What a Wonderful World
Text: Genesis creation story
(Preached at Spring Creek Seventh-day Adventist Church the day before my daughter’s wedding).
Shortly after we moved to Houston in 1998 we took a trip to New Orleans. Aimee was in first grade, and there was one thing she wanted to see above all others: Louis Armstrong Park, and the statue in it of the man called Satchmo.
Her love for the gravelly-voiced musician who died twenty years before her birth started the year before in Kindergarten in Santa Barbara. Her teacher played Louis Armstrong’s song, “What a Wonderful World,” and it quickly became Aimee’s favorite:
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
A wonderful world. That’s certainly the sentiment shared by the Bible writers. Day after day in the telling of the creation story we hear the refrain, “and God saw that it was good.”
We heard it, too, in our opening song for today,
All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
all things wise and wonderful,
the Lord God made them all.
And you’ll recognize those phrases — they were used by James Herriot for the titles of his books about a young veterinarian.
This is the starting point for any Christian theology of creation — it is good. It is beautiful. It is wonderful.
Have you moments when you really felt that? When you were in awe of beauty?
A year ago we had our Chaplains conference in Phoenix and took 200 chaplains to the Grand Canyon. As the sun set, one of the Chaplains and his wife, standing at the railing and looking over the scene, started to sing, “How Great Thou Art.” And all the people within earshot were transfixed by the song and the scene.
Creation is good—and it is good in itself, and not just for what it does for us.
Notice that God said it was good before Adam and Eve were created.
That means it was good before we were part of it. It’s not good because it is useful.
It is good because God made it good, and declared it to be good, and blessed it to blossom and to be fruitful.
This is an important point. Some religions and philosophies say spirit is good and matter is evil, or that what is spiritual is somehow closer to God than the material. Others go in the opposite direction and advocate pantheism, the idea that the material world is divine.
Christianity rejects both of these ideas.
For the Bible, the created world is real. Very real. And very good. But it remains a created thing, distinct from God and separate from God but pointing to God as its creator.
Our relationship with creation is not to worship it, nor to separate ourselves from it. We read in Genesis 1:17, at the end of creation week:
“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
The idea presented here is not that we have a right to dominate creation, as if it were something to be beaten into submission, but rather, that we have an obligation to tend it, to care for it, to have responsibility for it. This commission was given before there was any struggle or death in creation, before weeds and tares infested our fields, before sweat and pain were our bodily reward.
The Midrash, the Jewish commentary on the Torah, says that God took Adam and Eve through the Garden and said, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”
But where God called humanity to exercise a loving dominion or stewardship, sin caused men to want to dominate each other and the world.
And over the centuries, men have torn the world apart. They’ve seen it as raw material to harvest, an enemy to conquer, an object to be exploited. Men have ripped gashes in its crust to ravish its treasures. Drawn lines upon its surface to claim it as their own. Erected towers on it to try to claw their way up to God’s throne. And built walls to separate themselves from others, and to shut out the cries of those in pain.
Despite this destruction and despoiling, we can still look at the world and see beauty. We can look at the creation and see evidence of the Creator.
Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”
Romans 1:19-20, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
I like the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins —
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
A Biblical doctrine of creation sees it as good, even after the fall, and as ever pointing to the Creator, who entrusted it to our care.
Let’s look more at that idea of stewardship. We see it not just in Genesis but in Psalm 8:
“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.”
This is an example where you need to interpret passges in light of the totality of what the Bible says. Some Christians use texts like these to justify a theology of domination today. They see the earth as a tool for us to use and abuse as we wish, because God wills it.
This often goes along with the idea that this world is temporary, and doomed to burn and the spirit is all that matters. One popular evangelical author says, ”Your earthly body is just a temporary residence for your spirit” (p. 37), “Life on earth is a temporary assignment” (p. 47), and those who think earth is their home “have betrayed their King” (p. 49). “In death … you go back home.” Those quotes are all from Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life.
But the Bible says God planted a garden on this earth and put Adam and Eve into it. This was the place he created for them. This was the ground he made them from. This was the ground he gave them to work. And this is the ground they would return to when their work was complete.
Solomon said, in Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.”
But we have a hope that Solomon didn’t have. We have the hope that comes with the resurrection of Jesus, that he will descend with a shout, and the blast of a trumpet, and we will be raised bodily, as he was. We will be with him a thousand years. And then the day will come when the earth, cleansed by fire, will behold a grand sight that John describes in Revelation 21:
“Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.’”
We won’t just disappear into ether. We won’t be absorbed into the divine. We will not sit on a cloud and plink a harp. We won’t be spirits wandering around looking into the lives of others. We will be brought home, to this place, to be citizens of a new earth, and a new city, and shall drink from the river of life, and be healed by the leaves of the tree of life. We have a hope, and that hope is real.
And here and now, we are stewards of an earth that doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to the Lord. All of it. Psalm 24:1 “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.”
What does our stewardship look like? Especially in this “in-between time” as we await our Lord’s return?
I’ve preached a number of times on Matthew chapters 24 and 25. Adventists often put the emphasis on chapter 24, and its signs of the end. That’s what the disciples asked about. That’s what they wanted to know — when are we getting out of here?
But Jesus turns aside their question and says, “It’s not for you to know.” And he goes on to tell them in Matthew 25 what should occupy their time now. The first part of the chapter is the parable of the talents — we are not to be burying our treasure in the ground, but need to be investing it in the world.
What that means is illustrated in the parable of the sheep and the goats, that starts with Matthew 25:31. At the last judgment the sheep are praised,
“I was hungry, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came unto me.”
That’s what God says is to occupy our time now. To be stewards of what he gave us — the world, and each other.
If we see God as the creator of all, and the ruler of all, and as the Lover of the world and all within it, how can we not share this care and concern?
And if we care only for ourselves, and getting away from here, and we do not care not for the world or its people, how can we say we love God?
1 John 4:20 — “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”
Seventh-day Adventists say we are here to proclaim a final message to the world. A message that we find in Revelation 14, verse 7.
“Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
The final test is over whether we will recognize and worship the Creator. Whether we acknowledge the world as his, whether we will acknowledge as God’s people those of every nation, kindred, tongue and people.
Those on the other side, in that final crisis, are those who reject the Creator and his creation. Who hate or despise or ignore those whom God cares for. Those who do not acknowledge the evidence of God in the things of the earth, and who, Rev 11:18 says, are “destroyers of the earth.”
I don’t want to be in that group.
This is why the Sabbath is critical in the final crisis. It isn’t an arbitrary rule. It is the memorial to creation. It is the invitation to acknowledge the Creator, and to rest with him.
It was the final day of Creation week but the first full day the newly united man and woman spent with each other; it was the first day they spent in the presence of God.
It is a day for us to turn from the things of man’s making, and the residue of our work, and the destructiveness of man, to rest in our Creator, and once more walk the gardens of the earth with him.
It is, as Abraham Heschel said, a sanctuary in time, which gives us a foretaste of eternity.
I said to Aimee and Joseph and to some others that this is part one of the wedding sermon.
This is what you are here for. This is what God wants from you as a couple. He has brought you together, male and female, to share in his creative love in the arms of one another. To care not just for the things of the spirit, but also the things of the flesh, which are “very good” and crowned with his blessing.
He has set you in the world, and has called you, as he has called all of humanity, to look beyond your self interest and to tend and care for the earth, and the things in it.
So, like James Herriot, continue to show love for all creatures great and small.
Retain your curiosity and concern for the world, its peoples, and its diversity, from France to Colombia, from Madagascar to Honduras to the Middle East.
Keep burning your flame of passion for truth and justice and compassion toward refugees, immigrants, the oppressed, the forgotten.
Enjoy the moments in awe of a Sabbath sunset at a beach, the lemurs swinging over your heads in a jungle, the windswept dunes of a distant desert, and the broad vistas seen from an airplane cockpit high above the clouds.
From those heights, see the world as God made it — without human boundary lines and walls. Without human prejudices and fears. See the world through the eyes of him who loved it so much, that he gave his only son.
It truly is a wonderful world. And you and every other young couple are a part of its wonder. And this weekend we rejoice with you, and ask God’s blessing upon you.