we've got a loose end to tie up in the Bible's opening chapter, something we passed over before. God didn't just make linear time – past and present and future – but God also makes cyclical time, time with patterns and repetitions, so that the present can match something from the past or the future.2 A Tuesday can match other Tuesdays, a July can match other Julys. As St. Augustine put it, “were time to run on without being distinguished by any precise moments... marked by the course of the heavenly bodies, time could indeed run on and pass by, but it could not be grasped and articulated by human beings.”3 So humans have been watching since the Stone Age, learning how to conform our time to what patterns we track in the skies above.4

Sun and moon “rule over the day and over the night” (Genesis 1:18). God put them in the sky “for days and years” (Genesis 1:16). A day is made by earth's rotation against the sun, while a year is how long it takes the earth to orbit the sun and get back to the same relative position as before. That takes slightly less than 365¼ days. But Israel's years were focused on natural months – which is to say, moons. The moon doesn't look the same from night to night. Hebrew months start at a new moon, where the side facing earth is dark. But slowly the crescent waxes fatter until, at mid-month, it becomes a full moon, a circle of light. From there, it can wane 'til the next new moon. All these measures were governed naturally by the skies, “created by the one true God when he commanded that the stars he had set in the heavens should be the signs of seasons, days, and years.”5

So Genesis also says the sun, moon, and stars are up there “for signs and seasons” (Genesis 1:14). Or, at least, your Bible probably says 'seasons' here. But that might be misleading, because the word here in Hebrew never refers to something like spring or fall.6 It comes from a verb meaning 'to appoint,' as in the Tent of Meeting, the appointed place to gather with God. But it also refers to God's recurring appointments with his people, times he wanted set apart with him as holy time – holidays. That here is “the primary purpose of the host of heaven,”7 for “to follow the celestial calendar was to live on earth with the cadence of heaven.”8

Since these signs let them coordinate their schedules with their gods, it was vital for people to do the right rituals on the right days.9 The trouble was, every pagan nation dedicated their calendars to false gods with whom one oughtn't keep appointments. So when God called Israel out of Egypt, he taught them the dates he actually wanted to make with them: “These are the appointed feasts of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations” (Leviticus 23:2). These would sanctify Israel's experience of time to their God of Love; and these dates each combined sacrifices, celebrations, and rituals into a beautiful liturgy special to that time.10

Every day, of course, the rising and setting of the sun established times for morning and evening daily offerings (Exodus 29:38-42), each an 'appointed time' for Israel to meet her LORD over a sacrificial lamb (Numbers 28:2). Beyond that daily rhythm, there was a holy day every seventh day, the sabbath, which defined the course of a week (Leviticus 23:3). Not linked to any particular sign in the sky, it itself was “a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you” (Exodus 31:13). The sabbath, a day mandatorily free of work, was a weekly celebration of God's enthronement in his world, their privilege to join him in his righteous rest, a sign “to eat and drink and bless the One who created all things” (Jubilees 2:21).

After daily offerings and the weekly sabbath, the third-most-frequent appointment was the start of each month, which by definition was the sighting of the new moon, that first sliver of a new crescent of light after the dark. Nobody back then had a calendar hanging on the wall, with a fixed number of days in the month. The only way to tell when the next month would start was to watch the night sky. Once the priests had verified the moon was new, then they'd announce it with gladsome trumpets so all Israel could hear the verdict (Numbers 10:10).

Then, throughout the year, came other appointed feasts, likewise each heralded by trumpets and observed in a liturgy of sacrifice. The first holiday was Passover, at the first full moon of spring (Leviticus 23:5), recalling how God had judged Israel's oppressors but mercifully spared them by the blood of a lamb (Exodus 12:27). By this time of year, Israel's barley crop was just barely ready to harvest, so they brought the firstfruits of the barley to a priest to present to God in thanksgiving (Leviticus 23:9-11).11 Not until giving God their barley firstfruits could they eat from it themselves (Leviticus 23:12-14), kicking off a week of making unleavened bread. After Passover, these were seven days of special offerings to God, bracketed by holy convocations, community days when work was banned (Leviticus 23:6-9). And during this time, not only would they have brought the barley firstfruits, but also the firstborn of all their livestock were given as a gift to God (Exodus 34:19-20).

After allowing seven weeks to finish the barley harvest, there came the next big appointment, the Feast of Weeks (Leviticus 23:15-16). This was early in their third month, the late-spring wheat harvest. Here there was another holy convocation and, freed from regular work, each Israelite would bring two loaves of leavened wheat bread to the priest as firstfruits (Leviticus 23:15-22). Since this also roughly marked the anniversary of when God gave the Law to Moses, later Jews used the feast as a time to “renew the covenant in all respects, year after year” (Jubilees 6:17). Since it was fifty days from Passover, Greek Jews called this feast 'Pentecost.'

The Law left the summer months without holidays besides sabbaths and new moons. But the new moon of the seventh month was special, kicking off the fall season with the Feast of Trumpets, “a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of trumpets, a holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:24). Most new moons were rung in with glad trumpets, but this was a trumpet of alarm, reminding Israel of the crisis of her sins. This opened nine days of solemn reflection until an intense day of sorrow and penance called Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32), which was three weeks ago. Among the many offerings were two goats. One was chosen by chance to be slain as a sin offering, after which the high priest entered the Holy of Holies – the only time he did – and, as he used the blood to cover all impurity, he called God by name. After exiting, he laid all Israel's sins on the live 'scapegoat' and expelled it into the desert (Leviticus 16:1-28). In this way, “atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins” (Leviticus 16:34).

Five days later – just past the full moon, if all went right – began the last and biggest feast in the Law. The full moon heralded an intense week bracketed by holy convocations, with over seventy bulls sacrificed, one for each of the Gentile nations (Numbers 29:12-38). This was the close of the fruit and vegetable harvest after the summer growing season and before the onset of rainy winter (Leviticus 23:39). So it was another harvest festival, “the Feast of Ingathering at the year's end, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor” (Exodus 23:16). They'd go to present “the firstfruits of our ground and the firstfruits of all fruit of every tree, year by year, to the House of the LORD (Nehemiah 10:35).12 But it was also the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, because, recalling their life in the desert, they'd build open-roof huts to eat and sleep in, where they could look up at the stars and see how God had led them all their way (Leviticus 23:42-43). It's inspired by this Feast of Ingathering, which for our Jewish neighbors ended a week ago, that we today have our Harvest Home.

Thus Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed feasts of the LORD (Leviticus 23:44). After these came plowing and planting, and the early and late rains in the eighth and twelfth months prepared the growth for the next year. But to this cultic calendar, Israel could later add extra days of fasting in memory of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, as mentioned in Zechariah (8:19); Purim, in memory of God's rescue of exiled Jews from Persian genocide, as told in Esther (9:20-28); Hanukkah, in memory of the rededication of the Second Temple after its defilement by Greeks – Jesus celebrates it in the Gospel of John (10:22).13

But for all this, still they emphasized that it was always God who “designates the seasons and feasts,” so out of a year's days, “some he exalts and sanctifies, and others he lists as ordinary days” (Sirach 33:8-9). Israel aimed to be careful to celebrate the right rituals on the right days, “neither to advance their holy times nor to postpone any of their prescribed festivals.”14 And the prophets bore witness that these holy rhythms would always matter, for “from new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship me, declares the LORD (Isaiah 66:23). But it's only in Jesus Christ that this prophecy can find its truth.

When the gospel first caused Israel's faith to burst beyond the bounds of the Law, there was a lot of confusion of what to make of the rhythms of time. There were Jewish Christians who, having been raised that way, insisted on still observing the same festivals as before. There were Gentile Christians who saw that keeping all Israel's festivals literally would mean becoming Jewish to be Christian. In that context, St. Paul cautioned: “Let no one pass judgment on you,” either way, “with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath” (Colossians 2:16).

The apostle added that all the appointed times of Israel had been “a shadow of the things to come, but the body belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17). For Jesus fulfills all those feasts: he's the Lamb whose blood shields us at Passover; he's the Firstfruits of the resurrection harvest, lifting himself to God as a promise of more to follow; he's the Lawgiver who pours down his fiery Spirit at Pentecost; he's the Prophet whose trumpeting voice warns of a coming judgment; he's the High Priest pleading his completed work in an eternal Day of Atonement; he's our Tabernacle we shelter in through all this earthly journey; he's the Harvester who'll gather us in and present us to his Father at last; he's the Heavenly Rest of our everlasting sabbath when all life's work is done. Like Paul said, the true meaning of Israel's appointed times “belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17).

Now, there are some Christian groups today who leave it there, and think that any holy rhythm of time belongs to the mere shadow. Some early Christians sadly went there when they mocked Jewish neighbors about “their constant observation of the stars and moon to keep track of months and days, and the distinctions they make in the divine orderings of the world..., setting aside some times for feasts and others for mourning.”15 But despite that rhetoric, the Church as a whole was already discovering how Jesus was revealing a new holy rhythm.

The sabbath itself was eclipsed by a new weekly day of worship. With respect to our Seventh-Day Adventist neighbors or to the Seventh-Day Baptists who founded Ephrata, the New Testament shows that Jewish and Gentile Christians joined together on a holy feast appointed under the new covenant. This was “the first day of the week,” beginning from the resurrection and continued by the apostles (John 20:19; Acts 20:7). They also called this “the Lord's Day” (Revelation 1:10; Didache 14.1), explaining that Christ would “make a beginning on the eighth day, which is the beginning of another world; thus, we also observe the eighth day in gladness.”16

In time, Christians came to begin their year with a feast celebrating the birth and the baptism of Jesus, which they later split into two separate feasts twelve days apart: Christmas and Epiphany – Christmas being preceded by an extended time of fasting in preparation, which we call Advent. And Passover continued to be observed as Easter, itself preceded by a penitential season called Lent. Easter, the New Passover, they called “the brightest festival of all.”17 But even in the new covenant, its date – which took a while to reach agreement on, and was a messy process we don't have time to explore more deeply today, much as I'd love to is still fixed by sun and moon: it's the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox when the sun moves north across the celestial equator.18

Closing a seven-week season after Easter, we still celebrate the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, to mark the giving of the Holy Spirit and the firstfruits of the harvest of the world for the gospel. And although we characterize the time after Pentecost as 'ordinary time' or by counting out dozens of 'Sundays after Pentecost,' actually the whole Christian calendar has come to be littered with observances relating to the life of Jesus and those close to him. Early on, when a Christian died for Jesus, those left behind would annually “commemorate the birthday of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already engaged in the struggle and as a training and preparation for those who are about to do so.”19 It wasn't controversial: Christians “celebrate the passions and days of the martyrs with an annual commemoration.”20 Later, this was extended to others worth remembering not just locally but globally.

Today, for instance, is the feast of the missionary nun St. Thecla, who helped nurture communities of faith in Bavaria; the missionary bishop St. Bruno, lynched in Lithuania by those he came to save; and the Spanish mystic St. Theresa, whose visions bore fruit in profound precepts on prayer. Tomorrow will be the feast of the French abbot St. Bercharius, who, when fatally stabbed by a disciple he'd corrected, used his last breath to advise his killer how to get right with God; the French bishop St. Bertrand, who spent his days reforming a corrupted local church; and the Polish duchess St. Hedwig, who gave her fortune to serve the poor, sick, and alone, and who died 780 years ago today. The Church scattered people like these around the calendar so that, as their legacy seeps into us year after year, their example and influence can help us learn how to be holy too.

And that's the gift of holy rhythms. The Lord's Day, the great feasts of salvation history like Christmas and Easter and Ascension and Pentecost, the penitential seasons like Advent and Lent, and even lesser-known commemorations like the Circumcision and the Transfiguration and the upcoming Feast of All Saints – and, any day we care to think about it, days honoring just a few of the holy forerunners who made it to heaven ahead of us and are eagerly cheering for us to join them in due time. These are all special appointments we can keep with God, letting us dive into a deep vault of holiness to haul up treasures week after week, month after month, year after year. “Over the centuries, the Church has fittingly sacralized time by means of the liturgical calendar with its practices and celebrations, and we can fruitfully appropriate this pattern in our personal discipleship and devotion.”21 God's holy rhythms refuse now to let any day be merely generic. Some are higher, some are lower, but all are occasions to meet Christ who works in history, who directs the flow of time, who writes the calendar.

These days, we remember the big feasts that are hardest to ignore, and maybe we change the colors of the altar cloths – just token gestures, really. But American culture has calendars all its own, full of federal holidays and observances dedicated to this or that theme or cause. Our hearts were made to be discipled by a calendar, and for generations we've so emptied out the church year that we can't help but be discipled by calendars of the world more than the calendar of Christ. If we want to turn it around, we're going to have to relearn time itself.

All this is about what some call 'living liturgically,' living in such a way that our whole lives are bound up with Christ's calendar of worship, that all our days and all our hours become his in the special ways he wants, and so we become conformed to “the cadence of heaven.”22 As one convert testified, “I want the Christian story to shape everything I do, even how I reckon time. … Almost more than anything else, living inside church time has formed me in Jesus' story.”23 And I hope that's what you want, too. May the holy rhythms of the rich, rich church year, what the very heavens above are written for, guide you deeper into the holiness of Christ. Amen.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Sanctifying Service

It was morning. Elizaphan had been up the last part of the night, keeping watch from the south, and now he shuffled counterclockwise before the dawn to open the gate to the court around the tabernacle, making a way for his cousin Aaron, the bleary-eyed high priest of Israel, to pass through. He watched as Aaron passed by the altar of sacrifice, still crackling low with flame through the night, and into the tent to tend the golden lampstand and burn fragrant incense in the sanctuary. Another priest stopped at the altar, sweeping the ashes of yesterday's evening sacrifice away. Heaping fresh wood onto the flames, he changed clothes and carried the ashes out of the camp. Soon it was time for the morning offering, another lamb slain and aflame on the altar, while another of the priests poured out beer inside the grounds of the tent, beside the smoldering incense.

As the hours of morning ticked away, other Israelites approached the court with this or that animal, bird, bread, wine. It kept the priests busy serving at the altar, their special responsibility to keep. The Levites were busy carrying out various ministries around the tent of meeting. Some stood guard at the gates, verifying that people and items were ritually clean to enter. Some wrangled the animals, making sure none broke loose. Then there were those who kept track of the treasures. Others shadowed the priests as bodyguards, making sure they could safely carry out their holy ministries, while yet others attended to the priests' needs, fetching supplies and water as the day grew hot. Still others kept peace in the court between bickering clans, or sang or prayed or taught.

Elizaphan, as an older Levite, was no longer tasked with the more physical responsibilities. As he stood by the tabernacle gate, his mind wandered back to the day he'd been consecrated “to serve the service of the LORD,” how he'd been shaved head to toe, washed clean, ordained by the laying on of hands, and separated from Israel's midst as a special gift to God and the priests. “The community of Israel must be plotted, fenced, and plowed with the laws of purity,” Elizaphan thought, “so that she can bear the fruits of holiness.”1

But we've been in not Leviticus but in Genesis, before the rise of Israel. And there we've found a special place, a luxurious garden. There's where God put the human being who, as our prototype, represents us all. As we've explored this garden, we've learned that it's no ordinary park or grove or jungle. It's also holy ground. It's sacred space. It's the first sanctuary, an especially holy patch of earth, sanctified by proximity to God's own presence. It's the space God has chosen to freely walk among us, and us with him. That's why it's so alive.

Last week, we saw that Genesis depicts God crafting the human being – Adam, and me, and you – in much the same terms by which the pagans in Israel's world carefully carved and ceremonially commissioned their idols. And indeed, Genesis uses the same word for us that they used for their idols: 'image,' the image of God. Into an original sanctuary, we humans were placed as holy images of God, so that, in the reverence with which creation treated us, God himself would receive the honor – which is why this weekend's atrocities in the Middle East, as with all violence against human beings, is such devastatingly wicked sacrilege.

But now we can say even more, if you can believe it. Because as soon as we're placed in this garden-temple, as soon as we set foot on holy ground, we're given a job: “the LORD God took the human and rested him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Genesis uses two very specific Hebrew words here, 'abad and shamar, and there's one other major context in the Bible where they come together – and that's where Moses describes what Aaron does, what Eleazar does, what Elizaphan does (e.g., Numbers 3:7-8; 18:5-6). These are Levite words, priest words. The human being is in the garden, not just like a farmer or a vinedresser, but to be there everything a Levite or priest was in the tabernacle in the desert or in the temple on Zion.2

This isn't a new insight, either. An old Christian poet sang that “in the beginning, when the Lord created Adam, he made him a priest so that he might stand in his service.”3 So, as another put it, “we are born on the following terms: that we present our just and due obedience to the God who creates us, and that we acknowledge and follow him alone.”4 “Religious impulses are not the chance creation of particular kinds of societies,” but rather, as one modern scholar points out, scientists are now “making the bold empirical claim that they are the starting point for everyone..., an integral part of the very way we have come to think,” indeed, of “human nature.”5 Being 'religious' isn't a personality trait some people just do or don't have, or a hobby some folks pick up. Religion is a human virtue, the right use of inborn faculties, because “natural reason dictates that man should give reverence to God.”6 There's such a thing as natural religion, arising once people's God-instinct blooms into awareness, because “knowing God comes first, and worship of him is the consequence.”7

So let's go back to Adam's job description, our job description, and pick up with the second word, shamar, that is, to keep or guard what's holy. That's something that was expected of Israel's Levites and priests. How would we have done that in the garden? How do we do that now in this wide world we've come into? Well, first, the human mission is to maintain the garden as an orderly and suitable place for an encounter with the living God.8 Second, relatedly, we're told to care for all the garden's God-ordained contents, to keep them fit for holy purposes. We're bringing God's order and God's beauty into the world, arranging earth in a way that creates space to encounter him in his holy love. Whatever we do in the world, we should minister structure, order, and beauty in harmony; our acts should make room for God and people to interact in healing ways.

Third, like the Levites, our mission is to protect all who lawfully enter the sanctuary space, seeing to their safety and security. There's an age-old tradition of being able to run to holy ground for protection from pursuers. That means that it's part of the human vocation itself to cultivate sanctuary, to establish a refuge for everything that rightfully belongs in God's world. When we stand up for God's good creatures, when we provide shelter for people or animals or trees, when we give them refuge and sanctuary in God, we're doing our job as humans.

The corollary is, fourth, that the human mission is to preserve the garden from defilement, “keeping out anything that would compromise or corrupt the sanctity of sacred space.”9 For example, should a ritually unclean animal – ...say, a certain serpent... – slither its way in, then the human responsibility was to judge it as unclean, block its way, and banish it.10 In our world, the apostles said “we shouldn't call any person... unclean” by nature (Acts 10:28), nor any critter “unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14). But they aren't shy about calling for “unclean spirits” to be “cast out” (Matthew 10:1), or labeling certain behaviors as “uncleanness” (Galatians 5:19). Our mission calls us to oppose the powers of uncleanness, starting first and foremost in our own lives.

Fifth, the human, as keeper of the garden, was to sanctify the garden on a routine basis, “seeing to the continual state of holiness of all that was within the sanctuary.”11 In our world, this would mean bringing holiness to bear in every sphere of life Of course, that means that “as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). But more than our example, it means repeatedly offering up our people, our places, our things, to God as his rightful own. It means consecrating them to him through the authority he's given us to sanctify in his name, by invoking his Spirit, giving them over to him to the extent they've been entrusted to us.

And sixth, the human, as keeper of the garden, was to defend and encourage devotion to God there. The Levites and priests who carried out this calling in ancient Israel were to defend the tabernacle and other devotion to God wherever it was lived throughout the camp. And in our world today, this human calling means a responsibility to defend religious liberty, guarding the rights of God's people to answer their responsibility to pursue him and live for him. This is more than a meager 'right to worship,' as if religious liberty begins and ends at the church door. Guarding religion is asserting the natural right of every human being to actually live for God, not just in private settings, but publicly as a whole person. And guarding religion in such a way is a responsibility for every human being. It goes beyond that, too, to encouraging devotion to God as a positive good, exhorting the world to turn to the Lord for salvation, to be better attuned to his holiness, to look toward him and love him.

Those are all the sorts of things that might have fallen within the remit of a priest or Levite as they carried out their guardianship of holy things, keeping and maintaining holiness in the holy spaces among the holy people. And so, “by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14). But then there's that other half of Adam's job description, 'abad. Some Bibles translate it as 'work,' but it's the word for service; it was commonly used for how priests and Levites would serve the service of God, minister the ministry of God, in the tabernacle and its court. So too, “part of Adam's function was to worship God.”12

Every human person is supposed to serve God, first and foremost, within his own heart, mind, soul. All human beings are, by human nature, to “offer a devout mind to God,” to “be bound to God as our unfailing principle,” to “unceasingly choose him as our last end.”13 These “internal acts of religion are principal and essential, while the exterior acts are secondary and subordinate,” but our bodies assist and extend our souls' worship of God.14

Second, every human person is supposed to serve God by giving voice to praise. One eighth-century Christian said that in the garden, “God wanted us to... have one task: that of the angels, which is to praise the Creator ceaselessly and uninterruptedly, and to enjoy his contemplation.”15 The angels, in their non-bodily way, live their whole existence as unbroken praise for God's infinite goodness; and we were made to join their delight in God in our bodily way. All created things – storm and flame, tree and river, bird and beast – praise God (Psalm 148:3-10). But, like conductors of a choir, we've “been charged with the sacred task of aiding all creation in its symphony of praise to God.”16 “Sing to the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!” (Psalm 66:2).

Third, every human person is supposed to serve God through adoration, that is, using our bodily postures as a way to express our position with respect to God.17 All of creation is meant to joyfully humble itself before its God, recognizing him specifically as God, as the One to whom every conceivable honor is owed. The psalmists tell us “all things are God's servants” (Psalm 119:91), all things are by nature God's worshippers, all created realities are naturally disposed toward the adoration of the Most High.18 Every created thing is in a position that tends toward trusting submission to God – toward adoration. And so, as priests of the visible creation, we lead that creation in bowing to God, in “exterior humbling of the body” to show “awe and submission to God.”19 “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD our Maker!” (Psalm 95:6).

Fourth, every human person is supposed to serve God through oblation.20 That's a fancy Latin word for offering – whether sacrificial or not.21 While there was no animal sacrifice in the garden, there probably would've been oblations of firstfruits, maybe the burning of incense (cf. Jubilees 3:27). The point is, we were always meant to express our devotion to God through giving him gifts, even in paradise. In our worship today, “ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts!” (Psalm 96:8).

Fifth, every human person is supposed to serve God through prayer. It's been said that “through prayer, man offers reverence to God because he subjects himself to God and professes that God is the source of all that he is and all that he has.”22 Prayer is part of the human mission – communicating with God, speaking to God, giving him thanks, interceding with him. We interact with him, mind to mind, through our voices.

Sixth, every human person is supposed to serve God through teaching. The Bible says that “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of Hosts” (Malachi 2:7). Another of our religious acts, even in the garden, would have been “to mediate access through instruction.”23 That's especially about who God is and what it takes to live in his holy presence, how to think after God's thoughts and love after God's loves, how to worship him with a worthy worship. And seventh, a responsibility of the priests who ministered in the tabernacle was to pronounce God's blessing on those they were priests for (Numbers 6:22-27), so still another of our religious acts, even in the garden, would've been the responsibility, “as priests of creation,” of “actively mediating divine blessing to the nonhuman world” as well as to each other, bringing all creation “under a divinely planned cultivation.”24

And it's likely that, even in the garden, all this praise and adoration, this prayer and oblation, this instruction and benediction, would have come together into what we might fairly call 'liturgy.' Our word 'liturgy' comes from the word that Greek-speaking Jews used to translate how priests and Levites worked in the tabernacle (e.g., Exodus 28:43 LXX), and it's come to mean a public ritual of worship with an organized rhythm, a structured order of worship. One scholar describes liturgies as practices that “aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies,” and so he defines humans as, in our deepest character, “liturgical animals” like no other.25 In being called to worship, we humans are called to liturgies that express and uplift the holiness of God's service and aim our love toward God, training our hearts through what our bodies do. We're in the middle of a liturgy right now – more elaborate than some, less elaborate than others.

And that liturgy is all about Jesus. He lived his entire life on earth, and his eternal life in heaven, the way Adam should have but didn't. He's our “Great High Priest” (Hebrews 4:14), the true worshipper of his Father. He has “obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old” one of Adam or of Aaron “as the covenant he mediates is better” (Hebrews 8:6). It's Jesus who maintains the world as a suitable space for God, who cares for all the world's contents, who protects all who come to him, who banishes defilement by his cleansing blood, who sanctifies his garden by his Spirit, who exhorts us to devotion. It's Jesus who, from the depths of his soul perfectly united to his divinity, offers to his Father the truest praise and prayer, the truest adoration and oblation, for “through the eternal Spirit he offered himself without blemish to God” (Hebrews 9:14). It's Jesus who turns to us and to all creation with unfailing instruction on his lips, irresistible blessing in his hands, inconceivable mercy in his eyes, unquestionable love burning in his holy heart.

Jesus is, again and again, the One sent to live out the human vocation in a way more perfect than even a sinless Adam and Eve could have. And in Jesus Christ, “our Liturgist in the holy places” (Hebrews 8:2), we're “being built up... to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5), equipped with holiness “for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12), with a gospel to “proclaim in all creation under heaven” (Colossians 1:23). So “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28), and cultivate in his garden, in all his holy courts, “a harvest of righteousness” unto the very end (James 3:18). Thanks be to God for this holy ministry to serve and keep his holiness in Christ! Amen.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Idols with a Pulse

A man named Nabu-nadin-shumi woke up that morning in Babylon with a mix of exhilaration and exhaustion, and mused on the chain of tragic and fortuitous events that had led him there. Long ago, when Samuel was judge in Israel but Adad-apla-iddina was king in Babylon, the wicked Arameans and Sutians had plundered their way through the land, “overthrew all the temples,” and, when they'd come to Sippar, “the ancient city, abode of the great judge of the gods,” they profaned the great temple E-babbar.1 They'd stolen the sun god Shamash from his 'shining house,' and so “his appearance and his attributes had vanished beyond grasp” – his cult statue was lost.2

The years passed, and while Saul was king of Israel, Simbar-shipak rose to be king in Babylon. Determined to appease the gods, Simbar-shipak had yearned to restore Shamash to his temple, but what could he do? No way appeared to “discover his image and his attributes;” no new statue could be made. So Simbar-shipak enshrined a sun-disk, an abstract symbol of Shamash, in E-babbar; and he tasked the priest Ekur-shuma-usharshi to resume the regular offerings.3 Everyone knew, though, this was only “a special expedient for an emergency situation.”4

That was a century and a half ago. Now had come a year that you or I might know as 856 BC, the days of Elijah, with Jehoshaphat on the throne of David in Jerusalem, and Ahab and Jezebel raging from their palace in Samaria. But to Nabu-nadin-shumi, none of those names meant anything. An heir of Ekur-shuma-usharshi, Nabu-nadin-shumi was shangu priest at the E-babbar in these days when Nabu-apla-iddina was king in Babylon. And now a baked clay relief bearing the lost image and attributes of Shamash had come to light, dug up from across the river, a seeming miracle out of the earth.5

The priest had gone to show it to the king, and the king had been overjoyed, tasking Nabu-nadin-shumi with assembling craftsmen to make a new cult statue using this image.6 And so the craftsmen labored hard, finding just the right kind of tree, carving everything out of wood, plating it with fine gold and precious jewels like lapis lazuli to reflect the heavenly glory of Shamash.7 Nabu-nadin-shumi had been in charge of the whole process. And now, in the sacred Ekarzagina garden on the bank of the Euphrates in Babylon, the rituals were underway.8

Yesterday, the favorable day, he'd spread out red and white cloths, led the statue to the river bank, positioned it facing west, hurled a ram's thigh into the river, put the statue in an orchard, mixed holy water and poured it into a tamarisk trough, made offerings to all the gods they could think of, and recited all sorts of incantations. It was a heavy day of opening and purifying the statue's mouth.9

Now, this morning, having set out food and drink, burned incense, recited more incantations, he whispered into the statue's left ear, “From this day, let your fate be counted as divinity; among your brother gods may you be counted.”10 He assembled the craftsmen who made the statue, bound their hands, and ritually mimed cutting them off while they swore oaths that the statue was built by the gods, not by their own mortal hands.11

After a ritual to open the statue's eyes, proclaiming it a “statue born in heaven,” he led it in procession north from Babylon to Sippar, to the doors of E-babbar.12 “In the temple, may your heart's joy continue daily!” he chanted as, with sacrifice, he admitted Shamash to his own innermost shrine.13 With final offerings, washing the statue's mouth for the final time, by night it was time to dress and crown the image with all “the trappings of divinity.” It was done – “let the evil tongue stand aside” – for the sun god was back in E-babbar!14

Alright, at this point in our story, you might be asking, “Pastor, what on earth does any of this Babylonian claptrap have to do with the Bible, much less with Genesis?” Okay, fair question! But thanks for bearing with me. We've been exploring, for these past few months, the grand saga of creation. And at the end of August, we saw that Genesis chapter 1 is encoded with seven upon seven upon seven to communicate to us that the entire universe God creates is a temple, the biggest temple in the world because it is the world; and the seventh day is a declaration that God has come to indwell this temple, rest in this temple, reign from this temple. But then we moved to chapter 2, a new story that lends a different perspective on the works of the Creator. Here, we get an earthier angle on those works, and we find that there's a land the author calls 'Eden' where God plants a special garden. Two weeks ago, we established that if the world was a temple, this garden was its holy of holies.

Now, suppose Nabu-nadin-shumi showed up here right now, stumbling through those church doors. After he hears what we've learned so far, there's one natural question he's going to have. To him and most people in his world, the most natural expectation is that a temple houses an image. The whole point of a temple, to them, is to offer the god service through the idol and to thereby contact the god through the idol.15 As one Old Testament scholar puts it, “no pagan temple in the ancient Near East could be complete without the installation of the cult image of the deity to whom the temple was dedicated.”16 So, Nabu-nadin-shumi will ask us, if this garden is the sanctuary, where's the idol, the statue?

And what we should tell him, when he asks, is to hold onto his hat, because he's in for a surprise – starting with these verses we read this morning. Now, remember the sequence of events from before. First, Nabu-nadin-shumi assembles his craftsmen to make a new statue out of a wooden core enclosed within gold and jewels. The physical material has to be given shape in the workshop. Well, what happens in Genesis? Somewhere on earth, as if in God's workshop, “the LORD God formed the human from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7) – physical material being given the right shape. In Babylon, what did Nabu-nadin-shumi do next? An elaborate series of rituals in a garden, all meant to open the mouth of the statue. What does God do next? He takes this shapely dust and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). And in doing so, God opens the human's mouth, bringing him ritually to birth. Nabu-nadin-shumi thinks that the result of his rituals is that the statue comes to life, becoming a god. And in Genesis, we're told that after God does the work of craftsman and priest, “the human became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7).17 From here on out, the human is everything Nabu-nadin-shumi imagined his statue of Shamash would become, and it's now widely agreed by Old Testament scholars that the Genesis depiction of human origins intentionally mimics those types of rituals.18

And the word for the clay relief Nabu-nadin-shumi showed to the king, and then for the big statue he designed on its basis, was – in Akkadian – tsalam. Hebrew has a similar word – tselem – which could be likewise refer to “cultic statuary,”19 any “physical object intended as a sign of foreign gods” from Israel's point-of-view.20 But God announces: “Let us make man in our tselem, after our likeness. … So God created man in his own tselem; in the tselem of God he created him” (Genesis 1:26-27). The tselem, the image, that God makes is the human being – it's me, it's you!

And in the same way that Nabu-nadin-shumi then walked the supposedly enlivened statue to E-babbara, where he ritually installed it in the innermost shrine, so, after the human being is brought to life, we read that “the LORD God took the human and installed him in the Garden of Eden” (Genesis 2:15). The verb here is exactly the same verb the Bible uses for how idolaters would 'install' cult statues in their high places or shrines (Isaiah 46:7; 2 Kings 17:29).21 What they do with their idols, God does with us in the garden. We're the true idol!

Now, to Babylonians like Nabu-nadin-shumi, an idol wasn't just a reminder of the god it represented; it actually, so they thought, manifested that god on earth, by being brought to life as an extension and expression of the god in his essence, so it was “a physical, living manifestation of an otherwise invisible reality,” present as “the main conduit of divine self-disclosure.”22 An idol was considered as an item of revelation and action, believed to be indwelt by the god's spirit so that the god could receive service through it and give blessing for the city and territory around the temple.23 To them, once all the rituals were done, it was imagined as no longer just a statue but somehow the god himself, made really present in that place.24

But the witness of Scripture shows why idolatry is silly. “Claiming to be wise,” Paul comments, “they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22-23). But “in Israel, there were to be no carved images because God had already made a concrete image both visible and tangible to all who would look.”25 Idols are pointless because God already made and installed the only 'idol' that works! So the prophets mocked behavior like Nabu-nadin-shumi's, because although he played pretend that his idol was carved by his gods, the prophets kept hammering home the inconvenient truth that this was mere make-believe, that “the idols of the nations are... the work of human hands” (Psalm 135:15), “all of them the work of craftsmen” who are regular joes with human frailties (Hosea 13:2; Isaiah 44:12). Where Nabu-nadin-shumi waxed poetic about the special purity of his materials, the prophets waxed polemic about how under all that fancy dressing is nothing but “wood that will rot” (Isaiah 40:20). And where Nabu-nadin-shumi was convinced his incantations could turn wood into deity, the prophets insisted his rituals were powerless to give life. Such idols “have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths” (Psalm 135:16-17). The result is a doll of dependence, a passive object of human deeds, unable to act on the world (Jeremiah 10:5).

After the prophets, the point was made that somebody like Nabu-nadin-shumi is a person “living on borrowed breath..., and what he makes with lawless hands is dead. For he is better than the things he worships: at least he lives, but never his idols” (Wisdom 15:16-17). And when Paul makes his way to Athens, he explains patiently that the real God, the Creator God, is too infinite to be confined to an artificial temple. No matter how big or grand, it's merely a gesture, and a potentially misleading one. Nor is this God in a position of dependence on our services, since he's the provider of all we have in the first place, “life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25). Paul continues that thought by quoting even a Greek poet's confession that human beings as God's offspring. And if that's so, Paul asks, then how could anything subhuman – something as lifeless as mineral or wood – ever fittingly represent our Father (Acts 17:28-29)? God is pure action, so how can he be imaged by an idol that's purely passive? If God's the Way, how can he be imaged by something that can't move itself? If God is Truth, how can he be imaged by something fake to its core, a thing that by its very nature is “a teacher of lies” (Habakkuk 2:18)? If God is Life, how can he be imaged truly by something breathless, dormant, dead?

It's no wonder the prophets call such things “abominable images” (Ezekiel 17:19), “worthless things” (Psalm 31:60, for they steal a job that they can't possibly perform. But we are “the living representation pointing to a living and real God... unlike the lifeless images of other deities made by human hands.”26 No wonder, too, then, that one early Roman Christian responded to a pagan friend trying to lure him back to idolatry by asking: “What image would I fashion for God, seeing that man can be rightly considered as himself the image of God?”27 But, as Paul told us, “you know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to mute idols,” away from our true human calling (1 Corinthians 12:2).

Worse still, “those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Psalm 135:18). Because we really are far better than the works of our hands (whether that means a physical cult statue or a cherished technology or a cultural or societal phenomenon we cause, like a government or an economy or an ideology – we're better than them all), the only way to magnify our manufactured works as our gods is to shrink ourselves down low, subhumanly low, until we can at last look up to them – that is, the only way to carry out idolatry is to become spiritually deformed, recast into the likeness of something ill-suited to the image we're made to bear.

This wrongful likeness poisons us, blinds and deafens our hearts, by making us more like the blind and deaf and dead things we put our foolish trust in.28 To trust what we can manufacture is to conform our lives to something so much less alive than the God who is Life, so much less true than the God who is Truth, so much less good and beautiful than the God who is Goodness and Beauty. “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love” (Jonah 2:8), rejecting the incredible privilege and responsibility that comes from being a living representative of the living God. “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14)! Only a living human being can image God; nothing less is up to the job. It takes idols with a pulse.

And it's not just that we're alive, but even though we're in one sense animals, we're made to reflect God in a way no other creature on earth can. “The image of his own nature he made us” (Wisdom 2:23). We have an inner self, a spiritual soul, that's “invisible, incorporeal, incorruptible, and immortal,” analogously to how God lives.29 We're thinkers with reason and intelligence, reflective of God.30 We're inventive, for “in imitation of his Creator, man also creates houses, walls, cities, harbors, ships, dockyards, chariots, and countless other things.”31 We're intrinsically relational like God, with a “capacity for interpersonal communion” no other earthly creature has.32 We bear God's image in our natural virtue, for “that soul is well painted in which resides... the reflection of its paternal nature.”33 Across the infinite gulf between creature and Creator, God made you so profoundly that, where every other animal was made “according to its kind,” you weren't; you were made “after the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:25-26). Family resemblance to a heavenly Father defines the human 'kind.'

Idols are fake, yes. But you, with your living family resemblance to a heavenly Father, are the real deal. You and I exist on earth, are installed in the garden, “to represent and mediate the divine presence on earth.”34 You were put here with the intent that you would be indwelt by the true God's Spirit. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). That's what we were all made for! Each person is supposed to have God's Spirit in us, is supposed to be a walking, talking manifestation of God's real presence. You are created to be a conduit of God's self-disclosure. You're more than a reminder; you're a revelation! You are created to be a body through whom God himself receives service through the actions of others, and you are created to be a point from which God's blessing radiates out to the world around, as his glory is made visible through you. That's what it means to be made in the image of God!

One old Christian poet dared to say that this made the human being “a fitting image, a beloved icon..., a god of flesh.”35 Modern scholars looking at this say we're given a “status of near divinity,”36 “endowed with the power of God's presence” and due “reverence from the rest of creation.”37 And if that's so, what are we due from each other? How should we treat each other and ourselves, if we're “gods of flesh,” the image of God on earth?

Human life, human health, human dignity then are holy things, not to be violated. To mistreat a human being isn't just violence; it's sacrilege! How much sacrilege there is, then, in the world's senseless wars, in our gun-cluttered streets and our so-called 'clinics' of dismemberment, in our abuse-rife penal system, in our exploitative entertainments, in the gaping jaws of our medical mammons and our mass-media behemoths and our legal leviathans, in all our vast structures of oppression! How much blasphemy in our words spoken with contempt, reducing a splendid image of the Lord God Almighty to a mere label for a hue of pigmentation, an economic stratum, a developmental benchmark, a social group, a legal standing, an action, a temptation!

And not only these active offenses of sacrilege and blasphemy should pierce our hearts with sorrow, but consider: how does a god take it when his image is neglected? Nabu-nadin-shumi could tell you that avoiding service to a cult statue “was akin to high treason; it jeopardized peace, prosperity, and life.”38 So, do we neglect our neighbor, next door or around the globe? Do we treat each other with indifference instead of reverence? Can we gaze at the image of God and be bored, or avert our gaze and reduce the image of God to a statistical aberration? That passive cruelty, even (or especially) to the least and the last – is it not akin to high treason, withholding from the Most High God what his image on earth is owed?

To see humans as images of God, as holy idols with a pulse, is to become zealous servants of those around us, realizing that a measure of our service to God is to be found in how we treat them – including how we treat ourselves. Such a vision calls for a radical respect for their and our dignity as God's image, glorifying God for how he discloses himself through their and our humanity. So what if we treated each other with the sacred regard and reverent attention God's living image is naturally due? What if we lived out of that vision? What might come of such a life of loving God through his image?

Alas, the powers of this world that hold themselves forth as if gods – thereby jeopardizing peace, prosperity, and life on earth – do their best to blind people's minds “to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the Image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Above us all, it's the Eternal Son who most perfectly reflects the Eternal Father, being “the radiance of his glory and the exact stamp of his essence” (Hebrews 1:2), who can say, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” (John 14:10). In Christ the Image, we see God utterly accessible and irrepressibly active. It is Jesus who, in human flesh, defines what it means to be truly and fully human; he images God in a way not even Adam and Eve could, for in the sight of God (who sees without restriction of time), “the first Adam is the imitation of the Second.”39 What it means to be human, what it means to be God's image, is defined by Christ, the Eternal Word, our template before time began. And though we became dilapidated and damaged images stripped of glory, our likeness to God effaced, in Christ we find a new humanity “which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). Thanks be to God! Amen.