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Beasts and all cattle: worms and feathered fowls

21 February 2014

2nd Sunday before Lent

Genesis 1.1-2.3; Romans 8.18-25; Matthew 6.25-end

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Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever. Amen.

EACH passage this week asks to be read out loud rather than silently, because hearing it helps to articulate its repeated internal theme.

Genesis has 32 action words and phrases here. We can domesticate this story, reducing it to an inventory of God's actions, or, if we let the internal rhythm drive the story forward through the repetition of "God . . .", it can lead us to marvel, as creation takes shape, moving in just nine verses from the cosmic to something we can get our feet on, before narrowing our gaze to birds and creepy-crawlies.

Repeated short sentences, "And it was so," "And God saw that it was good," hammer home that God brings only good things into being. Years ago, I was struck by the novelist Stephen Donaldson's portrayal, in The Wounded Land (1987), of the terror of a malicious force in creation. In his book, people never know whether sunrise will be safe or life-threatening.

In contrast, we can trust the goodness of God's creation, and the way that it exhibits the steadfast love of God, as we rely on it for security and sustenance. Within that context, the recent floods remind us about how fragile is the balance in the relationship humans have with nature; they can make it temporarily challenging to sense the presence of God in creation.

"Subdue it and have dominion" is best understood in the context in which Genesis 1 was written down. In the sixth-century world of exile in Babylon, this was a mandate of hope. God promised the exiles not perpetual landless existence, but their own land to subdue and care for. This was no licence to exploit the land, but a promise of a healthy and godly relationship with land which they did not then have.

God saw, time and again, that creation was good. Humans made it very good. So something had gone drastically wrong by the time Paul wrote to the Romans, because five times he referred to creation now groaning and yearning for freedom from bondage to decay. The Genesis creation story underlies his thinking, along with its story of human sin, which resulted in the earth's being cursed and its relationship with its human stewards distorted (Genesis 3.17-19, 4.10-12).

Yet Paul is not without hope. As so often with lectionary snippets, we must read the earlier verses. They speak of suffering with Christ, so that we might be glorified with him, and, from there, Paul moves seamlessly into the sufferings of the present age.

Creation is groaning, yes, but groaning in labour pains, because, like a woman in labour, unstoppable new life is coming to birth. Creation's healing is bound up with human salvation. Thanks to the work of Christ, creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God in their glory.

In Romans, the thrice-repeated words are "groan" (the third, variously translated, is in verse 26) and "wait": creation waits with eager longing; we wait with patience. Hope, waiting, and longing go together; it is possible to groan with hope and without worrying.

Jesus, however, was dealing with inveterate worriers. Six times he told them not to worry, which suggests that, even living around Jesus, the disciples hovered on the edge of fear, and were prone to fret about securing the basic necessities of life.

Jesus, whose words must be read in the context of vv.19-24 (which, in turn, alludes to Ecclesiasticus 29.8-11, where laying up treasure in heaven involves almsgiving), sent them back to look at creation - behold the birds, consider the lilies - the very creation that God pronounced good. The foundation for not worrying is the goodness of God. God could rest. So can we.

The collect's reference to our being made in God's image reminds us of a truth that human sin has not negated: the likeness of God in us may be tarnished, but not the image. We are capable of discerning God's hand in all God's works.

Since we pray for God to teach us to do that, we should give God the opportunity. If you have never taken ten minutes with a flower or bird, pondering it and letting ittell you of the goodness of God, make time this week. Snowdrops are appearing from barren soil, migrant birds will return from far continents: consider what they reveal of God. Grasping the goodness of God seen in creation will help us to wait with hope, and to strive for God's Kingdom, not to worry.

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