Given By Grace
The heavens are telling...
“What must we do?” That was the question posed to the Dutch theologian Hendrik Kraemer at a crucial time in Holland’s history when Christians found themselves on opposing sides on the battlefield. Kraemer is reported to have replied with these unforgettable words:
“I cannot tell you what you must do, but I can tell you who you are.”
With profound insight Kraemer had gone right to the heart of the matter. Our self-image—how we see ourselves in relation to others, in relation to God and in relation to the rest of the universe—will directly affect how we act in everyday life. This is particularly important when we find ourselves facing critical issues. So, we ask ourselves: Who do we think we are? The writer of Ps 8 wrestled with that very question, and came face to face with an amazing insight:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet . . .
The contemplation of God’s total creation reveals to us a sobering and yet an exhilarating truth: In the whole scheme of things we are as nothing, yet in the eyes of God we are precious beyond all description. In his Small Catechism Luther puts it succinctly:
“I believe that God has created me together with all that exists.
God has given me and still preserves my body and soul…
all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life.
God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all!”
The Small Catechism, The First Article
Creation as God’s gift of grace (Genesis 1:1–2:25)
Ever since ancient times, people all over the world have been telling their stories about the origin of the universe. These narratives are much more than theories about “how things came to be.” They are confessions of faith—deeply held convictions regarding God, regarding the world and regarding the believer’s place in relation to both. Those who know other such creation stories will find it instructive to share and compare them in order to discover how people of various faiths have understood themselves in relationship to their god and their world.
The Book of Genesis presents not just one, but two creation stories. In both accounts, God acts out of pure grace toward every creature, even before that creature comes into being. But the two stories also differ from one another in important details.
The first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:4a)
The creation story in Genesis 1 reads like a poem of seven verses. It is a hymn that celebrates the good news that God created everything that exists. Beginning in a situation of chaos (1:1), the Creator proceeds to establish order and then to fill the space with planets and stars, the sea with fish and the earth with plants, birds, wild animals and livestock. All of this, God accomplishes effortlessly simply by speaking and “calling” for creatures to appear or to be brought forth.
Of special significance in this first creation story is the sevenfold divine affirmation that everything that God created was “good, very good.” This story does not entertain a dualistic world view. God and the world are not opposed to one another. On the contrary, God appreciates, loves and blesses not only humanity (1: 28), but also the animals (1:22) and even the earth (1:24f.). They all are invited to “bring forth” and so to become God’s agents in the act of creation itself.
That is not to say, however, that all of creation stands on an equal footing before God. At the obvious high point of the story, God decides to create humanity “in our image” (1:26), and so to establish an especially intimate relationship with humankind. God even entrusts to humans the divine prerogative of exercising responsibility for the care and welfare of every living thing (1:28b).
According to this story, all of creation is the object of God’s love and protection, and humanity—the high point of creation—enjoys a position of responsibility and trust to reflect the divine purpose.
The second creation story (Genesis 2:4b-25)
The second creation story is focused almost exclusively on the human being, the first of God’s creation (2:7). In these 22 verses, there are more references to humankind than there are to “the Lord God.” By comparison, the animals receive only scant attention. The creation of sun, moon, stars, day or night is not mentioned at all. The entire narrative shows God preoccupied with finding ways to make the human being feel comfortable and cared for. To this end, the Creator personally plants a garden, makes trees grow in it (2:8), and transforms the dry land into an oasis by importing water via river channels and irrigation ditches (2:10-14).
God makes an abundance of trees grow, not just to provide humans with food, but also as a source of esthetic pleasure (2:9). The majestic and delicate beauty of plants and flowers (as well as the musical chirping of birds?) reminds humans that God’s creation is intended to enrich life also through the enjoyment of the senses of sight and sound and smell and taste. All of this is done specifically for the benefit of the human being, whom God four times addresses directly as “you” with the invitation to eat freely from any tree in the garden (2:16). Only one note of caution (2:17): one tree is to be avoided. Consuming its fruit has mortal consequences. This is most likely to be interpreted not as a threat, but as an expression of tender care: God does not want the human to come to harm by eating poison.
People of the soil
This story begins in a lifeless desert where no rain had yet fallen (2:5). God stoops down to work with soil. Like an artist shaping a lump of clay, so the Creator fashions a human form which becomes a living being when the divine breath from God’s own mouth animates it.
According to the second creation narrative, humans are inextricably rooted in the soil. Humankind originated out of the soil and is dependent on the soil for food. But more importantly, God created humans in the first place, because there was nobody to tend the land (2:5). To work the land and to “care for it” (2:15) will provide for humans an honorable vocation. Work, too, is a blessed gift from God. It brings personal satisfaction and gives purpose and meaning to human life. So work, too, was intended to be enjoyed. It becomes a chore only after, and as a result of, eating the poisonous fruit.
Humans are “soil persons.” That is not a “dirty” word. God’s clean earth (adamah) bequeaths its name to the person (adam) whose origin and destiny is so closely tied to it.
But humans are not only people of the soil. They are more. The animals were created from the soil as well, and the trees grow from that same soil, too. What makes humans into “living beings” (2:7) is the fact that God’s breath (ruach) animates them. In this narrative neither animals nor plants are ever called “living beings.” Only humans are dignified with this designation.
The comfort of companionship
Yet the Creator thinks of still another way to benefit the newly created person. God recognizes that the solitary human being longs for companionship and needs a “corresponding” person (2:18) to overcome the feeling of isolation.
It is precisely at this (late) point in the second story that God decides to create the animals and to present them to the adam with the invitation to “name” them (2:19-20a). To “name” someone or something is to establish a relationship with the person or the thing named. Could it be that God intended that the animals should provide for adam some of that missing companionship? Indeed, humans and animals can enjoy a mutually supportive relationship. People whose daily life brings them into close contact with animals will readily confirm that this is so. But after naming the animals, the human being still felt unfulfilled. According to this story, the animals were not “living beings,” “corresponding” to the human being who had been animated by the breath of God.
So God set to work again, this time performing an operation on adam’s body, removing from it some tissue (tsēla‘ can mean “rib” or “side”). Out of this tissue God fashioned a “corresponding companion,” whom Adam (2:22) immediately “recognizes” as such and accordingly names ishah (the feminine form of ish).
The two persons are created to be equals in the fullest sense of the word. They are to be each others’ “helper” (‘ezer can mean “defender,” “ally,” or even “savior”). The two are to relate to each other not as an inferior assistant to a superior expert, but as teammates who “correspond” to each other. They will be each other’s “helpers,” in the sense that together they can lift and carry heavy burdens by taking hold of the object on opposite sides. They can be one another’s “savior” in the sense that each brings health and blessing to the other.
The two individuals are invited to be as one person, “one flesh.” We may regard this as an assurance that the deeply engrained desire of male and female for one another is a gift implanted by God, as well. The second creation story thus also gives appropriate dignity to the human mutual sexual attraction that can be enjoyed free of shame (2:24-25). This, too, is a precious gift of God’s grace.
The world in which we live
These two creation stories paint an idyllic picture of peace and tranquility. It presents life on earth as God intended it to be and, by the grace of God, will be. Unfortunately, every good thing can be perverted. Due to the hardness of the human heart, the good earth is being polluted, the water poisoned and the gifts of God are treated as commodities to be exploited. Intimate relationships are breaking down. The gap between rich and poor is widening steadily. A staggering number of children are starving to death every day. Where does one find hope for living in a world like this? For guidance we turn to another story, a parable of Jesus.
Restoration as God’s gift of grace (Luke 15:11-32)
The so-called “Parable of the Prodigal” actually focuses not on the younger son, but on the compassionate parent whose two wayward sons are both in dire need of redemption. The story is so well known, one needs only sketch out its salient features.
In this narrative the younger of the two makes an utterly selfish request. He wants his father to hand over the value of that part of the family estate which will become his after the father’s death. By requesting the payout of one third of the family estate and walking off with it, the younger son imposes economic hardship on the family unit that has nurtured him. A gift that would have provided a healthy livelihood for himself and his community is now in danger of becoming the means for instant self-gratification.
Inexplicably, the father grants this wish and the son promptly converts the property into cash and leaves home for a far away country where he squanders everything and ends up as a starving swineherd in the employ of a Gentile. And once he has reached a state of desperation, the rebellious son has the gall to come begging for a job on the parental estate.
But wonder of wonders! It turns out that the grieving father has been scanning the horizon day after day, yearning for the child to come back. And when the young man’s silhouette finally does appear in the distance, the parent, overcome by joy, runs to meet and embrace the child, smothering him with kisses before the humbled son even has a chance to deliver the rehearsed speech. The prodigal is not only accepted back, but gets restored to full privileges and becomes the guest of honor at a hastily prepared sumptuous banquet to celebrate the event.
Not surprisingly, the firstborn is not amused but resents the generosity extended to “that no-good son of yours.” But the father overlooks the surly behavior of the firstborn too, addressing him in endearing terms (“my child”) with a personal invitation to come and join the celebration of the happy event. “Your brother was dead—and is alive.” The family can be together again. That—as far as the loving parent is concerned—is worth infinitely more than the value of one third of the family’s material estate. The young man who had hoped for a menial “job,” has his dignity restored by the gift of a magnificent outer garment. The wayward child who had violated the parental trust receives a signet ring as a reaffirmation of that trust.
Together, these stories sing praises to a gracious God who wants life to thrive. The God who created a magnificent world and entrusted it to those whom he had fashioned in his own image, is eager to come and restore what they have broken. God heals broken relationships, forgives committed offences, comforts the grieving, and gives daily bread to the hungry.
From the Nordic Region: Questions Worth Pondering
God, the Giver of All Good Gifts
As men and women we are made in God’s image, redeemed by Christ and called to live in communion with God and each other. In today’s world, how do we Lutherans witness to God, the giver of all good gifts?
The Sacred Gift
Have we lost our sense of the sacredness of creation? If God is the giver (Ps 24:1), how can we accept farming or fishing policies that abuse the planet? How can we tolerate unhealthy food or see tons of food thrown away? How can we countenance a climate change that is chiefly caused by the West, but hits the poorest countries hardest?
The Gift of Life
Why are we as a Christian fellowship not able to fight for the just sharing of safe and nutritious food by all? Is there anything in the Lutheran confession that “all human beings ... are born with sin” (CA II) that allows us to accept the status quo of injustice and lack of dignity for so many human beings? Do we believe that some of us have a greater God-given right to a full human life than people who do not believe in God’s grace?
The Gift of Responsibility
God has made us stewards of creation (Gen 1:26-28). How does this influence the way we care for our own health, the food we eat and the agriculture policy of our community? How can we show responsibility for national and international policies on food, land and water?