2nd Sunday before Lent

16 February 2017

Genesis 1.1-2.3; Psalm 136 [or Psalm 136.1-9, 23-end]; 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.

 

 

Blessed are you, Lord God,
our light and our salvation;
to you be glory and praise for ever.

 

From the beginning you have created all things
and all your works echo the silent music of your praise.
In the fullness of time you made us in your image,
the crown of all creation.

 

THIS is the majestic opening of Eucharistic Prayer G in Common Worship, ringing with the confidence of Genesis 1.1-2.3. The account of creation there deliberately distinguishes between the emergence of light and darkness, land and sea, plants, stars and planets, sea creatures, and birds and land animals under God’s direction, and the final event that produces humanity.

A formulaic sequence announcing each new phenomenon comes to a halt, before “then” announces the arrival of the creature who will bear God’s image (Genesis 1.4, 6, 9, 14, 20, 24, 26). Ronald Hendel points out that there is a brief moment when poetry almost takes over from prose:

 

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

 

(Genesis 1.27; “Genesis”, in The HarperCollins Study Bible, HarperCollins, 2006)

 

Much later, this verse becomes the picture and the reference point for those who proclaim that the restoration of human beings, who have fallen short of their exalted destiny, will come through putting on the image of Christ, the Second Adam (for example, Romans 5.12-end; 1 Corinthians 15.20, 50-55; Philippians 3.20-21).

Romans 8 extends that promise to the whole of creation, adding a good measure of practical realism. St Paul is convinced that God calls humanity to a glorious future (Romans 8.18), but one which, for reasons also within the divine purpose, will not be delivered immediately (Romans 8.19-21).

The complexity of this statement is helpfully unravelled by J. B. Phillips, who glosses it: “The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own. The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited — yet it has been given hope” (The New Testament in Modern English, Geoffrey Bles, 1960).

To hope in circumstances where the end cannot be seen, and where those involved do not have a full picture of what lies in between the present and the longed-for future, is of a different order from the general use of the verb in expressions of courteous expectation (“I hope you will be better soon.”) It is long and painful, like “labour pains”.

And yet it is also the thing that saves us (Romans 8.24); and contracted into that terse statement is everything that Paul holds most true: that Christ died for all (Romans 5.18), and that all who are baptised in Christ’s name are baptised into that death and raised to “newness of life” (Romans 6.3-5).

If we knew exactly what such “newness of life” entailed, we could hardly be said to be hoping for it. Entering into the promise of salvation means accepting the discipline of limitation, and patiently seeking the understanding that comes gradually on the journey of faith.

At first sight, the advice given by Matthew’s Jesus to his disciples and the listening crowd, when he allays their fears about material security, seems to contradict the patient steadiness and tenacity counselled by Paul. That is an illusion. Jesus might rather be said to be describing the proper way to wait for the revelation of the Kingdom of God — an outstandingly unseen hope (Matthew 6.25-33).

Here, the creation is not waiting in agony for its own release from bondage, but positively rejoicing in being what it is. The birds find food, the lilies are effortlessly beautiful, and the grass is abundant. The lesson to take from God’s attention to short-lived things is not that human life will also end, but that human life, specially privileged as the summit of creation, will be even more richly provided for than that of plants and wild creatures (Matthew 6.26-30).

Jesus has, in this narrative sequence, taught his audience how to pray for exactly what they need (Matthew 6.9-13). That prayer begins with the loving fatherhood of God and the desire for the Kingdom. With those priorities in place, everything else follows. Now, applied to the daily actualities of food and clothes, his listeners and later readers are challenged to live their faith by meaning what they pray.

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