Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Epic Narrative of New Creation

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, ‘Let there be light; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Gen 1:1-4)

Thus, the epic narrative of creation begins.  The story of creation will twist and turn, with ups and downs, highs and lows, and a good few diversions and dead ends along the way.  In fact, just a few verses after the journey begins, we read the first account of the fall.  And then the next, and the next, and the next.  From Genesis chapters 3-11, humanity – all human beings - not just one couple in a garden, fall by taking their eyes off of their good creator and fixing them on themselves and the rest of creation.  This idolatry leads to more and more de-relational and de-creational sin. 

Though sinful humanity rebels against him, God doesn’t give up on mankind or his creation.  He sets in motion a rescue operation, whereby humankind and the creation will be set free from sin and decay.  Beginning with the call of Abraham, the Lord creates a people for himself, a people through whom all of the nations of the earth will find blessing.  But the story of Israel is itself fraught with sin and rebellion.  Kings and prophets are sent, without much long-term impact, and as time goes by, it becomes obvious that God will have to act in a new and dramatic way to reverse the curse of sin and destruction unleashed upon his wonderful world. 

The writings found in the prophet Isaiah look forward to a time when things will begin to work right again.  This new age is described in a variety of ways.  In Isaiah 11, we read,  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…and a little child shall lead them…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:1-9). 

Later on, Isaiah goes onto say in chapters 25 & 26, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth…Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.  O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!  For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead.”  (Isaiah 25:6-8 & 26:19).

About ten chapters later, Isaiah says this, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.  He will come with a vengeance, with terrible recompense.  He will come and save you.’  Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:3-6). 

Eventually, in Isaiah 65 and 66, this transformed reality is described as new heavens and a new earth.  “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people with delight…no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress…They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.  Thus says the Lord: Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool…They shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord…and I will take some of them as priests and as Levites, says the Lord.  For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the Lord; so shall your descendants and your name remain.  From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 65:17-25, 66:1, & 66:20-23).

There are other Old Testament passages that say similar kinds of things, but
Isaiah gives us a pretty good idea of what many Jews of the 1st Century were expecting when the Kingdom of God would finally come and God’s will would finally be done on earth, as in heaven. 

The writer of the gospel of John paints a portrait of new creation for us through his seven signs.  The seven signs demonstrate that what Isaiah’s prophesy anticipated, was beginning to take place through the life and ministry of Jesus.  The abundant wine of Isaiah 25 is alluded to in John 2 when Jesus turns water to wine.  The healing of the official’s son in John 4, the healing of the lame man in John 5, and the healing of the blind man in John 9 remind us of the restoration to health that Isaiah 35 anticipates.  The feeding of the five thousand in John 6 points to God’s feast described in Isaiah 25.  When Jesus comes to his disciples, walking on the water in John 6, echoes of Isaiah 35’s description of God coming to save his people reverberates in one’s mind.  And just as Isaiah 25 and 26 look forward to a time when death is swallowed up forever and the earth gives birth to those long dead, so Lazarus’ resurrection in John 11 points to a day when the dead in Christ will rise to eternal life. 

The fact that seven signs are selected to awaken faith in Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, looks back to the Genesis story of the seven days of creation.  But the gospel of John retells this story with a twist.  This isn’t just the old creation story, this is the story of new creation – the new heavens and the new earth that Isaiah 65 and 66 point us to.  We discover in John 1:51 that Jesus is the ladder, the bridge between heaven and earth.  Just as the temple had been the place where heaven and earth came together in Israel’s history, now Jesus is the place where heaven and earth unite.  In 1:46, the writer of John’s gospel invites us to come and see…come and see this story of new creation.   

One can’t escape the clear echo of Genesis chapter 1 in John 1:1-5.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Just as the Spirit hovered over the primeval waters of chaos in Genesis 1, so the Spirit descends upon the baptismal waters of Jesus in John 1:32-34. 

After passing through the seven signs mentioned earlier, we arrive at the climax of the gospel in chapter 19.  On the sixth day of Jesus’ Passover week, his dead body is taken down from the cross, and he rests on the Sabbath, the seventh day, in a garden tomb.  So, it’s no surprise that after Jesus rises from the dead on the eighth day, the first day of the new creation, Mary confuses Jesus for the gardener.  In John 20, we find ourselves back in the garden, back in Genesis, but this is a new genesis story, a story of regeneration.  As God breathed the breath of life into the man in Genesis 2, so Jesus breathes on his disciples and they receive the Holy Spirit in John 20:21-22.  The writer of the fourth gospel wants us to see that in the person of Jesus - through his life, death, and resurrection - God’s new creation has been launched.  The new creation has broken in, but it has yet to come to completion. 

We are living between the times, in the already, but not yet.  We live in the overlap of two ages – the present evil age, and the age to come, when God will renew, restore, and recreate all things.  Another John, John the prophet caught a glimpse of what that day will be like in the writing that we call Revelation.  He describes what he saw in Revelation 21. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; and they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’  And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’  Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’  Then he said to me, ‘It is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.  Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” (Revelation 21:1-7).

When God’s recreation of the cosmos is complete, he will dwell with us and we will be his people – living, worshiping, reigning and serving in his presence forever.  But, for those of us in Christ, God’s Spirit already dwells within us.  As the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, if anyone is in Christ, there is new creation.  We don’t have to wait until Jesus returns to live meaningful, worthwhile lives.  There’s no reason for us to live our lives bound by the death and decay of the old creation - we don’t have to live lives of sin and slavery - we are free to live lives rooted in the new creation - now.  Eternal life, abundant life, begins when we rise from the waters of baptism and will continue when we rise from the dead in the age to come.  And it won’t be long until our King returns and the new creation is finally brought to completion.  John’s revelation ends like this... “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.”  (Revelation 22:20-21). - Shay

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