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The Source of Hope
The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God's sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice — it was the choice of the one who subjected it — but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God's children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor paints up until now.
Long before our traditions around Christmas took hold, there were other festivals in the Northern Hemisphere. The summer had brought growth. The fall was a time of harvest, celebration, and storage. And then the work was done, and people prepared to tuck in for the next season. Winter brought barren earth, and the nights were long, dark, and cold.
As Gayle Boss reflected upon these early traditions, she noticed a theme of fear — and a response to that fear — emerge: "they watched the light dwindle, felt the warmth weaken ... as the sun sank and sank to its lowest point on their horizon, they felt the shadow of primal fear — fear for survival — crouching over them." They began to search for an answer to the fears growing in their hearts. In the midst of that impending darkness, people needed a source of hope.
And so around the time of the winter solstice, the darkest night of the year, people lit ritual fires to remember that spring would come again. The Christian faith connected these practices with the birth of Jesus Christ, the light of the world. We began celebrating the birth of Christ during this time of the year and celebrated its approach as Advent, a season not of dread but of hopeful expectation. We embraced the yule log and the evergreen as signs of resurrection, eternal life, warmth, and light. As the hymn goes, "in the bleak midwinter" the source of our hope was born.
The Archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput, defines hope as a choice, "a self imposed discipline to trust in God while judging ourselves and the world with unblinkered, unsentimental clarity." Hope is not a naïve sentiment or wishful thinking. The source of our hope is found at the intersection of our faithful trust in God and an unfiltered view of the reality that surrounds us. It doesn't shrink away from problems or difficulties, but enters into them confident that God will be there and will bring order, life, and joy out of the chaos.
When we truly look around with "unblinkered, unsentimental clarity," we discover that the planet around us is caught up in the same cycles of life and death, creation and destruction that we human beings are. These cycles are marked by the annual turning of the seasons that inspired fear and longing at the darkest, coldest times of the year. They are also evident in increasingly severe weather patterns: winter storms, flash flooding, droughts, and wildfires that wreak havoc and result in the destruction of nature, homes, businesses, and life. We recognize that the world around us often opposes life and harmony, and we trust that God will bring about something more.
Scientifically, the various seasons and weather we experience have to do with our position on the planet, the tilt of the axis of the earth, and our revolution around the sun. In my part of the world, plants sprout, grow, wither, and die, only to repeat the cycle endlessly year after year. I find that rhythm to be holy and good. Every winter is a time of Sabbath stillness that can be peaceful and beautiful, and then the turning of the season brings life out of the midst of death. Every spring is a glimpse of resurrection. Yet I am reminded of Gayle Boss's words that there is a sense of fear we also connect with the cold and barren times of the year. There is sadness in this time of ending, loss, and death. And so this is in particular a season when we reflect upon the longing in our hearts — and the promise within our faith — for an end to that cycle and the arrival of the abundant, everlasting life of God's kingdom.
When we imagine in our hearts what the kingdom of God might entail, too often we limit our vision to humanity only. Yet, as the Apostle Paul writes, "the whole creation waits breathless with anticipation ... [to] be set free from slavery to decay ... the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now" (Romans 8:19-22).
The vision of the God's kingdom that we hold in our hearts is a fulfillment of God's plan for the whole creation. Theologically, we are invited to imagine that the kingdom of God we prepare for every Advent season is a restoration of God's intention for the entire earth. It is the new creation. The story of faith we tell is about how the goodness and harmony of the original creation was broken and how Christ will knit it all back together. Advent calls all people of faith to not only wait for that Kingdom, but to actively bring it into being.
As I look out my window on a typical late-autumn day, most of the trees are bare aside from the pin oaks and evergreens. The sun is shining, but snow is predicted for the weekend. The wind chill is slightly below zero and when I stop and listen, I can hear the breeze blowing over the top of the chimney.
What might it mean for the whole creation to be waiting for the promise of abundant life?
The Stories of Creation
This world (and all that is in it) is so central to our faith that we have not one, but multiple stories of how this world was created in our sacred texts. In this study, we will explore from many angles the words of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 as we seek to understand God's intention for all of creation. It is amazing how these two chapters hold in tension two very different accounts, as well as the ways they deviate from the theories of modern scientific knowledge. Yet these Creation stories are each a powerful statement of faith based on what the writers knew about the natural world in which they lived.
At least for the two stories we find in Genesis, the authors didn't simply rely upon faith traditions, but looked around and observed everything they saw before they began to speak about the Creation. That is our task as well. We are called to seek the God we find in these texts and the claims they make about the created world and our place in it. And we are called to hold that wisdom alongside the knowledge of this world that grows and expands every day.
The first Creation story in Genesis (1:1–2:4a) tells us there was order and intent and purpose behind all that was made. Compared with other ancient myths where the cosmos is created out of violence and chaos, accidents and destruction, the God we claim acts with care and precision. Everything that results is good and holy.
In the second Creation story of Genesis (2:4b-25), we are invited to think more about the relationships involved: between God and humanity, humanity and nature, and human beings with one another. It highlights the interconnection of every living thing. We come from the topsoil. The plants and trees feed us. We are commanded to farm the garden and care for it. The animals are created for companionship and help for the first human until finally God forms the perfect companion from the very bones of the human's body. Every living thing is created by God to be intimately connected with every other. We simply cannot exist apart from the creation.
Together, these Creation stories in our Scripture invite us to believe that every single part of this creation is in the hands of the Creator and that every piece of this planet tells of God's goodness. As Jesus replies to the protestation of the Pharisees when the disciples sing praises, "If they were silent, the stones would shout" (Luke 19:40). Or, as we sing in the popular Christmas carol "Joy to the World," "heaven and nature sing. ... fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy."
Yes, the rocks would shout with joy if we were quiet. And if we stopped to listen, to pay attention, we just might hear the dirt speak. We just might hear each piece of creation telling of God's goodness.
Or we might hear the planet groaning. We might hear it tell us that those ideals of our Creation stories have been distorted by sin.
All earth is waiting.
The Cause of Frustration
Before I heard a call to ministry, I wanted to be a meteorologist.
As a child, I got sick to my stomach whenever there was a bad storm. My heart began to race and I got queasy. My whole body was filled with anxiety. While my childhood fear of storms seemed irrational, it actually led me to develop an interest in the weather. The more I learned about how clouds were formed and the impact of high or low pressure systems, the better I felt. That knowledge turned my apprehension into appreciation. And so I have learned to take seriously the science behind our climate and the impact of subtle changes in temperature, pressure, and wind streams.
We tend to limit our reflection upon questions of climate change or creation care to the scientific realm. And I know that there are some in this world who are skeptics about the nature or causality of climate change based on an interpretation of those scientific findings. But science is not the only field where understanding creation is important. As we saw above, the Scriptures placed an emphasis on this as well. Today, I am not a meteorologist or a climate scientist, but a pastor. So I want to invite us to dive into the depth of our Scriptures and our theological tradition. They also have something profound to say about the created world in which we live.
One of our guides this week is the Apostle Paul. Paul knew first-hand what it meant to have his life turned upside down by the good news of Jesus Christ. He made it his life mission to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God. What we discover when we read Paul, and in particular his letter to the people of Rome, is that he believed our salvation and redemption are intimately connected with the world we live in.
First, Paul believes that creation itself tells us who God is but that we refuse to honor the God we meet in this world (Romans 1:18-25). The amazing gifts of creation, with all of its diversity and abundance, should have cultivated in us gratitude and a spirit of reverence and worship. But we have turned instead to idols. We were supposed to live out the image of God and care for this world, but instead we have used and abused one another and this planet. We have neglected the fundamental truth of creation: that we belong to God; that it all belongs to God.
And so Paul describes how, through the sin of Adam, death has come into the world (Romans 5:10-17). In the New Interpreter's Bible (Vol. X), N. T. Wright wrestles with the complexity of what this means as he comments upon this passage. He asks whether death truly was a stranger in the world before Adam's sin. And he wonders whether this passage is about human death only, or all the ways in which sin and death wreak suffering and corruption in our created world. As we will explore in this chapter, Scripture seems to indicate that our human actions have consequences for all of creation.
The theologian Joseph Sittler claims that "we are all within the grip of three mighty structures which are transpersonal, everlasting, and universal." He names these as evil, demonic forces, and death itself. These are what have captured us, bound us by fear, and have us trapped in these natural laws of periodicity and violence. The very turning of the seasons, the decay of every person and living thing, the force that moves us toward "no" instead of "yes" — these are not God's intention for creation, but the reality of a post-Fall world.
Whatever was intended for the creation, with the tree of life and fertile land and those first humans holding dominion over it all, is not what we experience today. That first sin, that first rejection of God's intention for creation, has a lasting impact on the entire world. When we sin, we don't just imitate or repeat that original disobedience, but we behave according to a human disposition that has been fundamentally shaped by the first human sin. And it isn't just human nature that's been shaped by sin; the disposition of the whole created world has been altered and shaped by it as well.
Our faith explains the brokenness of creation by saying that when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit in the garden (Genesis 3:6-7), everything changed. We typically focus on the human impact of the Fall, but those consequences are for the entire planet. As the Lord God confronts Adam and Eve, there is not only punishment for the snake and the two humans, but for the very soil.
Cursed is the fertile land because of you;
"Fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy," Isaac Watts wrote. But he also captured in the lyrics of "Joy to the World" the longing of all creation for the curse of Genesis 3 to end. We hear the earth cry out every time we sing the words, "no more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground."
Theologically, we are called to consider the idea that, because human life is interwoven with this planet, our sin impacts the welfare of creation. As the prophets reminded the people of God, natural disasters, droughts, and destruction often came in the wake of human transgression. We find these stories all throughout our Scriptures, such as this one from Isaiah:
The earth dries up and wilts;
It is easy to point to man-made disasters like oil spills, water contamination, and forest fires and see this connection. But perhaps too quickly we explain away those ancient texts that remind us that the earth, the world, the heavens suffer as a result of human sin. Our Scriptures invite us to consider that destructive acts of nature like deadly hurricanes are not necessarily God's will, but reminders of the brokenness of all of creation. Our faith invites us to be open to the possibility that it is the sins of humanity that cause the torrential rain to fall and the harsh winds to blow. Our selfishness has brought death into the world (Romans 8:6).
Creation is longing for redemption, Paul finally says in our focus verses for this week. And it "was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice — it was the choice of the one who subjected it — but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay ..." (Romans 8:20-21). As we connect the dots of this faith story, we discover that our grasping and disobedience subjected all of creation to forces beyond our control. Because of our sin, the whole of creation was subjected to frustration, enslaved by decay, and trapped in the cycle of life and death.
And all the earth is waiting to be set free.
Labor Pains and Good News
One of those consequences of human sin, according to Genesis 3:16, is labor pains: "I will make your pregnancy very painful; in pain you will bear children." Women all across the planet cry out in frustration, "Thanks, Eve." I had the same reaction for a long time.
And then I stumbled upon an image that took my breath away.
It was drawn by Sister Grace Remington who is a member of the Cistercian Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey in my home state of Iowa. The image, "Virgin Mary Consoles Eve," depicts Eve, clad only in the flowing locks of her hair and clutching a piece of fruit. Her leg is entwined in the grip of a snake, her head hung in shame. Evil, sin, and death are her legacy. It is our legacy. But with one arm, she reaches out and places her hand on Mary's belly.
Mary stands there full of grace and mercy. She gently touches the face of Eve as if to tell her it is OK. She holds her other hand over Eve's and together they feel and experience the life of the One who was coming to redeem and restore all of the creation.
Yes, there would be labor pains. Yes, there would be suffering: that child born at Christmas would give up his life for the sake of the world, and sorrow would pierce Mary's heart. But there was also hope. The groaning of birth was not the same as the curse proclaimed on both the land and the serpent. Rather, through the suffering, God's love for the world would become known.
When Paul writes about the groaning of creation and all of God's children, he describes that pain as nothing compared with the "coming glory that is going to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18). And then in verse 22, he uses the Greek word synodino to portray this reality; a word used only once in Scripture to describe the agony of childbirth. Creation is suffering labor pains. Something new is about to be born.
Excerpted from "All Earth Is Waiting"
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Table of Contents
1. The Source of Hope,
2. Clear the Way,
3. Discovering Joy,
4. The Peace of the World,
5. God Moves into the Neighborhood,
Worship Resources for Advent and Christmas,