(a sermon for September 22, 2013, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost; second in a series, based on Deuteronomy 30:11-20)“You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image, and set before each one the ways of life and death.”
It was way back in the summer of 2002, and it stands in my memory as perhaps the most significant event of that year, if not the entire decade: that incredible August day when my family and I got to see and experience …the world’s largest axe!
That’s right, you heard me …the world’s largest axe, which at 60 feet high, 23 feet wide and weighing in at seven tons, stands as an imposing presence along the shoreline of the St. John River in the sleepy little town of Nackawic, New Brunswick, Canada! And the amazing thing is, we could have easily missed it! We were traveling with friends, returning from a day spent at a nearby historical village; and driving along the Trans-Canada Highway every few miles you’d see these huge signs: “25 kilometers to the World’s Largest Axe,” “Just 10 Kilometers to Nackawic, Home of the World’s Largest Axe,” and “Be Sure Not to Miss the World’s Largest Axe, Next Exit.” Well, even though we were pretty tired by that point in the trip, we couldn’t very well pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
So we took the exit to see this thing – and it was impressive, to say the least – so impressive that I have included a picture of it in your bulletin this morning! We got out of the car, we walked around it and took pictures; our children wedged themselves underneath it so they’d look as though they’d been chopped in half! And finally, we all just sort of stood there silently marveling at its grandeur, each one of us pondering the same question:
Why? What was the point of building “the world’s largest axe?”
Actually, there’s an answer to that – on the blade of the axe, there’s a plaque that says in effect that this work of art had been created in celebration and thanksgiving for the forest that surrounds Nakawic, the source of industry in that community for generations. So there you go; it was worth the trip just to see this tribute to both the beauty and the usefulness of God’s creation; the fact that it holds a world record was just a plus! Not to mention the fact that it serves as a towering parable as to the ways of our God!
Let me explain: you see, all works of art, be they masterpieces or kitsch, have a reason to be; each one is created with some sort of purpose in mind. Perhaps it serves as a remembrance or a memorial; or as a means to inspire those who see it to action or to new ways of thinking. It could be intended to awaken the senses or stir emotions; or it might exist purely for the sake of entertainment (as well as luring gullible tourists to Nacawic, New Brunswick!).
Whatever its form, art is a form of physical, emotional and spiritual communication: and whatever type of canvas he or she uses, an artist has a purpose for what’s being created. So when you think about this, it follows that the very one who is the Supreme Artist, our God who has called “the worlds into being,” is also the one who sets before us – we who are his work of art – the ways of life and death.
It is, in fact, one of the first affirmations we make upon confessing a faith in God, and it is also the first assertion of Holy Scripture: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is the bold declaration that everything we know – the earth, sky and sea, this entire universe and everything within it – is the work of one Eternal Spirit. Understand, it is not a scientific or even historical explanation for creation that we’re setting forth here, but rather a way to faithfully express in wholly inadequate human terms the mystery and miracle of our very existence. We’re talking here about what theologians refer to as creation ex nihilo, that is, creation out of nothing: the truth that before the heavens and earth existed in any form, there was nothing; and that something, someone, had to begin the process of creation. We believe that it was the Lord our God who called the worlds into being, and that indeed, it was good …very good; and that it was, and still is, a work of art.
After all, here was the One who, in the words of the prophet Amos, “made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning… who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth.” (5:8) Here is the one who made the hippopotamus and the crocodile and the mountain goat; who laid the foundation of the earth “when the morning stars sang together.” (Job 38:7) And here is the one who created human beings after his own likeness; which is to say, we were created by God’s own envisioning, breathing the breath of life into our lungs and making each of us the very model of divine creativity!
There’s a tendency in today’s culture to suggest that God is to be found in every one of God’s creations – in other words, God is in the rock, God is in the tree, God is in the sun, and so on. As Christians, we don’t believe that any of these things, living or dead, is God (this is referred to, by the way, as pantheism, and it is the belief of some religions). We do believe, however, that all these things may well tell the glory of God. If you’ve ever stood on a mountain summit and looked in awe at the expanse below, or felt the power of the wind billowing out sails to push your vessel across the waves; or, for that matter, if you’ve ever held a tiny child so close to you that you can feel its heartbeat and breathing, then I would submit to you that you’ve felt the creative power of God!
It’s amazing and humbling all at the same time! Genesis is very quick to tell us, after all, that we were formed out of the dust on the ground, and it’ll be to dust we shall return – which, according to Roger Shinn, in his book entitled, “Confessing our Faith,” is “a reason for some modesty about our status [in creation]. Yet,” he goes on to say, “our life comes from the breath of God [and that’s] a reason for thanksgiving and wonder at the marvel of our existence.”
So creation, of which you and I are a part, is a work of art, and God is the artist; and as with every artist, God has a purpose in mind for his creation. But the question is, what is that purpose? Why are we here on this earth, what is the reason for our living, and how do we know what we’re supposed to be doing while we are?
Very complicated questions, as old as creation itself; and made all the more convoluted by the fact that God also created us with that pesky little thing called “free will!” That’s right, God sends us forth into the world with the freedom to choose and to act; and moreover, bestows us with the capacity to respond to God’s creative love with creativity of our own, which, of course, makes for endless possibilities and opportunities for nurturing and shaping our world; but, as human history has shown us, can also lead to great danger!
And that’s the rub, isn’t it? God-given freedom means we have “the capability to make decisions, both good and bad.” Quoting Roger Shinn again: “God has given us a portentous responsibility. We are meant to create; we can also destroy. [And] it is easier to destroy than create.”
Certainly this applies to how we have deal with our stewardship of the rest of God’s creation; it says a great deal on how we often work out our relationships with one another; how we gird ourselves as communities and nations; and yes, how you and I stand in our relationship to God. The bottom line is that everything we do by word or deed; every choice you and I make either works in partnership with God’s purpose for his creation, or else stands in opposition to it. We are free, beloved; the question for each one of us is always how we choose to act upon that freedom; for in faith, such choices can truly be a matter of life and death.
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” So said the Lord to Moses and the people of Israel; and these are still the options of human life that are before us. We either respond to God’s creative power and love by “loving the Lord [our] God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments,” choosing life and embracing the blessings of God as we go; or else we turn our hearts away from God, which is inevitably the way of hardship, struggle, curses …and death. You see, from the very beginning God’s intent and purpose for this work of art called creation has been LIFE; life that is abundant and full; life that is eternal; but life that has always remained our choice to accept.
We need not look far to see that are many who choose death over life; those who would yield body and spirit to that which would destroy them: anger, fear, hatred, violence, addictions of every horrible variety. There are those whose arrogance leads them to believe that such things save them from the world and from themselves; even when the truth is always that apart from God we flounder and fall. However, those who choose life; those who would immerse themselves in God’s envisioning of human existence and choose to live out their days “holding fast” to a relationship with their creator, these are the ones who find themselves in a place of blessing.
This is not to say that there will be neither misfortune nor struggle in life – but it does mean that in whatever life brings, you’ll face it with God; that day by day, you’ll walk with God, and also work creatively with God, bringing love, hope and purpose to that life, and to the world around us.
Did you notice in our reading this morning, how we’re told that “this commandment …is not too hard for [us], nor is it too far away.” In other words, one need not look toward heaven to find the way of life; one need not travel to the farthest reaches of the earth to find truth; we only need look around us and within our own hearts for what God has already placed there.
Isn’t it interesting that our life, our hope and our very purpose in living can be found right in this very moment, right here in this space where we are; given to us by the same God who has created heaven and earth, who has breathed life into each one of us, and who even now desires to be close to us and for us to have his blessing; and who gives us the very pathway to that blessing, that “will of righteousness” declared to us through laws and prophets and apostles!
That’s the point of it; this is what God wants; the reason for everything God the Supreme Artist continues to do in creation: it’s simply God’s “good pleasure” to bring us closer now and forever to him. As we say in our affirmation of faith: “You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.”
It’s always been God’s purpose for us to choose life; and God does everything He can to assure that we do: even to the point of sending his only Son into the world that we might have eternal life. But we’ll talk about that later.
For now, let us rejoice in the wonder of creation: and, seeking the creator, choose the ways of life.
Thanks be to God! AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry