Culture At Large

The Gospel in G: Goodness

Roger Nelson

Editor’s note: This is the first in an adapted sermon series tracing the arc of God’s story, as told through Scripture and the created world around us.

Have you ever felt connected to the transcendent? Has there ever been a moment when the busyness, boredom or banality was brushed back and you were buoyed with awe? 

At 19, I spent a weekend in the north woods of Michigan with a dear friend. We ran together, walked together and went for hoof-pounding horse rides together. We tried to suck every last breath of life out of a few late summer days. It was a manly, sweaty weekend. 

The last night we hiked to a bluff overlooking a valley stream. From that location there were no signs of civilization. With no fences, no lights, no power lines and no roads it felt wild and free. At dusk we watched deer feeding in the valley and as darkness enveloped us we lit a fire and talked about what was silly and whatever we knew of significance. With sleeping bags rolled out and the fire burning down, we stretched out on terra firma and looked up.

The night sky was soon perforated with stars. Bright stars brazenly speckled the clouds of distant galaxies. The universe seemed vast, porous, beautiful. Late into the night, early in the morning, we began to notice faint streaks of light that got brighter and brighter and began to take on color. Like giant piano keys they rolled across the sky in shades of green, purple and translucent white. It was aurora borealis, the Northern Lights. It shut us up. All of a sudden anything that we said seemed small and insignificant. We were just two bumps on the surface of the planet, looking up, as the Father of Lights played a silent concert of light.  

More than 30 years have slipped by since that night and yet it remains for me a mythic symbol of being overwhelmed by the goodness of creation and the gifts of nature, friendship and light. It was the clearest and closest I’d come to some sense that there was a God. Campfires, stars and aurora borealis do little to communicate much about the details of God, but I felt like I was looking up into the possibility of God. And I was aware of, for lack of a better term, my creatureliness.

Have you ever been overwhelmed? Have there been moments when the chatter and clatter of this life cleared and there was some connection to the transcendent?  Have there been moments when your breath was taken away by the wonder of it all? Or you sang or cried for the joy of it all? Or you were awash in the beauty of it all? Or you were broken by the mystery of it all and you didn’t know what to say?   

I would offer that the good news - the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ - begins with the goodness of the created order.

If you have, my guess is you long for the same again. My guess is it was connected to the created order. My guess is you know a sliver of what Job knew. For when God finally speaks up in the book of Job, He clears His throat, drags Job to the edge of the abyss, tells him to cinch up his shorts and then like thunder out cascades a caustic or comical catalogue of creation, asking Job to name his place in any of it. Humbled, shut up, overwhelmed - Job’s soul is silenced in awe. 

It is a wonderful passage. God doesn’t respond to the complaints or the charges. God doesn’t chastise for wrongdoing or challenge wrong thinking. God doesn’t answer questions or clear up confusion. God doesn’t beat down Job for demanding a hearing. God doesn’t rebuke the audacity of the dispute. God doesn’t offer reasons why. God doesn’t enter into the lament or the lawsuit that had been the nature of the discourse between Job and his friends. But God blasts a barrage of rhetorical questions that put Job in his place - that reminded him of his creatureliness. 

I would offer that the good news - the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ - begins with the goodness of the created order. It seems to me that what we know of God, how we experience God and how we engage God is more often than not first transmitted through creation,  through nature, through the image of God in another, through some glimpse of the essential goodness of this world. And then awe, or faith - no matter how fledgling or flimsy - takes root, gets a toehold and breathes a little.     

We most often experience the transcendent through the agency of creation. We experience God through the beauty, complexity, diversity, joy, vastness, power, silence and music of creation. This physical world is the garment of God. Or the matrix through which we encounter God. Or the lens through which we see God. Or the image through which we know God.

From the garden of Genesis to the city of Revelation, Scripture reveals a God who speaks through creation. The Psalmist puts it this way:

The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech, night after night they display knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words, no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the end of the world.

The Apostle Paul says it like this:

…since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - His eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made….

And, according to the Gospels, creation is so exclusively and extraordinarily good that when God wanted to communicate His love, He entered fully into the created order.

Have you ever caught a glimpse of the goodness of creation? Have you ever been overwhelmed and something beyond words, beyond the boundaries of reason, was loosed and awe tumbled in? Cherish those moments for there you stand with Job.

Maybe Job reminds us that, while we can’t produce awe, awe is foundational to faith. God doesn’t answer Job or pick apart the arguments. God doesn’t tell Job what to think or believe. God begins with creation. Like a master teacher He asks wave upon wave of questions that toss Job on the shores of awe. God, with a colorful kaleidoscope of images and a relentless set of questions, sets His place as Creator and clarifies Job’s place as creature. And, there is rightfully some distance, some fear, some silence, some mystery, some awe. 

And that sense of awe is a gift. It can’t be manufactured or planned. Faith can’t be forced or finagled. It is a gift to be brought to the edge of the abyss to behold something larger, deeper, more real and more alive than all the other moments of our lives. In the thump of a heart or the flutter of a wing or the tenderness of a tear, awe takes hold and faith finds a footing.

Abraham Joshua Heschel gets at it this way:

There is thus only one way to wisdom: awe. Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a marketplace for you. The loss of awe is the great block to insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God. Wisdom comes from awe rather than shrewdness. It is evoked not by calculation but in moments of being in rapport with the mystery of reality. The greatest insights happen to us in moments of awe.…They who sense the wonder share in the wonder….They who keep holy the things that are holy shall themselves be holy.

Not too long ago I was canoeing and camping in the Canadian wilderness with the same dear friend with whom I saw the Northern Lights. Better than 30 years later we are still talking, laughing and trying to get at the truth. In a cathedral of towering evergreens and glacial lakes, as loons let loose lonesome songs and eagles soared overhead, my friend said repeatedly: “It is a gift. It is a gift. Ours is to notice and give thanks.”

Let us begin there. It is a gift. Let us notice and give thanks. May our eyes and hearts be open to the goodness of creation. May we catch a glimpse of the hand of God traced in creation.  May we see in creation something beyond what we can fully know or absorb. May we protect, care for, conserve and tend after this good earth. May we join John Calvin, who writes:

….wherever you cast your eyes, there is not a spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of His glory.… this skillful ordering of the universe is for us a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Faith, Theology