May 13, 2012 Easter 6 John’s Fifth Big Idea: the World

Probably the most famous – and, in my opinion, the best – fantasy book ever written is The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is actually made up of three books, and it is an epic story about a place called Middle Earth. Unlike most fantasy writers, Tolkien is a masterful writer, and he was also a Christian, so that even in the midst of stories about elves and dwarves there are reflections of the truth of who God is and how he works in his real creation. One of the most important threads of the story is that the whole world of Middle Earth finds itself in this particular time without a King. There is an ancient line of kings who ruled over all lands in past times, but for as long as anyone can remember the heirs of that ancient line have been gone. All the lands have been carrying on, ruling themselves as best they can, but as the years and generations have gone by, the world finds itself sinking deeper and deeper into the shadows of evil – and specifically, into the power of a desolate land in the south of Middle Earth, which is ruled by a powerful and very evil sorcerer.

There is a city in the land of men, the greatest city in Middle Earth, which has been in the care of a line of stewards for many generations, the stewardship of the great city handed down from father to son ever since the time of the last king. The city is called Gondor, and the last steward of Gondor is called Denethor. And as the power of evil looms darker and closer and more threatening over his land, Denethor begins to lose all hope. He hides away in his darkened tower. He no longer holds out any hope for the return of the true King, but he clutches all that he can of what he thinks belongs to him, the power he thinks is owed him, and his dying son, though he cannot save him. In the end he grasps the only thing he can still control, and he kills himself.

The problem is that Denethor had forgotten what his relationship to the world was meant to be; that the things and the people and the fate of his city did not belong to him, but had only been given into his care for a time. He had forgotten that the burden of the world was never on his shoulders alone, that it was not his task to save the world, but only to be faithful in his duties until the return of the rightful king, who would put everything to rights once again and rescue the city, and the rest of the world from evil once and for all. He had come to despise his role as steward, and in seeking to make himself king, he lost everything.

It is very much the same story we see in our own world ever since the Fall of mankind in the garden. God created Adam and Eve with a unique role in his new world – to be stewards, caretakers over all the other creatures, to name them, to nurture them, to stand before God and love and worship him as a representative of all creatures. Man was not just created as a supreme gardener and zookeeper; he was appointed as priest over all of creation.

The sin of Adam and Eve was to succumb to Satan’s temptation to forget the purpose for which they had been created, and instead, to try to step into God’s place, to become the king rather than the steward. “The only reason God told you not to eat that fruit,” the serpent told them, “was that he knew if you ate it you’d be just like him. He was just keeping you from being all that you could be.” And so they listened and doubted God’s goodness, and they ate, and all hell broke loose, quite literally. And ever since, our relationship to the world, which God intended as a beautiful and joyful relationship of love, is more of a love/hate relationship in which we are seduced by the things of the world at one moment and then destroy them in the next.

This is the reason that when we take a look at John’s next big idea, which is the World, John sounds a little schizophrenic. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to save it. But if we love the world or the things of the world the love of the Father is not in us. John’s teaching about the world is complicated, because our relationship with the world is a broken one, and he is helping us to understand the broken pieces, and put them together again.

Our problem with the world is that in our sinfulness, like poor old Denethor, we are forever prone to forgetting who we are. We are not God, and that means that the things of the world don’t belong to us. We were created to care for the world, but we have turned our dominion into domination. Instead of loving the things of creation as a fellow creature, we want to possess them as our own, to control them. Instead of naming God’s creatures, we want to stamp them with our own name. Instead of nurturing the life of creation, we want to suck the life from it.

That is what is at the heart of idolatry. Did you ever wonder about the golden calf the Israelites made when they had just escaped from slavery in Egypt? Why would the Israelites want to worship a lifeless chunk of metal when they had seen the true God part the waters of the Red Sea for them? It is because they controlled the shape and substance of the golden calf; to worship a god made by your own hands is to be a god yourself. And don’t we do the same thing ourselves – like Adam and Eve, in our broken human nature we are drawn to taste the fruits that put us in the driver’s seat. John names those fruits: the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and pride in possessions.

It is these fruits that we choose when we despise the fact that we are the stewards of creation, and try instead to become gods. We give ourselves over to our appetites, claiming for ourselves the things of the world that we crave. Instead of looking to God to fill us, we try to fill ourselves. Instead of receiving God’s love, we focus on loving ourselves by indulging our appetites. Instead of serving his creation as we were created to do, we try to force the creation to serve us.

And as mankind goes farther and farther from serving God, we think we are becoming more human, but instead we are losing piece by piece all the things that make us truly human. People in the world have given up their God-given position as priests and stewards and settled for mere slavery, because whenever we take the things of the world and  make them idols for our own use, we end up serving them. Seeking to become gods, we become slaves – of our wealth or our sexuality or our need for comfort or security; these things come to rule over us until they name us. Instead of Adam and Eve standing before the creatures in dignity, naming them as creatures of the Father, we define ourselves and one another by our economic status or our sexual orientation or our psychological disorders until our humanity fades away.  “This woman is a welfare mother and this man is gay and this child is a delinquent.” We look at one another and we see nothing but a label; we are no longer able to see the divine mark in one another.

But now, John tells us, God showed his great love for this broken world by sending his Son into the world so that we might come back to life through him. Like in the Lord of the Rings, the King has returned at last, and now the battle can truly be waged against the darkness that threatens the world. When mankind tried to overcome the world by their puny efforts they only ended up as slaves to the darkness.

But that wasn’t the end of the story; far from it. It is God’s purpose to recreate his broken world, to restore us to our place in his creation not only as stewards but as his children and heirs of all that belongs to the Son. And along with us, God will restore all creation to its original goodness – and more than its original goodness, because it will be established forever.

Everything that has worth, all beauty, all kindness, all justice, will have a place in the new creation; all that we love in this world, animals and birds, music and art, stars and mountains and trees and flowers, are being redeemed even now through Christ to have a place in his kingdom. They are being called to wholeness under the perfect and kindly dominion of Jesus, and we are called to have dominion with him. Paul wrote this in his letter to the Romans: “the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

Now, because the King has come into the world, the victory is assured. The light will completely vanquish the darkness. And all who put their faith in the King, who hail with joy the coming of the true Lord of all creation, will overcome all works of darkness in this world. The good and amazing news is this; when we finally lay down our straw crowns and bow before the true King, he raises us up, calling us his children and his friends, and he invites us to labor alongside him in the work of redemption.

John wrote that everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And our overcoming of the world is not merely survival – it is eternal and abundant life – and not merely life for ourselves, but life for all of that creation of which we were created to be stewards. And even more than that, now that we are children and heirs of God, our very lives are lived in Jesus, and all that we do in him, all acts of justice or compassion, all kindness and mercy, all works of beauty or honesty or understanding or healing, are in him. This is our victory in Christ: that all that we do in Jesus will find its way, recreated and renewed in some way we cannot yet even imagine, into the new, unshakeable and unshadowed kingdom of our Father.

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