“The Day Creation Fell Apart”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
April 14, 2017
Back in 1993, St. Louis experienced what many at the time called 500-year floods. The Mississippi River and the Missouri River both rose to heights not seen in many generations! Now, this flooding occurred about a year after the state of Missouri passed a law allowing for riverboat gambling. A number of preachers at the time drew a line between those two dots and declared that this was God’s judgment upon riverboat gambling. Now never mind that the riverboats were the only things that survived the flood, after all, they float! It would seem that if this was God’s judgment against riverboat gambling, that lightning or something like that would have been more effective. Of course, this is not the only instance when people draw such conclusions (for example, Hurricane Katrina was seen as God’s judgment against New Orleans).
Now, this story may sound a bit humorous to us as if God were sitting on a cloud casting down lightning bolts in retaliation for human behavior and perhaps doing so in an arbitrary manner. And this seems all the more the case as we live in a world where God’s wrath is questioned and jettisoned as that of a cartoon character. Perhaps as an unintended consequence of the Reformation, and a testimony to its success, most people believe that God is loving but do not believe that he gets angry.
But these instances do raise important questions related to the wrath or judgment of God. Does God get angry? If so, why? How does he express that anger or judgment? And upon whom? Many of these questions find their answer in what happened today, Good Friday, with the death of Jesus around AD 30. It forces us to confront the seriousness with which God considers sin and, more importantly, what he does about it.
One of the themes throughout our Lenten series, “The Art of Living By Faith,” has to do with how God works in creation and through creation in order to carry out his purposes. This applies both to the expression of God’s wrath as well as the manifestation of his love and blessing. We can put it quite simply: When God blesses, creation flourishes and life abounds. When he curses or judges, creation falls apart and life ceases to exist. Throughout the Bible, we have specific statements identifying God’s blessing and curse. We see this from the very first pages of Scripture.
In Genesis 1, God blessed the earth, and what happened? It sprouted and blossomed with life! He blessed the animals and humans and what happened? They became fruitful and multiplied in number! As with the blessing, so also with the curse. After Adam and Eve sinned, God cursed the earth, the very earth from which we were created and given life. But now the very earth that had been created to give us life grinds us back into its dust. The creation was “subjected to futility,” as Paul says in Romans 8. We see it all happen again with the flood. Upon seeing the pervasiveness and destructiveness of evil on earth, God regretted that he ever created life. And so he judged that evil. And what happened? Creation fell apart; it came undone. The earth opened up with water, the skies opened up with water. And all the distinctions of land, air, water that God had created were erased. We see the same pattern occur time and again throughout the Old Testament. Consider Jeremiah 12 where the birds are swept from the land, “Because of the evil of its residents, animals and birds have been swept away, for the people have said, ‘He cannot see what our end will be’” (Jer. 12:4 CSB).
We see similar things happen today. But let me be clear about one thing. Without a word of revelation from God, we cannot and should not identify a particular tragedy as being God’s judgment on a particular action. But we can speak in a more general way because we know that both the blessing and curse of God is embedded in creation. They impact us often times subtly and slowly. But at times the blessing and the curse of God erupt suddenly and dramatically.
For example, what we see happen in the Old Testament happens in our bodies (as part of creation). We carry God’s creative blessing as well as his judgment within our bodies. God gave us life through our parents. And he sustained and nourished our lives as our bodies and minds grew into adulthood. At the same time, we can see at work within our bodies the curse working toward other ends. Our bodies slowly fall apart, no matter how healthy one may be. Interesting how we use that term, isn’t it? “I’m falling apart. My life is falling apart.” And then it happens finally with death as our bodies fall apart into so many organic materials decomposing into the ground from which we were made. Thus we both experience life and yet move toward death.
And because of us, the earth suffers as well. The earth itself carries both that blessing and curse. Because of God’s blessing, the earth has a stable orbit, babies are born, vineyards grow, life springs forth year after year despite the presence of sin and evil. At the same time, the curse embedded in the earth that makes our lives filled with toil and worries occasionally erupts in ways that cause widespread death. These are not necessarily punishments for specific sins as if some deserved them more than others. When we see them, we can only say, “There but for the grace of God I go.”
And we see all of this love and wrath manifested by God within creation by what took place on Good Friday in the death of Christ. God pours out his wrath upon his one-of-a-kind son, and he dies in his body, his created body, the body he took on from his mother, Mary. And so we read in the Gospels that Jesus gave up his spirit, his breath. His body falls apart. It stops functioning. It stops moving. And creation does not remain unaffected. Creation suffers too. The sky darkened and the earth quaked. Creation fell apart. It ripped apart at the seams. Jesus’s body grew limp. He was taken down from the cross, wrapped, and placed into a stone tomb, perhaps carved out of a hillside.
But on this day, when we consider the death of Christ, we need to do more than dwell on the physical agony that he endured. You know what I mean, the graphic descriptions of nails through his hands, the dehydration, the asphyxiation as a result of hanging by his arms. In terms of purely physical suffering, one could argue that many people both before and after the death of Christ suffered incredible agony and for much longer than six hours (indeed, for days and weeks) as the result of devious tortures invented by their tormenters. The physical agony is not what makes Jesus’s death unique or extraordinary. Now, I don’t intend to take anything away from the physical agony that Jesus suffered upon the cross. But what made his suffering and death absolutely unique in human history is that in his body, in his created human body, Jesus experienced the full outpouring and venting of God’s wrath upon the entire human race from Adam and Eve to the present day. The wrath which God could use to annihilate the world and all living creatures within by withdrawing his sustaining hands is experienced by Jesus. Consider his words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why have you abandoned me? The wrath of God is being abandoned by God rather than being embraced by God. And when God abandons us or his creation, everything returns to nothingness.
God withdraws his support and turns his back upon the human race and his creation. But he does so to Jesus in our place. And so Paul writes (Rom 5:8), “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Died for us? What does that mean? Jesus died in our place. He died so that we would not have to endure God’s eternal displeasure and disappointment.
The Scriptures describe this act in which Jesus took our place and died for us as an atoning sacrifice or a “propitiation.” That is, Jesus is the one who turns aside God’s wrath. He deflects God’s anger off of us and onto himself. Consider the analogy of a lightning rod. Just as a lightning rod attracts a bolt of lightning, absorbs it, and dissipates it until it is no more, so Christ does for us. Like a lightning rod, Jesus on the cross attracted the wrath of God to himself so that it would not strike us. Then he absorbed it and dissipated it until it was no more. He did so by dying. And because it was no mere man who died, but the very Son of God in the flesh, he absorbed God’s wrath against all humankind—and he did so in his creaturely, created body!
And as God turned his back upon Jesus, so he turns his loving face toward us.
What does this mean for the art of living by faith?
It means that we have the certainty of God’s love for us. Look how he demonstrated it and acted upon it so that we might live forever! He sacrificed his Son. That’s how much he wanted you and me. That’s how much he wanted us to enjoy the benefits of his love and gift of life! We may take this for granted today. Many of us have heard it since childhood, but consider what it was like for people who lived in another place and time.
In the years preceding Luther’s Reformation, a German monk named Dietrich Kolde wrote in the preface of a Mirror of a Christian Man that he had found three things that troubled his heart. The first was that he knew he would die. The second troubled him more for he did not know when he would die. The third troubled him most of all, for he did not know where he would go when he died. This captures nicely the anxiety of that age.
In the sixteenth century, people’s lives were often shaped by the reality that they would stand before the judgment seat of Christ on the Last Day. They had better prepare to “meet their maker,” as we used to say. They were reminded of that future awaiting them every time they passed the cemetery on the way to church. For at the top of the archway over the gate into the cemetery was a statue of Jesus sitting on the judgment seat. This is what awaited them! In order to help them prepare for that day, guidebooks were written on the art of dying. How should one prepare for death and set things right in order to meet one’s maker? In fact, what some feared the most (next to not knowing where they would end up) was a quick and unexpected death. For that meant that they would have no time to prepare for death and meeting with Christ.
How different from our day when the last thing some want is a long, protracted, and painful death. Some would prefer to be taken quickly and unexpectedly! Perhaps it is a way to avoid the thought of death and the questions it forces us to ask. But as Christians, we need not shy away from those questions. Because the Reformation uncovered the comforting message of the Gospel, you and I know today that we need not be afraid of facing the wrath of God or Christ as Judge. For Jesus himself has met and endured the wrath of God for us and dissipated it until it is no more. We are safe and secure beneath the umbrella of his cross. The art of living by faith means that whenever doubts creep into our hearts, we respond, “Christ died for me so that I need not die an eternal death! My sins are forgiven. God is no longer angry with me. And I know where I am going to be when I breathe my last, with the Lord in Paradise.” God grant this for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of his resurrection. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Charles Arand
Copyright © 2017, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
Permission granted to the purchaser for congregational use.
Any other republication or redistribution requires written permission from Concordia Seminary.
Adapted by Rev. Michael Coons