God’s Extravagant Love in Creation

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September 9, 2013 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose, Evolution & Christian Faith project, Problem of Evil

Today's entry was written by Daniel Harrell. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

God’s Extravagant Love in Creation
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Silent Shot.

Note: Over the past few months, we have begun to see the fruits of our grantees’ labors on the Evolution and Christian Faith (ECF) project, and we are pleased to announce that in the coming months, we’ll be posting various essays and insights by these individuals and organizations regarding the work they’ve been doing and the work yet to be done. Today, to initiate the new ECF content, we feature a talk given at our first ECF grantee conference by minister Daniel Harrell on why evolutionary creation matters to the church.

We’re all familiar with Carl Sagan’s clever quip about our living on “an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

Astronomers conclude that the universe has been around for some 13.7 billion years; an amount of time that is truly incomprehensible. In evolutionary terms, your own life on earth isn’t even the neural impulse that leads to the blink of an eye. Christians believe people to be made in the image of the Creator himself, but science can make us seem to be more of an afterthought if we’re even a thought at all.

The Psalmist rightly asks of God “what are human beings that you are mindful of us, mere mortals that you would care for us?” And yet, Jesus insists that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save it,” an absurd notion unless you recognize that this is precisely the way God has always worked. Not only did God create the heavens and pick an obscure blip of a planet to populate with people, he went on to pick the most obscure bunch of people with whom to have a relationship, a people for whom he eventually showed up in person, as an indiscriminate carpenter in a backwater village in a backward time of history, one who ends up rejected, unjustly convicted and executed on a cross. The Bible calls this “good news,” the demonstration of God’s love for the world, from the Lord of the Cosmos whom the apostle Paul describes as “pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).

The magnitude of such things is likewise incomprehensible, even if we do believe it. In Mark’s gospel (Mark 14:3-11) a woman crashes a party and pours an entire bottle of expensive perfume on Jesus’ head. Jesus recognizes it to be an expression of love that mirrors God’s own. He says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

The occasion was dinner at the home of Simon the Leper—which has to mean former leper since no one except Jesus would have risked entering a leper’s house to eat. Jesus made time for sinners and outcasts of every stripe, basically breaking with the religious convention of his day. He may have had a mouthful of food when this woman entered to empty her jar. Back then, like now, perfume was used for enjoyment and beauty as well as for expressions of love. Unlike now, dinner hosts back then would customarily perfume the heads of their guests as they walked in the door as a sign of welcome and honor—much like we take our guests’ coats and offer them something to drink when they enter. But our offer would be for a glass of wine, perhaps, not for the entire bottle. Likewise, first century hosts would dab just a bit of perfume, nor pour out a whole jar, and definitely not a whole jar of the best stuff. One whiff and everyone knew what the woman brought was not a brand she’d bought by the quart. Mark describes it as being made of pure nard, an exotic root native to India; it was an expensive—an extravagant expression of love.

But as with all things extravagant—a word which means to lack restraint or unnecessarily exceed—the reaction to it was instinctively critical. Mark tells us how the guests at Simon’s table “said to one another in anger, ‘Why was this perfume wasted like that? It could have been sold for a fortune and the money given to starving children in India!’” They scolded the woman, but Jesus understood their scorn to be aimed at him. He told them to leave her alone, because “she has done a good service, a beautiful thing for me.

Mark doesn’t say, but if Simon the Leper was a leper Jesus healed, why didn’t Simon pour perfume on Jesus? Why didn’t he show some love? It’s the least a good dinner host would have done for an honored guest even if Jesus hadn’t cured him of a skin condition that banned him from polite society. In Luke’s gospel, Simon is a Pharisee and the woman was one who had “lived a sinful life.” Simon the Pharisee wonders to himself why Jesus can’t smell a sinner when he sees one. If Mark and Luke are describing the same scene, you may be wondering how a leper could ever become a Pharisee. But then again, the church is chock full of sinners saved by grace who in time grow to behave as if they don’t need grace anymore. And of course once you stop needing grace, it’s not long before you stop giving it, too.

In Luke, Jesus went on to tell a parable about a certain creditor who had two debtors; one owed the creditor five hundred dollars, and the other fifty. When neither could pay, he canceled the debts of both. Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee which debtor would love the creditor more. And Simon rightly replied the one who had the bigger debt canceled. Jesus then proceeded to forgive the woman, much to the continued consternation of the Pharisees present. Nobody forgives sins but God alone. Who did Jesus think he was?

Unlike Luke, Mark makes no mention of this woman being a sinner in any special sense. She’s just a party crasher and a bottle breaker. A fragrance counter sales rep gone crazy. The costly and posh perfume runs down Jesus’ hair, over his shoulders, and drips off of his sleeves. A whole year’s salary worth in a puddle on the floor. Who does that? Why spend all that money on something that’s just going to get washed off once Jesus takes a shower?

There was a book out a few years back entitled Scroogenomics that argued what so many of us instinctively feel: expensive gifts are wasteful. The book rolled out stats to prove it. But simply running the numbers on gift-giving discounts other intrinsic values. Not only is gift-giving a way of expressing how you feel for somebody, receiving a gift can be a reliable way of determining who the people are in your life who truly understand you. For my wife to receive expensive chocolate from me means something because she knows I know how passionate she is about chocolate.

If receiving a gift is a reliable way of determining who truly understands you, then the woman here in Mark understood Jesus even better than she realized. “She has performed a good service for me. She has done what she could”—by which Jesus meant she did everything she could. And note he doesn’t say, “you shouldn’t have.” He accepts her extravagant gift as a proper display of extravagant worship. He knows who he is. But he also knows where he’s headed. “The poor you will always have with you… but you will not always have me.” “She has anointed my body for my burial.”

Jesus’ mention of his burial is sandwiched like stories often are in Mark, one inside another in order to amplify the meaning of each. Here the top slice of the sandwich in chapter 14 has the chief priests and scribes gunning for Jesus—something they’ve been doing since chapter 3. They wanted him dead for acting like God Almighty and because his popularity threatened their dominance of the religious market. They looked for a stealthy way to arrest Jesus because he was too popular to pick up in public without inciting a riot. Their desire for secrecy finds opportunity with the bottom slice of the sandwich. Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ friends and disciples, steps up with his offer of betrayal. He’d lead the religious authorities backstage away from the crush of Jesus’ fans. The priests and Pharisees couldn’t believe their luck. They probably even thanked God for it. They definitely thanked Judas by offering him a finder’s fee, albeit one that some say amounted to the going rate you’d hire somebody to walk your dog.

The bounteous filling between these two slices of envy and penny-pitching deceit is this woman’s lavish devotion. Jesus receives her extravagant gift as good and beautiful, but also as timely. Perfume was used to express love and honor to the living, but also to express respect for the deceased. Jesus would be put to death as an outlaw, and therefore be denied the grace of a fitting burial. But Mark makes sure we see that Jesus did not sustain the disgrace his opponents later assumed he had. Though executed as a criminal, the woman provides his lawful funeral. This is why “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world,” her act would be remembered for what it was: an expression of extravagant waste, vindicating Jesus as Lord and Savior, the one who extravagantly wasted himself on us, for us, because he loved us.

The word to waste comes from a Latin root meaning to empty out. The same Latin root also gives us the word vast, meaning enormous or great. Thus to make empty is to make vast, which does sound a lot like the last going first and the least being the greatest in the Kingdom of God. However the Greek word translated as waste in Mark is the word meaning ruin or ravage, which is harder to hear as anything sounding like the Kingdom of God.

Critics of Christianity look to evolution to show how the emergence of human life on earth demanded enormous ruin and ravage, billions of years of apparent waste and futility, species extermination and organism road kill. Not only was the massive dying off rampant, it’s mandatory too. The emergence of life depends on the death of prior life, millions of generations of mutational and reproductive misfire and failure. Moreover, the popular struggle for survival narrative portrays a process by which cruelty and suffering are standard fare. There has been so much dysfunction, so much excess and error, so much ruin and ravage in the evolutionary epic that to attribute it to any superior, intelligent, and benevolent Being is practically an insult.

Of course Jesus knew all about insults. They were heaped on him as he hung on the cross to die. And yet by faith we view this ancient instrument of ruin and ravage as the supreme expression of extravagant, sacrificial love. In this light, we can see the entire creation as an expression of God’s sacrificial nature—a cross-shaped character permeating the whole universe. Billions of years and billions of organisms, galaxies, and stars, all extravagantly wasted on us, for us—an absurd notion unless you recognize that this is precisely the way God has always worked. From eons of vastness materialized a minuscule scrap of planet inhabitable for human life: life that took millions of years to unfold through untold waste and sacrifice so that we mere mortals could emerge as image-bearers of God, redeemed into the likeness of Christ by his own wasteful death, and so extravagantly filled to overflowing with his Spirit, that finally reflecting our Creator, we might extravagantly and lovingly waste ourselves for others to his glory.

 


Daniel Harrell is the Senior Minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. Before stepping into this role, Harrell served as associate minister at Park Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts for over twenty years. He is the author of the book Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, and is author of the forthcoming book How To Be Perfect: One Church’s Experiment with Living the Book of Leviticus.


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Roger A. Sawtelle - #82585

September 9th 2013

It seems that there are several things here.

First is the argument of natural evil which many seem to fall for.  That is that death and suffering are in themselves evil so a God Who created a world which involves death and suffering must not be good.

It seems that for Christians the fact that Jesus Christ suffered and died for the redemption of all of humanity should dispell this lie.  Suffering and and death are a part of life and are thus neutral morally which redemptive suffering for the good of others is good.

The problem of death has been solved by Eternal Life through Jesus Christ.  That is the only solution, while the challenge of “natural evil” only focuses on death as evil.

It has been my experience that most people who use the natural evil argument do not really believe that life is evil which is the logical conclusion of this argument.

Second and more important Darwinians claim that evolution proves that life is based on the “war of nature,” conflict, rather than cooperation.  A world built on conflict is a world without purpose and meaning.

This is not acceptible for Christians and other thinking persons.  We need a better explanation for evolution than Darwinism.            


Tim Ingham - #82588

September 10th 2013

I did like the treatment of the annointing at Bethany, but I think the parallel drawn to earth’s long history is inappropriate. Where the article says, “Billions of years and billions of organisms, galaxies, and stars, all extravagantly wasted on us, for us” it expresses the commonly-held notion that God made the earth (and indeed the whole cosmos) for us. Where this view is held, it is difficult to reconcile with with the long history of life, death, and mass extinction - hence the assertion in the article, “There has been so much dysfunction, so much excess and error, so much ruin and ravage…”

Christians have difficulty on this point because they believe that humany is the purpose, or destination of creation; that God made the earth for us. But the Bible does not say this, or require us to believe it at all.

God did not make the earth for us, but he did make us for the earth. The earth does not belong to us, but to Him. It is our part to rule over it - to nurture, steward, look after, and praise God for it.

We too easily have a man-centred view of God, where we effectively believe that God exists to serve us, so “a benevolent God” somehow means a God who looks to the interests of people.

We even find this man-centred idea of God among those who don’t believe in God at all - hence, “I can’t believe in a God who made people, and also made malaria”. Why not? Because you have imagined God in your own image.

I think we need to get our heads straight on this point. Because we think that God made the earth for us, we end up blaming God for everything ‘bad’ that happens (“how can a God of love allow all the suffering in the world?”) when actually we’re in charge here - God had made us specifically to rule over the earth, for Him. if there’s any blame due, it should fall on us.


Merv - #82590

September 10th 2013

I think you make some excellent points, Tim.    Not only are we antropocentric as we try to conceive of God in our image, but we are even “magnicentric” (I love inventing new words!) when we imagine that the logarithmic part of the scale we operate in (our ‘magnitude’ as we think in terms of inches, feet, or meters) is a factor that determines our relative value.  (I.e. that value is a function of size with bigger = better).  If one unseats this assumption, discovering in the process that the assumption had no seat to sit on in the first place, then even Sagan’s original quip falls apart as a completely incoherent thought. 

Your last point about the blame really falling on us might still need to sustain some challenge.  But even there, I agree with the heart of where you’re going.  I’m a big believer in free will and responsibility.  I just think that here too, our egos may tend to disproportionately magnify our alleged influence on the universe.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #82591

September 11th 2013

Let me come in here as a dissenter so to speak.

Whereas it is not a part of our creed we do believe that humans are created in the image of God and that the Creation was made as a home for humanity.

With this said some want to claim that God is not good because God does not act like a nanny protecting humans from all harm and danger.  In a sense this can be solved by realizing as soes the Bible that God love humans, Whom God created, but also loves the universe which God also created.

God gives us all the tools and help that we need to make the universe liveable for us, but he does not override God’s laws for our convenience. 

On 9/11 and within days of the gas attack in Syria we must acknowledge that we humans are responsible for the most serious problems that humans face.  Science has been unable to address these social and spritual problems.  Christians must address the the issues that separate us from Muslims and Sunni from Shia.    

 


Paul Lucas - #82619

September 15th 2013

Daniel: “Psalmist rightly asks of God “what are human beings that you are mindful of us, mere mortals that you would care for us?” And yet, Jesus insists that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save it,” an absurd notion unless you recognize that this is precisely the way God has always worked. Not only did God create the heavens and pick an obscure blip of a planet to populate with people, “

Why do you assume that this is the only planet God populated with a species capable of communicating with Him?  After showing that humans are so insignificant, you try to raise them to significance as tho H. sapiens are the only “people” in the universe.  As the movie Contact said “That is a lot of wasted space.”

Let’s consider that there are millions or billions of planets in the universe with a sapient species capable of communicating with God.  Is is absurd to think that God loves all those “people” and that He sent a Son to each of them to save them?  If God’s love is infinite, then He can certainly love more than the 7 billion people on Earth, can’t He?

You speak a lot of “gift” and how it is undeserved.  But you undercut that argument by making humans on earth the only people in the universe.  Now God has a dilemma: humans are special and, therefore, God is somewhat obligated to do all He can to save them.  After all, God created them and they are unique, so letting them be cut off from Him is somewhat mean.  You have diminished God’s gift and, therefore, diminished God.

As to death, I have never understood the Fundamentalists’ utter fear of physical death.  Why should they fear it, since physical death means going to God?  What is more, that view of “species extermination and organism road kill” is a misinterpretation of scripture.  It is very clear that the “death” in Genesis 2 is spiritual death, not physical death.  It was very clear that Adam and Eve were always going to physically die.  Physical death is not a problem for Christianity or Christians; it is spiritual death we have to worry about.


Paul Lucas - #82620

September 15th 2013

Tim: “Christians have difficulty on this point because they believe that humany is the purpose, or destination of creation; that God made the earth for us. But the Bible does not say this, or require us to believe it at all.

God did not make the earth for us, but he did make us for the earth. The earth does not belong to us, but to Him. It is our part to rule over it - to nurture, steward, look after, and praise God for it.”

I agree that some Christians have the idea that H. sapiens is the purpose or ultimate destination of Creation.  That is a problem.  Once again, we are back to that “a lot of wasted space” problem again.  Why created billions of galaxies with hundreds of billions of stars, most of them with planets, only to have one planet with a sapient species.  How about millions of sapient species out there for God to communicate with?  Instead of just one sapient species in God’s family, how about a huge family?  Of course, this goes against human pride and makes us even more dependent on God’s love.  Too bad.  We are dependent on God.  Get used to it.

I agree that God did not make the world for us specifically.  Genesis 1 has the world being created for its own sake, just as humans are created for their own sakes (in contrast to the Babylonian religion where humans are created to be the workers and entertainment for the Babylonian gods).  However, God did give us the earth.  Genesis 1:27-28 does that.  I once had a priest explain to me that “in the image” had a specific meaning in 500 BC.  In those times of poor communication, it could take weeks for an ambassador or trade factor to get in touch with the king or the merchant.  So, when the individual was given plenipotentiary powers to make binding treaties or trade deals that individual was “in the image” of the king or merchant.  So the phrase is not about resemblance (either physical or spiritual), it’s about power.   God gives humans power over the earth.   What we do with it is as tho God were doing it.  Saying “in his image” and “reign over” is repeating the same point in 2 different ways (a common literary device). 

So yes, the earth now does belong to us.  We can nurture it or destroy it, and God will not interfere. 


Paul Lucas - #82621

September 15th 2013

Daniel, I think the reason “evolution matters to the church” is much simpler than your essay.  If we deny the evidence God left us in His Creation, evidence that clearly says “I did it by evolution”, then we deny God as Creator.  Evolution matters because God’s Creation has to be just as truthful about God as scripture.

What you are doing is trying to use scripture to try to answer some of the objections to evolution. I applaud the effort, but think it misses the mark because it diminishes God and elevates humans to a level of “specialness” we do not have.


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