February 25, 2013 — Are we rescuing souls off a damned planet? Fleeing a sinking ship? Does the world really matter to God?
The mission of the church must be shaped by a deep understanding of the value of the world God made. Sharing Christ’s mission means sharing his affection for the world. And that affection immerses God’s people in the life of the world, grieving its brokenness and celebrating its life.
As obvious as all this may sound, expressions of mission often downplay the value of the world. The great revivalist D. L. Moody once said, “I look at this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can. God will come in judgment and burn up this world. . . . The world is getting darker and darker; its ruin is coming nearer and nearer. If you have any friends on this wreck unsaved, you had better lose no time in getting them off.’”
Our mission, in contrast, is shaped and deepened by a robust theology of creation. In its original context, Genesis 1 challenges worldviews that diminish the value of the world. It challenges the assumptions of Israel’s ancient Near East (ANE) neighbors, who viewed the world as an accidental consequence of the life of the gods. In Babylonian thought, for example, night fell as the sun god Shamash traveled through the netherworld, giving light and food to its miserable residents. For ancient Egyptians, the sun god Re travelled on his night barque. Stars served as oarsman and demons attacked him on his journey.
On the one hand, the world’s relation to the ANE gods suggests a certain order and reliability. On the other hand, if the character and morality of the gods were no better than the character of humanity, life could be unpredictable. The gods could be good or bad, joyful or belligerent. The question of which god to placate at a given time was difficult to answer.
A Whole New World
Using the motifs and structures of its surrounding culture, Genesis 1 gives the world and humanity a serious upgrade.
Day 1: And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good (vv. 3-4). Unlike the unpredictable gods of the ANE, Israel’s God speaks with creative authority. Design and order pervade; life can be lived with confidence.
Day 2: And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water” (v. 6). In Babylonian mythology, Marduk, the chief deity, slays the goddess Tiamat, who represents water. He severs her corpse in two; the halves of her body form the watery sky above and the sea below. For Israel the world is not the collateral damage of cosmic violence but a gift.
Day 3: And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” . . . And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation.” . . . And God saw that it was good (vv. 9-12). In the world of the ANE, evil and instability lurked. But Genesis 1 states seven times—the symbolic number of completeness—that creation is “good.”
Day 4: And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky.” . . . God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night (vv. 14-16). In the ANE the sun and moon are divine. For Israel they are creatures in the symphony of creation. Lest they be worshiped, the author even avoids using their names.
Day 5: And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures.” . . . So God created the great creatures of the sea (vv. 20-21). In the ANE, sea dragons are powerful rivals whom the Canaanite gods conquer. Here the “great creatures of the sea” are simply aquatic animals created by God. Creation is non-threatening and stable.
Day 6: Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness . . .” (v. 26). In the ANE, humankind was created as an afterthought to provide the gods with food by offering sacrifices of produce and animals. Genesis reverses the roles: humanity is the climax of creation, privileged to image God to the world, which is shaped for the benefit and delight of humanity, as humanity, in turn, exercises its dominion on God’s behalf. This is one of the biggest differences between the ANE’s worldview and that of Israel.
The creation account in Genesis 1 not only explains how we got here but challenges the prevailing worldview. It asks fundamental questions: What is this world like? What is the purpose of humanity? And then it answers them by waving a giant banner over the whole world that says this world matters to God!
Loving the World to Life
I recall listening to a man at a Christian men’s convention sharing how he’d struggled to feel purpose in his work. He was a carpenter. The man told us how he’d finally found direction and purpose by becoming a Bible study leader at his church. Now, the man said, he is living faithfully.
While we can certainly affirm the value of leading Bible studies, the root of this man’s discontent was not wrong activity but wrong understanding. He had undersold the value of the world and failed to realize that being a carpenter was his primary witness to the world. In working skillfully with wood, he calls attention to Christ’s powerful and creative reign. He advertises Christ’s lordship by relating to others a way that challenges idols of selfishness, sensuality, and individualism. The shape of his life is a witness to the cross and resurrection.
What this man expressed at the conference represents a retreat from the world that ignores the biblical teaching on creation. Ultimately such an approach renders the church’s witness irrelevant by consigning faith to a “spiritual” realm that has little to do with life.
On the other hand, a congregation that undergirds its mission with a robust theology of creation realizes that it displays to the world most fully the gracious lordship of Christ during the week in offices, mothers’ groups, cafés, trucks, hospitals, and advocacy groups. From Monday to Saturday the church bears witness to the restorative reign of Christ, loving what Christ loves and challenging what Christ challenges.
How can we embark on this kind of mission? This kind of mission has affection for the world as its impulse. Here is a fierce loyalty to what has been made, to the stuff of this world. We are loyal to the world because God has made it with care and delight. And there remains much to love, even in the most fallen of creatures. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”
Such loyalty to creation reflects the loyalty of Christ. For this world has been created with care and redeemed at a cost. In the death and resurrection of Christ, God has declared his affection and loyalty for the world, securing its future. God’s own mission compels his followers to be immersed in the life of the world, calling attention through word and deed to his restorative reign.